Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009 Christmas Holiday Newsletter


I am writing this first paragraph in a hotel room in Williamsburg, Va.. Irene and dad are watching White Christmas on TV and I am dividing my attention between Bing, Danny and my writing. Christopher and his fiancee, Reid, are with us for a short vacation to see Colonial Williamsburg and the Mariner's Museum in Newport News. (More on the fiancee bit later.) Today we did the Mariner's Museum. They have a wonderful exhibit on Civil War ironclads with the actual turret and the propeller from the Monitor on display. The exhibit is fascinating and endlessly historical but it can be a lot to see in one day and we are beat. If my prose lacks its usual verve I blame it on the the Monitor, the Merrimack and Irving Berlin.

100_5397_croppedSince this is a Christmas newsletter I should mention that Colonial Williamsburg has a complicated, pluperfect subjunctive relationship with Christmas. Tourists expect to see how the colonists decorated for Christmas but the historical fact is that they didn't decorate at all. Christmas was a very minor holiday in the colony of Virginia. As the reenactors explain it: “The colonists didn't decorate for Christmas, but if they had these are the sort of decorations they might have used.” They don't mention that the colonists would have found the idea of decorating for Christmas rather scandalous; A proper, protestant Virginian would not make that much fuss over a suspiciously Catholic holiday.

One thing I took away from this struggle for a historically-feasible colonial Christmas is that you can mix and match the tunes and lyrics of many Christmas songs. In Jefferson's time the the song “Joy to the World” existed but with a different tune; the familiar music would not be written for a century – so the reenactors led us in singing “Joy to the World” to the tune of “Oh God our Hope in Ages Past” – another “common meter” hymn that did exist in colonial times. Many of the religious Christmas songs are C.M. and you can mix and match words and tunes. Try it yourself: Sing “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” to the tune of “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.” I'll wait.


Back? Good. It''s bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time but it works.

OK then, enough of that – on with the news. Parts of this may be review for some of you. Last year's Christmas cards didn't get out until the Fourth of July and had a limited release – so I am repeating much of the news from the that issue here as well. If the information that follows seems a bit familiar, feel free to skim.

chris n reed marinerschris_w_espressoSince my last Christmas newsletter Christopher graduated from the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, with a four-year degree in Graphics Design. He has returned to the Raleigh area where he works (and works and works) as a graphics designer for Capstrat – a communication company that specializes in corporate communications (fliers, brochures, ads, etc.). During this time also, Chris met and wooed a young lady named Reid who has agreed to become his wife next fall.) Reid is finishing a PhD in Dye Chemistry at the NC State University College of Textiles. Those of you who attended Chris' cousin Jessica's wedding had a chance to meet Reid ... and she got to meet quite a bit of Chris's family as well, but, inexplicably, having met the family she still said yes.

amber_w_lee_croppedAmber has moved to St Petersburg, Florida, and is attending the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Bradenton. Amber’s boyfriend, Lee – Lee the Younger, or Not-Quite-So-Big Lee, or Lee With Hair – has also moved to St Petersburg where his is currently looking for work. If you know of any west-coast Florida opportunities for a young man with a PhD in chemistry let us know. (Yes, both kids are dating PhD level chemists – go figure.) Amber is working very hard at her studies and seems to be doing well. Her mother and I are elated with Amber's progress but do miss having her in North Carolina where we enjoyed the opportunities to see her more often.

irene in nassauIrene still manages the Cheese case at the Harris Teeter Super Flagship store in Cary. The cheese biz is not altogether immune to the slow economy and the trips on the corporate jet to visit cheese manufacturers have not been in the picture during the last year. Hopefully, once the recession lets up a bit, Irene can get a bit more traction with her ideas to take Harris Teeter to new levels of cheesiness. In the meanwhile, Irene still enjoys her volunteer work as a Docent at the North Carolina Museum of Art, which has temporarily closed most of their galleries while they move into a new (huge) facility. During the move Irene isn’t giving many tours but the classes on the collection continue so she, and the other docents, can hit the ground running when the museum reopens next April.

lee w stereo rigAs for Lee (that would be me) I am finishing up an assignment working for the North Carolina Department of Natural Resources Ecosystem Enhancement Program and will be starting a new assignment for the NC DOT at the end of January. I was briefly laid off this summer while the state of North Carolina attempted to find funds to pay my employer, Keane, for my services. I was rehired by the same employer to work on the same job after three months and, between severance and a few weeks of unemployment pay I saw very little financial impact. The experience did afford me an opportunity to experience the recession first hand and not feel left out. As I write this I have returned from Williamsburg, having had a swell time, and am now typing on my laptop in the doctor's office. Oops... Nurse just called my name; back in a minute...

Ok, I'm back now. Where was I?

dad enjoys art museumOh yes, family news. Almost over, I promise. On our trip to the Williamsburg area we got a chance to try out dad's new bionics. I think his cataract repair was done since my last Christmas letter and his pacemaker is brand new. It was only about two weeks old when we took him out hiking all over the eastern half of Virginia. I am pleased to report that his color and energy are much improved and he no longer walks into walls in dimly lit rooms. In fact, with his new bionics, while we were waiting for the Grand Illuminations fireworks to start he was able to slog across an uneven, and slightly muddy Williamsburg parade field in near-total darkness, never tripping over freezing tourists huddled in folding chairs, and still have enough energy to participate in the discussion of which restrooms would have the smallest queues.

Alaska Cruise: For our 30th anniversary (in 2008), Irene and I took our second cruise of the Inland Passage of Alaska. This time we took my father and the kids along. We sailed from Seattle and while we were there we had nice visits with Mike and Sandra, friends from our FSU days who we hadn’t seen in 30 years, and also with “Dex Quire”, a fellow blogger with whom I have struck up an online friendship through mutual weblog commentary. (



Washington DC: Dad came up in fall 2008 for a Thanksgiving visit and, while he was here, we drove up to Washington to visit his friend George and to wander around the Smithsonian a bit. George and Lenore Cohen were gracious hosts and we had a wonderful time. The first day we were there we took dad with us to see some of the sights but the second day we left him to visit with George and Lenore which he seemed to enjoy. The weather was perfect – more or less sunny days with light snow in the evenings.

Dad and George went to high school together (Woodrow Wilson High, class of 1944) and also went to George Washington Medical School (class of 1950). George invited Dean Martin, another GW 1950 graduate, for dinner and a mini-reunion. (This should have been in last years letter but there wasn't one and I love the photos...).

dad and george
dad and george

George and Dad Dad, George and their Classmate, Dean Martin

Hoping this finds all well.

Lee, Irene, Christopher and Amber

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

The Wizards of Thaws

The clip above is the climactic scene from the Wizard of Oz. If you have never seen Oz you should be warned that the clip contains spoilers... oh, and welcome to Earth, stranger; we Earthmen have seen the film an average of seventeen times each.

I was reminded of the self-styled Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz while reading this article from Reason Online about the scandal that has arisen around some questionable practices among climate researchers at several prestigious scientific institutions, most notably the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia in Great Britain, a scandal that some pundits refer to as Climategate.

The Reason Online article is well written, fair, and worth reading, especially if you haven't been following the Climategate story. Basically, the scandal involves a number of computer files, including emails between climate researchers discussing ways to manipulate the data to eliminate the bits that don't fit the theories, obviously fudged data sets, and snippets of sketchy software that was used to produce reports showing alarming levels of global warming -- things which, taken all together, give a disturbing picture of tendentiousness in the selection and processing of the data, processing methodologies of highly dubious scientific merit designed to eliminate ambiguities, and a desire to suppress debate and pervert the peer-review process. The role played by Dorothy's dog, Toto, in Oz was played in Climategate by an anonymous whistleblower who stole the files from the researchers' computers and released them on the Internet.

The global warming skeptics community is obviously delighted with these developments and they have chosen the name Climategate to suggest that the climate scientists have exhibited Nixonian levels of corruption, deceit and abuse of power. I suppose they are right but in saying that I should probably admit that I have always thought that Nixon got a bit of a raw deal. Watergate was wicked, I suppose, but the standards for naughtiness in politics are pretty high and I just can't get that excited about a bit of clumsy political espionage. Ten worse things are done every day without causing any furor at all. And I think that some of the calumny aimed at the climate researchers is equally hyperbolic.

I am sure, for instance, that Dr Phil Jones, who has temporarily stepped down from his post as the head of the CRU while an investigation is carried out, feels a bit ill used -- and not without some reason. He and the other climate researchers were not fudging their data to lie to the public -- quite the opposite, at least to their way of thinking. They were simplifying the data to make a more compelling story for the public and the politicians -- trying to convince them of things that they, themselves, urgently believe.

Activist scientists are often initially drawn to their chosen fields because they see the need for some sort of action. Their belief in the problems they are seeking to solve precedes their studies and guides them. They become experts on their problems and the possible solutions but remain a poor choice to evaluate the urgency of those problems. They wouldn't have devoted years of their lives to studying an unimportant problem and much of their professional prestige is tied up in the perceived urgency of their pet issue. It poses a constant moral hazard to them and it takes a very scrupulous scientist indeed not to yield occasionally to the temptation to exaggerate.

Adding to this temptation is the undeniable fact that a number of the more vocal climate change skeptics are pseudo-scientific cretins who see every cool day as a thoroughgoing refutation of the whole global warming theory. The climate researchers spent weary years answering these critics and gradually developed an us-vs-them mentality and an almost religious devotion to their theories. When the first few years of the past decade were cooler than expected based on their theories the climate researchers knew that the cool spell would prove to be a temporary aberration and that the inevitable upward trend would resume. But they knew also that they would be attacked and the oh-so-important changes they sought in fossil fuel usage would be impeded. So, for the good of the planet they fudged the data to make the cooling spell go away, confident that when the upward trend resumed their minor adjustments would make little difference. But there was a problem with that plan: the expected resumption of the temperature rise did not occur. Year after year for the rest of the decade the temperature rise failed to materialize and the amount of adjustment needed to "hide the decline" kept growing, but the climate researchers had left themselves with no face-saving exit strategy. The pressure built until the recent leak led to a rupture and the whole thing blew up.

Our best hope to get the climate change debate back on a more science-based footing is to avoid ad hominem attacks on the errant researchers. They have been deceptive and self-aggrandizing, but not to an unusually excessive degree. The problem with ad hominem attacks is that they lead to ad hominem defences -- the researchers are not unusually wicked. By attacking them -- and not their findings and methodology -- the opportunity is lost to correct the damage they have done.

When Toto pulled back the curtain and revealed the Wizard to be less than he pretended to be Dorothy accused him of being a very bad man, to which he replied: "Oh no, my dear, I am a very good man; I am merely a very bad wizard." The Climategate scientists are not necessarily bad people, but they are clearly very bad scientists.