Sunday, February 27, 2005

Ward, Wieland, and Cialdini:

When I visited the petrified forest as a child, it was fairly obvious to me why it was prohibited to pick up pieces of the petrified wood - samples in pockets would wander off, and the whole monument would slowly disappear.

On that same summer road trip, I logically wondered if by taking samples from the Grand Canyon I would be a) degrading the natural wonder by removing some of it, or b) adding to its beauty, since the canyon exists precisely because material has been removed.

A few days ago we had a visitor here from the National Parks Service, and she related a story about the National Cycad Monument in South Dakota that reminded me of all this - the Cycad Monument was decommissioned in 1957 because there were no fossils left to see. The fossils had all walked off in visiting pockets.

The Park Service's best estimate for current losses from the Petrified Forest are about 25,000 pounds (!) a year. People are caught every day (some with hundreds of pounds stuffed under their car seats). The forest is such an attractive site for theft that it has been used as a test site for studying what kinds of warnings are most effective at discouraging theft. The best estimate is that about 3% of the visitors actually steal material.

When I first visited Hawaii in 1985 with Caltech's Bob Sharp as a tour guide, he regaled us with tales of "Pele's curse," whereby if anyone took a piece of the Goddess Pele home (a piece of Hawaiian pumice, basalt, green sand, etc. etc.), she would bring bad luck upon them. In the Bishop Museum and the Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park Museum there are plently of examples of tourists who mailed back their 'souvenirs' (even their sandy shoes, in one case), thinking that their streak of bad luck after their holiday was due to Pele's curse.

In any case, my long-winded point is that this type of "curse myth" seems to be popping up at other parks - the Petrified Forest is getting souvenirs returned as well.

Perhaps there should be a study done about the effectiveness of public announcements saying "if you take anything except pictures, you will have really bad luck."

And yes, I do have a piece of Pele in my house. It's not illegal to take pieces of lava from Hawai'i. It's a really nice chunk of frothy green pumice and some Pele's hair that I collected from the side of Chain of Craters road. And yes, I have had bad luck since then. Only I am quite sure that one thing has absolutely nothing to do with the other. And did I take a piece of the Petrified Forest or the Grand Canyon? I'm not sure. It was so long ago that I can't honestly remember - I do remember being very tempted, and if I did, I have since lost the pieces, which is probably the sad truth about a fair bit of the ton-a-month rate for the Petrified Forest.

 Friday, February 18, 2005

We shall never forget:

A conversation I had several years ago with the Department of the Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control:

Science agency drone (me): "Hello. I have a question about financial transactions involving the Cuban government."

OFAC drone: "No financial transactions transferring funds to Cuba are allowed."

Science agency drone:"...yes, I am aware of that. In this case, Cuba is wanting to pay its membership dues to an international organization currently headquartered in the U.S."

OFAC drone: "No financial transactions transferring funds to Cuba are allowed."

Science agency drone:"...umm, I think you misunderstood. Cuba wants to send funds here. This is not a case of U.S. funds going to Cuba, but Cuban funds coming to the United States."

OFAC drone: "...huh. Well, then we would have to seize the funds as war reparations."

Science agency drone:"...war reparations? You mean, like for the Maine?"

OFAC drone: "Yes. For the Maine."

Science agency drone:"Wow. I'll tell them that they should consider being delinquent on their dues."

OFAC drone:"Yeah, I guess so. Have a good day."

Science agency drone: "You too. Bye."

 Monday, February 14, 2005

The bells, master, the bells...

The Sumatra Andaman quake that generated the tsunami also made the Earth ring like a gong. Some of the tones last longer than others - the most fundamental frequency is still ringing, expanding and contracting the Earth radially, and should be detectable well into April.

We have to use very special techniques to see this, since the period for this harmonic is quite long - about 20 minutes. So it's really more like a very low groan than a ringing gong...

IRIS has a lot of info on this. Here's an audio file (.au format) of what it sounds like, speeded up about 200,000 times.

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 Monday, February 07, 2005

Tsunami science & fakery, and a bit of image analysis:

I just met with Jody Bourgeois, who is a sedimentologist at the University of Washington who studies tsunami deposits. We are interested in her work because while the tsunami genesis community has had a lot of attention and funding, the tsunami history community has not. In other words, we know a lot about how tsunamis are generated, but not a lot about how often they occur.

Jody works mostly in the Pacific (where most tsunamis occur, as you will have read in one of my previous posts), looking at the layer of rubble, gravel, sand and silt that tsunamis leave when they run up onto the shore. By digging pits in various spots, and looking at these layers, one can build up an idea of how often these events occur. Once you find a tsunami deposit, you can do a series of pits progressively farther from the shore to see how far the tsunami went inland - in this way she is trying to see where they occurred, how often, and how severe they were. Most of her work has been in the Cascadia region of the US (Washington state), and on the Kamchatka peninsula, in the Russian far East.

Here is a photo taken by one of Jody's grad students, Bretwood Higman, while in Sri Lanka on the tsunami survey team:

Tsunami deposit in Sri Lanka (photo credit: B. Higman) Posted by Hello

In this case, a 30 cm layer of lighter-coloured sandy tsunami deposits overlies the previous darker-coloured soil surface. Jody showed similar sections from the West coast with grey tsunami deposits sandwiched between the pre-existing soils and the later, younger soils on top of them (in the above photo, the younger soils overlying the tsunami deposit have not been deposited yet, since the tsunami occurred so recently).

As you might imagine, Jody is in great demand these days, and is in Washington DC to speak at a Smithsonian press event tomorrow morning at the Willard. She has been dealing a lot with public misconceptions about tsunamis, and she spoke to us about the threat to the Atlantic coast.

One item she mentioned was the threat from the cataclysmic collapse of the Cumbre Vieja volcano in the Canaries, much quoted in the press, and parroted by me here. It turns out that the model producing a 25 meter high wave on the East coast is a model by Steve Ward at UC Santa Cruz (you can see a set of Steve's powerpoints on landslide generated tsunamis here, including diagrams of the Cumbre Vieja predicted wave). Of course, disasters make for good news, so the work by Steve on the tsunami and by Bill McGuire of the Benfield Greig Centre in the UK on the collapse of Cumbre has been played up a fair bit by the press.

This much, at least, is still science. On to the outright fakery portion.

Immediately after the Sumatra event, all sorts of photos emerged purporting to be of the tsunami. Fortunately many of them were real, which can help educate people on what to do in this situation, and to document what happened. Others were outright fakes that only serve to propagate misconceptions. Jody used the following example in her talk that I had seen floating around on the internet, and which I had tried to stamp out as well as I could by telling people it was a fake (the red letters are mine, more below on that...).

Fake tsunami photo Posted by Hello

I hadn't paid much attention to it in the last few weeks until I saw it again, up on the big projection screen, and it screamed out "South America" to me. I don't know exactly why, but something in the architecture, setting, etc. just made me think the city was in Latin America. At first I thought it was Bogota, because one of the buildings looks somewhat like the Tequendama Hotel, and a far off building looks like the Avianca skyscraper, but there were still several things wrong for the skyline to be Bogota.

A quick search on identified this tsunami picture as a known fake - and pointed to a what they claim as the source for the original photo of the Antofagasta skyline at World City Photos:

(c) Christian Lantadilla
Lantadilla photo, looking South Posted by Hello

Sure enough, this photo by Christian Lantadilla is of the same scene. However, I do not think this is the photo that was used in the fake.

To confirm this, I did a bit more searching myself. First, are the two photos Antofagasta at all? Sure enough, there is a giveaway photo of the Antofagasta waterfront here, in an artcle in Realidad, a Chilean magazine. Here is the photo:

Realidad photo, looking North Posted by Hello

I have added letters to identify several landmarks. The fake tsunami and Lantadilla photos are taken looking South, with the city to the left. The Realidad photo is taken looking to the North. The letter "A" marks a tall building with yellow and red bricks with a characteristic roof shape. "B" indicates another building with characteristic red and white brickwork, while "C" indicates a park area.

But back to the difference between the tsunami and Lantadilla scenes of Antofagasta. As can be seen in the Realidad picture, it is very probable that the other photos were taken from the dark building at the end of the road just to the left of the "B." My guess is that these two photos were taken from different floors, at different times.

First, look at the mountains and the air and light surrounding them. The lighting and visibility is totally different between the two pictures, and this is not something easily changed with image processing - nor would there be a motive for the person faking the tsunami to put the work into changing the apparent visibility. The Lantadilla photo was taken on a clear, sunny day, while the fake tsunami background was taken on a more overcast, flatter lighted day. On the street next to the park there are tree shadows in the Lantadilla photo that are not present in the other (there is also a vehicle on this street in the tsunami picture that is not in the Lantadilla photo).

Second, the parallax in the photos is different. My guess is that the fake tsunami photo was taken from higher up, and more to the West (seaward), than the Lantadilla photo. It's difficult to tell with the images here, but if you download the originals, you can tell that the red & white brick building shifts ever so slightly against the more distant buildings behind it when you alternate between the two photos. You can see more of the roof (upwards motion) in the fake photo, and the red brick stripe moves leftwards against the building in the background (seaward movement of the observer). In this area there are several other inconsistencies - a possible reflection in the blue-glassed building that is either not there or due to intervening construction between the two photo times, and construction or modifications on the grey building that extends from the red & white to the park area.

I'm convinced that a) the tsunami photo is fake, b) the background is Antofagasta, and c) the fake was not made with Christian Lantadilla's photo.

In the end, what is wrong with the fake photo's water? Why couldn't this be a real tsunami in Chile? First is the scale - look at the height of that wave - it's taller than some of the apartment buildings. Only a major asteroid impact would give that kind of height. A tsunami is a low wall of water that simply keep on coming - sort of like a step function, and not a tall curling wave. Second, the scale of the features in the wave is wrong - look at the ripples and the foam - they just look wrong compared to the size of the cars. Now - there have been tsunamis in Antofagasta, with 1995 being the most recent - but they NEVER looked like this. This is not what a tsunami looks like - at a distance, tsunamis look harmless enough for you to simply stand there and watch. ...and take photos. ...and wait. ...and film. ...and suddenly realize that there is a river of seawater coming for you!

I had to chuckle as I was putting this post together: "Realidad" is Spanish for reality, or truth.

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 Friday, February 04, 2005


An interesting legend about the beginning of Western use of coffee is that after the siege of Vienna in 1683, the retreating Turkish armies abandoned their coffee supplies and equipment on the field. To celebrate victory over the Turks, bakers made a special pastry in the shape of a crescent - today's croissant.

However pretty a story, this is probably not true. There is good evidence that coffee was present in Vienna and many other Western cities before the 1683 siege. I'm not sure about the croissants - I need to do more research (which of course, includes consumption!).

There is a good paper on the history of coffee here, that includes a debunking of the Vienna myth.

There's a nice page in English on Viennese coffee houses here.

Get a slice of Sachertorte to eat while you sip your Maragogype, sit down, and read.

 Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Dynamite in his drawers:

Leon Lederman keeps his Nobel Prize in a kitchen drawer with all his other junk - rubber bands, twisted paper clips, odd pieces of string, a screw-driver covered in paint, Post-Its gathering dust on their sticky part.

We all know the drawer, because we have one too. We just don't have a Nobel Prize banging around in there.

 Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Y los cuentos, cuentos son:

...after Calderon de la Barca.

As the figures for tsunami casualties climb, it is slowly becoming clear to people that there will never be an accurate count. In fact, thinking that there can ever be accurate counts for events like this is a fantasy.

As rational beings, we know that such a figure exists - the number of casualties, even if changing, is still a "countable set." However, the logistics of providing an absolutely accurate count quickly become unreasonable. Even in highly controlled situations, like voting for political office, an absolute count is extremely difficult. That is why such counts, to be understood and used for decisions, must have statistical qualifiers attached.

When dealing with situations where we are relying on eyewitness accounts, or even historical/oral accounts the unreliability of absolute numbers is well known. When dealing with emotionally or politically charged issues, this effect is even more pronounced. In fact, history itself can be changed.

In 1928, a strike at the United Fruit Company facilities in the city of Cienaga, Colombia, turned violent when Colombian forces tried to disperse the crowd. Shots were fired, and several strikers were killed. Accounts of the incident from the points of view of the strike leader, Alberto Castrillon, and the commander Cortes Vargas varied widely (as might be expected), and differed again from the later accounts of investigative lawyer Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and media reporters.

Casualty estimates ranged from single to double digits. The exact number of casualties became an issue, and the government was accused of trying to hide the real number.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez' father spoke of the United Fruit strike and riot before Colombian Congress in 1929, and must have spoken of it at home, because it made enough of an impression on the author for an event based on it to appear in his book "One Hundred Years of Solitude." In that story, the fictional town of Macondo loses over three thousand citizens to bullets and truncheons. Garcia Marquez amplifies the Cienaga incident into the Macondo massacre to make several points - to emphasize the military's brutality, to emphasize the influence the foreign company had on the government, to single out the surviving characters' roles in the town's history, and perhaps, to point out that accounts are unreliable and at some level are all fictional.

The crowning event is that at some point in the 1970's, this subject again came up before the Colombian Congress, and in sworn testimony that entered the public record, the number of casualties in the real Cienaga incident (not fictional Macondo), was stated as "over three thousand."

This was later corrected, but the damage had been done. For many people, this mistake became a government admission that several thousand had died in the Cienaga event.

Fiction had changed history. And only because a combination of emotion, writing talent, and confusion came together at a particular moment.

For this case there is a trail, but for how many other events has this happened without someone noticing? Not simply numbers of casualties, but perhaps the details of the events themselves.