March 2009 Archives


Here on the edge of the great plains wind is integral to the landscape. Today it was between 30 and 60 mph out of the northeast, continuously and without pause. From our arrival until sunset the entire building rumbled from the force of the wind hitting it, and we had to keep the exterior doors latched to avoid eddies in the current violently whipping them open at random. At one point today a small plane had to set down to get out of the wind, and as it landed it came to a halt a few feet off the ground; despite having achieved zero groundspeed the headwind gave it a high enough airspeed to remain aloft. (This was, incidentally, the first plane we've seen use this airport all week.)

Panorama of the wind farm lining a ridge several miles east of Ft. Sumner, the New Mexico Wind Energy Center, located here. Click to get the huge version.

You can easily imagine a wind like this picking up enough topsoil to produce the epic dust storms of the Great Depression. Which leads me into today's links. A team of climate modelers at Goddard has published simulations of the climate during the Great Depression and demonstrated what I think was common knowledge to people that lived through it, that land use patterns were partially responsible for the dust storms. (via ars technica) Growing up I was always told that the dust storms came about because of all the dried-up farmland that had replaced the prairie grass of the great plains. What is interesting, though, is that the simulations suggest that the conversion to farmland actually amplified the drought itself. But again, that pretty much squares with experience.

Another nifty trick you can do with wide open agricultural spaces is tell directions. If you're sufficiently motivated, start recording what direction the cattle face as they stand around chewing their cud. The result turns out not to be random -- on average, cattle (and some types of deer as well) will tend to align with the magnetic north-south axis. It's long been wondered whether this is coincidence (due to some bovine preference regarding wind direction, sunlight, or what have you) or if herds of cattle can actually be used as large smelly compasses. Again from the PNAS, a group of European wildlife researchers suggest that the latter is true. The proof is quite elegant: when grazing near power lines the cattle will align themselves with the magnetic fields emanating from the lines, but with increasing distance will gradually revert to geomagnetic alignment. No indication is given as to why Angus like to imitate iron filings.

And while we're on environmental topics, you all knew that there is mercury in high fructose corn syrup now, right? HFCS is in essentially all processed foods, of course, at least in the United States, since it allows the massive amounts of corn we overproduce to be converted into sweets and preservatives. Making it is a somewhat proprietary (read: secretive) process, but it involves processing corn starch with, among other things, caustic soda and hydrochloric acid. One way to make those substances in industrial quantities is the mercury cell process, an electrochemical process in which salt is dissolved in mercury. While the process is designed to recover and recycle the mercury, several tons per year cannot be accounted for, presumably some of which is dissolved in the output products. There is no regulation restricting the use of chemicals made this way from being incorporated into food, and as it happens the FDA mostly does not include HFCS-containing processed foods in its mercury testing program. Awesome.

On base

That windstorm yesterday did wind up dropping some ice and snow, just enough to coat the ground and make things a bit slippery, but if anything accumulated it blew away. I think the wind speed never dropped below 30 mph or so today, so the ground was pretty well scoured. More annoyingly, the high bay we're working in isn't all that well insulated, so for most of the day it was probably under 50°F in here. Brrr!

The NASA highbay at Ft. Sumner after a light dusting of snow. 27 March 2009

For the time being we're staying in the local Super8, but we spent part of the afternoon looking at houses and apartments to rent for the couple of months we'll be here. The two houses were both depressing and in serious need of a remodel -- while some of us have low enough standards that we could imagine sleeping in them, half the point was to acquire kitchen facilities so we don't have to eat out all the time, and in that department the houses were seriously delinquent. On the other hand, we found an apartment in town that was just remodelled, and is apparently spacious and clean. The current thinking is to stash a couple of the more fragile types there and make lots of keys so we can all cook. We'll see how that pans out.

Despite being a mite busy, I do still try to keep up with things. Via Baseline Scenario I find a longish article in the Atlantic (by that blog's author and former IMF economist) observing that the present United States economic implosion displays a disturbing similarity to the failed emerging economies that the IMF spent most of the 80s and 90s brutally repairing. Here, as then, the long-term solution is to break the power of the oligarchs running the country in question into the ground. Nice to see that sort of rhetoric is back in fashion -- until recently, only labor activists and other officially disreputable types were talking up our "second gilded age".

Taking a longer view, here is a comparison between the present mess and the Roman financial crisis of 33 CE. That one was solved in part by throwing the richest guy around off a cliff and seizing his gold mines for the emperor.


So my first full day in the field mostly consisted of unboxing things, singlehandedly setting up a computer network and moving a bunch of data around. The other folks moved heavy things with the crane and tried not to get in the way of the folks we're sharing this highbay with -- they were installing the mirror on their absurdly space-age looking gondola today.

It'll probably be a solid 12-hour day here, but it's not too bad. Playing rock music in a NASA hanger in the middle of nowhere with a windstorm howling outside in the pitch black. I've missed this part of the country.

One of those fortnights...

Yup, I've been absent from the blog for a while, but I totally have an excuse. Excuses, actually, because it's just been one thing after another the past few weeks.

Mostly, two things. The first, about which I probably shouldn't get much into specifics on the ever-googlin' internet, consisted of fun with immigration lawyers, weeks of collating and collecting various sorts of documents, and a fairly nerve-wracking (in anticipation, mostly) interview with the DHS-based successor to the INS. Very provisionally, we are in the clear now, but for the next ninety days or so keep your fingers crossed for Elena nonetheless.

The second, about which I will happily get into specifics, is that here I am, barely a week after putting Item #1 to bed, getting ready for a one-way flight to New Mexico. It's finally time to give EBEX a test flight, so I'm off to the tiny hamlet of Ft. Sumner for a couple of months to get it into the air. Or rather, since that part isn't really in my bailiwick, I'll be making sure it knows what to do once we unplug the cords, and that we can still talk to it up there. I'll be sure to post photos, as this run should be more visually interesting than last year's trip to New York.

Exciting, to be sure, but this means that come June, in the first nine months of our marriage I will have been away on various sorts of field campaigns for almost exactly half that time. Fear my powers of awesome timing. Those of you who know her, try to keep Elena company for me?

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This page is an archive of entries from March 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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