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Archive for July, 2007

actualsize.jpgHere at Scribble Central let me assure you that we are far too busy collecting obscure but fascinating bits of ocean science to pay much attention to page stats. Nevertheless it’s distressingly difficult to ignore one post’s reigning popularity.

That would be Cute Baby Pictures #1. It’s just resoundingly, devastatingly, congenitally popular. Just last week alone the post (first published a full year ago) got looked at upwards of 200 times.

There’s just a staggering number of people who search the Internet on the chance that whatever the cuteness of their current favorite baby pictures, something even more doggedly cute has just been posted.

It’s a bit difficult for a writer to discover that his most resonant work so far is a picture of a silver-dollar-sized turtle and some funny socks. But far be it from me to deny the public what it wants any longer. I’m releasing baby watermelons onto the World Wide Web.

Above, revel in the adorableness of this little one, barely bigger than a stripedy-blue reef fish. And truth be told, that’s a pretty small fish.

australia.jpgBut oh, how they grow – and in just a few short months (we’re thinking October, maybe) this little guy’s going to be a corker. His big sister over here at the left is already nearly the size of Australia.

No watermelons were harmed (yet) in the making of this post. Watermelons were grown organically on land formerly described in the Scribble Climate Experiment. They live in constant natural peril from organic gophers.

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Californians live busy lives – always beating traffic, etching tiny shapes into silicon, investing, divesting, protesting, cross-dressing, grape-squishing, etc. They don’t have a lot of spare time to worry about the Big One – that final great San Andreas earthquake that has been building for 300 years and is forecast to make the 1906 quake look as innocuous as Santa Claus’s belly jiggling.

Fortunately they at least have a few government institutions to worry for them. As LiveScience’s intrepid Jeanna Bryner reports, Caltech and the San Diego Supercomputer Center – long in the earthquake monitoring business – have teamed up to provide video simulations of real earthquakes.

Starting soon, data collected from any Los Angeles-area earthquake of magnitude 3.5 or more – that’s 1-2 per month – will be funneled to make a video of the actual ground’s actual shaking.  So if you have a particularly favorite earthquake you want to relive – or you’re just out of town and you miss one – you can just hit rewind.

To get you started, here’s a simulation of a possible Big One – a M7.7 quake that starts at the Salton Sea, near Palm Springs, and ripples westward to Hollywood. The simulation took 4 days and produced 10,000 gigabytes of data. In California, even the supercomputers are busy.

Image: LiveScience.com

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frontispiece.jpgSome perspective:

As you stand in the still cold air you may sometimes hear the silence broken by the sharp reports as the cold contracts or its own weight splits it. Nature is tearing up that ice as human beings tear paper.

Cherry, on finding crevasses in the dark during the Winter Journey:

We began to realize, now that our eyes were more or less out of action, how much we could do with our feet and ears. The effect of walking in finnesko [booties] is much the same as walking in gloves, and you get a sense of touch which nothing else except bare feet could give you…. soon we began to rely more and more upon the sound of our footsteps to tell us whether we were on crevasses or solid ground.

Later, in daylight, on the giant Beardmore Glacier:

The day really lives in my memory because of the troubles of Keohane. He fell into crevasses to the full length of his harness eight times in twenty-five minutes. Little wonder he looked a bit dazed. And Atkinson went down into one chasm head foremost: the worst crevasse fall I’ve ever seen. But luckily the shoulder straps of his harness stood the strain and we pulled him up little the worse.

Bowers, the expedition superman and the third occupant of Scott’s last tent:

As a rule the centre of a bridged crevasse is the safest place, the rotten places are at the edges. We had to go over dozens by hopping right on to the ice. It is a bit of a jar when it gives way under you, but the friendly harness is made to trust one’s life to. The Lord only knows how deep these vast chasms go down, they seem to extend into blue black nothingness thousands of feet below.

And Scott himself, who had to be persuaded out after descending to rescue two fallen dogs:

While we were getting him up the sixty odd feet to which we had lowered him he kept muttering: ‘I wonder why this is running the way it is – you expect to find them at right angles,’ and when down the crevasse he wanted to go off exploring, but we managed to persuade him that the snow-ledge upon which he was standing was utterly unsafe, and indeed we could see the nothingness below through the blue holes in the shelf.

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frontispiece.jpgI really didn’t plan it this way, but it turns out that while complaining about outdoor magazines I’ve also been reading perhaps the great book about a group of men going somewhere and either nearly dying or actually dying. It’s The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, who was the youngest officer on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s disastrous trip to Antarctica from 1910 to 1913.

By “worst journey,” Cherry doesn’t even mean the journey to the pole on which Scott and four others died. That journey was in the summer. The previous winter, Cherry and two others had made a 130-mile round trip journey in total darkness to study emperor penguins incubating their eggs. They did it wearing dogskin mittens and dragging 275 pounds apiece on sleds. Their sleeping bags (reindeer hide) weighed 12 pounds when they were dry, which was never.

They drank hot water cooked over seal blubber before bed so their feet could thaw their sleeping bags enough to get into them. They welcomed the occasional blizzards, because they were warm: minus 25 F instead of minus 70. They made around two miles per day.

Anyway, knowing that you Scribble readers are industrious sorts, you may not have time to digest the entire 600 pages. But if your work week is getting you down, perhaps reading the occasional Cherry-picked passage will help you survive until Thursday. Here’s something that seems appropriate for the illustration.

I wish I could take you on to the great Ice Barrier some calm evening when the sun is just dipping in the middle of the night and show you the autumn tints on Ross Island. A last look round before turning in, a good day’s march behind, enough fine fat pemmican inside you to make you happy, the homely smell of tobacco from the tent, a pleasant sense of soft fur and the deep sleep to come. And all the softest colours God has made are in the snow…. How peaceful and dignified it all is.

Or, there’s this from a night at minus 70:

There was one halt when we just lay on our backs and gazed up into the sky, where, so the others said, there was blazing the most wonderful aurora they had ever seen…. most of the sky was covered with swinging, swaying curtains which met in a great whirl overhead: lemon yellow, green and orange…. I did not see it, being so near-sighted and unable to wear spectacles owing to the cold.

Read along here.

Illustration: Edward Wilson, expedition head scientist and leader of the Winter Journey. Eight months later, he died in Scott’s tent on his way back from the pole.

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amphipod.jpg Iceland has its first and second endemic animal species on record and they’re both amphipods – little crustaceans that are sort of like krill … in the same way that krill are sort of like shrimp. (Readers who know their small marine critters are invited to chip in with details.)

What’s neat about them is that they live underground, sipping the sweet, fresh water that gurgles through the lava rock. And one of them belongs to a very old family of underground amphipods found in both North America and Europe.

Many people, upon learning such a fact, would go “Neato” and click onward. But Bjarni Kristjansson and Jorundur Svavarsson of Holar University College realized this meant that Iceland probably shared groundwater with one of those continents a long time ago. They argue (in American Naturalist) that it was most likely Greenland, and most likely about 40 million years ago, after the Atlantic Ocean had ripped open and just as the hotspot that created Iceland passed through the coast of Greenland.

For much of the time since then, the amphipods have been hiding out from repeated glaciations in relatively warm, safe groundwater. The typical way we think species survive glaciations is to move southward until the glaciers retreat, then hopscotch back to the north. Not an option on Iceland.

Instead, the authors think the amphipods sat underground and waited out each glaciation. The last one iced over Iceland from 2.6 million years ago all the way to about 12,000 years ago. That’s one reason why there are so few endemic species on the island – nobody’s been there long enough yet to speciate.

The authors make a pretty good argument. The amphipods are from a freshwater lineage, so they couldn’t have swum over through the sea. If they came from nearby amphipods who evolved to tolerate freshwater, then they would belong to a different family. And it’s unlikely they hitched a ride on birds’ feet (as tadpoles sometimes do) because their eggs are delicate.

This is why I love science. The stories start small, then they interlock and get bigger. One moment we have a water-flea (well, not taxonomically, but you know what I mean). An underground water-flea. Buried under miles of ice. In the middle of the ocean. Swimming through a secret underground connection. As Iceland flames out of Greenland and into the North Atlantic. Back during the dawn of mammals.

Image: Holar University College. My apologies for the missing umlauts, accents, etc. in the authors’ names.

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cellphone1.jpg Israeli mathematicians are taking math to where the kids are – their cell phones. The Institute for Alternative Education at the University of Haifa has unveiled downloadable graphing tools for cell phones.

You can fiddle with coefficients and watch what happens to the associated parabolas and hyperbolas; you can work on your graphical problem solving. The geo-curious can “experiment” with quadrilaterals; budding empiricists can fit curves to data; and calculescent students can work out derivatives and integrals.

All free for the downloading to your java-enabled phone. The site knows for a fact the modules work on a variety of Sony Ericsson and Nokia models and claim it ought to work on others.

As far as the Scribbler is concerned, this seems like a nifty idea (though tragically uncool, and I think that’s probably all that counts). At any rate, I fear I may be slipping down the wrong side of the technology gap to make much use of the software. You can play with the demo version on the Web site, but doing so just made my thumbs anxious.

Nevertheless, you’ve got to admire the places the good Israelis see this going:

A car is moving at a speed of 20 meters per second when the driver sees a ball rolling on the road. The driver’s reaction time is one second (reaction time is the time that passes between identifying the ball and pressing the brakes.) During that time the car continues at its constant speed. After the driver presses the brakes, the car decelerates for 7 seconds until it stops.

  • Describe in a graph the distance the car traveled during from the time the driver saw the ball until the car stopped.
  • What does the lower graph describe in this story?
  • How would your graph change in each of the following situations: (1) the driver drove faster; (2) the driver was drunk; (3) it was a rainy day.

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July’s Outside magazine featured a story of survival. That was it: a guy trying to survive. Thayer Walker, the author, dropped himself off on an uninhabited Panamanian island and allowed himself to starve for three weeks. At the end, he picked up the phone, called a nearby resort, and a boat came to pick him up.

In the meantime, he ate termites, limpets, coconuts, and some sugarcane that someone had planted and then abandoned. He snorkeled around the island’s reefs for an hour or so a day. He tried to weave baskets. He failed to make a fire.

In the end, he learned that he really didn’t like pina coladas much anymore. Too coconutty.

backlit-lizard-on-leaf_n.jpgWhile I admire Walker’s ability to gut it out for so long, I don’t understand why he did it or why Outside decided to tell us about it. We used to read about life-or-death struggles endured on quests with at least partially noble motives. Into Thin Air, about the 1995 Everest disaster, springs to mind. Or a better example, Farley Mowatt’s Canadian summers watching wolves and getting by on voles.

But those kinds of stories upped the ante, and now poor travel writers have to think of ever-more obscure ways of nearly dying in order to catch our attention. Last year, a BASE jumper had to jump from a bridge into a canyon continuously for 24 hours, puffing back up the hill every time, to get our attention.

Told well, and when real drama is involved, it’s gripping. But has anyone noticed that the person is occupying more and more of the frame these days? The outdoors is getting squeezed into smaller and smaller nooks – and I don’t know about you, but the outdoors is why I go out into the outdoors.

Walker went to a 5-day survival school before his trip. He was bent on learning to make fire with a bow and stick, and succeeded once or twice, although his teacher’s words were prophetic: “Fire is always most difficult when it’s most important.” But did he do any other preparation? Did he learn what the common plants and animals were likely to be? Which plants might be edible? What might be fruiting? Whether to eat termite larvae or termite adults?

There’s almost no jungle in Walker’s story beyond the word “jungle.” Didn’t he see anything interesting while he was looking for food or tinder? No snakes, no cool bugs, weird flowers? At least on the first well-fed days, didn’t he marvel at anything around him? There’s none of this kind of detail – just steely lines about eating limpets and throwing up.

Maybe this isn’t Walker’s fault – maybe he discarded page after soulful page because his editors wanted this instead. But for us it amounts to the same thing: an article about a person. Somewhere. Trying to nearly die.

oropendola-nests_n.jpgOutdoor magazines seem to have decided that the 20-something upwardly mobile male is the only person worth publishing for. They’re turning into Maxim, just with more granite: hence recent Outside articles on a Playboy bunny at Everest base camp and “How to Shag on a Portaledge” (Cheesy first line: “So you’ve just climbed a 5.12 with a 10.0 and you’re all sweaty and hot”).

A recent National Geographic Adventure ran a story on road-tripping through Baja California. The captions – which outweighed the rest of the text – told us what each person was wearing and how much it cost. At this point, the Patagonia catalog is doing a better job of being an outdoor magazine.

Back in the day, Tim Cahill did some actual research for his Outside stories. He looked up historical accounts of anacondas and their fearsome size before going out to look for them. And then when he did rustle one up, he admitted it was a lot smaller than it was cracked up to be. David Quammen used to fill us in on actual things happening outdoors, like asteroidal craters in Kamchatka and illegal immigrants jumping desiccated border fences and why we ought to revere the mosquito. Sound interesting? It is.

I don’t mean to pick on Walker and his plucky, if pointless, quest to survive. But survival has become just another additive, like high fructose corn syrup or guarana extract, that we get in everything now whether we want it or not.

We’ve got YouTube for when we want to see someone point a videocamera at his face right before doing something foolish. So could the outdoor magazines please pan back around to our surroundings now? It’s pretty out there.

All images: Charles Eldermire, taken during fieldwork in Costa Rica.

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