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“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”*…




As astrophysicist Mario Livo recounts in Brilliant Blunders, in April 1900, the eminent physicist Lord Kelvin proclaimed that our understanding of the cosmos was complete except for two “clouds”—minor details still to be worked out. Those clouds had to do with radiation emissions and with the speed of light… and they pointed the way to two major revolutions in physics: quantum mechanics and the theory of relativity.  Prediction is hard; ironically, it’s especially hard for experts attempting foresight in their own fields…

The idea for the most important study ever conducted of expert predictions was sparked in 1984, at a meeting of a National Research Council committee on American-Soviet relations. The psychologist and political scientist Philip E. Tetlock was 30 years old, by far the most junior committee member. He listened intently as other members discussed Soviet intentions and American policies. Renowned experts delivered authoritative predictions, and Tetlock was struck by how many perfectly contradicted one another and were impervious to counterarguments.

Tetlock decided to put expert political and economic predictions to the test. With the Cold War in full swing, he collected forecasts from 284 highly educated experts who averaged more than 12 years of experience in their specialties. To ensure that the predictions were concrete, experts had to give specific probabilities of future events. Tetlock had to collect enough predictions that he could separate lucky and unlucky streaks from true skill. The project lasted 20 years, and comprised 82,361 probability estimates about the future.

The result: The experts were, by and large, horrific forecasters. Their areas of specialty, years of experience, and (for some) access to classified information made no difference. They were bad at short-term forecasting and bad at long-term forecasting. They were bad at forecasting in every domain. When experts declared that future events were impossible or nearly impossible, 15 percent of them occurred nonetheless. When they declared events to be a sure thing, more than one-quarter of them failed to transpire. As the Danish proverb warns, “It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.”…

One subgroup of scholars, however, did manage to see more of what was coming… they were not vested in a single discipline. They took from each argument and integrated apparently contradictory worldviews…

The integrators outperformed their colleagues in pretty much every way, but especially trounced them on long-term predictions. Eventually, Tetlock bestowed nicknames (borrowed from the philosopher Isaiah Berlin) on the experts he’d observed: The highly specialized hedgehogs knew “one big thing,” while the integrator foxes knew “many little things.”…

Credentialed authorities are comically bad at predicting the future. But reliable– at least more reliable– forecasting is possible: “The Peculiar Blindness of Experts.”

See Tetlock discuss his findings at a Long Now Seminar.  Read Berlin’s riff on Archilochus, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” here.

* Yogi Berra


As we ponder prediction, we might send complicating birthday greetings to Edward Norton Lorenz; he was born on this date in 1917.  A mathematician who turned to meteorology during World War II, he established the theoretical basis of weather and climate predictability, as well as the basis for computer-aided atmospheric physics and meteorology.

But he is probably better remembered as the founder of modern chaos theory, a branch of mathematics focusing on the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions… and thus practically impossible to predict in detail with certainty.

In 1961, Lorenz was using a simple digital computer, a Royal McBee LGP-30, to simulate weather patterns by modeling 12 variables, representing things like temperature and wind speed. He wanted to see a sequence of data again, and to save time he started the simulation in the middle of its course. He did this by entering a printout of the data that corresponded to conditions in the middle of the original simulation. To his surprise, the weather that the machine began to predict was completely different from the previous calculation. The culprit: a rounded decimal number on the computer printout. The computer worked with 6-digit precision, but the printout rounded variables off to a 3-digit number, so a value like 0.506127 printed as 0.506. This difference is tiny, and the consensus at the time would have been that it should have no practical effect. However, Lorenz discovered that small changes in initial conditions produced large changes in long-term outcome. His work on the topic culminated in the publication of his 1963 paper “Deterministic Nonperiodic Flow” in Journal of the Atmospheric Sciences, and with it, the foundation of chaos theory…

His description of the butterfly effect, the idea that small changes can have large consequences, followed in 1969.

lorenz source


“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap”*…


Fast Fashion


Remembering that the world has roughly 7.7. billion inhabitants…

In 2015, the fashion industry churned out 100 billion articles of clothing, doubling production from 2000, far outpacing global population growth. In that same period, we’ve stopped treating our clothes as durable, long-term purchases. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has found that clothing utilization, or how often we wear our clothes, has dropped by 36% over the past decade and a half, and many of us wear clothes only 7 to 10 times before it ends up in a landfill. Studies show that we only really wear 20% of our overflowing closets.

For the past few years, we’ve pointed the finger at fast-fashion brands like H&M, Zara, and Forever21, saying that they are responsible for this culture of overconsumption. But that’s not entirely fair. The vast majority of brands in the $1.3 billion [sic- it’s $trillion] fashion industry–whether that’s Louis Vuitton or Levi’s–measure growth in terms of increasing production every year. This means not just convincing new customers to buy products, but selling more and more to your existing customers. Right now, apparel companies make 53 million tons of clothes into the world annually. If the industry keeps up its exponential pace of growth, it is expected to reach 160 million tons by 2050….

Churning out so many clothes has enormous environmental costs that aren’t immediately obvious to consumers. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the fashion industry is contributing the the rapid destruction of our planet. A United Nations report says that we’re on track to increase the world’s temperature by 2.7 degrees by 2040, which will flood our coastlines, intensify droughts, and lead to food shortages. Activists, world leaders, and the public at large are just beginning to reckon with the way the fashion industry is accelerating the pace of climate change…

It’s not just our closets that are suffering: “We have to fix fashion if we want to survive the climate crisis.”

The apparel industry is not, of course, unaware of all of this.  For a look at how they are responding, see Ad Age‘s “How Sustainability in Fashion Went From The Margins To The Mainstream“… and draw your own conclusion as to efficacy.

[photo above: Flickr user Tofuprod]

* Dolly Parton


As we wean ourselves from whopping-great wardrobes, we might spare a thought for a man who contributed t our ability to measure our progress (or lack thereof) in addressing climate change: George James Symons; he died on this date in 1900.  A British meteorologist who was obsessed with increasing the accuracy of measurement, he devoted his career to improving meteorological records by raising measurement standards for accuracy and uniformity, and broadening the coverage (with more reporting stations, increasing their number from just 168 at the start of his career to 3,500 at the time of his death).  The Royal Meteorological Society (to which he was admitted at age 17) established a gold medal in his memory, awarded for services to meteorological science.

150px-GeorgeJamesSymons(1838-1900) source


“It takes just one big natural disaster to… remind us that, here on Earth, we’re still at the mercy of nature”*…



An 72-meter ice core drilled in the Colle Gnifetti Glacier in the Swiss Alps entombs more than 2000 years of fallout from volcanoes, storms, and human pollution. NICOLE SPAULDING/CCI FROM C. P. LOVELUCK ET AL., ANTIQUITY 10.15184, 4, 2018


Ask medieval historian Michael McCormick what year was the worst to be alive, and he’s got an answer: “536.” Not 1349, when the Black Death wiped out half of Europe. Not 1918, when the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people, mostly young adults. But 536. In Europe, “It was the beginning of one of the worst periods to be alive, if not the worst year,” says McCormick, a historian and archaeologist who chairs the Harvard University Initiative for the Science of the Human Past.

A mysterious fog plunged Europe, the Middle East, and parts of Asia into darkness, day and night—for 18 months. “For the sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year,” wrote Byzantine historian Procopius. Temperatures in the summer of 536 fell 1.5°C to 2.5°C, initiating the coldest decade in the past 2300 years. Snow fell that summer in China; crops failed; people starved. The Irish chronicles record “a failure of bread from the years 536–539.” Then, in 541, bubonic plague struck the Roman port of Pelusium, in Egypt. What came to be called the Plague of Justinian spread rapidly, wiping out one-third to one-half of the population of the eastern Roman Empire and hastening its collapse, McCormick says.

Historians have long known that the middle of the sixth century was a dark hour in what used to be called the Dark Ages, but the source of the mysterious clouds has long been a puzzle. Now, an ultraprecise analysis of ice from a Swiss glacier by a team led by McCormick and glaciologist Paul Mayewski at the Climate Change Institute of The University of Maine (UM) in Orono has fingered a culprit…

536 chart

Learn what it was that challenged civilizations: “Why 536 was ‘the worst year to be alive’.”

* Neil deGrasse Tyson


As we ruminate on resilience, we might spare a thought for Tetsuya Theodore “Ted” Fujita; he died on this date in 1998.  A meteorologist, he became known as “Mr. Tornado” for his work in understanding those severe storms and his development of (what’s now known as)  the Fujita scale to measure tornado intensity.

Thetsuya_Theodore_Fijuta source



Written by LW

November 19, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Men argue. Nature acts.”*…


Scientists have converged on climate change predictions that a growing majority of Americans accept.  Still, it can be hard to understand– at a visceral level– what a warming globe might mean.  Here’s some help: a clever tool from Greg Schivley, a civil and environmental engineering PhD. student at Carnegie Mellon University (with help from Ben Noll; inspired by Sophie Lewis).  Enter some key birth dates to project how the climate will have changed from your grandma’s birth to when your kids retire.  The chart’s temperature changes are based on NASA’s historical and projected climate scenarios.

Climate change and life events

* Voltaire


As we sweat it out, we might send temperate birthday greetings to Sir William Napier Shaw; he was born on this date in 1854.  A meteorologist and member of the Royal Society, he developed the tephigram, a diagram of temperature changes still commonly used in weather analysis and forecasting.



Written by LW

March 4, 2018 at 1:01 am

“The endless repetition of an ordinary miracle”*…


Snowflakes under a microscope

In 1611 Johannes Kepler wrote a scientific essay entitled De Nive Sexangula; commonly translated as “On the Six-Cornered Snowflake.” It was the first investigation into the nature of snowflakes and what we’d now call crystallography. Since he was a gentleman and a scholar back when you could be such a thing without being ironic or a hipster, Kepler gave the essay as a New Year’s gift. As Kepler wrote on the title page:

To the honorable Counselor at the Court of his Imperial Majesty, Lord Matthaus Wacker von Wackenfels, a Decorated Knight and Patron of Writers and Philosophers, my Lord and Benefactor.

As the title suggests, Kepler’s main concern was the question of why snowflakes are almost always six-pointed…

Follow the train of thought from the stacking of spheres to the intricacies of tiling at “Snowflakes and Cannonball Stacks.”

* Orhan Pamuk, Snow


As we pause to ponder patterns, we might recall that it was on this date in 1891, about 20 miles outside of Midland, Texas, that the first rainmaking experiment in the U.S. was conducted. Robert St. George Dyrenforth, a Washington patent attorney and retired Army officer, led a team that used “mortars, casks, barometers, electrical conductors, seven tons of cast-iron borings, six kegs of blasting powder, eight tons of sulfuric acid, one ton of potash, 500 pounds of manganese oxide, an apparatus for making oxygen and another for hydrogen, 10- and 20-foot-tall muslin balloons and supplies for building enormous kites” to create enormous explosions meant to help clouds form.  Their efforts– which were based more on Dyrenforth’s instinct than on anything resembling scientific evidence– were entirely unsuccessful.  Still, at a time of extreme drought, it’s likely that almost anything seemed worth trying.  (The full– and very entertaining– story, here.)



Written by LW

August 18, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing”*…


If you’re planning to relocate but want to live somewhere with a near-exact temperature profile, where should you go?

That depends: Folks in San Francisco might choose San Luis Obispo 200 miles south, or Portugal’s Cabo Carvoeiro 5,600 miles east, as these locales have 99 percent similar monthly temperatures. Chicagoans could go to Ottawa or Dalian, China, whereas New Yorkers will feel at home in Dover, Maryland; Milford, Delaware; or Makhachkala, Russia.

That’s according to an engrossing map tool from Codeminders that compares places with equivalent climates…

More at “A Guide to Finding Cities With Nearly Identical Temperatures“– and try it for yourself here.

* “Pray don’t talk to me about the weather, Mr. Worthing. Whenever people talk to me about the weather, I always feel quite certain that they mean something else. And that makes me quite nervous.”

– Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest


As we ponder the differential impacts of climate change, we might recall that it was on this date in 1900 that a massive storm spread record snows from Kansas to New York State. Snowfall totals ranged up to 17.5 inches at Springfield IL and 43 inches at Rochester NY, with up to 60 inches in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State.

Central Park, after the storm



Written by LW

February 28, 2016 at 1:01 am

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on”*…


Why do archaeological fraudsters work so hard to deceive us?  Because bad science makes for good stories: “What Lies Beneath.”

And for run-downs of archaeological hoaxes both amusing and illuminating, visit here and here.

[image above sourced here]

* Terry Pratchett, The Truth


As we dig, we might send exploratory birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt; he was born on this date in 1769.  The younger brother of the Prussian minister, philosopher, and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, Alexander was a geographer, naturalist, explorer, and champion of Romantic philosophy.  Among many other contributions to human knowledge, his quantitative work on botanical geography laid the foundation for the field of biogeography; his advocacy of long-term systematic geophysical measurement laid the foundation for modern geomagnetic and meteorological monitoring.



Written by LW

September 14, 2015 at 1:01 am

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