Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Margin of Error

In the quest for scientific truth, there is little mention of the fact that during the course of controlled experiment or the gathering of data that the failure of the soda pop machine to dispense the right change to the research scientists altered the outcome of the research to a statistically significant degree. That explains why the space capsule landed in another hemisphere, upside down. Not only did the soda pop machine have such an effect, but so did the bacterially-active bologna and mayonnaise sandwich prepared by the kitchen staff. And the brittle cataracts in the researcher's eyes. And the phone call in the afternoon from the cousin in jail asking for bail money. This is the Wonderful World of Science. Ignore the convict behind the curtain, you are looking at Great Truths.
I think a lot about that phone call from the incarcerated relative, begging for lunch money and a pie with metal-file filling, as I walk about the boreal forest in northern Minnesota in search of things that in all probability do not exist but cannot be excluded without an all-knowing frame of reference, which frame of reference can be approximated through statistically significant sample sizes, generally numbering well less than infinity, which, doggonnit, invariably fail to consider that one sample that contains that which you, in the end, had assumed not to exist. Maybe if we maintain the sample size but enlarge the number of identical studies we can exclude the possibility. Or maybe if we have a massive amount of people say the same thing we can make it come true. Why, the sheer force of my personality might do it. But I am on a tangent and I am struggling to stay on point, as are the rest of my colleagues.
It was a lazy day about the woods and I thought it fine to engage in some informal postulations, perhaps stumbling upon some Higher Truth along the way. Make haste, I said, for a moment you can imagine that the cause of humanity rests on your shoulders. I observed: 1) I am a carbohydrate burning vessel. 2) I exude carbon dioxide 3) I attract carbon dioxide seeking organisms. Perhaps, I surmised, I can determine my "Carbon Footprint" by measuring exactly how many of such organisms were attracted to my person. Determining the total surface area I occupied at that moment, I arrived at 1.94 square meters, a figure, I discovered, that was identical to the amount of surface area occupied by the eleven heavily carbonated feral cats that lived behind our house in South Dakota in 1991 or the eight bottles of Fonseca Vintage Port 1970 in the wine rack. The wine caught the attention of a group of my colleagues, and all at once they set upon a rigorous regression analysis. For two hours, they carried out 16 repeated measurements involving eight independent variables. They found that after each measurement, the dependent variable approached zero. They were on to something. The unknown parameter appeared to be within grasp. They thought it might have something to do with the pizza delivery boy appearing seven times, clearly a random variable, but the exact function wasn't known. But they abandoned the study at the last measure; for all the while they had been carrying on they had found that their own surface area had expanded to a shocking degree, well beyond what anyone would have predicted. The phone rang and it was my cousin again.
Anyhow, a census of the black fly population that taxied about my surface area revealed 6,432 flies. This is some 3000 flies per square meter. Now to be useful, one might say that I need to measure my carbon output and I need to compare this to other carbon producers. But I have already determined that these are 6,432 random variables at any given moment in an environment where I, of 2 square meters, am in search of a species which depends upon my observation for its survival. This search is through third-growth recovering forest, stripped of old growth characteristics, choked with aspen clones and hazelnut thickets and mountain maple and balsam fir deadfall, all observed through the matrix of mosquito netting and the haze of fogged prescription glasses, beaded with rain and perspiration, while an electrolyte-depleted circulatory system produces leg cramps and heat exhaustion and iron streaked rocks send the compass spinning like a roulette wheel and the black flies sound like rain as they bombard my clothing and this is supposed to determine the nonexistence of an object in a 50-acre patch of forest.
The formula should read something like:

Where Y is the rare plant frequency and X represents independent variables including survey intensity, stand potential, phenological stage, light intensity, deadfall proliferation, drought index, spruce budworm kill factor, seral stage, deer density, slope, soil moisture, wind speed, surveyor education, surveyor experience, surveyor organizational skill, surveyor lactate levels, electrolyte imbalance, neurotransmittor depletion, excess body temperature, eyeglass opacity, cornea deterioration, cognitive disassembly, caffeine-induced confidence, memory loss, methamphetamine lab density, mosquito netting shear strength, boot porosity, pencil loss, blister quotient, degree of disorientation, fungal growth rate, bone fracture, anxiety level, battery failure, life insurance dollar amount, declining profit margins, and bitter regret. Each E represents one of 6,432 black flies.
I think I am on to something. Here we begin to figure out the value of B. The dependent variable Y is inversely proportional to the value of the independent variable X and the error factor E. As X and E increase, Y decreases. So let me get this straight: This is to say, as the probability of the existence of a rare species approaches zero, so do I.

From northern Minnesota:
Dryopteris fragrans, or Fragrant fern. Rare in WI, but common in MN. Very pleasant smell when crushed. Found on sheltered, vertical cliff face, typical habitat.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Anytown, ND

As I walk, I feel the need to run.
Children used to skip along on the sidewalks in this town. There were twelve blocks here, each ringed by sidewalks that passed tall homes with porches, whitewashed churches, a high school, a courthouse, and a business district with the glass storefronts and two story facades and stamped metal siding and bald men in aprons standing behind counters. People watched parades from these sidewalks, and weddings and funerals and political speeches and auctions. They waved to neighbors here. They raised families.
The children would race along these sidewalks, breathless, until they came upon crude squares drawn on the sidewalk with stolen chalk. They would skid to a stop, piling up behind the leader like cattle loading into stock cars. These were the hopscotch squares. They would appear each afternoon at a different location along the sidewalk corridor. Nobody seemed to know who drew them. The children would fall into line, silently arranging their clothes. Then, one by one, each would balance himself, measure his step and hop along in sequences of one or two feet, counting aloud to the last square. Then they would run along. Think of it. A few minutes balancing over distorted geometric figures etched by unseen hands accomplished more than nine months staring at a shock-haired teacher scribbling circular madness on slate.
Seventy years later, the sidewalks are overgrown with caragana and lilac bushes. The town has been stripped of population by war, drought, dust, accident, debt, boredom, and disillusionment. The chalk is gone. The school was struck by lightning and burned down. The last mayor died decades ago. The church buried its last parishioner. The children stopped counting.
Now it is night. It is winter, January, deep in January, when the sun cannot bear to watch. When winter charges out of the boreal forests of Saskatchewan, raging and slicing, and slays everything in its path. When clouds race in front of the moon as fast as movie frames, piling up on the southeastern horizon. The alcohol in the thermometer freezes. Windmills shatter and send wooden slats into the air. Cattle stagger blindly into ravines and are buried by drifting snow. My eyelids stick together, tears freeze on my face, frost forms on my hood. I cannot feel my feet. The drifts harden like concrete. I grope along one flat snowdune like an old man on the way to the saloon. I lose track. I feel the stinging insult, I hear the barking order to leave right now.
There is a grain elevator towering above me. Augers dangle from the walls probing for spilled grain. Broken windows sound a toothless whistle. A mercury vapor light washes away color. The wind runs across the corrugated steel like a child with a stick running along a picket fence. The panels rattle and shudder and peel away. The entire elevator sways. Snow drifts accumulate on the south side of the elevator, forming a dune across the railroad tracks, tracks abandoned thirty years ago.
I can see in the moonlight the steeple of the old church, two blocks to the south, standing above the 100 year old elms. It is no longer white. Decades of wind, hail, rain, snow, dust and neglect have stripped it, revealing the raw ashen wood returning to the dust from which it came. The church bell rings in the wind, steadily, unwaveringly, like a ship's bell sounding distress. And it rings in time with the swaying of the grain elevator. I look up and now the power lines and phone lines have the same rhythm. And the road signs. And the courthouse flagpole. It's harmony. The entire town sways.
I hear it, I get the message. I run.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Market Day

The grass chattered as we passed, carried against our will by some 40 mile an hour, subzero wind that charged from the Alberta prairie, broke through a border crossing, and kidnapped us on the open range. We raised our guns but we were subdued. Eyes filled with tears, faces turned down, we surrendered. Grain silos shuddered. Power lines wailed. They say the customs agent turned his head.
It's Shopping for Organically Fed Venison with your host, James Nauertz.
Every year, there is a price: It could be a long, cold, gray arm that reaches out of the slurried, bottomless creek and pulls one of us under, a muffled shout, then silence. Did you say something? Or maybe you are on your knees, in penitent mood, exposed to the world beneath a full moon, winds blowing the snow like desert sand, while you pound on the side of the locked camper like Fred Flintstone. Or you are creeping along unnamed roads, shadowed by an angry rancher or two, activist frontier justices, single-handedly redefining the limits of the first and fourth amendments, anti-federalists, a domestic faction searching of a large, captive audience. Usually there is an evening at Edith Dysentary's cafe, with the badly charred chef, and bowls of fluffy Cryptosporidium Soup, self-replicating dinnerware, four-dimensional jello, a scenic tour of the petroglyphs mounting at the salad bar, and diversion provided by the seven-armed waitress and her daughter, Methyl. Just can't take your eyes off it.
Not a very fair trade, I figure, as we drag a mule deer across the prairie against its will. I will never get used to this.

James Nauertz, Neighborhood Food Pantry, exploring the niche.