Man’s Search For the Future: Omens, Auguries, and Magic Eight Balls

For reasons only known to my subconscious, as I was strolling the other morning, I thought back to the grand conjunction last winter, and how so many people wondered “What does it mean?” What significance, other than being a really neat astronomical event, did it hold? Was it a good omen, a warning, a sign of something Great about to happen? Astronomers and some clergy got irked at all the to-do, because conjunctions like that are not as rare as they seem, and people were “losing the meaning” of the event, whatever that was supposed to mean (varied between astronomer and clerical denomination.)

Alas for the experts, mankind has been looking for hints about the future, or about decision making, ever since Og observed a shooting star and took it to mean something, back in the days of Neandertal vs. Cro-magnon. As a species, we don’t like uncertainty, so we look for clues and hints as to what might be coming. We count stripes on wooly-worms to determine the length of winter and how hard it will be. We make note of the weather the first 12 days of the year, to see how wet or dry the next 12 months will be. We make wishes on the first star, or on shooting stars. We use cards, or yarrow stalks, or fruit peels, or tea leaves, to try and see into the future or to guide decisions. We watch birds in flight, or animals on the move. As a species, we are superstitious, even those of us who are more inclined toward science than to “woo.” We avoid walking under ladders, or always dress in a certain order when we have a big test or presentation or something. And that’s in the “rational, post-Enlightenment” part of the world.

Reading birds is where we get the term auspix, or augury, and thus auspicious. The Romans looked at bird innerds, watched flocks of birds in flight, or observed feeding chickens to see what the future might hold. Some groups read the future in eggs, although exactly how varies from place to place and over time. Certain birds were considered ill omened, like a rooster crowing at the wrong time, and might signify a coming death, or misfortune. If one flew across your path, you would be well advised to turn around and at the very least try a different path. Better might be to go home and wait another day to depart, if possible.

Comets, novae, noctilucent clouds . . . all have been seen as ill or good omens. Haley’s Comet appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, and in Chinese records. Several diaries from just before the outbreak of the Thirty-Years War describe burning lights in the sky, noctilucent clouds and a comet. “Fire in the skies” or “war in the heavens” what did they mean? Looking back, everyone knew – terrible war, and hunger, and plague. In 1066, after the Normans won, of course the comet meant that Harold Godwinson had been an oath-breaker who usurped the throne, and William of Normandy was just and blessed for claiming what was rightfully his. No one asked the Saxons or Welsh their opinion, one suspects.

People look for signs in smaller things. The Rule of Three – three bad things in a row and then you’re OK for a while. If you button something out of order, undo it all, then redo it all, or you’ll have misfortune. “Sneeze on Monday, sneeze for danger, sneeze on Tuesday, sneeze for a stranger . . .” If a bird flies into a house, someone will die. Shapes in tea-leaves. Finding a penny, or a pin, and picking it up. Don’t walk under a ladder. Do make a wish on the first star, or on a shooting star (but don’t tell anyone your wish). Use something like a Ouija board, or Magic Eight Ball (“future uncertain”) to divine the future, or decide what to do. Horoscopes? Tarot? Rune tiles? We want to know what’s coming, for good or for ill.

But don’t step on a crack. You’ll break your mother’s back, you know.

Groundwater Users and the Future of the Ogallala

Short version – there are a lot of claims on the water under the plains, and a lot of ideas for what to do in the future. Some are more realistic than others.

Ted Turner – the Atlanta media and baseball team dude – talked about returning the High Plains (western area over the Ogallala Aquifer) to quasi-Ice Age status by seeding it with elephants, lions, and other African fauna sort of, kinda, like the Pleistocene megafauna. We will skip over the lack of ground water-fed springs and streams, the totally different precipitation patterns as compared to the last Ice Age, and a few other minor details. Let’s just say that his idea died the death it deserved. At least for now.

Another proposal, this from two professors at Rutgers, looked back to some of the New Deal programs and involved removing domestic livestock and crops from the region. Instead, a “Buffalo Commons” would allow bison to roam as they once had, and tourism and bison management would support the economy of the region, minus a lot of the current human residents. Again, the lack of surface water leaped to mind as a problem, along with the human tendency to dig in and hold when someone from Outside says, “I have a great idea. Let’s you leave and then we can . . .” There’s some value to some of the Poppers’ proposals, but also some big problems.

The Ogallala still has water. Some parts of the aquifer are getting thicker and gaining water. On average, among all the states on the Ogallala, 85% of the water taken out each year is used for irrigated agriculture. A good rule of thumb for an average year in southern Kansas, the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Texas is that one and a quarter acre-feet of water are needed per year per acre of water. An acre-foot is 326,000 gallons, more or less. This will cover one acre of land in one foot of water. The Oklahoma Panhandle, per the USDA (Ag department) has 230,000 acres of irrigated crop land. Those crops require, on average 290,000 a/f/y. Three-quarters of that is wheat and field corn, with another fifteen percent or so grain sorghum. In a wet year, irrigators use less. Dry year, more water, unless it is so bad that there’s no point in irrigating any longer. I’ve seen that. Even with super-efficient center-pivot systems, the blast-furnace wind evaporates the water before it touches the plants’ leaves, let alone the ground. You watch plants die before your eyes. Kiss lawns good-bye. Those years are rare, thanks be.

Flood-furrow irrigation uses the most water per acre in an average year, because it is less efficient.* It also requires a lot more attention by the farmer, and a lot fewer acres can be sloped the proper way for good flood-furrow watering. Water flows through pipes with holes in them, and flows out of the holes, down the furrows, and into a ditch or “tailwater” pit where it soaks into the ground. Each length of pipe runs for X time, and then the farmer turns off the water, moves the pipe by hand, and starts again. There’s a pretty high evaporative loss.

Center-pivot systems can be much more efficient if the newer technology is used. These are the giant sprinkler systems with nozzles that hang down below a central pipe on legs. The pipe rolls along, around and around a circle, and water sprays out. The ground doesn’t have to be as level. One farmer used 222 a/f/y on 245 acres in Kansas. When he switched to center pivot, that dropped to 155 a/f/y. You still lose water to evaporation, especially if it is windy or the nozzles are set too high in the air. A different Kanasas farmer switched from flood to sub-surface drip irrigation and went from between 10″ – 15″ of water per year to between three and a half and five inches per year. That’s a lot of water.

In some places, like western Kansas and parts of Texas, the depth to water has grown so deep that the cost of pumping it exceeds the value of the crops produced. Those acres are taken out of production for irrigated grain and turned into dry-land grain, or pasture. Yes, it uses far less water. You are also less likely to get a large grain crop, and the farms are larger, so fewer people live in the area. Small towns fade away along with the irrigated acreage. What is good for the individual is not always so good for the community.

However, irrigation tech and how people use the water are both far more efficient than they were twenty years ago. Better breeds of grain and other crops use less water, or are more salt tolerant, or both, so irrigation takes less water. Almost all the groundwater districts in all the states focus on best use for the water, and really encourage people to be as careful as possible. Ninety percent of farmers and ranchers are mindful of their water use, and try not to overdo it. Water is expensive! Fuel for pumps costs a lot, whether you use diesel or natural gas. Yes, there are people who don’t give a fig and pump as much as they can, devil take the hindmost. The water management districts have teeth (outside of Texas), and will take steps when legally possible to rein in the abuse.

Fifty years ago the Ogallala only had fifty years left at most. Today, well, it is still producing water. Water conservation is normal. Urban areas that depend on the aquifer try to encourage water conservation, although . . . It’s about as successful in some places as you’d fear. That’s one of my high-horses, so I will try to stay on the ground. Turf grass that’s not bred for your area, cities that demand lots of green and non-xeriscape plants around commercial properties, places that require close-clipped lawns (which use a lot more water in summer), swimming pools that are not covered when not in use, so evaporation goes on 24/7, all these things steal a lot more water than people think.

If people are careful, the aquifer still has a lot of life in it. If we are stupid, well, we can kiss the region’s economy bye-bye, and with it a bunch of food crops, and fiber as well.

*In some places, when done properly, flood-furrow is more efficient than center-pivot in terms of water use. A lot depends on the farmer, the humidity in the area, and what is being grown.


This paper goes into some detail about efficiencies.

This is a contrarian view, arguing that federal policies are killing the aquifer and doom awaits. It is possible, true.

Just basic info, from Oklahoma State University.

Groundwater Woes? Well, Where are You?

“The Ogallala Aquifer will be gone in fifty years!

“In twenty years!”

“The Ogallala recharges and has gained thickness over the past two years.”

Which of these is true? The answer is yes, depending on where you are, and what uses you are talking about. Because the Ogallala is very large, and exceedingly variable in thickness, surface-water access, and usage over the length and width of the formation. The climate shifts from north to south and east to west, adding further complications.

Original image from the USGS. Accessed at:

The Ogallala is a layer of sand and gravel that was deposited between two and six million years ago. Enormous rivers flowed off of the then-young Rocky Mountains, eroding the fast-rising peaks and dumping thick layers of sediment all over the plains to the east. this sediment remained loosely-packed and porous, even after it was covered in tens to hundreds of feet of soil and dust and sand. Because of water-resistant layers of stone underneath it, the Ogallala catches incoming surface water and acts as an aquifer. You can drill a well into it and bring up good, if somewhat mineral-laden, water that has been filtered by the sand and by time.

If you are up in the Nebraska Sandhills, on the northern end of the aquifer (the indigo-blue blob), rainfall and snowmelt sink into the formation, helping to recharge it. In some wet years, and some parts of the Sandhills, the aquifer will gain water and the water table rises to the surface. In dry years, when people have to pump a lot for their cattle and to irrigate fodder crops, the level drops.

Farther south, the thickness of the aquifer tapers off, and the climate is drier and warmer. Here, the use of the aquifer, especially since the invention of center-pivot irrigation in the 1950s, has dropped the level ten, fifty, hundreds of feet. Some counties in Kansas have reached a point where it is no longer cost effective to pump from the aquifer (depth to water of 600′ in a few places) and have reverted to pasture and to dryland crops. At the far tail end of the formation, near La Mesa, Texas, the aquifer was never thick to start with, and it hit close to bottom in the 1960s just from private and municipal wells.

Most of the area now has Groundwater Protection Districts that regulate consumption, either through voluntary mutual agreement, or force of law. It depends on the state, the state’s water-laws, and when the District came into being. Some Districts focus on keeping water in the ground for perpetuity, others are trying to slow draw-down so the water will run out no sooner than, oh, 2100 or so. Everyone agrees that conservation is needed, and is good, and that the more efficient use we can make of the water, the better off all of us on the aquifer are. It’s just how to do that, and what the best use of the water might be that we politely disagree over. OK, loudly disagree, with the occasional shoving match, especially when outsiders pop up and announce that they are going to drain the water and send it: downstate, out-of-the-state, or to The Big City. Nothing unifies people like a common enemy.

The main use for the water is farming. Watering crops, watering livestock, and processing livestock are major uses. A pork-packing plant was proposed for part of southwest Kansas back in the 1990s. It was denied permits because pork processing takes at least three times the water per carcass as does beef packing. Irrigation has come a long way in terms of efficiency, from the old flood-furrow system where farmers moved lengths of pipe by hand, poured water onto the soil and then moved the pipes again, to modern low-flow, low-height nozzle center-pivot systems, to in-ground drip irrigation with built in moisture meters that only release water when and where it is needed by the plants. The cost has risen with the complexity, but water use per acre has decreased markedly. The development of low-moisture hybrid wheats and other grains, plus some experimentation with arid-region grains such as teff, has further reduced the need for irrigation water per acre, at least in average to moist years.

People also drink the water, enjoy swimming in reservoirs, and complain about the flavor and what the mineral-rich water does to your teeth. (They are stronger, and slightly brown from the fluoride.) Lots of people, millions of people, who brush, and flush, and shower, and water lawns not designed for the climate, and wash cars, and build pools and . . .

Ahem. Sorry. The wandering soapbox jumped me. I have some personal beefs with open pools and blue-grass lawns in semi-arid places.

Since this is already getting long, on Friday I’ll continue and we’ll look at hard numbers, playa lakes and springs, and different thoughts about the future of the region.

(Edited to change date of part two. I wrote 5000+ words on Monday and my brain is numb.)

Patterns vs. Models

Humans are very good at seeing patterns. We even find patterns where they don’t really exist, thus reminders such as “Correlation is not causation” and “post hoc ergo propter hoc.” We also build mental and mathematical models. We create structures to help us organize and predict what the world will do. Some of these are very durable and have stood the test of time and experience. Others . . . don’t do as well. And a few are so far out there that a lot of people enjoy listening to them but don’t believe them. [I.e. “I’m not saying that it was necessarily aliens, but . . .”]

One thing historians, archaeologists, and other people who live in the past do is look for patterns. Sometimes literally, so that we can identify the culture that created [thing], or for hints of written communication. We study aerial photos and satellite images searching for traces of missing or long-gone dwellings, forts, fields, and roads. We read accounts of events and goings on, hunting for hints about the bigger picture. A lot of environmental history, especially once you get to the centuries before modern thermometers, barometers, and the like, is combing through diaries, tax reports, inventories of foodstuffs and fiber, and government or corporate forms, trying to suss out what was going on in the background that no one bothered to write about because everyone knew what was happening. Like Dagomar Degroot pouring over ships’ logs and harbor reports to determine what the weather was in and around the Dutch Republic in the 1600s-1700s.

Our patterns are based on the past. We track recorded events and happenstances and compare them to modern, or make note of how people responded to storms, floods, freezes, and droughts. As Degroot points out, emperical data don’t tell us about how storms affected people’s lives, and how people adapted. The Dutch developed a number of adaptations that allowed them to survive the Little Ice Age in much better shape than did other places, but they still suffered. (The Wars of Independence [80-Years War and Anglo-Dutch Wars, and Louis XIV’s wars] didn’t help.) We’re looking at weather and climate events that already happened.

Weather forecasting tries to sort out, based on physics, chemistry, geology, and past events, what will happen in the near future. Anyone who puts their faith in a long-term weather forecast to, oh, plan a hiking trip, or an outdoor wedding, needs to have a back-up plan, unless he lives in one of those places with certain climates. No one in Jerusalem, for example, will plan an outdoor-only event for December that requires warm weather and sun, because winter is the rainy season. Likewise people who live in the Rocky Mountains know that thunderstorms form around two in the afternoon. Minnesotans assume that February will be cold and March-April will have mud. But to foretell on January 18 what will transpire on March 7th? Not likely. Even a week or 10 days from today is . . . fraught. If you are in Texas, it will be warm, possibly dry or not, perhaps windy or not, maybe humid or not. How warm? Above 60 F is as far as I’m willing to go, and I won’t put money on that.

Climate forecasting? Relies on models. Models are mathematical constructs of a very simplified world, with certain variables that can be adjusted. Emphasis on constructs and simplified. There is no climate prediction model yet that can deal with all the variables. Carbon Dioxide changes? Humidity changes? Heat islands? Effects of wind turbines? The occasional random equatorial volcano coughing sulfur dioxide and ash into the atmosphere? All at once? Splat! That was the model collapsing. Most of the most common models used by the IPCC and others can’t even retrocast accurately – that is, you can’t feed in the data for a date and location in the past and get the actual weather or climate for that time and place.

Models are very useful, so long as the user observes the limits in the model. The local weather guys and gals, especially the ones with several years of local experience, temper the models with “I’m just not entirely sure about this because of X, but here’s the National Weather Service/National Severe Storm Center Forecast/ European Model prediction.” Those of us with a lot of on-the-ground knowledge and regional research are not surprised when the models are off, or gee, winter can be very cold and still, or summer can be very hot and still, or that Texas gets freezes as far as Corpus Christi.

I’ve read through the diaries and reports of ranch managers and farmers from this region, going back as far as they exist, along with US Army documents and Indian Bureau reports. There were months where [due to a high pressure dome] the wind didn’t blow and windmills didn’t work. Cowboys had to wind ropes around the shaft and ride away from the thing, repeating that over and over to get the pump to bring up water for the cattle. Or there would be spells of miserable heat in an otherwise cold year. Or a hard, cold and wet winter in a decade of heat and drought. Snowvid 21 wasn’t all that unusual, really. High pressure building in and baking the Southwest, or Texas, or the Great Plains, isn’t too rare in the long-term. Even during the Little Ice Age.

Patterns and models. I work with patterns. I’m good at seeing patterns. I try not to make predictions, unless they are based on long experience and human nature. (Teenagers are going to be emotional. Toddlers will melt down. Someone’s going to tap the electric fence, because it might not really be live.) Models, especially models that claim they can determine what is going to happen and why a hundred years from now, or ten years from now? I fold my money and put it back in my pocket, as the gamblers say.

When Boats go Boom

Technically, when their cargoes or environments go boom. If a ship spontaneously explodes, it generally has run into something explosive, or a long-standing problem (fuel vapor/fuel leak) reaches criticality.

A link to a comment at the Daily Timewaster Blog led to a “No sheep, there I was” story about an incident I vaguely remember from July 1990. The inspiration for the story is a GIF of tanker cars imploding because someone didn’t stop pumping at the proper moment (or possibly a rapid temperature change leading to creation of a vacuum.) The incident is the Arco Lyondell fire near Houston. Now, although it seems like the industrial side of Houston turns briefly bright and loud on a regular basis, that’s not really true. It just gets lots of media coverage when Pasadena or something on the Ship Channel decides to have an exothermic moment.

There are two other ship-based explosions in North America that came to mind when I read the account linked above. The first is the Halifax explosion in 1917, when an ammunition ship “Mont Blanc” and the relief ship “Imo” collided in the Narrows in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was the perfect location for the worst possible effects from the blast because of how the land channeled (pun intended) the force of the explosion. The city was leveled. When I was three and a bit, my folks and I went to the Maretimes and New England, and one of the few things I remember is a museum display of the stopped clock and the wreckage of the city.

With lots of family in the “oil bid’ness” back in the 1930s-70s, the Texas City disaster echoed slightly in family lore. Several of MomRed’s uncles worked on or around the cargo terminals and ship yards in Houston and Texas City, and when the “Grand Camp” blew up with a whole lot of fertilizer on board in April 1947, several of the uncles were close enough to feel the shockwave. MomRed heard the boom, although she didn’t know what it was until later. Eighteen hours later, an ammunition shop that had been ignited, the “High Flyer” also exploded. Since the first blast had killed a lot of firemen and destroyed the equipment, the second round finished everything the “Grand Camp” had left standing. Or so it seemed at the time.

There have been other explosions and fires in merchant marine history, and things like the Piper Alpha rig accident. But whenever I read about fires in ports, I always think back to Halifax and Texas City. Barges are amazing, and cargo freighters are magnificent ships. But when things go wrong, well . . . There’s a reason for the saying that “Safety Regulations are Written in Blood.” The real rules, the serious rules, the “break it and die” rules are there for a REASON.

Pushes and Pulls

Why do groups of people relocate, especially in pre-modern times? There’s always a reason for groups to move. Individuals might wander on a whim, be it wanderlust, the desire to escape relatives, or just to see if the grass really is greener “over there.” But when cultures and tribes up sticks and head out, there’s always a push and a pull. One of the things I’m starting to tease apart when I look at the big-picture history of Europe and Southwest Asia is the pushes and pulls behind population shifts. “The Huns were moving, so these other people moved.” OK, why did the Huns move? For a long time we didn’t know, because the written records didn’t include interviews with various historical characters or groups. However, in the past forty years or so, environmental history has provided a few new reasons for pushes, at least.

Keep in mind, weather and landscape are not deterministic. That is, very, very rarely can you point to one climatic event or geological thing and say, “This is why the Seljuk Turks left Central Asia” or “this is why the Anasazi left the area to become [various tribal groups].” Sometimes you have to pull together bits and pieces from archaeology, geology, palynology and tree ring and stalagmite studies, epigraphy, business records, government reports (if they exist), and look for patterns, then try to sort out what caused the pattern. And sometimes you bring a new approach to old data and say, “Hey, you know, I wonder if the reason for [thing] could be related to [other thing waaaaay the heck over here]?” You know, like the rash of very large range fires in the late 1800s in the Texas Panhandle being related to a combination of wetter weather and far fewer grazers keeping the lawn clipped. So there’s a lot more grass, in more places, so if it dries out and a spark gets tossed by something, well, you get Interstate Grass Fires of Unusual Size.

So, pushes and pulls. In the late AD 900s – early 1000s CE, while western Europe was basking in the Medieval Warm Period and starting to build giant cathedrals, hold enormous trade fairs, and enjoy the good weather, Egypt, eastern North Africa, and as far east as Afghanistan started with drought, then a series of cold years that led to famine, disease, civil unrest, attacks by nomadic peoples (Bedouin) on cities, and eventually the Seljuk Turks moving out of the Steppes into Southwest Asia. Their behavior triggered the Southern Crusades. This pattern also put pressure on the Byzantine Empire and explains the renewed push by the Arabs and Persians against the Byzantine borders, further weakening them.

The push for the Seljuks was the terrible cold weather that caused the grass to die, and their animals as well, forcing them to relocate. The pull was a political vacuum in Mesopotamia and warmer weather with better forage conditions. The Byzantines were not in a good position to chase anyone out of the region at that point, neither were the Fatimids of Egypt, so the Seljuks stayed, and eventually helped pull the Ottomans out of the Pontic Steppe, and we all know what happened then.*

Back up five hundred years or so, and we see something similar in Northern Europe. Why were the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Huns, Bulgars, Avars, Franks, and Vandals all moving west? Dry weather in the Eurasian Steppes was pushing them, possibly an outbreak of plague as well, and the resources and relative disorganization of the Roman Empire (both halves) provided a pull. Once the Western Empire could no longer defend against eastern pressure, the Germanic and Slavic people flowed in, driven now by cold and dry or cold and wet episodes farther east. After whatever happened in the early 500s (possibly huuuuuge volcanic eruption where the Sunda Strait now sits), the weather turned very bad in Europe, forcing further population shifts (the push) into milder or at least not-as-bad areas (the pull). Plague and hunger dropped the population in some areas, opening space for migration (Britain, possibly). Come the 800s, things are improving in the West, and too many young men in Scandinavia need a job, so they start trading and Viking. Drought in the eastern steppe pushes the Magyars, who push others, who appear in the western historical records as “barbarian nomads.” Charlemagne got to deal with them, and with the Saxons, and a few early Vikings.

North America shows something similar but in the 1300s. The Little Ice Age caused major drought in the American Southwest and affected weather in the central part of the continent as well. At the same time, the people of the Cahokia cultural complex found themselves having problems, partly because of deforestation. They shifted away from the large-centrally-managed culture and back to smaller, scattered groups, eventually moving south and east. This pushed other peoples, who pushed more people, and so on.

China in the 1600s – Bad weather, bad management, disease outbreaks, civil unrest from all of the above. Nomads moving because of the cold and harsher weather push on the borders, until someone invites a group in to solve the local problem and then leave. They didn’t leave. They became the Qing Dynasty.

Pushes and pulls. They are a lot more complicated than what I’ve sketched above, because I’m just thinking about some of the easy to spot episodes, the biiiiig ones that historians can point to and say, “See, this is what I’m talking about.” One of my very long-term projects is looking at the pushes and pulls in Central and Southeastern Europe, and comparing those patterns and responses to borderlands elsewhere. There are some similarities — we’re talking about humans, after all — and echoes, but also differences.

*”Prinz Eugen and Jan Sobieski, if you can hear this announcement please pick up the white courtesy phone for a message, Prinz Eugen and King Jan Sobieski . . . ”

Harmonics and Echoes

The choir finished out last note, holding it and fading away. But a different note continued, floating above us, at a perfect fifth above the altos. Large grins bloomed on the faces of those of us who realized what we’d done. We’d been so in tune, and so intense, that we’d raised a harmonic from the chancel that echoed back into the nave (where we were sitting). There’s a reason I prefer singing from the nave than from the chancel in this particular space!

A description of the setting is, perhaps, in order. We were singing in a stone, wood, and glass church. It is relatively new, rebuilt after a fire in a different building spread to the chapel. The shape is cruciform, with a relatively narrow nave, short and fat transept, and a very high and relatively open central area. The support beams are very heavy wood, bolted together, and somewhat open. The time was about eight thirty PM, and the weather was a steady rain that muffled some of the street noises from outside. The space tends to echo, although not for as long as you’d think – only two or three seconds. In comparison, the church where I sing most of the time, when we take out the pew pads, has a two second echo, and it is all wood and plaster, auditorium style. (With the pew pads it’s almost dead, unless you know just where to stand, and your voice happens to hit the room’s sweet spot. You can guess how I discovered this.)

Harmonics are not always desirable, in the sense that there are times when you don’t want to add notes to whatever you are working on. The technical term is a harmonic overtone, and you can get them at least two ways. One is what happens, usually in styles like Barbershop Quartet singing, where the vocal parts interact so that the waves from the upper part of the four notes are heard as a fifth note. Another way is when the choir, or soloist, finds a note or combination of notes that resonates with the structure around them, creating an overtone. This is usually either an octave or a fifth, at least based on my personal encounters with them. I grew up hearing it called “a harmonic,” although the proper term is overtone. It does not happen often, because everything has to be exactly right, clear, precise, and the sound waves from the different parts must interact in just the proper way. I only hear it with acapella music, but that might be because I sing so much acapella music.

The human voice does not produce a truly pure tone, not even boy sopranos and altos. What we do is produce a fundamental tone with partial tones around it. The fundamental is the “note” you want to sing (or play, for instruments) and the partials are sort of a fuzz above and below. Sort of like vibrato, but on a much less obvious scale (pun intended). How those partials interact leads in part to audible overtones.

This is not “overtone singing” like throat singing. It isn’t something the singer does physically, but how the acoustics interlock and respond.

For those who are curious, we got one on “O Vos Omnes” (Pablo Casals) and one on “Ave Maria” (Franz Biebl).

From Star Shots to GPS: The more things change . . .

I knew about “shooting the stars” and how to use an astrolabe before GPS became a civilian tool. When I first learned about GPS, I thought, “You know, this seems like I should know this already.” Well, I sort of did. Except now there’s a magic box to run the numbers for me and tell my how far from where-I-want-to-be I actually am.

That hasn’t changed. SIGH. Geographic embarrassment is something I knew a wee bit too well. “I’m not lost, someone moved my landmarks.” Or loused up the winds-aloft forecast, and moved the radio beacon, and . . . Ahem, where was I?

When you are on land, it is relatively easy to use a map, find landmarks, and say, “OK, I can see that mountain there. It is on a 290 degree heading from me.” Then you look at the map, and check for mountains. Anyone who has driven toward Colorado Springs, CO from the east knows that Pikes Peak stand out, and makes a good landmark. If you know the height of the top of the peak, you can then calculate your distance. Even if you don’t know the heading, other than “that way,” you can figure distance if you have a way to measure the angle between you and the top of the mountain. On the map, use a compass set to that distance and draw an arc. You are on that arc. It’s not hard when you have lots of landmarks and are moving slowly. The middle of the ocean, or in mid-air over an ocean is a bit trickier. Or in mid-air over land with a solid undercast and no reliable radio beacons . . . Now you need a watch, astrolabe, skill, and tables of numbers.

To boil down a lot of history and calculations and stuff, astral navigation (also called celestial navigation) means triangulating your position based on at least two, ideally three or four, things in the sky. You measure the angle between you and, say, Venus, the bottom tip of the waxing moon, and the star Vega. As you do that, you also note the time, using a very precise watch (chronometer), probably set to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT, or Zulu time). With the angles in hand, and the time, you then look at tables and a map. You calculate the angle and time, thus distance, just like you did with the top of Pikes Peak. Three swings of the compass on the map and you have where you were when you took the star-shot. If you are on a ship, you are probably still pretty close, given the speeds most surface ships travel. In a plane? Eh, a bit harder, depending on how fast you are moving.

The point is, you use three or more (or one or two, but the more the merrier) things in the sky to triangulate your location. This has worked for hundreds of years, and still works. It works when batteries fail, or there are not sufficient satellites in “view” for the magic box to calculate time-to-signal and give you your location.

GPS uses the same idea, except that the box has a computer to run the calculations, based on signals from satellites. Two, three, or more broadcast signals. The box in your plane gets those, runs the numbers based on time differences, and hey presto, You Are Here. Unless someone it messing with the signals, or your box has a glitch, or the power goes out, or there are not enough satellites to keep the box happy. All of which have happened to me at least once.

Everything old is new again. GPS takes celestial navigation, speeds it up, and reduces the user’s work load. Until it doesn’t. Then you revert to MAP, or stars, moon, and sun.

Guy Murchie’s book, Song of the Sky, gives a detailed description of celestial navigation as done by airliners in the 1930s-70s. Among other things.

For more information, mostly sailing based:

Looking at Texas’ Bones

A few weeks ago I went to Muenster. Not Germany, since that would entail . . . Heck, I’m not sure what the requirements are at the moment, past two-weeks quarantine at a hotel at the Frankfurt airport at my expense, and then? No, Muenster, Texas, a Catholic German enclave east of Wichita Falls. It’s a part of the state I had not seen much of, and I stared out the vehicle windows, watching the landscape. Continue reading

Flashy River!

You know you’re not from a “normal” part of the world when you glance over the side of the bridge and exclaim, “Wow! There’s water in the river.” And boy was there ever! A week ago Saturday, a line of thunderstorms dropped lots and lots of hail and rain on the headwaters of several branches of the Red River. When I crossed the river down near Esteline around noon on the next day, so much water had flowed downstream that the river filled the banks and had large waves on it. Those people passing through from out of state to the east probably wondered if someone was reenacting the Plagues of Egypt. The river really did run red, as if with blood. (Thus the name.) High, wide, muddy, and dangerous, the water raced downhill, headed for the Gulf of Mexico. Continue reading