Veblen!

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Got a good chuckle this morning from this comic. I did my undergrad thesis on conspicuous consumption in landscapes and lawns and based it on Thorstein Veblen’s 1899 book, Theory of the Leisure Class.


The Atlantic has a great photo gallery of Space Shuttle pictures including several unusual pictures such the Star Trek cast in front of Enterprise and Enterprise on the never used launch pad in California. Link.

The Las Vegas National Weather Service office posted this today (this is a weather record that I don’t think I have ever heard of!):

.. All-time record dew point depression set at Las Vegas today…

At 432 PM PDT today the dew point depression at McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas reached 129 degrees. The dew point depression is defined as the difference between the air temperature and the dew point temperature. In the case of today the air temperature was 107 degrees at 432 PM and the dew point temperature was -22 degrees. This made for a relative humidity of 1 percent at the time. The previous all-time record dew point depression for Las Vegas was 120 degrees set on July 2nd 2007.

The above information is preliminary and is subject to a final review before being certified by the National climatic data center.

I couldn’t find how this compares with other dry spots or what the world record is for dew point depression. However, a very good explanation on dew points and relative humidity (and why anyone saying it it was 90° with 90% humidity is most likely lying unless they just came back from Eritrea or the Middle East) can be found here.

Interestingly, the most humid it ever was in Las Vegas was a dew point of 73° set on 7/2/2007 and 7/8/1999. Link.

Wait a second. Hmm. The most humid and driest day. On the same day. That must be an error as it is unlikely the driest and wettest days in Las Vegas history were the same day. Let’s look at Weatherspark’s history for Las Vegas (a very cool weather visualization site where you can compare history, currently conditions, forecasts, and averages graphically).

Yep, looks like that was a very dry day. It didn’t have a dew point of 73°. It was well below zero that day. Here is the graph for the really humid day — 7/8/1999. That’s better. Horribly humid with a thunderstorm and rain. But correct.

I never thought I’d see an error on the Internet. I’ll notify the authorities.

There is some rare good news in the field of endangered species. The Las Vegas Valley leopard frog, which some believe the only US amphibian to have gone extinct, is not extinct.

This frog always intrigued me. As a native Las Vegan, it would be have exciting to find a frog living in the desert named after my home town. However, this species was last seen in 1942. Groundwater pumping dried up up the springs in which it occurred. I always wondered if it lingered on somewhere but never had the expertise or the energy to go look for it. The old creek that flowed from the long dry springs had long been capped, channelized, and tunneled under the downtown area. The tunnels were intriguing but scary (read this book on the homeless living in the storm drains of Vegas (link
“>link)).

Could the frog have survived in the Las Vegas Wash, Corn Creek, or the ponds at Lorenzi park or somewhere else? Someplace weird that hasn’t been looked at? Unlikely.

As I got more involved with amphibian conservation in Utah, Colorado and Nevada, I knew it was a long shot that this species survived and I knew enough that, realistically, I wasn’t going to be the one that found it. This was hard to take as I know the people worked with another frog species, the relict leopard frog, that was rediscovered in Southern Nevada after thought to being extinct. Surely lightning wouldn’t strike twice?

My field guides tantalized me. The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians said “Discovery of a remnant population would be a herpetological event.” My treasured signed copy of The National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians mentioned the probable extinction in the introduction in a section on conservation but considered the species to actually be a subspecies of the relict leopard frog.

However, in frog conservation meetings a couple years ago, people starting talking about getting genetic samples from old preserved specimens of Vegas Valley leopard frogs. Tests being run. Strange, unexpected results.

The frog isn’t extinct. However, it wasn’t found in a covered up drainage tunnel along the old Las Vegas Creek that runs a few feet from my office building.

In fact, the genetics from a long dead Vegas Valley leopard frog that was collected in 1913 and stored in alcohol show that the species is identical to another species — the Chiricahua leopard frog which still lives in places in Central Arizona down into Mexico.

This is an amazing story. So many things came together to solve this little biological mystery. Someone had the foresight to collect frogs and kept these specimens safe and catalogued in a museum. No one threw them out or lost the paperwork saying where and when they were collected. A team of dedicated scientists (I have the pleasure of having worked with about half the authors of the paper), scrounged some funding together (including a bit from my organization (yay!)), and did these amazingly powerful genetic tests that showed that these frogs are the same as the Arizona frogs.

It’s a great conservation story and a great science story. While it would have been preferable to have never lost the Vegas Valley population of these frogs, a larger piece of our natural heritage was not lost. This finding also tells a piece of the story of the evolution and complex story of biogeography in which species ebb and flow across a landscape influenced by complex interactions with other species, changing climate, and landforms.

One final bit — since the Vegas Valley leopard frog was first described as Rana fisheri in 1893 it has precedence over the Chiricahua leopard frog, R. chiricahuensis which was not described until 1979. Due to the rules of biological nomenclature, all of R. chiricahuensis should be renamed to the earlier name, Rana fisheri. It will be interesting to see if that actually happens.

Link to a New York Times news article here and the scientific paper here (PDF).

Our local Weather Service office put up this graphic yesterday and it really explains how pleasant our spring has been. I’ll take it as long long as it lasts but I’ve seen some hints of 110° highs coming up 9 and 10 days out. Click to embiggen.

I just finished reading Martian Summer and it was very entertaining and humorous book.

Running a very expensive and complicated mission on the surface of another planet is an incredibly difficult task. First of all, the crew works on “Mars time” which leads to exhaustion and possibly making mistakes. The Mars Polar lander is a complicated robot that has numerous constraints and a very limited lifespan on the planet. You’d never guess that scooping up a soil sample and dumping it an instrument could be so difficult.

However, the most interesting part of the story is the people. It takes a dedicated team of extremely bright people working together to make this mission a success. There are the engineers that know and understand the lander and work extremely hard to protect “their” machine. The scientists have their research that they want to do and their results can make or break a scientific career. However, they need to share the lander, its instruments, and their funding with other scientists. There are the managers from JPL and NASA that have their goals of protecting the public’s investment while making political decisions. Finally, there is the press that shares results with the public but often have their agenda and sometimes causes political pressure. Sometimes the press shares stories that lead to huge controversy and conspiracy theories and other times the press is completely apathetic.

This book is written from an unique perspective of an outsider that is watching history being made. The folks who cobbled the lander together from the pieces of a cancelled mission, do some amazing science on a shoestring budget, deal with meddling managers, conspiracy theorists and a fickle public, have a an amazing story, and Andrew Kessler tells it well. You can buy it here.

This little video of about tropical arthropod sampling is great. I need to mentor more with my entomologist boss and live like a rock star!

Sifting from Jennie Russ on Vimeo.

I stayed up and was watching the landing streaming live online and had started from before the deorbit burn. The Commander had handed over control of Endeavour to the pilot for a few seconds (a NASA tradition) just before landing when the video stream quit. I got it going again in time to hear “Wheels stop.”

And if you are wondering what the puffs of flame are, they are the Auxilary Power Units that are small turbine engines that power the hydraulics during landing and on the ground. I blogged about that in 2008 and got quite a few hits during Endeavour’s landing.

As a side note, I love the infrared views of the Shuttle during night landings. You can see how hot the nose and leading wing edges get and cold the tires and landing gear are.

Thanks for your 25 flights, Endeavour! You are the only Shuttle I haven’t seen live (I did get to drive past you in your hanger during the NASA Tweetup) so I look forward to seeing you at the California Science Center.

Go Endeavour!

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Amazing launch today of the last flight of Endeavour.

Kinda cool with the Shuttle disappearing into the cloud deck but probably a little bit of a disappointment for the onlookers. STS-131, a night launch, I watched until Discovery disappeared over the horizon and STS-133 I was able to see the SRB separation through my camera lens.

Still, any launch gives me chills.

Flooding is serious business. This year’s flooding on the Mississippi is really bad. xkcd’s creator, Randall Munroe, looks at a worst case scenario. Well, he looked at it last year. Anyway, the scenario is that crest of the flood overwhelms the Army Corps of Engineer’s structure keeping the Mississippi in the Mississippi and the river breaks through and flows to the Gulf of Mexico down the Atchafalaya River. It would be very difficult putting the river back in the old channel since the Atchafalaya river is shorter and steeper to the Gulf. This would cause huge damage, probable loss of life, and wreck the water supply of New Orleans because the Mississippi would be salty there.

The article can be found here and it has some must read links in it.

Yet again, comics have shown us the way.