Ramblings about what I encounter within the realm of the geosciences, as well as the occasional rant about nonsense.

29 September 2009

Jere Lipps For The Win (and Introductory Geological Concepts 2)

I just received one of those mass emails from SEPM. Turns out that SEPM is honoring Jere Lipps with the 2010 Moore Medal. This is a well deserved honor. Here is the announcement:

SEPM Society for Sedimentary Geology announces that Dr. Jere Lipps (University of California, Berkeley, CA) has been awarded the 2010 Moore Medal for excellence in the study and application of paleontology.

Dr. Lipp's contributions to paleontology range across many fields, including micropaleontology, molluscan paleocommunities, general paleobiology (including organism responses to climate change), and temporal assessments ("temporal smearing") of extinction events owing to incompleteness of the fossil record (termed the "Signor-Lipps Effect"). He also has served the paleontological community as President of the Cushman Foundation for Foraminiferal Research, President of the Paleontological Society and Chair of the Association of North American Paleontological Societies, among others.

An added bonus to this is I get to reiterate how awesome the Signor-Lipps effect is and once more suggest people read about it. It is, probably, the preeminent study in regards to extinctions. So here is the link to the paper, and here are some links previous posts (wow, these look like my first posts) gushing about the effect.

A brief synopsis of the Signor-Lipps effect goes a little something like this. When an organism dies, varying factors influence whether or not the organism will be preserved as a fossil. The potential that an organism will be, in whole or in part, fossilized can be referred to as 'preservation potential'. The preservation potential varies between species. For example, a clam lives its life buried in sediment. If it dies while still buried, it has a very good chance of becoming a fossil. A bird that lives in trees and flies around in the sky, will need to die and get transported to a location that is likely to be preserved. So the bird in this example has a lower preservation potential than a clam. Now expand this concept to discuss populations, rather than an individual. We see that rare species with relatively low preservation potentials aren't going to be fossilized as often as abundant species with high preservation potentials.

Now if we apply this concept to the study of extinction events (this is where the Signor-Lipps effect comes into play), we would expect to see certain species disappearing from the fossil record before other species. Regardless of the cause of the extinction. So rare species with low preservation potentials should disappear lower, in the stratigraphic record, than abundant species with high preservation potentials. This will give the appearance of a gradual extinction (where species diversity is declining over a period of time) even if the extinction event is catastrophic (where all the species disappear at once). The implication of this is that gradual extinctions are indistinguishable from catastrophic extinctions in the stratigraphic record. Here is a visual representation of this idea (from Williams, 1994):The larger the symbol the more rarely a species is preserved. The black box on the right is a representation of a stratigraphic column showing where each specimen was found. The lines leading to a symbol on the left give an approximate range of a species' duration. Rare species disappear from the rock record first, abundant species should disappear from the fossil record last. At this point, due to variable preservation potential within the fossil record, it is not possible for us to distinguish between a fast or slow extinction event. Jere Lipps was one of the first people to say it, so he deserves our congratulations.


Signor, P. W., and Lipps, J. H., 1982, Sampling bias, gradual extinction patterns, and catastrophes in the fossil record, Geological Implications of Impacts of Large Asteroids and Comets on the Earth: Special Paper - Geological Society of America, p. 291-296.

Williams,M.E., 1994, Catastrophic Versus Noncatastrophic Extinction of the Dinosaurs: Testing, Falsifiability, and the Burden of Proof: Journal of Paleonotology v.68 p.183-190.

28 September 2009

Fun with Optical Illusions

Bad Astronomy has a link to an awesome illusion. I recommend it... unless you are prone to visual epilepsy or possibly those who easily become motion sick. Not much else to say about it.... why are you still reading this? Go to the illusion.

Edit: I just showed it to a friend in the grad office, he said it was like a mild version of the illusions he had while he needed to use pain medication. After a day of it, he decided the pain was more tolerable. I can see why, the effect lasts less than a minute (and is thus fun), but if it went on a whole day it'd get old real quick.

22 September 2009

A Honest Argument

Finally, there is an argument out there, against the public option, that doesn't rely on inflating crowd numbers, making up 'death panels', or failing to read a bill before shouting at the president during a joint session.
Unfortunately, honesty is not in the insurance company executives best interest.

21 September 2009

Quiz Time

Bad Astronomy found a quiz from the Pew Research Center on the topic of science literacy. 12 questions in all (the last four are True/False). The focus of the questions is on basic science that has been in the news recently. And a majority of the questions stem from science that has recently been the center of public policy.

So how did I do? Well, let's go to the graph: This chart shows how many questions (out of 12) each group answered correctly. I assume they took the mean, but they just say the results are averaged.

12 questions, 12 correct answers. Hot Damn.... I.... pay attention to the world...

In all honesty, these questions were not hard. Sadly, my age group isn't very informed. Originally, I was optimistic about the steady upward trend you can see regarding education level. However, it just occurred to me that the people who are most likely to graduate from college are probably the most likely to pay attention to basic science in the media. There is definite room for improvement here, but it doesn't look insurmountable.

14 September 2009

The Makings of a Talk: a Former Debater and Frequent Audience Member's Perspective

It is presentation season again. That means many people are getting their data and interpretations together in preparation for an upcoming conference. And it also means geobloggers are talking about presentations (BrianR and Tuff Cookie's entries into the subject, I will add others that I have missed as I find them). Now, I don't have as much experience as some people giving talks, but I have sat through enough talks to know what works and what doesn't work. So here I present what I think are the makings of a good talk. I have added a bit of spin to them. I was in CX debate for several years in High School, it was my first significant experience in how to set up a presentation that both educates and makes an argument. So, ever since, when I have to make a presentation I tend to go back to the model of presenting my case as if it were a CX debate (though obviously with slightly different objectives).

Introduce a Problem

First, and I can't emphasize this enough, tell the audience what the purpose of the talk is going to be about. I have sat through countless presentations where it is assumed that the audience gets all this information from the ether. Commonly, the only slide dealing with the purpose is the title slide. It is the speakers job to educate the audience, this can't be done without introducing them to the problem at hand. Now sometimes this requires very little introduction on the background (say, in a committee meeting presentation), however most times you will need to explain a little bit about what it is you are going to be talking about. Along parallel lines, think about your intended audience's background. If you are presenting at a national meeting, assume you are going to have a more general audience. If you are presenting at a regional technical session, assume you are going to have a specialized audience.


Secondly, you need to tell the audience WHY your project is important. This is, perhaps, the most important piece of a presentation. It is also almost always excluded from the talk. This is the portion of the talk that tells me why I should devote 15, 20, or 50 minutes of my time to hear what you have to say (times vary depending on setting). This isn't necessarily something that should eat up most of your time, a single slide will do nicely. In forensics (of the high-school debate variety) this would be referred to as significance. Going back to the debate analogy, many debates I have been a part of (either as a participant, or as a judge) have been won or lost on this point alone. Now this doesn't have to be paradigm shifting, it could be something as simple as nobody has looked at this area before, or nobody has applied a certain model to this setting. Or, "Jack Sprat" looked at this outcrop in 1937, but we've learned a thing or two since then so let's see if "Sprat's" interpretation works with modern understanding.

If there is no reason why you did your study, then why did you do your study? Every study has some significance behind it. Otherwise, you are just collecting facts. As Poincare once put it:
Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.
-Henri Poincare
Or as Charles Darwin once quipped:
About thirty years ago there was much talk that geologists ought only to observe and not theorise; and I well remember some one saying that at this rate a man might as well go into a gravel-pit and count the pebbles and describe the colours. How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view if it is to be of any service!
-Charles Darwin
On a side note, "Counting Pebbles" would be an awesome name for a geoblog... or a rock band.


This is the meat of the talk, and should take the most time. How will you address this significant problem? This is where you lay out your methods, assumptions, field area, and your data. Speakers tend to not have a problem with material for this portion of the talk. The only thing I would add is make sure your data is legible. If you have scale bars (on a stratigraphic colum for instance) make sure they are readable from the back of the room. If you have a cluster diagram, make sure it is easy to distinguish one cluster of points from another. I once sat through a talk with a cluster diagram where location 1 used a blue color, location 2 used purple color, and location 3 used a purple-blue color (they were a part of a gradient color scheme). I was so focused on figuring out which point was which color, I wound up ignoring the speaker.


Solvency is your interpretation and conclusions. Does your data support your hypthesis? Does it refute your hypothesis? Does it fail to say anything about your hypothesis? Also, be sure to include what implications this has for future studies (this is where significance comes back into play). If previous studies overlooked some subtle trait, it might mean that these previous studies have to be redone.

Note that interpretation is separate from the data. This is important. If you intermix your interpretations and your data, the audience can become confused. You want them separate because, as my advisor once put it: It is one thing for a colleague to say you are wrong, it is another thing for your colleague to say you can't look at rocks correctly. Nobody should argue with your data, the rocks are the rocks, you can't change it. Your interpretation, on the other hand, is potentially falsifiable (if it wasn't, it wouldn't be science it would be dogma).

Following this general outline, in my experience at least, is a good way to propagate your point among your audience members. At the very least, they won't end up confused as to what your talk was about.

12 September 2009

Wendell Potter and the Health Care Modus Operandi

I am just floored by this. This links to a segment of Bill Moyer's Journal where he interviews a former health insurance executive. The executive, Wendell Potter, is explaining how the insurance firms operate, especially when they feel that their profits are being threatened. Here is a telling quote from the transcript:
Wendell Potter: The industry has always tried to make Americans think that government-run systems are the worst thing that could possibly happen to them, that if you even consider that, you're heading down on the slippery slope towards socialism. So they have used scare tactics for years and years and years, to keep that from happening. If there were a broader program like our Medicare program, it could potentially reduce the profits of these big companies. So that is their biggest concern.
The interview is about 40 minutes (I think. My apartment has pretty low bandwidth, so after about 7 minutes of intermittent playback, I read the transcript). However, within the first 7 minutes you get treated to several insurance executives telling congress, point blank, they will not stop rescinding coverage of patients for unintentionally withholding medical information (as would be the case if the patient didn't know they had gall stones).

It goes on to tell how the insurance industry threatened members of congress during the Clinton years that endorsing the message that health care should be reformed is a "one-way ticket back to minority party status". The interview also talks about the ease of gaining access to policy makers that these insurance firms enjoy. They have a level of access out of reach of most Americans. I've emailed my senators once or twice (even called them on one occasion), but I've never phoned them up and dictated we will have a meeting.

I will return to talking about Geology later. But right now, this is something that everybody should watch and share. I will finish this post with another quote from Wendell Potter:
WENDELL POTTER: That we shouldn't fear government involvement in our health care system. That there is an appropriate role for government, and it's been proven in the countries that were in [Sicko].

You know, we have more people who are uninsured in this country than the entire population of Canada. And that if you include the people who are underinsured, more people than in the United Kingdom. We have huge numbers of people who are also just a lay-off away from joining the ranks of the uninsured, or being purged by their insurance company, and winding up there.

And another thing is that the advocates of reform or the opponents of reform are those who are saying that we need to be careful about what we do here, because we don't want the government to take away your choice of a health plan. It's more likely that your employer and your insurer is going to switch you from a plan that you're in now to one that you don't want. You might be in the plan you like now.

But chances are, pretty soon, you're going to be enrolled in one of these high deductible plans in which you're going to find that much more of the cost is being shifted to you than you ever imagined.

09 September 2009

Haleakala National Park

As promised, I am continuing my brief travelogue of my trip to Hawaii. Part I is available by clicking on the appropriate link. This post summarizes my trip, complete with some pretty pictures, to Haleakala National Park (pronounced EXACTLY as it is spelled, and it is very fun to say).

When we set off in the morning, it was quite cloudy. We were worried that it might not be a good day for it, but we decided we at least made the good decision to sleep in a bit. The evening beforehand we debated getting up early and watching the sunrise from the summit. Though we did run into groups that made that adventure (these groups all looked very tired and shared their story of woe). Here is a shot of one of many clouds that came rushing past us on our way up the volcano.And here is the same cloud a moment laterFortunately, for the purposes of photography, the wind was gusting around 40-50 mph (enough to almost hold me up when leaning into the wind). So any clouds that came into the area were not going to be sticking around for long. But they did lend themselves to some neat shots up near the vent.I don't know what it is about this next shot, but I really like it.and as an inaccurate demonstration of the wind speed, here is the same shot less than a minute later (and zoomed out a bit so I could get more of the vent):Here is a shot taken of Mauna Loa from Haleakala. The thought of taking a picture of the largest volcano on Hawaii from the largest volcano on Maui was too tempting to pass up. Interestingly, Haleakala is LARGER than Mauna Loa, but since it is older it has undergone more subsidence. If you account for the entire volcano, Haleakala is the largest volcano in the chain. Haleakala is a little over 10,000 feet high. Considering that most visitors started their morning, more or less, at sea level I guess a little cautionary signage is a good idea:It threw me for a loop when I realized I was at an elevation almost twice that of Denver, CO and was still within sight of the ocean. Growing up firmly landlocked might have had something to do with that, but I still get a kick out of seeing the ocean from 10,000 feet up with my feet on solid ground. I am pretty sure that island in the background is Lanai:The keen observer probably caught sight of the high tension wires running up the volcano. They are there for the benefit of the Haleakala Observatory. They tend to focus on studying solar flares and track man-made objects:Phew.... That is a lot of pictures.... and I haven't even started on the photos I took as we were leaving the park. I think this post will have to end with the phrase that tended to haunt my youth. To be continued...

03 September 2009

Facebook Status Meme

As most people are probably aware by now, there is a common thread among many facebook statuses today. People are updating their status to read:
No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.
I have also tweeted this line a little bit ago, but Lockwood's post reminded me there was one more place I could put this message with ease. He, in turn, was reminded by Matty Boy. I also saw the Greg Laden had something up about this earlier as well (along with a link to a Facebook poll regarding whether it is okay for the President to address the nation, or should he get parents permission). As I find other sites with this message, I will add them to the list.

I only wonder if there is some easy way to check how many facebook statuses (or should it be "stati") have been updated to this message.


All the Latin on this page is from my vague recollections from High School. There are mistakes in the text. I just was trying to get the point across

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM

Between Los Alamos,NM and White Rock, NM
The photo of the travertine spring was taken in the small opening in the center of the image.

Lectio Liber