Category Archives: nature

Show me a sign!

“Show me a sign!”

How many times in our lifetimes have we encountered a difficult stretch and wondered aloud if it was ever going to end, asking for a sign from above to give us hope? How many times do people turn to fortune-tellers, good luck charms, psychics or horoscopes for a hint of the future? Would we even know a divination sign if we saw one?

Humans are supposedly the only creatures capable of rational thought. Rational thought is analytical: identify, quantify, specify. During our lifetimes, we absorb a tremendous amount of information and we use that information to make decisions. We can take events from our past, remember the outcomes, and use that knowledge to make an informed decision. In most cases, past outcomes become the basis to determine the most probable outcome for a future event. Most probable, however, is not an absolute certainty. Unknown or highly unlikely outcomes called “Black Swan” events can arise, sometimes favorable, sometimes not. For example, matching all the numbers in a huge jackpot lottery on one ticket is highly unlikely, usually in excess of 120,000,000:1.

My area participates in a number of lottery games. The MegaMillions game recently had a jackpot in excess of $200 million USD. Even by taking the lump sum cash option and leaving almost half the money on the table, it would be enough for me to stay retired. A friend of mine was having an unbelievable run of positive events happening, so we joked about spending a dollar each and buying tickets. About an hour before buying my ticket, I found a four-leaf clover while out on a hike. Four-leaf covers supposedly bring the finder good luck because of a rarity of one four-leaf clover per 10,000 three-leaf clovers:

4 leaf clover

A four-leaf clover is supposedly lucky, so why didn’t I select the winning MegaMillions numbers on my ticket?

The day after the drawing, I found I had matched one number. Unfortunately, it was not enough to win anything. My friend fared worse by not matching a single number. So much for using a good luck charm to forecast the future. The odds of winning the MegaMillions lottery with one ticket is 258,890,850:1, or roughly 2,589 times as rare as finding a four-leaf clover. I saw several people carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot buying lottery tickets. How can a rabbit’s foot be lucky because it came off an animal after an unlucky event? Other animals have fared poorly in our quest for divining the Divine. Goat livers or chicken entrails, anyone? At least other divination items like crystals look nice and brewed tea leaves is a healthy beverage.

Weather forecasting is seemingly a 50/50 proposition when projecting out over a week. Many people with a minimum of weather watching experience can predict if tomorrow is warmer, colder, or wetter than today. Those same people are unable to predict tomorrow’s temperature to within 3°F accuracy or precipitation within 0.1″. For most of us, a general guide to tomorrow’s weather is enough. Some occupations require accurate weather for ten days in the future. Certain types of concrete can handle small amounts of precipitation falling while curing; too much rain can damage or destroy it. Using a crane is not advisable during high winds. Planting crops before the final frost of the season will seriously influence harvest yield.

Weather very much affects farmers. A growing season stretches out over several months and a crop destroyed by an unexpected frost or torrential rain is a substantial loss of time and money. Weather folklore came about through thousands of years of observations and noticing certain natural phenomena. Some folklore roots are more wishful thinking (or wistful thinking if the year’s crop lies in ruins) rather than solid observation. In the Upper Midwest, woolly bear caterpillar stripe size is supposedly a harbinger of the upcoming winter. Woolly bear caterpillars eventually metamorphose into Isabella tiger moths, not meteorologists. Another forecasting myth involves the groundhog. If the groundhog sees its shadow on Groundhog’s Day (February 2, exactly the halfway point between winter and spring), six more weeks of wintry weather should occur. With an accuracy of less than 40%, which is worse than the expected 50% of pure chance, perhaps the groundhog is better suited for predicting winning lottery numbers.

woolly bear caterpillar

Does this sort of stripe on a woolly bear mean a mild or frigid winter?

Remember that humans are mostly rational thinkers when they are not distracted with associating completely unrelated events into a prediction tool (see “woolly bear caterpillar” above). Accurately spotting future trends is a holy grail humanity has sought for millennia. Economic forecasts, actuarial tables, weather forecasts, and lottery number picks all strive for accuracy. Some of the supposed economic forecast signs are which team wins the Super Bowl, women’s skirt lengths, men’s underwear purchases (men choosing to “go command” must skew the data), and during the period when Alan Greenspan headed up the Federal Reserve Bank, the thickness or thinness of his briefcase.

Public safety is also at stake. Predicting the virulence and spread of a pandemic has many variables. Invasive species affect certain sectors of the economy. There is a delicate balance between erring on the side of caution and “crying wolf”. A far simpler example of future prediction is the invasive species warning sign that I saw in a park:

wild parsnip warning sign

Even though no wild parsnip is presently in the park preserve, there is a warning sign because wild parsnip spreads quickly.

There is no known infiltration of wild parsnip in the park. It does spread quickly and may appear in the near future. If people see the warning often enough, the hope is they will avoid contact with wild parsnip if or when it appears in the future.

Perhaps the best harbinger of future events is being in the present moment. Decisions made in the present influence the future. While we cannot change the past, we might change the future by being aware of the past and applying that knowledge to the present. It beats slaughtering a goat or maiming a rabbit. Be flexible with your plans because Black Swan events can and do happen. Have a good support team in place to help you through the rough times and enjoy the good times; be prepared to do the same for them.

Those of you who have a special someone in your life have won a lottery with odds exceeding 7,000,000,000:1. You have found the one person on this planet right for you, a person who makes you smile and laugh, who brightens your day when times are dark, someone whom you unquestionably trust, who supports your dreams, celebrates your victories, dries your tears and calms your fears. That is a prize more valuable than a nine-figure jackpot. Give that person a meaningful hug and I will make a 100% accurate prediction for the future: you both will smile and feel content every time it happens.

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by | October 26, 2014 · 12:58 pm

The seasonal roller coaster ride has begun again

After a Goldilocks “just right” run of delightful weather, the Twin Cities area is cashing its reality check. The past week has seen below average temperatures and dreariness reminiscent of late November rather than early October. I know there are birds still around, but the past couple of days have been extremely windy. The high winds are causing the trees here to sway like brightly dressed drunken revelers trying to dance (or stagger) a conga line, with some of the trees stripped bare. Watching crows fly backwards and then doing loops is always an odd sight, but they seem to take delight in the wind caused acrobatics. The slate gray sky mutes the colors on the trees until the sun peeks through a break in the clouds to brighten things up. There are many clues that the seasonal roller coaster ride has begun again.

There are different smells in the air. Furnaces are waking after a long slumber and the indoor air has a hint of burnt dust odor for the first few runs. Fireplaces are crackling and the neighborhood air smells like wood smoke. The people lucky enough to burn birch have a warm house and the outside air has a wonderful smell.

There is a different feel in the air. Office buildings that were uncomfortably warm are now chilly as the HVAC system starts its several day switch over from air conditioning to heat. Open-toed shoes, shorts and tank tops are spending more time in closets and lightweight jacket sightings are more commonplace. The mornings start out still and chilly and the afternoons end up mostly sunny and windy. Temperature swings of 30°F or more are common.

There are different tastes available now. Nearly every dining establishment and coffee-house has pumpkin flavored items on the menu. To be accurate, the pumpkin flavoring is artificial in most cases, a witch’s brew of organic chemicals that fake out the taste buds. Like the current bacon craze, pumpkin is showing up in everything but gasoline and laundry soap, though those two staples are probably healthier to consume. Apple harvest is underway and cinnamon scent wafts from bakeries.

Even the sounds of the season change. Apartment complexes with boilers and radiators hear the thud of water hammer until the system purges the air from the lines. Windows spend more time closed than open muffling the sounds. Convertibles blaring loud music and motorcycles with loud exhaust systems stay in garages longer. High school football game sounds carry for several miles from the field of play with cheering and music. Beaches are silent but shopping malls are busier. Dried leaves crunch underfoot and leaf piles become tempting frolicking targets for children and young-at-heart adults.

Couples enjoy the cooler weather. An outbreak of cuddling started recently and probably will not abate until the heat and humidity of next summer arrive. Unlike the flu or the common cold, many people would prefer a case of the cuddles. Cuddling is contagious, but it has health benefits including stress and anxiety reduction. If you have a special someone, enjoy some cuddling time whenever possible. It beats sneezing and wheezing and it will help you manage the seasonal roller coaster ride.

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Filed under nature, rebuilding

Change is in the air

In the Upper Midwest of the United States, autumn is the season with the most dramatic changes. Peak fall color is about a week or two away from the Twin Cities metro area and it appears the fall colors will be the most vibrant in many years. The past several years have seen unfavorable conditions for fall color. Too much wind, too much heat, too early a snowfall, or too little rain contributed to sub-par colors.

This month has seen several of my friends starting new jobs in the next couple of weeks. I have noticed that September and October seem to be peak times for intra-company job postings. From my management days, I performed nearly all my performance reviews in October. Most corporations in the United States have a fiscal year that follows the calendar year. Fourth quarter budgets most often had salary increases and bonus line items. It helped with budgeting for the next fiscal year.

In one friend’s case, the new job originated with a chance conversation with someone in a different department. Corporate decision-making often times proceeds at a glacial pace and slowly builds momentum. When one is working in a high-pressure environment with uncooperative team members, the glacial pace seems never-ending. That story had a happy ending Friday late afternoon with a celebration Friday evening. Celebrating someone’s good fortune is always pleasant. Celebrating while dining outdoors in perfect weather is even more pleasant.

This year’s weather had a dearth of perfect days. Last night was a Goldilocks evening. It was not too cold, not too warm, not too windy, no bugs and no precipitation; it was just right. Today’s stronger breezes caused the ash trees to start raining down yellow and ocher colored leaves forming a thin blanket on the ground. Maple trees and sumac bushes have noticeably more color. Squirrels have turned lawns into something that looks like cluster bomb testing took place. Even though the days are warmer than average, the shorter days and low humidity cause the temperature to drop rather quickly after sundown. Change is in the air. Congratulations to everyone starting a new job or retiring. Good luck on your new adventure. Whether you are experiencing early autumn or early spring, I hope your weather is pleasant and you get a chance to enjoy the changes.


Filed under friends, nature, rebuilding

The most wonderful time of the year

Most people living in the upper Midwest would argue that this is the most wonderful time of the year, not necessarily Christmas. In Minnesota, we have two groups of people, those who love summer, and those that don’t. In the interests of full disclosure, I fall into the former group. Lucy also leaned more towards loving summer.

One could argue that spring could also be the most wonderful time of the year, since like fall, the weather is not too hot or too cold, there are no winged bloodsucking creatures vexing outdoor activities and it is cool enough in the evening for bonfires or cooking outdoors.

Fall does have several advantages over spring. Television, cable and streaming service shows start their new seasons in fall; spring was rerun and replacement series season. Football and hockey fans rejoice at the start of a new season while baseball fans are either gearing up for the post-season or muttering “Maybe next year”. The days seem longer during fall though sunrise is a little later and sunset is a little earlier every day after the equinox. Lakes are still warm enough for some late season boating without hitting ice. Many gardens are still in bloom and migratory birds and butterflies begin flocking before undertaking an arduous several thousand mile trek in search of warmer weather.

Lucy had one reason she would pick fall over spring for the most wonderful time of the year: fall color. When winter transitions to spring, the color palette changes from white to gray to dirty gray to pale green to green before the flowers start blooming. When summer transitions to fall, the greens and tans are quickly infused with, and then replaced by, brilliant hues of yellow, gold, burgundy, red, orange and shades in between. It is as if summer knows it is going out, so it is going out with a lavishly attired party. Of course, like any large party, the clean up afterwards is time-consuming. Lucy and I had hoped to go on a hot air balloon ride sometime during peak fall color. She was receptive to doing this despite a fear of heights. Perhaps I will do that sometime in her honor.

Some areas of the world do not see much color variation between seasons. Large areas of the southwestern United States have two color palettes: green during the rainy season and brown the rest of the year. Areas of the Great Plains are nearly devoid of trees with some wildflowers during the wetter season. Other areas have trees, but the leaves stay on year around because there is little difference between the seasons.

I am lucky to live in an area where we get several weeks of incredible beauty every year. The Twin Cities has already had one evening of scattered frost and is nearing the end of an unseasonably cool stretch of weather. The maples are showing hints of red, orange and gold, so the transition party is starting soon. Now if I could be smart enough to get out of the area before the dreaded snow starts flying…

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Filed under musings, nature, rebuilding

Short summer’s journey into autumn

Eugene O’Neill is probably rolling in his grave with my reworking of the title of his classic play “Long Day’s Journey into Night”. The Twin Cities area shows signs of an early end to a late arriving summer. Grackle and starling flocks started forming a couple of weeks ago with mobs of hungry birds descending into yards and gardens. Some sumac bushes and maple trees have splotches of red or gold showing through the foliage. Juvenile robins display grown up feathers free of the leopard spots of their youth. Waterfowl babies are in full feathers and are the size of adults rather than waddling balls of fluff and fuzz. Hummingbirds are more frequent visitors at the feeders with an occasional quick and noisy kerfuffle breaking out. The migratory birds and butterflies are preparing for a several thousand mile trek to a place where “Snowmageddon” remains a folk tale rather than an annual six-month-long reality.

July and August have been drier and cooler than normal. Air conditioning units received a badly needed break from relentless usage in June. Road repair crews find it easier to work with hot asphalt when the heat index is not five degrees above the sun’s surface temperature and the roadways are not submerged. Cooler and drier air slowed grass growth. Mowing twice a month instead of twice a week allowed people to spend more time with loved ones and enjoy a quiet evening. Cool and dry evenings were a refreshing change to the stifling heat and oppressive humidity experienced during June’s monsoon.

With each passing day, morning and afternoon scurried a bit sooner from evening’s encroachment. Lower humidity and temperatures along with fewer severe storms directly result from this. Even though the weather this week has been more like mid-October rather than late August, the cicadas are still buzzing when the sun is out. At night, a few fireflies twinkle during their nightly journeys while the toads, tree frogs and crickets still have their evening talent shows without “sotto voce” subtlety. Listening to the cacophony without droning air conditioners is quite enjoyable.

Perhaps the late arrival of summer along with the cooler and dryer  period after June curtailed the annual Japanese beetle infestation. My rose bushes did not look like shotgun targets and there was no need to set out traps. I think I saw fewer than two dozen of the nasty little invaders this year. I will gladly take this as a win. This also ensured getting flowering red calla lilies, which the hummingbirds pay more attention to than the hummingbird feeder.

As I mentioned last week, the Minnesota State Fair is still underway. The last time I attended the Fair was around 2006 with Lucy. I have a friend who is insisting on taking me to the Fair on Saturday (OK, my arm did not need much twisting). If Saturday’s almost perfect weather forecast is accurate, and if attendance is typical for the second Saturday of the Fair, between 175,000 and 240,000 people will crowd into the Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds itself is only 320 acres in size (one-half square mile or one-half section) so navigating through a sea of humanity is challenging. Saturday’s visit will take care of my Fair adventures until the mid-2020’s and blow my allotted junk food intake until 2375.

The State Fair ends on September 1, Labor Day. The United States considers Labor Day as the unofficial end to summer though the autumnal equinox does not occur until September 22. Families with cabins “up north” or “at the lake” enjoy on last long weekend and close it for the season. School is already in session in some districts with the remainder starting classes after Labor Day. The plaintive parental cry of “Go outside and play!” changes to “Do your homework!” Even humans adjust to the subtle season transition.

Try to enjoy some time outdoors with loved ones. Whether your transition is summer into autumn or winter into spring, notice the changes occurring. Being part of nature helps one re-energize and reduce stress. Give your special someone a meaningful hug and thank you for your time.

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Filed under gardening, nature, rebuilding, weather