Saturday, September 19, 2009


So have I spent much time talking like a pirate today? No I have not. A little, with friends, to congratulate ourselves for knowing that it's talk like a pirate day. But I have no deep-seated need to freak out strangers.

But I'm making plans for Talk Like an Internet Geek Day. RAM! Streaming! Megaflops and petabytes! Yay! (Noise to Signal)


Some fun quotes I've come across recently...
"The two most common elements in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity."
Harlan Ellison, from The Quotations Page.
How many right-wing conservatives does it take to change a light bulb? They don't do change. They would rather stay in the dark.
Richard White, Northwest Portland, in OregonLive's Short Takes feature.
If you get in a fight with an atheist, expect to get punched in the faith.
Margaret, I haven’t laughed so hard since Katie Couric interviewed Sarah Palin. A few thousand white folks called in sick to work last week so they could parade around the nation’s capital on Saturday and Fox News declares a revolution is underway. My goodness. I don’t know which is more sad – the fact that they couldn’t spell half the words written on their illegible signs or that they all left their white hoods at home. Bring the hippies back. Their protests were much more entertaining.
Helen Philpot at Margaret and Helen.

All Hail Marx and Lennon

The album cover for Firesign Theatre's "How Can You Be in Two Places at Once When You're Not Anywhere At All." (You need to hear that phrase sung to get how catchy it is.) The comic strip "Non Sequitur" is doing an homage to the above illustration- I suspect unknowingly, but maybe not. (Click the strips for full size)

Unanswered Questions

Note: Dave has now posted this edition of the wedge.

This month's Accretionary Wedge topic, hosted by Dave Bressan at Cryology and Co., is as follows:
What remains to be discovered for future earth scientists what we (still) don't know about earth? What are the geological riddles that still lack answer - all questions are allowed - it could be a local anomaly, or a global phenomena, or something strange...(Naturally you can also include a possible answer to your problem).
There are so many unanswered questions... Can we learn to accurately predict earthquakes? Is that even possible? Likewise for volcanic eruptions. Are there practical and more sustainable energy sources than fossil carbon compounds? Methane Hydrates? Geothermal? How did plate tectonism become established as the dominant force in Earth's dynamics? How did life become established on this planet?

The question I've decided I'm most interested in addressing is one that I really don't feel qualified to address; I'm not even sure exactly how to phrase it: "How has the existence of life on this planet influenced its physical evolution?" Alternatively, "How different would the earth be if there wasn't life?" Perhaps best, "How have life and the earth co-evolved?"

To answer the second version sweetly and succinctly, I don't think the earth would be remotely recognizable in any way except by its size and mass, and to some extent, by bulk composition. There would not be an oxygen atmosphere; it seems likely that the atmosphere would be denser and largely CO2, as with Venus. It's a fascinating and amazing bit of geotrivia that if one could release the CO2 estimated to be sequestered in the earth's crust (overwhelmingly in the form of carbonates), the resulting surface pressure of that gas would be approximately 100 atmospheres: the same as that of Venus.

Now with liquid water, it's probable that some CO2 would, through simple inorganic processes, have been fixed as carbonate. But with a heavy Venusian atmosphere, would liquid water have been stable for long periods of geologic time? There's another question I can't answer, but I think the answer is likely negative. And with water, earth would lose much of its stunning historical record in sedimentary rocks.

Perhaps even more importantly, water seems to be increasingly implicated in allowing plate tectonics to operate. I'm sure this is a gross oversimplification, but both as a lubricant, and as a component of phyllosilicates (for example, clays and serpentine) water allows great blocks to slide past each other more easily than they otherwise would. Hydrostatic pressure of ground water counteracts the normal force between adjacent blocks, thus lowering the effective friction between them, and again, allows them to slide against each other more easily. Hydrous minerals also allow water to be transported into the mantle during subduction, where at high temperatures and pressures, it is freed and allows the creation of magma at much lower temperatures than would otherwise be possible.

In short, without liquid water, it seems unlikely plate tectonics would work; even if it did, there would probably be some big differences.

Without life, this planet wouldn't be "Earth."

I had an unpleasant experience with paleo as an undergrad (bad prof). Yet from a young age, I've been fascinated with ancient life. A few years ago, I read the terrific book, Life on a Young Planet, by Andrew Knoll. The book essentially deals with the evolution of life from its origins up to the beginning of the Paleozoic. Knoll points out firmly that we live in the age of bacteria, and always have. I have focused only on CO2, and the possible consequences of an abiotic carbon cycle. But many other elements and compounds have been dramatically influenced in their distributions and geochemical cycles by the presence of life on this planet: sulfur, oxygen and phosphorus are a few that come to mind. Bacteria with (what are to us) exotic metabolic strategies have utilized elements and moved them around in ways that we are only recently beginning to understand.

If we ever hope to leave earth (and I do keep holding to that hope), it will only be either because we have learned to use organisms to help cycle our inputs and outputs to create a sustainable environment, or because we have learned to do so from life.

I would much prefer the former; the idea of a sterile, mechanized habitat strikes me as hellish. Sort of like the idea of a lifeless earth.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Two military jets just flew over to "celebrate" OSU's season-opening football game. Yay.

Things You Can't Unsee

OMG, is that Bill Gates in the lower left? Via Skull Swap.

Friday, September 18, 2009

13 Billion Dollars

The International Monetary Fund has approved a sale of 403 metric tonnes of gold reserves, in a move likely to raise $13bn (£8bn) of cash to replenish its coffers for lending to low-income countries hit by the global economic downturn.
This article started me considering the stunning density of gold. Water has a density of 1 tonne per cubic meter. If we wanted to put 403 tonnes of water in one place, you would need a container that held 403 cubic meters. With a little rounding, that would be a pool 30 feet wide, 60 feet long and 6 feet deep. Gold has a density of 19.3 tonnes per cubic meter. So 20.9 cubic meters would have a mass of 403 tonnes.

That would almost fit in a pair of pickup trucks; two times 4.5 feet deep by 6 feet wide by 10.5 feet long (again rounding and converting to English units... we really should start calling them American units at this point.) Now of course, the tires would blow out, the frames would buckle, and the beds would pretty much be ironed into the pavement. But it is sort of amazing to consider that a pickup could hold material worth 6.5 billion dollars.

Incidentally there are a couple of elements that have even higher densities; platinum, for example, has a density of 21.45 tonnes per cubic meter.

Almost Missed It Again

Thanks to Anna at Adventures in the World of Geology, I found out about the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day before it happened, rather than afterwards. That's a farst fer me, me maties! Hoist the yardarm, Arrr!

22,000 or 45,000?

I've seen this story a few times today:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Nearly 45,000 people die in the United States each year -- one every 12 minutes -- in large part because they lack health insurance and can not get good care, Harvard Medical School researchers found in an analysis released on Thursday.
But what I haven't seen is an explanation of why this is double the estimate of 22,000 annual excess deaths that has been sort of the standard number that gets quoted.
Studies estimate that the number of excess deaths among uninsured adults age 25-64 is in the range of 22,000 a year.
I'll keep looking. I've felt that, at a gut level, the latter number seemed low, but I would still like to understand why the former number should be accepted as accurate.

I also winced a little at this passage:
The National Center for Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank that backs a free-market approach to health care, said researchers overstated the death risk and did not track how long subjects were uninsured.
Uh... unless you're "lucky" enough to be 65 or older, the "free-market approach" is exactly what's killing either 23,000 or 45, 000 people per year.

Followup, a few minutes later: The Left Coaster has a good take on the news...
What would this nation do if some foreign power killed 45,000 people in this country in a single year? What should we do to the insurance industry?

I Always Suspected As Much

Wolf Blitzer is an idiot. A pompous, egotistical, blathering, thinking-impaired, self-satisifed idiot, but an idiot nevertheless. Via BuzzFeed.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Fashion Week

DCap posted this fashionably strange picture with the title "Caption this..." Okay, I'll take that challenge.

What You Know That Ain't So

"Ignorance is not merely the lack of knowledge, but self-destructive turning away from truth in all areas of life. Persons develop a taste for ignorance, the predisposition to embrace erroneous beliefs based on presumption or mere authority. The ignorant person believes he knows what he actually doesn't know. He becomes delusional. He is deranged." So declared Plato, unwittingly describing the face of 21st-century American conservatism in the age of Obama.
Liars in America.

Death to the Death Penalty

I do not type those words lightly. I believe, in principle, that there are times when a person is so dangerous, as shown by particularly heinous and brutal crimes, that it is in society's best interest to terminate the person's life.

But it's the practice that's flawed beyond redemption.

First, the process of justice is flawed; there is no doubt in my mind that innocents have been executed for crimes they did not commit. That alone ought to give pause to any who support the death penalty. Imagine that your family is brutally murdered. The investigation somehow leads to you. You know you didn't- couldn't have- committed the crime, but the jury finds otherwise.

How well would you respond to first losing your family, then the realization that society believes you are their murderer? I know I would try to commit suicide; it would utterly break me.

Second, the appeals process is (necessarily) long, drawn out, and extraordinarily expensive. It is simply cheaper to pay the cost of imprisoning a person for life than it is to pursue an execution. The appeals process also looks very random and quirky to me; sometimes an overturning of the sentence is granted on what seem specious grounds. Other times, an appeal is denied despite grounds that seem overwhelming. This must be psychological torture for the prisoner, regardless of whether the person actually committed the crime.

Finally, the methods of execution currently available are inhumane. The story that motivated this post had me squirming. The prisoner actually tried to help the personnel that were trying to place an IV in his arm; they thanked him for his efforts.
Prison officers described how, after about an hour of hunting for a suitable vein, Broom helped them by turning on to his side, by moving rubber tubing along his arm and by flexing his hand and muscles. At one point, technicians found what appeared to be a suitable vein but it collapsed as they inserted a needle, apparently because of past drug use.

Broom, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping and killing 14-year-old Tryna Middleton, became so distressed that he lay on his back and covered his face with both hands. One of the execution team handed him a toilet roll to wipe away tears.
Whether Broom actually committed the crime, I can't know. But it doesn't matter: no one should have to endure two hours of being jabbed with a needle, nor be expected to assist his would-be executioners.

They're going to try again next week.

Followup, Sept. 18: A Federal Court has placed a ten-day restraining order on the execution.

New Records

Above is a photo of the record holder for the heaviest vehicle pulled over a level 100 feet. The fire truck weighs 57,243kg (126,200lb). I was torn between this photo and the record holder for the fastest 100 meter hurdle run... wearing swim fins. You can see those two and 12 other new records in this year's edition of the Guinness Book of World Records at The Guardian.

Just In Case

My blog is kind of a notebook; it's a good place to put stuffs I find on teh innertubz so I can easily find them again. With that in mind, I'm sticking this here so if I ever interrupt an awards ceremony, scream at a ref, interrupt a president's speech to announce that he's a liar, or pull some other asinine, juvenile stunt, I'll have it close at hand. (Click for full size; via Skull Swap)

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Hot Summer

We've actually been having some refreshingly cool weather today, with a very light, misty drizzle for much of the afternoon. It looks like we might get some more through the evening, and the forecast calls for more Friday evening, but then back to later summer sunshine until at least near the end of September. Honestly, I'm more than ready for a cool, wet spell. That's not to say I'm ready to say goodbye to the sun until next June, just that I'd like a break.

People in the central US have been howling about their cool summer, and from the reports that I've read, with good reason. But a surprising number seem to think this "disproves" global warming, or at least calls it into question. Oddly, I posted a snarky response to this on Sunday, before this new summary in the NYT's dot Earth blog came out.

There are lots of links, most of which I haven't yet checked out, in the article linked above.

Bipartisan Consensus Has Been Reached

Everybody hates the Baucus version of the health reform bill.
“There are honest and principled differences among all of us working for reform,” he said at another point. “And this package may not represent all of our first choices.”
Yep. That's right: Honestly and in principle, the republicans want to make sure that the American people continue to face excess deaths equivalent to a 9/11 every month and a half because they can't afford health care. In principle, the republicans honestly see no reason that the insurance companies and big pharma shouldn't continue to profit from the trickle-down, torrent-up model of business we worship in this country. Honestly, the republicans think that principles of high finance demand that the bankrupting of families should continue; if they can't afford to deal with their health costs it's their own fault. They should have thought about the consequences before they got sick or injured.
Asked if he were disappointed by the lack of support from Republicans, Mr. Baucus acknowledged that “no Republican has offered his or her support at this moment.”
I have become heartily sick of the old chestnut that goes (with variations) "if even one life was saved, it was worth any effort." That sentiment is asinine to begin with (how many lives might have been saved if that effort was directed elsewhere?); the fact that I come across it daily has rendered it so trite that it now angers me.

However, I think with a slight rearrangement, it might be fresh and fitting for our time: "If even one person was saved from paying an extra socialist tax dollar, all the lost lives, the countless person-years of suffering in agony, the lost homes and cars, disrupted and destroyed families, the lives of wondering in despair if anything, anything could have been done to save a loved one, and the anguish and fear that so many experience in the face of the unknown and unexpected, will all have been worth it."

Shorter republican health version: think happy thoughts, pray to jeebus, don't get sick, and send a nice card to the bereaved. If it's good enough for Somalia, it's good enough for you.

My Mental Rock Collection

Via Geotripper, I have learned that today is "Collect Rocks Day." OK. These are part of my mental collection: rocks I can't take home, but I know where they are and point them out to others from time to time. The following two photos are of the same fragment of opal, brightly colored (I presume) by iron oxides. No scale, but the pebble is about an inch (2.5 cm) in longest dimension.The glassy luster, conchoidal fracture and associated rocks (predominantly volcanic) are diagnostic. Microcrystalline quartz (agate, jasper, flint, chert, etc.) would have similar fracture, but more ragged; the luster of such material would be more waxy than glassy along a fresh fracture.
I'm pretty sure that whatever "play of light," or schiller, is visible in the above two photos results from internal fractures that create constructive and destructive interference in the reflected light.

The opal in the next two photos is about 0.4 inches (1 cm) long in its longest dimension, and does seem to have a little of the opal-like, gemmy schiller.
If you click to enlarge the pictures, you can also see the banding formed when the opal precipitated from solution. This texture and pattern would typically lead to the description of the pebble as agate, but like so many geological terms, the name agate has textural (how things are arranged), genetic (how it formed), and compositional (what it's made of) implications. "Agate" would work in terms of the texture and genesis of this pebble, but agate is banded chalcedony. Chalcedony is a fibrous form of microcrystalline quartz, SiO2. Opal is amorphous (no orderly arrangement of atoms at a molecular level) SiO2*H2O. I describe these banded opals as opaline agates to specify their composition.
Earlier this year I started looking fairly closely at the pebbles in the sidewalk outside my favorite coffee shop, and have been very pleasantly surprised at some of the wonderful clasts I've found, and particularly thrilled by the amount of regional and local geology one might learn by looking carefully at what's under your feet almost anywhere you go. No matter how far away the nearest outcrop is.

More "Turtle" News

KGW has some more on the fossil-turtle-concretion, some of which is good...
To determine whether the 2-by-3-foot domed rock was a fossil, the three scientists looked for sutures, which are lines where the bones knitted together. "If these are sutures, they would have to be fractured because there are way too many," Hanshumaker said.

...and some of which is awful:
Concretion is organic matter that decomposed differently from surrounding material, making the dirt harder. DiTorrice said, "This type of fossil is not normal for this rock formation, so it has significance just by its size and shape."
From the Wiki entry on concretions- composition (Note that it is not clear in the following passage that they are talking about the cementing mineral; most of the bulk of a concretion is composed of the sediment in which it formed):
They are commonly composed of a carbonate mineral such as calcite; an amorphous or microcrystalline form of silica such as chert, flint, or jasper; or an iron oxide or hydroxide such as goethite and hematite. They can also be composed of other minerals that include dolomite, ankerite, siderite, pyrite, marcasite, barite and gypsum.

Although concretions often consist of a single dominant mineral, other minerals can be present depending on the environmental conditions which created them. For example, carbonate concretions, which form in response to the reduction of sulfates by bacteria, often contain minor percentages of pyrite. Other concretions, which formed as a result of microbial sulfate reduction, consist of a mixture of calcite, barite, and pyrite.
From the Wiki entry on concretions- appearance:
Concretions vary in shape, hardness and size, ranging from objects that require a magnifying lens to be clearly visible to huge bodies three meters in diameter and weighing several thousand pounds. The giant, red concretions occurring in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, in North Dakota, are almost 3 m (10 ft) in diameter. Spheroidal concretions, as large as 9 m (30 ft) in diameter, have been found eroding out of the Qasr El Sagha Formation within the Faiyum depression of Egypt. Concretions are usually similar in color to the rock in which they are found. Concretions occur in a wide variety of shapes, including spheres, disks, tubes, and grape-like or soap bubble-like aggregates.
I'm willing to bet at this point that it's a concretion, not a "fossil" per se. It may or may not contain a fossil, and it's of interest, whatever it is, but I think it's unlikely to be a turtle. Nor should the object as a whole be referred to as "a fossil." Previous posts here and here.

Merely Average?

Europeans keep asking me, has America lost its mind? From healthcare to its economy, the US is looking merely average.
Merely Average? I think not! We are so far below average on so many counts that we have our own category: we're a Zeroeth World Nation. That's even better than a first world nation! Ha! So there, all you merely "developed" countries. We've gotten over that whole obsession with development and human rights. The democracy is dead! Long Live the Corporatocracy!

First Rocky Exoplanet Discovered

According to the Telegraph (UK), a planet first discovered in February has been determined to have a mass and volume (giving a resulting density) indicating that it has a rocky composition! All other planets discovered so far (373 according to NASA/JPL) are either gaseous, or orbit pulsars. I haven't looked through the database, but I presume there are planets for which densities have not been determined. From what I know, I think the planet would have to transit between its host star and us for astronomers to determine its diameter.

Corot-7b, as the planet has been designated, orbits its primary star at a distance of only 2.5 million km (Earth orbits at about 150 million km), so it's much too hot to host life. The article implies that it is tidally locked, with one side facing its star all the time; bright side temperatures are estimated to be 2000 C, dark side temps at -200 C. However, the mere fact of discovering one terrestrial planet means there are others, some of which are likely to be in the Goldilocks zone...

Amazing. Awesome. Words fail.

A Backhand to the Birthers

U.S. District Court Judge Clay Land has dismissed a case brought by Captain Connie Rhodes and argued by the irritating and insane Orly Taitz regarding the eligibility of Barak Obama for the office of President of the US.
“(Rhodes) has presented no credible evidence and has made no reliable factual allegations to support her unsubstantiated, conclusory allegations and conjecture that President Obama is ineligible to serve as president of the United States,” Land states in his order. “Instead, she uses her complaint as a platform for spouting political rhetoric, such as her claims that the president is ‘an illegal usurper, an unlawful pretender, [and] an unqualified imposter.’”
Land has also warned Taitz of sanctions if she ever brings such a frivolous case to his court again. Will that shut her (and her crowd) up? I doubt it. But of more concern to me is, will this shut down the MSM's coverage giving the birthers' credibility? On that one, I'm less certain. One can only hope.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Or Not a Turtle?

(Via OregonLive) I posted on this discovery ten days days ago, and I'm beginning to think my initial reaction was correct: it's "just" a concretion. Now this one is extraordinarily large for Oregon (though I've seen larger in Ohio), so Hanshumaker and Orr's statement that "it's important" is not off base. There's a reasonable chance that the large object encases a large to largish fossil, but I will say that in the many, many concretions I've broken open on the coast, the vast majority have no visible fossil material, or only small, uninteresting fragments. On occasion I've found some nice gastropods, and a few times small crabs, but even when there is a recognizable fossil, it's most often a nondescript piece of bivalve.

My feeling is that if it had obviously been a turtle or something equally unique, it might have been worth mounting the effort to safely remove it before the winter storm season... which is coming up very quickly relative to the time it would take to undertake a complex excavation. As it stands, the object will probably fall into the surf over the winter, but it won't go very far, nor is it likely to be badly damaged (concretions by their nature tend to be more resistant to weathering and erosion). I suspect that's what they'll allow it to do, then try to recover it next spring, or in a break between storms.


The real punchline on this, which I didn't notice until I went to edit and post it, is that this originally ran in July... of 2001. Click over to Salon to read the whole strip; these are just the first two panels.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Executive Bonuses All Round!

Isn't it wonderful how the execs can haul themselves up on everybody else's bootstraps? (OregonLive)

Food Poisoning

Possibilities: E.coli, Campylobacter, Salmonella, Listeria, and Clostridium, among others. Several preschool teachers fell ill last April after eating brownies they had bought at a bake sale.
The symptoms included giddiness, dizziness, mood changes, dry mouth...
Yeah, it's exactly what you think. It's really not funny, if you try to put yourself in their place, but there's still a part of me that wants to giggle.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Torturing Children in the Name of Psychology

Katie will love this one...

Oh, The Temptation from Steve V on Vimeo.

Sunday Funnies

My weekly roundup of things that made me laugh...
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
Skull Swap
Noise to Signal.
You can count on CNN to get the news first. Probably Bad News.
Probably Bad News. Make sure brain is running before engaging mouth... or keyboard.
Likes People! Duhism.
Probably Bad News.
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
The Daily What.

Duhism: You know the past cannot be changed. But because in 2 days tomorrow will be yesterday, neither can the future.
Two of my favorites from an extensive set of humorous signs at Dark Roasted Blend.
william shatner
see more Lol Celebs
Are the military Hummers built better than the civilian models? I sure hope so. From That Will Buff Out. Click over for a link to a larger set of photos of this accident; amazingly, no major injuries!
funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures
abraham lincoln
see more Political Pictures
engrish funny brains
ZombieCorp. (see more Engrish)But then isn't it always? Engrish Funny. (oddly, I can't find this post now)
Politically incorrect breakfast/snack food, from Failblog.
From a cartoonist at "The American Thinker," via Sadly, No! (It takes a moment to see why this is amusing from a liberal perspective; take a moment to find the fail)
What constitutes an "expert" on this topic? From Criggo.
But no corpses were harmed. From Criggo.
Crayola's Emo Palette, from Skull Swap.
From The Daily What, and also posted in the following blog (and a number of others I've seen today)
From Pygalgia.


Prompted by a post at Open Mind...Tamino's math frequently goes beyond what I can follow- for example, I understand conceptually what a Fourier series does, but I have no idea how to do that math, nor can I always follow his smoothing algorithms- but for a broadly understandable and always interesting discussion of climate change and refutation of the skeptics, this is an outstanding blog.