Jul 28, 2009

Flu proof?

My grandma, who was born in 1910, told me how she, her sister and her father all lay sick - so weak they were often unconscious - for two weeks with the Spanish flu in 1918. Grandma's mother didn't get sick at all. Not even so much as a sniffle.

The Norwegian newspapers announced yesterday that they no longer believe the current swine flu (H1N1 influenza A) can be contained. The message is that there's no way to avoid it in this country any more; it's being spread from Norwegian to Norwegian here at home. Keep washing your hands, avoid sneezing or coughing without a hankie and throw the hankie away immediately is still good advice, though. But I wonder: Should I resign myself to this fate, this virus? Or: Should I assume that great-grandma's genes are still alive and kicking in me? She was a tough Irishwoman - real tough.

I'm choosing to believe the latter. And maybe there's also a bit of the luck of the Irish, too.

Jul 20, 2009


It has bugged me for quite some time that I couldn't remember where I was when Neil Armstrong first set foot on the moon exactly 40 years ago today. I knew I was in Norway, on Grandpa's family farm in Mundal (in Lindås, not the Mundal in Sogn that former vice-president Mondale came from) and that they had a TV. I can still see my granduncle's living room and the TV in the corner.

So where was I?

I'd forgotten something, but a Norwegian radio commentator reminded me today: With the time difference it was actually a few minutes past midnight on July 21 in Norway when man first walked landed on the moon. And at that time of night, an eight year old is in bed. Asleep.

But I remember all the grown-ups talking about it the next day. They had stayed up and watched.

I wish humanity could get behind something as equally awesome as going to the moon. All the can-do spirit, all the sharing of hopes and dreams, all the willingness to accept risk. Millions of individuals with a shared vision! I am grateful I was a youngster in the 60's, surrounded by adults who'd rather be thrilled by outer space than discuss wars and nukes around a child. What a good energy!

I am still thrilled by our landing on the moon. I just wish we could do it - or something similar - again.

Jul 6, 2009


They were tucked behind a little notepad, in the tiny envelope they were handed to me in by the attorney handling my grandma's estate. Nearly exactly four years after her death, I finally got around to handing them over to whoever had taken over her apartment.

I hadn't been by there in all this time. I realized that in four years, some habits have faded and I had to actually think for a moment where my most effective route was. I was fine until I caught sight of her balcony - the only one in her building that was glassed in. A familiar tightness arrived in my chest.

I couldn't remember if her downstairs call button was the second one up from the bottom. I couldn't remember which mailbox was hers, though I suspected it was the third from the left, but the names on the mailboxes did not help.

I went up the one flight of stairs, so familiar and yet oddly unfamiliar, to the door that had not changed. But it had no name, so there was no help there. I decided to ring the bell. I could hear children inside. A tall blonde woman of about 30, with a bit of a gap between her front teeth, answered the door. Without preamble (but typically me), I asked if she had changed the locks since she'd moved in. She hadn't. I handed her the little envelope and explained that they were an extra set of keys. The place had belonged to my grandparents, I said. Here are the extra keys. She seemed happy to get them.

I was happy to finally get them delivered, and left the building feeling light-hearted. I thought Grandma would be pleased to know a family had taken over the old place; she loved children. And then the old feeling of irrevocable loss came back, the grief swelled again, and I hardly noticed where I was walking. I wished I hadn't felt that all over again.

Losing a loved one leaves a wound with a scab that can be picked off years later, repeatedly. It is what it is. I know I'm not the only who can feel such hurt years later. Still, I'm glad the keys are now where they belong.

Jul 4, 2009

Where my weather forecast really comes from

Here I was, thinking that the data the Norwegian meteorological institute (NMI) uses to forecast the weather for the 70,000 places it brags about forecasting via the website yr.no was collected by charming geezers in wayward places, who empty little cups marked in tenths of millimeters to say how much rain has fallen and observe the wind sock next to the chicken coop to say which way and how hard the wind is blowing. But it's not cups and wind socks. It's more like fishing nets.

I got curious about the weather, that is, the weather forecasting, after reading in today's local paper that areas that rely on cabin rentals as a source of income are complaining about yr.no's forecasts. The complaint is that the forecasts are so pessimistic that tourists cancel their cabin stays. Rain or cool weather is often forecasted by yr.no but the reality is sunshine or milder temperatures. Yr.no had an explanation: They don't actually measure the weather in all areas on their list of 70,000, but make a sort of average based on the grid points surrounding the area. The grid points are set up by the numerical weather prediction model HIRLAM (High Resolution Limited Area Model). HIRLAM is based on a consortium of the meteorological bureaus of nine European countries, including Norway's. Here is a sample of various data at the grid points for Sweden.

The Norwegian meteorological institute explains HIRLAM like this (my translation based on their page in Norwegian): Imagine casting a fishing net where the size of a mesh hole is 10 square kilometers. Where the threads of adjacent holes meet is a grid point. At each grid point, barometric pressure, humidity, wind and temperature are measured over time. There are layers and layers of these "fishnets", going up as high as 50 km in the atmosphere, and there are two mesh sizes: approximately 10 km (0.1 degree of horizontal separation) and approximately 50 km (0.5 degree of horizontal separation). Met.no says:

Because the atmosphere follows the laws of physics, we can calculate how changes in each grid point will influence surrounding grid points. It is an enormous math problem. To solve it, we need a computer - a super-computer as powerful as possible.

Predictions can be a bit off for weather systems that are less than 10 km wide (like a local thunderstorm), or for areas on the map that fall between grid points. The weather bureau interpolates the data in such cases.

But yr.no had another problem, which wasn't with the accuracy of its predictions, but how they were presented. yr.no has now realized that people ignored the text forecast, and focused on the symbols. Showing a rain cloud in the graphics for a minimum of rain was throwing (and putting) people off. Yr.no changed an algorithm in their computer program so minimal rain will now still show a sun or cloud with sun. That'll bring back the cabin renters.

In spite of ever-increasing computer power and ever-increasing amounts of data, weather can still not be predicted beyond ten days ahead and no prediction beyond five days can be considered reliable. The reason for that is the inherent chaos of atmospheric behavior. That butterfly effect, you know. Fishnets can't catch butterflies.