Saturday, March 27, 2010

30 Years Ago Today

March 27 to April 18, 1980
Earthquakes and steam-driven explosions occur off and on during this period.
From here, and also mentioned here:
Seven days after the initial earthquake, March 27, 1980, a loud boom was widely heard by many residents of Southwest Washington and aerial observers noted a dark dense column of volcanic ash rising through the clouds, eventually reaching a height of 6,000 feet above the volcano.
I had arrived in Corvallis shortly before this first venting, and was riveted. For that spring term, I was living in a dorm on campus. There was a newspaper box outside the front door, and most days I dropped the coinage to get a copy of the Oregonian, just so I could go through and look for news on The Volcano.

A quick search on teh googler turns up a bit more information that confirms what I had remembered: these first blasts did not involve any juvenile rock, but were steam blasts created as magma encountered groundwater. Ashy material was actually pulverized pre-existing rock, not freshly extruded lava.
In early afternoon on March 27, a loud explosion was heard from the direction of Mt. St. Helens. Although the volcano was shrouded in clouds, a summit eruption was verified by a news team from the Vancouver Columbian. As they circled the summit in an airplane, they spotted a dense column of ash rising through the clouds to a height of about 2000 m. As the weather cleared later in the day, a new crater was visible, with a diameter of about 70 m, and snow on the summit area was covered by a thin veneer of dark ash. The summit eruption on March 27 was typical of several small eruptions that would occur through April and early May. None of these eruptions were magmatic in character, but instead they were steam eruptions generated by the heating of groundwater above a rising plug of magma that had invaded the central conduit of the volcano.

The March 27 eruption generated a huge east-trending fissure high on the north side of the summit. It extended down both sides of the volcano over a distance of about 1500 m. Another, less extensive fracture system had developed farther down the north flank of the volcano, parallel to the higher fracture. Measurements showed that the region between the two fractures had expanded outward to produce a huge north-flank bulge. The bulge was verified by a US Forest Service aerial spotter who reported seeing both fractures open and close as the north flank bulged upward during the hours immediately following the steam eruption.
In the photo above, taken from the north side, you can see the fissure and the summit crater. Again, relying on ancient memories, I don't believe the bulge was identified (or at least announced) until some days later. But that crater, crack and ashy material were very visible. (below, looking east, both from March 27, 1980) In the days to come, the fissure would open wider; the summit depression eventually dropped into it completely. And the bulge on the north face would grow ominously larger...

We had been served notice that the beast was alive.
(USGS photo archive- larger sizes available)

Followup: I just checked; 3/27/80 was a Thursday. This sounds about right. I had arrived at OSU by Greyhound bus the previous Sunday, which would have been 3/23. I don't think I found out about this blast until the next day, though, when it was on the front page of every PNW newspaper.


The Stranglers, Life Shows No Mercy:

Public Image Ltd., This is Not a Love Song:

The Clash, Brand New Cadillac:

Don't Forget Haiti

It's still awfully bad there...
Dorothy Moise, a 35-year-old nursing student, said she wants help leave the shack her family built after their concrete home crumbled. The metal, wood and tarp structure is better than some -- it has a jury-rigged electrical hookup for the television -- but water flows across the floor when it rains. Her 1 1/2-year-old son, Chrisley, has constant diarrhea. Her 6-year-old daughter, Sephara, is home all day because schools remain closed.
As I mentioned yesterday, Wednesday's "The Big Picture" was "Haiti, 70 Days Later." If you haven't seen that post, I respectfully ask that you take a look at some of the photos. This country has a terrible long-term memory, but Haiti is the ultimate in long term problems. I have no money to contribute, but I can use my small voice here, and ask that others not allow this horrific disaster to drift off and down the memory hole.

In positive news, with funding from the US Department of Defense, a new plan has emerged: rather than creating vast evacuation camps, Hatians may return to their homes if they are declared safe by engineers. Homes that have been destroyed or rendered unsafe will be demolished, and assistance given to remove the debris. Residents may thus return to their original neighborhoods instead of having to move to a strange new place. Currently, according to the article from today's NYT,
Some 1.3 million people lost their homes in the Jan. 12 quake; hundreds of thousands are on the capital's streets, hillsides and dangerous riverbeds with at most a tarp or flimsy wood between them and the sky.
Don't forget Haiti. Her people need us now as much as ever.

Friday, March 26, 2010


I'm sure it's just a coincidence, but this was one of the first things I came across after I finished the previous post:
Disclaimer: This is not meant to imply that has or ever will sell out in this manner. But it does say something about what "educational" and "science" media have become in this culture.

Q & A

A couple of weeks ago, in the post "Too Blunt" I set out my question for Alan Boyle, science editor for
Do journalists (both reporters and editors) realize how distressed science-literate readers are by the frequent mistakes, sensationalism, misrepresentation, and more subtly, inappropriate emphasis we so frequently encounter when reading MSM science reporting? I'm linking to an old blog post, if you have the time, in which I go on a rant regarding coverage of a "supervolcano" discovered in Italy. This is a useful example of a lot of the ranting in the science blogs, because I did a followup the next day to point out the aspects of the story that were important scientifically; the "supervolcano" angle and emphasis was not.

Supporters of science like myself want people to get excited about the subject. We don't mind a little sensationalism, because, frankly, science is pretty sensational. But when MSM science becomes all sensationalism to the extent that it's misinforming and misleading people on important aspects of the stories being delivered, many of us quit paying attention to the media sources. I don't watch television news any more, in part because of its loathsome science reporting. I certainly don't look to MSNBC online as a source of science news.

So to reiterate, are those of you in the MSM even aware of the magnitude of your credibility gap in the science community, and if so, do you have any plans or ideas for improving your reporting and delivery in the future?

If not, I think those of us in the geoblogosphere could offer some.
Today, Erik Klemetti at the Eruptions Blog posted Boyle's responses to quite a number of questions, including mine. The whole thing is worth reading, but here's his response to the above question:
Alan: I think journalists do realize that they're not perfect, although I'm not sure we're keyed into how frequently problems crop up. I have to smile at the reference to the "MSM" ... for one thing, I still think of our Web site as a long way out from the mainstream. But since we've been in business now for 14 years, and are finally making a profit, I guess we have become part of the media mainstream.

For another thing, using the acronym implies that there's some distance between journalists and the public, as if I was part of the CIA or the NWO (New World Order). Actually, I'm just a guy, trying to provide a fair and factual picture of the world and the wider cosmos. Obviously I can't know as much about seismology as a seismologist (just as an example), so I do depend on seismologists to set me straight if I stray.

I think professional scientists have to keep in mind that we're writing primarily for folks who are not professional scientists ... folks who may not fully understand all the ins and outs of a technical field. Thus, we have to put things in terms that regular folks can understand. That usually involves simplifying a concept without distorting the facts. Sometimes we have to gloss over some of the finer points that scientists may feel are important to their more nuanced understanding of a particular phenomenon. And sometimes we have to ask questions or address issues that some scientists feel are not worthy of being asked or addressed.

The only way we can improve our reporting and delivery is by talking with each other, and staying engaged with the public. Although I'm paid by MSNBC, my first obligation is not to serve the MSM, or scientists, or sources, but to serve the public. And that includes you or anybody else reading these words. I'm very glad to hear from you if there's ever anything about our science coverage that needs to be fixed or addressed. You can write me at alan-dot-boyle-at-msnbc-dot-com.
OK, fair enough. I think he makes some valid points, but I think he also misses a great deal of what I was hoping he'd address.

"I think journalists do realize that they're not perfect." I'm not asking for perfection, I'm asking that you don't regularly commit scientific and journalistic atrocities.

"I'm not sure we're keyed into how frequently problems crop up." So the short answer is "No we really aren't aware of just how badly we do."

"I have to smile at the reference to the "MSM" I have to smile that I feel like I'm being condescended to, rather than having my question answered.

"For another thing, using the acronym implies that there's some distance between journalists and the public, as if I was part of the CIA or the NWO (New World Order)." Well, yeah, see, that's a problem. Last I checked, MSNBC stood for Microsoft/National Broadcasting Company, two enormous corporations that from the outside (i.e., "the public") are opaque, wealthy, and very very powerful. It may very well be that the science division at is staffed by just plain ol' folks who are more concerned with "trying to provide a fair and factual picture of the world," than with providing mindless and factually flawed entertainment that enriches their corporate parents. It may be, but it often doesn't look that way from the outside. If you aren't aware "there's some distance between journalists and the public," the problem is much worse than I thought.

"Obviously I can't know as much about seismology as a seismologist (just as an example), so I do depend on seismologists to set me straight if I stray." Again, you're simply dodging the question. If you "depend on seismologists to set me straight," why is it that so frequently material is published that no self-respecting undergraduate would allow to pass muster, let alone a professional? The obvious answer is that you are set straight, so to speak, after going to publication, rather than before. And as far as I'm concerned, that's unsatisfactory.

"I think professional scientists have to keep in mind that we're writing primarily for folks who are not professional scientists ... folks who may not fully understand all the ins and outs of a technical field." My professional background is science education. I feel like I understand pretty well just how complicated science can be, and how difficult it can be to try to explain it to someone without much background. But that increases the level of responsibility to get it right, not decreases it. A good rule of thumb is to simplify to the point that it's still correct and no further. If you need to simplify it to the point of incorrectness, point that out. For example, middle school students are often presented with the Bohr model of the atom- the idea that negatively charged electron "planets" orbit a positively charged "solar" nucleus. They are carefully and explicitly told that this is "a useful way to think about atoms," but that it's not completely accurate. In other words, we make it clear that we're talking about an inaccurate model. Building off that mental model later can develop more sophisticated understandings. But claiming the need to explain things to non-experts is not an excuse for getting simple facts just plain wrong. Repeatedly.

"Thus, we have to put things in terms that regular folks can understand. That usually involves simplifying a concept without distorting the facts." Yes and yes, precisely. And my question was, boiled down to it's essence, "Why don't you do those things?" Apparently, you missed that.

"Sometimes we have to gloss over some of the finer points that scientists may feel are important to their more nuanced understanding of a particular phenomenon." This may or may not be relevant here, but my concerns are not over the nuances and "finer points," but as I said in the original question, "the frequent mistakes, sensationalism, misrepresentation, and more subtly, inappropriate emphasis." Still, points for bobbing and weaving.

"And sometimes we have to ask questions or address issues that some scientists feel are not worthy of being asked or addressed." I can only guess this is a veiled reference to the recent "Climategate" "Story." If not, I'm not sure what he's referring to.

I don't see much to argue with in the last paragraph, but I do wish I felt a stronger conviction that Boyle believes the statements he makes therein. Ask any school principle how they view their jobs, and you will uniformly get the answer "to be teacher mentors and leaders." Watch what they do in their jobs, and it's paperwork, discipline, and trying to placate parents outraged that Johnny got a C. And precious little time watching classrooms and providing meaningful feedback. In other words, I want to believe. I really do. But I look at the content, and I just don't.

So the answer to my penultimate question, "Are those of you in the MSM even aware of the magnitude of your credibility gap in the science community?" is pretty clearly "No." And the answer to my last question, "Do you have any plans or ideas for improving your reporting and delivery in the future?" must also be "No." If the problem is simply that we don't understand how difficult accurately reporting science news is, then the problem is ours, and we have to deal with it. If this is the case, then journalists are doing a bang up job, and don't need to worry about "plans or ideas for improving your reporting and delivery in the future."

As I think I've probably made clear, I disagree.

"If not, I think those of us in the geoblogosphere could offer some." I for one think this might be a fruitful topic for an Accretionary Wedge edition sometime down the line. There have been innumerable geoblogospheric posts on this topic already, on a wide variety of blogs, some of which have even offered specific suggestions. But until reporters and editors like Boyle can be brought to understand how unsatisfactory the job they're doing actually is, I don't think we can hope for improvement.

I do appreciate and thank Mr. Boyle for taking the time to answer a wide variety of questions (Again, the whole post is well worth reading, though in my opinion the pattern of dodging the question and justifying shoddy work is a recurrent theme.), and in fairness to him specifically, I'm not familiar with his work. I have added his blog, Cosmic Log, to my reader. My response above is to his speaking on behalf of journalists who write about science, not in regard to his own writing. He may be very good, and not representative of science journalism broadly, which is not. Since I've spent so much time critiquing his response, I feel kind of obligated to give his actual writing a chance.

Welcome to Hoth

Of course you're familiar with the At-At Walkers from the Star Wars franchise...
...but you might not realize just how close we are to actually building them.
From today's Big Picture at, Robots. The caption for the real walker is
"Boston Dynamics' quadruped robot named BigDog, designed to help soldiers carry heavy equipment in the field, climbs a snowy hillside. (Boston Dynamics)"

The Big Picture has really been a run for the last week; each one of the last four has been of interest to me:
Haiti, 70 Days Later (3/24)
World Water Day (3/22)
Record Setters (3/19)

The lead picture at that last one is mind-blowing:
He Pingping of China smiles as Sultan Kosen of Turkey rests his hands on He's shoulders during a promotional event in Istanbul, Turkey on January 14, 2010. He, with a height of 73 cm (2 feet 5 inch), and Kosen, with a height of 246.5 cm (8 feet 1 inch), have been listed in the Guinness World Records as the world's shortest man and tallest man respectively. (REUTERS/Osman Orsal)
Sadly, He Pingping died earlier this month, but I've seen several photos from this meeting. They are amazing.

What I'm Doing

Since I'm not a professional geologist, I don't have a whole lot to say about this month's Accretionary Wedge, hosted at Geology Happens. The topic is stated as follows:
This AW is to share your latest discovery with all of us. Please let us in on your thoughts about your current work. What you are finding, what you are looking for. Any problems? Anything working out well?
Again, since I'm not working in geology, it's not easy for me to respond, and I seriously considered sitting this one out. However, I am a marginal member of the geoblogosphere- that is, most geobloggers focus almost exclusively on geology- and earth science-related topics. That isn't and never was the focus of this blog. My focus has always been just what it says in the header: "Miscellaneous thoughts on politics, people, math, science and other cool (if sometimes frustrating) stuff from somewhere near my favorite coffee shop," or more succinctly, stuff that interests and amuses me.

Still, I do consider myself part of the geoblogging community, and am committed to strengthening that sense of community. A quick check shows nearly 1800 posts over the last (nearly) two years, with 230 tagged geology, 71 tagged geoblogosphere, 47 tagged volcanoes, and so on. There's quite a bit of overlap between those, but clearly geology is a big interest of mine, and one that I like to share with others.

So my answer to Ed's question is that for as long as I can, I am working to develop a sense of community within the geoblogosphere. Most professional geologists are so busy with work/research/teaching/actual lives, that they simply don't have time to do the fiddly little stuff like editing the Accretionary Wedge, pestering people about hosting, trying to come up with fresh approaches to engaging people who could and should participate, but don't, and so on. I do have the time, and I don't have to worry about a career, or pleasing a corporation or university, or about students' reactions to my opinions.

I believe geology is a vastly undervalued discipline, and, particularly this year, it feels like the only time it gets attention is in the aftermath of a disaster, when the time to pay attention to the topic is before the disaster. I try to dissect irresponsible and misleading media reports, and draw attention to amazing news and discoveries that I don't feel are getting enough coverage. And I try to do this in a way that's accessible to anyone interested, regardless of what they already know.

I think the geoblogosphere has a lot to offer the broader public, and I'm proud to be a part of it. And I'm proud of the few hours I spend each month reminding geobloggers and others of the importance and awesomeness of geology.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pretty Much

Tom Tomorrow, at Salon.


The Guardian had a nice bit of video that I can't embedd, so I went looking for more recent video of the ongoing eruption of Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland...

The clip above is short and sweet, with some very cool images. The one below is notable for its shameless fear mongering... unsurprising I guess, given the channel. I'm not going to bother doing a point-by-point analysis of where risks and dangers are exaggerated and overstated, but I'm irritated by the repeated implication that explosive volcanism is the concern here. There could be locally devastating steam explosions, as basaltic lava (at 1100-1200 C) interacts with groundwater, surface water, or ice, but we're not talking St. Helens, let alone Long Valley, Yellowstone or Tambora. Rundle doesn't really help clarify the issue either, but I have to give him credit for ending with "We'll be fine."

The next has some of the same footage as The Guardian clip, but I like the editing of that one better.

And one more; this looks like it might be the source for much of the previous one and the clip at the Guardian.

I'm not seeing any evidence that the fissure is extending, so the repeated message that this eruption may "trigger," "cause," or "force" an eruption at Katla, should be taken with a large block of salt. Since they have been on the ground at the site, I'd be willing to bet they've put in more seismometers to better pick out tremors from magma movement and rock fracturing nearby, and better distinguish those signals from noise resulting from the eruption. But this much is clear to me: gas is escaping easily (note the fountains), and the magma/lava is quite fluid. This is not a constipated system. We don't need to worry about an explosive eruption based on current conditions.

That's not to say conditions can't change, though.


This riff on Biden's overheard comment (which I read Obama wanted to have printed up as a tee-shirt) has been going around:But I've been a little surprised no one else seems to have picked up on this...
If you Google "rhymes with deal," I'm sure you can find lots of other big fucking examples.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Not All Texans

Want to pick and choose their reality. As a result, they are able to discover some really neat things...From The Star-Telegram,
Amateur paleontologist Kris Howe, 34, was just doing what he learned as a 5-year-old from his father, a fossil collector. But his recent discovery is being hailed as one of the most significant in years.

On a fossil hunt near the dam spillway at Lake Grapevine, Howe happened upon four bones that two Dallas scientists say are the oldest bird fossils found in North America.
Painting all members of a group with the same brush is bigotry no matter how you cut it, whether it's positive (all fashion models are rich) or negative (all Texans are intellectual Neanderthals), and it pleases me to be able to point out an exciting scholarly achievement in that state.

That said, Texas, what the hail is your school board thinking? From The Onion,

Because of a belief that academia skews too far to the left, the Texas Board of Education voted 10 to 5 in favor of buying history and social studies textbooks that adhere to a more conservative ideology. Here are some of the changes they are mandating:

  • More focus on civic issues, particularly the separation of church and infidel
  • Discussion of the debate between liberal and conservative geologists about what constitutes an "igneous" rock
  • Expanded section on Latino contribution to American landscaping
  • Dividing number of Vietnamese civilian casualties by two due to their small stature
As you might guess, I'm particularly fond of the second point. But wait! There's more! If you click on the link above you can see the full list, not just the ones that cracked me up. Again, This shouldn't be taken as an indictment of Texas broadly, just the 2/3 of the Board of Education that voted in favor of cherry-picking reality (or imagination, as the case may be). Sorry, it doesn't work that way.

Wednesday Wednesday

Life-sized Wednesday Addams doll, sitting on the drawing board of her creator, Charles Addams. (From here) My mom had one of those dolls. It was smaller, but it looked just like that.
[Wednesday is hooking up an electric chair]
Wednesday: Pugsley, sit in the chair.
Pugsley: Why?
Wednesday: So we can play a game.
Pugsley: What game?
Wednesday: [strapping him in] It's called, "Is There a God?"

Sun Day on Wednesday

My immediate reaction was, "well, that's a nice idea."
BELLINGHAM, Wash. (AP) — A forecast of warm clear weather has prompted Bellingham Christian School to cancel classes Wednesday for a "sun day."

Principal Bob Sampson says sun day celebrates spring, promotes positive school culture and is "just for fun."

Sampson notes school can be canceled for bad weather, so why not for fabulous weather?

Because the school lost no days to snow over the winter, the principal says it can afford to take a spring day off.
However, upon looking at the site linked in the above article, I couldn't help but notice the school is offering chid care for parents who need it. Perhaps the techers an staf should yooz the opppertunity to brush up on they're skilz.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Repeal The Bill!

According to Karoli at Crooks and Liars,
Here are ten benefits which come online within six months of the President's signature on the health care bill:
  1. Children under age 19 may not be excluded for pre-existing conditions
  2. No more lifetime or annual caps on coverage
  3. Free preventative care for all
  4. Adults with pre-existing conditions may buy into a national high-risk pool until the exchanges come online. While these will not be cheap, they’re still better than total exclusion and get some benefit from a wider pool of insureds.
  5. Small businesses will be entitled to a tax credit for 2009 and 2010, which could be as much as 50% of what they pay for employees’ health insurance.
  6. The “donut hole” closes for Medicare patients, making prescription medications more affordable for seniors.
  7. Adult children may remain as dependents on their parents’ policy until their 27th birthday
  8. Requirement that all insurers must post their balance sheets on the Internet and fully disclose administrative costs, executive compensation packages, and benefit payments.
  9. Authorizes early funding of community health centers in all 50 states (Bernie Sanders’ amendment). Community health centers provide primary, dental and vision services to people in the community, based on a sliding scale for payment according to ability to pay.
  10. AND no more rescissions. Effective immediately, you can't lose your insurance because you get sick.
The knee-jerk reaction from conservatives, at least the yammering mouths at Faux News, and Michael Steele, is that Republicans must run for election next fall on the platform of "repeal the bill." I'm not going to claim that is the position of thinking conservatives; first, I imagine they're still thinking about how to respond to recent events; second, I've no idea what thinking conservatives are thinking; and third, I'm not even positive "thinking conservative" isn't an oxymoron at this point. I hope it isn't. As I've said before, I have no desire to live under a government run by a single party.

Despite the proclamations of many of the progressive bloggers, and even conservative David Frum, I don't believe this is necessarily an existential disaster for conservatives. I think the key will be to avoid drawing attention to HCR during this election cycle, rather than the converse. Because, in all seriousness (drawing on the list above, which will be fully in play about a month and a half before next fall's elections), do Republicans really want to campaign on the following?
  1. Children under age 19 may be excluded for pre-existing conditions. Nobody wants kids to have brain cancer, leukemia, or juvenile diabetes, and we certainly don't want anyone to have to pay for them.
  2. Once you reach a certain level of benefits in a year or lifetime, all further costs are out of pocket. This won't hurt for long.
  3. Preventative care, despite lowering later costs, will be billed just as any other service.
  4. Adults with pre-existing conditions are screwed.
  5. Small businesses will face increased taxes, and many will choose to discontinue health benefits for employees.
  6. The “donut hole” does not close for Medicare patients, making prescription medications less affordable. Medicare patients will be forced to return the $250 rebate that will start going out in the next months.
  7. Adult children may not remain as dependents on their parents’ policy after their 19th birthday, unless they are still declared as dependents. If they want insurance, must buy it. If they are injured, or become ill, well, that's what ER's are for.
  8. Insurance companies may continue to work behind closed doors with no public scrutiny. Because, you know, we all trust them so much. With our lives, in fact.
  9. Community health centers provide primary, dental and vision services to people in the community, based on a sliding scale for payment according to ability to pay. They will continue to flail with underfunding, over-scheduling, under-staffing, and other shortages, to the frustration and stress of both staff and patients.
  10. You can lose your insurance because you get sick. Never mind that you bought insurance with the understanding that it would help cover the cost of needed care, and that you have a legal contract stating that. If an uneducated functionary can find a piece of paper that by any stretch of the imagination could be interpreted as a pre-existing condition, or when your policy comes up for renewal, it's hasta la vista, baby. Nice doing business with you.
Again, these changes will all be in effect September 23rd or sooner. While I'm not certain that Democratic spines are fully ossified and calcified, I do think there's some cartilage showing. Take a look at those two lists, and ask yourself, which would you rather campaign on? As I mentioned above, I don't think HCR necessarily marks the death knell of the Republican Party. But if, across the board, they choose to campaign on the second version of this list, I'm confident that at least a few dems will campaign on the first.

The result, to paraphrase an old adage, would be like bringing a pom-pom to a gunfight.

Bill Biden

(TDW) I'm sure you've heard the news of Joe Biden's verbal gaffe at the signing ceremony earlier today, and if you haven't, you will. Some sources are apparently trying to make a big deal out of this- I read earlier that Faux News ran the audio "repeatedly." Whatever. I happen to agree with Biden on this, and it doesn't really trouble me that he used some injudicious language to say so. The more I read about the final result, the better I feel. I still worry about the potential for corporate abuse of the US taxpayer, but it was clear from the beginning that for-profit insurance companies were not the target of this bill- that is, that they would remain viable players and a part of whatever resolution we reached. And they are, so I have no reason to act surprised or outraged. I'm just a little trepidacious, is all.

But that doesn't change the fact that this is indeed a big fucking deal.

The Biggest Story of All

The CSM has a piece explaining this artist's conception of a star-forming galaxy.
A galaxy some 10 billion light years from Earth is – or was – producing stars at a prodigious rate. And Albert Einstein's gravitational "magnifying glass" has been giving astronomer's a front-row seat.
The galaxy was discovered when astronomers were studying another cluster at less than half the distance: 4.5 billion light years. That happens to be right about the time the earth was forming.

A geo classmate one commented, "I love geology because it's the biggest story there is, after astrophysics and cosmology. And I don't want to deal with that math."

Monday, March 22, 2010


A few minutes ago, some nice person from Garner, North Carolina became the 50,000th (counted) visitor to this humble blog. C'mon down, and collect your prize! One Internet! (zero cash value) (But thanks, I really am kind of flattered by the number of visitors.)

Red Rain

Well, probably not, and I'm not sure "color" would have any real meaning under these conditions. But neon glows red, so that's the title that came to mind for this report: to figure out why Jupiter appears to be depleted with respect to helium and neon, theoretical modeling was done of the elements and their interaction with hydrogen under conditions where those three neared the transition into metallic phases in the Jovian atmosphere.
So there's an elevation within Jupiter, from about 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers below the cloud tops, where the hydrogen is a metallic fluid but the helium, although fluid, is not metallic. The metallic hydrogen and fluid helium are immiscible -- like oil and water, they don't mix. The helium is denser than the hydrogen, so the helium forms droplets that fall through the hydrogen to deeper levels, depleting the upper layers of Jupiter of helium.

So, that explains the depletion of helium, but what does that have to do with neon? At that crucial elevation, 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers below the cloud tops, neon and helium behave very similarly. Neither dissolves in the metallic hydrogen, but neon is perfectly happy to dissolve into the helium droplets. So when those helium droplets fall, they take the dissolved neon with them.
I'm not sure that "atmosphere" and "rain" are meaningful words under these conditions, either. Let's face it: when you're dealing with a depth of 1 earth diameter, and a gravitational field 2.5 times that of earth, there's just not a whole lot of words that are going to be meaningful to frail earth protoplasm such as that of which we're composed.

Fire in Iceland

There has been a torrent of news and information on a volcanic eruption that started Saturday night in Iceland, at a site called Eyjafjallajokull, and the above photo from Der Spiegel (Photo gallery, article) finally spurred me to put together some of the ones I've read. (Side note: the location in English would be "Eyjafjalla Glacier." In Icelandic the meaning of the name Jokull is: An ice glacier, and baby boys are sometimes given that name, which seems a rather cold-hearted thing to do to a kid. Heh.)

The Christian Science Monitor makes an uncharacteristic goof with this:
There are three main places where volcanoes normally occur — along strike-slip faults such as California's San Andreas fault line, along areas where plates overlap one another such as in the Philippines and the Pacific Rim, and in areas like Iceland, where two of the Earth's plates are moving apart from each other in a so-called spreading system.
Strike-slip faults are not especially associated with volcanism (though volcanism can arise there if a fault is offset in such a way as to create a tensional setting); I suspect this is a result of a misunderstanding. The correct three would be subduction (not just "plates overlapping"), rifting, and hot spots, like Hawaii. Iceland has the latter two settings: a hot spot under the mid-Atlantic Ridge. Despite the error, it's an overall good article, describing the concerns that the fissure eruption might spread, and lead to "a larger explosion at the nearby Katla volcano." In the following Flash Earth image (click for full-size), the central cross-hairs are on the approximate location of the eruption; Katla is under the large ice sheet to the east. An eruption there would be... ahhh... messy.And in the following Google Earth image, you can see why I liked the above better, but you can also see a scale bar. This one is backed out a little further, so you can get a sense of scale of the ice sheet on Katla.
Discovery News doesn't have a whole lot of information, but a couple of excellent pictures, one of which is above. The Water Seems Inviting (German) offers what looks to be the more precise location in a SPOT image, but I can't read German, so I'm not positive I'm understanding this correctly.Amphibol (also in German) was the first place I saw this video clip, though I've seen it at numerous other places since:

As always, the go-to information sources on volcanism are Eric Klemetti's Eruptions blog (label Eyjafjallajokull) and The Volcanism Blog (label Eyjafjallajokull). Of particular interest to me was this comment at Eruptions yesterday: "In many "curtain of fire" eruptions on Hawai`i, the curtain (see below) eventually coalesces into a single fire fountain, sometimes producing fountains that can reach a few kilometers in height." Emphasis mine, but Yowza! There are also a couple of videos from Saturday night-Sunday morning here and here, with numerous "related videos" in the sidebar (though I suspect many are repeats)

Many of the news stories seem like press release/wire feed clones (I think the CSM piece near the top is an AP story), so I won't bore you with repetitive links and summaries. But the take-away story as I read it right now is that this is currently a fairly small and gentle eruption. The probability of casualties is low; ~500 people in the vicinity have been evacuated. However, fissure eruptions can spread laterally, and if this one does so under glacial ice, there is real potential for massively destructive phreatic (steam-driven) explosions, or, even more likely, sub-glacial floods, called jokulhaups (there's that "jokul" word again). So even though right now it's pretty harmless and pretty pretty, Eyjafjallajökull is one to keep an eye on.

Followup: The Telegraph has also posted a gallery of photos, of varying relevance to this particular eruption, but illustrating a variety of Iceland's volcanic and volcano-related features.

A Cat Reacts

To Two Girls, One Cup (If you don't know the reference, see the last clip and paragraph in this post, and consider yourself lucky)


I call Bullshit.
But there is no doubt that in the course of this debate, Mr. Obama has lost something — and lost it for good. Gone is the promise on which he rode to victory less than a year and a half ago — the promise of a “postpartisan” Washington in which rationality and calm discourse replaced partisan bickering.
In today's NYT, David Sanger argues that somehow, since "Never in modern memory has a major piece of legislation passed without a single Republican vote," this is a loss or failure on Obama's part. This despite the fact that Republicans were offered every opportunity to contribute to and shape the bill. They were determined not to; they had explicitly said at the beginning of Obama's term that would stop at nothing to obstruct or at least delay anything on his agenda. And, frankly and objectively, they have done a marvelous job of just that.

The problem isn't that Obama failed to achieve his "postpartisan" goal; his problem is that he thought Republicans shared that goal. They didn't and don't. The problem isn't that Obama isn't rational (I sometimes wish he was more emotional and passionate); the problem is he assumed rationality appealed to conservatives. It may have at some point in the past, but with a few exceptions (e.g. John Dean), I can't remember a time since 1992 when I have associated "rationality" with "conservatism." It takes two to tango. It takes two to make a marriage. And it takes two to sit down at the table and negotiate in good-faith bipartisanship.

This generation of Republicans won't even acknowledge that there is a table, let alone sit down at it. And negotiate with Dems? They'd rather blow Osama.

Even conservative pundit David Frum, in a widely-circulated column yesterday, recognizes this:
A huge part of the blame for today’s disaster attaches to conservatives and Republicans ourselves.

At the beginning of this process we made a strategic decision: unlike, say, Democrats in 2001 when President Bush proposed his first tax cut, we would make no deal with the administration. No negotiations, no compromise, nothing. We were going for all the marbles. This would be Obama’s Waterloo – just as healthcare was Clinton’s in 1994.
This time, when we went for all the marbles, we ended with none.
We followed the most radical voices in the party and the movement, and they led us to abject and irreversible defeat.

There were leaders who knew better, who would have liked to deal. But they were trapped. Conservative talkers on Fox and talk radio had whipped the Republican voting base into such a frenzy that deal-making was rendered impossible. How do you negotiate with somebody who wants to murder your grandmother? Or – more exactly – with somebody whom your voters have been persuaded to believe wants to murder their grandmother?
When Rush Limbaugh said that he wanted President Obama to fail, he was intelligently explaining his own interests. What he omitted to say – but what is equally true – is that he also wants Republicans to fail. If Republicans succeed – if they govern successfully in office and negotiate attractive compromises out of office – Rush’s listeners get less angry. And if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds.
I for one welcome sensible conservatism. I welcome informed, rational viewpoints that differ from mine. But claiming that because Obama and Pelosi managed to shoehorn the HCR bill through, despite Republicans screaming "NO!", therefore fail, is just asinine.

Healthy Skepticism

(From Mahablog) I'm pleased it passed. It doesn't fix everything that's wrong with health care in this country, but it does look as if it will fix some of the problems. As always, I'm finding both positive and negative reactions in the progressive blogosphere, and have read many second-hand reports of apocalyptic exploding heads across the right side of the spectrum. My reaction was captured pretty well in "We Shall See," at Indexed this morning:
I don't know if this was intended as her response to HCR, but it's appropriate. Reuters has a nice summary of what happens if and when the bill is signed into law:

*Insurance companies will be barred from dropping people from coverage when they get sick. Lifetime coverage limits will be eliminated and annual limits are to be restricted.

*Insurers will be barred from excluding children for coverage because of pre-existing conditions.

*Young adults will be able to stay on their parents' health plans until the age of 26. Many health plans currently drop dependents from coverage when they turn 19 or finish college.

*Uninsured adults with a pre-existing conditions will be able to obtain health coverage through a new program that will expire once new insurance exchanges begin operating in 2014.
and that's just the first half of the items that go into effect this year. Another benefit is that we can all mock Rush Limpdick when he backpedals on his threat to move to socialist Costa Rica; the good folks at BuzzFeed have already started the festivities.
Rush Limbaugh promised that if health care reform passed, he would move to Costa Rica. Now you can donate $1 to buy Mr. Limbaugh a one-way ticket. If he changes his mind, the proceeds will be donated to Planned Parenthood.
A Ticket For Rush!Now this is all very nice, but Numballs is our creation, our fault, and our problem. If I were Costa Rican, I would regard our allowing him to flee to that country as an act of war. I would also have very little fear that Rushputin would actually choose to do so.

Still, I feel like this bill is in large part a sell-out to corporate interests who have demonstrated repeatedly how much they enjoy the flavor of human blood. I'd like to be hopeful. But I'm not, really. My brother loves to talk about Friedman's visions of free-market paradise, and how serving the interest of the customer is always in a corporation's best interest. Talk about regulation, and he'll tell you it's pointless; a determined player will always be able to find a way to game the system. I agree. The problem is we have shown repeatedly over the last decade that to make the big bucks, you have to act in exact opposition to the above themes: work behind closed doors to figure out how to squeeze maximum profits for minimum value, and let the customers and taxpayers clean up the debris, or die trying, in the aftermath. And forget gaming the system; our current idea of regulation is pretty much, what the corps want, the corps get.

So in the end, I'm neither terribly pessimistic nor optimistic. I just don't know, and I trust politicians, corporations and pundits as far as I can throw air.

Followup, 12:10 PM: Heh. It's an unusual day when my sentiments are more in line with Ross Douthat than with Paul Krugman. Though the latter piece is more about the nature of the partisan process, and the former more about the consequences- the actual results of the policy- so it's kind of comparing apples and oranges. But Douthat's comments are closer to what I'm actually thinking, and I really, really appreciated this line:
As a conservative, I suspect they’re wrong. But now that the bill has passed, as a citizen of the United States, I dearly hope they’re right.
Followup 2, 12:40 PM: Der Speigel has an interesting take from the outside:
The debate will dominate the next few months -- and will no doubt also have an impact on the other projects that Obama is finally planning to tackle. The attention that the president will have to continue to pay to health care, in fact, makes further successes that much more doubtful.

Every other issue has become a sideshow, particularly those outside the borders of America. The Afghanistan mission: of marginal interest. Protecting the environment: postponed. Peace in the Middle East: off in the distance. Sanctions against Iran: delayed. Europe: not even worth a trip.

The one remaining global superpower has succumbed to navel gazing.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Secret Service?

Yeah, I'm pretty sure this violates the law, not to say standards of decency. I also think it's a reasonable position that the US has never recovered from the trauma of its presidential assassinations, particularly the two mentioned above. And Solly Forell, pseudonym or not, is likely to be facing some very uncomfortable questions in the foreseeable future. (Hat tip: Balloon Juice and Library Grape)

Sunday Funnies

Another weekly roundup of innertubz silliness commences...

Catman, via The Daily What
Another Trap, From No Smoking in the Skull Cave. It was pointed out in the comments that "Ackbar" is an anagram for Barack. Make of that what you will...
Bits and Pieces
Sober in a Nightclub

Let There Be Blogs
Probably Bad News
Very Demotivational
never pick up a duck in a dungeon
see more Autocompletions
xkcd, via Skull Swap
political pictures for your blog
see more Political Pictures
Darius Whiteplume's Tumblr
Probably Bad News
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
Funny Tattoos - Escher Marble
see more Tattoos
Via The Daily What
demotivational posters
see more Demotivators
Skull Swap
My First Dictionary
funny pictures of dogs with captions
see more dog and puppy pictures
Oddly Specific
The Daily What
demotivational posters
see more Demotivators
Badtux, the Snarky Penguin
sarah palin
see more Political Pictures
Darius Whiteplume's Tumblr
Let There Be Blogs
Oddly Specific
Bits and Pieces
Shoebox Blog
Shouldn't that be every night? Picture is Unrelated

Via Bits and Pieces... I was expecting another car to zoom in and crash into the Ferrari. That's not what happens.
James Whitmore Totally Looks Like The Troll from Troll 1
see more Celeb Look-A-Likes
M Thru F
What a darlin'! EpicPonyz
Oddly Specific
Friends of Irony
Those darned Catholic Priests are up to their silly shenanigans again... Sober in a Nightclub.
Night Deposits
Illustration in Oregon Live, accompanying a short commentary on the news that one Portland school is banning hugs. Also, nuclear weapons, major rivers and killer whales.
Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal
Piece talks, from Criggo

Pope Forgives Molested Children

VATICAN CITY—Calling forgiveness "one of the highest virtues taught to us by Jesus," Pope John Paul II issued a papal decree Monday absolving priest-molested children of all sin.
The Onion
funny pictures of dogs with captions
see more dog and puppy pictures
Jurassic Nerdodon from Bits and Pieces
Probably Bad News
Clay Bennett at Chattanooga Times Free Press
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present…. the first ever abandoned blog. (That’s what you get for using ghost-bloggers. Well, in his day, probably slave-bloggers, actually.)
Noise to Signal
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
Bits and Pieces
Waka waka waka waka... Epic Win
Sober in a Nightclub
Bits and Pieces
Life is Like a Rock