The opinions expressed here are well-reasoned and insightful -- needless to say they are not the opinions of my employers

16 December 2009

Who can believe a scientist?

Dave Petley already wrote about Richard Alley's talk on climate feedbacks; aside from reiterating his call for everyone to go to the archive and watch the webcast, I have nothing to add except that I wish I could tell a story half as well as Richard...

I also attended Leo Hinzman's lecture on arctic hydrology and permafrost response to climate change, and an education session this morning on climate literacy and communication with the public. I think it was Steve Newton from the National Center for Science Education, giving a talk entitled Creationism and Climate Change, that threw me over the edge.

OK, I admit it -- I saw 2012. My story (and I'm sticking to it) is that I had several students in my intro astronomy class (and one or two in my geology classes) ask me the "plausibility" question. I told them that there were several factual elements in the movie: people in the United States do, in fact, speak a form of the english language; there are places in the United States called California and Yellowstone National Park (though they seem to be a lot closer together in the movie than in real life -- I would take all of my classes to Yellowstone if the trip out-and-back were as short as it is for John Cusack and his kids); and geologists are, in fact, heroic figures everyone should look up to.

But, I assure them, everything else you see in this movie is fantasy: the idea that the Mayans predicted the end of the world, that neutrinos could evolve into anything other than different types of neutrinos, that a tsunami generated even by a magnitude 9 earthquake could swamp a ship in the middle of the ocean, or that a tsunami generated by any earthquake could swamp the Himalayan plateau. But now all of that seems incredibly plausible to me compared with the biggest fantasy the movie throws at us: that a single scientist (or a few scientists) could come to the world's leaders with news of an impending environmental disaster and the leaders respond with focus and determination. OK, with focus and determination to save themselves and their rich benefactors, but there was not one call for additional study, or an ad hominem attack on the scientists, or lobbying campaign suggesting that the end of the world was "just a theory," etc...

Roland Emmerich has digitally destroyed cities across America (OK, mostly LA, New York and DC) and the world in Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, and 2012. But his greatest CGI sleight of hand is creating worlds where people listen to warnings from scientists...

15 December 2009

Pseudo-plutonic rocks of Moscone South

Granodiorite: low mafics, plagioclase dominant.

Granite: quartz and orthoclase.

Gabbro (?): mafics dominate, apparently as aesthetic choice to include orthoclase.

14 December 2009

AGU, monday night

I attended a session on early solar system dynamics this morning. It included a talk on orbital eccentricity and distance (and how they change as the sun loses mass) in which the author concluded that the Oort cloud cannot exist, but I need to look more closely at his numbers before I comment on any of it. Suffice it to say I'm a fan of the Oort cloud with its long period comets and highly inclined orbits...

One interesting talk was Age of the Solar System Revisited (Wadhwa and Bouvier). Someone once suggested that the age of earth is a function of time. In his Universe Song, Eric Idle quotes some numbers about size, velocity, mass, and sheer number of stars that reflected the knowledge at that time. In a recent interview his co-author, acknowledging that some of the numbers were understood to be different now, offered that "the facts have changed." "No", Idle replied, "the facts haven't changed -- our understanding of the facts has changed."

Our understanding of the age of the earth is based on the age of meteorites. Radiometric dating of meteorites depends on the same key assumptions as dating of other types of rocks, the key assumption being that we're dealing with a system that has been closed since the event we're trying to date.

The formation of planets from smaller planetessimals implies a fair amount of alteration, and at least part of our understanding of earth's composition is based on the existence of meteorites derived from asteroids that went partially down the planet-forming path -- that is, they became large enough and hot enough to differentiate into a core and mantle. So dating any old meteorite fragment won't do.

A significant fraction, perhaps 90%, of interplanetary debris contain chondrules (from the Greek chondros, meaning grain). these tiny particles consist of mostly devitrified silica-glass droplets, and the meteoritic bodies that contain them (called chondrites) have the appearance of sedimentary rocks. The cooling history of the grains supports the idea that chondrites are formed by the agglomeration of smaller solid particles, as the chondrules cannot have been cooled from a melt to form a rounded droplet within the meteoroid. Chondrules, in fact, appear to be among the oldest solid particles within the solar system. I say among the oldest because chondritic meteorites also contain Calcium-Aluminum-rich inclusions (CAIs, which include, but are not limited to, anorthite and pyroxene) that formed at higher temperatures, and pre-date the formation of the chondrules by perhaps 2 million years.

In this talk the authors look at the results from sampling CAIs from several carbonaceous chondrites (these are chondrites that not only contain small amounts of volatiles, but their refractory composition is close to 1:1 with that of the sun). these samples give dates varying from 4.5676 +- 0.001 to 4.5687 +- 0.002 billion years based on Pb-Pb isochrons. the same meteorites yielded more consistent model ages using Al-Mg and Hf-W systematics. The group claims that there is a yet unidentified problem with Pb-Pb system in these meteorites, suggesting that perhaps the problem is that the initial 238U:235U ratios are not as consistent from sample to sample as has been assumed.

AGU, monday morning

I arrived in San Francisco last night at around 5. First let me praise technology -- there was a time when any long drive between population centers meant fumbling with CDs/cassettes/8-tracks (yes, I remember those: I also remember a two-week period when 4-track tapes were going to replace albums altogether, like the big album-sized laser disks, BetaMax, DAT, etc...), or listening to Rush or Dr. Laura for 3-4 hours. Turns out now that, sucky as AT&Ts 3G service is supposed to be, I can pick up internet radio on my iPhone anywhere along I-5, so I just tuned in KCRW and it was like any rainy Sunday afternoon except with people on cell phones driving 80 mph (130 kph) trying to kill me (oh, and the coffee's better at home)...

Stopped in at Moscone to pick up my badge because I knew that this morning would be a complete zoo and as it turns out, I arrive
d just as the ice breaker was starting:

photo of the lines at pre-registration...

photo of the line for beer...

...I remember a time when December meant badgering my parents about all of the stuff I wanted (I'd rant about our consumer culture but I started out the post praising my iPhone), the anticipation of getting up on Christmas morning, the crash in the evening (sugar? tryptophan?).

In my 20s I worked at the Post Office, and Decembers were filled with existential dread: 80+ hour work weeks, made even worse when I went back to school and the Christmas rush coincided with the end of the term.

But for the past 20 years December is the Fall meeting in San Francisco. It's the big one for lots of geoscientists (prediction is up to 16,000 this year), but for students in northern California it is usually where you spent most of finals week, giving your first poster and/or talk, showing up to support your peers even when you only marginally understood their presentation (generally it was either over my head, or they gave a 15-minute talk in 6.5 minutes, or some combination of the two).

My friends from grad school are literally spread around the globe now so part of the meeting is about reconnecting (Santa Cruz reunion at the Thirsty Bear tomorrow night) -- and seeing their students' first posters and talks.

I know that I will hear people complain that the meeting is too big, that it's exhausting to spend the week listening to talk after talk, visiting poster after poster (especially towards the end of the week), but I also know that some people don't get enough and append additional days to the festivities with courses or field trips, or with additional talks (as an undergrad I spent some time as a gopher for the Gilbert Club).

My experience for the past 13-14 years has been teaching mostly intro material, and these meetings give me the chance to reconnect with what attracted me to the geosciences in the first place: being surrounded by people, like me (but way smarter), curious about how the universe works.

Instead of just going to talks related directly to some specific field I'm working in, I plan my week around topics that interest me, whether it's the tectonics of the Himalayas, climate feedbacks, or geologic research in the rest of the solar system. Many of the invited lectures are now webcasts, and most are also recorded and archived on the AGU website. Examples over the first two days are the Whipple lecture this afternoon at 4:00 on Mars exploration, tomorrow's Bjerknes lecture at 1:40 on the history of CO2 and climate and Wednesday's Sagan lecture on the melding of biogeochemical and astrobiological research with environmental science (I would link to the abstracts but I can't quite get it to work). I always go back home energized and ready to teach

More later...

20 October 2009

GSA -- Tuesday October 20

About 15 years ago at AGU, a friend agreed to present a poster for an acquaintance who could not get a flight to San Francisco. This was before large format printers, when posters were printed on standard paper and mounted on poster board, when men were men and things we learned in arts and crafts in kindergarten were directly applicable to grad school.

My friend's friend e-mailed the text of the poster, minus figures, and he dutifully printed it out at the last minute, cut off the unix headers, and tacked the pages to the board. As I recall, the science was pretty good, but it was the saddest little poster I'd ever seen in my life... until today...

Seriously though, Ron is advocating that we help/encourage Google to create nothing less than the hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy. In your ideal version of GE, what geological information would you like to be included in the layers? Field photos, filterable by rock type, structure, etc? links to publications, raw data? The mind boggles...

Lucy Jones gave the noontime lecture, talking about the success of last year's Great Southern California Shake Out. The success was due in part to creating a believable scenario (a M7.8 quake on the southernmost section of the San Andreas fault) focusing the media and public on the probable outcomes within that scenario (deaths, destruction, fires, lack of water, collapse of transportation and communications) and keeping the message simple (store water; have a post-quake plan; drop, cover, and hold on).

We've reached a point in earthquake awareness where the majority of our college students don't have a memory of a strong earthquake. As a culture, we tend to lose focus quickly (look, a UFO! driven by a drunk celebrity!).

The indians of the pacific northwest had a ceremony that amounted to periodically putting people into a basket and shaking them violently to remind them what it felt like -- that's probably not an ideal solution, but people who've lived through a significant quake are the ones who really understand that moment of despair when you realize that all of the things you imagined yourself doing in response are impossible, as it is all you can do to keep yourself under that table as your stuff literally flies across the room. Or when you realize that the one thing you expected you could trust to stay put -- the Earth -- steadfastly refuses to do so...

The Shake Out was a great teaching moment for me, and I still use some of the videos. My favorite is this one, which shows the basin effect -- look how long the shaking persists in Coachella Valley, the LA basin, and Ventura.

October 19 -- Geobloggers

Geoblogger meet-up at the tug boat brewing company tonight. Didn't get enough sleep last night and compensated by consuming 3-4 depth charges today (large coffee with a double shot), and of course there was free (good) beer at the end of the afternoon session, so if Max and Darren hadn't dragged me out for a meal before the brewery, I would be -- well it just seems wrong to call it drunk since I've clearly achieved that state (yet I can still spell "achieved")...

Oh well, thanks to Callan for setting the whole thing up, it was great to be able to associate faces with blog names, and scary how few the actual degrees of separation end up being...

18 October 2009

GSA -- Sunday October 18

I went to the lunchtime seminar by Patricia Woertz on Carbon Sequestration. I don't have a general problem with geo-engineering, as pretty much every part of our lives has been geo-engineered (ok, sometimes just engineered). But I admit that I'm concerned at the degree to which major players have declared that the solution to climate change need not involve any kind of behavioral change on our part. This talk was about a project being undertaken by Archer-Daniels-Midland (lately of "The Informant" fame) in partnership with Monsanto and some coal companies and largely funded, of course, by the Department of Energy. My understanding is that ADM plans to ultimately capture up to 50% of the CO2 from one of their ethanol plants and inject it into a deep sandstone aquifer of saline water (can you say, "salty Perrier"?) and hope it stays there. Their project geologist suggested that it could be viable for several centuries (what happens after that I'm not sure). There are nine of these pilot projects around the country, and Stephen Chu apparently believes that the process could be "viable" within 5-8 years.

There were questions about hydrofracturing and migration of deep saline groundwater into adjacent basins, which the ADM people handled deftly by saying "trust our science" and that if pollution were a problem that they could have the laws changed to favor their position (well, they didn't literally say that but that's what I heard). They also went on about how great these "public-private partnerships" are, which always seems to be the attitude of the private partner when the public pays the bills and doesn't ask for anything in return.

OK, enough ranting. The Geoinformatics session this afternoon was good, even before we got to watch Ron test (and apparently find) Google Earth's limits. I'm ready to start gigapanning (whenever CA gets out of the red -- don't wait up...). I am ready to start geotagging all of my photos and sharing all of my data with the world. Maybe I'll start by posting two days in a row.

Actually, Lee Allison's talk about social networking made me think again about the Loma Prieta quake. Phone lines became completely jammed within the first 20 minutes after the quake, making it almost impossible to get through to family. Radio stations became bulletin boards for messages between family members, but you had to be listening when the host read your message. Today, text messaging clears a significant amount of space on the data lines (except for the part where everyone sends photo and video attachments)... A standard part of my earthquake safety lecture now is on the benefits of contacting loved ones only by text after a disaster.

Now in the Philippines and Indonesia we have people using mobiles and social networking to stay in contact and to keep one another updated about escape routes, relief supplies, evacuation centers, etc... This is of course on the heels of the Twitter protests in Iran.

I spoke with Callan and Silver Fox about this a bit today, and though the Iranian protesters were not successful in reforming their government, I see hope: in '82 there were anti-apartheid protests and strikes in South Africa. They were a lead story on the news around the world night after night -- until the government banned photos and video by foreign news organizations. With no visuals the story dropped off the table overnight. The pro-democracy demonstrations in China presented a similar problem, as reporters were swept off of the streets when the real crack-downs began. It was one cameraman who happened to have a good view from his hotel who shot the video of the man standing down the tank. And he then had to smuggle the video out of the country, or it would never have been seen.

In Iran the government couldn't shut down the networks because many of the servers were outside the borders. Video was released to the world by everyone with a cell phone and a view. We can't stop tanks or guns but they can't operate in secret either. Coups and revolutions used to begin with the takeover of the radio or TV station -- propaganda is important and useful, but information is no longer a monopoly item. This can be positive (@persiankiwi and the Iranian protesters) or negative (Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vaxers), it can be direct democracy or mob rule -- but it's never again going to be like it was.

16 October 2009

What I remember about October 17

I was halfway through my third semester at Cal and on my way home from my geomorphology lab on Tuesday afternoon. I was trying to talk myself into spending more of the evening on my lab write-up for geomorphology than on the ball game. I was waiting for the campus shuttle bus by the Hearst Building at about 5 in the afternoon when it started, but I wouldn't feel it for several moments later, since I was standing 100 km NNW of the epicenter. The first wave hit just as the bus was pulling up to the stop, and the first thought through my head was, "damn, that guy hit the curb pretty hard!" When the Love waves hit and I heard the bells in the Campanile ringing randomly I finally realized what was happening -- someone on the bus asked how big I thought it was and I said that depended upon how far away it was, and I hoped it was right underneath us...

When we got downtown every burglar alarm in every building along Shattuck seemed to be ringing, and though there was still little obvious damage it seemed a bit more serious. I thought about walking back up to the Earth Sciences Building (they wouldn't rename it McCone Hall until a few years later) to check out the seismographs, but I realized: 1- I would probably just be in the way; and 2- I was a little concerned about whether there was damage at home. The BART was shut down already, confirming that things were getting uglier than my first instincts allowed for, so I called one of my housemates from a payphone (was it only 20 years ago that no one was permanently connected to a wireless network?) and hitched a ride from a friend to El Cerrito. By the time we got to Solano we could see the fires across the bay, and learned on the radio that the Bay Bridge had collapsed. We later learned that it was one section of the upper roadway that had collapsed onto the lower roadway, but a driver was killed when he drove into the gap (a video that would be shown on the news incessantly for the next week).

As bad as it was for many in the area, we had lights and utilities at home (though we were afraid to turn the gas on). I went to Picante's to pick up some burritos for dinner, only to find that they were shutting down and giving away the prepped food they had.

As I was leaving my brother John pulled up (he had been living with us for a couple of months at the time). At the time he was working as a dispatcher for a courier service near Oakland Airport. He had been standing in the parking at work when the quake hit. On his way home, driving north on highway 880, the traffic had just stopped. He managed to back down the on ramp at 6th Avenue, and while he was working his way north on Cypress Street he came upon one of the sections of the collapsed roadway, black smoke billowing from beneath. I've never seen him so ashen (though he later moved back down to LA in time for the Northridge earthquake).

We spent the rest of the evening watching the news with the other residents of our fourplex. One of our upstairs neighbors was beside herself most of the night, as her husband worked in the city and had not called (the phone lines were jammed all evening) and no way home; he finally called just after nine that night.

After a few hours I managed to get hold of my sister in Tucson to let her know we were OK, as my parents were on vacation on the east coast and I knew that my dad would have been watching the pre-game show -- and I knew that, from the perspective of everywhere else in the country, the entire bay area was now nothing but a pile of smoking rubble. I was way more at ease when I knew that my sis would be able to tell the folks we were all right.

When looking at the video of the collapsed and burning 880 freeway, I remember going through the calculations in my head (number of lanes, length of the collapsed sections, number of cars per mile during rush hour, one person per car average) and coming up with at least 500 casualties. That was confirmed in the special section of the Chronicle that came out the next morning, but I guess they went through the same math that I had because we were proven wrong over the next few weeks when the death toll there never exceeded 40 or so. Still, this was out of 65 deaths in the whole bay area.

I still mention in all of my classes that while the three biggest urban California earthquakes of the past half century (Sylmar in '71, Loma Prieta, and Northridge in '94) all killed about 60-65 people, 2/3 of the deaths in each quake occurred in a single structure (Veteran's hospital in Sylmar, the Cypress structure, and an apartment building in Northridge).

I was glad that I had not gone back to the Earth Science Building, because it was a staging area for several local news teams looking for seismologists to interview. I figured that I would have managed to say something pretty stupid on TV if given the chance. A year later I had a job in the seismographic station, changing paper on the drums, developing the photo paper records, and running the digital data through a compression program. Talking to the professionals I heard a few of the stories from that night...

The Berkeley team was having problems because all of their local instruments had gone off scale during the shaking. The digital instruments were further afield, working well and were connected to the lab by modem. The computer stored this remote data on removable cartridges that could hold up to 8 hours of seismic information. The computer had slots for four cartridges and changed to a fresh cartridge every 8 hours. Unfortunately the Loma Prieta quake popped at 5:04 local time (0004 UTC) and so was recorded to a cartridge that had only come in to use four minuted previous. No access to the digital information until the computer kicked that cartridge out at 1 am. For eight hours the only record they had access to was a single analog recording from a drum in the building's basement that was hooked up to an instrument that only magnified its signal by a factor of 100x. Of course this was a laser drum that recorded on photo paper that had to be developed and dried before it could be read...

10 July 2009

A late starter...

When someone asks me how I got inspired to study geology I usually reference a field trip to the Mojave desert during my first intro class. I can point to a moment, still clear in my mind's eye, where the group was sitting around the campfire after dinner on Saturday night. We were drinking tea and hot chocolate (yeah, I know, but it was junior college and most of the students were underage), the professor was playing some Neil Young tunes on his guitar, and I looked over at him and said "I want his job." I still can't play guitar worth a damn, which is a good thing since it would only encourage me to sing, but I do have his job (or a reasonable facsimile). But if I'm honest the decision about geology had been made bit-by-bit, and in some ways it seems like a boulder accelerating downhill...

About a month
after my 14th birthday I experienced my first big earthquake (San Fernando, M6.6). We actually lived in the North Long Beach area about 60 miles south of the epicenter, but the earthquake happened at 6 AM while I was lying in bed. I distinctly remember rolling over and putting a pillow over my head, sure that I was going to die... I read everything I could find about earthquakes over the next few months but my high school barely had science classes, much less earth science. At our school most of the young men were pushed toward shop classes, and most of the young women toward home economics or, if they really were ambitious, secretarial classes. Our valedictorian decided not to go to college.

I started at Cerritos College as an art major but dropped out after a year. In '78 my girlfriend's family invited me on their annual camping extravaganza to the eastern Sierra, my first camping experience at the age of 21. I loved it! I picked up books on identifying trees and plants, rocks and minerals, clouds and stars. In 1980 I enrolled at Saddleback College intending to major in environmental science, but the classes were more about issues and I was more and more interested in process.

Mount Saint Helens and the volcano alert issued at Mammoth Lakes got me to thinking about geology again. I took a class but the instructor (who on day 1 wore a yellow suit) seemed disinterested or distracted or both -- he canceled class three times in the first month -- so I got bored and dropped out.

The next semeste
r I signed up for a survey class, introduction to Earth Science. It seemed like it would give me the kind of background I wanted for environmental science. On the third day Dr. Borella gave this stupid lecture -- one that everyone has either given or sat through (or both) at some point in their career: the one explaining what an atom is, how electron shells are organized, and how trading or sharing of valence electrons leads to chemical bonds between different atoms and voila! The silica tetrahedron and the water molecule! I know now from experience that most of my students have heard all of this stuff before, but to me that lecture was an introduction to how the whole world is put together. From that morning all I could think was, I need to know more about this stuff!

I spent the next few years slogging through remedial math classes, college algebra, inorganic chemistry, calculus and physics, periodically surfacing long enough to go on all of the geology field courses that Saddleback offered at the time. All in all, I spent 7 years finishing my first two years of college. Then I transferred and finished my last two years in just three years (is there a record for the longest time ever spent completing a BA with no time taken off to backpack through Europe or to climb a Himalaya?)...

Dr. Warren Hirt was the TA for my first class at Berkeley, Introduction to Mineralogy. At the end of lab one day, after everyone else had left, I was trying to figure out what optical interference figures were, how they worked, what information I could glean from them, why the hell I had quit my job to move 400 miles north when I was clearly too stupid to be there, and if my parents would let me crash on their couch for a while, when Warren came over to me and spent the next hour carefully explaining all of the key points of the lab and got me up to speed.

Dr. Bill Dietrich made geomorphology a dynamic, quantitative science by having me spend weeks doing slope/area measurements on first-order streams on an alluvial fan outside of Lovelock NV. He also pointed me in the direction of UC Santa Cruz and to Dr. Robert Anderson (now at CU Boulder), who shepherded, advised, pushed and dragged me through my thesis.

Peter Borella is the man. He inspired me from the beginning and has remained a great friend. I almost got his job, too -- I was hired to fill the position vacated by the infamous man in the banana suit, so I work with Peter now. I don't know how many butterflies in the past had to flap like mad to get me where I am today, but I wish I could thank them all. I'll settle for thanking Peter and Bob and Bill and Warren as representatives of the village it took to get me pointed in the right direction, to get me focused, and to get me moving...

09 July 2009

United Breaks Guitars

A couple of years ago the odds caught up with me and my luggage was lost on my trip to Denver for the GSA conference. It was annoying but I understand it is all part of life's rich pageant.

What I did not comment on at the time was how frustrating it was to deal with the United Airlines bureaucracy. The DMV and the Post Office are rank amateurs compared to UA in terms of their ability to create in the individual that classic sense of existential dread associated with powerlessness when facing The Machine.

Most of this, of course, had to do with the fact that there is no person you can talk to, on the phone or face-to-face, that can actually help you -- the guy/gal at the luggage counter, the customer service rep in some scrap of the old British Empire -- they can look at their computer screen and tell you where the bag probably is, but their only superpowers consist of the ability to punch a key telling The System that your bag is out there somewhere, and to reassure you that they're doing the best that they can...

I'm not a yeller, and my sense of perspective makes it impossible for me to scream at these people, and thus the behemoth that is UA is successful at isolating itself behind a solid wall of smiling functionaries armed with reassuring platitudes about how important The Customer is to UA.

It took them just under two days to get my luggage to my hotel, and just for good measure my bag was missing for about four hours after I arrived back home at the end of the week.

I wrote a couple of letters to the corporation, expressing my disappointment with the lack of responsiveness of the system to one of their paying customers, but -- they never responded.

That's why this story made me smile. Dave Carroll was travelling with his band, Sons of Maxwell, when they actually witnessed a group of baggage handlers playing "hammer throw" with luggage, including what he recognized as his guitar case. After 8 months of being reassured that they were sorry this happened, that they know the Sons of Maxwell have a choice in airlines and UA is glad that they chose United, The Corporation told Dave to f**k himself (metaphorically of course).

Dave promised the last apparatchik to whom he spoke that she would be visited by three ghosts he would do a series of three music videos telling the story of his experience. This is the first (the second song is recorded and the video is in production), and it has been viewed almost 650,000 times since it was posted 3 days ago.

UA has, of course, responded by unleashing the only part of the Hive that actually deals with the public -- its PR flacks. They are making the rounds, reassuring everyone that The Company the whole United family takes this problem seriously.

24 June 2009

Where is my vote?

Like many people (certainly not all) I've been following the situation in Iran much more closely than the situation in South Carolina/Buenos Aires.

The Iranian government is clearly taking its cues from the Chinese government of 20 years ago. For all of the talk about new media (will the revolution be Twittered?) the degree to which Khamenei will be successful will depend largely on how broad-based the reform movement is -- we know that the "Sea of Green" is deep, how wide is it?

Hopefully we are about to see a significant weakening of the hard-liners in the Iranian government. Sooner would be better than later -- but this could be the beginning of a long process. The regime has the firepower and is clearly ruthless. How much public support
are they sacrificing for short-term control?

All that the new media can do is attempt to counter government propaganda about foreign influence. Many Iranians have positive views of Americans yet are suspicious of the motives of the American government. Can you imagine if the British or the Chinese or the Russian governments had officially endorsed either Obama or McCain last year? Or if they had made public statements supporting one side or the other in the recounts following the 2000 election?

It is ironic that this is all about holding on to a presidency that only carries as much actual power as the Supreme Leader chooses to allow...

I was touched by the video of the death of Neda last week -- it is ironic that we are still arguing over the release of images that present the US in a more critical light -- but the events of today hit home as I read the Twitter updates of Persiankiwi, who has been one of the most prolific reporters from the inside of the protests and marches in the past two weeks. I don't know if the reporter/reporters known as Persiankiwi have shut down for the evening, or if he/she/they have been arrested or worse but these last few updates put a lump in my throat:

  • saw 7/8 militia beating one woman with baton on ground - she had no defense nothing - #Iranelection sure that she is dead
  • ppl run into alleys and militia standing there waiting - from 2 sides they attack ppl in middle of alleys #Iranelection
  • phone line was cut and we lost internet - #Iranelection - getting more difficult to log into net - #Iranelection
  • rumour they are tracking high use of phone lines to find internet users - must move from here now - #Iranelection
  • they catch ppl with mobile - so many killed today - so many injured - Allah Akbar - they take one of us - #Iranelection
  • they pull away the dead into trucks - like factory - no human can do this - we beg Allah for save us - #Iranelection
  • we must go - dont know when we can get internet - they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names - now we must move fast - #Iranelection
  • thank you ppls 4 supporting Sea of Green - pls remember always our martyrs - Allah Akbar - Allah Akbar - Allah Akbar #Iranelection
  • Allah - you are the creator of all and all must return to you - Allah Akbar - #Iranelection Sea of Green

17 May 2009

Was it the big one?

Actually it was the little one. Again.

A magnitude 5.0 (preliminary) just southwest of LA, near the airport... Not huge, but we felt it here in Laguna. My brother felt it about five seconds before I did. The cat seemed singularly unconcerned, but then she's sleeping on towels fresh from the drier...

It appears to be on or near the Newport-Inglewood fault 13.5 km depth with a minor thrust component... Well back to grading...

15 March 2009

Don't Panic!

Happy 2009, everyone!

I've been intending to revive this blog for a while, and I wanted to begin with a post on geology; I have a few in the works, but in the mean time there are a couple of things I"ve come across in the past week that I wanted to acknowledge.

First, I came across this Op-Ed yesterday: Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (I saw it first on, of all places, Gawker.com). I don't know this guy, but this seems to me to contain some important insights about technology and revolutions (I say this as a fan of newspapers, who is saddened to see what has happened to the Rocky Mountain News, what is happening to the SF Chronicle, and what appears to be happening to the LA Times).

Last week was Douglas Noel Adams' birthday (He once noted that he was the most famous DNA born in Cambridge in 1952, but that would be topped the next year). Though I was a fan of Monty Python, I had no idea who he was until 1982 when I took my first college science class, introduction to astronomy. Dr. Kim (I'm going to start doing some posts about my favorite teachers) recommended that we watch a series that was premiering that weekend on PBS called Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I don't know the context in which he heard about it, but he assumed it was a documentary about astronomy. He apologized for his misapprehension the following week, but it was one of the funniest bits of science fiction I'd seen in my life.

It's now close to 30 years later and I've listened to all of the radio series, seen the movie (meh...), read all of the books (and for good measure, since Dr. Kim retired a few years ago I've been teaching one of his astronomy sections). Adams died in May of 2001 at the age of 49, too young for many of his fans. His combination of brilliant wit, love of emerging technologies, and love of the natural world made the world a richer place.

Some of his influence is obvious: when Alta Vista developed the first universal translator for text, what else could they call it but Babel Fish?

". . . imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!' This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."
"I've come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies: 1. Anything that is in the world when you're born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2. Anything that's invented between when you're fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3. Anything invented after you're thirty-five is against the natural order of things."
"I'd take the awe of understanding over the awe of ignorance any day."
"(..) Sir Isaac Newton, renowned inventor of the milled-edge coin and the catflap!"
"The what?" said Richard.
"That catflap! A device of the utmost cunning, perspicuity and invention. It is a door within a door, you see, a ..."
"Yes," said Richard, "there was also the small matter of gravity."
"Gravity," said Dirk with a slightly dismissed shrug, "yes, there was that as well, I suppose. Though that, of course, was merely a discovery. It was there to be discovered." ...
"You see?" he said dropping his cigarette butt, "They even keep it on at weekends. Someone was bound to notice sooner or later. But the catflap ... ah, there is a very different matter. Invention, pure creative invention. It is a door within a door, you see."
"We don't have to save the world. The world is big enough to look after itself. What we have to be concerned about is whether or not the world we live in will be capable of sustaining us in it."

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You can send me email at jrepka@saddleback.edu