Category Archives: Humor

Amusing Monday: Science is music when data becomes sound

Nearly everyone who deals in scientific information learns to read simple charts and graphs to help visualize the data. As a reporter, I’m often looking for the right graph to bring greater meaning to a story. In a similar way, some people have been experimenting with rendering data into sound, and some of the more musically inclined folks have been creating songs with notes and musical scales.

As with graphs, one must understand the conceptual framework before the meaning becomes clear. On the other hand, anyone can simply enjoy the music — or at least be amused that the notes themselves are somehow transformed from observations of the real world.

The first video on this page, titled “Bloom,” contains a “song” derived from microorganisms found in the English Channel. The melody depicts the relative abundance of eight different types of organisms found in the water as conditions change over time. Peter Larsen, a biologist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, explains how he created the composition to Steve Curwood, host of the radio program “Living on Earth.”

      1. Living on Earth

Larsen, who calls this endeavor “microbial bebob” for its jazzy style, created four compositions using the same dataset in different ways. All four can be found attached to a news release written by Jared Sagoff at Argonne National Laboratory. For more detail on the project itself, go to Larsen’s report published in the scientific journal Plos One.

A more classical style of music was created by Nik Sawe (pronounced saw-vay), who was a graduate student at California’s Stanford University at the time. Sawe used data collected from the yellow cedar forests of Alaska’s Alexander Archipelago by another Stanford doctoral candidate, Lauren Oakes, who was studying climate change. (Her research report was published by Ecosphere.) Click on the red arrow below to listen.

Each musical note depicts a single tree. Dead trees are depicted by a dropped note. The species of tree determines which musical instrument will play the note. Yellow cedars are played by a piano. The pitch conveys the size of the tree, and the loudness conveys the age, as described in an article by Brian Kahn of Climate Central.

The song describes how rising temperatures and declining snowpack are killing off yellow cedars, a culturally significant tree for at least 9,000 years. The song begins with trees in the north, near Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, and progresses to areas more impacted by climate change to the south, ending near Slocum Arm, as described in a story by Brad Rassler in Outside magazine. Piano notes dominate the early part of the composition, but those notes become more sparse toward the end, where the flute (western hemlock) begins to dominate.

“Throughout the piece, Sawe wanted to highlight the relationship between the native yellow cedar and invasive western hemlock,” Rassier writes. “He braided the sounds of the two species, both to amplify their voices and to highlight the fall of one and the rise of the other.

“Just as the keyboard and strings in Mozart’s ‘Sonata for Piano and Violin in E minor’ play off of one another to create a musicality greater than the sum of their parts, this musical death dance between the two becomes, in its own way, the sound of climate change.”

Another example of transforming data into sound uses the same dataset in the following piece:

Sawe is a pioneer in environmental neuroeconomics, the study of how the environment influences people’s spending decisions. Such decisions can involve donating to environmental causes, including efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change. Sawe’s studies suggest that humans tend to protect and restore the environment when they are confronted with stimuli that elicit either good feelings or moral outrage. For more on his work, I recommend his Tedx Talk, shown in the second video on this page.

Since environmental decisions are largely based on emotion, Sawe is exploring how logic can affect feelings and vice versa. As part of his work, he is trying to figure out how sonification — turning data into sound — can bridge the divide between the right and left sides of the brain.

My final example of sonification involves data produced by the solar wind and turned into a sophisticated musical composition by a formally trained musician, Robert Alexander of the University of Michigan.

Jason Gilbert, a research fellow in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the UM, obtained the raw data from a satellite called the Advanced Composition Explorer.

“In this sonification, we can actually hear in the data when the temperature goes up or when the density increases,” said Gilbert, quoted in a UM news release.

Since this blog post is about sound, I’m glad that I can share this audio about the solar sonification project, as discussed by “Living on Earth.”

      2. Living on Earth

For those of us who enjoy this music and want to connect to the data, the greatest challenge is to understand what is depicted by the specific combination of notes. The burden falls to the scientist and/or musician putting together the sonification. And just as graphs must be carefully labeled, the listener must be given a proper road map.

“It’s just like if you were to open up the Astrophysical Journal to any random page, show it to someone on the street, and ask if they could learn anything from a random visual diagram,” Alexander said in an article in Earthzine magazine. “If they don’t understand what’s being represented, if they don’t understand what the colors mean, if they don’t understand the axes, they can’t extract any of the information presented there.”

It is one thing for the music to explain something to others, but hearing the data also can open new doors of insight.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s easy enough to explain what you’re hearing,” Alexander added, “but that small fraction of the time where you hear something and it hasn’t been documented before, that’s really exciting.”

Amusing Monday: New steelhead license plate enhanced by inspiration

plate

Washington Department of Licensing has embraced a stylistic work of art in its new steelhead license plate, which became available for purchase last week.

The new license plate, which focuses on the eye and head of a steelhead trout, is an obvious departure from previous wildlife license plates that feature realistic images of animals. Derek DeYoung, the artist who created the new plate, specializes in what he calls abstract paintings of fish faces and flanks, as well as whole fish. The original steelhead painting is called “Abstract Steelhead — Horizon Eye.”

Derek, based in Livingston, Mont., is a rare combination of expressive artist and skilled angler.

“When hiking up a small mountain stream, I’m not just chasing trout, I’m searching for a magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to that next level,” Derek says on his website, DeYoung Studio.

“For me, the most inspiration comes once I’ve landed a particularly beautiful fish. I hold it up, tilting the fish back and forth in the sunlight, allowing all the subtle colors and patterns to come alive. After setting the fish back into the water and releasing it into the depths, the only thing left to do is get back to my studio to bring that fish to life on my canvas.”

The importance of a fish’s eye, as Derek sees it, is depicted in the first video shown on this page. The second video shows his work on an entire canvas. Check out his gallery for some amazing renditions of all varieties of game fish.

The new license plate is being sold to raise funds to benefit Washington’s iconic steelhead, listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. Money will be used for fisheries management, hatchery operations, monitoring and habitat restoration.

More than 4,000 people expressed interest in buying a steelhead license plate before the Legislature approved the concept last year, said Kelly Cunningham of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We can’t wait to see steelhead license plates on vehicles across this state,” Kelly said in a news release. “This is a great way to help fund efforts to conserve steelhead in Washington.”

Derek DeYoung and one other artist were selected as finalists and both offered their work at no cost. Derek’s was chosen after “camera testing,” Kelly told me.

“Internally, we did not have any specific criteria,” she said. “We wanted something unique. Our goal was to have the ‘best’ fish plate in the country.”

The price of wildlife-themed license plates, including orcas and eagles, range from $54 to $72 (depending on the vehicle) plus the regular license plate fees. For purchase information, go to the webpage for the Washington Department of Licensing.

orca

It seems fitting that Washington’s official state fish finally gets its own license plate, along with a design that makes it stand out from the others. Maybe something a little more artistic could also be done for the orca, the state’s official marine mammal. All the wildlife license plates can be seen on the WDFW website.

I guess I should point out that such high-level acclaim has yet to reach the state’s official bird, the willow goldfinch; the state’s official endemic mammal, the Olympic marmot; the state’s official amphibian, the Pacific chorus frog; the state’s official insect, the green darner dragonfly; or the state’s official oyster, the Olympia oyster.

As for me, I’d like to see one or our native oysters emblazoned upon my license plate.

One thing I learned about license plates is that the first ones issued in Washington state were as customized as you will ever see. In 1905, the Legislature created the Division of Motor Vehicles, which issued license plate numbers for $2 each. Vehicle owners were required to make their own plates out of wood, metal or leather. If they preferred, they could just stencil the number on the front and rear of their vehicle.

The first personalized license plates were approved by voters in 1973, followed by a variety of specialized plates through the years — including those providing special access for people who can’t get along well on foot.

first

The first illustration used to promote the steelhead license plate was a realistic-looking fish shown in silvery colors from head to tail. That rendition was more easily identified as a steelhead than Derek’s fish-head-focused piece. I thought a straightforward steelhead would be more acceptable to people, but I have heard no complaints so far. People seem to appreciate Derek’s deeper expression, which is something that has grown on me over time.

As Derek explains on his website:

“My work has veered off from the traditional fish illustration style. I place more importance on using a unique style and palette rather than painting a fish to look photo realistic.

“The reason I’ve chosen fish as the subject of my life’s work is I find fish to be intriguing, not just as a fisherman, but as an artist. When painting a fish, I try to capture all the intricacies they possess: their scales, patterns, dimension and texture.

“When chest deep in a river, I’m not just chasing a fish, I’m searching for the magical experience or vision that will inspire me and raise my paintings to a higher level.”

Steelhead fishermen seem to experience a passion unmatched by most other anglers, so it’s nice to know that someone who embraces that passion will have his artwork traveling on vehicles throughout Washington state and beyond.

Amusing Monday: Baring for the cold in annual New Year celebration

The Polar Bear Plunge in Olalla is an age-old tradition of jumping into the cold waters of Puget Sound on New Year’s Day. Olalla in South Kitsap is just one of many places throughout the region and across the globe where swimmers dare to reinvigorate themselves by washing away the year 2016 and welcoming a new year.

Colin Eisenhut wears a polar bear mask while taking the Polar Bear Plunge in Olalla. Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun
Colin Eisenhut wears a polar bear mask while taking the Polar Bear Plunge in Olalla yesterday.
Photo: Meegan M. Reid, Kitsap Sun

Swimmers — including Colin Eisenhut, who jumped from the Olalla bridge wearing a polar bear mask — were cold enough and quite amusing yesterday, but I was able to locate some videos that might just make you shiver to watch them. For the Olalla event, photographer Meegan Reid posted 35 very nice photos on the Kitsap Sun website.

I wasn’t aware that snow swimming was such a sport until my wife Sue pointed me toward an amusing video that showed up on her Facebook page. After searching the term “snow swimming,” I sorted through dozens of videos to come up with a few I hope you enjoy.

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Amusing Monday: Looking forward to some new conservation films

“Dream” is a clever animated video promoting the annual Wildlife Conservation Film Festival in New York City. The festival is more than films, with workshops on wildlife topics and a goal to connect average people with filmmakers, conservationists, researchers and media outlets.

One of my personal goals for the coming year is to see more of the wonderful films being produced about conservation concerns, environmental issues and wildlife preservation.

Among the films being released next year are “A Plastic Ocean,” a feature-length documentary that explores the problem of plastic pollution in 20 locations around the world, including the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the North Pacific Gyre, 1,500 miles off the West Coast. The film also discusses practical and technological approaches to solving the plastic problem.

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Amusing Monday: Snowmen could become victims of climate change

In the video “Save Our Snowmen,” frozen creatures are migrating to cooler regions of the Earth on a mission that could affect their very survival. This amusing video instills an unusual sympathy for snowmen while raising a legitimate concern about climate change in a humorous way.

Various locations, such as Puget Sound, are likely to see some species displaced while others find a new niche as the climate undergoes a continuing change. Mass migration is less likely than population shifts due to predator-prey and disease pressures. I’ve covered some outstanding reports on this topic from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group. See Water Ways, Dec. 1, 2015.

The video also draws attention to the producer of this video, Cool Effect, which was founded by Dee and Richard Lawrence on the idea that small actions can mushroom and result in significant declines in greenhouse gases. The group’s motto: “Changing the world, one small step at a time.”

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Amusing Monday: Giant crab has amazing grip, but species is at risk

Coconut crabs are giant land-based crustaceans that can grow to 3 feet wide, claw-to-claw. The crabs, frightening to some, inhabit islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

These crabs, which grow larger than any other land-based arthropod, are known for their uncanny strength. They get their name from an ability to break through coconut husks with their powerful claws. They can also break a lot of other things, as revealed in a variety of amusing videos, some of which I’ve posted on this page.

Coconut crabs became a topic of discussion among scientists last month when a group of Japanese researchers reported that they had measured the strength in the legs and claws of coconut crabs. They found that these crabs could lift four times their weight, and their pinching power was greater than that of any other kind of crab, even greater than the jaw strength of terrestrial predators. The report was published in the online journal Plos One.

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Amusing Monday: Expanding the dictionary with help from friends

If you don’t know what something is called, you can make up a word for it — or perhaps a word to describe it. I guess that’s nothing new; every word in the dictionary must have come from someone.

I was amused recently when I heard an episode of “Says You” on public radio featuring a segment on made-up words. “Says You” is a game show that enlists a panel of well-read folks who try to explain the meaning of obscure words in the English language.

What surprised me was when the game went off on a tangent with the panel trying to guess the meaning of words taken from the Addictionary, which is sort of an alternative dictionary for made-up words not found in a regular dictionary.

So how does a game-show contestant define a word he or she has never heard before, a word that does not even exist? Thankfully, the made-up words used in the game were amalgams of recognizable words, so it was fun to hear the panelists struggle to find the definition of these new “words.” They were deemed correct only if their definitions matched those of the people who made up the words.

One that I recall was “bozone,” defined as “the substance surrounding stupid people that stops bright ideas from penetrating” — as in “bozone layer.” The panel had fun discussing how the word might relate to clowns.

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Amusing Monday: Winter outings are antidotes for the gloom

The gloomy feeling of rainy weather, as experienced by looking out from the inside of your house, can be defeated with a trip to the mountains, where all kinds of winter fun await.

Longmire at Mount Rainier, looking east from Administration Building.
Webcam: Longmire at Mount Rainier, looking southwest from the Administration Building.

Downhill skiing and snowboarding are popular activities at Washington’s ski resorts. Cross-country skiing and snowshoeing are less-vigorous options, as are sledding and inner-tubing. One of many useful websites is “Pacific Northwest Winter Sports.”

If these activities don’t sound like great fun, you can plan a drive that takes you into wonderful snow conditions and provides an opportunity to build a snowman or enjoy a snowball fight. Lodges and visitor centers offer a retreat from the cold. You might make friends with others who love the winter weather.

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Amusing Monday: A fanciful exploration of rain, tides and life

“Have you ever experienced water falling from the sky? … And how would you describe that experience?”

These questions are thrown out to people in the first episode of “The Adventures of Tracy & Felt,” in which a young woman and an octopus explore the wonders of rain. In the second episode, they explore the wonders of tides.

These videos make for an amusing approach to science education, and it was nice to learn that this project is based in Puget Sound with origins on Whidbey Island. The videos were shown at this year’s Celluloid Bainbridge Film Festival.

The producer of the series, Elizabeth Schiffler, describes the development of this video series and the strange relationship between a human and an octopus with ongoing references to alien life forms:

“The Adventures of Tracy & Felt was born out of a desire to work with talented young Washington filmmakers, writers, and artists to ground work in the location we love and learn from,” she wrote. “Developed on Whidbey Island, we challenged ourselves to create a story full of laughs (mostly our own) and exploring the magical and not-too-distant world of science and nature.”

Unlike other simple videos engaged in the explanation of science, these stories do not take a straight line to describing natural phenomena. Instead, Tracy and Felt take a roundabout path, engaging in questions that most people take for granted, such as the experience of rain. How about this question from the second video: “Have you noticed how the ocean has been crawling up and down the beach the past few days?”

Thanks to John F. Williams of Still Hope Productions for letting me know about these videos.

Amusing Monday: To the far end of Earth for love

Dripping with symbolism, a trip to Iceland by ice skater Jennifer Don and her boyfriend Matt Truebe created an opportunity for a most unusual marriage proposal. Check out the first video for this romantic underwater encounter.

Matt’s business trips often take him to Europe and other countries, keeping the couple apart, according to Jennifer. So before a trip to Amsterdam, Jennifer secretly planned a stop-over visit to Iceland’s Lake Thingvellir. The lake lies on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which separates the Eurasian tectonic plate from the North American plates.

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