Categories
Nature ruminations

Welcome, Brood X Cicadas

Next month, if all goes well, Ann Arbor will be overrun by millions of Magicicada septendecim, the seventeen-year cicada. I am giddy with anticipation.

Why am I so excited? I think the cicadas are arriving at just the right moment in my life, in terms of both time and biophilia.

The timing is fortunate. At 3, 6, and 10 years old, my kids will be old enough to appreciate the insects and still young enough to feel wonder. My oldest is already on board: she amassed a collection of cicada shells from more regular “annual” cicadas that emerged in recent years. The next time these cicadas emerge, my kids will be grown, and I may be an empty nester. My oldest will be the age I was when she was born.

I’ve experienced periodical cicadas twice so far, in both cases Brood XIII in Chicago. I was 6 in 1990 and vaguely remember the insects’ ubiquitous noise and bodies. When that brood resurfaced in 2007, I was 23, and have no memories of cicadas from that year. I lived in a 24th-floor apartment in downtown Chicago – maybe there was too much concrete to support any cicadas. I remember my friend Boyu, who was working in the western Chicago suburbs over the summer, telling stories of brushing his car off before getting in and still ending up with cicadas inside. But for the timing to work, I think that would have been stragglers emerging off-year in 2003, which I would have missed in the city.

Now the reverse is true: I’m in the right part of the state for this year’s Brood X emergence. Much of Michigan will miss the cicadas, but Ann Arbor should be as reliable a place as any to experience them.

This will be my third visit with periodical cicadas. Brood X will next emerge in 2038 (I’ll be 54), 2055 (71), and 2072 (88, if I last that long). After this summer, half of my cicada seasons will be behind me.

The cicadas are also coming at the right time for me to appreciate them. In the last year or two I’ve become more appreciative of, knowledgeable of, in love with the natural world. I’m learning about animals, trees, and as much of life on this wondrous planet as I can, cultivating my biophilia. It blew my mind to learn about oak trees evolving to have mast years, where in some years they sync up and together produce an unusually-large crop of acorns to overwhelm predators. Periodical cicadas have evolved a similar mechanism of using staggered timing to their advantage: when they emerge in such great numbers, predators can’t eat them all.

What an incredible feat of evolution, to lie in wait for seventeen years and emerge in concert! I find that outcome especially neat given that at this point, they only reproduce as often as humans do. When the parents of this year’s Brood X cicadas walked the earth, George W. Bush was still president. They wait so long for just a short couple of months above ground. It reminds me of tree time or rock time, timescales slower than our human experience. This strategy has been slowly optimized over millions of years. What to me is a rare, long-awaited, blog-worthy event is just the next repetition of their experiment.

I feel lucky to be living in the right place and right moment for this event. It’s a six-in-a-lifetime occurrence and I don’t even have to leave my neighborhood to enjoy it. This weekend, I’ll pick up a book on cicadas from the library to prepare myself, and look forward to May and June. May this brood be as thick and deafening as ever.

Categories
#rstats Data analysis ruminations Work

Reflections on five years of the janitor R package

One thing led to another. In early 2016, I was participating in discussions on the #rstats Twitter hashtag, a community for users of the R programming language. There, Andrew Martin and I met and realized we were both R users working in K-12 education. That chance interaction led to me attending a meeting of education data users that April in NYC.

Going through security at LaGuardia for my return flight, I chatted with Chris Haid about data science and R. Chris affirmed that I’d earned the right to call myself a “data scientist.” He also suggested that writing an R package wasn’t anything especially difficult.

My plane home that night was hours late. Fired up and with unexpected free time on my hands, I took a few little helper functions I’d written for data cleaning in R and made my initial commits in assembling them into my first software package, janitor, following Hilary Parker’s how-to guide.

That October, the janitor package was accepted to CRAN, the official public repository of R packages. I celebrated and set a goal of someday attaining 10,000 downloads.

Yesterday janitor logged its one millionth download, wildly exceeding my expectations. I thought I’d take this occasion to crunch some usage numbers and write some reflections. This post is sort of a baby book for the project, almost five years in.

By The Numbers

This chart shows daily downloads since the package’s first CRAN release. The upper line (red) is weekdays, the lower line (green) is weekends. Each vertical line represents a new version published on CRAN.

From the very beginning I was excited to have users, but this chart makes that exciting early usage seem miniscule. janitor’s most substantive updates were published in March 2018, April 2019, and April 2020, with it feeling more done each time, but most user adoption has occurred more recently than that. I guess I didn’t have to worry so much about breaking changes.

Another way to look at the growth is year-over-year downloads:

YearDownloadsRatio vs. Prior Year
2016-1713,284
2017-1847,3043.56x
2018-19161,4113.41x
2019-20397,3902.46x
2020-21 (~5 months)383,5956
Download counts are from the RStudio mirror, which does not represent all R user activity. That said, it’s the only available count and the standard measure of usage.
Categories
ruminations

Plans and aspirations for 2021

Here are some plans and ideas for this year. I’m late, in the sense that this would be a better January post, but no regrets – that’s mostly because I’ve been doing some of this already.

Professional: this is my biggest change in 2021! I left my past job analyzing education data and began this month as a Data Analyst at the City of Ann Arbor. It’s an exciting opportunity: subject matter I’m passionate about, work that will challenge me technically, building new relationships, and heeding the call of public service. And if/when we eventually go back to working in-person, city hall is a short bike ride away.

The change is a big leap in a lot of ways. Two major ones are returning to an individual contributor role after years of managing and shifting from the rhythms of consulting to those of government.

For years I’ve said my dream job was to do municipal data science, like the big teams in NYC or Chicago or Los Angeles, but here in Ann Arbor. This is as close to that dream as it gets, which is pretty incredible. I’m still getting up to speed (yesterday was day 8) but it looks like there’s no end of interesting work to do.

Categories
Local reporting Parenting ruminations

Let’s plan now for COVID-resilient school next year

In July I predicted that there would be no in-person instruction for Ann Arbor Public Schools this entire school year. Unfortunately, that prediction is looking accurate. Let’s start planning for September 2021.

The discussion among the district, board, and parents seems focused on reopening this year. At what level of disease activity, and which safety precautions, would be enough for kids to begin going to school? At least, that seemed to be the discussion a month ago, when disease levels were lower and other districts in SE Michigan (including some in Washtenaw County, like Saline and Dexter) were sending kids to school.

Especially with the current COVID surge now shutting down those other districts, it seems likely that reopening this year is not in the cards for Ann Arbor Public Schools. Given that, I fear we’re wasting precious time and energy debating possibilities and metrics for reopening this year. It echoes what happened this summer, when time spent considering possibilities for in-person instruction would have been better used on improving systems for remote instruction.

Categories
ruminations

Celebrating Eyedea, the greatest to ever freestyle

Today I remember Eyedea, aka Micheal Larsen, who died ten years ago. “Who’s the best rapper ever?” is an unanswerable question, but when it comes specifically to freestyling, Eyedea is the Greatest Of All Time.

As a hip-hop-loving teen in the early 2000s, I traded Eyedea’s mp3s on peer-to-peer sharing services like Napster and KaZaa. He was only two years older than me and yet by 18 he had already vanquished all comers to become the undisputed champion of battle rap. He got bored of battling and moved on, but his freestyles never got old to me. Here are some of my favorites, both battles and whimsical freestyles. If you never heard them, you’re in for a treat. Even a layperson can appreciate the greatest of all time putting on a master class, in anything.

Battles

CityPages has a list of five great Eyedea battles, with embedded videos. The first one listed, from HBO’s Blaze Battle tournament in 2000 (which Eyedea won), is a classic. When his opponent starts dancing to distract him, Eyedea immediately builds his final rhymes around that: “this cat wants to be my backup dancer!”

This is the best part of Eyedea’s freestyles: they’re so clearly extemporaneous. So many recordings and appearances billed as “freestyles” are obviously pre-written. No surprise, as even skilled rappers struggle to make up decent rhymes entirely on the fly. Eyedea’s flows are indisputably improvised, as shown by his ability to respond to opponents in battles (and friends in cyphers).

Friendly freestyles

The greatest freestyle session ever recorded is also a settled matter: the 2000 KFAI Orphanage freestyle. Here’s Blueprint’s description of the legendary session, but more importantly here’s the recording: 45 glorious minutes of freestyles, as indie rap icons trade the mic back and forth.

Categories
Gardening ruminations

Invasive plant sukkot

I write this during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. “Sukkot” is the plural of sukkah, the temporary hut that Jews construct for the fall harvest holiday.

I had an epiphany this year: build the sukkah out of buckthorn! Common buckthorn is an aggressive invasive species that plagues the city of Ann Arbor, the state of Michigan, and the Great Lakes region. Since a friend showed me some growing near my house, I notice it everywhere and take pleasure in removing it, as outnumbered as I am in that fight. I’ve cleared it at my previous home in Scio Township, at my in-laws in East Lansing, and now pull it from city parks.

A sukkah needs a roof of s’chach, or cut plant matter. Buckthorn is perfect for this: it’s slender, long, and leafy. In fact, it could do double-duty: it’s ideal for the roof but larger, thicker specimens could also make up the frame of the sukkah (which can be reused from year to year). At the end of Sukkot, the buckthorn can be disposed of in municipal compost carts, where any berries will be destroyed in the heat of the city’s compost piles.

Categories
Parenting ruminations

Prediction: Ann Arbor Public Schools will be completely virtual for the 2020-21 school year

It suddenly seems clear to me that plans for in-person instruction this year are wishful thinking at best and a distraction at worst.

A viable plan for in-person school would require (a) re-imagining how schools operate and (b) additional funding for implementation. The district probably can’t pull off the first on its own and the second is definitely outside its control. In a better world, leadership at the state and federal levels would contribute ideas and funding. In such a world, we might even contain COVID-19 to the point that kids and teachers can return to school without imaginative plans.

But based on the last few months and where things stand now, I bet kids won’t set foot in Ann Arbor Public Schools classrooms this entire school year.  Anyone want to wager I’m wrong?

Here’s hoping I can return to this post in coming months and laugh at how foolishly pessimistic I was.  But in the meantime, I’ll plan for the worst.

Categories
DIY Gardening How-to ruminations

Building a hugelkultur mound in a city backyard

This was a leap-of-faith project during Michigan’s bleak COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” period. I’m documenting it here as a plan for building a hugelkultur bed on a small city lot as well as to preserve a pleasant COVID-19 memory. Behold the thriving hugelkultur mound:

It’s exploding with vegetables – see below for pictures of the hill itself

Hugelkultur is a permaculture concept where you pile up organic material (logs, leaves, compost, etc.) and then grow a garden on top of it. Here is a good explanation of hugelkultur and its benefits. It’s also a fun word to say. We refer to our mound as “the hugel” [German for hill].

This was the perfect COVID-19 project. Under lockdown in April, we had nowhere to go. I was spending lots of time with my kids at home during the day. And I wanted to be outside. Building a garden bed with the materials at hand was a small act of protest against the feeling of being dependent on a global supply chain whose fragility had suddenly been exposed. I couldn’t easily get soil or lumber delivered for a conventional raised bed. And crucially, the city’s compost and yard waste collection was about to resume for the spring, so my neighbors had their maximum amount of organic material awaiting disposal.

Starting with a hole

Categories
Books Climate change ruminations

On Timefulness

I enjoyed and was moved by the book Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud. This post is a review & reflection I’m finishing many months after reading it.

“Rates of technological progress far outstrip the rate at which human wisdom matures (in the same way that environmental changes outpace evolutionary adaptation in mass extinction events).” – Marcia Bjornerud, Timefulness

The book has a few threads going at once but the bulk of it is a geological history of the world, in a more layperson-friendly format than a textbook. It’s heavy on the science and I learned a great deal of earth science. For instance:

Categories
Biking Local reporting Parenting ruminations

Today in cars harassing bikes

Based on what I hear from cyclists in other cities, Ann Arbor drivers are relatively kind toward bikes. But maybe they woke up on the wrong side of the bed today, as I was harassed twice while dropping my kids off on the way to work.

I hate it. Car-to-bike yelling and honking carries the underlying threat that the driver could, if they wanted, kill you instantly and likely not even face repercussions. You’re alive because they tolerate you. By virtue of their speed and windows, they dictate when an exchange will happen, when it starts, and when it’s done.

When I get harassed, my heart starts racing, I second-guess myself, I stop chit-chatting with my kids. If I was harassed more often I’d be discouraged from riding my bike, and it’s undoubtedly keeping others off their bikes now.

None of that is news. But the two incidents this morning provided a useful contrast and left me slightly hopeful.

Driver #1: I was biking up Seventh Street north of Huron with two kids on the back. There’s decent room to pass here and cars often do, as they’re unable to on the previous block. A man in a pickup pulled up alongside me and drove parallel to me while he shouted, “that’s seriously unsafe, bro!” Then, not sure what else to add: “Seriously unsafe!” and sped off.

I didn’t have a snappy comeback, and don’t have one now. Bike safety is more complicated than a soundbite. My kids and I were quiet. They were rattled like I was. To the extent our trips to school are dangerous, it’s because a man like this could kill us. So it’s disconcerting to hear a warning from him.

I’ll just note here that the underlying issue is Ann Arbor’s terrible transportation infrastructure. We should not have to share a lane with this truck. In fact, the city just last year considered installing a bike lane on this stretch, but decided to use the space for storage of private cars instead. Yeah, the guy shouldn’t yell at me, but the City of Ann Arbor takes the assist on this one. I used to get harassed on North Maple Road, now there’s a buffered bike lane there.

Driver #2: having dropped the kids, I headed inbound on Miller toward downtown. The bike lane was pure ice so I took the lane. A Pontiac Vibe laid on the horn as it passed me – then had to step on the brake as the light at Seventh turned red. I pulled up alongside the car and told the driver, “the bike lane was full of ice so I had to drive in the car lane, sorry.” He rolled down his window, fumbling for words: “Sorry. It’s just hard.” Pause. “I get too pissed off, I’m sorry.” I smiled, and told him no worries, we are all trying to get to work. “Have a great day!”

His contrition buoyed my spirits and offset the incident with the truck. He was a normal human: a decent person on foot and an impatient, unkind one behind the wheel. This near-universal transformation applies to me, too, and it’s been widely acknowledged since before this 1950 Goofy clip, where driving a car transforms him from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde:

I was lucky to catch Driver #2 at the light for this moment of redemption. It left me optimistic about the power of people to get past differences, see each other as humans worthy of respect, and come together – once we log off our devices and get out of our cars.