PBS NewsHour – Hurricanes and Climate Science

Thanks to the folks at PBS NewsHour for inviting me to discuss hurricanes and climate science on Labor Day weekend.

Posted in Climate Change, Weather Communications | Tagged , , , ,

Moby’s Memoir and Alternative Histories

Porcelain-Book-3D-image-3-800x941I bought tickets to see Sting and Peter Gabriel last winter, and to my surprise, an introductory subscription to Rolling Stone came with them.

Paging through the magazine, I came across an ad for Moby’s memoir, Porcelain. I only knew his music from his popular CD Play, but the advert made me curious, as it discussed his personal struggles leading up to that CD’s release.

I enjoy memoirs from popular musicians that discuss what their lives were like before they made it big. Sting’s Broken Music and the early parts of Sammy Hagar’s Red were page turners. But those artists became huge. Although Moby has had a successful career, he has not attained stratospheric pop star status. As a result, I imagined I could relate to Moby in a way that was far removed from Sting or Sammy.

I downloaded a free preview of the book out of curiosity. One page into the prologue, I was hooked. Moby is only 4 years older than me, had been an awkward and skinny kid, and watched his hair line recede rapidly during his 20s. But the passage that grabbed me described his childhood in 1976 as the son of a financially struggling single mother, riding along with her in her Chevy Vega.

I instantly remembered the fall of 1976 when my single mother, my sisters, and I briefly lived in a small apartment in Harrisonburg. I was a few months shy of my 7th birthday. Mom was working toward a degree at James Madison University that would lead to a better job to support us. And at the time, she drove a forest green and very unreliable… Chevy Vega.

We did not last in Harrisonburg very long. Within a couple of weeks, I casually ventured off with a new friend and his parents for a few hours without telling my mother, which of course, panicked her to no end. A few days later, I let a kid borrow my bicycle, and I never saw him or the bicycle again. Mom, my sisters, and I went back to Richmond a few weeks into the experiment. Mom continued her course work at John Tyler Community College.

A few years ago, on one of my numerous trips along Interstate 81, I diverted into Harrisonburg and found that apartment complex. It was occupied and functional, but not in good condition at all. Eerie.

When I reached my 30s, Mom would occasionally tell me how lucky my sisters and I were to have turned out as well as we did. Perhaps even blessed. The odds had been stacked against us: three kids who had not even reached school age when our mother made the agonizing decision to divorce my father.

Over the past few years, I have thought more about what Mom had said. I sometimes think that if 2 or 3 decisions had been made differently by the adults in my family before I reached my 10th birthday, my life may have gone in a very different direction.

With that backdrop, I began to read Porcelain as a potential alternative history of myself. What could’ve happened?

Moby relives the ’90s in Porcelain. Living in an abandoned factory in Connecticut. The struggle to find work. DJ’ing questionable clubs in New York City. Drug use all around him. His time as an alcohol “enthusiast”, only to go sober and start drinking again. Discordant relationships with high-risk emotionless sex. Deep depression.

I will not profess to be a saint, but his memoir gave me insight into a dark world that I suppose I knew was out there, but I have never had to face. So yes, I have been fortunate. It reminded me that there are people living lives that I simply cannot imagine. They are beyond the scope of my experience. I have occasionally had the opportunity to glimpse into to some of those lives, but I had no true frame of reference to comprehend them.

The constant in the book and with me was the early relationship with his single mother. Moby reminisced about laughing and listening to the Bee Gees on the AM radio with her, recounting some of the brighter moments as she struggled through single parenthood. I remember much the same, telling my mother how cool it was that Cheeseburger in Paradise was sung by a guy named Jimmy Buffett… my 8-year-old brain thinking Buffett and buffet were closely related. Moby summarizes what I think we both felt:

I loved my mom. She was one of the smartest and funniest and most interesting people I’d ever known. But growing up with her had never been normal.

Indeed. Mom had to make tough decisions about educating us. The school year following the failed Harrisonburg experiment found me being bused into inner-city Richmond for 3rd grade. Four months and a head of lice later, I was living with my grandparents to get into the Chesterfield County schools. The homesickness set in within a few days, and I was back at home with Mom. Despite the cost, she enrolled me in a private Christian school for the rest of the school year. A few weeks later, I was nearly expelled for swearing.

But I was lucky. No drugs. No hard alcohol in the house.

Moby alluded to it late in the memoir: how his early childhood struggles still haunted him and many others into early adulthood. It took me years to understand how the things I experienced early in my life color the way I see the world even today.

Perhaps I’ll write something when I’m 50, but I can’t imagine my stories will have quite the impact as what I read in Porcelain. Wow.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Opening the Ears to Prince


My brother from another mother, Matt Lanza, does sum it up well.

We watch the passing of these pop/rock performers, and for many of us, we watch another little piece of our youth go with them.

Prince was different. Which, of course, is obvious.

The first song I heard from him was 1999 in late 1982. As a 13-year old living through the height of the cold war, and living in an area of the country in which some people seemed infatuated with the End Times, the subject matter resonated with me.

But I was largely an album-oriented-rock (AOR) kid at that time with a bit of new wave streak. I was more likely listening the The Police, Men At Work, or The Cars. So I didn’t warm up to Little Red Corvette or even When Doves Cry. At least not right away. However, when the second single from Purple Rain hit the radio in 1984, it changed some things.

The guitar solo at the end of Let’s Go Crazy screamed rock and roll. So much so, that it got substantial airplay on the local AOR station that I listened to religiously, XL-102 in Richmond. One of the teachers in my high school even asked a group of us at the lunch table one afternoon, “Is he trying to be the next Jimi Hendrix?”

Likewise, the opening monologue of that song spoke to me… as I’m sure it still does to many… about the internal struggles of life.

Sign O’ The Times resonated as well. A straightforward commentary on life in the middle 1980s.

Is it silly, no?
When a rocket ship explodes and everybody still wants to fly

Some songs you remember at precise instances of your life. I remember that one coming on the radio while I was in a pensive mood on the way to my senior prom. One of those moments of adolescence when you realize that some the biggest steps of your life are just around the corner. I would go to Penn State 4 months later in a leap of faith, hoping to walk down a path to make my career choice a reality.

In time, I grew to appreciate his musicianship, and enough of my naivete faded away that I finally understood Little Red Corvette. Of course other songs weren’t so subtle, smashing the listener over the head. I still remember a former girlfriend trying to embarrass me by making me listen to Darling Nikki in 1988.

PurpleA few years later, in graduate school, 7 hit the radio, and again, while no one could accuse me of being a massive Prince fan, I admitted to my roommate that there were certain songs of his that I just thought were incredible.

Prince made me open my ears to other styles of music. And taught me to enjoy them as well.










Posted in Reflective, Sociology

Star Wars, Snark, and Climate Change (Global Warming Episode VI)

A long, long time ago, our home planet more resembled Hoth, the ice planet in the Star Wars universe. While Earth was not entirely blanketed in glaciers, large sheets of ice covered North America, Europe, and Asia. This was during the peak of the last ice age, about 20,000 years ago.

At that time, the average temperature of Earth was only about 5.5°C (10°F) lower than the middle 20th century. The atmospheric carbon dioxide level was 180 parts per million (ppm), less than half of the level today. More striking, the sea level was 400 feet (120 meters) lower than today.

For comparison… some present elevations above sea level:

  • Raleigh, NC:   435 feet
  • Richmond, VA:   166 feet
  • Philadelphia, PA:   30 feet

But subtle changes in Earth’s orbit altered how the planet absorbed solar energy, and there was shuffling of ocean circulations. By themselves, these were not enough to drive Earth out of its glacial state. However, they did lead to an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide to 280 ppm, warming Earth and helping make it the hospitable place we enjoy today, more along the lines of Endor, the forest moon where the Ewoks made their stand in Return of the Jedi.


Ominous approach of the fictional Death Star toward the peaceful planet of Alderaan (otherwise not featured in this article… but shown for dramatic effect…’cause it looks similar to Earth… don’t ya think?).

Human emissions of greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, have increased dramatically over the last century, dwarfing the natural cycle. The concentration is at 400 ppm and climbing, which is the primary reason that the average global temperature has risen about 1°C (1.8°F) since pre-industrial times. This type of rise took several centuries to occur naturally, yet it has occurred in the last hundred years due to human activities.


From the Climate Central office. Simulations of sea level rise in Sydney, Australia after 2°C of warming and 4°C of warming.

While no one expects Earth to turn into the desert world of Tatooine (after all, that planet has two suns), further carbon dioxide emissions will create more planetary warming through the end of the century and beyond. The amount of warming will determine how much more ice is lost at the poles, and thus, how much further global sea levels will rise, with big differences for each degree of warming.

Fictional spaceship from the author's favorite Mel Brooks' film.

Fictional spaceship from the author’s favorite Mel Brooks film.

So. Have a nice day.

Posted in Climate Change | Tagged , , , , , , ,

Scott Weiland and the Past

There has been a lot of death in the news recently.

A friend shared what Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins wrote when he found out about the death of Scott Weiland, the troubled singer best known for fronting Stone Temple Pilots.  He says it better than me. In part:

… I will not pretend to know more than I know, or add some sad homily to how he loved his life. At least in that, may I now say he is undoubtably in the arms of grace and eternal love.  May I also offer my humble condolences to his family, friends, and band mates; who have, and are, suffering this great loss.

When the Big Hair Metal Bands went out of vogue in the early ’90s, I could not wrap my head around the grunge thing. At 23, I still wanted more Def Leppard, but alas, my time had passed.


December 1993

I could not quite get into Nirvana. Pearl Jam was okay. But Stone Temple Pilots resonated with me. Plush is easily one of my favorite songs of that decade. I still remember December ’93, singing it while riding a in car in Upstate South Carolina with two of my best friends, Corey and Mark.


Thanks, Scott… for the music.

This reminds me of the fluidity of time and the stresses of success. Not just having to battle internal demons, but having to do it in the public eye, when someone always wants to write something about you. Sometimes positive, but often negative. Things that are written that would never be said in a conversation with that person around a lunch table. Some handle it better than others.

I think about Hendrix, Morrison, Joplin, Winehouse. I am guilty of internally mocking their inner demons in the past. But that self-righteous voice in me is not as loud anymore.

I remember being 16 years old, and beginning to notice that creative minds all seemed a little weird. And a few weeks later, our 11th grade English class was given an article to read from our teacher, Joey Boehling: How Inner Torment Feeds The Creative Spirit.

It was a bit over my head at the time, but upon re-reading it recently, one passage was striking:

There may be just as many self-destructive bakers as painters, but psychiatrists and biographers do not analyze their cakes. It is the tormented artist and not the untroubled one – the Vincent van Gogh, not the Peter Paul Rubens – who provides the stuff of tabloid notoriety and romantic embellishment.

That was written in 1985.


I have to think social media makes this worse. No margin of error. Long diatribes between “friends” about the emotional issues of the day: guns, marriage, ethnicity, religion, economics. And for a subset of us, climate change.

I see people post, “What’s wrong with people?”

The same thing that has always been wrong with people. We just see it more. We are letting our emotions override our logic.

We didn’t start the fire. It was always burning since the world’s been turning.

Billy Joel has had his share of ups and downs too.

And this one, penned by Neil Peart, drummer and lyricist of Rush. From the 1987 song, Lock and Key (come on, you didn’t think you were going to make it through this blog without a Rush reference did you?):

We carry a sensitive cargo
Below the waterline
Ticking like a time bomb
With a primitive design
Behind the finer feelings
This civilized veneer
The heart of a lonely hunter
Guards a dangerous frontier
The balance can sometimes fail
Strong emotions can tip the scale

This is the way of the world. I take issue with those who would like to spin it as the end times.

I have the same emotional reactions to things I see online as well. Things that I see our elected officials do. Memes that people post without actually researching them first, as if to shout, “Yeah… me too… if you don’t agree with me… you’re stupid.”

I’ve done it. I try not to. But I slip. I’m human.

It is important to remember that most of us are going through something. I’m sure there are some of us who are sailing through life without a care in the world. I’m happy for them. I try to be positive on line, but I will have moments as well. Don’t think that picking up your life and career after 20 years and moving it 350 miles away comes without some emotional consequences (by the way… massive props to my military friends who have done this on a routine basis).

I have friends who have lost to their demons. Alcoholism, depression, even prison. Others have been taken from the earth too soon, either by disease or horrifying accident.

Which returns me to Corgan and the opening words of my favorite Pumpkins’ song, Bullet With Butterfly Wings:

The world is a vampire.

Still… I make every effort to consider the 7 billion people on this planet, and I realize that I am fortunate. Some would say blessed. I have electricity and running water. I have a roof over my head. I do not worry where my next meal will come from. I have good scientific training, so I’m not bothered by superstitions or conspiracy theories. I have a good job.

It could be worse.

It could always be worse.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology | Tagged , , , , , ,

5 People I’d Like To See Again

February 1979 in Richmond. A group of us in the neighborhood built this little snow dog once the snow stopped falling

Earlier this year, I changed career paths, moving my family from southern Virginia to southeastern Pennsylvania. I suppose in quieter moments, it was inevitable to look back and see what has gotten me to this point in my life.

With the horror in Paris this month, I found myself thinking about the fragility of life and the people in our past who have affected who we’ve become in the present. While I have reconnected with several people from my youth via social media, there are people who, for whatever reason, I am no longer in touch with, but they remain as distinct threads in the tapestry of my earlier days.

In fact, when I stop to think about it, I realize that none of my current friendships began before 1980. This is mostly a consequence of moving from Southside Richmond to eastern Henrico County in February of that year. I was in 5th grade at the time.

Below are 5 people I’d like to see again. I met three of them before 1980. Alphabetically…

Maricel Barrett

In the year or so before the move, I became friends with Maricel. He was a guy that everyone seemed to like. He had a great laugh and was as fast as bullet on the playground. In the fall of 1979, we were on the same pee-wee football team. If memory serves, he was both a running back and a defensive back (I was merely a second-string defensive lineman).

I still remember one football game in which we played the Broad Rock Rams, who were considered to be the toughest team in the league. Late in the 4th quarter, with no score, our team managed to drive down to the Rams’ goal line, but we could not convert on 4th and goal. On the following series, our team stopped the Rams’ running back (or maybe it was their quarterback) behind his goal line. We won the game 2-0, and I remember our team congratulating Maricel as he returned to the sideline after the safety. I don’t remember if he actually made the tackle, but I know he was part of the defense.

My last day at that elementary school in Richmond, there was a going away party for me. I was picked up by my mother at the end of the day, but before leaving, I stayed in the classroom as successive groups of my classmates were dismissed to the buses. A few seconds after Maricel’s group had been dismissed, I ran outside to chase him down, and I gave him a hug before he got on the bus. I never saw him again. Given he is African-American, I now think about the symbolism of that moment, and how when we were younger, that it didn’t seem to matter.

Lisa Branch

While attending that elementary school in 4th and 5th grade, I was in the gifted program with a few other kids. There was one other student in an accelerated math program with me, Lisa Branch. At that time, I thought we were a couple of kids who were just a little different that the rest of our classmates. As a result, we got along quite well. So well in fact, that I remember a fair bit of good-natured teasing by some of the students that Lisa and I were a couple. She is the only other person I remember in that gifted program, and I remember her having more confidence than a lot of the other kids. I cannot help but wonder what path she took through adolescence and adulthood.

Russell Tilley

Immediately after our family moved in 1980, I found myself in a new elementary school, knowing no one. The first friend I made was Russell Tilley. He and I shared the same off-the-wall sense of humor, and in the closing months of 5th grade, he would often get disciplined for some of his silly, but harmless indiscretions. We remained good friends through middle school, and I distinctly remember the two of us coming up with a juvenile poem to describe our 7th grade teachers. I can still quote it (just not here).

I may never have laughed as much or as uncontrollably as when he and I hung out together. One event comes to mind: We were walking through the hall one morning in 7th grade, just trying to make each other laugh. And I don’t even remember how the subject got started, but he said, “You gotta be careful of that radioactive waste.” By coincidence, he began that sentence just as we walked by the closed door to the teachers’ lounge. And as he finished the sentence, our biology teacher opened the door and appeared. He and I paused, looked at each other, and laughed hysterically for what seemed like 10 minutes as we continued down the hallway.

In high school, our different academic paths caused us to drift apart, but I never forgot how much better I felt in a new environment because of his friendship. I last saw him in 1997 at a 10-year high school reunion. I hope he still has that sense of humor.

Frederik Wenzel

Frederik and I met as freshmen at Penn State in 1987. He was born in West Germany, with his family emigrating to Virginia Beach when he was young.  While he was more adventurous than me, we got along very well, sharing a love of Virginia, and commiserating about being in a place that was 300+ miles away from home.  We often carpooled back to Virginia and had great talks about Europe, Virginia, and of course… girls.

In the 1988-89 academic year, we shared an apartment, which tested our friendship, but it persevered.  He went on to join the Penn State International Student Council and I moved into my meteorology coursework. We mutually decided sharing an apartment the next year wasn’t the best idea, nonetheless, I always valued his European view on the world.  I remember how excited he was when West Germany won the World Cup in 1990 and how emotional he was when Germany reunified later that year.

After the Berlin Wall fell, he briefly visited his home country, and when he returned, he gave me a small concrete rock. I was awestruck when he told me it was a piece of the Berlin Wall, and I still have it to this day. We communicated more sporadically with time as our paths diverged, and I haven’t seen him since the early ’90s.

Michael Widener

When I was living in South Richmond in the late ’70s, Michael and his family lived about 4 houses away. I remember playing on competing Manchester Optimist Little League teams in 1978.  There was a small area of woods adjacent to his backyard, and we would go exploring back there once in while, looking for caterpillars, like many other 8-year old boys would do. Mike was the last of 3 friends in that old neighborhood who all moved away before my family followed suit. Ironically, his family moved to the Roanoke Valley in 1979, a place that I would later call home from 1995-2003.

Who knows. Perhaps I will see them again. Life has a way of dealing the unexpected.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology

North and South, Book 2

To a mother, who brought him her two sons, loudly expressing her hatred of the North, Lee said, “Madam, don’t bring up your sons to detest the United States Government. Recollect that we form but one country now. Abandon all these local animosities, and make your sons Americans.”  – The Life and Campaigns of General Lee, Edward Lee Childe, 1875

* * *

Here I sit, a second time newcomer to Pennsylvania after spending the better part of the last two decades in my beloved Virginia. Once again, I am called to be an ambassador of my home state.

So, we have this Confederate Battle Flag issue again. I have seen it all, you know; I am on social media. I have friends in the Northeast, friends in the Southeast, friends who are conservative, friends who are liberal. Post any meme or story you want to thump your chest and show off your position if it makes you feel better about yourself. Blame historians, blame the media, blame whoever the hell you want. But know this: there is nothing you can say or comment that I have not heard. Nothing.

I have friends and family who like the flag, identify with it, and see nothing wrong with it. I have other friends who see it as a bitter reminder of our country’s Original Sin.

I loved to watch The Dukes of Hazzard as a pre-teen in the late ’70s and early ’80s. The flag on the roof of the General Lee didn’t seem to matter as much then. Watch all of the episodes. The Duke family was welcoming of everyone.

When I first went to Penn State in 1987, I missed Virginia terribly. Ask anyone who spent time around me. In the last few weeks of my freshman year, I went to the Army Navy store in State College in search of a Virginia State Flag. I could not find one. But I did find a Confederate Battle Flag, so I bought it. I put it up in my apartment the next couple of years. Southern pride. I thought nothing else about it.

Flags, like most symbols, are deeply personal. And that is what it meant to me. When I moved back to Virginia in 1994, it got packed away. At some point in the last 20 years, it became tattered, and I discarded it.

The meanings of symbols change. This is a certainty of life. When I was at Appomattox Court House National Historic Park several years ago, I spoke with a ranger.  He told me something I found wildly ironic: During the war, the Battle Flag was flown because it was considered less offensive than the Confederate States of America National Flag (below).


The meaning of the Battle Flag has evolved, which brings us to our current situation. Actually, one that has been bubbling for a century and a half. I cannot help but find the irony, given this past spring was the 150th anniversary of the Surrender at Appomattox.

Recall the swastika was not always a symbol of Nazism. They stole it, repurposed it, and promoted it into something sinister. It used to have much more positive connotations. No more. At least not in Western cultures.

Similarly, for me, the Battle Flag was stolen. Not that it was a benevolent symbol to begin with, but when I was younger, it seemed to be a harmless relic representing youth and rebellion. My demographic allowed me to think about it that way.

But white supremacists latched on to it. Made it a point to show it off. Screaming, intimidating, and terrorizing people as the flag was prominently displayed. Blathering on as if losing the Civil War were some travesty of history. Then there was the advent of television. Then the internet. Images of white supremacists with that flag over and over. And over and over. Ad nauseum. No more handsome pictures of the Duke Boys in the General Lee doing nice things for people. Those don’t make the news. Sorry. This is the 21st Century.

I love sweet tea and barbecue with cole slaw like most everyone else born in the South. My great-great grandfather, George Bland Sublett, fought for the CSA. So don’t lecture me about Heritage Not Hate, how I’m not Southern, or that I’m betraying my ancestors. Southern is not a heritage. Do some work and go back more than five or six generations. My heritage is from the north of France.

I have friends whose heritage is from Africa. The Battle Flag is deeply hurtful to them. Choosing not to display it is not political correctness, it is out of respect for my friends.

Having said that, if you want to fly the flag on your private property, go wild. You want it on your pickup truck? Rock on. No one should force you to take it down. But it has absolutely no business being displayed prominently at a government facility or on public property… federal, state, or local. Museums of course, being an obvious exception.

For a long time, I have worried about what people thought of me. In fact, in my last line of work, it was part of keeping my job. Perhaps this post has angered you or disappointed you. I have a thought about that.

Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.

Posted in Reflective, Sociology