Friday, October 24, 2008


You know you're paying too much attention when a line in a commentary on Greenspan's testimony before the House oversight and government reform committee gives you the best laugh of the day (so far):

Two weeks ago, Nell Minow of the Corporate Library proposed the Paul Volcker
rule (named after the former Federal Reserve chairman) in an appearance before
the same House committee: "If Paul Volcker can't understand it, it shouldn't be
on the market."

From here. The op-ed piece is basically arguing that Greenspan's admission of error and lack of understanding marks the end of an economic paradigm. Mebbe. I suspect that it will be a cyclical process- we will over-regulate for the time being. In 20 years or so, there will be another Greenspan, and we will return to "irrational exuberance," and simple faith that looking out for their own best interests will always lead companies to make wise decisions. Faith that long-term viability will trump short-term profits. I happen to not buy that idea.

On the other hand, and for the record, I do think that scapegoating Greenspan is overly simplistic and unfair. I think there is much to admire and respect in the guy- I disagree with him pretty fundamentally on many issues, but I respect his point of view. I have learned a lot from him, and that's high praise. (I've learned more from Krugman, but another time, another time...)

The concluding line (from the same article):
One doesn't need a Nobel prize to know what brought about the collapse of this
intellectual edifice. Humorist Roy Blount summed it up in a talk before an
audience in Philadelphia earlier this week: "Money got too abstract, and that's
why it went away".

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Last week I submitted a cartoon caption to a contest over at Nova Geoblog (which I also mentioned yesterday). Today I received my "Geology Rocks" Sticker from Mr. Bentley. Unlike a lot of cartoonish versions of this classic line, this one is starkly elegant, and I'm really liking it. I have it on the outside shell of my laptop, so I won't see it as often as visitors to my favorite coffee shop, but I also won't get tired of seeing it over and over. Thanks Callan! I had also received an Obama Sticker from MoveOn.Org (and now receive several e-mails a day from said group begging for time, money, whatever), and since I now have a designated space for sticking stickers, I stuck that on my computer too. Since I don't have a car, I can't stick a flag decal on my windowshield.

The idea of "elegance" is really important in science, but it's not easy to describe. The idea of Occam's razor- that the simplest explanation that fully addresses a question is the best explanation (I have also heard this idea referred to as the principle of parsimony)- starts to get at it, but only starts. Elegance as a scientific concept includes with simplicity an unexpected power. That is, the idea is clearly simple, but it's only with extended use and examination that the student begins to learn just how far this simple idea extends- how many problems one can approach with this idea.

I have mentioned Bowen's reaction series several times recently- another great idea for a post (makes a mental note)- and that simple chart is one of my favorite examples of elegance in geology. The framework of plate tectonics is another- you can lay it out in just a few simple statements, but the implications and logical consequences of those statements are profound. We were only starting to unravel what we jokingly referred to as "flake tectonics" when I was an undergrad but the ideas seem inevitable from the basic outlines. (the link above is simply a citation to a paper written by the guy I had structural geo and stress and deformation from; the idea is that little pieces of plate can become detached from -or form independently from- the major plates and end up in odd locations, with odd geological histories; see also terrane)

So when I use the word "elegant," it's about as high praise as I can come up with.

Bush, Nixon

One of the reasons I was leery about supporting Hillary early in the season was that I dislike the idea of dynasties- the idea that some families are inherently cut out to lead. (Her shenanigans later in the spring and into the summer set me firmly against her.) On the democratic side we have Kennedys and Clintons, on the republican side, the Bushs are the stand out. A commonly known bit of election trivia was "When was the last election in which neither a Clinton nor a Bush was on the presidential ticket?" The answer was 1976- Bush Sr. was Reagan's VP running mate in 1980 and '84.

Well here's another that's pretty mind boggling (Hat tip to More Words, Deeper Hole): When was the last time a Republican won the White House with neither a Bush nor a Nixon on the ticket? Think it over- you can either click over to the above link or I'll stick the answer in the comments after I post this.

What He Said

Badtux the Snarky Penguin has a nice short piece that sort of made my eyes mist up. Yeah, we (as a country) often seem determined to be as dumb as is humanly possible, but sometimes we do get things right. Really right.

Which reminds me of an Einstein quote I've seen around several times in the last few days, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity... and I'm not sure about the universe." But then even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Sticker Generator

You can generate your own McCain Bumper stickers here. I don't know if there's an equivalent Obama generator- let me know if you find one. This is the ultimate in the democratization of American discourse: up until now, only the media have been able to stick their inaccurate, irrelevant and offensive soundbites into the candidates' mouths- rather than allowing them to utter their own inaccurate, irrelevant and offensive soundbites. Now I (and you) can stick our own inaccurate, irrelevant and offensive soundbites into their mouths. Well, at least McCain's.
I like the first one better: short, succinct, to the point. The second just seems a little unwieldy and lacking a little in clarity.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Happy Birthday!

Callan Bentley, at the terrific Nova Geoblog, reminded me earlier this week that October 23 was the date determined by Archbishop Ussher to be the date of the Earth's Creation, as calculated by working backward through Biblical geneologies. The year, he figured, was 4004 BC. So tomorrow, the earth will be 6012 years old.


So drink a toast, or light 6012 birthday candles outdoors and let the wind blow them out.

My little sister also has a birthday coming up, on Saturday.

Though she is somewhat younger than the earth.

Happy Birthday, Earth! Happy Birthday, Little Sister!

Amazing... Disturbing!

According to an amazing article in the Telegraph (front page here), this is a picture of a Golden Orb Weaver spider eating a bird- a type of finch. I don't really get all revved up over holidays, but I've been following with interest all the Halloween-related posts lately. So here's my contribution.

The Telegraph, a paper out of Great Britain, often posts fascinating and amazing nature photos and sequences- the above is one of a pair. Back in July, I linked to another one of their photo series in "Crocodile: It's What's for Dinner." That one was of a leopard killing and eating a crocodile. Their news coverage is better than most US papers too- recommended.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Walking on Water

Hmmm... two religion-related posts in a day. Chalk it up to chance.

Many years ago, I'm figuring fall of 1980, before I realized how much I loved me some geology and how boring the bio sequence was, I was in the intro biology lab. I noticed a snail crawing across the water's surface in an aquarium, hanging upside down. I asked the TA how a snail could do that, and her response was basically, "Well how am I supposed to know?"

Well, obviously, Grad students and Professors are supposed to know everything about their subject, right? But even though she was pretty cute, one of those TA's that made me wish I was a few years older, I was struck by the complete lack of interest, of curiosity. I have not thought much about the incident since- I switched over to a much more interesting and beautiful subject area that has the benefit of not smelling funky (Yeah, Yellowstone and all, but mostly).

So imagine my surprise when I came across this...

No Rocks in Heaven?

Then I don't wanna go!

Oh wait... That's a relief!

(Click over for a very funny debate-by-sign between, apparently, two neighboring churches.)

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Way Out of the Meltdown

Natalie Portman and Rashida Jones explain.
See more Natalie Portman videos at Funny or Die

Because, just to be clear, I am getting really sick of taking this election season seriously.

The Origin of Candies

I found this particularly funny because this is exactly how I ate M&M's when I was young. I actually felt a little uncomfortable consuming the ultimate winner of each packet, and neither the idea presented here, nor the idea of setting the winner free occurred to me. Brazenly borrowed from here with a few minor edits. (Front page here- not a really busy spot, but their science funnies are among some of the best out there. I'm going to give this "scite" status too.)

Whenever I get a package of plain M&Ms, I make it my duty to continue
the development of strength and robustness of the candy as a species. To
this end, I hold M&M duels.

Taking two candies between my thumb and forefinger, I apply pressure,
slowly squeezing them together until one of them cracks and splinters.
That is the "loser," and I eat the inferior one immediately. The winner
gets to go another round.

I have found that, in general, the brown and red M&Ms are tougher, and
the newer blue ones are genetically inferior. I have hypothesized that the
blue M&Ms as a race cannot survive long in the intense theater of
competition that is the modern candy and snack-food world.

Occasionally I will get a mutation, a candy that is misshapen, or pointier,
or flatter than the rest. Almost invariably this proves to be a weakness,
but on very rare occasions it gives the candy extra strength. In this way,
the species continues to adapt to its environment.

When I reach the end of the pack, I am left with one M&M, the strongest
of the herd. Since it would make no sense to eat this one as well, I pack
it neatly in an envelope and send it to M&M Mars, A Division of Mars, Inc.,
Hackettstown, NJ 17840-1503 U.S.A., along with a 3x5 card reading, "Please use
this M&M for breeding purposes."

This week they wrote back to thank me, and sent me a coupon for a free 1/2
pound bag of plain M&Ms. I consider this"grant money." I have
set aside the weekend for a grand tournament. From a field of hundreds, we
will discover the True Champion.

There can be only one.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Grave concerns

There's a great picture of the Bishop Tuff over at EPOD today (click image for full-size; it's really nice). But HOW could you post this picture on a nominally earth science oriented site and NOT point out that delicious graben?

(Pun alert: "graben" is German for "grave.")