Archive for May, 2008


May 30, 2008


May 29, 2008

Last week it was supernovae, this week, supervolcanoes. Isn’t that super!?

But seriously, three researchers (Dr. Kennedy, Dr. Jellinek, and Dr. Stix) at a couple of Canadian universities (the University of British Columbia (UBC) and McGill University) have conducted experiments to simulate the effects of the devastating geological phenomenon of supervolcanoes. A supervolcano is created when, during an eruption, the magma chamber collapses, leading to catastrophic effects.

The press release, discussing the researcher’s simulation of this phenomena with a corn syrup filled plexiglass model, notes that these supervolcano eruptions are “capable of causing long lasting change to weather, threatening the extinction of species, and covering huge areas with lava and ash.”

Dr. John Stix, from McGill, suggests that “a really big one could create the equivalent of a global nuclear winter.” This kind of eruption scenario would also feature nasty side effects like crop failure and ash falling from the sky.

Most recall the famed Krakatoa, a significantly devastating but still conventional volcano that erupted in the late 19th century. We imagine that these eruptions, like St. Helens, will occur from time to time, and that a supervolcano would likely be an infrequent event, occurring on geological time scales. But most have never heard of Mount Tambora, a supervolcano which killed over a 100,000 people in Indonesia in 1815, less than two hundred years ago. It’s effect was so dramatic — including plumes of ash that clouded the sky for months — that 1816 was known as the “year without a summer”.

Your can find a McGill press release discussing the publication of the three scientists’ paper in Nature Geoscience here.

There’s also a Canadian Press story here. Damn, scooped…

Cool research project. It’s just too bad that the McGill University administration’s labour policies also blow chunks…

Flying Saucers Not Your Cup of Tea?

May 28, 2008

Unfortunate. The New York Times reports that the British government, pressured by the esprit of the Freedom of Information Act, has declassified files related to UFO sightings documented by the government between 1978 and 2002. The records can be found on-line at this address.

The findings? Completely inconclusive. Surprise, surprise.

Via Arts & Letters Daily.

On My Desk, Vol.6

May 27, 2008

Books, books, books. Who cares? Reading is so 1984. There will be a quiz at the end, but for now it’s a bunch of nominally interesting (actually, just close to hand) stuff to entertain the eyeball and expand the mind. Maybe even expand the eyeball…

Arthur C. Clarke, Reach for Tomorrow (New York: Ballantine, 1973 [1956]).

A concise collection of classic tales by this master of the sci-fi genre, whose passing was recently mentioned here. The first, “Rescue Party”, is considered one of Clarke’s best (it was the first he published — in Astounding Science Fiction in 1946), though there are better ones in this offering. Another short gem — “The Forgotten Enemy” — has a wonderful global climate change twist. Quite chilling…

Also fun in this collection is the preface, by Clarke, who writes about how important it was for him to get the science just right in his stories. He says that one his tales, “Jupiter Five”, “involved twenty or thirty pages of orbital calculations and should by right be dedicated to Professor G.C. McVittie, my erstwhile tutor in applied mathematics.” Good stuff.

E.R. Dodds, The Greeks and the Irrational (Berkley: University of California Press, 1973 [1951]).

Eclectic and random. This and the Clarke stories are two items recently acquired perusing the bookstores around Victoria, particularly one here in James Bay. This is difficult to pin down, but is surely the most academic text currently on the desk. The citations in this thing are totally intimidating — arcane and liberally sprinkled with Greek. I’ve only grazed lightly around the edges of this verdant valley of scholarship, but it looks like strange and wild territory. Will eventually have to explore further.

Charles Stross, Halting State (New York: Penguin, 2007).

A fairly recent sci-fi novel by a relatively new figure in the genre (this is his 6th). Came to my attention by way of the folks at Boing Boing.

I’m about a third of the way through this book, a near-future piece set in the Edinburgh of 2018. The plot involves a bank heist in an on-line virtual space — a game, essentially — that has serious consequences in meat-space. Intriguing. It’s a fascinating look at the development of technology in the early 21st century, and its political, economic and social consequences. Like a communications theory thesis on crystal meth — edgy, hip and definitely plugged-in. Stross’ novel ably anticipates the headlines on tomorrow’s Google news…

Rudolf Steiner, Fruits Of Anthroposophy (London: Rudolf Steiner Press, 1986).

An odd, esoteric little book. Summaries of lectures given by Steiner — who coined the term Anthroposophy — in the early 1920s. His focus is on the failings of modern society. Some of this stuff is ontological gold. A sample:

“29 August 1921

In the course of eight lectures given at the recent Congress at Stuttgart, Rudolf Steiner explained what effect the agnosticism of the last century had upon the whole life of humanity today. As a result of natural science agnosticism taught that humanity was only able to spin round the world a web of ‘causality’. What lies at the back, what is unknown, what cannot be reached by the senses — all this must for ever remain hidden from human wisdom; and most especially does everything psycho-spiritual withdraw itself from the reach of knowledge.

Agnosticism has seized hold of science, education and social life, and it affects millions of men who very often are quite unaware of the fact. It then lays hold of the realm of ideas, separating this from the world of true reality upon which alone humanity should have its stand; thus creating an inner division which weakens the soul forces of men. Through this division, license is given to all the lower instincts, as we can recognize to be prominently the case in the world today. The realm of feeling also becomes unsatisfied; unfertilized by ideas it degenerates, hardens and becomes sentimental, or else it is engulfed in the life of elementary instincts. This shows itself particularly in art, which is either sweetly unreal or else is naturalistic. True art creates its own style, and true style can only come from men’s supersensible experiences. Agnosticism robs us of the truths which must live in art.

Upon our will power, also, it has had an evil influence, for it has killed moral impulses and has allowed what is instinctive to become master. Thus do we find today that thinking is lax, feeling is dulled, and willing is made void through disbelief; and, as a result, what is animal in man rises to the surface. In the religious life also men feel a void, and seek support in organized streams like that of the Catholic Church, or else in some oriental direction. These, however, can no longer give to men the right content because they have their life in past ages.

In modern industry we can see an immediate effect of scientific thought. Here men do not live within what they practice. Moderns systems of labour consist in ruling out the human side of man and making him into a machine.

Void also today as a fruit of disbelief are all social impulses, and all these facts work back on men and have led then to a certain ‘easy-going’ condition of their social life.

If one wishes to compare or contrast the ascending with the declining powers of the day, one observes that the life of expression is not sufficiently active and does not carry on with enthusiasm what is required. People would rather not take up any new piece of work; they prefer asking if its need is already established, rather than trying to prove its worth in life.

In the world of education, teachers try to place things before children in such a way that they need not be altered when the children grow up. But what is presented to children should be so given that it develops with the child during the course of its life.

It is in these facts that we can see how the seeds of agnosticism bear fruit in the life of man.”

Wow. Written over eighty years ago — could be fully applied to our present condition. Who talks like that anymore? Unless, of course, they want you to send them money…Hmm…

Natalie Angier, The Canon (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2007).

A “science for dummies” kind of text. An introduction to scientific thinking and its history that has a popular and accessible content. I picked this up because of the courses I’m teaching in the same vein. In truth, it isn’t all that great. There’s something a little too cheeky and flippant about Angier’s tone. I imagine she’d be kinda hard to take in person. It’s hard to like books when you have the sense you wouldn’t like the author.

So, anyway, that’s it. The quiz? What book lies on your desk that you’d like to share with the world, something that recently inspired, or broadened your perspective? Maybe just something subversive and dirty. Whatever works…

Extinction Means Forever

May 26, 2008


Love some of the graffiti in these parts. Want to know more about this little fellow, Canada’s most endangered species? You can go here.


May 26, 2008

I’ve been riding a lot. The weather out here has been really nice, and there’s some great places to ride. Today I headed out in the afternoon to explore the farther reaches of the Galloping Goose Regional Trail. It takes you up out of town into the countryside for about 50 km, ending in Sooke. I usually ride about 20 km up and back, but I pushed a little further today, exploring. Sunday. The trail becomes quite remote, and instead of dodging other cyclists I was avoiding robins and even a wild hare, winding my way through the lovely Metchosin woods…

I decide to hit 30 km mark and maybe turn around. A pretty good ride. At 29 km my tire blows. Not a slow leak, but done. The sound of air quickly rushing out of the tire is…deflating. I haven’t seen anybody in about 15 minutes. And yet, the surroundings accompanying my dilemma are idyllic; Lovely fields with horses, woody glades, hidden little ponds and streams.

And so I rattled through the countryside on my rim for a couple of km (something you’re not supposed to do unless you like buying new rims!), gingerly trying not to put any weight on the deflated back tire. My snazzy ride had become a clanking, clunky hunk of junk…

I stopped in front of a farm — suspiciously eying up the livestock as I munched on some trail mix. I think about walking up to one of these random farms and seeing if they have bike stuff. But knocking on the door of a remote farmhouse seems too conveniently like the start of a bad horror flick. Besides, most people would probably be fairly unhelpful. Or worse, too helpful.

So, anyway, it’s back on the bike, chugging along in the boonies on a rim that I can hear getting dinged up by the rough gravel trail. The clouds looked a little menacing, and if it had started raining it would have been a party…

However, with the sun holding out, I made it to a “real” road. A road with a bike shop on it (which was called, appropriately enough, “The Bike Shop”). It was late, but fortunately the place was still open. The shop owner, kind and helpful, resurrected my rim and slapped on a new tire and tube.

The final (thankfully uneventful) 20 km into town I thought about how the whole ordeal was strangely fun. For most people a flat out in the bush is just a pain. And in some ways it was. But it was also the road less traveled, an unexpected detour, and a seemingly insurmountable problem solved fairly easily.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that coming home I had the wind at my back and it was all downhill…


May 21, 2008

According to a piece by the CBC, NASA astronomers recently had the good fortune to capture the beginnings of a supernova — the death throes of a star — in a nearby (well, it’s 100 million light years away, but sorta near in cosmic terms…) galaxy, variously labeled NGC 2770. Supernovae are fairly rare events, occurring every 50-100 years in any given galaxy. What’s special about this star is that an orbital x-ray telescope on a satellite, one of NASA’s many toys, happened to catch it at the point of going nova.

Chances of an observation like this happening by accident: astronomical…

Coffee Shop Blues

May 21, 2008

If there’s such a thing, I have it. Feeling numbed by this locale — all slick tourist traps, stuffed bears, Native America novelty, and faux old English charm. My totemic self is having an identity crisis. Without structure, familiarity or moorings, adrift by the sea.

Sense of homelessness (something very different from the fact of homelessness) is as palpable and plentiful as the street folk scattered around here, wandering this wealthy garden paradise. The effect of transition, I suspect. Feels like I’ve been bumming around coffee shops for the last couple of months, here and in Montreal, looking for meaning I won’t find in a well-brewed cappuccino.

I need a new project — a “real” job — something more rooted than all this aimlessness. It’s all coming soon.

For now, caffeine will have to suffice as spiritual source…Magic beans, man…


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