Sunday, May 23, 2004

From Bret Harte to Elaine Pagels:

In my latest fortune cookie:
You can depend on the trust of the collective.

What to make of this plain language?

It is peculiarly Eastern in its outlook, urging me to subjugate my will to that of the wider society around me. Should I rebel? No. Should I question? No. But what if their ways are dark? What if they are heathen and peculiar? Ahum - no.

Having read Dan Brown's intriguing book The Da Vinci Code in one gulp several weeks ago, it reminded me that I had several books in the basement I had been wanting to browse through again. Chewing old cud, as it were.

Elaine Pagels' staples: The Gnostic Gospels, and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent. An excellent series from the George Braziller house on religions - Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism (sorry no link to be found, out of print). And one to get lost in, The Nag Hammadi Library.

There is some very interesting material in here about how we perceive chance events and our reaction to them. For example, in AE&S Pagels refers to a 1937 study by Evans-Pritchard describing an event where people of the Azande tribe were killed by a collapsing grain silo in Africa. While the Azande culture completely understood how termite rot could cause a structure to collapse (and kill those sitting nearby), the Azande culture automatically took the further step of asking "and why did the collapse occur at that particular moment?" The answer to the question depended on the character of the deceased, and eventually some fault in their past behaviour or their character was blamed for the particular timing of the event. In the West, that kind of question would only be asked by failure analysis engineers, if at all, and the answer would be very different.

We might dismiss the Azande explanation out of hand, but Pagels points out that this in fact goes to satisfying a very deep need in human nature that is often not fulfilled - having a full explanation for events around us that conforms to our world view. This not only applies to assigning guilt to others for these chance events, but is rooted in the almost pathological need to assign guilt to ourselves when these kinds of things occur. She writes: If guilt is the price to be paid for the illusion of control over nature...many people have seemed willing to pay it.

In most of the world, that explanation is supplied by some form of religion. "It is God's will that you be crushed by a ton of millet, because you are a wicked person." "Poseidon was irked at your father's lack of sacrifices to him, and sank your ship." "Toutatis is miffed because he has been forgotten, and caused your airport terminal to collapse." -- In each of these cases, some greater power controls events that impact our lives. (Pagels' thesis is that Augustine fundamentally altered the path of Christianity by putting original sin in this role, and providing a world view where all Christians can assume guilt rather than feeling they have no control).

In the West, we are somewhat disconnected from this, and our need for an explanation is not satisfied with a simple "In'sh Allah". We do not accept helplessness easily, and eagerly apply the toosl at hand (usually technology and analysis), whether or not they are actually capable of improving outcomes. I suspect that the ongoing 9/11 commissions here in DC and in New York City are going to run into this. There are some things, like confusion during a crisis (war included), that are fundamentally NOT FULLY FIXABLE.

In the West, we are more and more willing to point a finger at an individual to fulfil this need to assign guilt, whereas in other cultures it is socially acceptable (and in fact often required) to assign such guilt either to an uncontrollable external entity (an Act of God), or to a particular act by a known or unknown individual (either unconscious, in the case of forgetting to make an offering, or conscious as in the form of a curse).

That's my (somewhat wandering) submission to the collective, and I'm sticking to it.

 Friday, May 21, 2004

Bishop Usher:

I am sitting in a review panel that is considering all kinds of proposals in the area of dinosaurs and fossils.

I'm no expert on paleontology, but this is fascinating. Mosasaur tracks (but are they crocodilians, dragging their tails underwater?). Fossil stomata on primitive leaves. Viable 800 Ma bacteria spores trapped in halite. How did the evolution of roots control erosional history?

It occurred to me that basing so much of our sciences of ontogeny and phylogeny on current genetic material is like throwing out 3 billion years of history. It excludes the fossil record entirely. I used to think that gene sequencing was the answer to all the tree of life questions, but I now realize I was way off the mark.

 Thursday, May 20, 2004

Achilles et al.:

n the middle of my forced high-school reading of the Iliad and the Oddysey, I remember being amazed when I figured out that these were stories relating events from the Bronze Age, collected by an Iron Age poet. I wasn't forced to read the rest - I devoured it. If I remember correctly, we were reading the Fitzgerald translation.

While I have to admit that I did get swept away by the movie version (Troy), I was nagged by several inconsistencies. In the movie, the view of the city from the citadel stretches off into the distance. But I have walked through the mound at Hisarlik, the commonly accepted site for historic Troy, and it's tiny. The building I curently work in has a larger footprint, and it only holds about 500 people. Hisarlik and its surrounding metropolitan area covers, oh, maybe 2 acres -- and that's the remains of Troy including the subsequent 3275 years of settlement/development! I can however accept that for cinematic needs, a tiny hamlet just would not do.

As pointed out in some recent Discovery Channel specials, there are some problems with the size of the Trojan Horse as seen in the movie. The gate that it would have been dragged through is pretty small - only a meter or two wide - limiting the height of any stable structure. The consensus: if it existed at all, the horse would have only held a handful of men. There is no evidence besides Homer's words that this ever happened.

I didn't remember Achilles having a love interest from Troy's royal family either. The movie deftly avoided the idea that Achilles' love interest was probably Patrocles by making him a cousin. In the very beginning of the Iliad, Agamemnon does take away Acilles' concubine, Briseis, so at least they did obliquely include that source of Achilles' anger by having Priam's daughter(?) be the contested trophy.

An impressive sight was the zoom-to-wide shot over the fleet sailing to Troy, showing the 1,000 ships. So impressive that I realized there are significant logistical problems with a 1,000 ship fleet that neither Homer nor the film addressed. How do you land them? How do you hide them?

Of course, I should also point out that there is debate about whether Homer existed, and if he did, whether the Iliad and the Oddysey are both his, partially his, or only his compilations.

Time for me to read about Heinrich Schliemann - one of the earliest people to work on this site, but lately of somewhat tarnished reputation. Not only for his methods (standard for the time, but considered extremely destructive by today's standards), but also for his scholarly integrity (there are serious questions about his interpretation of the finds and the data in promoting himself). The "Treasures of Agamemnon" found in a royal burial at the site, are currently believed to have come from a much earlier stage. In fact, it looks like Troy was sacked at least nine times, with the sacking by Agamemnon ocurring a little under half-way through the site's occupied history.

Another item for my "is history truth" theme that I keep promising to post...

Here's a fun romp through one version of Homeric truth.

 Friday, May 14, 2004

Zimbardo & Bower:

I was amazed to see a reference to this famous experiment about the behaviour of prisoners and jailers during the early 1970's at Stanford, in of all places, USA Today.

Zimbardo has updated his website on this experiment in the context of the current experience at Abu Ghraib, which makes it more interesting.

As you go through the 'slide show' pay particular attention to the behaviour of the people who should be fully external to the experiment: the parents, the chaplain, and even the lawyer.

It turns out that it's not really just a few bad apples. It is the barrel. We all go bad in this kind of situation. Zimbardo, of course, is saying "I told you so" about the lack of clear directives at Abu Ghraib.

The exposure of these activities has certainly been humiliating for all involved - prisoners and captors. And I not unexpectedly shocked, shocked, to see all the political hay being made by the Congress and by the Arab world.

I always cringe when I hear a high U.S. official crow about how America is the greatest country in the world. It only makes events like this worse - it turns out that Homo Americanus is simply Homo sapiens after all, and is not so sapiens as they thought. The only way to recover (somewhat) is to demonstrate a transparent and effective legal process that can deal with these kinds of behaviors.

Watching the movie "Troy" the other day, as Achilles dishonours Hector's body by dragging it behind his chariot in front of Troy's walls, I could only think about the current situation, and think that we really haven't changed much in the last 10,000 years.

 Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Marlatt sings to Dylan:

I went to a lecture today by four researchers on cicadas. So did NBC, CNN, WTOP-radio, and even Animal Planet. It was quite a frenzy. Two hours of scientific talk followed by questions from reporters. Can I scoop them with this post?

A frenzy much like it is starting to be with the cicadas themselves, because Brood X started their emergence this weekend.

Much of the basic facts you can find elsewhere, or you have probably read in the papers lately, since there have been so many articles. Here are the points I found interesting in their talks that I had not heard elsewhere:

Keith Clay, Indiana University at Bloomington
Clay and his team are investigating what preferences cicadas have for egg-laying sites (tree species, density, etc.), and how the insect density affects tree response, and the interactions between forest succession and cicada populations. Clay looks at patterns of interaction between the microbial, plant, and human worlds. Clay's website.
  • Brood X is the largest insect emergence in the world
  • It occurs largely in deciduous forests
  • Apart from two very small patches in Canada, it is within the lower 48 only
  • Different species exist within the same brood (!)
  • There are documented cases of densities of over 4000 nymphs per hectare
  • Cicadas are probably still recovering from a population collapse caused by the deforestation of the Eastern U.S. in the 19th century
  • Given their preference for calling, mating, and laying eggs on forest edges or regrowth areas (and NOT in deep forest), they will probably exceed historical populations given current land cover patterns and forest fragmentation
  • Studies on Brood XXIII showed the preferred tree for egg-laying to be the Elm, and the least preferred to be the Persimmon
  • Egg-laying will cause scarring on newly grown twigs
  • They actually can harm very young saplings, but not older trees

James Speer, Indiana State University
Speer and his team are looking at how cicadas affect tree growth during the different stages of their cycle, from the oviposition (egg-laying) by scarring or "tagging" tree branches, to the long underground feeding, to the effect on the trees of the emergence and release from parasite burden. They do this mainly by looking at tree rings, and correlating periods of good and bad growth with known cicada emergences. To date they have looked at Red Maples, but this summer they plan to broaden the study to many other species. ISU Dendro lab page.

  • Females lay about 20 eggs per scar on a twig, and lay about 600 total
  • The visual impact of the emergence and egg-laying on a forest will be large, but the tree-rings tell a different story - most 'damage' is done in the nymphal stages feeding underground, and it increases until emergence, when the trees suddenly surge because they have no cicada nymphs siphoning off their roots
  • There is a characteristic pattern in the tree rings that they beleive is due to cicadas, and they plan to go back to the dendrochronological record to see if they can see other great emergences far in the past (for example, in a still living 250 year-old Oak, and further back in the dated tree-ring record).

John Odland, Indiana University
Odland is an economic geographer, and his interest with cicadas is looking at how human modification of the landscape around us is affecting the cicada population (among other animals). Odland's web site.

  • The movement of biomass is significant
  • 130 nymphs per square meter is a 'moderate' concentration
  • It has to get up to 35C before the males can sing effectively (therefore their preference for forest edges)
  • The males congregate, perhaps to louden their collective call (?)
  • Young trees of long lived species are favored (for repeat generations?)
  • Humans have created a lot of forest edge, through patchy reforestation, and through penetrative development of forested lands
  • Because of the extensive clearing in the 1800's there was concern in the 1902 Brood X emergence that cicadas would go extinct
  • ...but they were still plentiful enough that the 1902 University of Indiana graduation had to be cancelled and moved indoors, since no one would have been able to hear any of the speakers
  • This will probably be a bad fishing season, since fish will be stuffed to the gills with cicadas, and not interested in your lure
  • Cherry trees with tagging scars will ooze sap that is laced with cyanide (from the cherry, not the cicadas). Would one call this a "sappurating" wound?

Christine Simon, University of Connecticut
Simon's group looks at the evolution of cicadas using tools like mDNA, and looks at questions like Why are there separate broods, and how did they evolve? Why are there 13- and 17-year broods? Why do some 13-year species appear 4 years late (with the 17's), and some 17's appear 4 years early (with the 13's)? Simon has a really nice web site on cicada research.

  • There is a genetically separate 17-year group that seems to have successfully shifted to a 13 year periodicity because it coincided with a 13 year hatch, and was protected from being wiped out
  • There seems to be a cyclic connection between the broods:

XIV ---> X ---> VI ---> II

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Where there can be either four year differences in emergence year (horizontal), or single year differences (vertical)

  • Where the new 13's overlap with the old 13's in the same brood, they sing quite differently - this difference drops off as you go away from the overlap zone
  • We are probably seeing speciation in action here, as obvious as it will get
  • When surveying the public about cicada emergence, they ask the question "Have you heard any flying saucers lately?"
  • They are planning to put micro-transmitters on cicadas to track how far they actually travel before laying their eggs (since they have the reputation as clumsy flyers, it's not clear how effectively they 'spread' into new territory)
  • Other long-lived insects do exist - Asian beetles have hatched in imported furinture more than 50 years old, and some moths can go into diapause (dormant) for up to 20 years
  • Bob Dylan was in Princeton, New Jersey during the 1970 Brood X emergence, and was so impressed by the racket that he wrote the song "The Day of the Locusts".
  • There are cicadas in Fiji and the U.S. Southwest that may also be periodic - but there is so little data on them that we can't be sure
  • The Fijians make necklaces out of them

Other notes I cam across while doing this:

  • Brood X will affect the mid-West much more than Virginia
  • Brood II's 1996 emergence in Virginia was heavier than what is expected out of Brood X
  • Brood X is heaviest in southern Indiana, Kentucky and Ohio
  • A USDA entomologist, Charles Marlatt, came up with the Roman numerals for the broods
  • They simply indicate the different successive years they emerged when he started counting
  • ...hmm. You could easily figure out when he started counting, methinks. Bonus Mensa question: when will they again emerge in order?
  • A visiting Swedish minister wrote home about an emergence in 1715. It was Brood X!

Where were you in the summer of 1987? 1970? 1953? 1936? 1919? 1902?

And where will you be in 2012?

 Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Cinco de Mayo: The Real Story

I have found returning to this piece each year on this date useful, now that my aging brain cannot easily recall historical facts...

By John Shepler

piece removed under threat of legal action by John Shepler. Have a nice day.

 Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Gutenberg, Richter, Omori, Mallet, Mercalli, Love, Lamb, Rayleigh, Jeffreys, & Benioff:

Argh. NBC's show "10.5" has done a lot of damage! To science, that is. What a bunch of hooey. I put this one firmly in a category with "The Core" and "Armageddon." Just watching the little toy train collapse into an opening crevice made me cringe, and I lost interest.

Here's my (short) list of serious scientific problems and outright inaccuracies in NBC's 10.5:

  • First off, the title: 10.5 refers to the magnitude of the supposed earthquake. Earthquake magnitudes are on a logarithmic scale, so a 10.5 is ten times bigger than a magnitude 9.5, which happens to be the largest recorded earthquake. Logically enough, earthquake magnitudes also depend on the size of the fault surface that ruptures - the larger the surface that lets go, the more energy is released. The 9.5 that occurred on May 22 1960 in Chile was from a fault surface over 1,000 km long with about 200,000 km^2 of total fault rupture area. A 10.5 earthquake, releasing ten times the energy, would need between 1,250,000 and 2 million km^2 of fault area. Since most faults in California reach only a few tens of km into the earth, this would mean that the fault would have to be about, oh, say 10,000 to 60,000 km long. Umm, I don't think so. Earthquakes this big are impossible.
  • Sealing the fault with nuclear bombs? Oh please. Let's just compare energies for a moment. On December 10 I noted that a magnitude 4.5 earthquake releases about 100 kt of energy. A 10.5 earthquake would release about 100 Gt of energy. Yes folks, 100 GIGAtons. You would have to lock the fault against that kind of energy. A totally back of the envelope estimate, I know, but say we tried to equal that energy with our biggest bomb, the B53, which can get up to a 9 Mt yield. We'd need 11,000 bombs. Oh wait, we only have 50 of them. ...let's throw in the next biggest as well, the B83, with yields up to 1.2 Mt. Even counting all the energy from the B53's, we would still need 83,000 B83's, and we only have 650 of those. You see where I am going with this. It wouldn't matter if the Russians, the British, the French, the Chinese, the Indians, the Pakistanis, the Israelis, the South Africans and the North Koreans gave us their entire stockpiles. We couldn't bounce enough rubble, even if this kind of technique would work.

Of course, that kind of analysis is rubbish, given the first point. But it clearly points out that NBC does not understand logarithms, and also that the earthquake magnitude scale is pretty useless when you get that big.

So what is the biggest earthquake possible? My guess is that a fault area two to three times the size of the 1960 Chile event is possible. In terms of magnitude, that translates to about 9.8 to 9.9.

I don't want to think about what would happen if one of these events were to arrive - NBC didn't get the specifics right about the phenomena. There would be no large gaping (mawing!) crevices, no California dropping off into the ocean, but they did get things right about many structures collapsing (but not the Golden Gate or Space Needle), and about rushing water. Probably the worst part about an event like this would be the tsunami. More about coastal tsunamis in another post.

I toss a concessionary bone to seismologists here: I have ignored the issue that there are different kinds of magnitude, and have simply used body wave magnitude, M(w).

I was happy to notice an article in EOS' GeoFIZZ column (login required) today by Los Alamos' Andrew Newman which also went through this exercise. Newman points out that a 10.5 would be ten thousand times as big as the 1994 Northridge quake. Newman also answered the question "When will California drop off into the ocean?" His answer: "During sweeps week."

Of course, there are plenty of people out there picking on movies and TV series like these. Here are two of those sites: and

I'm amazed people have this much time on their hands.

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