28 February, 2011

Birth of the Grand Canyon

Some of my favorite geologists are on teeveeWayne Ranney and Ron Blakey got tapped to explain how the Grand Canyon came to be for Naked Science on the National Geographic channel.  Repeats are airing - check your local listings and set your DVRs to stun!  I mean, record!

Don't Miss the AW Mardi Gras Extravaganza!

We've got another AW deadline fast approaching, and nobody wants to miss a parade, now, do they?
It’s Carnival time or Mardi Gras time in Louisiana . This year the season is long – going from Jan 6 (Twelfth night) to March 8 (Fat Tuesday – day before Ash Wednesday). Since the Accretionary Wedge is suppose to be a carnival of blogs I think it is only fitting the wedge should have a parade of the blogs. I’m willing to be the captain of this parade.

The theme will be “Throw me your ‘favorite geologic picture’ mister” Lets have the floats (submissions) ready on March 4th so it can roll on March 8. Carnival time is all about having a good time and having some fun so lets get some colorful, fun pictures submitted. Laissez les bons temp rouler!! (Let the good times roll!)

 Please leave your posts in the comment section or email me at amowillis@yahoo.com.
And for those thinking of hosting, Ann's also compiled a list of previous topics as an aide d'muse.  I can't host until the winter writing season's over, so all y'all have a chance to scoop my idea.  No, I won't tell you what it is!  You'll just have to host first and wait to see if your topic causes me to wail.

(Bonus: Ann's also got evidence for us snow-bound folk that spring will happen.  Happy sigh.)

Get yer parade gear on and mount up, geos!

27 February, 2011

Accretionary Wedge #31: Do Whut Nao?

Accretionary Wedge #31 is up at The Geology P.A.G.E., and it's a delight:
As you can see by the title (Wait, What?) the topic for this month's Accretionary Wedge (#31) is surprising geological knowledge. And we had a ton of fantastic contributions to the topic.
Beautifully compiled, too!  It's Sunday.  Sit back and relax with some prime geology, my darlings.  You have earned it.

Tell Me Again that Science and Religion are Compatible

But before you do, consider this (h/t):
The official Vatican position on evolution tilts towards intelligent design. Its point man on the subject, Cardinal Schönborn, says: "Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of 'chance and necessity' are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence." Ouch.
These are folks who have a fundamental, willful, and very large blind spot.  They deliberately twist science to fit their own dogma.  And that is something that's absolutely incompatible with science.

NOMA my skinny white arse.  As Jerry Coyne sez:
So yes, the true biological view of evolution as a materialistic, unguided process is indeed at odds with most religions.  Organizations that promote evolution, such as the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), prefer to avoid this critical point: all they care about is that evolution get taught in the schools, not whether believers wind up accepting the concept of evolution as it’s understood by scientists.  (If all they want is evolution to be taught, that, I suppose is fine. But it’s not fine if they want public understanding of evolution.)
And it's not fine when millions of people are told by their pope that science ain't science.  That twisted, skewed view of what science is matters.  That twisted, skewed view leads people to mistrust and misunderstand science.  It leads them to believe science can be bent to their own wishes, no matter what the evidence is. 

That's not science.  That's religion trying to steal science's respectability after having lost its own.  It's pseudoscience, and it's right on par with the cons, crooks and crazies who snatch a few words out of a science dictionary to try to make their wackaloon theories about homeopathy or magnetic bracelets sound plausible to people who don't know any better.

It's nice that the Catholic church is so cornered by reality that they've been forced to swallow a little bit of science in a desperate attempt to stay relevant and retain their power.  But it's giving them indigestion.  And anyone who believes that science and religion are perfectly compatible isn't paying attention to reality.

26 February, 2011

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Carl Sagan (Yes, Again)

...It is here that we are, in some pain and with no guarantees, working out our destiny.

-Carl Sagan

Some people may find that a rather grim, depressing quote, but it's uplifting to me.  No, we haven't got any guarantees.  Yes, there is pain.  But only some.  And we're the ones working out our destiny.  That means we get to choose the direction we go, and that's a hopeful thing indeed.

25 February, 2011

Los Links 2/25

I drove home for lunch through a rare Seattle whiteout.  Here you see teh kitteh watching the winter wonderland compile outside, while I called work and explained that between the rapidly-worsening road conditions and my cramps, I wasn't coming back for the evening.  Then we sat and enjoyed the fruits of living in a convergence zone, ably explained by our own Dan McShane:
The Convergence Zone is a local northern Puget Sound weather phenomenon where air moving up from the south through the Puget lowlands encounters air wrapping around the Olympic Mountains from the north. The collision causes uplift and a band of rain, or if cold enough, snow. The CZ is a narrow band of cloudy weather and heavy precipitation well known to western Washington weather junkies. 
Due to ongoing cramps, elegant segues from local snowstorms to New Zealand's hugely destructive earthquake are not in the offing. Boston.com's The Big Picture has amazing images of the quake's aftermath.  Chris Rowan's been regularly updating his original post, and has a new one up about seismic lensing:
Even taking into account how close the rupture point of Tuesday’s earthquake was to Christchurch, the intensity of the shaking – and the amount of damage that the city suffered as a consequence – seems to be very high for a magnitude 6.3 earthquake. The fact that the city is built on soft sediments that amplify shaking is an obvious factor here, but an article in the New Zealand Herald raises the possibility that geological structures in the region may have acted as a ‘seismic lens’, focussing the seismic energy released in the earthquake towards Christchurch.
Poor Christchurch.  Seems like nothing was going her way last Tuesday. Evelyn at Georneys made the following observation:
With at least 75 people dead and extensive damage throughout the city of Christchurch, the toll of the recent New Zealand earthquake is already a heavy one. A number of factors contributed to make this earthquake so deadly-- the magnitude, the closeness of the epicenter to Christchurch, the shallowness of the epicenter, the time of day, and the fact that much damage from the September 2010 Christchurch earthquake had yet to be repaired.  The death toll and damage caused by the recent earthquake in first world New Zealand is nothing like what occurs when large earthquakes hit third world countries, such as Haiti in January 2010, but for a first world country the destruction is fairly high. 
We're all vulnerable.  Some more than others.

Now for our next choppy segue: on with los links.

Friday fold: Jefferson River Canyon: "Most of the view is taken up by a large overturned syncline, with an axial plane that dips steeply to the west. At the far left are the Mississippian-aged Madison Group limestones, topped with upper Mississippian Big Snowy Group (more limestones), then the Amsden Formation (orange siltstone and sandstone from the Pennsylvanian), the Quadrant Formation (a Pennsylvanian quartz sandstone), the Permian phosphatic Phosphoria Phormation :) , and and youngest of all, the Morrison Formation, which is Jurassic. In the area of the Jefferson River Canyon, the strata are tightly folded around the Morrison. Finally, at the far right of the view, we see the abrupt appearance of the LaHood Conglomerate, part of the Mesoproterozoic Belt Supergroup. The contact here is a thrust fault." (Mountain Beltway)

The GOP comes out of the closet: "But I actually think the GOP is doing us a favor. Instead of posturing and sending mixed message about caring for the people while passing laws that say otherwise, they are coming right out and wearing the fucking t-shirt. If you’re poor, female, care about your health or that of the land, or are in any way uninterested in making rich white dudes more rich, you can go to hell." (The Spandrel Shop)

Sunday Photo(s): "Earlier this week Dana Hunter published some photos of Juanita Park in winter. I thought it would be fun to contrast those, plus a couple of mine, with what things look like there in Summer." (Slobber and Spittle)

the evil of either/or : "When I turned off my shower water this morning I heard water running in the bathroom sink. I didn’t remember turning the water on, but it was on. There are only two possible explanations. The spirit of a dead human turned the water on (a ghost!), or the plumbing has come to life and has a will of its own." (Dangblog)

How regulation came to be: Filling it up with Ethyl: "There was a small potential pitfall with using tetraethyl lead (TEL) to reduce knock -- lead has been known since ancient times to be toxic to humans. It did not take long for this drawback to become manifest." (dsteffen)

Death Valley Days: The First Day - Racing the Wind (and the torrential downpours): "First stop was in Neogene marine sediments at the south end of the Great Valley, which included an introduction to field geology and the idea of formations and environments of deposition (our students are mostly seeing geology in the field for the first time). How do you know a layer is marine? One clue is in the hand of the student above: fossils! Somehow, unsurprisingly, a place called Sharktooth Hill yielded up shark teeth (and a few fragments of seagoing mammals)." (Geotripper)

Ancestor Worship: "Despite the wonderful discoveries made in Africa over the past decade, there is still much we don’t know about the earliest humans. Even pinpointing what characteristics identify the earliest humans has become a challenge. All of the contenders for 'earliest known human' have been heavily criticized, and there has been little resolution as to what they actually are. (Laelaps)

The scientist-journalist divide: what can we learn from each other?: "Scientists can definitely learn a thing or two about communication from science journalists. I don’t want to transform my manuscripts into text that reads like journalism, because the two forms of writing serve very different purposes for very different audiences. But reading good science writing online and practicing my own writing here have immeasurably improved my consideration of word choices, sentence structure, the value of an engaging first paragraph (or lede), and sense of narrative arc. I think these skills are carrying over from blogging into my manuscript and grant writing, my interactions with graduate student writing, and even my teaching. Maybe I’ll start asking my students to read both primary papers and the accompanying feature stories, so that they might absorb some writing skills from their reading assignments. So my unsolicited advice to fellow scientists is: 'If you want to write better, start by carefully reading good writing.'” (Highly Allochthonous)

GA Rep. Seeks to Criminalize Unauthorized Vaginal Bleeding: "The bill would also more or less suspend the presumption of innocence to women who lose pregnancies. If a woman failed to carry a pregnancy to term, in accordance with her divinely ordained role, the onus would be on her to satisfy the state that she didn't deliberately kill it." (Focal Point)

Meet Diania the walking cactus, an early cousin of life’s great winners: "Around 520 million years ago, a walking cactus roamed the Earth. Its body had nine segments, each bearing a pair of armour-plated legs, covered in thorns. It was an animal, but one that looked more like the concoction of a bad fantasy artist. Jianni Liu from Northwest University in Xi’an discovered this bundle of spines and named it Diania cactiformis – the 'walking cactus from Yunnan'. And she thinks that it sits at the roots of the most successful group of animals on the planet. (Not Exactly Rocket ScienceAnd while you're there, don't miss Is crime a virus or a beast? How metaphors shape our thoughts and decisions.)

Spencer Hot Springs, Then and Now: "In 1981, two geologists from Northern Exploration Company — one contract geologist and one summer temp — wrote a poem commemorating the company, the mineral exploration we were doing, some of the key players, and the hot springs itself. They used nicknames when they referred to any of the head honchos, signed their names cryptically, and dated their contribution to the cabin wall. Within a few months to a year, the red-paint people had crossed out one of the NEC geologist’s nicknames, 'Asshole,' because it was on their list of bad words. I doubt they knew, or would have cared, that it was an appropriate and self-chosen nickname: he wore a baseball cap and carried a coffee cup with that name, and lived up to his designation admirably. (Looking for Detachment)

The Saga of the Scientific Swindler! (1884-1891): "In the 1880s, a fascinating chain of letters appeared in the magazine Science and in other publications, including the New York Times.  The scientific community was being victimized by a clever confidence man, who was working his way into members’ trust and then stealing from them.   The exploits span at least 7 years and stretch over much of the United States.  Most surprising about it, however, is that the con artist was so successful because he was apparently trained as one of their own." (Skulls in the Stars)

Anthropocentrism: All of God's Special Little Snowflakes: "My little boy is far too young to understand this, so my response was a visit to the new Africa exhibit at the zoo.  My overly-cautious little one looked on as I stood inches away from a chimpanzee, separated only by a pane of glass.  The chimpanzee put his hand up to the glass.  I held mine up to meet his.  His eyes met mine and we considered one another.  In absolute awe (and yes, a little choked up), I looked back at my tiny son as if to say, 'See.  Not so different.'" (Pharyngula

Prank call Embarrasses Wisconsin's Walker: "Yep, the call everyone's been talking about is, in fact, legit." (The Washington Monthly)

Shock Doctrine, U.S.A.: "Here’s a thought: maybe Madison, Wis., isn’t Cairo after all. Maybe it’s Baghdad — specifically, Baghdad in 2003, when the Bush administration put Iraq under the rule of officials chosen for loyalty and political reliability rather than experience and competence." (Paul Krugman)

Religious Grab Bag for a Thursday Morning — or: How to believe in the teeth of the evidence and have people think you really know: "The news never disappoints. Every morning when I wake up I tour a number of online newspapers. My internet homepage is aldaily.com, managed by the Chronicle of Higher Education. I start with the Globe and Mail and then work down, through the Guardian, Indpendent, Telegraph, National Post and New York Times. Life is short: I can’t do them all. Every morning, without fail, there is some religious madness or other." (Choice in Dying)

Expanding 'Justifiable Homicide' Efforts: "For all the ridiculous paranoia on the right about creeping 'sharia law,' there are now multiple state proposals, published by Republicans, to make it legal to assassinate medical professionals as part of a larger culture war." (The Washington Monthly)

24 February, 2011

Tomes 2011: A Distinct Chinese Theme

My reading of late has taken a bit of a detour from geology.  I'll no doubt swerve back that way soon, but when building a region modeled a bit on Southeast Asia, one needs to read up on Southeast Asia.  Not that that kept me from sneaking a bit o' geology in there anyway....

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Tigers, Rice, Silk & Silt

When I first began writing, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested I'd need to read up on old Chinese farming practices, and moreover, would love doing it.  That was, of course, before I came across Robert Marks's wonderful book.

Anyone who's interested in how people fed themselves and their nations before the industrial age, how humans have shaped the environment, how climate factors in to things like population and war, and who's ever had a desire to see history from the perspective of ordinary farming folk - this is your book.  Environmental change is tracked by, of all things, tiger attacks.  And you'll find out that the Pearl River Delta is very far from being a completely natural feature.

Robert Marks knows his stuff.  And he'll teach it to you in a style that, while academic and detailed, doesn't bludgeon with facts and figures, but weaves a tale of people, tigers, weather, and civilization.  I found it one of the more fascinating things I've read for research purposes.  And it's given me a new perspective on China's history.  The past is far more than the doings of emperors.  This book brings that point nicely home.

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The Pattern of the Chinese Past

Well, of course, if I was reading Tigers, I needed to pick this one up again.  I read it many years ago, and it's a very good, easily readable survey of Chinese history.  It doesn't focus as much on environment as on social and economic factors.  A nice crash course, if you will, outside of the usual dismaying tendency for so many histories to focus on war, dynasties, more war, regime change, salacious bits, and yet more war.

It's a good companion volume to Tigers, reinforcing some of the former's points and expanding the view from the Lingnan region to the whole of China.  And it covers a fair number of revolutions: in farming, water transport, money and credit, urbanization, and science and technology.  It's a good reminder that modern folk and ancient Greeks and Romans weren't the only clever bastards on the planet.

These two books are a good way to get a feel for where China comes from.  It's a nation with a very long, very civilized past, and if we want to understand it today (as well we should), it's a damned good idea to see where it came from.  Besides, with the push for organic farming, it's also a good idea to see how that worked in the past.  It wasn't, contrary to popular crunchy belief, all sweetness and environmental harmony: understanding that can prevent us from mistaking organic for completely eco-friendly.

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The Man Who Loved China

Sounds like a spy novel, dunnit?  Well, there's a spy or two in it, but the Man himself isn't a spy.  He was a biologist, nudist, socialist, ladies' man, and Morris dancer named Joseph Needham, and he's very nearly single-handedly responsible for ensuring China got proper credit for all of those ancient scientific breakthroughs the West liked to filch and then take credit for.  You should really get to know him.

No better introduction than Simon Winchester's book, which follows Needham's adventures in China with all the flair and dash of the man himself.  This is one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads I've encountered in a long while.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me, in the immortal words of one of my former creative writing classmates.  I came away with new respect for China, for Needham (whom I'd never heard of before) and for Cambridge and England, who together decided it was quite all right for a man to go fall in love with China and spend the rest of his life writing Science and Civilisation in China, volumes upon volumes of it, even though the book rather stole Western thunder at a time when everyone was freaking out over commies everywhere, including the ones running China, and took a scientist and scholar seriously even though he was a pinko commie lib who liked to run around with no clothes on and with women who weren't his wife.

And it's one hell of an intellectual adventure.  So, if you want to know more about China but don't want to spend pages and pages on farming, make this one your first choice.

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A Crack in the Edge of the World

I really had no intention of reading this one.  Ever.  Sick of the San Francisco Earthquake, thanks ever so much.  But pickings in the geology section were slim, this was on sale for five bucks, and it's Simon Winchester, so I folded.  I'm so very glad I did, even though it's had a rather earth-shaking impact on my dreams.

What I love most about the book is that the earthquake only occupies a small part of it.  We're treated to a boundary-to-boundary tour of the North American Plate, its history through geologic time, and, just to shake things up a little, a detour by the New Madrid earthquakes.  There's a good look at the San Andreas Fault, and the remarkable monitoring going on in Parkfield.  Then there's a heaping helping of California history, complete with sturm, drang, und Chinatown.  I don't think any other book not specifically dedicated to it has ever given me a more intimate look at the Chinese immigrant experience in America, and it belongs here because Chinatown shattered and burned with all the rest in the great quake of 1906.

And the descriptions of the event itself do it geological justice.  There's stuff in there that will give you a new appreciation for good, earthquake-resistant construction, not to mention the importance of building with an eye to being able to put fires out after the rocking and rolling's done.  You get a visceral feel for what it's like to be in the midst of an earth-shattering event.  And, when all's said and done, you'll take a trip up to Alaska, where you'll discover the San Andreas has a presence still.

Layfolk like myself will appreciate the clear and concise Appendix that takes some of the confusion out of things like magnitude and intensity. 

Those worried about having nightmares of being trapped in falling buildings should probably relax.  This book fascinated my brain enough to make it dream about earthquakes for several nights, but instead of a lot of chaos and destruction, it was mostly dreams about earthquake monitoring, which were far more interesting.

Those of us who know and love Chris Rowan will probably think of him frequently while reading this book, because there's a distinct feel of Friday Focal Mechanisms about some parts of it.

So, yes, it turns out I wasn't completely and totally tired of the San Francisco Earthquake after all.  When it's in the hands of a geologist and historian who knows how to step outside the main event and see it as one piece in a continent-spanning whole, it's quite interesting indeed.

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Great Caves of the World

Here's what you do if you want a book that will give you a short, sharp intro to cave geology combined with a whirlwind world tour of the world's most spectacular caves, illustrated with photographs that will cause you to consider joining the local spelunking club forthwith: you go out and procure yourself a copy of this book.

It's absolutely wonderful.

There's your basic limestone caves, some richly decorated in calcite and some not; there's caves formed by sulfuric acid, formed in salt, formed in lava, decorated by ice, and decorated by dangling strings of buggy mucus that are far more beautiful than they sound.  There are caves with lakes, and caves with canyons, and caves with skylights.  The common theme is that they are magnificent.

It's a whole new world down there.  And this is a wonderful window in to it.  If you only ever buy one book on caves in your life, it should very probably be this one.

Oh, and in keeping with our Chinese theme, it does indeed contain a cave from China.

I think that will do for now.  Additionally, I haven't finished any other books just yet.  That's as good a reason as any to stop here, then, innit?

23 February, 2011


Via Callan Bentley and many others, Christchurch moments after the earthquake struck:

That's the dust of a city shaking apart.  Incredible.  If anyone finds out who took this, let me know so I can include proper credit.

Here's another striking image, from friends of @monaeltahawy via a myriad of Twitter folk

All of this has put me very much in mind of the quote often attributed to Will Durant: "Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice."

Our own Chris Rowan was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor for an article on the quake.  And don't forget to check out his post, which he's keeping updated.

At least 75 dead so far, hundreds missing. A man took a walk through the ruins, and said more than perhaps anyone can about the aftermath.

Disasters are just that - disastrous.  But the survivors will ensure something whole and beautiful rises from the rubble.  In time.

World Coming Down

I'd meant to get the next Oregon Geology post up, but instead have spent the past several days watching in bemusement, sometimes in horror, as the world changes.

In Wisconsin, the Cons in control have rather overplayed their hand.  I'm proud of the Dems there who left the state to deny a quorum, and incredibly proud of the tens of thousands of citizens who continue to protest.  It's not just about the unions, either - if you read that noxious budget, you'll find plenty of gems like Walker & the Cons' plans to sell off the state one piece at a time to corporations.  Keep this in mind as you watch Cons in other states rush to follow suit.  If you were one of those who fell for the "where are the jobs?" schtick, I hope you feel a proper fool just now.  The Cons are never about the jobs.  They're about theocracy and oligarchy, and they're about breaking the backs of the common folk.

Unfortunately for them, they've chosen this moment in time to step on ordinary people.  It might have gone more smoothly for them if, at this very moment, the entire Middle East hadn't flared up, with citizens pouring into the streets to topple dictator after dictator, no matter the personal cost.  After Egypt, ordinary folk aren't quite as willing to abide quietly under the heels of their masters.  I hate to tell the Cons this, but as complacent and submissive, as easily distracted by shiny things, as Americans can be, I don't think this is a good time to be trampling all over women, workers, science, and - well, everybody except for their corporate masters and religious right ringleaders.  Libyans are still out there demanding regime change after getting slaughtered.  Something tells me Americans might be a little more willing to risk a bit of inconvenience to prevent the GOP from decimating the country, considering nothing they do to us could be quite as bad.  We'd be fools just to meekly accept their shit.

What I'm saying is: have your sleeping bags ready and sign-making materials to hand, my fellow Americans, because the time is coming soon when we, like our mates in Wisconsin, may find it necessary to camp out at capitols in order to make our wishes clear.  Surely we can manage that much. 

What's happening in Libya is horrific.  The government there has turned its weapons of war on its own people.  I'm hoping the UN and the US government will get off their asses and put a stop to it, because there are people getting blown to bits out there.  I clicked on a link to a photo today and saw the results of a despot desperate to stay in power: bodies cut in half.  Do not click this link if you can't stand the sight of blood, because the people in this photo were butchered.  I almost wish I hadn't seen it.  But you know what?  I needed to.  It gave me perspective on many things.  It showed me the violence our country hasn't even attempted to stop, and it told me just how fantastically brave these people are, that they'd risk this to demonstrate for their freedom.  It showed me how much freedom is worth.  And it showed me that we've got a ways to go before it gets this bad here, but more importantly, that we need to ensure it never does.

Those folks in the Middle East going out right now to put an end to too many years of autocrats and dictators, those folks who are finding the power of peaceful protest, who are taking their destinies in their hands not with terrorism, but with courage, are so incredible.  I don't know what future they'll build, but at least they've got the strength to build it for themselves.  I hope all of them succeed.  I'm in awe of them.

So there's the political world, all shaken up and in places toppling over, sometimes inspiring and sometimes horrific.  But that's not the only news that's crossed my Twitter feed and left me reeling.  There's also Christchurch, New Zealand, which got hit nearly dead-on with an earthquake.  Buildings are down, people dead, and it's a reminder that we are not as much in control of the world as we might like to believe.  Two earthquakes there in less than twelve months - and likely aftershocks to come.  I know they're strong folk and that they'll manage to rebuild, but I feel for them.  It's not easy, living at a plate boundary.  Days like this are tragic.

Really does seem like the world's coming down.  I just hope a better one rises up.

22 February, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Calling Your Characters Liars

Today in the Dojo: How showing your characters up as big fat liars can be a good thing.

Anyone who claims to be good at lying is obviously bad at lying. Thus - as a writer myself - I cannot comment on whether or not writers are exceptionally good liars, because whatever I said would actually mean its complete opposite.
-Chuck Klosterman

(Originally Written: Mexico, October 15th, 2005)

Yes, I am this devoted to you guys: I'm writing by moonlight in Mexico, listening to the sprinklers, surf and conversations between friends, writing a column that will be posted during NaNo madness in November.

I would be a liar if I told you I'm not pausing the words here and there to join in with said conversation.

On the drive down here, I started exploring topics I have yet to cover.  (Take it from me: taking notes on a bumpy highway by intermittent moonlight is no simple task.)  As we passed through Ajo, the memory of one of my favorite Connie Willis novels struck me.  Connie remains The Master at calling her characters liars.  And I figured it was high time I introduced you guys to this very shifty tool of the writers' trade, if you haven't already discovered it for yourselves.

Yes, I know.  We spend so much time trying to make our characters believable.  We fight to sustain the readers' willing suspension of disbelief.  Why the hell would we jeopardize that by calling our own carefully realized story people bald-faced liars?

Because it's a perfect technique to make the characters all the more believable, my darlings.  Believe it or not.

Think about it.  How often do people lie to us in the course of a day?  How often do we lie to ourselves?  How often do we see our friends believing something we know to be untrue ("The Space Aliens will come down and bring universal peace and harmony if I just buy these special communicators!")?  Okay, that's a bit over-the-top, but think of the more subtle situations, like our friends believing they're boring conversationalists when they're actually the most interesting people at the party.  Lies and self-deception are a part of life, and therefore will end up a part of your writing: you will at some point call your characters liars because all humans lie  The question before us is, what kind of liars are they?  And how should we call them on it?

21 February, 2011

I See Sedona's Still Silly

For a brief and all-too-memorable two years of my life, we lived in Sedona, Arizona.  It's a beautiful place, red rock country that will dye your white socks a nice shade of rust whilst hiking.  It's also a total magnet for oddballs.

When we first moved there, back in the late 80s, an alarming number of the populace was convinced a space ship was going to emerge from Bell Rock, which to those who don't think it's shaped like a bell believe it's shaped like a UFO.  This, of course, meant there was a UFO in it, and if you had the right crystal, you could summon the space ship that was to emerge on an auspicious day, and the aliens who had (for reasons I never learned) parked their ship under that mass of old sandstone would pick you up and give you a lift to some sort of very spiritual destination somewhere out in the universe.

Vendors set up roadside markets where quartz crystals lay on tables, sparkling in the sun.  I found myself browsing at one on a fine day, because I love crystals and was hoping to find a bargain.  Alas, all I found were overpriced rocks and one woman waving a fistful, exclaiming to her friend, "This one was cold, and this one was kind of warm, but this one's hot!"  The fact that relative warmth may have been due to the fact there was a sun shade over part of the table didn't seem to occur to her.  No, she was after something that would vibrate at just the right frequency for thumbing a ride with extraterrestrials. 

I gave it up as a bad job and left.  Perhaps that day in my tweens was a harbinger of my future skepticism.  Or maybe I'd just been exposed to too much New Age schlock.

The Great Day came, but the spaceship didn't, and all those who had paid far too much for some decent quartz, sold their earthly belongings, and camped out in the desert waiting for Bell Rock to open would have had to slink despondently home if they hadn't sold said home.

But even that rather spectacular fail didn't shake their faith.  They still babbled on about wise aliens from other worlds and crystal magic and vortexes like the one by the Post Office that caused all the horrible car crashes.  No, cars didn't crash because it was a badly designed, extremely busy t-shaped intersection with the worst visibility in town.  No, silly skeptics!  It's obviously the malign influence of a bad vortex, not at all like the good vortexes out in the hills, where one could - well, do whatever it is New Agey folk do when communing with good vortexes.

Psychics and so forth continued selling their New Age kitsch downtown.  I should have got round to telling them to aim a sun lamp at the trays of crystals so they could sell more "hot" ones.

Years later, after I'd moved away, a pagan friend came to visit from parts east.  His friends had told him he had to see Sedona.  "It's so spiritual," said they.  They babbled on and on about its mystical powers and so forth, and sent him out on a mission: he just had to go, and report back.

He's skeptical enough he took my warnings to heart, and tried to steel himself against disappointment, but his jaw still dropped when he saw what the spiritual mecca really was: no more than commercial kitsch slathered thick along the main drag, a tourist trap laid for the sensitive soul.  Nothing I'd said could quite capture the shock of the reality.  It's really that bad.

Sometimes, I wonder if it's still that bad.  And to my vast amusement, I discovered that it most definitely is (h/t):
On December 21, 2012 Mr. Peter Gersten plans to hurl himself off of Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ. It is his belief that a cosmic portal will open at this time and in this place, and that he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity. He is fully willing to die if he is wrong about the portal.
Ah, yes, I can say with some certainty that "he will be delivered into a new, unfathomable opportunity."  It's not every day the local coyote population has a smorgasbord plop down from the top of Bell Rock.

Let's just hope all of the negative vibes from all the skeptical people laughing at him cause him to change his mind.  I mean, you know what negativity does to portals.  I mean, look what happened when a few locals poked fun at the idea a spaceship would emerge - no spaceship.  You can't tell me that's a coinkydink. 

We've already broken your portal, Mr. Gersten.  I'm sorry.  It won't open due to all those bad vibrations.  You might as well stay home.

20 February, 2011

Writing is My Science

When people find out I'm a writer, they sometimes venture into uncomfortable territory.  They sometimes have the audacity to ask how I write.

What is an easier question.  I can fend them off with a mumbled "I write speculative fiction."  Alas, that sometimes means I have to explain what speculative fiction is, which means I don't get to flee for a few minutes.  (I'll tell them to look it up on Wikipedia henceforth.)  When I'm not wishing to give away the fact that I am, in fact, writing a novel, with all of the uncomfortable questions that entails, I just tell them I blog and give them the URL.  They'll find out soon enough I do more than babble about science, occasional pollyticks, the Universe and everything, but by then they'll be out of questioning range and online, where I can just direct them to explanatory links.

Anyway.  Most people stop at what.  My answer usually leaves their eyes slightly glazed, and they discover they really weren't that interested after all.  But a few curious sorts go on to ask prying questions, and when they do, a few get around to the how, and I am at a loss.  How the fuck do I explain how I write?  They're expecting an easy answer.  They end up looking a little frightened when they discover that the process entails holding long conversations with imaginary people.  Oh, yes.  I'm clinically sane, and yet I can babble for absolute hours with people who aren't there.

The majority of questioners remember a previously forgotten appointment at this point in the proceedings.  It's amazing how quickly you can clear a room by informing the people therein that you talk to figments of your imagination, and that they talk back.

Those who haven't fled are genuinely interested in the process, often because they're just beginning the long struggle with it themselves, or because they love learning how authors' brains work.  I can't answer that.  I can tell the aspiring folk the tricks of the trade I've learned, point up my Dojo posts and several useful books.  But as far as those wanting to know how I, Dana Hunter, write, that takes more time to explain than a casual conversation will allow.

And I don't think they shall understand when I tell them my recent realization, which is that for me, writing is very like doing science.  And that's not just because I have to study a lot of science in order to build worlds.

19 February, 2011

Cantina Quote o' The Week: Carl Sagan

...No scientist on Earth knows how a planet might blow itself up, which is probably just as well.

-Carl Sagan

Dearest Carl.  Reading Cosmos changed my life pretty much forever, and this is one of the lines that did it.  He knew there's no reason why you can't enjoy a good laugh while you were reading your science.

If you haven't read Cosmos, go do so forthwith.  Then follow up with Pale Blue Dot, and top it off with The Demon-Haunted World.

18 February, 2011

Los Links 2/18

Damn you, Twitter!  So much delicious stuff lately that I've been dedicating myself very nearly full time to reading all the wonderful stuff linked.  Even when I try to cut down on the number of links I click, I still end up opening too much.  I can no more resist the pull of an intriguing link than I can resist a good chicken tikka masala.  And if you've ever seen me in an Indian restaurant, then you know that's about equivalent to anyone's ability to resist a gravity well.

So yes, lots of Los Links, and as always, I got so busy opening links I forgot to note who tweeted them, and so a blanket "Thank you for these, all you folks I follow!",  pathetic as it is, shall have to do.  I am Bad.

(And a special note to all those people whose emails are still sitting in my inbox unanswered: I still love you, and I will reply as soon as I can!)

Conservative Science: Yur Doon It Rong: "In plain language:  it’s really hard to do empirical research or construct complicated proofs in a wide range of fields if you have a deep commitment to something that denies a mountain of physical evidence and logical argument.  By way of analogy:  you slouch your whole life (towards Bethlehem?) it becomes increasingly difficult to stand up straight.  Same things go with habits of mind.
"The shorter:  you can’t hide the crazy forever, and when it emerges, it makes your colleagues (justifiably) nervous about anything you say." (Balloon Juice)
Relearning the “Beautiful Basics” of Science: "This is a lesson that all science communicators could learn. Just because something’s old hat to you, it can still be new and exciting to everyone else. We just need to take care to present it in that way!" (This View of Life)
Rosa Parks' Other (Radical) Side: "'If we had a larger sense of who she was, a radical activist and warrior for human rights,' instead of a powerless individual struck by chance, said McGuire, it would show the work and the time she put in over many years." (The Root)
Vaccine Council of Vaccination: "Of course these are all courageous mavericks, including a brain surgeon with a Galileo-like understanding of The Truth (big T) and are fighting against a corrupt and blind authority who are protecting their turf at the expense of you and your children. As an aside, I often find it odd when Galileo is used as an example. I just realized his first name is Galileo.  In that respect he was like Cher or the Donald.  Galileo was a man of science oppressed by the irrational and superstitious.  Today,  he (Galileo, not the Donald)  is used by the irrational and the superstitious who say the are being oppressed by science.  So 1984." (Science-Based Medicine)
10 Historical 'Facts' Only a Right-Winger Could Believe: "6. Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist.
"Theodore Roosevelt was a naval theorist and war aficionado, a lawman in both the Dakota Territory and New York City, and a cheerful imperialist. You'd think conservatives would appreciate him better. But Glenn Beck has helped turn that around, lambasting TR at last year's CPAC and denouncing his words as 'a socialist utopia' which 'we need to address ... as if it is a cancer.'" (AlterNet

Drying Out in the West: "The sad fact is, every few years, a report like this comes out, with excellent scientific and economic analysis showing that water use in the American West is unsustainable and that climate change will only make it worse. And it gets a lot of buzz–and then nothing much happens. And when the next report comes out, the only difference is that we’ve inched closer to crisis." (Tooth & Claw)

Journalists angry over the commission of journalism: "That these establishment journalists believe that pointing out the lies of powerful political leaders is 'not their role' -- indeed, is a violation of the rules that govern what they do -- explains a large part of the failings of both America's media class and its political class.  Ironically, David Gregory is ultimately right that doing this is 'not his role'; he's not paid by NBC News and its owners to alert the American citizenry to lies told by the U.S. Government (i.e., he's not paid to be an adversarial journalist).  He's there to do the opposite:  to vest those lies with respect and depict them as reasonable statements to be subjectively considered along with the truth.  But it's in these moments when they are so candid about what their actual role is -- or when they attack people like Cooper for the rare commission of actual journalism -- that they are at their most (unintentionally) informative." (Glenn Greenwald)
The Joy of Road Tripping…with Geologists: "My apologies for waxing philosophic.  I’ve got all this on the brain after returning from a long weekend of road tripping through the Cascades with two close friends—one a structural geologist and the other a seismologist.  What better way to see the mountains, right?  It’s like having a backstage pass: you get the insider’s scoop, far more interesting than the average self-guided tour." (+/- Science)
The “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” Article: "I found it! I announced on Twitter yesterday. 'It' was the generic Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators article. I said it had everything, meaning: every identifying mark and mandatory cliché needed to lift a mere example to the exalted status of genre-defining classic." (Press Think)
Shut Up Already: "Because today it was announced that a U.S. reporter was sexually assaulted covering the revolution. And everybody appears to have felt a need to say something about it, even though the vast majority of people have...not just nothing intelligent to say about rape, but a lot of actively stupid, hurtful shit to spew." (Almost Diamonds)
Feminist hypersensitivity or masculine obtuseness?: "I've got a simple suggestion for my fellow men. Learn to shut up and listen. Seriously. You want women to find your organization pleasant and interesting and worth contributing to? Then don't form panels full of men trying to figure out what women want, talking over women who try to get a word in edgewise, belittling women's suggestions with jokes, and trying to determine how We Well-Meaning Men can give Those Women what we think they want. You are assuming an authority and presuming that it is in your power to give it to the minority, when what you should be doing is deferring to that minority and giving them your attention, letting them speak and shape your organization."  (Pharyngula)
The NIH threatened: "If you have a blog, blog this. Call your Representatives. As P.Z. Myers and Paul Krugman put it, we're eating America's seed corn in science, and there will be a steep price to pay someday. Worse, in the scheme of things, the savings are minimal and symbolic. The real problem is entitlements and defense spending, and with those off the table, all we have left is nonsense like this. The bottom line is that all the changes in peer review, whether to allow two grant application resubmissions instead of one, won't make one whit of difference when funding levels fall this low.
"But it's worse than that. It's not just the NIH. It's nearly every major government science agency, and, because the cut would come in the middle of the year, after half of the budget has already been spent, these proposed cuts are in essence double the numbers." (Respectful Insolence)
“Strengthen the family” just means “get your ass back into the kitchen, woman”: "This is about having a single, very narrow model of what constitutes an acceptable family, one built around female subservience and dependence.  And making sure that anyone who veers from that path is punished severely.  Even---and especially, I’d say---in cases where they don’t have a choice, which is true of most working mothers who need the income, full stop.  Republicans, as those who didn’t realize before are quickly learning, really enjoy the idea of adding more burdens to the already burdened to punish them for the sin of not being rich." (Pandagon)
Friday focal mechanisms: Chile’s persistent seismic gap: "On February 27th last year, the subduction zone ruptured again, with the epicentre only 115 km northeast of Concepción, Chile’s second largest city. The magnitude 8.8 earthquake that ensued – together with the tsunami generated by movement of the seafloor above the rupture zone – killed more than 500 people and caused billions of dollars’ worth of damage. It also occurred in a section of the plate boundary that had not ruptured for almost 200 years. In 1836, Charles Darwin experienced a large earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 8.5, that destroyed Concepción. Since then, the plate boundary to the north has ruptured in large earthquakes, in 1928 and 1985, and a 1000 km stretch to the south was involved in the 1960 magnitude 9.5. But until 2010, the portion of the plate boundary that ruptured in 1836 remained stuck, producing a ‘seismic gap’: a portion of the plate boundary where significant strain has been accumulated, but has yet to be released in an earthquake. This particular seismic gap is sometimes referred to as the ‘Darwin gap’, in honour of the scientist who recorded its last significant activity." (Highly Allochthonous)

Highway8A Introduction I: "This field book, the one I am writing right in now, is being written from the perspective of my future; it is being written by my future self, my self as an old woman — an old geologist — an old geologist with a long memory. My long memory has mixed the past, present, and future into one package the way some geologic rock formations have been pushed, shoved, and squeezed — even sliced and diced — into stratigraphic or tectonic packages where every resulting contact between individual rock formations involves some kind of geologic activity: deposition, mountain building, erosion, folding, and faulting. Because of my geologic memory — my intricate, enduring memory — most of the things I’m writing about happened long ago when I was young and clambered over the rocks and hills freely and easily: like a mountain lion or coyote, like a desert fox. Now I’m a silver fox with the long memory of an elephant, the memory of an ancient mammoth." (Looking for Detachment)

Oregon's Geyser Geysing Again: "Lakeview is remote (though it is on a major north-south route, US 395), out of the way, and unless you're looking for it, the resort and thermal area aren't hard to miss. But I doubt many people have even heard of this spot, let alone visited it. It really is special, and even after a dozen or more visits over the years, a spot I don't get tired of seeing again. If you're going to be in the OR-CA-NV borderlands, it's an especially delectable little morsel in a veritable smorgasbord of tasty geology. It's future is uncertain. I definitely recommend seeing it while you can." (Outside the Interzone)

An activist scientist for women’s health: "The reason it’s so important to me that I be that activist scientist – someone whose work is informed by an understanding of the biases inherent in the process of science, and who promotes a deeper understanding of science to the general public – is that women’s health is something that many non-experts opine about, providing sometimes dangerous disinformation. I’ll give you just three examples." (Agora)
Religion: the ultimate tyranny: "If you value freedom, you should flee from religion as the antelope flees the lion. Religion is the very antithesis of freedom, insisting on our complete subjugation to the unachievable demands of an invisible but supremely powerful overlord." (On Faith)
Culture differences matter (even within Islam): "What is the point of these comparisons? There’s a lot of stress and worry about the Muslim Brotherhood in the United States. Some of this is because of their specific historical associations with Hamas, as well as the history of Islamist radicalism in Egypt (Al-Qaeda is in large part an institutional outgrowth of Egyptian radical movements). But the fixation on the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood misses the bigger picture that secular and Islamist mean very different things in different Muslim nations." (Gene Expression)

Social animals evolve to stand out among the crowd: "There’s a wonderful cartoon by Gary Larson where a penguin, standing amid a throng of virtually identical birds, sings, 'I gotta be me! Oh, I just gotta be me…' As ever, Larson’s The Far Side captures the humorous side of a real natural dilemma. Social animals spend time in large groups, but they still have to tell the difference between individuals so they can recognise mates, young, leaders and rivals. As the groups get larger, so does the scope of this challenge, and some species meet it by evolving individuality. As groups get bigger, their members become more distinctive." (Not Exactly Rocket Science)

Pleasure, reward...and rabbits! Why do animals behave as they do?: "Jackson and Dutchess seem to know that there is a good chance that they will get food when they see me open the refrigerator - at least, they act like it. They seem to really want the treats, and because of this we can infer that they must really like to eat the treats. This all seems very simple and intuitive, but the field of behavioral neuroscience, which studies how the brain contributes to and controls an animal's behavior, has a long history of studying the not-so-simple ways that the brain makes animals - humans included - like and want things." (Scientific American Guest Blog)

The Strong Anthropic Principle Song: "You may not want to hear it, but it’s true
The universe is not here just for you.
You really think you’re special, I’m aware
But the universe itself, it doesn’t care." (The Digital Cuttlefish)

17 February, 2011

Juanita in Winter

I only ever really get out in summer, so I've seen very little of my favorite Seattle-area stomping grounds in winter.  But when we abandoned Darwin Day festivities early, we decided to have a wander down by Juanita Bay.  It wasn't peeing down rain and we were close by.

This summer, I'll take some comparison shots so you all can see the stark difference between winter and summer, but for now, we'll just have a bit of a photo essay on one of my favorite places.

Believe it or not, some trees are already budding:

Getting a head start on photosynthesis, I see.  Some trees up here have figured out that the chances of a hard frost after February are about nil and sun in short supply, so they rush things.

16 February, 2011

Shocked! Shocked, I Tell You!

I've been struggling with this month's Accretionary Wedge topic:
What geological concept or idea did you hear about that you had no notion of before (and likely surprised you in some way).
I mean, there's a lot.  All the hijinks that go on in subduction zones, that constantly astonishes me.  The idea that rocks in the mantle flow without being actually molten, and that rocks have any sort of elasticity to begin with - incredible.  I had no idea when I first started out just what temperature and pressure could do to minerals - I knew there was such a thing as a metamorphic rock, but my eyes popped when I learned more of the details.  It seems like every time I read a book on geology, there's something new and astonishing.  I'm reading a book on caves in the bathroom right now, and the other night, I found out there are places in the world with natural caves formed in salt.  I had no idea that happened.

So yes, I'm spoiled for choice.  But I think the one thing that's made my eyes pop the most is the idea that plate tectonics affects climate.  That shouldn't have taken me by surprise, but it surely did.  Sure, I knew about rainshadow effects - I grew up in the American Southwest, which is deep in the rainshadow of the Sierra Nevada.  Moving up here to Washington State, I could see an even more dramatic example of rainshadow.  Here's the western side of the Cascades:

Cascades from Lord Hill
And here's the eastern side:

Cascades from Ryegrass Summit
That's a profound difference between one side of the mountains and the other, people.

So yes, I knew mountains had a huge affect on climate.  And I also knew that where you are in the world matters - Washington State would be a much different place if it straddled the Equator.  But for some reason, I didn't carry that idea to its logical conclusion: that as the continents go sailing around the world due to the vagaries of plate tectonics, they change everything.

In the first place, plate tectonics creates these mountains that have such an impact on local and regional climates.  And haven't I heard that the Himalaya may have changed the world?  All because India decided to take a quick trip north and didn't watch where it was going.

As continents move, they affect ocean circulation.  And ocean circulation affects global climate.  Could you imagine what would happen if some bit of land deflected the Antarctic Circumpolar Current?  You don't have to imagine it all by yourself - go play with a paleoclimate animation and watch the climate change.  Look at it on a map.  It matters where land is, and not just for the view.

It shocked me to learn how intimately rocks are connected to climate.  We didn't talk about rocks when we discussed global warming in school.  We talked about rainforests and fossil fuels and atmospheric gasses.  There was some vague talk about how volcanoes could impact climate, but nobody mentioned the Deccan Traps, so I thought it was all small-scale, temporary stuff.  And nobody said shit about rocks.  They didn't talk about limestone and other carbonate rocks.  Nobody bothered to tell me just how much CO2 was stored up in those rocks, or said a word about how subducting carbonate rocks contribute to the CO2 outgassing from volcanoes.  Boggles my mind, that does, and makes me look at the world in a whole new light.

You know what I think surprises me the most about all this?  It's how interconnected all this world is, what an intimate whole all of the different scientific disciplines make.  We break them down into categories for convenience, and sometimes forget that you can't have geology without chemistry, physics, biology, hydrology... and you don't get climate without a heaping helping of geology thrown in.  You can't understand one thing until you realize it's just a component of a much larger whole.  Nothing exists in isolation.  It all relates.

It didn't seem that way in school.  Nobody ever taught it that way.  So making these discoveries, seeing the way geology affects everything on earth, has been a tremendous surprise.  More than that: a delight.  It's delicious.

And I can't wait for the next surprise.

15 February, 2011

Dana's Dojo: Getting Emotional

Today in the Dojo:  How do you "show" emotion"?

An emotion is suggested and demolished in one glance by certain words.
-Robert Smithson

You would think that something as emotional as... emotion... would be easy to show.  And it is, until you actually get down to showing it.  Adjectives and nouns parade their wares, promising you how easy it would be to just use one of them instead of reaching for examples.  Why waste all those words describing somebody's emotional state when there's an easy shorthand?  If a character is angry, why not just say so?


Allow me to demonstrate:

Dana was getting really irritated with the web page she was designing.


Dana's hands darted toward the computer as if to strangle it.  "Stupid clip art!  Why won't you export?"

If you chose Example One as the stronger, please put down your pen and leave the Dojo.  You need to meditate on "modifiers don't make an emotion stronger" before you're ready to become a samurai writing master.

So we're going to show emotion.  It's got to be done.  No easy way out here.  Shut the door on those salesmen pitching "angry, love, happy, sad," kick the purveyors of adverbs like "sorrowfully" and "joyfully" off the porch, and don't even let their singsong "But wait, there's more - just use a modifier!  I'll throw in very, really and extremely for free!" reach your ears.

Tack a sign above your computer: "If it's easy to write, it probably sucks."

There.  Now we're ready to clear the first major hurdle in showing emotion: How do you know what they're feeling if you don't say it?

14 February, 2011

Darwin Day Shenanigans

I dragged my intrepid companion out to the big Northwest Freethought Coalition's Darwin Day bash on Sunday.  Neither one of us is much for large groups, but I never get to see the Seattle Skeptics - they're always having meetings when I'm working.  Besides, festivities included a birthday cake and Phylum Pheud, so it seemed essential to go.

Loved it from the moment I laid eyes on it:

Charles Darwin his own self was scheduled to attend, but excused himself on account of being dead.  I felt he was there in spirit, however, his august countenance gazing benevolently down upon us from a corner of the room.

There was a massive spread of food.  People who believe only church groups know how to put on a good Sunday feed, take note: atheists and humanists have officially kicked your arses.  ZOMFSM.  It's a good thing they had a break between the nosh and the cake, or I wouldn't have had room. 

The organizers put on a panel discussion discussing the War on Evolution.  I'll do a proper write-up of it when I've got more time.  I took notes and everything, just for you, my darlings.  For now, let me just say this: meeting Jen McCreight in the flesh was something akin to meeting PZ Myers for the first time, and all the more overwhelming because I hadn't had a clue she'd be there.  She was on the panel.  Look!  I haz proof!

The other two are Bob and Geoff.  I didn't get their last names because I'd been too busy finishing nosh to fish out me notebook in time, but I'm sure somebody somewhere will have that info, and when I do the proper post on the panel, I shall be able to tell you more than just, "These two are Bob and Geoff, and they are nearly as awesome as Jen."

After the panel came cake.  We all sang Happy Birthday as it was brought out, of course.  Just because a man's been dead for nearly 130 years doesn't mean you shouldn't sing Happy Birthday to him.  Or waste the excuse to have a really good cake.

Whist acquiring cake, I was able to actually speak with Jen McCreight for a moment!!!11!1!! - in a group with others, o' course, but still.  We had two actual biologists and two bloggers who are science fanpeople.  It's always good not to be the only layblogger in the group.  Although, thanks to you, my darlings, I am no longer so embarrassed by my layblogger status.  I'm not a scientist, but the fact I was adopted by the geobloggers means I do a decent job with the science blogging, and therefore, I can hold my head high even when standing right next to Jen McCreight.  (However, I am not a graduate student in genome sciences who started Boobquake, so I reserve the right to be a bit starstruck, mkay?)

Anyway.  Jen was pure teh awesome.  Now that she lives here, I hope to somehow lure her away from graduate studies long enough for a good chat, but I'm not sure how to lure a genome biologist.  If she were a geologist, I'd know just what to use: beer.  Does anyone here know the proper offering for a biologist?

The only thing that distracted me from Jen's awesomeness was the microbiologist next to me, a very nice and engaging gentleman who tossed a bomb: he likes PZ Myers's blogging, but doesn't think PZ's in-your-face call-stupid-what-it-is style is helpful.  Who's convinced by someone getting up in their face and yelling at them?

And so, my darlings, I'm afraid I had to raise my hand and say, "Well, me, for one."  I've only seen one other person look so astonished this week, and that was my coworker, who tried to toss me a test phone and ended up plonking me in the forehead with it. 

Random Acts of Kindness Week

Apparently, there's a special week devoted to pouncing on people and doing something nice to them.  And since I don't blog about Valentine's Day, this seems a suitably sappy substitute.

I learned about this happy event from Steve Schimmrich, who thought he might be mugged but was handed a badly-needed dollar instead.  And it got me to thinking about other random acts of kindness, either performed by or performed on me.  I've been the beneficiary of more random kindness than I dare to believe I deserve.  You, my darlings, do me more kindness than I have a right to expect.

You started out strangers, but became my friends, all because you started out by doing something randomly kind: giving a nice comment, or offering advice, or including me among the geobloggers as if I was a really real geoblogger myself.  You've done me wonders, and I'll probably never be able to repay your kindnesses back.  It's a good thing there's such a thing as paying forward.

Complete strangers have swooped down in times of dire need and done things they'd probably laugh off as inconsequential if I tracked them down and thanked them.  I'm sure the waiter at Denny's all those years ago, who made me laugh at one of the darkest times in my existence by presenting a ketchup bottle as if it were expensive champagne, didn't think he was doing anything particularly meaningful.  Just goofing off.  He threw me a lifeline, got me one foot up on a climb out of a deep black hole, and all it took was something so silly.

There were the people in Chicago, a whole crowd of them, who gathered round me in a store when I frantically asked after the location of some particular venue, and ensured I knew exactly how to get there in time to see Neil Gaiman and Will Eisner for the first time in my life.  They changed my mind about big city downtowns.  They made my day.

A thousand other things, big and small, done to a stranger by a stranger, that have kept me from believing humanity is beyond hope.

George sent me a rock hammer.  Suzanne performed rescue operations.  Cujo invited me to the theatre.  Lockwood volunteered for field trip duty. And there have been 10,000 other things, great and small, that you've done, things that make me a big squidgy mass of gratefulness and love.
I'll probably never know most of the things I've done.  I don't tend to think of myself as a random kindness person.  But I suppose I've done a few - there've been group photos taken in special spots, which probably count.  There was one gentleman who was placing an order with me, who had the most mono of monotones, until I asked him what was wrong.  He told me I wouldn't want to hear his problems.  I told him to fire away, if it'd make him feel better, and by the time he finished I was very nearly in tears - he'd had The Worst Year Ever.  At the end, he sighed, said he did in fact feel a little better, and his voice gained a bit of animation as we finished getting his business forms ordered.  I'll never forget him.

The point of all this rambling is, stuff like this isn't hard, and it's not expensive.  A dollar here, a listening ear there, a moment of time to snap a group photo or give directions or elicit a smile.  Most of us do these things already.  But at least having a week devoted to it means we can actually think about the kindnesses we do.  And perhaps we'll find ways of doing even more.  More kindness = a better world.  It's worth aiming for, especially for us cynical bastards who find it too easy to accentuate the negative. 

I just want to tell the men something important, here: if you're swooping down on strange women to do them a kindness, try to avoid doing so if there's no one else around.  We've read about too many serial killers, you see.  You might offer to help with carrying grocery bags and find yourself maced out of paranoid self-defense.  And ladies: random acts of kindness should also be done in public wherever possible.  Remember how Ted Bundy lured his victims.  And all of us should probably be careful to ensure parents understand what we're up to if we're performing a RAK for a child.

Have I mentioned I'm a bit cynical?

Anyway, those caveats in mind, go forth and do good, just as you already do, whether you know it or not.

13 February, 2011

Dear Mr. Darwin

Let's pretend, for just a moment, we can send a letter to the past.  And yes, I know this is being posted the day after his birthday, but the Seattle Skeptics et al are celebrating it today.  Shall have pictures up from that happy event in the not-too-distant future, but what is future or past for those of us who can send letters to Victorian England, eh?

Dear Mr. Darwin;

Greetings from the year 2011!  I hope this letter finds you well, perhaps enjoying a lovely day on the Sandwalk, and that the sudden appearance of my missive hasn't startled you too badly.  I know this is highly irregular.  However, I felt it important you know that your many long years of work have not gone unappreciated.

Other, more capable, people will be writing you to show you what your theory of evolution has become.  Needless to say, it's grown and flowered, and is now the major unifying concept of biology.  It's allowed us to make enormous strides in our understanding.  It's been used to save lives, unlock the mysteries of our origins, and has proven to be one of the most powerful theories in any scientific discipline.  You, sir, would be astounded to see what came of your ideas.  And I hope you would be pleased.

I wish I could report that you're universally appreciated, but alas, the forces of ignorance have not yet raised the white flag of surrender, although they've suffered an embarrassing number of decisive defeats.  I have to thank them, though.  Without them, I may never have become interested in evolutionary biology, or read your beautiful book.  I'm ashamed to admit that I knew little more of you than your name.  I knew some basics of evolution, and I knew that you had put the basics in place.  I knew you had discovered natural selection.  But I didn't much care.  Biology, you see, was full of squidgy organic bits, and I didn't much like squidgy organic stuff.

But then, while suffering from one of the worse cases of influenza I've ever experienced and looking for things to distract me from the misery, I stumbled across some information on the people fighting to keep evolutionary biology out of schools.  I discovered people who disparage your name and intend to drive all trace of your theory from the classroom, in favor of creationism, which some people have tried to dress up by calling "intelligent design."  I can assure you there's nothing intelligent about it.  It is, in fact, creationism's Trojan Horse, and the arguments marshaled against your elegant theory of evolution are tiresome to the extreme.  They like to pretend, but they really haven't advanced their arguments past William Paley, whereas scientists have built skyscrapers on the foundations you provided.

Well, I'm a writer, and I've always loved a good conflict.  So I abandoned my original purpose, which had been to fill some holes in my own appalling ignorance, and gleefully jumped into the fray.  I read everything I could find.  By the end of it, I'd learned more of evolutionary biology than I'd ever suspected I would, and I'd discovered you.

No one in my education had ever told me about your life.  I didn't know your origins, the fact that you'd started out destined for the clergy, or the circumstances behind that famous voyage on the Beagle.*  Some bare facts had been given, but all the romance, the thrill of discovery, had been drained from them.  I learned of your adventures, your doubts, and the dawning of your understanding, and I became enthralled.  I'd never known you were such an interesting man.  I'd never known how hard it was for you to gather the evidence needed to verify your theory.  And I'd never realized you were such a talented writer.

At last, I picked up your On the Origin of Species, and read it cover to cover.  True, evolutionary biology has advanced far beyond what's contained in those pages.  We now know the answers to many of the things that perplexed you.  But to appreciate how very far we've come, it's good to understand where the journey started.  Besides, the Origin is a pure delight, a tour de force, a beautifully reasoned tale of discovery.  Your arguments are elegant, your evidence copious, and everything laid out in a clear manner.  No wonder T.H. Huxley exclaimed "How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!" upon hearing of natural selection.  It takes an act of willful blindness not to see the truth in those pages.

Alas, all too many people seem to delight in stabbing their eyes out.  But for every one of them, there are thousands who, because of you, can see this world in all of its infinite complexity with new eyes.  As one of them, I can tell you that you've made it possible for me to view even the humblest of creatures with wonder and delight.  What a story they all have to tell!  How far we've all come from that warm little pond (although we're not altogether clear on whether it was a pond, exactly - it might have been a hydrothermal vent, or something else we've not yet imagined.  We're still on a voyage of discovery, and someday, one or more of your intellectual descendants will find their own Galapagos, I'm sure).

And to think geology had something to do with it!  Geology is one of my especial delights.  Imagine, then, how thrilled I was to learn that Mr. Lyell's Principles of Geology accompanied you on your voyage, and assisted you in your discoveries.  I hadn't imagined, back when I was still toiling along in near-ignorance, that things so seemingly different as geology and biology are so intimately connected - and in more ways than just sharing two giants who revolutionized our understanding of those fields.  I have only to think of limestone, for instance.  But just as our understanding of evolution has advanced since your time, so has geology advanced since Lyell's, and you would, I'm sure, be fascinated by the theory of plate tectonics and how the movements of continents have affected evolution.

Without you, Mr. Wallace and Mr. Lyell, none of that would be known to us.  I grant you, someone else probably would have made these discoveries in time, but how long would we have had to wait?  Long enough, I fear, that the scientific vista I enjoy now would have been much smaller.

Mr. Darwin, I feel it's important for you to know just what a profound impact you've had.  It's not a stretch to name you as the father of modern biology.  (And yes, I know you will say Mr. Wallace deserves no small share of the credit, and indeed he does, but today is your birthday, and so we are celebrating you.)  You are a remarkable scientist.

There is, indeed, grandeur in your view of life.  I thank you, sir, for giving us the eyes to see it.

A happy birthday to you, and many happy returns!

I remain, ever your admirer,
Dana Hunter

 There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

-Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

*Special thanks to The Beagle Project Blog for this link.