Thursday, December 31, 2009

Friday photo, special Oregon edition

Phantom Ship, Crater Lake, Oregon. October, 1994.

In honor of Oregon's return to the Rose Bowl, a photo from Oregon, taken during the season they last won a Pac Ten championship.

There seems to be something about blowing the tops off mountains that results in fascinating scenery. Oh, it takes a few years, as a visit to Mount St. Helens will remind you, but eventually you get a Yellowstone or a Crater Lake. Crater Lake is nicely circular - about 5x6 miles across - and contains some of the clearest and bluest water you'll ever see (although you wouldn't know it from this photo, taken on a cloudy day). The water clarity is known to fluctuate, but in 1997, according to the Wikipedia article, a black-and-white disk was visible over 140 below the surface. Try that in Lake Michigan!

The lake is less than 8000 years old, meaning that the explosion of Mount Mazama took place after North America was peopled and would have been the most exciting thing that ever happened in the neighborhood. The Klamath people's legends describe the mountain being destroyed in a great battle between two powerful spirits, so it's entirely plausible that an eyewitness memory of the violent event has been handed down through some 77 centuries.

The Phantom Ship island gets its name because of its resemblance to a ghostly ship, plus the fact that, under variable lighting conditions, it can be rather easy to lose sight of.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Faces, faces

American Express has this neat commercial where they've created happy and sad faces out of everyday objects:

It's easy to do, of course, because human brains are more or less programmed to identify faces; almost any upside-down triangle arrangement has a chance to trigger this sort of recognition. Amex did a clever job of choosing unexpected objects to represent the faces, but they were able to make them quite clear.

Sometimes you come across a natural arrangement that isn't quite so perfect, yet still triggers recognition - an even stronger indication of just how prone we are to finding faces. For example, this goofy, but happy, tree:

Friday, December 25, 2009

Friday photo

Old Faithful Pub, Yellowstone National Park. Christmas, 2002.

Have yourself a merry little Christmas.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

On in-laws

Now this is cynical:

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Under Yellowstone

A cool, and (somewhat) interactive, graphic illustrating the magma plume that probably underlies Yellowstone and the Snake River plain. From National Geographic:

Under Yellowstone

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday photo

Yellowstone River at LeHardy Rapids,
Yellowstone National Park. October 2004.

Some may find this photo a little hard to look at, but I've always liked it. It can be hard to convey a sense of motion in a still photograph, but this one succeeds in evoking the non-stop rush of water through the rapids, through the shadows of the waves and the distorted reflections of the trees. The vantage point is the high bluff on the northeast side of the river, looking across to the south side where the road and the boardwalk are. Although it's several miles downstream from the outlet of Yellowstone Lake, the river runs so level up to this point that some people think of LeHardy Rapids as the real outlet of the lake.

I'm not sure whether LeHardy Rapids is rising or falling just now. There's a lot of rising and falling going on in Yellowstone, what with a huge magma chamber sitting just below the surface. Through the 1990's, LeHardy was rising at something close to an inch per year, which is pretty damn fast, and was tilting the entire lake up at the north and down at the south. Pretty dramatic stuff, even it was invisible to most of us (visitors to the arms of the lake, however, noticed that some of the campsites were now underwater).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Paranoid Style, 1964 and 2009

From Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics:

What distinguishes the paranoid style is not, then, the absence of verifiable facts (though it is occasionally true that in his extravagant passion for facts the paranoid occasionally manufactures them), but rather the curious leap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of events. John Robinson's tract on the Illuminati followed a pattern that has been repeated for over a century and a half. For page after page he patiently records the details he has been able to accumulate about the history of the Illuminati. Then, suddenly, the French Revolution has taken place, and the Illuminati have brought it about. What is missing is not veracious information about the organization, but sensible judgment about what can cause a revolution.

and ...

L.B. Namier once said that “the crowning attainment of historical study” is to achieve “an intuitive sense of how things do not happen.” It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop.

This was written in 1964, but while Hofstadter has been criticized for being condescending, his criticism of "pseudo-conservatism" -- pseudo, because it lacks the moderating preservationist quality of 'true' conservatism -- read as if they had been written in 2009 (other than the emphasis on Barry Goldwater and Robert Welch, that is). For an exhibition of the paranoid style, try this response to a previously-obscure thesis written at the US Army's School of Advanced Military Studies, entitled Strategic Implications of American Millennialism.

The author reaches some rather obvious conclusions: people who think in absolutes may be ill-equipped to make subtle judgments; people who attend too closely to Israel's interests may mistake America's; people who long for Armageddon might be poor keepers of the peace. Really, nothing exceptionable there, except that he actually names premillennial dispensationalist Christians as the baleful influence.

To the paranoids at the Worldview Times, this is cause to declare an Emergency! "This report blames all the world evils on believers!" claims John McTernan, although it doesn't really blame all the world's ills on anyone at all. McTernan got himself so worked up that he called the officer listed on the Monograph Approval page and, apparently, barraged him with so much nuttery that the poor Colonel began to lose his patience:

He refused to tell me what this study was used for and who within the military was sent copies. I believe that it represents an official military view of Bible believers as Col Banack said there was no study or article refuting this one. This is directly from a Hard Left reprobate mind set.

THIS MUST BE CHALLENGED ON ALL LEVELS. I am contacting all the influential people that I know within our circles to sound the alarm. I am going to contact my elected officials to have this report refuted and stricken.

I am not exaggerating that after reading this report you will see that the next step for us is concentration camps to stop our evil influence on society and the world.

Someone thinks we shouldn't be allowed to influence foreign policy; we're obviously just a short step from the prison camps. Suddenly, the French Revolution. Mere rationality cannot make such leaps.

I tried to post a comment to that effect at the site, but it didn't pass moderation. Characteristically, the people at Worldview Times don't tolerate contrary opinions very gracefully. Or maybe they just didn't appreciate my kind reassurance that "if anyone ever locks you in a room, I promise you it will have comfy padded walls."

[PS. I notice now that a few critical comments have indeed made it past the moderator, so I'll have to be a little kinder to Worldview Times and take more blame myself. They can tolerate a little dissent, but no snark at all.]

Quick reference

I just learned about a nifty new reference resource from Michael Heath, in a comment at Dispatches from the Culture Wars. It's a Firefox add-on that allows you to hover over or highlight a piece of text in your browser and instantly get a pop-up description from Here's what it looks like:

I showed this to a couple of coworkers and they were suitably impressed, although we couldn't help musing over our declining patience in the internet age. It's true - even though I can look up almost anything by opening a new browser tab and running a Google search, I'm excited to find something that will save me all that time (!) by letting me pop up a cursory definition in the same window. On the other hand, how often did I run to the dictionary or the encyclopedia, back in the good ol' days, when I came across something unfamiliar? Quite often - but not as often as I run those Google searches that usually land on Wikipedia or some dictionary site. And now, when I encounter an unfamiliar word or person, I can get a quick definition even faster than before, which means I'll probably go the effort of doing it more often. So, yeah, it panders to a certain laziness, but if I'm addressing my ignorance more frequently than before, isn't that a great thing?

Finding a use for the National Union Catalogue

What do you do if you have hundred of green-covered books that are hopelessly obsolete? You build a Christmas tree!


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Yeah. This ain't gonna work.

Lawmaker convicted of rape claims name copyright

A former South Dakota lawmaker serving a prison sentence for raping two foster daughters has sent a copyright notice to news organizations that seeks to prevent the use of his name without his consent.

Sorry, you can't copyright your name, no matter how badly you want it out of the news. For one thing, you can only claim copyright for an intellectual product that you have authored, so your name doesn't qualify. You also can't copyright factual information - such as your name.

I'm not sure, but I think you have an automatic trademark in your name, which allows you to retain the right to be accurately and uniquely identified. In Mr. Klaudt's case, of course, that's exactly the problem ....

Friday, December 11, 2009

Friday photo

Snow on lodgepole pine needles, Yellowstone National Park, January 2003

Winter has finally arrived in Michigan and, while the snowfall so far has been minimal in the southeast corner, this photo seemed appropriate this week.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

For the linguist in your family

Believers breed like rabbits. Therefore God exists. QED.

PZ Myers mentioned the blog NCBI ROFL, which is currently mocking one Bruce G. Charlton, who asks Is Atheism literally a delusion? and claims he can prove it's true.

It goes like this: believers have more babies than atheists; having more babies is evolutionarily adaptive; psychologists define delusion as a belief that is false and maladaptive; if atheists' beliefs are maladaptive in an evolutionary sense, they're maladaptive in the psychological sense; therefore we can state that atheists' beliefs are also false. Because they don't have enough babies.

Which leads incontrovertibly to this conclusion:

Monday, December 7, 2009

Bad behavior

I'm a sports fan, but it's often impossible to respect sports fans:

Some jackass of an Oregon State fan decided it would be funny to spray-paint a mallard duck orange.

Days of infamy

Today is December 7, a date which lives in infamy. In two different countries, in two different ways, but both involving the United States.

Of course you remember Pearl Harbor. Even Americans who've forgotten the Alamo remember Pearl Harbor. But most of us don't know about Student Day in Iran; I certainly didn't know anything about it until I heard it mentioned in the news the past couple days.

Student Day commemorates the day in 1953 when three students were gunned down by security forces of the new Shah of Iran, who had just come to power through a US-approved coup. Commemorating Student Day is a way of protesting dictatorship, but since the Revolution it's been easy to turn that into an anti-American direction. This year, it's in the news because Iranians are more concerned with the dictator at home than the ones across the ocean.

I find it ironic that Dec. 7 is noted as a day when Americans feel aggrieved and when others remember grievances against us. What's perhaps not at all ironic - utterly predictable, if you ask me - is that both parties commemorate only the trespasses against themselves.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

New species before our eyes?

From, could English birdfeeders inadvertently cause a speciation event?

Central European blackcap warblers that spend the winter in the birdfeeder-rich United Kingdom are on a different evolutionary trajectory than those that migrate to Spain. The population hasn’t yet split into two species, but it’s headed in that direction.

“This is reproductive isolation, the first step of speciation,” said Martin Schaefer, a University of Freiburg evolutionary biologist.

About 30 percent of blackcaps from southern Germany and Austria now migrate to the United Kingdom, shaving 360 miles from their traditional, 1,000-mile Mediterranean voyage. Because they’ve less distance to travel, they tend to arrive home first in the summertime and to live in prime forest-edge spots. All this makes the U.K. migrants more likely to mate with each other than with their old-fashioned brethren.

Schaefer says he doubts that birdfeeders will be around long enough to complete the task, but it's a fascinating prospect nonetheless.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Friday photo

Old Faithful, January 2002

A quiet evening in the dead of winter. If you're not into hordes of tourists - and who is, besides the accountants? - it's a wonderful time to be in Yellowstone.

In which I agree with a creationist

Hard to believe, but I just read a creationist's letter-to-the-editor in which I agree with several of the writer's claims. In particular, these two:

I contend that some of the things Mr. Bowers says the church knows nothing about are actually part of the church's core theology.
And if evolution has been proven true, then I must have been living under a rock somewhere, because I heard none of this "conclusive proof" that Mr. Bowers refers to.

Nothing to argue with there.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Those medical decisions ...

Apparently, this can happen in Canada, too: small-minded bureaucrats making medical decisions, instead of your competent doctor. As you can probably predict, it's not a government denying health care - it's the hack at the insurance company.

A Quebec woman on long-term sick leave is fighting to have her benefits reinstated after her employer's insurance company cut them, she says, because of photos posted on Facebook ....

She said her insurance agent described several pictures Blanchard posted on the popular social networking site, including ones showing her having a good time at a Chippendales bar show, at her birthday party and on a sun holiday — evidence that she is no longer depressed, Manulife said.

There's no indication that any medical professional was consulted before deciding to cut off benefits. Anyone competent in mental health could have told them that depression is episodic, or that a depressed person will put on a good face at times, or try to have fun even when it takes an effort. I can't imagine a doctor would try to make a clinical diagnosis based on a handful of photographs, especially non-representative party pics. But then, a doctor doesn't have a financial incentive to deny treatment.

Oh, just to make it creepier: Blanchard claims that she posted those photos under private settings, meaning they were supposed to be visible only to people she had approved. If that's true, every Facebook user ought to be asking how an insurance company managed to get access to them.

[via ars technica]

God agrees with me. He's pretty smart that way.

From Not Exactly Rocket Science, via Pharyngula:

For many religious people, the popular question "What would Jesus do?" is essentially the same as "What would I do?" That's the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs.
* snip *
The brain scans found the same thing, particularly in a region called the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) that's been linked to self-referential thinking. The mPFC is more active when we think about our own mindsets than those of others. Epley found that it was similarly abuzz when the recruits thought about their own attitude or God's, but lower when they considered the average American.
I was going to make a quip about the research appearing in the Journal of Unsurprising Results, but I honestly find that last bit rather startling. According to Epley, people use a different part of the brain to infer what other people are thinking, but use the very same part of the brain to reflect on either their own thoughts or their inference about God. That would seem to suggest that creating God in one's own image isn't just an act of bad faith; it could be exceedingly difficult to avoid.