Why has this winter been so warm?

This question has come up a few times recently. Even here in L.A. we’ve noticed that the winter has seemed, well, not very wintry. (During the first week in January, temperatures here were reaching the high 80’s!) Friends in states with true winter seasons have commented on the lack of snow and mild temperatures. What’s going on?

Bill Patzert, a climatologist at JPL, explains some of the mechanisms in “What Happened to All The Snow?” He cites two factors: the La NiƱa effect, which results in drier weather for the U.S., and something called arctic oscillation. This oscillation is a changing relationship between atmospheric pressures in the Arctic and those further south in the mid-latitudes.

Right now we are in a “strong positive” phase (corresponding to the left side of the graphic), so storms tend to be driven further north and to miss the continental U.S. So Alaskans are still getting plenty of snow!

This difference is not just anecdotal; there are quantitative measurements that we can study. Below are plots of the Arctic Oscillation (AO) Index from last winter and this winter showing how it has gone from mostly negative in 2010 to mostly positive in 2011.

Winter 2010 Winter 2011

And here is a longer-term view of the AO Index from 1950 to 2002. It’s clear why this phenomenon is referred to as an “oscillation,” although the 90’s appear to have stayed positive for quite a while.

The practice of practicing

Learning a new physical skill is hard, and it takes time. Unlike acquiring a new concept, in which illumination can enter your brain in one dazzling flash, physical skills require time and repetition. There is a rule of thumb floating around that claims it takes ten thousand repetitions of some action to truly “learn” it. That’s a lot of repetitions, and can be a very daunting thought when faced with any particular skill-learning setting!

Ten thousand. Really? Let’s say I want to learn to produce a D major scale on my violin (which I do). Let’s further say that I dedicate myself to this goal by running through the scale ten times, every day. It will then take me *three years* to reach 10,000 repetitions. Somehow, I think the scale would have gotten as good as it’s going to get well before then.

But of course, the number of repetitions needed might well depend on the complexity of the particular task.

For now, in my violin studies, I prefer the approach advocated in The Secret of Practicing, Part 1. The idea here is that it’s not raw practice, but good practice, that helps you improve. Instead of executing something a fixed number of times (some or all of them poorly, since you haven’t mastered them yet), you aim to get five perfect repetitions. That might mean you actually practiced a lot more than that, but you got to the point where you could do five perfectly. This likely also requires breaking down the task (e.g., the sequence of notes) into a smaller and smaller unit until you can get five perfect repetitions. The other benefit is psychological: you get an immediate sense of where your current “ceiling” is, what you can do perfectly five times in a row, which should increase over time, rather than repeatedly throwing yourself at a big long complex piece and repeatedly failing. Maybe I can apply this strategy profitably with my swimming, too!

Part 2 of the series on practicing also recommends including overlaps between the chunks you’ve broken your piece into, which I think makes a lot of sense.

While the rest of this sequence on how to practice embarks on example pieces that are far outside of my playing ability, I’ve still enjoyed reading them to glean tips that may come in handy in the future. For example, I would have assumed that one would practice by playing the music as written, but these posts show how to break down the complexity of the music so you can work up to being able to play it. Great resource!

Swimming… slowly…

Today, I was back in the pool again, trying desperately to remember what I’d learned three years ago when I finally got a couple of lessons from a swim coach. The March 10 Pasadena Triathlon is looming, and now that I’m making some good progress with running and biking, I’ve got to get that third event nailed. It’s been a year since I last had any swim practice, so I was a little rusty.

I was working on being able to cross the 25-m pool with continuous swimming (and breathing, don’t forget the breathing). And it amazed me how tiring that alone was! By about 20 m my body wanted to stop (or was desperate for a proper breath). I found that I was having a lot of trouble getting air on my left side, so switched to breathing every two strokes, always on the right, to see if that worked better. It did. That doesn’t mean I should neglect my left side practice, but at least I was getting some air.

I found that initially with my unpracticed, inefficient “freestyle”, it took me about 40 seconds to cross the pool. For comparison, I tried crossing it while swimming on my back. That took almost the same amount of time, with HALF the exertion, and I could breathe freely. (The only drawback, of course, is the lack of visibility ahead, but I can live with that.) Now if this were generally true, it seems that the freestyle would be less popular. So I hypothesized that it must be possible to greatly improve my freestyle speed, otherwise everyone would be back-stroking. With renewed gusto, I kicked off and powered across the pool freestyle and made it in 30 seconds, which is certainly faster, but it totally wore me out. I stared back across the pool and thought, “How am I ever going to make it through 150 meters?”

For comparison, apparently the women’s freestyle speed record (for a 50-m swim) is 2.11 m/s (Britta Steffen). I’m managing something like 0.8 m/s over 25 m, so I have lots of room for improvement. Perhaps I can glean some tips from this brain-bedazzling analysis of the freestyle stroke. Or maybe these freestyle drills would be more immediately useful.

One heartening thought about the real race is that, even if I were to stop and take breaks at the end of its 50-m lengths, I now know it can’t possibly result in more than 5-6 minutes total of water torture. If I were actually able to maintain my above pace, I would complete the swim in 3 minutes. I very much doubt that will happen, but now at least I have some bounds on the expected duration. And I can always roll onto my back if the crawl is killing me! (Part of me wonders how embarrassing it would be to do the whole thing on my back. The rules say you can use “any stroke” you want, after all!)

An extra challenge, of course, is that during the triathlon there will be other swimmers in the pool with me. I will have to dodge kicks and flailing arms and not lose track of where I’m going. I doubt I’ll get the chance to practice that before race day, so I’ll just have to learn on the fly.

After half an hour of practice today, I was shot. Both of my triceps are sore, and some various back muscles are unusually vocal. I guess that means that I was doing something useful with them, but at the same time, it boggles the mind just how weak some muscles can be!

Going beyond open strings

Today was my second violin lesson. My, how the time flew! I was pleased that my practice on open strings had paid off, as I was able to demonstrate a much better and more consistent sound than last week.

We did a bunch of string-crossing exercises, which involve switching between the four strings without any messy intermediate noises or scritches from the bow. This requires decoupling the sweeping bowing motion from the angle at which you hold your arm, when intuitively your body wants to do it all together in one fluid movement. Therefore, you have to practice by bowing on one string, stopping, changing the arm angle, then bowing again, etc. It’s definitely baby steps, but I can already see that it’s the right path to increased control.

One of the most unexpectedly fun parts of this lesson was playing with another person. We played G-D-A-E-A-D-G which is about as boring as it gets, and it was still fun, making music together.

Right at the end of the lesson, my teacher (re-)introduced me to fingering. I now get to practice playing G-A, D-E, A-B, and E-F#. That is, going from an open string to a whole step up by dropping my index finger down at the magic spot on the fingerboard. This is all sorts of stressful. For some reason, mechanically executing bowing and arm position is fine, but when I now need the ability to not only hear the right pitch but be able to reproduce it, I freeze up. I think in my head the ability to hear and interpret pitch seems like this magical skill to see the invisible that some people have and some don’t. Intimidating! I’ll have to work on giving myself permission to be horribly out of tune and gradually work up to in-tune.

My teacher also noted that it’s important not to put the finger down and then roll it forward or back to correct the pitch (tempting), as instead the goal is to get to the point where it comes down, smack, at exactly the right point the first time.

She recommended these books:

And listening to my Suzuki method CDs will help with the ear sensitivity.

Word Magic

“Is That a Fish in Your Ear?” asks the title of a book I am currently reading. This book delves into the whats, whys, and hows of translation. Along the way, it raises fundamental questions about what we want, need, or can expect from a translation. I’m only in chapter 5 and already have encountered several thought-provoking ideas.

One such idea is that of “Word Magic.” This is the phenomenon that we tend to ascribe some sort of reality to something just because we have a word for it. Examples given in the book include “levitation,” “real existing socialism,” and “safe investment.” The dangerous aspect of word magic is that it can make us forget or ignore hidden assumptions and fail to notice when the world of words departs from the world of reality. This isn’t (just) about oxymorons, for dubbing a word as an oxymoron indicates an acknowledgment of its unreal nature (usually through self-contradiction). Word magic happens when we talk about something that need not be self-contradictory, but does not exist, while we don’t notice or don’t care about its unreality. What a powerful concept! (Which concept, by the way, originates from C. K. Ogden in his book The Meaning of Meaning, which I now would also like to investigate.)

I don’t think that having words to describe things that are not “real” is itself a problem. Much of science fiction (or speculative fiction) is founded upon describing worlds and things that do not exist in our current reality. Our power of imagination makes this kind of creativity both inevitable and something to admire and appreciate. It is only when word magic is employed to manipulate minds that it creates a problem. Now I’m trying to think of other word magic examples and having a hard time with it—perhaps exactly because it’s a phenomenon below usual conscious notice.

I am reminded of this quote by Dale Spender:

“Language is not neutral. It is not merely a vehicle which carries ideas. It is itself a shaper of ideas.”

But of course, I’m the one who’s avoided using my serrated bread knife to slice tomatoes for years, simply because it is a “bread knife.” Somehow I had it in my head that a paring knife was supposed to be the right tool. Wrong! It’s good to be alerted to these quirks, caused by the necessary reduction of an entire thing’s essence, purpose, and potential down to a mere word or two.

From the Fish book’s table of contents, I see that future chapters will also discuss machine translation, and perhaps the limits of what can be automated. I can’t wait to read more.

Older entries »