Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pirates win

I've been keeping an eye out for this ruling and here it is: Men at Work have lost their appeal of a copyright infringement suit and must pay 5% of the all the royalties they have ever earned, or ever will earn, from their terrific song "Down Under," because it contained a 2-bar riff from the children's song "Kookaburra." In the name of promoting creativity, an Australian court is now punishing a remarkably creative work by transferring a huge sum of money from the creative people to the non-creators who did nothing but purchase privileges. This is not what copyright is supposed to be about.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday photo

Petrified tree stumps on Specimen Ridge. Yellowstone National Park, June 2004.

When I began Googling around for some quick info about the petrified trees on Specimen Ridge, I got a surprise: most of the hits that came up were from creationist websites. Yes, believe it or not, the young-earth creationists get all in a tizzy about Yellowstone's ancient forests. They're worth getting excited about, no doubt about that, because like most things fossilized, they give you a rare glimpse at a long, long vanished world.

The geologists who have examined the slopes of Specimen Ridge have identified at least 27 successive layers of forests, each destroyed and partially buried under volcanic ash from Mt. Washburn, then an active volcano. The estimate is that these layers represent some 20,000 years of growth/catastrophe/regrowth/catastrophe/regrowth, beginning some 50 million years ago.

If that seems like a long time ago, just remember that the Earth had already completed 99% of its current history by then. The dinosaurs were only recently deceased, the supercontinent of Pangaea had broken up, and the continents of the western hemisphere looked pretty much as they do now:

(Image via the Paleomap Project)

Still, from our vantage point, a long-vanished world. The trees found in these buried forests have living relatives and, if their current environments are any indication, Yellowstone in those days was a warm, humid place comparable to present-day Georgia. There are plenty of redwoods in these forests, but also maple, sycamore, walnut, chestnut, oak, dogwood - even magnolia trees. It doesn't take too close a look at my photo to realize that nothing like these will grow there today. Judging from the fact that all of the fossilized roots (when they can be found) show horizontal development, none of these trees seems to have grown on a hillside; each forest occupied a fairly flat valley and was buried under another level accumulation of ash and mud, until the earliest layer was some 1200 feet deep. The silica in the ash was absorbed into the wood, causing the fossilization that has preserved the trees to this day.

That all of this should provide fodder for creationists comes as rather a surprise, but it seems to all trace to a single geologist named Harold Coffin (Ph.D. from USC in 1969). He appears to have been associated with the creationist Earth History Research Center at Southwestern Adventist University (where they have a single Department of Biology and Geology!), but isn't listed as a current faculty member, so I'm not sure where he is nowadays. But Coffin has published on Specimen Ridge, claiming that the trees must have been transported to their present location; he has also reported finding upright floating stumps in Spirit Lake at Mt. St. Helens, which he suggests would explain the standing trees in Yellowstone.

Not everyone agrees that the trees have been transported; in fact, I don't find that anyone else believes that Yellowstone's fossil trees came from anywhere but Yellowstone, allowing for some movement due to rapid lahars. But Coffin's work is all over the creationist websites, the same claims over and over again. Upright logs in Spirit Lake! Therefore the Flood! QED! It takes so little to make a creationist happy, particularly when you're talking about evidence.

But that's the general approach that creationists rely upon: pick out one little line of evidence, try to poke a hole in it, and then imagine that all of geology, paleontology, and biology would collapse along with it. Why petrified trees being carried to Yellowstone by flood waters or mud flows would prove a young earth is hard to fathom, but they're sure it's so.

If you really want to look at the trees in my photo and imagine that they floated there in a magic flood and came to rest in an upright position, go ahead; I can't stop you. I'll wait until some geologists who aren't under the influence tell me that it's so and, until then, use my imagination to picture beautiful hardwood forests filled with strange-looking animals (Uintatheriums, for example) walking across land that's going to get buried under volcanic ash, then get eroded away again until, 50 million years later, I can hike up a ridge and sit next to three of those very same trees. That's grander than any creation story I've ever heard.

Main sources:
Erling Dorf, Petrified Forests of Yellowstone. National Park Service, 1980.
William J. Fritz, Roadside Geology of the Yellowstone Country. Mountain Press, 1985.

Monday, March 21, 2011

What Would You Do?

At Outside the Beltway, a cogent comment on how dictators will respond to our attack on Libya:

Indeed, there was hope by the Bush administration and amongst its allies eight-ish years ago that the US actions in Afghanistan and Iraq would prove to be a deterrent to states who might be contemplating such actions.

As history shows, it had the directly opposite effect on Iran, as it did not go without notice that Iraq was invaded to prevent a nuclear program ... and that the only member state of the “Axis of Evil” that no one seemed interested in invading was the one with nukes (i.e., North Korea). As such, the rational choice to procure a nuke PDQ was made.
Libya didn't get nukes; now they're vulnerable to attack. That will be the take home message among strong men the world over.

In today's continuation of the World's Longest Book Review at slactivist, Fred Clark maintains that the authors can't even make a compelling disaster story out of Armageddon because they're incapable of asking, What if that was me? Ironically, our politicians are perfectly capable of creating a disaster story our of our foreign policy because they, too, are incapable of asking, What if that was me? How would I respond to make myself secure?

Empathy. It's not just for the wishy washy can't-we-all-just-get-along types. If you want to be a successful hard-headed realist, you need to cultivate it, also.

[Update: North Korea says the same]

Friday, March 18, 2011

Friday photo

Yellowstone River at twilight. Yellowstone National Park, June 1995.

The beautiful Yellowstone River moves gently down from its slow, meandering sojourn through the Hayden Valley. All is calm as night falls, and has been ever since leaving Yellowstone Lake some twelve or thirteen miles ago. Oh, a few small rapids here and there, but otherwise as placid as you could ever hope for a mountain river to be.

What awaits it in just a couple of miles is something entirely different: two large waterfalls and a deep, narrow canyon that will change its character from gentle serenity to murderous, frothing fury in just a few hundred yards. The first fall is 109 feet; the second is 308*. During the spring runoff, that can be some 50,000 gallons of water racing over the edge every second. And if you can't imagine what it's like to be a river pulled off the edge of a cliff, you can park your car and walk down to the brink of either one of these falls and get a strong sense of its power - deafening and vertigo-inducing.

There's another significant waterfall before the river leaves park, Knowles Fall in the Black Canyon, a mere 15-footer that still manages to impress. More rapids and canyons. But no dams, none at all until after it has joined the Missouri and surrendered its name. The Yellowstone has the eminent distinction of being the longest free-flowing river remaining in the lower 48 states today, at almost 700 miles without a dam. It arises just outside the southeast boundary of the Park, in the Thorofare Region that is reputed to be the most remote place in America, outside Alaska -- you could find yourself as much as thirty miles from any excuse for a road. And between its headwaters and the falls, it becomes Yellowstone Lake, the largest freshwater lake in North America at greater than 7000 feet of elevation. It is indeed a river of superlatives.

This is the river that gave Yellowstone National Park its name. My one and only contribution to Wikipedia was to correct the mistaken notion that the park was named for the color of the rocks in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (just below the aforementioned falls). Not so. The river was already known to American fur trappers as the Yellowstone when Lewis and Clark came through in 1804-05, a name the English had translated from the French, which the French had probably picked up from the Minnetaree.

Who knows how far back the name goes? A good bet is that the Indians named the river for the yellowish rock you can find downstream in the general vicinity of modern-day Billings. And so, even without much knowledge of the Canyon area and its impressive colors, it was natural that the Park would carry the river's name. In the late 1860's people knew only two things about the region: some mountain men's very tall tales came out of that area, and so did the Yellowstone River.

* The Lower Falls is commonly described as "twice the height of Niagara," but it's really about 25 feet short of the mark it would need to make that accurate. But close enough that you should be suitably impressed.

Nose cut off, face effectively spited

It's true that legitimate copyright has become ever more challenging to defend these days, as almost anything can be digitized and instantly transmitted anywhere.* It's also the case that copyright is being used to exert more control over information than anyone is legally entitled to.

And then, sometimes the confusion and fear over copyright lead to just bizarre, self-defeating CYA types of actions. Such as Barnes and Noble preventing their customers from providing them with free advertising, when the customers tried to photograph and tweet a book display.

The blogger has a couple of things wrong here, actually. You don't have to register your creation to gain copyright protection; copyright is automatic at the time of creation and has been for many years. And I don't think B&N is claiming copyright over the arrangement of their book display. More likely they're worried that they could be sued as an accessory to reproducing the copyrightable artwork of the covers.

But while the latter might be technically true, it only shows how ridiculous the protectionist regime has become. It was an offer free advertising! Not just for the store and company, but for the authors and publishers! You spend a fortune to advertise your store and its wares, and then someone offers to do it for free! It's win-win -- except that it's not, because the bookseller has come down with copyphobia, which often leads to impaired judgment and self-destructive behavior. Very sad, and modern medicine has not yet discovered a cure.

* So far, not pizza yet. But someday.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

UM gaming frenzy

A fun story of the great Sega Genesis Hockey tournament of 1992

Friday, March 11, 2011

Friday photo

Sunrise over Libby Flats, near Laramie, Wyoming. September 1990

An early morning drive into the Snowy Range, well rewarded.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Found in the archives

A volunteer at the Smithsonian Institute has discovered color photographs of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake.

Although hand-colored photographs of the quake's destruction have surfaced before, [Eugene] Ives' work is probably the only true color documentary evidence, Shannon Perich, associate curator of the Smithsonian's photography history collection, told the Chronicle.

Update: the volunteer himself blogs the discovery

Friday, March 4, 2011

Friday photo

Ice on sidewalk. Ypsilanti, Michigan, March 2011.

The sidewalk was a bit treacherous when I came home Wednesday evening, but it offered some visual interest to offset the navigational hazard. My first thought was that the ice seems to have formed with a lot of air pockets inside, whose tops have melted away and created all these little pits. But that's probably wrong - I think these pits were melted by the salt pellets scattered by the maintenance men, which is a disappointingly artificial process. So back to the imagination: if you picture China as somehow disintegrating into a hundred archipelagos, that long connected section to the right almost resembles a map of Japan ....

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Who said it?

Charlie Sheen, Glenn Beck, or Muammar Qadaffi? This is not easy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Facing off with the universe

I blogged once before about our propensity to see faces in rather mundane arrangements of every day objects. Here's one where Phil Plait, at Bad Astronomy, saw a frowning face in a comet:

In case you don't see it, Plait has circled the key features, right in the middle of the image, to help you out:

Which puzzled the heck out of me, because when I first looked at the comet photo, I saw a face alright. I saw this face:

There's just no way to avoid seeing faces (unless you're autistic, perhaps?). Even a stupid ball of ice provides not one, but (at least) two different ways to interpret it as a face. We're overprogrammed, we are.