Saturday, December 13, 2008

Electoral Retrospective

From Robin Williams. Funny how many of these jokes I've used myself, but I could never deliver the material like this guy.

Lewis Black: Fossils Are Satan's Little Trick

Found this on Diagenesis about a week ago and set it aside to watch when I had a little more time. Language NSFW, but you'll be laughing so loud that no one will be able to hear it.

Stuff in the Sky

Well yesterday had all the appeal of the north end of a south-bound camel. When I looked out at 10:30, the pavement was dry, but it looked like rain. I watched the local weather at 10:38 on the Weather Channel, and the radar showed a massive bank of rain covering the entire Coast Range, and just reaching Corvallis. I looked out again and the ground was wet. It got steadily heavier through the day, with gusty wind kicking in during the afternoon. And colder.

This morning as I was walking in to my favorite coffee shop, I heard the grating sound of someone scraping ice. I looked at the closest car, and sure enough, there was about an eighth inch of ice on it. Fortunately, the ground was too warm for the ice to stick there. During the time I've been here, I've seen several cars go by, presumably from the foothills in outlying Corvallis, with an inch or so of snow on them. We'll see if it gets cold enough to stick, but I've also seen a couple of snow showers since I've been here. So it's not a matter of whether it's cold enough to snow tonight: we're already getting snow. The question is whether the ground gets cold enough for it to stick. Most of the ski areas are opening today and tomorrow, but of course travel through the Cascades- even the Coast Range- is pretty hazardous right now. Getting to the ski areas, now that they're open, is the problem.

Despite all that, last night about 6:00, I was outside, and most of the sky was clear. The moon really was spectacular. It was one of those situations where it seemed wider, it seemed brighter, but it was hard to be sure that it wasn't just because I expected it to be wider and brighter. Didn't matter: it was quite beautiful, and all the more so when the weather had been so crappy.

New Flag For Oregon?

OregonLive sent out a call for ideas for a new state flag a while back. They received many entries, and have selected 10 to choose from. Through January 12, you can vote for your favorite, which will then be submitted to the legislature as a proposed new official state flag. No guarantee that it will be accepted, but it does seem to be a nice (inexpensive) present to ourselves for our 150th birthday. There was definitely one that appealed to me, but I won't try to sway your opinion; take a look. Article here, poll here.

Friday, December 12, 2008

OK, That's Nice. Why Doesn't it Make Me Feel Better?

KATU reports:
CORVALLIS, Ore. (AP) - For the second year in a row, an insurance company
has ranked Corvallis the "most secure" small town in the nation.
I know too many people worried about making ends meet to take this too seriously, though it does highlight how bad it must be in other places.

On the other hand, Bill (owner of my favorite coffee shop) says this is the best term they've had since they opened 10 years ago. They made almost enough to keep up with maintainence.

I See White Stuff

Oddee has a post on albino animals... interesting enough, I suppose, but this one made me giggle:
Here is the caption:

Only 10 in every one million squirrels are born with albinism, and have a very short life expectancy because they are easily seen by both predators and prey due to their obvious lack of camouflage.
There is nothing as amazing as seeing a whole yard full of acorns take off running when they spot an albino squirrel stalking them.

I was also surprised they didn't include this guitar animal.
Johnny Winter- all that pigmentation is artificial.

Seasonal Economic Analysis

I wish they'd put a little more effort into the visuals, but the lyrics are terrific. Hat tip to The Guardian.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Fully Full Moon

The moon is at perigee (closest approach to Earth) right now, and it's also nearly full. I was just outside admiring it, and it is pretty sweet. Because it's close to the horizon, through a well-known (but not well-understood) optical illusion, it looks even bigger. From National Geographic:
Although a full moon happens every month, the one that rises tomorrow will appear about 30 percent brighter and 14 percent larger than the other full moons seen so far this year.

Tomorrow we're supposed to be having rain and gales, so I probably won't get a chance to see it then, but tonight, ahhhh...

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

When The Monster Attacks

... this is the planned schedule for the commander-in-chief.

President To Face Down Monster Attack, Own Demons In Action-Packed Schedule
Many of the Onion's pieces are sort of one-joke constructions, played out too long. I most often get the best laugh from the headline; the actual article is just tedious. But sometimes the sillyness of the premise is enhanced by drawing it out. This is a good example. Here is another I posted a few months back.

Are We Going to Get Winter This Winter?

Apparently, yes. We've been having unsually dry warm days this fall, and unusually crisp cold nights. Most of Oregon's ski areas aren't open yet- they generally open Thanksgiving week. We have had very little snow in the mountains, 15% of the normal snowpack, and precious little rain down here in the valley.

That's going to change over the next couple of days. Every weather forecast is calling for snow here on Saturday and Sunday- an inch or two on the valley floor, 12-18 inches in the mountains. We rarely actually get accumulating snow here in Corvallis, and I'm of the "I believe snow forecasts when the ground is white," school of thought. But the fact that every forecast is saying "snow" has me pretty excited.

We're at about 250 feet elevation here, barely above sea level. The combination of proximity to the ocean and latent heat of condensation as rain falls over the coast range means our winters are very mild. What we get most often is rain falling through cold air trapped in the valley, then freezing when it hits the ground. Those events sometimes are sometimes proceded by a dusting of snow- so you end up with a quarter inch of snow covered by a quarter inch to an inch of solid ice. Makes for great driving conditions. I will say that unlike the bystanders in this video clip, I would have been found nowhere near the street.

(Portland, Oregon, January 2007)

What the reports are not consistent on is night temperatures; most are calling for lows around 30, which is consistent with typical cloudy, precipitating winter weather. But the National Weather Service is looking at a mass of cold air coming down out of Nunavut and is predicting lows in the teens. That is weather without which I would happily do.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Setting Standards

I don't want this to devolve into a rant. I really don't. I'm afraid it might; the reason I've stayed away from posting about education- arguably the topic I know best- is that it is so frustrating to me. I did allow myself to get carried away in response to a post at Pharyngula... and quickly regretted it (see comment #96). On the same topic as a post by Bryan at "In Terra Veritas," which was the trigger for this post.

The fact is we already have a set of widely agreed-upon science standards! Two sets, in fact. One is by AAAS (1995), the other by NRC (The National Research Council, 1996). In terms of overall substance, these two efforts are very similar; in a fine reading of detail and clarity, I slightly prefer the AAAS version. The NRC standards address topics other than simply content, such as teacher preparation, classroom resources and so on. Either or both would be good additions to the library of anybody concerned with science literacy- they are inexpensive- whether they teach science themselves, are parents, or simply are interested in the topic. And even if you don't feel like paying a very reasonable price for the book(s), the texts and PDF's are available online.

My frustration is that because of a wide variety of factors (by and large, we have all been students; so has everyone we know; our tax dollars pay for public education, etc.), everybody feels as if they are qualified to make assertions about "how it oughtta be done." With absolutely no familiarity with what's out there. I'm not saying people shouldn't make recommendations, just that they should spend a little time learning about the subject before they weigh in on it. Because the blunt truth is, being a student teaches you nothing about teaching. Zip. Nada. Zilch. Squat.

One commenter that responded to my rant pointed out that in his experience, education research is poor. Oh, yes. I couldn't agree more. I estimate that maybe one published paper in 20 is worth the dead tree tissue it's printed on. Nevertheless, there is a tremendous knowledge base that everyone outside the science educators' community simply ignores.

Bryan is quite right in that enforcing national educational standards would be a violation of Amendment 10 of the constitution, and even if it weren't, probably would not be a good idea. Neverless, the Federal government has a wide variety of carrots and sticks available to it, and if I can keep my cool, at some point I will discuss some of them. There are many, many obstacles hindering improvement to education in this country. Widely agreed-upon sets of standards are not among them.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Wikipedia Is Accurate*

(* Citation needed)

I do love that line, though I don't remember where I came across it. I do use Wikipedia from time to time, but mostly as a way to confirm that my memory is accurate- I used it just a bit ago because I wasn't sure if "olistostrome" was the word I meant to be using. It was. At least, Wikipedia says so.*

(* Citation needed)


Note (12/11/08): The "favorite places for field work" Accretionary Wedge is now up, here. Head over for more delicious geologizing.
Quartzville Creek. I'm pretty sure this was taken from the road up Boulder Creek. From here.

So the late-late edition of the November Accretionary Wedge is coming out... and I'm running late. I don't have a digital camera, and all my slides were lost a few years back, so all the photos are from things I could find on the intertubz- I did figure out how to get an image from Google Earth into a useable form. So let's start with that.

This image shows the forearc basin of the central Willamette Valley, east to the current axis of the Cascade arc, and a little of the east Cascade flank, as well as a little of the forearc ridge of the Coast Range along the western edge. Mt Jefferson, a large stratovolcano that hasn't been active since the Pleistocene, is clearly visible in the middle of the eastern side of the image. Current arc volcanism is restricted to the axis of the arc, though there has been substantial post-Pleistocene activity (from what I know, probably back-arc spreading) on the east side of the Cascades. Newberry Volcano, off the southeast corner of the image, may represent interaction of Cascade and back-arc magmatism along the northern boundary of Basin and Range.
Looking east from a peak near Sweet Home, Oregon, up the drainage that includes Quartzville Creek and toward the Cascade crest. (Full-sized here, highly recommended) From left (north) to right, major peaks are Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack, Washington, Three Sisters, and Bachelor.

A closer view of the center of the district, with the town site marked. Yellowbottom (a ludicrously optimistic name for a very poor gold area) is near where the stream leaves the map in the lower left corner. Most of the area near the town site is composed of quartz breccia; little of the original host rock remains recognizable.

Volcanism started in this area about 30 Ma, but at that time the axis was much wider, from approximately the eastern side of the Willamette Valley to the current line of activity. As progressively younger (hence more buoyant) ocean plate has been subducted, the axis has progressively narrowed to its relatively restricted current configuration. This much older volcanic terrain is referred to as the Western Cascades. (Younger rocks along the modern arc are referred to as the High Cascades.)

The rocks and landforms in the High Cascades are certainly fascinating. But there's something to letting erosion do its thing for a while. You get to see the guts and plumbing of all the stuff that's underneath.I'm not certain where this spot is, but you can see a couple of dikes in the lower left. I also see a very nice swimming hole- the water here is much deeper than it looks, I'm guessing 12-15 feet. From here.

One of the things that has struck me over and over is that we tend to think of arc volcanism in terms of, well, volcanism: basalt, andesite and rhyolite (mafic to intermediate lavas are most abundant, but rhyolite is not uncommon). But when you get on the ground, various incarnations of volcanoclastic sediments make up about half of what you see: breccias from landslides and lahars, moderately to poorly sorted sandstones and siltstones, even well-sorted mudstones (which I take to be lake sediments).

I first visited this area in spring of 1982 with the OSU Geology Club- more of a sight-seeing tour than anything else, but soon afterward I found this field guide (7 Mb PDF) at the library, and returned frequently. The thing that makes the Quartzville area particularly interesting is that a late-stage intrusion (about 18 Ma) emplaced a granodiorite pluton that set up a hydrothermal system. So not only can you see the guts of an arc volcanic system, you can see a range of mineralization from unaltered to complete replacement with quartz. This is not a rich district: 30 years of on-and-off mining in the late 1800's produced about $200 thousand worth of gold and silver. But that means that no great blocks have been removed or left unsafe to investigate.
Waterfalls a few hundred yards upstream from Yellowbottom. The dominant bedrock here is granodiorite- one of only a few places in the Oregon Cascades where granitic rock is exposed. A number of basalt dikes also run through this area, and have produced some fascinating examples of differential weathering and erosion. The basalts erode more easily, and have left deep trenches several feet wide through the granodiorite. This is also a GREAT swimming hole. From here.
A cabin near the Quartzville townsite, 1952, from here.
A more modern picture, I believe near the Yellowbottom falls (pictured above), from here. The cue I'm looking at is that log stranded up on the rocks; we had a tremendous series of floods in late winter of (I think) '98. Logs several feet in diameter were stranded 10-15 feet above the normal waterline, and I'm almost positive I recognize this one.

On the other hand, abundant timber resources (as seen in the two pictures above) ensure that there is a terrific network of access roads, even though the landscape is forbiddingly rugged. You can get to within a quarter mile or so of almost anywhere in the area without leaving your car.

Quartzville also holds a distinction in that it's one of a very few places that I've actually been paid for doing field work. In fall of '87, a minerals company decided to to a reconaissance soil geochemistry survey that pretty much covered a few square miles of the center of the district, so I actually got paid to go collect dirt, look at rocks and camp. Nice! As it happens, Black Monday occurred about a week into the project; our supervisors were, let's say, very excited. As it turns out, the project was a scientific success- there were lots of interesting patterns that emerged from the data- but an economic failure. Lots of funny stories... my field partner and I decided to pocket our per diem (and save two hours of driving time each day) by camping near Yellowbottom rather than staying at a hotel in Sweet Home. Overall, it was more than worth it, but washing yourself (especially face and hair) in water that's only a degree or two above freezing is... bracing. I could feel my scalp trying to crawl away, a very bizarre sensation. We had horrible, horrible altimeters (This predates GPS by what? 10 to 15 years?)- we came around a corner one time, out of a still forest and onto a windy, exposed, sunny area, and the altimeters dropped 200 feet. So my partner and I decided very quickly to use sighting and triangulation rather than even looking at those useless gadgets. We had one rather long traverse- about 2 miles- across an area that didn't have much distinctive landscape along the way, and we were counting on prominant features across the valley to keep ourselves oriented. When we finally came out to the road, we were less than 10 feet vertical off from where we expected to be. Meanwhile, the same day, two other teams actually crossed paths without realizing it. Since we were contour sampling at 200 foot intervals, that was considered a fairly major boo-boo.

Looking at my options when I graduated, I just wasn't convinced that geology was the direction I wanted to go. I eventually went on for a Master's in science education. Geology was and is my first love, and I hoped to get into a position to do geology education. Didn't work out so much as a career, but I have done about 40 field trips up to Quartzville with groups ranging from age 10 to retired. The trip I have done most often is with middle schoolers. The area offers a great opportunity to think about volcanoes' physical aspects in terms other than simply the cones they create; a wide variety of rock-forming environments (or rather, the products of those environments); a spectacularly scenic area; and a tremendous array of rocks and minerals, ranging from secondary zeolites and calcite in basically unaltered basalt, to pyrite, tourmaline, sphalerite and galena, up to drusy quartz veins 10 feet thick, rising like fins on the mountainside. So even though I was a little puzzled about how to approach "field work" for the accretionary wedge, I have done field work here, and "field education laboratory" is close enough.
A hydrothermal breccia up Boulder Creek Road that is well known as an easy place to find and collect pyrite. Typical sizes are about the size of a lentil to the size of navy bean, but I have seen samples here up to an inch across. Smaller crystals have better form- which is always in pyritohedrons at this site. Crystals from the quarry near the bottom of the road are always cubes. Another geologic imponderable. It wouldn't surprise me if one of these kids was introduced to this spot on one of my field trips: I've probably taken 500-600 people to this site. From here.

I think that's enough for now, but just as a taste of a future post I've been wanting to get to for a while, you might guess that the combination of volcanic sediments and shallow water depostion (The Willamette Valley was a bay during this time) might make for a good fossil assemblage, and you'd be right. The diversity of fossilized wood is mind boggling; in fact, it presents something of a problem. This is the source of the one publication I have in (what I would consider) the mainstream geological literature. But more on that some other time.