Last day, 2019

Funny how baseball works out sometimes. The two wild cards format was supposed to make the final days of the regular season more exciting. But this year it did not quite work out that way.

In the NL, the Cards and Brewers had something on the line right until today, given that one would be Central winner while the other would get sent to the one-game playoff as the second Wild Card. (Today they could have tied for a one-game tiebreaker to determine which was which.) However, if there had been only one Wild Card, it would have been an actual do-or-die to close out the 162-game schedule, as both teams would have been out of the running for the single Wild Card.

In the AL, the A’s and Rays also would have had a nice all-or-nothing for a single Wild Card, but not much was at stake with both of them qualifying. On the positive side, the Indians kept it interesting till the past week. (Sympathies to any Indians fans reading; the team led the Wild Card race much of the year and for a while looked likely to surpass the Twins for the AL Central.)

I’ve said before that this current format is not a good one. (Click the link for “playoffs and world series” for past discussions.) There is no perfect system, of course. And the current format did give us one of the greatest games played in recent decades. Maybe we will have something special in the game on Tuesday or Wednesday.

And it is also the last day of 5779. May we have a good and fruitful 5780!

Tu Bi-Shvat 5779

Tu Bi-Shvat is here! It is the “new year for trees” in Judaism, which here at Fruits and Votes we take as a pretty special occasion. The full moon of the month of Shvat marks one of those seasonal turning points–winter is coming to end (for those of us in northern-hemisphere Mediterranean climates, at least), and the fruit trees will be blooming before long. Traditionally, this observance is said to mark the time when the almond trees begin to bloom in the Land of Israel. Here, where our climate is broadly similar, it is coming a bit too early this year. It makes me think we just might need a second month of Adar, following the first month of Adar that will start with the next new moon in about two weeks. In fact, by the lunisolar calendar used in Judaism, we will indeed have two Adars this year, as otherwise we would be putting ourselves on a path to celebrating Pesach (Passover) too early. It needs to be at the full moon of the first lunar month after the vernal equinox. With the winter solstice only about four weeks behind us, it is indeed a bit early in solar-season terms for the almond trees to be blooming. Here is mine now, for instance.

The buds have been swelling for a while, but it’s not ready to bloom just yet. By comparison, last year buds began swelling around the 9th of January, but the first blooms did not open till the 30th–conveniently, the eve of Tu Bishvat, so right on time! In 2017 it also began its bloom on the eve of Tu Bishvat, even though that happened to be the 10th of February! The range of late January/early February is about right for first almond blooms, and is also generally when Tu Bishvat, but as I elaborate a bit below, the Jewish calendar by no means guarantees that Tu Bishvat will line up with any specific point in the season, but it will always be one of the first two full moons following the winter solstice.

Notwithstanding the date on the Jewish calendar, then, it seems the almond will be a little early, relative to Gregorian calendar dates of past years. And that may be a harbinger of early blooms on many of our fruit trees, something I have expected ever since the surprising bout of chill very early in the season, occasioned in part by the heavy smoke. At least the varieties that are relatively low chill should have had their requirement met by now; given that January has been quite warm, the higher-chill fruits may still be waiting around longer for further chill (which we may not get; outlook is for unseasonably warm weather, which alas, is becoming the new normal).

While the almond may not be blooming for Tu Bishvat this year, just now it is about peak season for some flowering/fruiting trees:

This is an ume apricot in the UC Davis campus, obviously already in full bloom, as of late last week. The ume is traditionally associated with new year in Japan, which on the Chinese version of the lunisolar calendar will be at the next new moon (the one that on the Jewish calendar will be I Adar this year). Chinese years start on the first or second new moon after the winter solstice; the next new moon will be the second.

So we have one “new year” (the Jewish one for trees) that is coming a little too “early” (in solar-season terms), and another one that is coming too late (although I’ll grant that in Japan, two weeks from now might be about “right” for the first ume blooms*). Such are the challenges of lunisolar calendars. On the one hand, the months are true months–i.e., they are set by moon cycles (the root of the word “month” is moon, but Gregorian calendar months have nothing to do the moon). On the other hand, the calendar must be adjusted ever few years by the insertion of additional month to avoid slipping too far out of synch with the solar cycles, if the culture in question (Jewish or East Asian) has annual observances that must keep to the proper season. (The Islamic calendar, for example, is strictly lunar, so there are no such adjustments and thus Ramadan and other observances can occur at any time throughout the solar year.)

While this year’s New Year for Trees may be a bit early, the timing is nonetheless fortuitous in another sense. It coincides with a lunar eclipse. In fact, with a “super blood wolf moon.” The Tu Bi-Shvat seder includes three different kinds of fruits, where the categories are: (1) inedible exterior, edible interior; (2) edible exterior, inedible interior; (3) entirely edible. To mark the occasion of the “blood” moon, our fruit for the first category will be blood oranges, which happen to be in season now.

Let’s all enjoy some good fruit and fruit-tree blooms as spring approaches!

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* Various ume festivals start in early February and run until some time in March.

Smoke and chill

We have been dealing with heavy smoke from the Camp Fire in Butte County, which is a couple hours’ drive north of us. The weather conditions have been such that the smoke has settled and some days it has been like a fog that starts out moderately thick and never totally clears.

What I did not expect was that it would be so cold during this smoky phase. The fire began on 8 November, and the winds that initially made the fire so devastating died down late in the day on the 11th. Since then, we have had six straight mornings with low temperatures at 36F or lower, including three at 32 and two more at 33. This is substantially colder than the norm for this time of year. Usually–at least in the years I have been at this location–we do not get a morning below 32 until some time in December.

The NWS forecast discussion last night mentioned, “The smoke is keeping temperatures below normal blocking heating from the sun during the day and allowing heat to escape at night, unlike cloud cover.”

It is obvious that smoke cover would keep daytime highs down. In fact, we have not had a high temperature higher than 66 for the past six days, and some days have been only 62 or 63. That is near or a little below the norm for mid-November. (Normal low and high temperatures for the month of November around here would be more like 41 and 66.)

I would not have expected smoke to help keep it so cool overnight. Perhaps naively, I would have expected it to act more like cloud cover. Evidently, however, the fire has had the effect of getting our winter-chilling off to an early start. The deciduous trees are presumably dormant enough by now to “receive” chill, so this early cold snap is a good start.

The fire has been one of the worst disasters in the state in some time, and the air quality has resulted in UC Davis being shut down since 12 November and through the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. Through all the awfulness, these cold mornings have been welcome.

Playoff-qualification formats, 2018 complaint

I’ve had some version of this complaint since at least 2005 (click the category links at the bottom to see past posts). Even though the playoff format has changed in a big way in the interim, I still don’t like it, and 2018 American League again shows why.

First, however, the National League of 2018 shows some clear advantages of the current format. The Cubs and Brewers have a weekend showdown (albeit not playing each other) over which one will win the Central. Whichever one does will also have the league’s best record. The other will be the first wild card. The stakes are high! The Dodgers and Rockies also have a showdown (again, not playing each other directly) over which one will win the West. The loser of that contest might be the second wild card, but the Cardinals are still alive, and so the loser of the West race could get left out entirely while the Cards get the (second wild) card. And to add spice to it, the Cards and Cubs (long time rivals!) play each other over the final weekend with both teams having playoff berths (or at least seeding) on the line.

Meanwhile, in the American League, we see the fundamental problem with the current format on full display. The Indians clinched their division a full week ago. At the time, their record was 86-68. The Tampa Bay Rays had the exact same record on that date, yet were on the brink of elimination. The Seattle Mariners were, on the same date, 85-69. Three teams within a game of one another in the standings. Yet one of them got a week to get rested and set up its rotation, while the other two will sit out the postseason.

The AL situation this season reminds us of the arbitrariness of the divisional alignments. While they are geographically accurate (unlike the NL before 1998), they can reward a mediocre “division winner” while shutting out teams with approximately identical records who just happen to be in tougher divisions. A related effect is that the AL Wild Card one-game playoff is going to pit the third and fourth (possibly second and fourth) best teams in the league (by W-L) against each other, while the fifth (or possibly sixth) best team gets to go straight to a Division Series as the League’s No. 3 seed.

While I was praising the NL situation earlier, I would be remiss if I did not note that, despite the good races to the finish in that league, there actually will be a similar unfairness in the outcome. The NL West winner is likely to finish with a worse record than the first wild card, and possibly in a tie with the second wild card. It just won’t be as stark a difference as the one in the AL.

Could this be remedied with better institutional design? Of course! I still prefer my Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards idea, first proposed in 2010, years before the current format (which is three divisors and two wild cards) was adopted. Of course, it is very unlikely that MLB will reduce the postseason back to four teams from the current five. As much as I do not like the one-game postseason “series” of the current wild card playoff, I could live with it–in modified form.

How about Two Divisions, Three Wild Cards? Bear with me a moment. I want a system that maximizes the chances that the best teams face off in the LCS and one of the very best makes it to the World Series. I don’t want to spot a mediocre team a top playoff seed just because it happened to win a weak division (i.e., this year’s Indians, but also several recent division winners). And I don’t want a first wild card that is well ahead of the second to have just one chance to get beat by an inferior opponent. The basic problem is small divisions magnify the odds that a weak team gets a division title. So two divisions are better than three!

It is not ideal to have divisions of different size in a league. With 15 teams per league, this proposal would require it (unless some more cross-league shifts were made, making the leagues different sizes instead of the divisions within each league).

With three wild cards, the first of them could get an automatic advance to the Division Series, while the second and third play a one-game playoff. (I’d prefer a best-of-3, but there really is no time for that.)

If this were in place now (and we’ll assume the records would be the same as they actually are), the AL teams would be: Red Sox (AL East, as actually), Houston (AL West, as actually), Yankees and A’s (first two Wild Cards, as actually), and a still live race between the Indians and Rays and, more marginally, the Mariners for the third Wild Card.

The proposal would work better still if the Division Series themselves were asymmetric, an idea I included in my earlier Two Divisions, Two Wild Cards proposal. I quote myself (because I can):

One could still introduce a first-round playoff structure that rewards division winners over wild card winners, if one wanted to do so. For instance, the first round could be a best of seven with the division winner having the first three games at home, instead of only the first two–while still having the last two if it went that far. Or under a best of five, one could similarly ensure the division winner four home games if the series went the distance. Another thought is an asymmetric series: the division winner advances after winning two games, but the wild card has to win three. I will not consider any of these integral to 2D2W [or the new proposal]; they are additional considerations.

Every institutional structure one can devise has problems as well as advantages. That is true of baseball championships as much as of electoral systems. And it is certainly true of this one. But I believe it would be an improvement on the current format.

In any case, enjoy the last weekend of the regular season, and the playoffs that follow!

5779 is upon us!

Last Thursday when I looked straight up as I ascended the gravelly knoll for shacharit it really hit me. That little bit of moon meant Rosh Hashanah must be really upon us. The yellow leaves on the fig tree offer further hints that we are well into the season of turning.

This year’s “first fruits” for Rosh HaShannah. Muscat of Alexandria and Zinfandel? (could be Syrah) grapes, Arkansas Black and Hudson’s Golden Gem apples, Warren pear, and the season’s icon, our first pomegranate (I used to think it was Desertnyi variety, but now I am thinking maybe Parfianka).

It was a fruitful end to 5778. Maybe 5779 be sweet and bountiful! See you on the other side.

 

Temperature means, winter months, 2013-18

By popular demand*, here’s a full accounting of our winter temperatures since moving to the current location.

The stats really drive home just what an unusual winter this was, with the colder temperatures very much concentrated towards the latter part. I discussed the consequences of this for the deciduous fruit tree blooms in an earlier “planting“.

February’s mean low was more than four degrees below the five-year mean, and the March high and low were both 3-4 degrees below the five-year means.

December was also colder than normal, in terms of overnight lows although the daytime highs were the warmest experienced in a December thus far. The December cold was not as far below norm as we experienced our first winter here, 2013-14, when an extreme freeze was very costly to some of my citrus and other subtropical trees. Even the Eucs had damage that winter.

* Not really, I must admit.

Oats, 2018

It is interesting to compare the neighbor’s oat farm today, on the eve of Pesach (Passover) to what it looked like five years ago in a photo I posted as part of my “Oats and Passover” discussion. (The linked blog entry was posted in 2015, but the photo was from 2013.)

Unfortunately, the fence has fallen over since I took the 2013 photo, making it hard to judge the height of the oats at the edge of the field. Even so, it is pretty obvious that the crop has grown far less this year than in 2013 at the same point.

This season, we have had only about nine inches of rainfall at this location, and more than 40 percent of that has fallen in March (hence too late to have contributed much to the oat growth, at least thus far). By contrast, 2012-13 was a wetter year. At nearby Davis, according to Golden Gate Weather, 13.47 had fallen by the end of March. Perhaps more importantly, nearly eleven inches of that had fallen in November-December. (We had just moved in days before the photo was taken in 2013, so I don’t have records for this location.)

Oats, at least here, are not irrigated. The crop depends on rainfall. In the time we have been here, it has been rather up and down. And each year around this time, a glance at the oat farm would provide a good clue to the rainfall patterns.

The oats are typically harvested in April. In some years very early in the month, but this year the harvest probably will be much later.

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I guess, given the topic of oats and the link to the earlier post on the topic, this counts as my pre-Pesach post. So chag sameach to all celebrating!