Saturday, January 16, 2010

It's a Small, Small World

From Strange Maps,the picoplanet:
Take the length of the equator on this map, double that distance and you have the width of a human hair. For this is the world’s smallest world map, with the 40,000 kilometre-long equator reduced to a mere 40 micrometres.The smallest features on the map, corresponding to 100 kilometres, are about 100 nanometres wide.
More info at the link. I decided that actually trying to represent the description might give it a little more impact... the scaly thing is a human hair, and the finer fiber is spider silk.

*sigh* No, He Didn't

From a link at Uncertain Principles, I found this: "Why is the news media comfortable with lying about science?"
The most egregious case seems to have happened at the UK's Daily Mail, which ran an article in the Science and Technology section of its website entitled "The mini ice age starts here." In it, the author argues that we're due for decades of global cooling, driven by ocean currents that the article claims produced the last century's warming—not greenhouse gasses. These facts are ascribed to impeccable scientific sources: the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Colorado, and Mojib Latif, a prominent climatologist based in Germany. A substantially similar story, with precisely the same attributions, later appeared on the Fox News site.

There was small problem here, though: Mojib Latif is still alive, and was easy to get a hold of. When contacted, he pointed out that large portions of the report were inaccurate. A prominent climate blogger contacted both Latif and the NSIDC; he quotes Latif as saying, "I don't know what to do. They just make these things up." Referring to "facts" attributed to it by the article, The NSIDC's director said, "This is completely false. NSIDC has never made such a statement and we were never contacted by anyone from the Daily Mail. "
The second case examined in the above post involves ABC trotting out Jenny McCarthy to rebut a recent study regarding diet and autism in children. Jenny McCarthy's single qualification for being in the media is that she was Playboy's Playmate of the month, then of the year, more years ago than I care to recall. Take that, scientists. Your boobs aren't big enough, you don't show enough skin, and you aren't blond enough to have an opinion on medical issues.

The post makes some very important points, and there are some important and insightful comments as well (though many are of the fairly useless "me too" variety).

Which brings me to the particular case I want to bitch about today. A few days ago, I pointed out a piece from Scientific American in which Bob Yeats, one of my geology profs, had said in part,
In an interview last week for an unrelated story, Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus in geoscience at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said that an imminent big west coast earthquake concerned him far less than a "big one" that might occur in Haiti, due to the large fault near the capital city of Port-au-Prince—and the poverty-driven low level of earthquake-preparedness there.

"If they have an earthquake on this fault that runs through Port-au-Prince," the death toll would be tremendous, he said January 6.
Predictably, over the last couple of days, the media have misrepresented this to the point that I could bite through rebar. KGW came first, as best as I can tell, with the headline, "OSU geologist forecasted Haiti quake."
PORTLAND, Ore. -- An international earthquake expert from Oregon State University forecasted that a destructive earthquake would hit Haiti just a week before it happened.
*sigh* No, he didn't. The author didn't talk to Yeats, he talked to Andrew Meigs. Yeats was in Japan at the time. There is no source for the claim that Yeats "forecasted the quake." Forecasting would involve issuing some probability of a quake larger than some magnitude within some window of time. I do know that Yeats' major interest is in the neotectonics (recent earth movements) of western North America, a region from which Haiti is noticeably absent. I for one had not been aware that a fault strand of the Caribbean-NA plate boundary ran through Port-au-Prince, but I would imagine most structural-tectonic professionals were very much aware of that. A large population with terrible infrastructure, and essentially no standards for such construction, would, to paraphrase Richard Clarke (I think) have US disaster experts "running around with their heads on fire." Yeats couldn't have helped being aware that a quake in Haiti would be a disaster beyond imagining, but that's a long way from saying, "Well, sometime in the next week or two, Haiti is going to get battered almost to death."

Next up was KVAL, with the same headline. They do get the lede pretty much right, though.
CORVALLIS, Ore - International earthquake expert and geologist Robert Yeats forecasted one week ago that one of the world's most at risk locations for a major destructive earthquake was the fault that runs through Haiti and near Port-au-Prince.
Still, identifying "one of the world's most at risk locations" isn't a forecast, it's a statement of fact, and one that had been made many times before (though I again emphasize that I had not been terribly aware of that fact prior to the event). Yeats seems to be getting credit (which I doubt he actually wants) simply for having been the most recent to repeat this fact.

And AHA! I should have guessed! Here's the OSU Press Release. Found it as I was tracking back links, and I hadn't seen this until just now.
An international earthquake expert at Oregon State University predicted one week ago that one of the world’s most at-risk locations for a major, destructive earthquake is the fault that runs through Haiti and near Port-au-Prince.
I've ranted about journalism by press release before...
This is why traditional journalism is dying. Reprinting some author's press release isn't journalism. It's not reporting. Press releases are intended to do one thing: get publicity for the sponsoring institution. There might be some important information in them, but if so, it's purely coincidental.
...and I'm certain I shall do so again in the future. Strengthening my firm belief that press releases should be banned, take a look at the third paragraph of this pile-o-crap:
The observation also brings home the remarkable advances scientists have made in recent years in understanding the complex, as-yet-unpredictable behavior in the thousands of faults around the world that set the stage for earthquakes, and the socio-economic forces that make some locations more vulnerable than others.
See the problem here? Shorter press release: "OSU prof predicts as-yet-unpredictable event."

Case closed. Putzes.

The Oregonian gets into the act too, with the headline, "Report: OSU professor says deforestation caused many deaths in Haiti quake" *sigh* No. He didn't. What he said is quoted right there in your article:
[Yeats] saved his harshest criticism for practices such as deforestation. He said that many trees have been cleared from the hillsides in Haiti, increasing the likelihood of landslides.

"I haven't seen the figures, yet," Yeats said. "But I suspect a lot of the deaths were caused by landslides."
Headlines are written by editors, not by reporters, so a lot of the invective in this post is directed at them, not the reporters. But from the outside, to the readers, this distinction is most often lost. The important thing to note here is that the death and destruction we've seen thus far is almost exclusively from Port-au-Prince, where landslide damage does not seem to have been a major factor. Dave's Landslide Blog notes this morning that liquifaction (which could be thought of as a particular kind of landslide) is the process that destroyed the port, but in other posts he notes that there doesn't appear to be much in the way of slide damage in the city. He also notes that we don't know much of what is happening outside the city yet... that's a bad sign. I suspect Yeats is right, but we don't have that information yet. Which means that the Oregonian's headline is jumping the gun and misrepresenting Yeats' comments at the very least. BTW, for ongoing analysis of geologic factors influencing both the results of the quake and the recovery/aid effort Dave has been doing a yeoman's job.

Finally, the article that The Oregonian bounced was from my own hometown's Gazette Times, a paper for which I have never been shy to express my contempt. So do they for once come through? Need you ask? Here's the headline: "OSU professor predicted Haiti earthquake." And here's what he actually said:
"What surprised me most wasn't that it happened," Yeats said by phone Thursday morning. "But that it happened when it did. I didn't expect it this soon.
Yeats said other areas of concern include Kingston, Jamaica; Tehran, Iran; and Istanbul, Turkey. He said those cities also are on large faults and their building structures are vulnerable as well.

However, Yeats said, it's hard to convince political leaders to take action because geologists can't answer the big question the leaders want answered.

"We don't know when earthquakes are going to happen," Yeats said. "That's what they want to know. It's possible the earthquake might not happen in their lifetime, and their focus is on the present."

"We don't know when earthquakes are going to happen." "OSU professor predicted Haiti earthquake." How is it that reporters and editors can look at those two sentences in the same short article and not feel a sense of mental conflict, no cognitive dissonance? It's important, because if we can't expect journalists to recognize paradoxes, how can we expect the broader public to try to sort out their nonsense?
Alice laughed. `There's no use trying,' she said `one ca'n't believe impossible things.'

`I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.
Case closed. Putzes.


Thomas Dolby: She Blinded Me With Science.

I discovered today that EMI is very proactive about disallowing embedding of its videos. Too bad. There are a number of good 80's bands and songs that aren't very well known these days. A little publicity (very little on this blog, but still...) wouldn't hurt.

This is the song I went looking for, but there's no full video. The song is clipped here, but I do enjoy Timbuk 3 and this is pretty inspirational: Hairstyles and Attitudes.

The second verse, from here:
Razor cut, laser cut, chop-in-channel
Curled up, slicked back, hanging in the eyes
Parted left, parted right, straight down the middle
Scientists say your hair never lies
They've done lots of research
It may be just hype, but the latest findings cause me to tremble
They categorize us into three basic types
According to which of the three stooges you most closely resemble

Timbuk 3 is best known for this one.

And to top it off, Violent Femmes: Blister in the Sun.

Stand-Alone LOLcat

I generally don't give LOLcats their own posts. If you read this blog fairly regularly, you know I do a large aggregation of funnies each Sunday. But this one deserves special recognition for awesomeness.
funny pictures of cats with captions
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What Is the Same these two photos?This was yesterday's APOD... click over for the answer and glorious full-size; scroll your cursor over the picture for the answer, or click the picture to enormify.

Another bit of space news I read earlier is “We’ve learned a lot more about urine than we ever needed or wanted to know.” According to The NYT, "Russia has offered its astronauts’ help in unclogging a high-tech toilet on the International Space Station that is reportedly backed up because of excess calcium in astronauts’ urine." I find this interesting because while it is common knowledge that calcium is lost from bones during extended "zero-g" space flight, I had never considered where that element went. For example,
It was noted on the Skylab missions of the 1970s and by the crews of the Russian space station Mir that calcium loss begins about ten days into the flight. The loss was slow to start, about 140 mg per day, but increased to approximately 250 to 300 mg per day by 84 days into the flight.
About the only place it could go is urine. Logical consequences. As much as I like the lead quote, it seems pretty clear that even if they didn't want to know that much about urine, they do need to know about it. Perhaps even more than they already do.

Friday, January 15, 2010


This is one of those things that was so obvious, no one thought of it.

Via Great White Snark

Priori Acute

I admit to being a little mystified by (what seems to me) the recent obsession with the importance of fonts. Some people seem powerfully attracted to certain fonts and equally repelled by and filled with repugnance toward others. I just don't get it. That said, I kind of like this one, called Priori Acute. However, I think if I had to read a significant amount of text in this style, I would likely get a headache. Via Swans on Tea.If you don't spot the "impossibility" of this font, click over to the first link, read the description, then look again.

Where That Candy Bar Came From

Via Bits and Pieces

Learn From My Fail

The Cheezburger Network appears to be adding one or two more sites per week. At some point I won't be able to keep up, but for the time being, I'm a sucker for these kinds of quick cheap laughs. Their latest is "Learn From My Fail."
Trust expiration dates. If not on milk, at least on condoms. #LFMF

Don’t use shampoo when you run out of dishwashing soap. My dishes still taste funny. #LFMF

Surprising your best friend in a dark parking garage = pepper spray in the face. #LFMF

My boss just asked me what I was working on, and I said “Nothing.” #LFMF

A tow away zone means that if you park there, they’re gonna tow your car away. #LFMF

I took my iPhone on Splash Mountain. #LFMF. And if you’re at Splash Mountain, you should look for my iPhone.

It's Not All Bad News

From OregonLive,
Two year old Redjeson Hausteen Claude reacts to his mother Daphnee Plaisin, after he is rescued from a collapsed home by Belgian and Spanish rescuers in the aftermath of the powerful earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010. A 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti Tuesday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert) Reginald Claude
A little bit of happiness can go a long way sometimes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Whither the Hinterland?

Yesterday I mentioned an interesting post by Dave Petley at Dave's Landslide Blog. Here is a passage from that post that is making me more and more uneasy:
3. No news is very, very bad news. The biggest impacts are often in rural areas with the highest levels of shaking. These areas had poor communications to start with, but when an earthquake strikes the roads become blocked, power is lost and there is no telephone service. Therefore, no news comes out for some time after the quake. The picture is actually the opposite of the obvious. If news starts to emerge quickly from those areas with the highest shaking then the picture is not as bad as we feared - at least some communications are open - although it may still be quite grim. If there is almost no news at all from the rural areas for a day or two, then the picture is probably very bad indeed, with almost all of the communications wiped out.
The reason it seems pertinent right now is that I just got through looking at today's Big Picture photo gallery of the aftermath in Haiti.

Every single one of the photos (with the exception of #2) is from Port-au-Prince.

In other words, this thing is probably even worse than we know. And what we already know is mind-numbing.

Followup, 1:47 PST: From the NYT,
“I think it’s going to be worse than anyone still understands,” said Richard Dupin, the vice president of Haiti Shipping Lines, based in Miami.
The airport is semi-functional, but there's little fuel to re-fill planes. The seaport is a shambles, so bulk shipments can't come in by sea. A bus with material and aid workers was able to travel from Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic to Port-au-Prince, but it took six hours.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I Needed a Giggle

and this gave me one.
funny pictures of cats with captions
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Some Guy I Know is in the News

In an interview last week for an unrelated story, Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus in geoscience at Oregon State University in Corvallis, said that an imminent big west coast earthquake concerned him far less than a "big one" that might occur in Haiti, due to the large fault near the capital city of Port-au-Prince—and the poverty-driven low level of earthquake-preparedness there.

"If they have an earthquake on this fault that runs through Port-au-Prince," the death toll would be tremendous, he said January 6.
From Scientific American. I had Yeats at Oregon State for structural geology and for stress and deformation- both his area- and I think a couple of other classes as well. To make a small world look even smaller, he had started off at Ohio University in Athens. His son and I were in the same graduating high school class. Go AHS Rowdies 77! He also went into geology at OSU.

The above is a small excerpt from a two page article; it's well-worth reading. Spoiler: the magnitude of a quake is only one of the factors that influences the amount of destruction and death. And there are a number of other major cities that are at critical risk due to those other factors. SF and LA look pretty well-off by comparison.

Today's Trivia

On Jan. 13, 1990, Douglas Wilder of Virginia became the nation's first elected black governor as he took the oath of office in Richmond.
From NYT. I had no idea that the first US black governor was inaugurated only 20 years ago.

It Just Gets Worse

According to The CS Monitor, "The International Red Cross estimates as many as three million people may have been left homeless by Tuesday's earthquake in Haiti." And according to The Guardian, "Haiti's president tonight issued a desperate appeal for international aid following the earthquake that has devastated his country, as fears grew that the death toll could rise above 100,000." (Later in the same article, "Haitian senator Youri Latortue told the Associated Press that 500,000 might be dead. Both men admitted that they had no way of knowing.")

A quick Google tells me the estimated population of that country is 9.78 million. So we're talking about as much of 1 to 5% of the population killed outright, and roughly a third homeless. This is staggering.

I'm sure I have nothing to say that hasn't already been said, so here are a few pieces that have really stood out in my mind, in addition to the two in the first paragraph. The Big Picture has done an amazing job of putting together a gallery of heart-breaking photos in less than 24 hours. Chris Rowan of Highly Allochthonous has put together the touchstone of good geology reporting and described the regional structure of the area. I've had a couple of people recently ask me about the earthquake potential in the Caribbean and Central American area. This post is a good place to start, and a good supplemental map can be found at Lisbon Structural Geologist. Rob Steinberg at Shaking Earth points out that this really isn't a surprise to seismologists that have studied the area, quoting from and linking to a ScienceDaily report from five years ago. One I almost forgot, which was probably posted about 12 to 13 hours ago, was at Dave's Landslide Blog. Dave discusses typical patterns of media reporting in the aftermath of natural disasters, and points out, ominously- and accurately, as it turns out- that a lack of rapid, detailed news, is often very bad news. This piece is about Haiti in particular, but describes reporting patterns for these events more generally. I really recommend it to people who pay attention to disasters.

And of course, famous geologist Pat Robertson has his own unique explanation for the event:
[S]omething happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French. Napoleon the Third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, “We will serve you if you get us free from the prince.” True story. And so the devil said, “OK, it’s a deal.” They kicked the French out, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free.
"Christians" like Robertson were the main reason I started seriously questioning my youthful faith.

Maybe I'll Say More, Maybe I Won't

This is the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, before and after. (via The Daily What)

I'm stunned and heartbroken.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Monday Mineral: Halite in Spaaaace!!

From NASA's image of the day gallery, crystals of sodium chloride: table salt, or halite in geo-speak. Technically, I think, this doesn't count as a mineral, since it's man-made. On the other hand, taken as single grains, they would be essentially indistinguishable from "real" halite. As far as I'm concerned, that's the important thing.The description isn't very helpful:
Looking for all the world like a snowflake, this is actually a close up view of sodium chloride crystals. The crystals are in a water bubble within a 50-millimeter metal loop that was part of an experiment in the Destiny laboratory aboard the International Space Station and was photographed by the Expedition 6 crew.
Water crystals, snowflakes, have six-fold symmetry, not four-fold cubic symmetry. What I find kind of cool in the photo is the hopper forms of the crystals. I was taught that this indicated rapid crystallization from an essentially super-saturated solution, at least when you see it in evaporite minerals. Click the link up top to see other size formats.

It's Official

We all knew it was coming. NYT is reporting that
Former Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska has signed on as a contributor to the Fox News Channel.

The network confirmed that Ms. Palin will appear on the network’s programming on a regular basis as part of a multi-year deal. Financial terms were not disclosed.
It's not as if I need more reasons not to watch Faux News, but I guess this is another. When fragments of wing-nutty imagination equals news... but then there are already Beck and O'Reilly, so there's nothing new here, either. Best quote, from The Awl:
"...if there's one thing we know about Sarah Palin it's that she is totally great at fulfilling multi-year obligations."

Sunday, January 10, 2010

This Makes No Sense at All

AP is reporting that cadmium, an extremely toxic and dangerous metal, has been used to replace lead in children's toys manufactured and exported from China. Cadmium is more dangerous than lead. Cadmium is more expensive than zinc (as best as I can tell; the question is not as straight-forward as one might think), the metal of choice, and is, in fact, primarily a by-product of mining and smelting zinc. Yet the high-end values of the toys tested were in the range of 84 to 89 percent cadmium in composition, according to the article, and 12 out of 103 items tested had 10 percent or more.

WTF, China?
Followup, Jan. 11: According to an updated article in OregonLive,
Inez Tenenbaum, chairman of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, said in taped remarks to be delivered Tuesday in Hong Kong that her agency would be strenuously guarding against attempts to swap one health hazard for another, now that lead is barred under U.S. law in children's toys and jewelry.

"I would highly encourage all of you to ensure that toy manufacturers and children's product manufacturers in your country are not substituting cadmium, antimony, barium, in place of lead."
We'll see. If they have to stop using cadmium, antimony or barium, they'll probably turn to depleted uranium,

Did You Mean "Priest?"

Via Professor Chaos at The Daily Irritant, I found this:My contribution was to get a screen capture to document that the good professor was, in fact, being completely honest. (Click for full-size)

Sunday Funnies

Is this the special, twice-as-funny-as-usual edition of the Sunday Funnies? Yes, of course! They're all special, twice-as-funny-as-usual editions of the Sunday Funnies!A pair of brothers in a pair of pictures taken 25 years apart. The Daily What
Skull Swap
Epic Win
I mean seriously, how hard is that? Tree Lobsters (If you aren't familiar with "Let me Google that for you," please click the "how hard is that" link. Very Funny.)
Mmm, McNuggets.
see more Friends of Irony
Especially for s***heads. Criggo
Probably Bad News
I Hate My Parents
funny pictures of cats with captions
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I never thought too highly of Shelly Winters, but she wasn't that bad... Criggo
admiral mike mullen
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engrish funny handle carl
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Dinosaurs know they're cool... Skull Swap
My First Dictionary
The Saturday Bulletin
The Control Panel, from Skull Swap
Epic Win
Cherpumple Pie, from This is Why You're Fat:
Bottom: pumpkin pie inside a spice cake, middle: apple pie inside a yellow cake, top: cherry pie inside a white cake, all surrounded by cream cheese frosting.
Skull Swap
Oddly Specific
marching north korean soldiers
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funny pictures of cats with captions
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engrish funny pearl palm
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Skull Swap
Titanic: the secret is finally unveiled. The Daily What.
the white rabbit
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The Daily What
God Hates Protesters
Clay Bennett at Chattanooga Times Free Press
Jurassic Parka, via Dinochick Blogs
Now there's compassion... Criggo
Looks like she lost about six... Probably Bad News
engrish funny rock purpose
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Buttersafe; click for readable size.

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Skull Swap
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moon landing
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Sudoku Pizza, via TYWKIWDBI
My First Dictionary
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engrish funny marital harmony
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Skull Swap
Bizarro Blog
Keep the change. Criggo
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Engrish Funny
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves
Regretsy; below is Helen Killer's response:
This is a transcript of the text of a Hawaiian Airlines comment card filled out by passenger Joe Johnsonand given to a flight attendant, according to a warrant filed by the U.S. Attorney as part of the document charging Johnson with interfering with a flight crew, a felony:
I thought I was going to die, we were so high up, I thought to myself' I hope we don’t crash and burn or worse yet landing in the ocean (?) through it, only to be eaten by sharks, or worse yet end up on some place like Gilligan’s island stranded, or worse yet be eaten by a tribe of headhunters, speaking of headhunters why do they eat outsiders and not the family members? Strange…and what if the plane ripped apart in mid-flight and we plummeted to earth, landed on Gilligan’s Island and then lived through it, and the only woman there was Mrs. Thurston Howell III? No MaryAnne (my favorite), no Ginger – just lovely! If it were just her, I think I’d opt for the sharks, maybe the headhunters.
The flight disrupter terrist who caused a flight to Hawaii to return to Portland, escorted by two fighter jets, via KGW.
funny pictures of cats with captions
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"I'd listen to my Inner Child more if it didn't speak in that whiny little kid voice." -Duhism
That Will Buff Out
Gay Warfare
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Night Deposits
Oddly Specific
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