Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Sorrow for Wenchuan

As the true tragedy of the recent earthquake in China unfolds, I along with everyone else can only struggle to wrap our brains around the magnitude of the many people whose lives have been devastated. I had the chance to visit many of the affected areas years ago, yet still the sheer magnitude of the number of people and the difficulty of the terrain are something entirely out of my sphere of understanding. The roads are treacherous even in a good rainstorm, delivering food and water require huge amounts of infrastructure and resources even on a daily basis. The only possible thing I could equate it to is if you took the population of LA/Inland Empire and the San Francisco bay area and combined them into a region the size of Connecticut and then bordered it all with terrain that would have the relief equivalent of that from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney surrounding it, then make it all a jungle and top it with the infrastructure and resources of 40-30 years ago.

It seems we always learn these lessons too late, because this was all inevitable, some time, some day. But none of this can help the people of Sichuan now. Thankfully the PLA is getting every resource at its disposal to save those who could still be saved (unlike Myanmar), and those resources are vast. Godspeed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Taking rocks hi tech

Our institution is, like many others, encouraging the use of technology in large lecture courses. I jumped into the deep end with the CPS clickers and think once I really learn more than basic uses that it will be really great- although I completely underestimated how awkward it would feel to stand around in front of a large class for 60 seconds while they all entered an answer. I am now contemplating the use of a GeoPad, not only in teaching but in research as well.

Geopad is "the integrated combination of GIS software, a GPS receiver, and a Windows XP TabletPC (GeoPad) or a PocketPC Personal Digital Assistant (GeoPocket)." Sounds great, but I have such little experience with this stuff and really no clue where to start. My biggest fear is that I drop a bunch of dough on some equipment that will take a ton of time to integrate. On Inside-out, based out of Lawrence University, there's a good bit of blogged info on using this technology in teaching intro environmental science courses. I'm scrounging for info and hope that once this semester reaches its final throes I'll be able to dig into this a bit more.

But I mean check it out- how cool would it be to be able to do this:

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Rocks are hott!

I just advised my first undergrad geo major who had only recently declared as GEO... he wants to "go into ether petroleum or minerals" and I didn't get the sense his motive was altruistic. The geoblogosphere is abuzz with the high demand for geo grads and it seems even in Dixie there's some people who are noticing the opportunities in earth science right now. I will sheepishly admit it is strange to watch a 22 year-old go out and make more $ than I've ever made in a job, despite my oodles of years of training. I honestly wouldn't trade places, but from my perspective it does seem like a weird phenomenon of the current job market. I still feel like I have so much to learn about the earth, but learning takes time and time is money and apparently there's no time like the present to be a geo major!

When this new geo major went on to say "Oh, petrology... I should take that class if I'm interested in petroleum, right?" I will again sheepishly admit I felt a bit better about my oodles of training. Guess if I don't have the big paycheck I at least have my work (that I like) cut out for me! As the housing market shows again, all booms will bust, but I plan on enjoying this part of the ride for sure!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Edward Abbey avenged?

This is a special Western Exposure report from the desert southwest of the US. My first venture to this area was back in '97 and in 10 short years there has been a world of change - human habitation of this arid ecosystem has skyrocketed. I read Desert Solitare after moving to the desert southwest in 1998 and was instantly smitten. For a geohead like myself the significance of anthropogenic scars on what was such an incredibly outcrop-rich geo-wonderland environment was heart-wrenching! After Desert Solitare, I moved on to The Monkey Wrench Gang and since then, my daydreams often involve small explosive devices at the base of those dreaded LCD billboards or legislation outlawing the creation of McMansions in greenfields when brownfields are in such dire blight or severe damage to any major place of commerce beginning with "Wal" and ending in "Mart".  

I have said for years TMWG would make a great movie and LO and Behold! there is a such a film in production! I am very excited about this development and I so hope the film lives up to the book.  My greater hope is that urban sprawl sticks to Vegas, Phoenix, SLC and others like it and that some of the most amazing landscapes and ecosystems that make up the desert SW survive until collectively we get smart enough to value them for the treasures that they are without condos or casinos.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

What google can't give me: elucidating the manuscript review process

So its been a long lapse in blogging but honestly, I promise, I swear I've been meaning to do so for a while now. I even have a couple blog-goals (blogoals?). One is to put up a link for a YouTube library of sed-o-liscious videos. They can be INVALUABLE in teaching, but take time to track down. Check out one of my favorites for demonstrating thixotropic behavior. I love it! I also have an incredibly hilarious/geeky one for fluidized sediment to the soundtrack of Forrest Gump's Theme Song (to which we're partial in the South). I'll save that for another time. Anyways, I figure if I searched for 'em, others must have too, so why not save someone some trouble someday. I also want to do one for Intro Geo, but there isn't as much surprisingly except for mass-wasting and other natural hazards.

What I'm here to do now, though, is to lament that despite the push to publish, we don't always get the review criteria for every journal before we submit. What exactly will the critique entail? Well, submitting is one way to find out! Once I've reviewed more papers I may find that the actual check list is meaningless. But right now all I can ask is "Is it meaningless? If not, what does it mean? Heck, what IS the review process for a specific journal?" Some have them available on line, but not all. In particular I've struck out with Journal of Sedimentary Research but found it available on Sedimentology. It just got me thinking about the review process and its subjective nature and how it might be good to give yourself a pre-review if you knew what the criteria were. Or maybe it wouldn't be good and would just be a waste of time. Or maybe it would be good but wouldn't make the difference b/w accepted and rejected.

Mostly I was thinking of this in terms of how to teach my students to write for a critical audience (me). I find they want details of what I want so they can tailor their paper to the criteria. But in the "real world" of academia (ok, I can hear the guffaws from here :) or industry for that matter, we don't often get such a detailed request. In the end, I guess what enhances learning isn't the way things are done in the "real world". So what should I teach? "Real world" or "learner-centered classroom" modus operandi? For now I think I'll try to do a little of both.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Save the earth? How could it be destroyed?

This is also incredibly cool in the most geeky sense of the word:

Top 10 Ways to Destroy Earth


This is the coolest thing I've heard of in a long time- controversial and possibly bogus/inaccurate, but conceptually so awesome!

Humans have altered Earth so much that scientists say a new epoch in the planet's geologic history has begun.

Say goodbye to the 10,000-year-old Holocene Epoch and hello to the Anthropocene.

Among the major changes heralding this two-century-old man-made epoch:

The idea, first suggested in 2000 by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, has gained steam with two new scientific papers that call for official recognition of the shift.

Read more here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

PG or not PG, that is a question...

Finals are over and I have one pesky grade to deal with. But before the hype of the holidaze takes over completely, I wanted to post a column of which I recently became aware. Apparently, having an opinion on operations with environmental ramifications requires professional licensure, or at least according to the Great State of Florida, who sued a woman with a Ph.D. in hydroecology because of her arguments at a public hearing against sand mining.

Of course, you could take the grounds for Florida's suit and limit anyone from publicly expressing their opinion on any subject in which they are not a professional. By that rationale, since my PhD is not in international relations, I should not be "permitted" to express my opinion on the Iraq War in public. On the same token, pretty much everyone at FoxNews would have to "shut up" about almost everything except plastic surgeons and conservative ideology..... maybe I could live with this.....

Anyway, this also gave me pause because as a PhD I am not a P.G.- Professional Geologist. Its a licensure required for geologists working in a variety of fields just as hair dressers, medical doctors, therapists, notary publics, etc., have to have their certification bestowed in order to do what they've been trained to do legally. I've never thought about the ramifications of this and would be curious to know if anyone has (i) thought about it and (ii) had any ramifications from it. It seems as if it wouldn't be an issue if you have a degree to back you up as legit, but this column suggests that really a PhD doesn't necessarily guarantee diddly.

BTW, it comes to no surprise to this Stranger that sand is in demand, so if you're in need of giving your investment portfolio a boost, don't get rid of the kids' sand box quite yet! Personally, I'm heavy into feldspathic litharenite these days. It's been undervalued for a long time in my opinion :O)

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Post for the future

Came across this article about Young Earth/Creationist Geologists and it inspired me to blog about model-driven science (as opposed to hypothesis-driven science) but it will have to wait because I should be off to bed so I'll be rested for my last day of teaching for 2007 --- HOOORAY! Plenty'o time for the blogosphere later, just after I finish that list of stuff I didn't finish over summer break.

P.S. it is definitely time for bed as the TV has become a Jerry Springer episode entitled "Kung-fu Hillbilly".... good thing it is on mute...

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Conservation is key

It's been a dry year here in the South. I enjoyed the 35% humidity in July and only crept up into the 50% range in Aug. It was nice only having one or two tornado warnings chase me into the basement at work when a storm front plowed through. But it's hard to ignore the fact that really this place should be getting a lot more precipitation.

We've been trying to conserve water by forsaking our lawn, but what I didn't realize is that our new habit of unplugging minor appliances (TV, DVD player, cell phone charger) was saving water as well. Turns out power requires more water than our neighbor's 3 ton requires in baths, as outlined in this article in the Free Republic. The numbers were quite interesting to me - I honestly wasn't aware of the magnitude of the amount of water needed to keep the lights on.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Reflections of Road/Air Warrior

I have taken 5 significant trips in as many weeks (I'm sitting in ATL right now, still several hours from my bed). Aside from the slight guilt I have over the carbon footprint incurred while proselytizing others as to the awesomeness of my research, I have made a couple observations:
  • DWF (Dallas-Fort Worth) has to be one of the worst multi-terminal airports around
  • DAY (Dayton, OH) is a surprisingly large airport
  • CLT (Charlotte, NC) has incredibly cute and inviting rocking chairs positioned along concourses that seem to call out to sit a spell, sip some sweet tea and listen to a story about Old Man Jones's tobacco farm or surf the web for free...
  • Frontier Airlines have the least helpful employees I've ever encountered
  • I should really carry a enviro-friendly travel kit with a light-weight, reusable mug for airplane refreshments because I have generated a considerable amount of waste lately by consuming hydration from flimsy plastic cups

Thursday, November 8, 2007

I'm no optometrist, but....

One cultural adventure I had recently is worth repeating. I lost my eyeglasses. I don't need them to see on a regular basis, but my eyes get super fatigued if I have to read or look at a computer screen for very long without them. So I made an appointment with an optometrist to get a new pair.

I walk into the exam room and the Dr. immediately starts chatting me up- if his accent didn't give him away as a native, the conversation quickly would have.

Him: Your name looks familiar... was your husband in here recently?
Me: No.
Him: Are you sure?
Me: Yes (because my husband has a different last name, but I didn't feel the need to go into details on that, as it would surely expose me as a pinko-commie left-wing nut job)
Him: What department are you in?
Me: Geology.
Him: A guy came in from that department recently...
We converse until we converge on the newest member of our faculty (i.e. not me - yay!)
Him: He did an internship with Exxon... so why is the cost of gas so high?
Me: Well, there are a lot of Chinese people that want to use gasoline like we have been using it all these years.
Him: You know what I think, the government needs to lift the restrictions on offshore drilling so we can go drill these areas where we know there's oil, like Alaska. Maybe there isn't enough, but just lifting the restriction will do something to help lower the price.
Me: (mentally slapping my own forehead) I don't think that's going to help very much. There are 2 billion people in India and China that create such huge demand on a dwindling supply- we just really need to start using less. That's why we just bought a Prius- and I even do research in oil and gas related fields.
Him: I bought a pick-up truck a few years ago, and when I bought it diesel was 99 cents a gallon- now it costs me three times as much to fill it! I do think gas should cost more...
[Me: getting excited- yes! Make the price reflect it's true cost to our society and our environment and encourage people to conserve!]
Him: ...[paraphrasing] so we can make a ton of money off of drilling offshore Alaska.

Somewhere along the line I recited some blurry and some not so blurry letters and got my prescription. Sadly, I could tell he would have the same conversation with me if I walked in 10 minutes later, all ramped up and ready to drill ANWAR so an optometrist in Dixieland can drive his diesel to work his office job for the same price as back in 1999.

Later, he brought up Hillary Clinton as an analogy for how popular culture misrepresents the South. It was a strange example for him to choose, as I am fairly sure he is not a fan of Hillary ("When the media say that half the people like her, they don't focus on the fact that it means half of the people don't like her...).

What just happened?

Wow. wow. wow. I look at the calendar and all I can think is "What just happened?" It seems like it wasn't so long ago that we were hunkered down seeking shelter from the sweltering dog daze of summer. Tonight we get frost. Obviously a lot of time had passed since I last blogged - I mean there does seem to be something to be said for more variability in climate as we go full throttle into an anthropogenically enhanced interglacial period so weather alone could be misleading, but I know a lot of time has passed because our football schedule is almost over. And I have only one more exam to give to my intro class before the final (hallelujah!). And my 1 year anniversary of post-PhD-dom is almost here- yikes!

One of the stranger things I've gotten to experience lately is "courting" potential graduate students. I hope to get some good students to apply to the program and with any luck they will actually come to my department and work with me. But the whole process is a sort of sordid version of junior high school role reversals- you know, trying to seem as cool as you possibly can and even flaunting all the geeky lab-bling at your disposal. At least I haven't had to slow dance to INXS "Never Tear Us Apart"- yet - but prospects are good to have some good people working on projects with me- eager, excited, and full of geo-love.

I have to say that talking with these young'uns is hilarious- its like looking in a time-warped mirror of what I was back in my geology puppy-love days. I literally had more than one student say to me "I'm not exactly sure what I want to focus on- I just like it all so much!" Soooo cute! And I admit, put an outcrop in front of me and I pretty much start slobbering like a Labrador, and I even get the Pavlovian response to plotting new data or tweeking a figure to perfection, but all that does get a bit clouded by the publish-or-perish (or fund-thy-research-or-perish as may be more of the case) rat race that is academia. Of course, when it comes down to it, that excitement about rocks is always there, waiting underneath the to-do list of tedium necessary to keep institutions of higher learning operating. And in the end it makes this a pretty cool way to make a living!

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Gearing up for International Year of Planet Earth with a message from the National Association of Geoscience Teachers

Earthlearningidea - help the idea to travel

Earthlearningidea will publish a new idea for teaching Earth science
every week during 2008 - the International Year of Planet Earth. The
ideas are specifically designed for classrooms with minimal resources -
anywhere on Earth, while encouraging interactive teaching and the
development of thinking and investigational skills in pupils. The ideas
are aimed primarily at pre-service teacher trainers, as they will reach
the widest teacher audience, but interested teachers are also welcome to
subscribe. Each Earthlearningidea will be accompanied by a blog, to
encourage the development of a global discussion network of those
interested in Earth science education. The Earthlearningideas will
appear one per month during September - December and one per week
thereafter and are being produced by voluntary effort with no funding.

Please play your part by:

* sending to the contact details of teacher
educators of science, geography or Earth science (*Country *Name *Email
address *Institution name) across the globe, so that we can alert them
to Earthlearningidea; please send details of interested teachers too;

* clicking on the website to check out
the sample activity (Quake shake) and subscribing to the blog so you can
contribute to the discussions;

Friday, August 3, 2007

PV = nRT

I have uncovered a new law regarding proposal writing, which if it hasn't been already exposed by Piled Higher and Deeper, Jorge Cham is hereby authorized to use this law for purpose of educating the academic masses:

Ideal Grant Proposal Law:


P = the amount of money requested by a proposal, in thousands of dollars (USD, unfortunately given the poor exchange rate)
V = Proposal volume, i.e., number of words/pages of a 12 pt. Palatino or Helvetica font (gets you the most letters per space within regulation) with 1.5 line spacing, 300 words is approximately equal to one page

Then the product of these (PV) is equal to the product of nRT, where:

n= 1 + number of post-docs available to write proposal for you
R = years since P.I. obtained Ph.D.
T= time spent writing, rewriting, editing the proposal, running forms around for signatures, drafting and redrafting figures, and checking references to be sure all potential reviewers are sufficiently represented, in hours

The observed behavior is that T expands to fill every minute between the time you realize you are screwed, there is no way to meet the proposal deadline and you are never going to get tenure to the proposal deadline itself.

Recently, experiments were performed using the given parameters:
P= 50
V= 1700 words = 5.667 pages
n= 1
R= 0.667

Given these conditions, T= 429.318 hours, and averaging 4 hours of sleep that's about three weeks, but it felt more like 429,319 because through my powers of procrastination I reduced T by about 50%. Aside from procrastination effects, the only other proven way to minimize T, is to either only write short grant proposal for pocket change from foundations of former pillagers of the earth (i.e., Rockerfeller, Carnegie, Getty, etc. - no offense intended, I'll still accept your money!), have a lot of post-docs, or just wait for the mere passage of time, during which you either acquire tenure or apathy.

Future investigations are planned to investigate the relationship between mechanisms inducing a decrease in T and rates of successful granstpersonship and/or promotion to associate professorship.

If anyone knows some serious string theory kung-fu, I'd be interested in hearing about quantum methods of reducing T, but only for the dimensions of which or in which I'm conscious (I know there's at least one!)

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Codes, schmodes: Western Exposure Special Edition

Reporting from SW Montana:

I spent the last few days tooling around the vast expanse of Big Sky country scoping out rocks for a new project. I hadn't been to these parts for around 10 years. A lot is the same- tiny towns dot ribbons of asphalt that string together valley after valley of ranch land. Even country radio hasn't changed much- still a lot of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain.

The difference is the development. Condos where pasture land used to be. Shopping malls instead of hayfields. And weird hybrid fast-food joints (e.g., Kent-Taco-Huts) at interstate exits that used to be vacant. All in the name of progress.

In particular I got insider insight on a new exclusive condo-ski-golf-hunt-fish resort being built near Bozeman: Moonlight basin. From their website:

Finally, over a year later, after risking everything they owned, the three partners beat out bids from various national interests to secure the land.

Exciting! And scary. Heavily leveraged with the loud ticking of the “interest clock,” the partners quickly formed the company Moonlight Basin Ranch, L.P., and assembled a team of forestry and water specialists, wildlife biologists, and geologists [emphasis added] to tell them what they had and how to manage it.

What they had was a 40-square mile valley bordered on all four boundaries by towering mountain peaks and immense mountain ranges. While historically an abundant region, the land was now tattered and its wildlife populations scattered. The partners had a big challenge ahead of them.

Through Moonlight Basin Ranch, the partners began engaging in careful, limited real estate development on the property. They had made the commitment to work to protect as much as 75-80% of the property, so through sales to conservation buyers, they immediately placed over half of their new holdings into permanent conservation easements.

At the same time, after consulting with their experts, the partners began carefully clearing dense, biologically uniform stands of lodge pole pine; created new logging practices that minimized damage to top soils; replanted native plants in areas to create more bio-diverse sections; and meticulously cleared other areas to generate mountain meadows and grasslands for deer, elk, moose, and other animals.

The effects of these actions became immediately apparent and Moonlight Basin was on its way to recovery. But one more twist in the story remained.

While consulting with wildlife experts, Lee and his partners were surprised and pleased to learn that ski trails on the property would serve to enhance wildlife in the area. Additional selective clearing to make the trails combined with a resurgence of native grasses could actually sustain more wildlife in the spring and summer months. And people could enjoy the land in the winter.

So in the mid-1990s, the partners built a small lift and trail network and over time have continued to develop and expand it. Not only has this allowed for the creation of a celebrated destination resort, but it’s also laid the groundwork for Moonlight Basin’s continued environmental renewal.

Today, this unique valley's future is bright. The elk population on the property has nearly doubled in the past decade. Moose populations have tripled. Areas that were timbered over 30 years ago have been cleaned up. And new growth forests are over 14 feet tall.

Aside from the startling symbiosis between wildlife and ski-trails, one other thing stands out in this synopsis, geologically speaking. The terrain of this place and hence its geology - bordered on 4 sides by towering mountain peaks. These peaks are formed in significant part by Cretaceous shale. So basically this place is a big bowl with really crumbly sides. Recent landslides and debris flow deposits are all over the place (source: insider info to remain confidential unless under subpoena) and the roads in and out and around the development are just being built right over top of them. It really is not fit for development, but somehow, it happened. But wait you say, aren't there building codes? Surely in a place so geologically unstable, restrictions would exist. All I know is that the map produced by the geologist hired by Moonlight basin is going to be different than the one produced by the state's geologist. So code enforcement depends on a geologic map, and the map depends on the science behind the mapping. This is why we need to have skilled mappers around who can see what others miss.

The story of Moonlight basin goes on:
Lee Poole sums up Moonlight Basin’s focus in the new millennium: “We’ve raised our children, and now our grandchildren, here and we want to give back.”
Give back? Not exactly. You can get the splendor of Moonlight basin for a price. This resort is gated and is members only. I hope The West doesn't end up diced up into little postage stamp parcels with the gems set aside for those of the seven-figure tax bracket. It just seems that there are some places where humans should leave no mark and other places that should belong to everyone.

Oh well- one day Moonlight basin will just fill up with sediment - maybe then the gates won't matter anymore!

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Flux capacitor... fluxing

Yes, its time to leave this developing nation in its awkward adolescence complete with high risk behaviors and growing pains and get back to its future, a voracious consumer society of gross affluence and (abusive) power.

It's also time to resume more scienc-ey topics for this blog (apologies for the technical jargon :)

I think I'll kick it off starting now with a bit o'wisdom from The Onion:

I Believe In Evolution, Except For The Whole Triassic Period

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Perspectives across ponds- a random post

I have had a couple days of downtime - unplanned downtime- here in the East. Because my communications skillz are severely lacking, I have willied away many hours on the internet. In doing so I came across this headline: Britain is 'sleepwalking' towards US-style segregation of schools, figures show.

This is an interesting article to read as I, a foreigner, sit in China, in a "French" cafe -never mind the sweet bean-filled croissants and green tea mousse cake- sipping a latte (which is quite delicious, btw!). Speaking for my paisanos back in Meiguo, the typical western perspective of China is that it is filled with only Chinese, not counting Tibetans in Tibet or Taiwanese in Taiwan. In a way this is true, since relatively speaking there is not a huge population of immigrants here, legal or illegal. But to the Chinese, thier society includes several dozen minorities that they view more or less as exotic creatures that are most interesting when practicing cutural rituals, songs or dance while wearing traditional clothing. Imagine if the Indian reservations in the US were Disney-ified, and then multiply that by 1 billion (the difference between 300 million US residents and 1.3 billion Chinese) to get an idea for the huge industry built around minority tourism here. And that's just the domestic tourism market- there's a huge international market for this tourism branch as well. In fact, during my first stint in Beijing, I was taken to a bar with some type of minority theme. There were real live minorities, young adults, singing, some quite well, and dancing, wearing blue jeans and sneakers beneath their traditional costume, as a crowd of Han Chinese, chain-smoking and drinking Heinekin for 5 USD, looked on. It's very likely these singing/dancing minorities were sending money they made back to the people in their village.

Interestingly, for being apart of a food-centric culture, mainstream Chinese aren't generally too interested in partaking of minority cuisine. I've happened through some of these minority areas over the last few years, and the Chinese I travelled with usually go to great pains to stay at Han hotels and eat at Han restaurants... Anyway, I'm getting to a point...

...which, is that segregation in China was never an issue, because there is the Han Chinese and then there was everyone else and that's just the way it was and the way it had been for millenia- even though to the outside world the difference wasn't neccessarily that noticible. Diversity, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, wasn't an inherent value or a lifestyle concept here. (I just googled "cultural revolution" ... probably a bad idea! If this post ends suddenly, call the U.S. Embassy!)

Change is brewing, though you can bet that change is happening much more slowly than economic growth, and in actuality is a side-effect of that growth. I'm here in a cafe - the only foreigner with a dozen or so Chinese. Last night I ate at a "South American" BBQ place that was remarkable for many reasons, one being there was a waiting list to get into the place, which for a town with at least a million restaurants and probably half a billion people who could never afford this place (the set menu included absurd quantites of meat and a buffet for the equivalent of 6.25 USD), is something remarkable. This restaurant isn't even downtown- its way in the northern edge of the city- basically a suburb. Another reason, is that in this giant restaurant, a main floor and encircling balcony- probably sat 250 people all told- I spotted 2 other foreigners. The place was packed, a soft-rock trio sang covers of Wham! from a little platform. There was a buffet. There were no chopsticks- instead forks, spoons and knives! Twenty years ago- heck even 10 years ago, this would have been unheard of. And it wasn't like the customers were at a display or some kind of exotic show. It was definitely still a Chinese atmosphere- a bunch of families eating and talking, just there for dinner, some possibly for a special occasion. The great thing is Beijingers are enjoying these places! Maybe soon the aspects of other cultures, including minority populations, won't seem like a spectacle, but just like a good time.

So what I am saying is that- Pollyanna Moment- there is hope for harmony in the world, because we are all susceptible and in many ways accustomed to sticking to our own cultural norms. But, lo and behold, when we expose ourselves to other cultures, we often find many things that we like about it and that there really isn't a need to blow one another up over it. On the contrary, our differences make for lucrative tourism industries. But keeping us all from sticking to our comfort zone, takes effort. Look at me- here I am in Beijing at a French (i.e., western) cafe. But hey, at least I didn't go to the KFC or Pizza Hut next door.

Really, we humans aren't all that different from one another. Just take it from the Chinese boy band video playing in a continuous loop feed on the LCD flat screen TV that hangs on wall next to me. I think I'm going to go have another latte.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Revisiting Geo Glory Days

A brief blog post about differences in professional geoscience in China versus the US:

I met today with the Northwest branch of the China Geological Survey. It was a good time and brought a couple things to mind.

China is hugely populous, and they can and do sprinkle the countryside with mappers every year at a fraction of the cost for the US to do the same. There was a time, maybe 30 years ago, when the same thing did happen in the US, with the US Geological Survey paving the way. It wasn't that salaried geoscientists busted the US budget, but for some reason, it is no longer a funding priority to know what in tarnations our motherland is composed of and so mapping is becoming somewhat of a lost art in the US.

Not so in China. And with a country that contains some of the most bizzare geology in the world- Tibet plateau, Loess plateau, giant rivers, low basins surrounded by mountains, feathered dinosaurs- there is no shortage of discoveries to be made. It is fun to see it happen, but really there's no way to infiltrate this process as a foreigner. I can come here and find small areas or even regional relationships to delve into, but nothing brings about an intimate knowlege of a place like mapping does.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Bird's Nest

Are you ready for 2008? Beijing has been prepping for years. The jewel of its Olympic Games will be its stadium, currently under construction:

The stadium is known as the "Bird's Nest" and it is truly awesome. I've caught a few glimpses of it during the past week. In its current stage of construction it looks pretty much like it will next year- you can google to find a variety of artist renditions of its completed look. I won't spoil it here for those who like surprises. I can tell you it is like no other stadium ever built- and because of the massive resources it required- around four times the average tonnage of steel used in similar constructions- its likes will probably not be seen again any time soon!

China, despite extreme poverty in the countryside, has a wealth of resources to be dispatched on a project like this. The economic hurdles for a project to be successful, well, they don't exist in the same way that they do in the fully "developed" world. Thus, the '08 games are sure to be a visually stunning display, akin to a cultural shock-n-awe extravaganza. I know I'll be tuned in!

To check out all the proposals for Beijing's Olympic stadium you can look here. I think they made the perfect choice.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Eastern Exposure

Apologies to the few people (if any) out there wondering about the latest word from the South- its been a while. I can offer a plethora of excuses - moved to a new house, end of semester hit, and now, I am making a relatively brief sojourn from the South to the Far East. At this moment I am sitting in the "Cradle of the Communist Revolution", the city of Yan'an in Sha'anxi Province, People's Republic of China. Miracle of Miracles, the hotel has wireless! I can only imagine the variety of viruses, virtual and real, to which I am currently being exposed.

I have been attending an "International" Conference on petroleum geology, but the demographic is at least a 3-1 Chinese to Foreigner ratio- which is kind of like getting a glimpse into the future when this gargantuan population starts to spread its wings the coming decades. You can tell I've been here a while because of the extraneous capital letters finding their way into this post.

Needless to say, any amount of time in China is fodder for an array of blogging subjects, and in this case even on geoscience topics. Perhaps tomorrow I'll post a few photos from the field trip associated with this conference. But tonight the majority of my energies must go toward digesting a Chinese Banquet dinner. So I'll post just a few words on what that means.

I've been to quite a few Banquets now in China and they usually involve consumption of a foul liquor called baijiu and recently Great Wall red wine and other beverages. Your hosts may frequently request you to "gan bei"- the equivalent of bottom's up- to chug your drink. Animals or parts of animals that are considered special along with all manner of other special foods- for which it is better to just remain ignorant to their true origin- are the focus of the meal. There's usually a lot of toasting, a continuous arrival of plates of new food, plate after plate after plate, and then usually when the fruit arrives, you know you've almost made it to the end.

Tonight had a little extra- professional karaoke singers (a real job only in China) belting Traditional Chinese songs. Being foreigners, we got to sit in the front row, next to the loudspeakers. It was hard to keep a straight face.

Then, when we returned to our rooms we had a gift waiting - a bag of field clothes, consisting of a bright Red (redder than the Red Army) outfit, complete with shirt, pants and hat.

I am pretty sure this is just overwhelming hospitality, but there comes a point when you start to wonder: are they just messing with us foreigners? Sometimes it is hard to tell, and in the end, we may never know! It is as the Chinese saying goes: You can always fool a foreigner.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Make Your Own Anthropogenic Deposit!

I have always loved the concept of time capsules. I have made a few in my day. One that I strategically buried in my backyard has remained hidden even to myself despite several attempts to find it! Maybe that's why I like sedimentary rocks so much: they are preserved remnants of a world gone by, our world as no human ever saw it but which is recorded in the composition, distribution, and geometry of sedimentary deposits.

This is why my interest is piqued by the Homeland project that is soliciting soil samplers across the U.S. to collect and send in soil that will be documented, put on display in the form of artwork, and then ironically buried as part of a time capsule, the purpose of which is probably something other than confusing future generations of geologists interpreting the paleosol (= paleo-soil) record. To be honest, I'm not sure why they are doing it, but check out their website to get a free kit of your own if you like!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Who put the "fun" in funds?

It's a universal dilemma: science costs money. It's my new f-word: funding. Several funding agencies set up to support geoscience research exist, but many are of the "small potatoes" variety. Others seem more like some secret society, where golden tickets are kept in vaults for the enlightened few. Industry may also be a source of cash, but even with some sort of economic impact, it seems that the people holding the purse strings are not the same as the people who can appreciate the value of potential scientific results. Alas, the National Science Foundation seems to be the breadbasket for most academicians in science.

The NSF is, in its own words:
an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…
It may be hard for the nongeologist to imagine ways that geoscience advance our health, prosperity, welfare and defense but take arsenic, climate change, water and uranium (or hydrocarbons) as respective examples. Because natural resources and natural systems profoundly impact and often form the basis basis for our standard of living, NSF supports scientific research to improve our understanding of earth processes.

The catch: getting NSF to give you money basically requires Jedi skills. Their budget (including operations) of about $6 billion seems like a lot-though it is roughly 1.5% of the Dept. of Defense - but there are always more good proposals than there are funds. In fact, there are increasingly more good proposals than there are funds. Word on the street is "excellent" proposals writteny by Yoda himself (is Yoda a he?) would still get the boot. However, some say that NSF now favors frontier science and supposedly funding frontier science favors young investigators who are more likely to propose high-risk science. The only problem though, is if you crash-and-burn early on, your chances for future funding drops substantially below the current 22% funding rate.

It does seem, however, that getting the faucet turned on is the tricky part. But once it is on, funding begets funding, and considering you don't pull a Kaczynski, the cup should remain at least half-full with only a few mind tricks along the way.

Monday, March 19, 2007

If you care about anything at all

If you care about:
-the earth
-your self
-your family
-future generations

Then check out Al Gore's website: He will tell your rep. what you think.

Al says:
Tell Congress:Now is the time to act on global warming! Sign the postcard to your representative demanding real action on global warming below and I’ll personally deliver it to Washington in March. I’ll keep you up to date on how things are going by email.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Move over oil...

Come on in sand! Does your investment portfolio include enough shares in the sand trade? Are you more interested in junk litharenite bonds or do you want to go for the big time, the cadillac of sands, the quartz arenite?

Yes, sand is finally the hot commodity ... in Singapore!

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Why geology is the whitest science on the planet:

In an ill-conceived and totally unnecessary sidetrack, today I attempted to track down geology departments in historically black colleges and universities, and came away completely discouraged. There were a couple that had marine science programs that deal with ecology and sediment transport (though sadly not the University of the Virgin Islands- no collaboration there... drats!) with Ph.D. faculty >2, and a couple where geology was a required class for an environmental/natural resources degree. Only one- UTEP, that is University of Texas - El Paso which apparently is a HBCU, has a legitimate geology department.

Part of what spurred this search was that I'd like to recruit a diverse student group for potential graduate studies here. You'd think there'd be plenty of diversity on a campus like Southern Football U., but there isn't. So I looked elsewhere. It's not there either.

Another part of what spurred this was Act IV in Spike Lee's "When the Levees Broke: A requiem in four acts". It shows in devastating detail how the citizens of New Orleans (dominantly not white/caucasian) put their trust in a system (i.e., government) that failed them repeatedly and in many ways. Their ability to trust, in my humble opinion, was rooted their lack of education and understanding of extremely pertinent and basic earth science principles regarding their hometown. I'd be devastated too if I had lived with a false sense of security that came crashing down with no one in sight to help in my time of greatest need. But, and I am not blaming the NOLA residents when I say this, a little education would have gone a long way in that situation. That scenario was going to happen- in fact, it had already happened, multiple times, prior to settlement of NOLA. And it was going to happen again, the only question was when. Hurricanes will hit New Orleans directly sometime, someday. That's why now is the time to call in the Dutch!

Will it take natural disasters affecting different segments of our society to get some diversity into the geosciences? I'm not sure even Katrina will impact that. To be honest, I'm not sure what the answer is.

Maybe the answer is large buckets of $$. I could certainly test that solution out!

Sunday, March 11, 2007


Sometimes things just work out. Sometimes, things only work out after they don't work out. I went on a search for a fossil site I had learned about with the hopes of taking a class trip there. Instead, I found beautiful scenery tagged with "No trespassing" signs and unfurled Confederate flags blowing in the breeze. But on the way I found Plan B- a roadside outcropping of rock that looked pretty good as I drove by at 55 mph in the dark.

The drive out with the class was one of nervous trepidation - what in the world was I really taking them to see? Had there been anything truly noteworthy there to show the class once we got there? The miles ticked by.

It turned out to be quite a nifty geospot. I'll show a couple highlights below:

My personal favorite. Notice the fan-like patterns in the middle of the photo:

Here's a closeup:

This is a fossilized feeding structure known as Zoophycus. It is produced by a type of worm-like organisims that "mines" fine-grained sediments for nutrients. It is characterized by concave-upward traces with whorled peaks and fans out across a plane horiziontal to somewhat oblique to bedding. Preservation of these types of feeding structures began approximately 500 million years ago and are found in deposits on the modern sea floor today. This type of feeding trace is common in reduced (anoxic) environments.

We took a few slabs that were chock full of Zoophycus, but didn't get any picts of those. I displayed effusive excitment that either inspired my students to appreciate the mysteries you can unlock through intimate knowledge of sedimentary geology, or I convinced them I was a total weirdo, albeit an amusing wierdo. My early conclusion is that either case can lead to effective teaching, as long as you snag their attention one way or another. I can update on my tests of this theory later on.

Another exciting find came through the hard-bodied fossils we saw:

A student went hog-wild when we came across a bed loaded with these bivalve fossils. He spent most of the time excavating this bed for samples, and worked up quite a sweat beating the crap out of the outcrop with a hammer. These are quite well preserved and look MAH-velous for their age (300 million years old or so). I have a paper that goes through the paleontology of the unit we were looking at and I plan to shamelessly exploit this students excitment by having him sort some of these out and get names on them. I'll update once he gets that done!

Saturday, March 3, 2007


Whew- what a week! On Monday, I thought, oh maybe this would be a good week to blog about the typical goings-on of a scientist in academia. That's about all I can remember about Monday... but if I think back hard on it the week went something like this:

-worked all day like a maniac on paper that was submitted 9 months ago, after which I heard nothing for seven months, then days before Christmas "its going out for review" to which I replied, that old manuscript is last year's news and requested to rewrite it (??? what was I thinking?!?), then sought to find time between the holidays, starting a new job/life to rewrite, finally drew line in the sand... got it sent off, went home and tried to prep for class and grade exams, but instead collaped

-morning = harried exam grading and class prep then class- did a short informal "feedback" exercise that was at first nerve-wracking but then extremely helpful, an interesting outcome being that even though overall perception of actual learning was moderate, everyone would recommend the class to a friend...
-courted the idea of scoping field trip site for Thurs, but checked weather (outlook: not so good) and found out there were ZERO vehicles available from the motorpool... say wah? Zero? Field trip effectively cancelled
-instead I must have done other stuff, but I can't really recall what that may have been, and so was likely a combination of digging out from pile of crap on desk, assorted emails, trying to spend start up and the like

-submitted conference payment (shouldn't be note worthy, but conference is in China, so the default is noteworthyness= length of conference title plus the number of people in the organizing committee multplied by all the tea in China)
-went to noon seminar
-spent an hour digging through mineral drawers for a science "Event" on Sat
-spoke with a wayward senior undergrad seeking to avoid having to get a job by doing a master's degree... exerpt of conversation went like this:
Student: I couldn't really decide before, but I graduate in Aug (need to retake science class) and think I want to do a master's degree
Me: What do you want to do?
Student: Well I liked these classes and I like to be outside.
Me: What kind of rocks are you interested in?
Student: I'm not sure really, but I like to be outside.
Me: Do you like to write? Because Master's thesis have lots of pages.
Student: Well, no, but I like to be outside. This one time, I was outside, and I found a cool rock. Want to see it?
-was rescued from this conversation by an apointment to ferry samples for the "Event"
-attended info seminar on weekend science "Event", a timely two days before actual event
-an afternoon seminar

-morning class prep then class, who were mainly interested in whether or not lab would be cancelled because of "severe weather"
-Had brief chat with student who had missed getting-the-test-back day in class, got to hear about procrastination problems and how student actually anticipated scoring worse than the D- they made
-nabbed free lunch with prospective grad student visit (lure of the free lunch is irresistable to current and former graduate students... some things just never change)
-spent afternoon attempting to write activity for science "Event" while periodically ducking tornados and trying to cross-paths with visiting candidate for faculty position

-worked on writing science "Event"
-observed visiting candidate teach intro Geo class, which was most valuable as a chance to observe what intro Geo students do with themselves during class (general break down 33% note taking, 16.5% sleeping/checking out other students, 16.5% reading other non-class related materials, 33% sudoku, and 1% actually responding to instructor queries). Also experienced flash-back and Post-Traumatic Stress (complete with sweaty palms) over my experience as interviewing candidate teaching an unknown sea of intro Geo students
-managed to meet the Mr. "A'int" for lunch (though was late due to on-slaught of door-knockers that usually never happens)
-Attempted to square away activity for the "Event", somehow very little got done between students, phone calls, start-up business etc.
-attended research talk by visiting job candidate, had similar PST nausea as when watching candidate teach

-Today was the "Event" and I'm glad it is over. No major trainwrecks for the equivalent of a librarian running a little league tournament. But it took all day and I suffered a post-adrenaline crash once the results were turned in and it was all over.
-Tomorrow we look at the insides of houses we may want to buy. This marks a true transition from the hypothetical to getting into the ring. Homeownership is just a hop, skip, and mammoth debt acquisition away! Hooray!

Monday, February 19, 2007

My nominee for Sedimentary Geology Patron Saint

Inspired by the creative genius of Apparent Dip (see sidebar), I have chosen my nominee for the patron saint of the world of Sedimentary Geology:

Henry "Indiana" Jones Jr.

Indiana Jones divides his time between teaching at prestigious universities and field work. Jones believes that archaeology [would have been geology if geologic time would fit in the 2-hr cinematographic (?) framework] is the "search for fact - not truth".

I admit wanting to be both Indiana Jones and McGyver as a kid (and also Murdoch from the A-team and Kitt from Knight Rider... that's right, I wanted to be a car... but Kitt was a talking car! Even back then David Hasselhoff was too cheesy for an 9 year old kid to idolize), hence my tendency to hang with the "cool kids" in thermochronology/geochronology whenever I can.

But at the end of the day, sedimentary geologists usually end up sweaty, dusty, unshaven, and some times bleeding- just like Indy. And that's just after teaching class!

It's too bad these guys never got to collaborate. I can see McGyver improvising a anti-snake smoke-screen from a box of tic-tacs, a key-ring, and a road flare, while Indy bull-whips the crap out of some bald German guy. I guarantee any article by Jones and McGyver or McGyver and Jones would be the most downloaded ever! Maybe that day is coming?

Sunday, February 18, 2007

I could have published on that!

Okay, not really, but my previous post does find some support in a recent study that I swear I had no knowledge of until last night. This study shows that adults over 70 with higher levels of education forgot words at a greater rate than those with less education!

But apparently the prognosis is not so grim for those in Ph.D.-land to bail,
Study director Eileen Crimmins of the USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology says she wouldn't recommend halting any schooling based on the results.
I would wager quite a few moon pies (which are, apparently, a delicious treat favored in these parts and a likely topic for a future blog) that the memory loss starts well before 70. I think they should take a bunch of rookie grad students, test their memory at their matriculation and then again after they defend and I bet the results would be the same.

In fact, there is one study that could come in extremely useful: "I am soooo sorry I forgot to (insert chore/task/drudgery here), but as you know, Alley et al. (2007) has demonstrated that my numerous years in school have impaired my memory such that I cannot be held accountable." I am pretty sure Fannie Mae will go for that, or maybe at least the phone company.

I do wonder if the real root of this problem is either the prolonged sleep deprivation or increased consumption of cheap libations experienced by grad students. Probably both!

One thing I don't understand is the data came from Asset and Health Dynamics of the Oldest Old, a project that uses the acronym A.H.E.A.D. .... wait a minute..... there's a few letters missing there. I guess if you are going to be calling your subjects the "Oldest Old", then using a nicer acronym than A.H.D.O.O. is the least you can do.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Surviving Academia: Skill #1

Skill #1: Acquire temporary amnesia.
Lately I cannot shake the feeling that I'm always forgetting something. Today I realized its because I am always forgetting something!

The transition from Ph.D.-land to a "real-job" in academia is a traumatic one. A part of the trauma is that everyone outside of academia thinks your job is so cush: "How many classes are you teaching? Only one? Wow, what do you do with all your free time? And you get the summer off too? How many years did you have to be a student to get this gig?"

Another trauma is going from being virtually independent (assuming a functional relationship with your advisor) to hostile take-over of all minutae of your work by a innundation of bureaucratic administrative crap, especially when you are starting out with a beater computer, email that doesn't work, accounts that aren't set up, furniture that isn't there (filing cabinets are so last century) and total lack of equipment to do your specialized work.

And then there is the transition from being in Ph.D. land, with the luxury of thinking about one goal, all the time, giving it undivided attention, and that being your lovely pet: research.
Before starting as a prof, I would have said that research actually was multi-faceted and that there were different projects and they all had exciting avenues for discovery that varied substantially, that thinking about research wasn't really thinking about just one thing because it all required different aspects of your attention. O, how cute that sounds now!

I've read in the geo-blogosphere (blog on, you crazy diamonds) of others "A-day-as-a-scientist" and thought oh, how cool, I should do that too. Then I realized that lately science has had very little to do with the make up of my day. There's always a class to prepare for, start-up to spend, seminars to attend, another class to prepare for, grant opportunities to pursue, a lab to prepare for, email to read, faculty meetings to go to, justification for start-up spending...and of course, class again. And this is after I've accepted the relentless pursuit of mediocrity when it comes to class prep.

A fellow faculty kindly offered some sage advice she had been given, and the actual wording of which went something like this:
The trick to hauling 2 tons of canaries in a 1 ton truck is to keep half of them in the air.
Gotta love the southern flair to that description of multi-tasking!

But I think there is more to it than that. You actually have to forget those canaries (or juggling balls, or chain-saws on fire, whatever it is you have to toss up for a while) are even there. Because if you know what is hanging over you, its rather frightening and actually can induce a sort of paralysis. In this environment, research does become a sort of haven, where the din and smoke of those flaming chain-saws fades away as you reunite with your lovely pet, if only for an always too-brief Baywatch-esque musical interlude.

Hence, the evolution of the absent-minded professor. I thought it was just a stereotype, and one some people (especially the ever amazing He-who-does-all-my-laundry-and-picks-up-all-my-crap-at-home-all-the-time) would say I fit. But it's actually a necessary survival skill and defense mechanism to protect sanity and actually get to do the work that let's you keep this "cush" job. Maybe I was just predisposed and that this natural inclination led me toward the Ivory Tower... The best part is, I hear that after 3 or 4 years, this temporary amnesia just feels normal.

Oh boy.