Monday, February 28, 2011

Florida Keys Snorkeling and Watersports

I had a great preview of summer last weekend in the Florida Keys. Muchas gracias are owed to my buddy Raphael, who snagged a great cabin for a group of us at Bahia Honda State Park.

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The cabin was on the edge of an old, flooded quarry, which was a uniquely interesting place for snorkeling and watersports. Muchas gracias are also owed to my friends Brandon and Lisa, who drove me down there and brought along all their watertoys for everyone to use. Brandon is the guy to whom I sold my Kona longboard when I left Florida. We sailed it with a 9.8 sail and managed to get planing in the gusts.

Bahia Honda February 2011 from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Later in the day (when I was tired of filming) I got the notion to try to circumnavigate the island on the windsurf. It took me 1 hour and 17 minutes if anyone wants to challenge. The trickiest part was going under the short, low bridge on the East side of the key, where I had to get off the board and wade in deep mud. A smarter circumnavigator would have made that part of the passage with the wind and the tide and saved the wind- and current-opposed bridge crossing for the bigger bridge on the West side of the key.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Luke's Lapses

I work with a guy named Luke Miller who is another blogging science nerd like me. Dr. Miller is really good at setting up control and monitoring systems, both for scientific purposes like creating laboratory aquariums that realistically simulate the natural environment, and for random things like building a barbecue grill that monitors a roast's internal temperature, adjusts itself accordingly, and posts to its own twitter account when the food is ready. Something Luke did recently that I thought was especially cool was make a time-lapse movie of the progression from summer to winter in his backyard in Nahant, Massachusetts...

I think the time lapse thing is beautiful, in a melancholy sort of way. Luke also has a shorter but higher-resolution time lapse video of snow accumulation during a storm, which is posted on the same blog page where I got his season video.

I'm not sure if I have the right technology and skills, but I might want to try to set up a time-lapse video in my own Lynn, MA neighborhood. Perhaps I could focus on this dirty snow mound in front of the liquor store.


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Windsurf Turtle Rescue; Weather and Range Limits

I came across a story today about a Texas windsurfer who heroically rescued a green sea turtle (Chelonias mydas). The turtle was one of many in the area that had been stunned by a recent cold snap that affected water temperatures in the Laguna Madre.

Adult green sea turtles are herbivores that mainly eat seagrass.

Green turtles are happiest in water warmer than about 20 Celsius (68 Fahrenheit), but they can tolerate somewhat colder water, at least for a while. If it gets as cold as 8 Celsius (46 Fahrenheit), however, they can barely swim, and they will die if it doesn't warm up. Usually the turtles flee if it starts getting too cold where they are, but in a shallow bay, like Texas' Laguna Madre, the water temperature may drop faster than the turtles can find their way out to warmer open water.

Although animals being killed by extreme hot or cold weather is a normal part of nature; one of the mechanisms that sets the geographic range boundaries of particular species, it's sad when it affects critters like the green turtle, whose populations are struggling to recover from human impacts like overhunting, loss of nesting habitat, and plastic ocean trash. So I don't think it's "unfair" for people to intervene by assisting such endangered species when they're caught off guard by something like a cold snap. In fact, it's awesome.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

I Love Haidt

A while back I posted about a cool concept called "The Moral Equalizer", which was articulated by a University of Virginia psychology professor named Jonathan Haidt, and which had the potential to reconcile the perennial misunderstandings between liberals and conservatives. More recently I saw an ad for a book by Haidt called "The Happiness Hypothesis". I bought it without hesitation and was not disappointed. Well, not unless you count the depressing irony that the day after I finished it my girlfriend called to break up with me. Shucks. Anyway...

Haidt gathers together the most influential bits of life advice from ancient philosophy and religious texts, and discusses them in light of what modern biology, psychology, and sociology can contribute to our understanding. His book is full of juicily useful nuggets of wisdom and insight, including a final chapter about the meaning of life that actually gives a fairly satisfying answer. (No, it's not "42".) Here I'm going to mention a couple parts of the book that were memorable for me.

The Elephant and the Rider Analogy- In Haidt's first chapter, "The Divided Self", he talks about how both philosophers and scientists have realized that the mind is partitioned into very different compartments. The conscious, rational part is a relatively new addition in our evolutionary history, and it is tiny compared to the older, emotional, instinctive, subconscious parts of the mind. Hence the analogy, with a small rider who has only limited, indirect control over the large elephant.

David Attenborough shows how it's done...

The Equation- Haidt has a formula for understanding happiness: H = S + C + V. H stands for happiness. S is for "set point", your innate level of happiness, which has a strong genetic component. People born with a high set point tend to be happy by nature (Haidt says they're winners of the "genetic lottery"), while people born with a low set point tend towards depression and have to work harder to be happy. Cognitive therapy and drugs like Prozac are good equalizers for people born with low set points. C stands for the conditions of your life, like your friends, family, loves, work, where you live, whether you're rich or poor, etc. V is for voluntary activities, which include meditation, hobbies, spiritual strivings, creative outlets, etc. The C and V parts of the equation are complicated and open to interpretation.

Passionate vs. Companionate Love- Apparently psychology has confirmed what smug old-timers have always said, which is that passionate love booms quickly but fades to a modest level after a few months or years. "Companionate" love, on the other hand, starts slow but can potentially grow stronger as time goes on.

This same figure is in the book.

Buddhism vs. Western Materialism- Eastern philosophies say happiness is all about letting go of your worldly desires and accepting things as they are. The Western credo is pretty much the opposite; strive for your goals and seize what you desire. Haidt says the Eastern way is powerful but incomplete, because there are some worldly things, like un-stressful living conditions and good relationships, that ease the path to happiness and are therefore worth working towards.

Pleasures versus Gratifications- Pleasures are things like food, sex, comfortable sofas, television, backrubs, waterslides, etc. Getting them makes you happy, but your standards adjust to the amount you're getting, so you end up having similar happiness whether you're getting a little or a lot. Of course, the wearing-off of pleasures is minimized when the pleasures are varied and spaced out a bit, so something like a small-portioned, multi-course meal is better for happiness than a large bag of Cheetos, which will be exciting at first but mundane, if not disgusting, by the end. Gratifications are "activities that engage you fully, draw on your strengths, and allow you to lose self-consciousness". For example, windsurfing is a gratification if you're a windsurfer, making music is a gratification if you're a musician, cataloging insect collections is a gratification if you're an entomologist, etc. Compared to pleasures, gratifications lead to longer lasting improvements in happiness, so it's good to find and develop the things that are your gratifications.

The Dimension of Divinity- Even though Haidt isn't religious, he says that it's important to be able to connect to a higher level above your usual self and your mundane social world. Different religions and cultures have different ways of connecting to the sacred and holy, but it's always about developing the feeling of "elevation" to something greater.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Winter Sports Weekend

Yo. This weekend some grad students and people I work with at the Northeastern University Marine Science Center rented a cabin for a "winter retreat" type of thing. It was in a little Western Massachusetts town called Becket. The owner was a charming, Swiss gentleman who said his family had built a series of vacation homes in the most fabulous parts of the world, and had given them all names ending in "_treff", which apparently means "Gathering Place". This one was "Waldtreff", the Gathering Place in the Woods.

I brought my GoPro camera and filmed some snowboarding. Later Dan Blumstein filmed some sledding. The sledding was at night so you might notice a "Blair Witch Project" feel to that segment of the video. BTW, the soundtrack for the snowboarding part is "Rain When I Die" by Alice and Chains, since there was freezing rain at the mountain that would form sheets of ice on one's clothing, etc.

Snowboarding and Sledding, Feb 2011 from James Douglass on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

A Semi-Constructive Gripe About Lynn, MA

The famous Serenity Prayer says, "God grant me the the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". I'm not sure where "complaining about things on the internet" fits in with all that. Maybe it doesn't. My ranting blog posts certainly do violate the "serenity" part, but if these self-published opinions can make a tiny change in the universe, then maybe they're OK. Either way, they're enjoyable to write.

Anyway, I've got some ranting to do today, and it's about Lynn, Massachusetts, the "city of sin", my current residence. Before I get started on the negatives, let me get the positives out of the way. #1- There are plenty of good hearted people here, just like anywhere, and some of them appear to be actively involved in improving the culture and infrastructure of the community. #2- Geographically and historically the place is pretty cool. Lynn is right on a scenic, rocky coastline and has some nice hills and a few little parks and lakes. It is about as old and historic as its more famous neighbors Boston and Salem. Nevertheless, it remains my opinion that Lynn has serious challenges to overcome before it can become a generally desirable place to live.

Challenge #1- Layout and transportation. Lynn is laid out like an ancient city from before the invention of the wheel. That is, its streets are narrow and cattywompus like the spiderweb of cracks in a windshield that has been hit by a baseball. This would be OK if Lynn was small enough that you could get in and out of it by walking, or nice enough to be a place you'd want to walk around, but it is questionable on both counts. There are no convenient "arterial" roads (even the yellow roads on the map below are mostly one lane each direction) and it takes forever to drive the seemingly close 10 miles to Boston or 4 miles to the freeway. It's worse during rush hour or when the roads are further narrowed by snow piles. There's OK public transportation, but you have to take the bus to get to the outermost Boston subway stop, and the overall trip will take you a good hour.

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Because of the high population density, old buildings, and narrow streets, parking in Lynn is a nightmare. During a so-called "snow emergency" you can't park on the street even with a parking sticker, and if you aren't one of the lucky few to have your own driveway or a deeded spot in your apartment's small lot, you'll have to park way far away at a school or public garage. Tonight I had to pay $4 for the privilege of parking half a mile from my apartment and walking back in the middle of the blizzard of the decade. If only I hadn't spoiled my laissez-faire next-door parking arrangement this morning by saying "Good Morning!" to a man I met in the parking lot who turned out to be the grouchy landlord of the building next door, who when he found out where I lived told me I couldn't park there any more and he didn't know or care where I could or should park. Phooey. Well, it's just as well since the next-door parking lot is basically just a trash dumping-ground and weed garden, anyway. Sigh.

For contrast, check out the layout of this other city, my hometown of Olympia, Washington, which has about the same population as Lynn. Note the nice grid aligned with the cardinal directions, and the convenient, straight thoroughfares leading to the nearby freeway.

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Challenge #2- Being in limbo. Lynn is too far from the cool parts of Boston to be a place that someone seeking the hip Boston urban experience would want to live. Yet it's not separate enough from the Boston urban blob to be a cute city in its own right like Nahant, Salem or Marblehead. It ends up just being a big, inconvenient, low-rent, blue-collar, outgrowth of Boston with all the disadvantages of urban living but few of the perks. Because the area is low-rent and blue-collar, there also appears to be a lot of crime and gang stuff going on. I haven't had any serious problems so far besides my loud, violent neighbor (who I can clearly hear at this very moment crashing around and yelling, "F*ck you motherf*cker! Hit me again, I'm gonna f*cking kill you, n*gger!"), the trash in the parking lot, the overturned shopping carts on the curb, some bad attitudes here and there, etc., but the local papers are always full of sketchy stuff that makes me nervous when I'm walking back from the bus stop with my bags from the airport or something.

Shopping cart in a snowbank, far from any supermarket.

Challenge #3- I sense that there are some political, economic, and demographic problems facing Lynn beyond the basic stuff that I talked about, but I don't really know enough to weigh in on all that.

Upshot- I think Lynn is going to show some signs of improvement in the next decade or so, but it has a long way to go. For now the most positive thing I could say to someone thinking about living here is, "the price is right".

PS- On a totally unrelated note, I just signed up to do a spring break board test for windsurfing magazine the first week of April in Avon, North Carolina. You know I'll be videographing and blogging up a storm about that... at least as much as I can without giving away the magazine's proprietary secrets. Woo hoo!