(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘weather

“It was impossible to tame, like leeches”*…

A replica of the Tempest Prognosticator in the Whitby Museum. (Badobadop/Wikimedia Commons)

Or maybe just not worth it…

If you’re like me, one of the few remaining artifacts of the pre-Internet age that you’re able to regularly revel in is the mail order catalog. I particularly love the desk toys highlighted they show off—often, some of the most luxurious are vintage weather prediction devices. Today’s tedium is about the Victorian “Tempest Prognosticator,” a vintage weather forecast device you’re not likely to see as a desk toy any time soon—because maintaining one also means taking care of a dozen leeches…

George Merryweather, a member of Whitby, North Yorkshire’s then-thriving intellectual scene, masterminded the “Tempest Prognosticator” as a years-long hobby that culminated in its public display in 1851.

As a physician, Merryweather would already have been quite familiar with leeches, but in his essays, Merryweather said he was inspired by a poem, which spoke of how the common “medicinal leech” tends to move up in a jar of rainwater as a storm nears, then settle to the bottom in clear conditions…

To harness this instinct, Merryweather placed 12 leeches in their own jars of rainwater, arranged in a circle to keep each other company. Atop each jar, he rigged a piece of whale bone to a chain that, when yanked, would hit a bell he had placed in the center. As leeches rose to the top of their jars in advance of a storm, they would come into contact with the bone and sound the bell. The more bells that sounded, the more likely there was to be a storm, and the more intense it was likely to be…

At the time, consensus among the leech-invested appears to have emerged that these behaviors were due to the creatures’ innate ability to sense electromagnetic energy gathering in advance of a storm. Merryweather himself was a major proponent of this belief, dedicating a significant portion of his essays to reiterating Michael Faraday’s contemporary work on electromagnetism.

Unfortunately for him, we now know this acknowledgement was likely both unnecessary and uncalled-for. Leeches’ faculties for weather prediction turn out to actually be pretty patchy, and their “instincts” for this are far simpler than it seemed to him at the time. Leeches “breathe” through their body walls by absorbing the dissolved oxygen in the water they inhabit. When atmospheric pressure drops, a fractional amount less oxygen remains dissolved, and they move toward the surface, where the water is more oxygen-rich.

In effect, the “Tempest Prognosticator” was one of the world’s most elaborate barometers…

More of the remarkable story– and what it can teach us– at “The Leech Machine,” from Nathan Lawrence (@NathanBLawrence) in @ShortFormErnie‘s wonderful @readtedium.

* Daniel Handler (Lemony Snicket), Who Could That Be at This Hour?


As we consult the Almanac, we might recall that on this date in 1949, after two days in which a few flakes fell, Los Angeles “enjoyed” a real snow fall.

Snow at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, La Cañada Flintridge, January 1949. Photo courtesy of NASA/JPL Archive.

“History is humankind trying to get a grip. Obviously its not easy. But it could go better if you would pay a little more attention to certain details, like for instance your planet.”*…

A blast from the past…

In 1938, 20-year-old filmmaker Richard H. Lyford directed and starred in As the Earth Turns, a science-fiction silent movie about a mad scientist who purposely induces climate change as a way to end world violence.

But the 45-minute film became “lost,” only to resurface 80 years later, in 2018, when Lyford’s grandniece, Kim Lyford Bishop, discovered it. (After creating the film, Lyford went on to work at Disney and earn an Oscar for the 1950 documentary “The Titan: Story of Michelangelo.”)

Bishop then asked music composer Ed Hartman, who was her daughter’s percussions teacher, to score it.

Although “As the Earth Turns” was finally released in 2019 and took part in 123 film festivals, it will finally premiere on television on Halloween night, this Sunday on Turner Classic Movies at 9pm PST…

From The Seattle Times:

… “As the Earth Turns is the work of an exuberant, ambitious young man: Lyford wrote, directed and shot the film, and managed to corral a stable of actors and crew to capture his vision. You can see his fascination with the craft of filmmaking: Lyford experiments with miniatures and models (then used in Hollywood films, and a remarkable accomplishment for a barely-out-of-his-teens hobbyist), explosions, earthquakes and special makeup effects, all on a budget of next to nothing.”

A 1938 sci-fi film about climate change was lost. It’s making its TV debut 83 years later,” from Carla Sinclair (@Carla_Sinclair) and @BoingBoing.

* Kim Stanley Robinson, New York 2140


As we ponder prescience, we might recall that it was on this date in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy (AKA Superstorm Sandy) hit the east coast of the United States, killing 148 directly and 138 indirectly, wreaking nearly $70 billion in damages, and causing major power outages. In New York City streets, tunnels, and subway lines were flooded.


“When the graphs were finished, the relations were obvious at once”*…

We can only understand what we can “see”…

… this long-forgotten, hand-drawn infographic from the 1840s… known as a “life table,” was created by William Farr, a doctor and statistician who, for most of the Victorian era, oversaw the collection of public health statistics in England and Wales… it’s a triptych documenting the death rates by age in three key population groups: metropolitan London, industrial Liverpool, and rural Surrey.

With these visualizations, Farr was making a definitive contribution to an urgent debate from the period: were these new industrial cities causing people to die at a higher rate? In some ways, with hindsight, you can think of this as one of the most crucial questions for the entire world at that moment. The Victorians didn’t realize it at the time, but the globe was about to go from less than five percent of its population living in cities to more than fifty percent in just about a century and a half. If these new cities were going to be killing machines, we probably needed to figure that out.

It’s hard to imagine just how confusing it was to live through the transition to industrial urbanism as it was happening for the first time. Nobody really had a full handle on the magnitude of the shift and its vast unintended consequences. This was particularly true of public health. There was an intuitive feeling that people were dying at higher rates than they had in the countryside, but it was very hard even for the experts to determine the magnitude of the threat. Everyone was living under the spell of anecdote and availability bias. Seeing the situation from the birds-eye view of public health data was almost impossible…

The images Farr created told a terrifying and unequivocal story: density kills. In Surrey, the increase of mortality after birth is a gentle slope upward, a dune rising out of the waterline. The spike in Liverpool, by comparison, looks more like the cliffs of Dover. That steep ascent condensed thousands of individual tragedies into one vivid and scandalous image: in industrial Liverpool, more than half of all children born were dead before their fifteenth birthday.

The mean age of death was just as shocking: the countryfolk were enjoying life expectancies close to fifty, likely making them some of the longest-lived people on the planet in 1840. The national average was forty-one. London was thirty-five. But Liverpool—a city that had undergone staggering explosions in population density, thanks to industrialization—was the true shocker. The average Liverpudlian died at the age of twenty-five, one of the lowest life expectancies ever recorded in that large a human population.

There’s a natural inclination to think about innovation in human health as a procession of material objects: vaccines, antibiotics, pacemakers. But Farr’s life tables are a reminder that new ways of perceiving the problems we face, new ways of seeing the underlying data, are the foundations on which we build those other, more tangible interventions. Today cities reliably see life expectancies higher than rural areas—a development that would have seemed miraculous to William Farr, tabulating the data in the early 1840s. In a real sense, Farr laid the groundwork for that historic reversal: you couldn’t start to tackle the problem of how to make industrial cities safer until you had first determined that the threat was real.

Why the most important health innovations sometimes come from new ways of seeing: “The Obscure Hand-Drawn Infographic That Changed The Way We Think About Cities,” from Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson). More in his book, Extra Life, and in episode 3 of the PBS series based on it.

* J. C. R. Licklider


As we investigate infographics, we might send carefully calculated birthday greetings to Lewis Fry Richardson; he was born on this date in 1881.  A mathematician, physicist, and psychologist, he is best remembered for pioneering the modern mathematical techniques of weather forecasting.  Richardson’s interest in weather led him to propose a scheme for forecasting using differential equations, the method used today, though when he published Weather Prediction by Numerical Process in 1922, suitably fast computing was unavailable.  Indeed, his proof-of-concept– a retrospective “forecast” of the weather on May 20, 1910– took three months to complete by hand. (in fairness, Richardson did the analysis in his free time while serving as an ambulance driver in World War I.)  With the advent of modern computing in the 1950’s, his ideas took hold.  Still the ENIAC (the first real modern computer) took 24 hours to compute a daily forecast.  But as computing got speedier, forecasting became more practical.

Richardson also yoked his forecasting techniques to his pacifist principles, developing a method of “predicting” war.  He is considered (with folks like Quincy Wright and Kenneth Boulding) a father of the scientific analysis of conflict.

And Richardson helped lay the foundations for other fields and innovations:  his work on coastlines and borders was influential on Mandelbrot’s development of fractal geometry; and his method for the detection of icebergs anticipated the development of sonar.


“Do for the future what you’re grateful the past did for you. (Or what you wish the past had done for you.)”*…

A love letter to infrastructure…

The Nobel Prize–winning developmental economist Amartya Sen describes income and wealth as desirable “because, typically, they are admirable general-purpose means for having more freedom to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value. The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do—the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve.” This is also a fairly good description of infrastructural systems: they’re a general-purpose means of freeing up time, energy, and attention. On a day-to-day basis, my personal freedom doesn’t come from money per se—it mostly comes from having a home where these systems are built into the walls, which became abundantly clear during the coronavirus pandemic. Stable housing and a salary that covered my utility bills meant that, with the exception of food and taking out the trash, all of my basic needs were met without my ever even having to go outside. It’s worth noting that this is an important reason why guaranteed housing for everyone is important—not just because of privacy, security, and a legible address, but also because our homes are nodes on these infrastructural networks. They are our locus of access to clean water and sewage, electricity, and telecommunications.

But the real difference between money and infrastructural systems as general-purpose providers of freedom is that money is individual and our infrastructural systems are, by their nature, collective. If municipal water systems mean that we are enduringly connected to each other through the landscape where our bodies are, our other systems ratchet this up by orders of magnitude. Behind the wheel of a car, we are a cyborg: our human body controls a powered exoskeleton that lets us move further and faster than we ever could without it. But this freedom depends on roads and supply chains for fuels, to say nothing of traffic laws and safety regulations. In researcher Paul Graham Raven’s memorable formulation, infrastructural systems make us all into collective cyborgs. Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.

The philosopher John Rawls once offered up a thought experiment, building on the classic question: How best should society be ordered? His key addition was the concept of a “veil of ignorance”: not just that you would live in the society you designed, but that you wouldn’t know ahead of time what role you would have within it. So, while you might want to live in a world where you are an absolute ruler whose every whim is fulfilled by fawning minions, the veil of ignorance means that there is no guarantee you wouldn’t be one of the minions—in fact, given the numerical odds, it’s a lot more likely. Positing a veil of ignorance is a powerful tool to consider more equitable societies.

Seen from this perspective, shared infrastructural systems provide for the basic needs of—and therefore grant agency to—members of a community in a way that would satisfy Rawls. Universal provision of water, sewage, electricity, access to transportation networks that allow for personal mobility, and broadband internet access creates a society where everyone—rich or poor, regardless of what you look like or believe—has access to at least a baseline level of agency and opportunity.

But here’s the kicker: it’s not a thought experiment. We’ve all passed through Rawls’s veil of ignorance. None of us chooses the circumstances of our birth. This is immediate and inarguable if you’re the child of immigrants. If one of the most salient facts of my life is that I was born in Canada, it’s also obvious that I had nothing to do with it. But it’s equally true for the American who proudly traces their family back to ancestors who came over on the Mayflower, or the English family whose landholdings are listed in the Domesday Book. Had I been born in India, my infrastructural birthright would have been far less robust as an underpinning for the life of agency and opportunity that I am fortunate to live, which stems in large part from the sheer blind luck (from my perspective) of being born in Canada.

Our infrastructural systems are the technological basis of the modern world, the basis for a level of global wealth and personal agency that would have been unthinkable only a few centuries ago. But those of us who have been fortunate enough to live as part of a collective cyborg have gained our personal agency at an enormous moral cost. And now anthropogenic climate change is teaching us that there are no others, no elsewhere.

For millennia, these systems have been built out assuming a steady, predictable landscape, allowing us to design long-lived networks where century-old aqueducts underlay new college campuses. But this predictability is becoming a thing of the past. More heat in the atmosphere means warmer weather and shifting climates, with attendant droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and severe hurricanes. But it also increases uncertainty: as the effects of greenhouse gases compound, we may reach tipping points, trigger positive feedback loops, and face other unprecedented changes to climates. Engineers can’t design systems to withstand hundred-year storms when the last century provides little guide to the weather of the next. No matter where in the world you reside, this is the future we will all have to live in. The only question that remains is what kind of world we want to build there.

Our shared infrastructural systems are the most profound and effective means that we’ve created to both relieve the day-to-day burdens of meeting our bodies’ needs and to allow us to go beyond their physiological limits. To face anthropogenic climate change is to become a civilization that can respond to this shifting, unpredictable new world while maintaining these systems: if you benefit from them today, then any future in which they are compromised is recognizably a dystopia. But that “dystopia” is where most of the world already lives. To face anthropogenic climate change ethically is to do so in a way that minimizes human suffering.

Mitigation—limiting the amount of warming, primarily through decarbonizing our energy sources—is one element of this transition. But the true promise of renewable energy is not that it doesn’t contribute to climate change. It’s that renewable energy is ubiquitous and abundant—if every human used energy at the same rate as North Americans, it would still only be a tiny percentage of the solar energy that reaches the Earth. Transforming our energy systems, and the infrastructural systems that they power, so that they become sustainable and resilient might be the most powerful lever that we have to not just survive this transition but to create a world where everyone can thrive. And given the planetwide interconnectedness of infrastructural systems, except in the shortest of short terms, they will be maintained equitably or not at all.

Ursula Franklin wrote, “Central to any new technology is the concept of justice.” We can commit to developing the technologies and building out new infrastructural systems that are flexible and sustainable, but we have the same urgency and unparalleled opportunity to transform our ultrastructure, the social systems that surround and shape them. Every human being has a body with similar needs, embedded in the material world at a specific place in the landscape. This requires a different relationship with each other, one in which we acknowledge and act on how we are connected to each other through our bodies in the landscapes where we find ourselves. We need to have a conception of infrastructural citizenship that includes a responsibility to look after each other, in perpetuity. And with that, we can begin to transform our technological systems into systems of compassion, care, and resource-sharing at all scales, from the individual level, through the level of cities and nations, all the way up to the global.

Our social relationships with each other—our culture, our learning, our art, our shared jokes and shared sorrow, raising our children, attending to our elderly, and together dreaming of our future—these are the essence of what it means to be human. We thrive as individuals and communities by caring for others, and being taken care of in turn. Collective infrastructural systems that are resilient, sustainable, and globally equitable provide the means for us to care for each other at scale. They are a commitment to our shared humanity.

Bodies, agency, and infrastructure: “Care At Scale,” from Debbie Chachra (@debcha), via the indispensable Exponential View (@ExponentialView). Eminently worth reading in full.

See also: “Infrastructure is much more important than architecture“; and resonantly, “Kim Stanley Robinson: a climate plan for a world in flames.”

* Danny Hillis’ “Golden Rule of Time,” as quoted by Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline


As we build foundations, we might recall that it was on this date in 1904 that the first balloon used for meteorologic research in the U.S. was released near St. Louis, Missouri. The balloon carried instruments that measured barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity, that returned to Earth when the balloon burst.

The first weather balloon was launched in France in 1892. Prior to using balloons, the U.S. used kites tethered by piano wire– the downsides being the limited distance kites could ascend (less than 2 miles), the inability to use them if the wind was too light or too strong, and potential for the kites to break away.

Since this first launch, millions of weather balloons have been launched by the National Weather Service and its predecessor organizations.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 15, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is”*…

While wandering around a snowy New York City this past December, the artist Jan Baracz began to notice patterns forming in the grates of storm drains. “They reminded me of the I Ching hexagrams and ideographic language systems,” he writes. “They also reminded me of when I lived in Japan and researched how water patterns (from vapor to ice) are represented in kanji. It was a time when I had given my apophenia free rein. I was transfixed by logograms and language characters built upon symbolic origins. I thought these snow glyphs may be a perfect set of images to reflect this intense time in which we seek signs and project meaning onto the physical world that surrounds us.”

More of Jan Baracz‘s portentous photos at: “Snow Oracles.”

See also Vivian Wu‘s marvelous “Snowflake Generator.”

*”For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds /
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.” – Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”


As we search for signs, we might note that today is National Weatherperson Day, honoring individuals in the fields of meteorology, weather forecasting, and broadcast meteorology, as well as volunteer storm spotters and observers.

It is celebrated on this date in honor of the man credited with being America’s first (scientific) weather observer, John Jeffries (born on this date in 1744), who began making and recording daily weather observations in Boston in 1774.

Jeffries sided with the Crown in the unpleasantness that soon followed with the British, so fled to Nova Scotia in 1776, and from there to London, where his observations continued. In 1785, Jeffries and inventor/aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard crossed the English Channel in a balloon, becoming the first human beings to cross the Channel by air; Jeffries measured the temperature throughout the voyage.

John Jeffries


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