sun, 13-mar-2011, 16:47

Swamplandia! and Tallys

Swamplandia! and Tallys

I just finished Swamplandia!, the first novel by one of The New Yorker’s 20 under 40 list (the author, Karen Russell was born in, gaak!, 1981) about a family of alligator wrestlers in the Thousand Islands region of Florida. Despite that description, it’s a lot less Geek Love, and a lot more non-traditional Bildungsroman. I enjoyed the book, particularly how convincingly the environments of the characters were drawn. The details, sights, sounds and smells of the Florida swamps and jungles, and the unpleasant realities of a low-income job at an amusement park (or really anywhere else):

…the hours contracted or accordioned outward depending on several variables that Kiwi had catalogued: difficulty of task, boredom of task, degree to which task humiliates me personally.

The main character is the girl Ava, who narrates her half of the story in the first person, but I found I enjoyed Kiwi and his struggles on the mainland more. Once the story got going (which for me, was when all the characters had left Swamplandia!) I ripped through it in a couple days.

I hadn’t realized how much southern Florida had been destroyed by a variety of ill-advised Army Core of Engineers projects and non-native species introductions. This book, and Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country (which I read in 2009) really makes you appreciate what the place must have been like before humans got around to messing around with it.

tags: books  review  Swamplandia! 
sat, 12-mar-2011, 14:59

Skippy Dies

Recently read bookshelf

I probably should have mentioned this sooner, but my favorite literary event is going on right now: The Morning News Tournament of Books. It’s a tournament-style “competition” where pairs of books from the previous year are stacked against each other, and a literary judge decides between them. It’s always entertaining reading, both in what the judges have to say about each of the books they review and ultimately decide between, and in the commentary at the bottom. Last year’s winner was Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, a book I read last year and highly recommend.

My favorite in this year’s competition is Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. Alas, it met it’s match yesterday: Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. I’m hoping Skippy shows up again in the “Zombie Round,” where losers that may have been unfairly judged get another opportunity to get back into the contest.

Reading what the judge had to say, and the comments, it’s clear that Egan’s book certainly deserved to win as much as Murray’s. Here’s one such comment from John Warner (Anthony Doerr was the judge):

Her books are just very alive down to the sentence level, inventive and surprising, even when you’re braced against them as with the PowerPoint story, which I also approach with a sneer, but was won over by, kind of like my attitude towards Katy Perry, and Jennifer Egan managed to do it without shooting fireworks out of her breasts. (As far as I know.)

But Warner has this to say about Skippy Dies:

Skippy Dies is one of those multi-character, many-threaded novels that manages to hold everything together all the way through to the end. For me, it was the best book of the year, superior to Freedom … The dialogue among the students is the funniest and sharpest I’ve read in years. My investment with the characters is deep and lasting. The title is no spoiler, since the titular character is killed off in the first paragraph. (It’s like Gallagher smashing the watermelons first.) As we go back in time and get to know Skippy and his friends, the heart breaks a little as his inevitable death approaches. Reading it, I got the feeling that Paul Murray put everything he had in the book. No withholding whatsoever.

As it turns out, my favorite book of last year, The Instructions wasn’t in the contest. So I’m still rooting for Skippy Dies.

tags: books  Skippy Dies 
sat, 12-mar-2011, 13:44

Piper and Nika on the trail

Today is the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to take both Nika and Piper out on the trails. For me, this is a turning point in a very long, stressful illness that Piper is still recovering from.

A couple months ago Piper got what we can only assume was an abscess inside her chest cavity. The result was that her chest filled with fluid and made breathing very difficult for her. The original diagnosis, made before she started having any real symptoms, was cancer, and we were preparing for the worst. Thankfully, Andrea didn’t give up on her, and several fantastic veterinarians in town didn’t either.

She spent some time in a hyperbaric chamber to get her oxygen levels up, and she had the fluids drained from her chest several times. Eventually, she had surgery to insert a pair of tubes into her chest, and we spent the next two weeks flushing her with fluids, every six hours. There’s a photo of the setup below. The procedure was to hook the saline bag to the input port on one side of her chest and put in 250 ml of fluid. Then we’d switch sides, and open the drain port on the side that had just been filled. Repeat until a liter has gone in and come back out again. The whole procedure took more than an hour, four times a day. At the same time, she was getting pain medication and antibiotics.

Flush setup

Flushing Piper’s chest, February 2011

In the beginning, even after we had a good diagnosis, she was so sick that I don’t think anyone had much hope that she could be saved. She was too weak to stand without help and had a head tilt that seemed to indicate she’d gone septic. But as soon as we got some of the fluid out and the antibiotics started working on the infection inside her she improved dramatically.

Throughout all of it, Piper was fantastic. She went up on the couch to get treatment, went into her kennel at night, and handled all the trips to the vet without complaint or struggle.

She still has to take antibiotics for at least six months to make sure the infection really is gone, and it’s been a cold couple months because her chest was shaved prior to the surgery, but it’s all worth it. Seeing her running around on the trails today with Nika was a pleasure, and I think she enjoyed it too.

tags: house  Nika  Piper  trails  walk 
sat, 05-mar-2011, 17:08

Nika, overflow

Nika, Goldstream Creek

The last couple days have seen a lot of overflow on Goldstream Creek, causing it to rise more than two feet. The water moved fast enough and it's been cold enough at night that it froze into a pretty good surface for ice skating. Many years ago we lived in a cabin at the edge of a pond near the railroad tracks and we bought ice skates so we skate on the pond. Turns out the number of days where the pond is frozen and not completely covered by snow is virtually zero, so we rarely got a chance to use them. But here, it seems that at least once or twice a year the overflow on the Creek or the DNR pond east of us will run over the snow and freeze into reasonably smooth ice.

I attempted to shoot a video while ice skating on the Creek today. It's not the greatest video, but it does give you some idea of what it looks like. After it freezes and before the overflow starts later in the winter, I spend a lot of time walking Nika and Piper down here. During breakup, the water rises to just below the bottom of the bridge, and then recedes to between four and five feet lower than where I'm skating by the middle of summer. The bridge I duck under is where I do my river stage measurements for the National Weather Service.

tue, 01-mar-2011, 18:47

Sunset, Miller Hill

Sunset, Miller Hill

People always ask if we’re the coldest spot in town. I can’t really answer that, but I can find out if we’re the coldest reporting weather station in the region.

Once again, we’ll use PostgreSQL window functions to investigate. The following query finds the station in zone 222 (the National Weather Service region that includes Fairbanks) reporting the coldest temperature every hour during the winter, counts up all the stations that “won,” and then ranks them. The outermost query gets the total number of hourly winners and uses this to calculate the percentage of hours that each station was the coldest reporting station.

Check it out:

SELECT station, count,
    round(count / sum(count) OVER (
        ROWS BETWEEN UNBOUNDED PRECEDING AND UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING
    ) * 100, 1) AS percent
FROM (
    SELECT station, count(*) AS count
    FROM (
        SELECT station, dt_local, temp_f,
            rank() OVER (
                PARTITION BY dt_local ORDER BY temp_f
            )
        FROM (
            SELECT location || ' (' || station_id || ')' AS station,
                date_trunc('HOUR', dt_local) AS dt_local, temp_f
            FROM observations
                INNER JOIN stations USING (station_id)
            WHERE zone_id = 222
                AND dt_local between '2010-10-01' and '2011-03-31'
        ) AS foo
    ) AS bar WHERE bar.rank = 1 GROUP BY station ORDER BY count desc
) AS foobar;

And the results:

                station                 | count | percent
----------------------------------------+-------+---------
 Goldstream Creek (DW1454)              |  2156 |    51.0
 Chena Hot Springs (CNRA2)              |   484 |    11.5
 Eielson Air Force Base (PAEI)          |   463 |    11.0
 Parks Highway, MP 325.4 (NHPA2)        |   282 |     6.7
 Small Arms Range (SRGA2)               |   173 |     4.1
 Ballaine Road (AS115)                  |   153 |     3.6
 Fairbanks Airport (PAFA)               |   125 |     3.0
 Fort Wainwright (PAFB)                 |   107 |     2.5
 Ester Dome (FBSA2)                     |   103 |     2.4
 Eagle Ridge Road (C6333)               |    81 |     1.9
 Keystone Ridge (C5281)                 |    33 |     0.8
 Skyflight Ave (D6992)                  |    21 |     0.5
 14 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road (AP823) |    21 |     0.5
 College Observatory (FAOA2)            |    11 |     0.3
 Geophysical Institute (CRC)            |    10 |     0.2
 DGGS College Road (C6400)              |     1 |     0.0

Answer: Yep. We’re the coldest.

Update: Thinking about this a little bit more, the above analysis is biased against stations that don't report every hour. Another way to look at this is to calculate the hourly average temperature, subtract this from the data for each station during that hour, and then average those results for the whole winter. The query is made more complex because several stations report temperatures more than once an hour. If we simply averaged all these observations together with the stations that only reported once, these stations would bias the resulting hourly average. So we average each station's hourly data, then use that to calculate the zone average for the hour. Here's the query, and the results:

SELECT station, 
    round(avg(diff), 1) AS avg_diff 
FROM (
    SELECT station,
        dt_local, 
        temp_f - avg(temp_f) 
            OVER (
                PARTITION BY dt_local 
                ROWS BETWEEN UNBOUNDED PRECEDING AND UNBOUNDED FOLLOWING
            ) AS diff 
    FROM (
        SELECT location || ' (' || station_id || ')' AS station, 
            date_trunc('HOUR', dt_local) AS dt_local, 
            avg(temp_f) AS temp_f 
        FROM observations 
            INNER JOIN stations USING (station_id) 
        WHERE zone_id = 222 AND 
            dt_local between '2010-10-01' and '2011-03-31' 
        GROUP BY station, date_trunc('HOUR', dt_local)
    ) AS foo
) AS bar 
GROUP BY station 
ORDER BY avg_diff;
                station                 | avg_diff
----------------------------------------+----------
 Goldstream Creek (DW1454)              |     -6.8
 Eielson Air Force Base (PAEI)          |     -3.8
 Fort Wainwright (PAFB)                 |     -3.1
 Fairbanks Airport (PAFA)               |     -2.9
 Small Arms Range (SRGA2)               |     -2.8
 Chena Hot Springs (CNRA2)              |     -2.3
 DGGS College Road (C6400)              |     -0.7
 Ballaine Road (AS115)                  |     -0.6
 College Observatory (FAOA2)            |      1.0
 North Bias Drive (RSQA2)               |      1.3
 14 Mile Chena Hot Springs Road (AP823) |      3.1
 Skyflight Ave (D6992)                  |      3.3
 Geophysical Institute (CRC)            |      3.5
 Eagle Ridge Road (C6333)               |      3.8
 Parks Highway, MP 325.4 (NHPA2)        |      4.5
 Keystone Ridge (C5281)                 |      5.1
 Ester Dome (FBSA2)                     |      5.1
 Birch Hill Recreation Area (BHS)       |      6.8

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