Must it be Santa? A case study in Bayesian updating

Ah, Christmas eve. A magical day when we reflect on the deep questions. Is there anything more valuable than family togetherness? What is the true meaning of the season? Who is that strange man breaking into my house at 2:00 in the morning?

In an effort to answer at least one of these, I have prepared a short white paper on the problem of identifying Santa, from a Bayesian perspective. In particular, I take as my inspiration the song Must be Santa, performed in its perhaps definitive form by Bob Dylan on his album Christmas in the Heart (2009).

For those interested, I have made the paper and the code used to perform the analysis available in a GitHub repository. The paper, in PDF form, may be downloaded here.

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I learned a new word this week: полярник, polyarnik, which is Russian and translates roughly as “polar explorer.” This word, along with another set of interesting thoughts on dedication to science and the polar regions, comes from a beautiful photo essay in the New Yorker. In it, photographer Evgenia Arbugaeva shows us a glimpse of the life of Vyacheslav Korotki, a Russian meteorologist and polyarnik, whose job is to live, alone, for long stretches, on the shores of the Barents Sea, recording weather observations and relaying them to Moscow via a set of Soviet-era radios. If this is not dedication to science, I’m not sure what qualifies.

But according to Arbugaeva, “He doesn’t get lonely at all. He kind of disappears into tundra, into the snowstorms. he doesn’t have a sense of self the way most people do. It’s as if he were the wind, or the weather itself.”

Go check out all the photos.

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Not Another Film About Penguins

I am currently experiencing mild-to-moderate Antarctica envy. In addition to the continuing STRES cruise, some friends from the Lynch Lab are on their way south as well, to study various aspects of Pygoscelis penguin populations.

So last night I watched Werner Herzog’s 2007 documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. I hadn’t seen it before, but I loved it—for the beautiful images, and for the way he managed to capture the texture of field work and the personalities of the staff and scientists at McMurdo Station and the various field camps. And, of course for Herzog’s trademark existential weirdness. At the beginning of the film, he says, “The National Science Foundation had invited me to Antarctica even though I left no doubt that I would not come up with another film about penguins.” He does not. Highly recommended.

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Follow the S.T.R.E.S. Cruise in Antarctica

Sunrise at midnight in Wilhelmina Bay. Photo by Michelle Denis (I think).

Speaking of end-of-semester stress…there happens to a better kind going on right now, as well: the Seasonal Trophic Roles of Euphausia superba (S.T.R.E.S) Cruise. My lab’s Fearless Leader is currently aboard the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer in Antarctica, on a cruise studying the trophic ecology of our planet’s most biomassive animal species, the Antarctic krill Euphausia superba. Alison Cleary, a PhD candidate from the University of Rhode Island, has been blogging updates from the cruise–you can follow along at the Krill Cruise blog here.

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Get Off The Altar

Marguerite Perey (left) and Sonia Cotelle, who worked in the Curies’ lab and both died from the effects of radiation exposure. Image from the Musee Curie.

Last week, the New York Times Magazine published a show-stopping piece by Veronique Greenwood about her great-great aunt, Marguerite Perey. Perey worked in the Paris lab of M. and Mme. Curie, where she discovered the element now known as Francium. It was also where a lax culture of safety, and abundant ionizing radiation, gave her the bone cancer that would kill her.

There is a certain kind of gothic romance still associated with the Curies, who are seen as martyrs to the progress of science. As Greenwood describes, they were martyrs who brought a lot of lab assistants and junior scientists down with them:

Several potent accounts come from Elizabeth Rona, a chemist who worked in various European radioactivity labs. She wrote of a lab assistant, Catherine Chamie, who transported radioactive sources to and from a safe each day on a cart, shielded poorly by lead bricks; Chamie later died from exposure….Rona records a litany of radioactivity researchers who followed Chamie, their lungs, hands and bones falling apart. The thumbs, forefingers and ring fingers of their left hands were especially prone to damage, because of the way they were exposed to the radioactive substances they poured from flask to flask without gloves.

This trail of dead could be traced back to a few causes, but the most important was perhaps a particular attitude in the Curie lab Continue reading

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RIP, Mike Nichols

I just heard that Mike Nichols, the great film director, has died. While perhaps best known for his masterpiece The Graduate, we should not forget his other masterpiece:

Yes, Day of the Dolphin, the movie where George C. Scott teaches dolphins to speak English in squeaky dolphin voices, before one of them is unwittingly forced into an evil plot to kill the President of the United States.

While easy to make fun of, I did have a great time watching this movie back in 2010. Here’s wishing Nichols all the best at the big Singleman party in the sky…

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Does this thing still work?

By gum, I think it does!

It’s been a while, internet…but I am getting the blog back together. And I have things to write about. Stay tuned…

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Bluefish Escabeche

Today after work, I left Stony Brook’s Southampton campus (where the ALES Lab is headquartered) and drove 15 minutes to the end of the eastern spit separating Shinnecock Bay from the ocean, to go fishing. This is one of the perks of working at Southampton. The spit is crowded with enormous mansions fronting the beach and a helipad serving Manhattan commuters, but at the end is a small blessing of a county park. On my second cast from the riprap at the edge of the channel, I pulled in a bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix). Deep breath: kill it with a blow to the head, cut the gills to bleed it out. Dinner.

I decided to make an escabeche, a Spanish preparation where the fish (or meat) is browned and then quick-pickled in a hot brine. This recipe is from the restaurant I was working in when I started this blog four years ago Continue reading

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Nor’wester and Upwelling off California

Catching up with the blogs today, I saw that Cliff Mass had written about a big windstorm that hit California on Monday. Unusually for big storms on the California coast, the winds in this one were from the northwest. Through a process called Ekman transport—a weird, nonintuitive one, caused, like so much else in physical oceanography, by the earth’s rotation—winds from the northwest push the surface of the ocean southwest, instead of southeast as you might imagine. As the surface layer slides slowly away from the California coast, cooler water from below rises up to replace it.

I decided to see what such a strong blow from the Northwest would to the ocean, and looked up data from a couple of buoys (the NDBC’s Station 46042, and MBARI’s M1) off Monterey Bay, my old stomping ground.

This graph shows winds (top plot) and water temperature (bottom) at the two buoys over the past few days (x-axis is the date in April). Sustained wind speed at M1 is the solid lines, and 46042, a bit further offshore, is the dotted lines. The triangles show maximum wind gusts at 46042. The blue dots show the wind direction, on the right axis of the first plot—0 degrees is due north, and the angle rotates around clockwise back to north at 360. Dark blue circles are M1, light blue squares are 46042.

Wind and upwelling

Beginning Sunday afternoon, the wind starts building steadily, topping out at more than 18 m/s (35 kts) Monday morning, Continue reading

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Via my friend (and former shipmate, aboard a houseboat on Portage Bay in Seattle) Emily, Tom Waits and Keith Richards join forces to just kill it on what may be my favorite sea chantey:

If you like the sound of that, there is a whole album coming out next month. From the Anti Records website:

Son of Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs & Chanteys, produced by Hal Willner, will be released February 19 on Anti-Records. Executive produced by Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski, the compilation two-disc recording of sea shanties features Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Iggy Pop, Nick Cave, Patti Smith, Sean Lennon and many more.

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