Sunday, November 27, 2011

10 Days in Noble Silence (Part 2)

[This story is continued from the first part in a series about 10 days of Noble Silence at Vipassana meditation in Kathmandu, Nepal. When we left off I had thought of a joke that I could not get out of my mind but wanted to remember somehow.]

Once every other day there is a brief opportunity to question the teacher about the practical (i.e. non-philosophical) aspects of the meditation. When I asked what I should do if there was something I wanted to remember he replied "Put it out of our mind, forget it." Could I write it down? "No, that would be outward communication and you need to focus on your individual experience. Maintain complete Noble Silence."

You also have to know my memory is shockingly bad. I was tested at sixteen and could not repeat back three numbers in reverse order (e.g. 714... 417).  Most people can do five or six numbers. The tester said "Really?... You understand the instructions, right?" The only way I would be able to remember this joke would be endless repetition over the coming eight days.

On an impulse on Day Three I rationalized that I should write down one word only, and that would summarize the whole joke. I would see the word later and remember the rest. However, within minutes of putting down the paper I was cursed by another, less funny and completely inappropriate not-safe-for-work joke. Would I have to write this down too? Or would it be stuck cycling in my head for days? The joke became lame quickly. Out of fear of getting even more unfunnier jokes stuck in my head (a la the Magic Brooms of Fantasia endlessly splitting), I decided not to write down anything more and instead take the teacher's advice to clear my mind.

Mickey thought it was a good idea too, until it all went pear shaped.
What was the one word I wrote down?


Frustrating, my plan didn't work. I am not sure if it was a marriage proposal joke (I have done such a joke and it ended really really badly, I do not recommend...). Or was the joke about scientific proposals (e.g. "my project proposal is still with the funding committee"). Maybe it is about forecasting; US river forecasters have different stages in the forecast creation process, from "raw model output", to "preferred", "preliminary", "proposed" and through to "published". So, just like how we know the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything but not the question, we know only the punchline to the funniest joke ever told.

Along with Noble Silence there is strict separation of the sexes. My wife attempted to slip me messages by leaving things in my shoes during the evening lectures. It was sweet, but it broke Noble Silence so I was not quite sure what to do. The rules were there not to be mean or oppressive, but were designed for the student to get the most out of the program.

I was torn... My problem with meditation (and life in general I suppose) is that I never know if I am suffering enough. But is the point to be totally miserable and not have any fun, just so you can respect the rules? I sought the advice of the assistants figuring that they would know the best thing to do.

Well! Something got lost in the translation when the assistant talked to the male teacher and he talked to the female "warden." Kitty got assigned a personal guard that would shadow her all the time and scold her when she got out of line. It is hard enough to suffer in silence, but this made it nearly unbearable for her. Kitty nicknamed her guard "Sourpuss".
Sourpuss and Kitty, wearing all her shirts and socks. They were friends by the end.
Part way through a particularly grueling meditation session, Kitty stepped outside the hall for a rest. Everyone is allowed five minutes to go out to the bathroom or get a glass of water or some such, but otherwise attendance in the hall during sessions is mandatory.

After leaving the hall Kitty saw a wild monkey sitting in the sun eating a papad (thin crispy fried bread) that looked like a giant cookie. He had stolen it from the kitchen. It was a magical moment. I too adored the monkeys and spent my breaks wandering the grounds trying to find them (this was another philosophical crisis... if I was meant to get rid of both aversion and cravings, what should I do if I craved seeing monkeys?)

Immediately Sourpuss stormed on the scene and scolded "Miss! Meditation time!" and pointed back towards the hall.

Kitty protested "I am allowed my five minutes!" to which Sourpuss reluctantly agreed. When she saw what Kitty was looking at, Sourpuss stood between Kitty and the monkey, blocking her view.

Of course, I only heard about what happened to her after the program ended. So I hope this can be my very public apology? Forgive me?

I do remember one joke I thought of. The Vipassana Center has a regular 10 day program for new and returning students but there are also longer programs, 30, 45, 60 days or more in total silence. There was one "perpetual" course where, one day a year, the student would be allowed to speak one sentence.

After the end of the first year, the students appeared before the teacher. He said to one student, "You may now speak"... After a long pause, the student replied "The toilet in my cell is broken" [Actually, that was my first crisis after Noble Silence started, but that's another story.]

"Mmn, I understand." the teacher answered. "Namaste."

The next year, the same student appeared before the teacher and said "The food here is terrible."

"Mmn, yes, I see...Go in peace."

The third year, again the student said "My cell is too cold".

"Continue on your path and be very vigilant, very attentive..."

"Actually, I quit."

"Thank goodness!" the teacher replied, "You've done nothing but complain since you got here."

Liberation day at the front gate

Saturday, November 26, 2011

10 Days in Noble Silence (Part 1)

I sensed I was out of my depth when someone said "you've never done a meditation program before? And you're here? That's like wandering lost up the back of Mount Olympus and stumbling upon the gods. You're brave..."

Brave? I'll tell you what bravery is. Bravery is using some of the public toilets in Southeast Asia. I have been to toilets where I left still wondering how they were suggesting I should have made a "transaction". Talk about your Gross Sensations... Those would have been good times to have achieved Detachment.
Take this bathroom for example. It feels like something is missing.
Everyone warned us the 10-day Vipassana meditation program in Kathmandu would be very challenging, "but don't worry, it is challenging for everyone, and it is very rewarding." Along with a strict schedule of meditation that starts at 4:30 am, a key element of the program is "Noble Silence", meaning no expression with any part of your body, no speaking, no reading or writing, no hand gestures, no eye contact. The idea is to cultivate the feeling that this is a personal, individual journey. Students are allowed no technology, no wallet, no mobile phone, no medicines, just their clothes, toothbrush and a blanket. The travel blog "A Little Adrift" has a hilarious account of a 10 day retreat at a smaller center Pokhara (our Kathmandu program had about 150 students, most of whom are from Nepal).

The entrance sign to the Nepal Vipassana Meditation Center

The only sound is from the recorded audio and video of the teacher, S. N. Goenka, guiding through the meditation and giving evening lectures. Goenka's bullfrog barritone sounded like he was sermoning from the bottom of a bowl of mashed potatoes. "Sermoning" is not quite the right word though as it is a non-sectarian, non-religious "practical" meditation boot camp. Basically, you are there to do nothing else but learn the technique through experience. "Boot camp" is the right phrase to describe it though, down to where they ladle food on to your metal plates after you are let out of your "cells" at night.

On the surface, it doesn't sound that hard. Sit for fifteen hours a day in a cold dark room in silence, perfectly still, eyes closed, concentrating on your breath passing through your nostrils? I have known government employees with less stimulating jobs than that.

My roommate from Spain and me. I'm wearing four shirts and all the socks I own. 

It is extraordinarily hard to concentrate on your breath for long periods of time. Most people cannot make it past about twenty breaths before their minds start to wander. Really, try it.

Maybe the distration comes as some pain ("Day 4: Hangnail... My aura has been shattered"). Maybe it is a song stuck in your head. In my case the songs were  "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)" by Katy Perry (the saxaphone solo is really quite shrill) and "Don't Stop [Thinking About Tomorrow]", which is unfortunate considering the message of the meditation is "to be in the moment".

Someone we met who had done the course said her brain would overflow with ideas. "Oh yeah, I've written novels in my head, started businesses..." My business idea was "Soup cart for dogs and their owners" ('Cause dogs love soup! And owners love their dogs!). It is called "Slurp 'n' Slurp"... I can just hear it- "I'll have the Heirloom Tomato Soup and Barkley here will have the Organic French Onion with Garlic biscuit because you're a good boy! Yes you are, Barkles! So good!"
The dog that lived outside the center's gate. She's a good girl, yes she is!
I also do not recommend making up trivia questions for yourself, because you will never be able to know the answer. I thought for hours about "What is American TV Comedy show Parks and Recreation character Tom Haveford's startup company called?" I was really sure it was "Pawnee 350". Now, "what year was Madonna's hit single Into the Groove released?" The list of things to Wikipedia when you are done can grow very long. For example, a cardinal rule in meditation was to never point your feet at the teacher... Is there a list of famous foot-pointing incidents in Buddhist history? e.g., "492 B.C. The Great Schism begins with the mass foot-pointing outrage of Devadatta and his disciples against Gautama."

While I was looking forward to all the good ideas I would come up with, I was worried about coming to a gate where I would have to leave all my old beliefs and ideas behind? Would I stand at the spiritual bungee jumping platform and refuse to let go of the hand rail? Would I sever all ties to the past and allow my ego to be annihilated? At that exact moment of enlightenment my business cards (also in storage) would spontaneously burst into flame.

Well, when strolling through the garden on Day Two, I thought of a joke that made me do a mental spit-take and sputter to myself for a second out of Noble Silence. It was easily the funnest joke I had come up with in months. Holding back laughing became like stifiling a sneeze. I imagined anyone seeing me convulsing behind a bush must have thought I was having premature catharsis ("Day Two, already? Go easy there, Cowboy!"). Realize that I am not a person that laughs out loud easily. My brother and I practiced funny guy/straight guy routines as kids. I somehow got stuck on straight guy. It comes up during therapy.

What was I going to do? I had to get it out somehow. But what about Noble Silence?

[Continued tomorrow in part 2]

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Why people don't know how good forecasts are

While I'm away, I thought I would share this quote from Hockey goalie Jacques Plante:

How would you like a job where, every time you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and 18,000 people boo? 

Forecast evaluation is going back and comparing one's forecasts to what occurred. It is not necessary, but is generally considered part of a healthy operational forecasting system. Some agencies don't evaluate their forecasts for a variety of reasons, perhaps because nobody knows what actually occurred (e.g. no one collected data) or no one kept a copy of the forecast in an organized way.

You would be surprised at how often the latter happens, especially for older forecasts. At my old agency, entire seasons of forecasts from about 18 years ago were wiped out when some computer disks were erased to make more space. The total size of those files was probably smaller than the last digital photo you took of your pet.

The best resource available on the web is easily Beth Ebert's Forecast Verification FAQ

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Meditating at the River's Source

Tomorrow morning we start a 10 day silent meditation program recommended by several of our local Nepali friends. Strangely enough, the place's name ("Muhan Pokhari") translates as the "River source for the lake". It sits right at where a river exits a large national park and flows into Kathmandu and a set of terraced rice fields. The meditation style itself, Vipassana, translates as "seeing things as they really are". 

Many people I know consider Nepal a deeply spiritual place and there are many seekers here, including many from the West. In a baffling coincidence, the same stranger (an Australian, naturally) that sat down next to us on a hilltop at sunrise looking over the Annapurna range also checked in to the hotel room next door that evening in our next city. A quick back of the envelope calculation based on the number of tourists in both places suggested it was about a 1 in 400,000 event.

She was on a group tour lead by a guru that stressed the importance of personal belief in shaping reality. She excitedly shared her experience with "orbs", that if loving energy was in the air, a nighttime photo with the flash showed all kinds of small glowing spheres. She had photos full of orbs from the cave that leads to where Devi's falls flows underground. We went there the next day and took our own photos to see if it would work but they just had streaks from where the flash reflected off water dripping from the cave roof. I'm not sure the interpretation of streaks versus orbs, unfortunately. 

Over dinner, I shared with the Australian that I once tried hypnosis and under guided imagery discovered that I had an "obsidian heart", which I thought had a negative connotation. "No, no" she said, "you should go Google gem meanings!".... The first Google hit? "Obsidian has been used for clear vision and to see into the future." Honestly, I can't make this up!

When I started this project, I thought that one of the appeals to non-scientists would be hearing about "The forecaster's way", a philosophy that could be applied to daily life and the quest for understanding the universe. Last night, when I tried to explain my beliefs to a Nepali friend, Prassidha, I was surprised at how well it aligned with some of the teachings he knew of.

I reckon at least two of the basic tenets are

1. Nature doesn't care what you think.
2. Pay attention and be mindful.

Nature doesn't care what you think. One of my biggest fears in trying to live as a scientist is that by being skeptical, I am closing myself from possibilities. Our new Australian friend mentioned that her guru once willed money to appear in his hand. Dilbert has a cartoon about a garbage man (included below, click to enlarge) that chooses the reality of what he finds in the garbage, that it doesn't depend on what others choose to discard.

Dilbert cartoon about choosing one's reality
When I was 19, I spent far too much time trying to learn how to levitate. Not meditate, levitate. I poured over picture books of floating gurus. They could also teleport but I figured I would start with the basics. I sat and sat, visualizing myself hovering, but never made it far off the ground. I gave up after reading "It only works if you believe. If you believe and it doesn't work, then it means you didn't really believe." I read one guru console a disappointed student by saying, in effect, "maybe you're not the levitating type?" 

The thing about forecasting is that my personal hopes, fears and beliefs had no effect on the actual outcome. I can "Think Snow" all I want, but that is not going to make any more (or for that matter, less) snow. Next week's river level in Bangkok is going to be what it wants to be, no matter what I think.

I will put one asterisk on this tenet. People do care what you think (good Einstein quote at Bill Hooke's blog there). Stock market forecasters can impact stocks going up and down because the stock market can listen to what is being said about it. Same with polls and elections. Some of Bangkok's water is controlled by canals that are run by humans, so in that sense what river forecasters hope, fear or believe is going to happen does affect the actual outcome. 

Pay attention and be mindful. Even though they have access to some of the largest supercomputers in the world, somewhere right now a meteorologist is sitting down with a set of colored pencils to hand-draw air pressure levels on a blank map. This is a generational thing, for sure, younger forecasters (myself included) often preferred to automate things and spend more time, for example, actually getting to eat lunch.

However, it is a meditation on the data.  They spend time with their problem, giving it attention and thinking about its parts. As they draw, they consider each individual curve and line, while also subconsciously (or even consciously) marinating in the meaning of the broader pattern of the data. They are developing and exercising their intuition. 

So what of the power of positive thinking then? The map drawing is not a way of imposing forecasters' desires on the outcome, but rather passively receiving the message of the information, using data that was actively collected and analyzed. The forecaster does not will money into his hand but rather spends time looking through his wallet to see what is there. 

I'll leave you with this quote from the Buddha about belief

"Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it."

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Maps Get Redrawn: Puerto Princesa Underground River part 3

[This is the third and final post in a series about the Puerto Princesa Underground River. The other two are here and here. -- Tom]

Why should anybody care? Wouldn't you imagine the "Committee on Stratigraphic Nomenclature of the Geological Society of the Philippines" to be a staid and august body that sees about as much action as the National Committee on Library Sciences? (Nothing against librarians... you'd be surprised at how stimulating the science organizing information is... think Google).

Well, remember at the beginning how the carbonate was formed from living materials millions of years ago sinking to the bottom of the ocean? That's exactly how fossil fuels like natural gas and oil are formed. Instead of an underground river running through it, the underwater El Nido formation is full of petroleum deposits. Because the geologic formation that makes the Underground River is the same formation as the off-shore petroleum deposits, legally, the fossil fuels should have been the jurisdiction of Puerto Princesa. In the image of the crocodile, "The nose rests on our shore, so the whole body (and everything in it's stomach) belongs to us."

Just imagine how thrilled you would be if you had discovered that your property line was misdrawn decades ago and now you were the proud owner of a mansion? Or that you were lost as an orphan but then found out that you were related to royalty and stood to inherit a fortune?

The citizens of El Nido, naturally, were not happy about this and were reluctant to see their bounty of petroleum go. Unfortunately for El Nido, geologic tests firmly swing things in Puerto Princesa's favor because their rocks are the same age as the offshore deposits, and El Nido's rocks are nearly ten times too old.  Mayor Ed and Doctor Socrates helped champion this issue all the way through to the Supreme Court, and the ruling was in Puerto Princesa's favor. It was an incredible boon for the area and one I'm not sure many people (tourists or locals) appreciate.

And that's how the Mayor and the Underground River helped rewrite the geologic maps of the Philippines!

But when you thought it couldn't get any stranger... The Underground River's formation doesn't just extend out to natural gas deposits but arguably far out under the hotly contested Spratly Islands. Six different countries including China lay claim to these islands (because of the strategic importance of their petroleum and fishing). As recently as a few months ago, naval vessels were opening fire on eachother in a conflict that has been going on for decades.

The Spratly Island dispute is a bit off track and the Philippines' geologic argument is just one of many perspectives on who owns what, so we'll just leave it there. Furthermore, you can't imagine the time and money it takes to do the geologic tests to establish ocean-bed ownership to the satisfaction of The International Law of the Sea. The greatest hurdle would detailed mapping of the seafloor bottom that would involve petabytes of data. At dinner one night we met some US military scientists that had been mapping a single navy port near Puerto Princesa for weeks (they described their job as "mowing the lawn", motoring a boat back and forth in stripes while an expensive machine scans the ocean bottom).

Speaking of vacationers, what is the Underground River tour actually like? The Guide for Tourists is comprehensive and some of the photo galleries on the web are enough to make you want to book your next tropical holiday. We rented motorbikes from Puerto Princesa and it was about a two to three hour ride up a newly paved road to Sabang, the village closest to the Underground River. Along the way are rice fields and limestone cliffs. Funny enough, the thing that excited me the most was seeing a groundwater well being drilled (so many questions- why were they drilling, how deep does it go, what's underground?).

They say that when you ride a bike (or car or snowmobile), you tend to turn in the direction that you're looking. So if you're about to crash into a tree, don't look at the tree itself but instead look at where you want to go. There's a big life lesson in there somewhere (if you obsess on your problems, you'll be more likely to fail?), but the takeaway for me was that jerking my head while stopping too quickly is a good way to fishtail and end up tumbling on the pavement.

It wouldn't be until a week later that I realized I chipped my tibia and would need crutches. After days of moaning in the darkness of a beach bungalow in Sabang, I had Underground River fever and couldn't be talked out of turning back now. In Hunter S Thompson style, I cleared out the village pharmacy of its stock of pain pills and limped down to shore on a makeshift jungle crutch made from a tree branch.
I didn't realize my leg bone was cracked in this picture. The things I do in the name of hydrology!
In 2002, about 50 people per day visited the river and in 2010 it was about 475 people per day, about 20% of which are foreigners. Capacity is limited by a first-come-first-served permitting system. Tourism has increased so much, partly because of an incredibly successful tourism campaign backed by the Mayor and local government. I can only imagine how that is going to increase now that it won the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World competition. As I write, nearly all the Puerto Princesa Underground River webpages are down because of too much internet traffic.

The Underground River tour itself is in a mix of languages, often times in the same sentence. For example, the boatman would set up a joke in English ("Do you know why they call this rock the Wolf's Head?") and tell the punchline in Tagalog, leaving everyone on the boat but me roaring in laughter. Nearly all the major features in the cave are named after everyday objects, e.g. "This formation looks like sweet corn", and most of the allusions were Catholic, e.g. "Look there, the Three Kings bearing gifts", "This looks like the Pieta statue", "Can you see the outline of the Virgin Mary?"

Again, the positive influence of the Mayor is everywhere, down to the Mayor Ed Hagedorn sponsored welcome tent at the dock, the Mayor Ed Hagedorn observation spot overlooking the bay, and various other projects along the way. On the ride back to Puerto Princesa, the thing that impressed us the most was a larger than life banner declaring "This quarry was ordered closed by City Mayor Edward S. Hagedorn and is now undergoing rehabilitation: We are building the Babylon Gardens of Puerto Princessa Eco-park".
The banner declares the quarry ordered closed by Mayor Edward Hagedorn
The new park's 5 elements are "Planet ecosystems, Sustainable planet, World of leisure, Extreme sports planet, and World of bible." Again, so many questions- can a Mayor close a quarry by himself? Wouldn't someone like a judge have to get involved? There is a much deeper back story than I could possibly hope to get in to here (e.g. earlier this year an anti-mining advocate was assassinated and Mayor Ed's political rivals were still pending).

What is this Mayor not involved with?
A short ride from that banner is another that shows a large portrait of the Mayor sponsoring the "1st Mayor Edward S Hagedorn World Shoot Qualifier Match" for Practical Shooting (which is something like sharp shooting on an obstacle course). The background photo for the banner? The Puerto Princesa Underground River, naturally.

The City Loves the Mayor: Puerto Princesa Underground River part 2

[This is the second in a series of posts about the Puerto Princesa Underground River, in celebration of it winning the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World competition. This post talks about a local Mayor that helped popularize the river and had a role in the science along the way.]

The day we arrived in Puerto Princesa, our motor-tricycle driver said the traffic was bad because everyone was preparing for Mayor Hagedorn's birthday. The main street had a dozen or more glossy banners that read, for example, "Happy 1000000x Birthday Mayor Ed... Tunay Na Lider" (translated: "True Leader"). After a large celebration at the City Coliseum, everybody that was anybody attended the gala dinner at the hotel we were staying at. We decided to gatecrash the banquet and see what happened. When we told them we were from overseas they said "Of course you can come, all foreign dignitaries are special guests". With that, we were escorted to sit in the "friends" section.
A-List celebrities on the Red Carpet at the Mayor's Birthday
The hundreds of family, government workers, businessmen and other admirers in the banquet hall erupted into cheering and applause at the arrival of the Mayor. We didn't quite know what to make of his celebrity status. We come from countries where people make cautious investments of trust and enthusiasm in politicians, but otherwise hold them in at least mild disdain. We have been taught to be skeptical any time that there is a devoted following to anyone really, even Hollywood Stars. For example, I have something of a personal fascination with cults of personality, such as in North Korea where every wall has a picture of Kim Jong-il on it and he seems responsible for mythical, super-human accomplishments. When I was 11 years old, my favorite t-shirt read "Abuse of power comes as no surprise" (a quote from Jenny Holzer).

A wide-shot of the Mayor's banquet

City workers perform a traditional dance for entertainment
However, Mayor Ed, as he is widely known, has been Mayor for nearly 20 years and it only took 3 years in office before someone made an action movie about his life. Indeed, we met a producer that has been shadowing the Mayor in recent years and is about to finish another documentary about him (named "The City in a Forest", the city's motto). The documentary-maker described driving in the Mayor's motorcade through poor neighborhoods, passing out gifts from the Mayor's personal savings in envelopes to those on the street. As an aside, the birthday banquet dinner was also completely free, covered by the Mayor (and donations I'm assuming?) The background art for the Mayor's birthday banner was nearly life-sized photo of the Underground River.

Although most of the punchlines were in Filipino and this entertainer slayed. People were falling out of their chairs laughing at his jokes. Note boats paddling into into Underground River in the center of the banner.  
On introduction, Mayor Ed indicated to the crowd that it had been a long day, that he had made many appearances including hospitals (where he also makes significant personal donations). Later that night, a young girl in wheelchair made a speech that it was her dream to give the Mayor a gift of walking to him and hugging him, as thanks for returning her ability to walk. When she finished her miracle walk there was not a dry eye in the entire house, myself included. 

The Mayor (center) hugs a girl he helped give the gift of walking again.
Anyhow, to say the Mayor is engaged and approachable is an understatement. Throughout the night, famous entertainers and beauty queens (in full tiara and formal wear) sung the mayor's praises, literally and figuratively. It was a non-stop set of handshakes and requests for photos with him. I saw someone chase after him into the bathroom. On the Underground River's contact webpage, the Mayor's cellphone is listed as one of the primary contacts, a few lines above the number for the tourism office.

When I asked to talk with someone who knew a lot about the Underground River's geology, the park's management pointed me the delightfully named Doctor Socrates (or Doc Soc, as he is locally known). Doc Soc has a fascinating story in his own right, the logo on his stationary is a medical stethoscope and a rock hammer. One of the acronymed qualifications after his name is DOG ("Doctor of Orthopaedics and Geologist"... How many DOGs are part of that society?)  He doesn't charge any of his patients money and according to one story, "he launched a public crusade against a big hotel in Puerto Princesa City for its refusal to admit him because he wore slippers instead of shoes during a public function." He was a finalist for Banyaning Pilipino (Philippine hero) of the Year.

Doctor Socrates accepting a UN World Health Organization award (source)
After bumping in to him at the Mayor's banquet (of course he was there, everybody was), Doctor Socrates pointed me towards a thick folio of background materials on the geology of the underground river at the city tourism office. The Underground River's folio is actually dozens of letters to and from the Mayor and other politicians and scientific societies. Geologists mapped the area thirty years ago and named the area of rocks around the Underground River the "Saint Paul Limestone" Rock Formation. Imagine a crocodile laying in a river, with only the tip of his snout exposed; the Underground River/Saint Paul area is the geological equivalent of his nose poking out on-shore, connected to a giant mass of limestone (the crocodile's body) that continues offshore underwater.

Now imagine a second snout coming onshore some ways to the north. This second area (called "El Nido") is it's own tourist destination and is a separate region from Puerto Princesa. The problem is that thirty years ago, much like connecting one nose to the wrong body, the geologists mislabeled the offshore limestone as being part of El Nido. The letters in the folio were all about a battle to rename the underwater El Nido formation and join it with the Saint Paul formation.

Why should anybody care?

[Hang in there, the story continues!]

Saturday, November 12, 2011

A New Natural Wonder of the World: Puerto Princesa Underground River

[Speaking of underground rivers, just a few hours ago the voting closed on who would be included in the New 7 Natural Wonders of the World... One of the winners was the Underground River in the Philippines we visited a few weeks ago! I had been saving up a series of posts about it, but had to write early to celebrate the good news. The river has lots of twists, as does its human story, so we'll read about it over a series of posts. Here's part 1 -- Tom]

We didn't have plans for the first night we arrived in Puerto Princesa, but somehow we ended up at the Mayor's birthday party. We had come to the Philippines to see the Puerto Princesa Underground River, a hydrologic oddity that stands out on many accounts. Unexpectedly, we also discovered a wildly popular politician who can list fixing geologists' mistakes among his many accomplishments. The science of the river also plays a subtle role in local and international geopolitical conflicts. And here we thought this would just be a vacation spot.

Location of Puerto Princesa Underground River (modified from here)
The centerpiece of eco-tourism on the island of Palawan is the Puerto Princesa Underground River. It was considered the world's longest (at 8.2 km) until someone discovered a 10 km underground river in Mexico. Instead, it enters the record books with an asterisk as the longest underground river "in Asia" or the longest "navigable" underground river. In 1992, the management of the river was transferred from the federal to the city government, an unusual step that has been surprisingly successful. The whole area has been described as a model of local governance, conservation, and sustainability. Tourism has been increasing hand over fist in the area in the last 10 years.

Where the River goes into the ground at Daylight Hole. Only the dedicated few hike up to this spot (source).  
Where the River pours out into the ocean.
First off, how did the River get underground? Sometime over 20 million years ago, things in the ocean died, as they do. Their bodies sank to the bottom and left deposits that turned into carbonate. Among other things in the cave, they just found a mint condition fossil of a sea cow/manatee from 20 million years ago literally sticking out of the wall.
20 million year old sea cow fossil bones in Underground River cave walls (source). This is just beyond the limits of  where the tourist boats currently go. 
As tectonic plates shifted, some of these deposits rose above sea level. Carbonate dissolves in water more easily than other rocks and so as rainwater-turned-groundwater seeped through, some of the rock was left behind as carbonate was washed away. Small empty spaces inside the rocks started to grow and grow. When this process gained momentum, entire underground caverns formed. Most caves have water dripping through them (forming the well known stalactites and stalagmites), but in the case of Puerto Princesa, one of the caverns opened to the surface and an entire river flowed in, and this now continues all the way through the cave and to the ocean. This didn't just start recently, some of the upper parts of the cave are now dry; water used to flow through them but they have been cut off from the river as the mountains continue to get pushed up.

Map of the Underground River from one of the kiosks
A few things make this river especially special, as outlined by La Venta (an Italian team of cavers that have studied the region up one side and down the other). The River empties into the ocean so part of the water in the cave is fresh and part of it is salty and this changes with the river flow and the tides. The cave has over 10 million swallows and bats among other living things. The bat poo mixed with seeping cave minerals make for some rare types of stones. Although tourists can access fairly impressive rocks, the currently off-limits area has some dazzling crystals. La Venta has a series of really quite good videos (1234) and a photo gallery that capture the Underground River and its crystal caves. La Venta isn't just doing this for fun, they measure all kinds of things inside the cave and have published several scientific articles. They also have facebook pages and galleries, some of which are shown here:

Facebook photos of features of the Underground River (source and source).
Many caves are extremely fragile because they have been sealed off from the outside environment. Opening them up to visitors disrupts the balance, damaging the structures. It's a bit like something starting to spoil once its packaging is opened. This damage is just from a chemical/heat point of view, never mind outright vandalism (in a cave I visited in Arizona, folks in the previous century would fire off pistols to impress their dates... That cave now has a giant metal door and airlock to control changes in temperature and humidity, among other things).

This is what my photos looked like. Using a flash in the giant caverns is pointless. 
In comparison, Puerto Princesa's Underground River has water sloshing in and out and creatures flying about. By one back of the envelope calculation, 150,000  people would have to live in the cave full-time sweating and letting off body heat to match the natural energy fluxes. So go ahead and visit the cave, guilt free! The cave is so accessible that even someone who can't walk could do the tour (I speak from experience, read more later).

Aside from being scientifically unique, the river also has a twisty political back story. Which brings us back to Mayor Ed Hagedorn, a driving force behind popularizing the river... Meanwhile, back at the Mayor's birthday party...


Nepal's Flood Early Warning Awareness Song

One of the greatest challenges of river forecasting in Nepal is communicating messages out to remote communities. Recently I found a song that was written as part of a competition to build awareness about flooding. It was sponsored by Practical Action a non-governmental organization that uses technology to challenge poverty around the world. Practical Action tried a long list of approaches and song competitions seemed to be the most effective and popular.

Local song competition about flood warning (source)
Even translated into English, the song is catchy!

Early Warning Awareness Song

If heavy rain falls in Dang
We get information from Chepang

Phone calls, siren rings
News will spread all around

“Warning, warning” says the team
Everyone wake up from your dream

Take your belongings
Save your life
As you hear the news

Collect your documents
Collect your jewelleries
Collect everything that you need

Phone calls, siren rings
News will spread all around

Run to the shelter
Run to the shelter
And help others reach the shelter

Do not forget old people
Do not forget the pregnant women
And those unable to walk
And also those unable to talk
Lastly don’t forget anyone
Especially the most vulnerable

“Search, search” screams the team
Rescue all those who scream

Phone calls, siren rings
News will spread all around.

Composed and sung in Tharu language by
Awareness Youth Club, Gulariya-6, Bardiya

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Streamgage spotting in Nepal

I have only a few simple pleasures, but stumbling upon a streamgage without intending to is one of them. This even happened on my birthday this year. Along the picturesque road from Kathmandu to Pokhara my streamgage spotting sense was on overload but there were plenty of false alarms.

There are many kinds of streamgages but nearly all of them measure a river's height (or depth, if you're a glass-is-half-empty type person). A basic manual gage is just an oversized ruler planted in the riverbed to show the stream's depth. Most automated gages drop a line down to the water surface where there's a floating bobber; the depth is measured by how long the line is. This line is encased in what is called a stilling well, a long tube. There are good in-depth stories about streamgages and what they do and there is another presentation here.  
A proper streamgage in foreground (source)
The gages have to withstand floods so they are heavily armored. They are usually in easy to access places, such as next to bridges where roads cross rivers.

One of Nepal's main highways is just shy of being two lanes wide, one in each direction. Vehicles barrel around blind turns, snaking through the mountains with sheer drop offs and no guard rails. We saw two accidents including a large truck that had rolled off the side of the road. Understandably, landslides are a major concern in the region because once a road is blocked, there are not many other options.

I would guess one-third of the six hour car ride from Kathmandu to Pokhara rides alongside rivers, so I spent most of the day trying to crane my neck at bridge crossings if I could spot any streamgages. I was on the lookout for something that looked like a small shed with a door on it.

The truck on the right gives a sense of the speed, it is all a blur
The bad news for me is that there are lots and lots of things that look like streamgages in Nepal.

Small shed with door. In the right context, it might pass as a streamgage. 
There are many small roadside shrines that could be mistaken for streamgages. Here is one at Fewa Lake:

The give-away for the temples are their two-tiered shape. It was nice to think of streamgages as being like sacred places, just because of how important they are and how seers (hydrologists) use their wisdom (data) to divine prophecy (forecasts).

From the speed of the road, however, a shrine like the below might quicken your pulse  

If you take the $5 bus (for six hours from Kathmandu to Pokhara) you'll be packed in like a human terrine, or can opt to ride on the roof. Because I am weaning off crutches we indulged in a private car with a driver. The first time our car backfired, it sounded like a tire had exploded, but otherwise it was great. 

Our driver, Krishna, was friendly and cheery but we had a limited vocabulary in common. The main advantage of a private car is that you can stop whenever you want, say, to take pictures of scenic overlooks. Occasionally something that looked like a streamgage would come into view as we rounded a corner or crossed a bridge and we'd excitedly (and unexpectedly) yell out to stop. We can only imagine what Krishna thought the common theme of our requests were. I don't think many people take photos of the hydropower plant:

It may not look like these two trucks could pass, but they did without slowing down
One time we saw a shed with a door that looked something like the below.

Could be a streamgage...
We careened off to the side of the road and came to a stop. I excitedly jumped out and hobbled over to the building. I had been fiddling with my camera to get ready to take a photo, when the door opened up and a Nepali man stepped out. 

It turns out that closet-sized buildings like this with a small triangle window are outhouses (toilets). 

The man was a little startled and thoroughly confused as to why I was taking a picture of him coming out of the loo. Traffic kept roaring past in both directions, horns tooting. 

We stood in awkward silence until I said "Namaste" (Hello).

He said "Where are you from?"  

You would think this would be an easy question to answer. I took longer than I probably should have before replying "Australia-America". 

He paused and said "Mmn, Australia-America is a good country". 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Hydrologic oddities: My first underground river

The first strange river I ever heard of was the Middle Fork of the Popo Agie. At Sinks Canyon State Park, an hour west of Lander Wyoming as the river flows (or 10-15 minutes as the car goes), the Popo Agie River dives into a cave and then calmly emerges a brief walk downstream. The pace of the river seems a bit like racing into a bathroom stall and then strolling out, relieved, except in this case the river returns a bit larger than when it went in.

The Sinks (source) where the river goes in
The Rise (source) where it comes out. Note swarms of fish in lower right.

Because it has an unusual pronunciation, I had read and heard the name "Popo Agie" for months before I put it all together. It's not poh poh aggie (as in rhymes with Maggie). It's pronounced poe (as in Edgar Allen--) poe-juh (as in juh, justice). Puh pojuh. Such a mixup would cause exasperated sighing and eye-rolling from the locals, as if one was pronouncing japaleno with a j (as in Japan) instead of an h.

The river travels about 10 miles (16 km) from the mountains before reaching "The Sink". It then goes underground for about 1/4 mile (400 meters) until it reaches the "The Rise". It would be the distance-to-age equivalent of a high school student's 3 month summer vacation. What a memorable summer that must have been! Also, if streamflow were a person's weight, the river would have put on the equivalent of about 25 pounds after it came back from vacation.  The stories it could tell.

The large view. The river flows from the mountains and out of the canyon onto the plains. 
The close up view. The river "sinks" in the lower left and rises again downstream in the upper right. 

Even though I had been a surface water hydrologist for about five years, the idea of a disappearing river made my mind swim. For a given sized area, drier areas had smaller rivers than wetter areas, clearly. I also pictured some rivers like the Colorado getting exhausted from overuse, limping along until dying of thirst before reaching the ocean. The image of a river willingly disappearing, though, in it's prime, seemed like hydrologic death and resurrection.

The rocks in the area (like for most strange rivers) are limestone, carved in part by glaciers. Water dissolves some of the ground as it passes through limestone, like sugar in tea. The rocks can have empty pockets underground that eventually can get big enough to form caverns. Sometimes these pockets are partly exposed to the surface and rivers can flow in.

In the case of the Popo Agie, the water collects underground and seeps through the rock until it comes to the surface in a placid pool called "The Rise". A couple weeks a year, when the flow gets very high, the cave backs up, starts to overflow and connects up with the downstream through conventional overland means like more normal rivers do. If you want to see what the river is up to right now (some ways downstream), you can see the data here, as well as many photos of the river gage itself.

Relatively little is known about what is happening to the river while it is underground, because it is impossible to go into the cave. Instead, students, as part of a field camp for geology students, put dye in the river upstream and watched it come out downstream (about two to three hours later). It was a bit like splashing paint on cars as they drive into a tunnel and timing when painted cars start coming out the other side.

It was all very different from my textbook vision of how rivers should behave. Imagine if a garden-variety surface water hydrologist was captured, hooded, and released somewhere between The Sink and The Rise without telling him that the underground river existed. If he was asked to model the river flow (this isn't how it usually happens, but let's just pretend), he would probably end up quite confused as to why there is an empty channel. If he never visited the river in person, he might guess that the gage is giving bad data.

The Popo Agie is a very visible example of something dramatic happening to a river because of what is going on underneath the surface. Although the river is the exception rather than the rule, what it made me appreciate was all the other cases in the world where less obvious but still quite quirky things are going on underground.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Maps of Thai Floods and Inside the War Room

In addition to the usual official sources of flood forecasts and the webpage by Google (mentioned previously) there are several new (to me at least) great map-based interfaces to Thai flood information. If these are new, it would be interesting to know if, in this age of the Internet and data sharing, things like this would pop up in other countries like the US or Australia. In my own experience, there has been a lot of interest in realtime flood mapping and prediction from a research-applications sense, but it's rare to see this information being so well shared and repackaged.

Much of the official english-language resources (e.g. summary bulletins) are available at this page: However, a picture is worth a thousand words and the people at our hotel in Bangkok were mostly glued to Thaiflood, refreshing a couple times an hour:

For finer spatial resolution the Thailand Flood Monitoring System has some comparisons of the current situation to a past few years of floods (this is just flood monitoring and historical reference, not forecasts)

The Flood Monitoring System is a clearing house for satellite data, the office of which is shown below (and there's a gallery of photos of the office in action)

The GIS "War Room"

This "Longdo" page has more flood monitoring, including realtime video cameras for various roads:
Longdo also has overlays of flood direction

This United Nations sponsored webpage UNITAR-UNOSAT also allows people to upload Geotagged digital photos and combines it with various layers of information, such as flood extent:
Red color is flooded areas, green circles are locations/directions of photos
Again, all this is just flood monitoring, but for maps of forecasts, the Bangkok Post recently posted an image from the Disaster Warning Centre, describing a "Worst-case scenario". This somewhat resembles Bangkok's land elevation map, the medium blue areas in the south center area being the lower elevations  (and hence some of the deeper flooding).

A phrase like the "worst case scenario" is a double-edged sword. This is the kind of information that decision-makers crave and request from forecasters. But what is the chance of this worst case scenario happening? 1 in 3? 1 in 10? 1 in 100? History is filled with examples of where the actual outcome was above the worst case scenario and decisionmakers ended being very resentful of this. Of course, forecasters could instead conjure up a wildly high scenario (e.g. take the above map and multiply it by 3), but this leads to wasteful overplanning and its own form of resentment. 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Millions of blue whales threaten Bangkok

Aside from an angry mob using sledgehammers to try and break a sluice gate near Bangkok to relieve flooding in their area, the biggest threat right now seems to be the equivalent of 50 million blue whales worth of water approaching the city.

"People's lives get disrupted by these whales" (source)
A private citizen and animator made a bunch of fun yet informative and timely videos about the Bangkok flood. They compare the volume of flood water to the size of blue whales... Each whale is about 200 cubic meters and the total flood is about 100 billion cubic meters (or 81 million acre-feet if you aren't metric... that's 6 whales per acre-foot).

All of the videos are subtitled in English and have a 2-dimensional animation style not unlike South Park. So far here's the videos they've made:

Video 1: Why are the floods happening?
Video 2: How do you figure out the risk of flooding at your house?
Video 3: How do you prepare for the floods before they happen?
Video 4: What to do if you are actually flooded?
Video 5: How to handle displacement and evacuation?