The night we moved into our new apartment with all of my old furniture stacked up in the new living room, leaning on each other at odd angles, looking down the small footpath we left for kitchen access, how formidable it all felt.  The feeling was how did I acquire this much stuff, how did it all fit into that tiny apartment, and how would it all fit here?

Soon, the size of the space revealed itself– after the assembling, the organizing, the putting away of things, the place felt suddenly empty.  Too empty.  The too-emptiness belied a lack of personality.  What’s more, pieces of furniture that were once desperately needed (a kitchen counter, some storage shelves, a bunch of small rugs that covered the linoleum floors throughout) lost their function and felt immediately out of place.

I’ve never been into home furnishing.  My deep fear is to be owned by the things I own.  The nicer they are, the more care they need.  Caring for things, whether they are people or cars or furniture, is mentally and physically taxing.  That’s the same energy which may be needed to make some big changes in my life.  In some sense, my fear of nice things is a fear of stagnation.

Anyhow, I got rid of all those things that no longer have a place here.  After all, they were furniture native to the old space, a space, incidentally, that transformed so quickly back into the non-specific thing it was the minute we emptied it of our stuff that it took my breath out.  And now, I sold a bunch of those old things, and now, I’m filling the apartment bit by bit with things I find on craigslist, and thinking a lot about what makes a good living space.

I’ve learned at least that good “decor” is exactly not that.  The best living spaces are functional, not decorative- they are good precisely because they say something about the time you spend in it.  Larisa pointed out to me these two websites.  Both sell clothes, both try to do it by making an appeal to lifestyle.  The latter does a poorer job than the first.  It photographs attractive models wearing expensive rugged clothes sitting on a log or next to a boat or walking in the woods and asks you to buy “the look”.  This is a kind of old-school advertising that is starting to miss its mark with my generation.  Contrast this with the first website whose focus is not the models or their looks, but rather a set of simple moments.  The entreaty is not imitation but assimilation.  Not, buy these clothes to be more interesting, but rather, give our (expensive) clothes a place in your already interesting/beautiful life.

I realize there’s a similar thing going on with furniture.  That there’s a real trap in buying a furniture set on a showroom floor, the way my parents have done for years.  It solves the “problem” of furniture, my mom would say, for a whole room. So you get a couch, a coffee table, two side tables and a rug.  A TV goes on the opposite wall.  What do you do on this couch?  Well, obviously, you watch TV.  But the problem is, my mom doesn’t watch TV.  The living room has become the least used room in her house.

You know what my mom likes to do?  You would never know it from her house.  She likes to cook, and knit, and talk on the phone, and take walks, and listen to audio books, and swim, and garden– boy does she garden.

I’m trying to approach furniture and “decor” from the opposite direction. Imagining first the kinds of things I would like to be able to do in my house– read in the sun, read in the bath, work at a big desk, eat on the floor, play music in the living room, grab a hat and mittens on my way out, yoga on a comfy rug, piano in a corner, etc– and finding the furniture that fills those needs.

The place

I’ve written a lot about the place, I think, as it was a good place for writing. Dazzling morning sun made the early hours precious. Hot coffee under a rotation of clouds. The empty house. The part-time cat. The breeze which kicked the papers from their stacks had the soft touch of perspective.

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From this windowed perch I’ve happily catalogued every kind of New England weather. I’ve layered the notes of a piano over the hum and shout of traffic (to make it beautiful?). I’ve read book after book in the after-midnight stillness of an industrial part of town.

Tomorrow I leave my little tree house of solitude, and of deep peace, and of great loneliness. I’m like a crab that has outgrown its shell. In the buzz of moving, the excitement of creating new spaces, new possibilities, I wanted to take a moment to remember.

The gift of a place is its memories.

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The spirit of the place, when emptied of me, will be… what?

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Climate Models and the Carbon Cycle

The carbon cycle:

To tell the story from the beginning, consider the carbon atom – 6 protons, 4 valence electrons, 4th most abundant element in the universe – basis of all life on earth. It’s locked up in rocks and plants, dissolved into our oceans, and mixed up with other gases in our atmosphere. As rocks it shows up as coal, limestone, or graphite for instance. In the rivers and oceans it’s mainly carbonic acid. In the atmosphere, carbon dioxide and methane gas.

While on the whole, restorative chemical processes [1] keep the relative distribution of carbon among these reservoirs fairly stable, each individual atom of carbon is in motion, traveling between the various phases, from gas to liquid to solid, between atmosphere and oceans and rocks and living matter. This is what’s known as the carbon cycle.


A carbon cycle drawn by: Courtney Kesinger

The carbon cycle has various loops, none of which is completely closed. For instance, in the fast carbon cycle, which is traversed on the time scale of a human life, carbon is taken up from the atmosphere by plants through photosynthesis, stored as sugars, then released back into the atmosphere when it is burned for energy, either by the plant itself, or by something that has consumed the plant, such as an animal, a microbe, or a fire.

But this loop is not closed. Dead plant matter which is buried before it has time to decompose do not release their carbon back into the atmosphere as a part of this fast cycle. Instead, it becomes coal, or oil, or natural gas, and is locked up for millions of years beneath the earth’s surface.

Before the industrial revolution, carbon stored in fossil fuels found its way into the atmosphere mainly through volcanic eruptions, as a part of the slow carbon cycle–called this, because a round-trip takes roughly 100 million years. In this leisurely cycle, rain dissolves atmospheric carbon, forms a weak acid – carbonic acid – which it then deposits into lakes and rivers and oceans. These ions are collected undersea by living organisms and built into shells. Carbon, now in solid form, settles to the sea floor when these organisms die, and builds up sedimentary rock layer by layer. Finally, the earth’s heat melts these rocks, and volcanoes and hot spots return carbon (including that which is contained in fossil fuels) to the atmosphere.

A key point about these natural processes is that they are roughly in balance. For instance, the rate of carbon release into the atmosphere, by respiration or volcanic activity, is matched by the rate of carbon absorption into plants and oceans. And this system is held in approximate equilibrium by various restoring forces. A sudden, small increase in the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere, absent other factors, leads to increased plant growth [2], more rain [1], and more direct absorption at the surfaces of oceans [3]. In other words, the oceans acidify to deplete this extra carbon.

But how much carbon can our oceans take up? When, if ever, would the climate then return to its pre-perturbed state? What would the earth look like in the interim, in the far term?

By unearthing and burning fossil fuels, in our cars, factories, and electrical plants, we are harnessing energy by shortcutting a process which naturally occurs on geological time scales. About 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide are now added per year into the atmosphere directly by the burning of fossil fuels [5]. A rate 100 times greater than that of volcanic emissions. As a result, atmospheric carbon, according to ice-core records which go back 800,000 years, is at its highest ever level [4].

Climate models:

We can use physical models to predict how the earth’s climate system might respond to different stimuli. To understand climate models, consider how a physical model can be used to predict the orbital motion of the planets. Given a set of parameters which describe the system (the position, mass, velocity of the planets and sun), the physical laws which govern the system (Newtonian physics or, more accurately, General Relativity), a certain set of simplifying assumptions (a planet’s interaction with another planet is insignificant compared to its interaction with the sun), and what emerges is the “future” of these original parameters. Some won’t change, such as the masses of the bodies, but others–their positions and velocities– will describe a trajectory.

Similarly, climate models aim to plot a trajectory for earth.


Black body radiation of the sun and earth after traversing the atmosphere.

How well such a model performs depends crucially on the validity of its assumptions and completeness of its knowledge–our knowledge. Afterall, they know only what we know. We know, for instance, that earth exchanges energy with outer space through radiation, or light. We know that carbon dioxide and methane strongly absorb and re-emit certain IR frequencies of light while remaining largely transparent to visible frequencies. When incoming radiation is visible light (sunlight) and outgoing radiation is IR, we expect that an increase in greenhouse gases leads to an imbalance favoring energy influx over outflux. And, as Dr. Scott Denning stated in an earlier post: “When you add heat to things, they change their temperature.”

Tiki the Penguin

A deeper question is where the extra energy will go. To that end, we model the earth’s land, oceans, ice sheets, and atmosphere, allow them to absorb energy as a whole and exchange heat with each other through various thermodynamic processes. We track their temperatures, their compositions, and their relative extent. In this way, we can get a rough idea of the global response to a given amount of energy imbalance, called “forcing”.

But it gets more complicated.

The response itself may alter the amount of external forcing. The loss of ice sheets decreases the earth’s reflectivity, increasing the planet’s energy absorption [7]. The thawing of permafrost and prevalence of hotter air are likely to elevate, respectively, levels of methane [9,10] and water vapor [12]–two additional greenhouse gases–in the atmosphere. These are examples of known feedback mechanisms.

If the planet’s response to an energy flow imbalance is to increase this imbalance, the feedback is positive: climate change accelerates. On the other hand, negative feedback slows further climate change by re-balancing the earth’s energy flux. Changes in the carbon cycle, as in the ocean’s acidification by CO2 uptake, is one example of negative feedback [1]. So far, about half of our CO2 emissions have found their way into our oceans [13].

It’s in this tug-of-war between positive and negative feedback mechanisms that the trajectory of earth’s future climate is drawn [8]. Ultimately, thermodynamics guarantees that the earth’s climate will find stability [11]. But we shouldn’t confuse a planet with a balanced energy budget with a necessarily healthy or habitable planet. Venus, for instance, has a balanced energy budget, and a composition very similar to earth. In other words, the question is not whether, but where.

The crucial role that climate models play in all this is that they help us catalogue and combine these separate pieces of knowledge. The more perfect the information, the more accurate its predictions. Right now, improving future accuracy of climate models depends heavily upon getting a good grasp of climate feedback mechanisms. As we slowly step toward a more complete understanding of our climate system, it’s important we continue to receive new science in context, reminding ourselves that each new study is a welcome refinement of our knowledge, that neither proves nor disproves global warming– simply moves us forward.



Wishful thinking

My cousin graduated from medical school about 2 weeks ago. The whole family was here.

Kept asking me when my turn would be.

Years, I said. Years and years.

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Puerto Rico! (part 2)

[for Part I]

When we packed our tent the next morning the sky was just beginning to brighten. It was the start of our first full day in Puerto Rico. The day was cloudy, and wet, but warm. Around our campsite the night rain had made a mat of leaves. There was no time for breakfast. As we hiked out of the forest, pots and pans clanging, our clothes clung to our skin, leaves stuck to our shoes. Humidity gave the impression of sweating profusely.

It had been my idea to camp. I figured between showers at campsites, the occasional dip in the ocean, and one or two hotel stays thrown in, we’d have our hygiene taken care of; and a single trip to the grocery store had already yielded more food than we could eat before it’d all go bad. The $40 emergency Target tent was the shakiest leg of this plan, but even it only had to hold up for a week.

A week. Queenie, a journalist at a newspaper, had about a week’s vacation a year, had never done this sort of thing before, and had to put in for the vacation days about 9 months in advance. But she was excited for the adventure, she said. I guaranteed she’d have a good time. Not to worry, I told her, I’m in charge of the planning. I really wanted her to have a good time.

But even for me, and I’m used to doing this sort of thing, this trip got off to a rocky start.


My flight was delayed, two hours only, but just long enough to miss the DRNA office hours in San Juan where, with the help of my broken Spanish, we might have gotten a camping permit for the first night. And then, at the baggage carousel, while I watched the luggage go round and round, I realized I had left my tent– a fancy, 2-person ultra-light style REI thing that I had borrowed from my boyfriend– leaning against my bathroom door at home, in Massachusetts.

“We have to buy a tent,” I said, when I spotted Queenie.
“Sorry,” I said. “I think we can get it when we go get the fuel for the stove.”

So, then began the errands. It was rush hour. There was crushing gridlock traffic, cars darting every which way, cars that looked like they’d just as easily drive right over you–through you.

After sitting through the third green light, not moving, watching patiently as each tiny space that was created instantly filled with some car turning, some car backing up, some car running a light cause who cares, some car jumping the curb to get out from behind you, etc, I turned to Queenie. “Dude,” I said. “Go.”

She shook her head.
“This is not how people drive in Oregon.”

It poured as I ran from one store to the next. It was nearly 8 when we finally left San Juan. I put us on the route to Rio Abajo State Forest, chosen for proximity to Arecibo, our next morning’s destination.

After seven or eight miles climbing this overgrown, winding forest road, we came to a dead-end. Our high-beams were the only source of light. We struggled to use it to survey the scene. A mossy sign marked the state forest, mentioned something about el area de acampar; a chain-linked fence rose out of the dirt and leaves; a gate: locked. We debated what to do. It was almost 10, this road was almost abandoned. We would have to hop the fence, leave the car outside, and we would certainly be alone. The sound of Coqui frogs filled the air, and some species of super-loud crickets.

Way too sketchy, we decided. We would try another state forest. With much labor, we turned the car around, drove seven miles back down the same road we came up.

From an online search, it seemed that at our next destination, at the Bosque Estatal de Guajataca, we would need to hike to our camping area. I looked online for a map of trails. Turns out in general Puerto Rican forests and parks don’t do that sort of thing. I found instead one hiker’s homemade map that he’d drawn up of the area. Afraid of losing reception, I decided to keep that page open on my phone.

This state forest looked more promising almost right away. There were signs announcing its existence ahead, mile markers along the well-paved road, which was wide enough for opposing traffic to pass comfortably by. We found the ranger station lit with a single street lamp, unguarded but for a large, angry dog. There was parking space enough for 10 or 12 cars, though we were the only. We were relieved at the prospect of not having to sleep in the car; still, we estimated we probably had until just after daybreak the next morning to get the hell out of there before we would have to answer questions about camping permits.

Quickly, we packed our bags, I brought our dinner and cooking utensils, our tent, a rain tarp. Queenie brought all of her clothes for the whole trip (“Why is your bag so heavy?” I’d ask later). I turned on my phone to check the map. The website refreshed. No internet connection, the blank page said.

I have an obsessive habit now of taking screenshots of important websites and emails, in case of reception loss. Even if there’s no suspicion of reception loss, even if I have every reason to believe a page to stay open. This particular paranoia, I trace back to this exact moment.

“My page refreshed,” I muttered. “Why did my page refresh?”

I tried desperately to get it back. I hit the back button: another refresh. I tried another tab: another refresh.

“I had it open, what, why would this happen? What is the use of this function?”

I didn’t remember exactly when I had lost signal, but it must have been at least 45 minutes out. I tried to picture the map in my head. There was a watch tower. A trail that went past it. The campsite wasn’t too far in. There were only two or three trails in the park, and they looped back on themselves no more than half a mile in. You couldn’t get lost in this. It can’t take more than 30 minutes to walk the whole thing.

Our headlights illuminated a rocky dirt path that was decently well-tended. But the rocks were wet with perennial rain and slippery with moss. The going was slow, the network felt complicated in the dark, I started to lose confidence.

“I think we’ve gone too far,” I said. “It definitely wasn’t this far.”

I started looking for clearings besides the trail, where we might be able to just pitch our tent. That’s when we walked by the tower.

It was a wooden structure about 20 feet tall. Two or three flights of steps led up to the top platform, which was wide enough for a place to sleep and a place to cook. A tilted roof sheltered the whole thing from weather. Looking out I could see the dark outlines of hills in the distance. I noticed the stars for the first time that night, how slightly shifted they were from where they’d been back home, and that little difference was enough to make them nearly unrecognizable. OK, we can sleep here, I thought, like two homeless people. I was a little sad.

Then my phone buzzed in my pocket, an email alert. That little height was all it took and I had reception.


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