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Monday, August 22, 2016

Medals per million

Athletes from the U.S. won the most medals at the 2016 Summer Olympics, but before Americans think once again that they're better than everyone else, let's calculate medals per million population. It's just logical to expect that the more populous countries win more metals than the less populous countries, right? Here are the numbers.

  • Jamaica 3.67
  • New Zealand 3.60
  • Croatia 2.50
  • Denmark 2.50
  • Slovenia 2.00
  • Azerbaijan 1.80
  • Georgia 1.75
  • Hungary 1.50
  • Armenia 1.33
  • Lithuania 1.33
  • Australia 1.21
  • Serbia 1.14
  • Netherlands 1.12
  • Sweden 1.10
  • U.K. 1.03
  • Belarus 1.00
  • Cuba 1.00
  • Kazakhstan 0.94
  • Czech 0.91
  • Switzerland 0.88
  • Norway 0.80
  • Slovakia 0.80
  • France 0.65
  • Canada 0.59
  • Belgium 0.55
  • Greece 0.55
  • Germany 0.51
  • Italy 0.47
  • South Korea 0.41
  • Uzbekistan 0.41
  • Russia 0.38
  • U.S. 0.37
  • Japan 0.32
  • Spain 0.30
  • Kenya 0.30
  • North Korea 0.29
  • Poland 0.29
  • Ukraine 0.26
  • Romania 0.25
  • South Africa 0.18
  • Colombia 0.16
  • Malaysia 0.16
  • Iran 0.10
  • Turkey 0.10
  • Brazil 0.09
  • Argentina 0.09
  • Thailand 0.09
  • Ethiopia 0.08
  • China 0.05
  • Mexico 0.04
  • Indonesia 0.01
  • For example, in proportion their populations, the Australians won three times as many medals as the Americans.

    The populations in these calculations were rounded to the nearest million, so for the less populous nations, there might be some movement in the rankings if the calculations had been made to three significant digits. But the overall message of the numbers is clear.

    Jamaica, of course, is at the top because of Usain Bolt. An exceptional athlete can skew his or her nation's numbers.But the U.S. had Michael Phelps and Simone Biles, among others.

    Anyway, I think the U.S. Olympic Committee has something to think about — as does their counterpart in China. Host nation Brazil did poorly, perhaps distracted by logistics. Note that some countries like Sweden emphasize winter sports. Their numbers for the summer are particularly impressive.

    Saturday, August 20, 2016

    My milk comes from Ohio?

    Yes, the milk I buy at the local Costco comes from Superior Dairy in Canton, Ohio. How do I know? The retail packaging of all milk in the U.S. has a dairy code. Mine is 39-13. Find your code and then visit whereismymilkfrom.com. Canton is 500 miles by road from Raleigh. Apparently the advantages of shipping a heavy product that requires constant refrigeration outweigh the obvious disadvantages. It turns out that Superior Dairy has quite a history with Costco and Wal-Mart. But even when I buy milk at the local Harris Teeter grocery, it comes from out of state.

    This came to my attention when reading a story from the Raleigh News and Observer about massive hog and poultry farms in North Carolina. The story linked to a database that included dairy farms, represented by purple dots. There aren't many of them. In fact, there are only 47,000 dairy cattle in the state. Half the fluid milk purchased in North Carolina must be imported. This surprised me because when we moved to Raleigh in 1986, dairies were still operating in Wake County — as well as Pine State Creamery, whose orange cartons you will remember if you flew Delta in the 1970s and 1980s. But all those farms were redeveloped as residential subdivisions, and Pine State went bankrupt in 1996.

    Almost every southeastern state has a milk deficit. What's more shocking to me is the situation in Alabama. The Black Belt soils of central Alabama once hosted prodigious producers of dairy products such as Barber and Hall Brothers, with over 400,000 head in the 1950s. Today only 8,000 dairy cattle can be found in the state. Alabama has fallen to 45th in dairy production nationwide. What happened?

    Hello, Holsteins, the black-and-white breed that supplanted the brown Jerseys and brown-and-white Guernseys. Holstein milk has less fat than the other breeds, and in the 1970s consumer demand changed to lower-fat products. More importantly, Holsteins produce more gallons per head per year than Jerseys or Guernseys. The gotcha: Holstein production falls off in hot climates. I guess I can't blame the cows for wanting to stay cool. Hot weather and competition drove dairy production out of the south. It's ironic, given that the south has taken much of the heavy manufacturing from the north.

    Many of the surviving dairies in the south, such as Chapel Hill Creamery, have premium prices for their products and not enough output to satisfy the major grocers. East of the Mississippi, the major dairy states are New York (618,000 head), Pennsylvania (530,000), Michigan (408,000), and Ohio (267,000). The trend for locavores notwithstanding, it appears the dairy industry in the south as we knew it is gone for good.

    Sunday, August 14, 2016

    If they had lived

    Last night in London, BBC Two televised one of its Proms concerts featuring the music of Ira and George Gershwin. Ira lived until 1983 but George died of a brain tumor in 1937 at the age of 38. I'm an American born in the 20th century, so it's no surprise that the music of Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein has always had hold of my head and heart. Copland lived to age 90, Bernstein to age 72. How much more great music like this would Gershwin have written if not for his early death?

    Today, a similar question. I visited the Wallace Collection, one of the UK's lesser known but fabulous museums of European fine art and decorative art from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. That period is not my favorite, but I was captivated by paintings from an artist whom I'd not heard of before: Richard Parkes Bonington. The Wallace Collection has 35 of his works, which show a mastery of light and detail at the very end of the Romantic period.

    Bonington died at age 26, explaining why his work is not in every major museum. I wonder how he would have reacted to Impressionism.

    In our own era we have the sad "27 Club", including the Lizard King. I wonder what he'd make of Donald Trump.

    Sunday, July 31, 2016

    My take on "Black Lives Matter"

    In 1736 Niclaus Till, his wife Anna, and their six young children embarked on a one-way move from Switzerland to the colony of South Carolina. Two of the children died on ship, and Niclaus himself died ten days after arriving in Charles Town (now Charleston). British authorities had pity on Anna and granted her 250 acres on which to live and farm.

    The lives of Anna and her surviving children mattered, you see.

    In the decades that followed, over 300,000 native Africans were forcibly brought to the United States. Their numbers were 4,000,000 by the start of the Civil War. For 100 years after Emancipation, they and their descendants were terrorized, subjugated, and deprived. Their lives simply didn't matter to most whites, you see. That's the hard, awful truth. It's not easy to undo that damage, and it certainly all hasn't been undone yet.

    All lives matter; Christians and adherents of nearly every other religion would agree with that, as well as most humanists, agnostics, and atheists… probably even Ayn Rand in her own way. But when we say Black Lives Matter, we affirm two things: only recently have a large number of white Americans actually believed that, and too many white Americans still don't. Anyone who says racism isn't prevalent today is either naive or delusional.

    And that is why Black Lives Matter, with capital letters.

    Wednesday, July 27, 2016

    99/99? No such thing

    Sometimes I hear people say "99 degrees, 99 per cent relative humidity" or words to that effect. Wrong! Let me explain.

    Wikipedia defines relative humidity (RH) as "the ratio of the partial pressure of water vapor to the equilibrium vapor pressure of water at a given temperature." The definition is correct but hardly understandable.

    When RH is 100%, there is balance between evaporation and condensation. The two occur at the same rate, and therefore water on your skin stays on your skin. When RH is a little less than 100%, evaporation will slowly outrun condensation. On a hot day in the South, when you're doing yard work, the production of sweat exceeds evaporation minus condensation; therefore, your sweat tends to drip or to dampen your clothing. When RH is 35% or less, evaporation quickly outruns condensation. When you step out of a swimming pool into air with low RH, your skin dries almost instantly and you will feel chill regardless of the prevailing temperature. I've experienced that in Arizona in summer.

    Vapor pressures are difficult to measure, so instead we use a chart that indirectly calculates RH using dewpoint and temperature. Assuming that RH is not 100% already, dewpoint is the lower temperature at which evaporation and condensation balance. This is easily measured. Dewpoints in the southern U.S. during summer are generally in the 70s. I asked a local meteorologist what was the highest dewpoint he had ever seen here, and he said that outside of temporary events like the aftermath of a thunderstorm, the maximum dewpoint is about 82. There may be places in the world where dewpoints routinely are higher; an example is the Arabian peninsula adjacent to a very warm Red Sea or Persian Gulf. But reports in the U.S. of dewpoints in the high 80s or low 90s are very rare and always transient. Why? Because inevitably a thunderstorm will form in such moist air, causing both a drastic drop in temperature and a reduction in water in the air through rainfall. In other words, the atmosphere self-corrects excesses in dewpoint.

    In the absence of precipitation, the dewpoint is usually close to the temperature at dawn. Why? Because as the temperature drops slowly overnight, condensation increases. The process of condensation adds heat to the air. In effect, water vapor cushions the fall of overnight temperatures. For example, in Raleigh this morning the temperature bottomed at 78 with a dewpoint of 77… meaning that RH at sunrise was almost 100%.

    As the day goes on, however, the temperature rises but the dewpoint doesn't change much, absent a storm or significant inflow of different air such as a cold front or a sea breeze (which occasionally does get this far inland). This means that RH falls during the day. Suppose the dewpoint at 3 pm is still 77 and the temperature is 97. The RH will be 53%. Uncomfortable and potentially dangerous, definitely. But nowhere close to 99/99.

    For the temperature and RH both to be 99, the dewpoint would have to be 98. That won't happen! Even a temperature of 90 and an RH of 90 requires a dewpoint of 87, and the likelihood of an 87 dewpoint in Raleigh would be one in a million — and short-lived.

    So, while we complain about two weeks straight of moist heat and explain to our European friends (who rarely experience that kind of prolonged moist heat) why we like air conditioning so much and are so willing to accept the CO2 production that most air conditioning requires, let's not be unscientific by quoting exaggerations like 99/99.

    Saturday, July 16, 2016

    The prevalence of hate

    I have thought about writing today's blog for many months. Each time I began to, some type of horrendous event made news. I held back, not wanting to sensationalize those events further or to turn this blog in to news commentary. But now I've realized that this awful series of events, apparently unending, is exactly the topic I should write about.

    • Some Muslims hate other Muslims and non-Muslims.
    • Some non-Muslims hate Muslims.
    • Some Christians hate non-Christians.
    • Some Christians hate Christians of another type.
    • Some white Americans hate black Americans.
    • Some black Americans hate white Americans.
    • Some straight Americans hate LGBT Americans.
    • Some Democrats hate Republicans.
    • Some Republicans hate Democrats.
    I could write more, and I could illustrate with specific examples, but you get the point.

    You might be saying, Wait! Those aren't all alike. You'd be correct. There are different causes, some of which are more understandable than others. But they have one thing in common: hate.

    You might be saying, Wait! Hate is such a strong word. Is it the right word? You'd be correct. There is a spectrum:

    • Love.
    • Acceptance.
    • Tolerance.
    • Indifference.
    • Intolerance.
    • Rejection.
    • Hate.
    Hate is on the far end of that scale. True religion, whatever the tradition, and even a respectable humanism call us to the opposite end of that scale. Perhaps humanity will never get there, but a good first step would be for 99.99% of the world's population to fall into the acceptance-tolerance-indifference zone. But let's be honest, we're a long way from even that first step. A good portion of the world's population is sitting in the rejection zone, and too much of the world's population is sitting in the hate zone.

    When hateful people act, the consequence is ridicule, persecution, repression, brutality, subjugation, violence, murder, terrorism, etc. And we see a lot of that, don't we? Until we call hate for what it is, we aren't being fully honest.

    I've heard people say that the opposite of love is not hate, but fear. In many contexts that's true. But when someone who has basic sanity carries an AK-47 or an AR-15 with multiple clips into a crowded building, or explodes a bomb in an airport or an abortion clinic, or drives down a crowded street in a powerful truck, the operative emotion is hate. Fear might partly underlie the hate, but there is more at work than fear.

    Having grown up in Montgomery, Ala. in the 1950s and 1960s, I know something about hate. I had hoped I wouldn't see that extent of hate again in my lifetime. But now I do.

    Making peace and then keeping peace in hateful situations is daunting, but the desirable way forward is clear: truce, engagement, conversation, respect, remediation, and eventual reconciliation. The alternatives are continued violence and the false, temporary, so-called peace created by ethnic cleansing. Whether's it's by top-down leadership from politicians, clergy, and social reformers or bottom-up initiatives from concerned citizens, the time is now to make peace the right way — the only way that works.

    Sunday, July 10, 2016

    The downside of referenda

    Some U.K. citizens who fervently opposed Brexit are calling for a re-do. Others in the U.K. have called for an increase in the percentage required for a referendum to pass. Still others in the U.K. want Parliament to ignore the referendum, which everyone agrees is not legally binding. Meanwhile many Scots are asking for a re-do on the failed proposal of 2014 for Scotland to break from the U.K. What a mess! Worse, the U.K. has plunged into a crisis of political leadership.

    Referenda, a form of direct democracy, are good and bad. They do allow a citizenry to bypass a government that, for whatever reason, consistently fails to do what the majority of the population want. But there are several problems with referenda:

    • They are a cowardly way out for office-holders too afraid to act themselves.
    • The margin of victory may be so slim that the losing side does not concede — even if the threshold is 60% or two-thirds instead of 50%.
    • Voters may be influenced by the precise wording of the question. We know this to be a problem in polling.
    • The majority, in a passionate moment, may take a direction that turns out to be ill-advised, counter to the culture and values of the nation, or abusive of a minority.
    • The issue may be so divisive that the nation has a difficult time after the referendum, whoever won.
    The founders of the U.S. were quite aware of these dangers, and for that reason they stressed the republic as the primary form of government. The U.S. Constitution has no provision for a referendum. About half the states allow some form of referendum or comparable action ("initiative", "proposition", etc). North Carolina is not one, aside from amendments to the N.C. Constitution and some taxation proposals. I'm good with that.

    In a similar manner, the original Constitution called for indirect election of the U.S. Senate as a way to elevate one house of Congress above the emotions of day-to-day politics. The Seventeenth Amendment went to direct election, and I think that was a mistake. Although indirect election had its disadvantages such as cronyism, direct election has its disadvantages too. The U.S. could use a more thoughtful Senate these days, one that subordinates partisanship to compromise and cooperation — an essential element of successful legislatures. Another reason for returning to indirect election of the U.S. Senate: as we have seen recently in North Carolina, citizens are sometimes surprised to see how much power a state legislature can exert on everyday life. If indirect election of the U.S. Senate had been retained, citizens and potential candidates might have been more interested in elections for state houses all along.