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Patterns In The Sand

Mother Nature may be the world’s greatest mathematician.

Bonni Kealy saw that firsthand in how tiger bush will grow in patterns found throughout other parts of nature, like the spots on a cat.

Tiger Bush in Sierra de la Gessa, Spain. Creative Commons Flickr photo courtesy of Jorge Franganillo,

“Math isn’t just about equations,” Kealy said. “It’s beautiful and natural. You see it around you every day.”

Indeed, mathematicians often tease out the numerical underpinnings of seemingly random phenomena, discerning patterns in everything from the coats of felines to algae-filled water, Kealy said. In effect, two dissimilar things are interacting in predictable ways, and a mathematician can describe how.

Kealy, 29, and her advisor David Wollkind started to create a new modeling equation for the spread of tiger bush, a plant unique to arid and semi-arid areas, by mining the past, Kealy said.

They used existing pattern formulas as a foundation for their work, but the earlier models worked only on sloped land. Kealy and Wollkind’s model works on flat land, a more common habitat for tiger bush. It focuses on how water spreads over the soil surface and interacts with plants as vegetation expires.

Kealy and Wollkind refined their formula and presented it at the Joint Mathematics Meetings earlier this year in Boston. They received so many invitations to speak at the conference that they had to turn down a few opportunities.

“The work has kind of taken on a life of its own and grown,” Kealy said. “The Joint Mathematics Meetings is kind of the Big Kahuna of math research, so we are getting some recognition.”

The work also has practical implications beyond the simple beauty of math. The equation has joined an ongoing discussion on stopping desertification, the expansion of desert landscapes.

“The big picture is to help understand this vegetation in arid climates and prevent any further desertification,” she said. “That and to show that when math works, it’s really cool.”

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development, one-fourth of the earth is already desertified. An additional 12 million hectares are lost each year to soil degradation. This equates to losses of $42 billion in income from agriculture and other lost infrastructure.

Kealy thinks her and Wollkind’s equation can help, but she still sees room for improvement. She hopes to adjust the equation for new variables, like how water moves below the soil surface.

“This whole thing seems a little surreal,” Kealy said. “You can’t beat the chance to see your own math in action.”


Wind from East, Snowy Weather from the West

The crack weather observers employed by WSU Discovery noticed an odd phenomenon this morning: a biting wind blowing from the east outside our Pullman field station, while forecasters say our first snow of the year could come out of the west.

Flickr image of windblown Palouse snow from Kamiak Butte courtesy of Roger Lynn--

It did not make sense that weather would move into the wind. Seeking clarification, we first went to the National Weather Service’s forecast discussion, a consistent source of wonky weather detail. No luck.

So we tapped Gerrit Hoogenboom, the relatively new director of Washington State University’s Agricultural Weather Network, AgWeatherNet. He passed our query to Nic Loyd, AgWeatherNet meteorologist. Here’s his ‘splanation, with a bonus comment on today’s forecast:

Yes, there is a storm system and a trough of low pressure approaching from the west today. However, winds are out of the east and southeast in many places such as Pullman this morning. Often in Washington during the late fall and winter, as low pressure approaches the coast from the west, the winds have an easterly component since wind at the surface often blows toward lower surface pressure.  Also, in eastern Washington during the late fall and winter, the surface land is cooler than the air near the warmer offshore water, especially in the morning, and so cold, heavy air moves toward the warmer, lighter, rising air to the west. Behind the cold front, the winds often switch to westerly or southwesterly.

Another way to look at it is that during November when the atmosphere is often stable with a weaker sun, winds behave differently at different heights, and surface winds do not always mix with winds higher in the atmosphere, especially at night. Therefore, winds aloft will be out of the southwest today, but winds were out of the southeast and east this morning in the lowest levels of the atmosphere only.

By the way, it does look as if the weather pattern will be cooler during the day through at least the weekend, but little if any snow is expected in the eastern Washington lowlands. There is not a lot of moisture with tonight’s weather system, however, the mountains should receive a few inches of snow.


Growing Wall Street Protests Could Affect Policies, Elections

The anti-Wall Street protests spreading around the country have caught the eye of T.V. Reed, a professor of American Studies at Washington State University and author of The Art of Protest: Culture and Activism From the Civil Rights Movement to the Streets of Seattle. At the request of the WSU Discovery blog editor, he has filed this post:

The Occupy Wall Street movement is growing very rapidly. It is now in more than 70 cities across the US. Whether it will continue to grow depends, I think, on three things.

First is whether the mainstream media will grow tired of the protests, as they tend to do over time. The parallel right-wing movement of the so-called Tea Party was helped immensely by advocacy coverage from Fox News.

Wall Street protest picture courtesy of Flickr and

A second issue is whether the movement can spread to unions. Conservative media have claimed that labor unions are behind the protests. That is not true. But it could become true given that unions have been so much under attack in the past few months by Republican politicians. Unions are one of the few significant forces that have organizing networks and a liberal-progressive constituency. The Occupy Wall Street movement at present is dominated by students and other youth. Historically, the combination of students and union members has led to very powerful movements. That combination nearly brought down the government of France in 1968, and it was at the heart of the success of the 1999 Battle of Seattle protests for greater justice in globalization processes.

A third factor is whether the movement can hone its message. Movements typically begin with very broad, amorphous agendas. But they grow when they can focus on certain clear objectives. In this case, I think the overall objective is to counter the rightward drift of US politics in general and President Obama in particular over the last couple of years. The current message—that the government is only working for the wealthiest 1 percent of the population, and what about the rest of us, the 99 percent?—will need to be translated into more specific demands.

In the end, the movement could affect tax policies and the upcoming presidential campaign while acting as a check on the Tea Party.

The Tea Party was started by right-wing politicians like Dick Armey, but with help from Fox News grew into a real movement that has emboldened Republicans to move further to the right in policy. The Occupy Wall Street movement has the potential to reverse this movement, pushing the president and Democratic politicians back toward their liberal-progressive base. The policies most immediately impacted will probably be efforts to return tax levels for the wealthiest Americans to the pre-Bush era level and to support the President’s new jobs bill. But the wider impact is likely to be on the presidential campaign.

President Obama is by nature a centrist who leans to the left. But he has governed lately as a centrist who leans to the right. As he enters campaign mode, he has already shown signs of moving back toward the center-left, and this movement is likely to further his move in that direction.

But social movements historically go beyond mere legislative change. They empower ordinary citizens to take on the bigger picture. And in this case the bigger picture has been the steadily widening income gap in the US in which a few continue to become fabulously wealthy while the rest have stagnated or lost ground. As Warren Buffett, the billionaire and advocate of taxing the rich, recently pointed out in response to conservative claims that Democrats want “class warfare”: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

He meant this latter point figuratively, but in fact people are dying in the US due to things like inadequate medical care and nutrition, and millions of ordinary Americans understand this. How many are ready to join this particular protest of these conditions remains to be seen.



As a Nation Mourns, A Stats Buff Looks on in Wonder

It’s the worst of times to be in the Red Sox Nation and among the best of times for those who relish baseball’s marriage of probability, improbability and dazzling statistical detail.

One week after the premiere of Moneyball, a movie in which baseball stats play an improbable starring role, the Boston Red Sox concluded a late-season swan dive with a similarly improbable last-minute loss to the Baltimore Orioles.

It has Craig Parks’ gears spinning. Of course you’re thinking, hmm, as a WSU psychologist, he must be wondering what went through the Sox players’ minds as they choked so spectacularly. But no, as a fan of both statistical analysis and baseball, he sees several numbers wonders, including those in the race for the National League batting title and another batting title of a century ago.

His thoughts:

The Red Sox are the first team ever to blow a nine-game lead in September but the Braves came close—they were up 8.5 games on the Cardinals when September started.

An even cooler stat thing that almost happened: With two games left to play, the difference between the #1 and #2 batting averages in the NL was .00006. New York Met Jose Reyes broke away from Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun over the last two games and won the batting title outright, but there was serious discussion about what to do if they had maintained that degree of closeness.

Technically one guy would have had a higher average, but it was unclear whether Major League Baseball wanted to go to that degree of fineness to determine the batting champ.  Or whether it was even legitimate to do so, as that difference is pretty much uninterpretable.  Maybe they would have declared a tie, but the situation has never come up in baseball history, so there’s no precedent to appeal to.

Which calls to mind the 1910 batting title.

Statistics do not treat the 1910 batting title of Ty Cobb kindly.

With two games left in the season, Ty Cobb is hitting .385, Nap Lajoie is hitting .377.  League-wide, everyone hates Cobb, including many of his Tigers teammates, and loves Lajoie.  Cobb sits out the last two games, but Lajoie plays his final two, a doubleheader against the Browns (now Orioles).  Browns catcher-manager Jack O’Connor positions his third baseman back on the outfield grass every time Lajoie comes to bat, which means if Lajoie lays down a bunt, there’s no way the third baseman can get to it in time.  Lajoie reaches base eight times across the two games—five times on bunts—though the last bunt is scored as an error, so he officially goes seven for eight.  This raises his average to .384.  So he misses the batting title, but just barely.  Cobb wins it.  (By the way, the O’Connor manager was fired afterwards.)

Cut to 1981.  A baseball researcher discovers that, in 1910, a box score for the Tigers was counted twice in the official calculation of Cobb’s average.  Cobb had gone two for three in that game.  Subtract out that phantom game, and his average falls to .383.  Now Lajoie is the batting champ.

But, if we’re going to start adjusting hit totals, you can argue that Lajoie’s last two games should be thrown out, since it was clear the Browns were giving hits to Lajoie.  In fact, there is some evidence the Browns tried to bribe the official scorer to change that last at-bat from an error to a hit.  Do that, and Lajoie’s average resets to .377, and Cobb is clearly the batting champ.  Also, the 1910 American League president reviewed and certified Cobb’s average, so some people question whether it’s appropriate to retroactively change it, despite the apparent error.  Others wonder whether there would be this much scrutiny if the player in question was someone other than Cobb, who was indeed a nasty, vicious man.