Thursday, November 15, 2018

Book Review: Sharp Ends, by Joe Abercrombie

Sharp Ends is a dozen short stories of the sword and sorcery variety (more sword, less sorcery), set in a bleak, dark ages type setting. The stories are bleak and brutal, but the writing is beautiful. I found, however, that the action generally unfolds very slowly. The scenes are painted exquisitely, but there is not a lot of urgency to the stories. This book was my first introduction to Abercrombie’s work; it may be that having read his novels would yield context that would make the stories more enjoyable. As a standalone work, some stories are tied together by the recurrence of several characters, the most memorable of which are Javre and Shev, a gritty modern feminist version of Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser.

Despite the excellent wordcraft, I did not find the plots particularly gripping, or the characters particularly compelling, or the fantasy particularly illuminating. Perhaps if I had read the novels first I would feel differently, but I’m not a huge grimdark fan to begin with, and without the supersonic pace of a Harry Connolly yarn or the grand vision of G.R.R. Martin I found the florid prose tended to drag.

Monday, November 05, 2018

After the Fires

Back in 2003, western Canberra was ravaged by bushfire. One of the most heavily damaged areas was the Mt. Stromlo observatory and surrounding pine plantations. The pines were mostly P. radiata, a coastal California species which grows very well in Australia- with 2 growth whorls per year, each up to a meter. A small corner of this plantation was P. ponderosa, however.  This Western US mountain species is a slower growing, longer lived species, and is better adapted to survive fire. The fire break provided by the Mt Stromlo access road allowed one stand of ponderosa to survive, and in the aftermath of the fire, the surviving ponderosas reseeded. That 15 year old regrowth has been putting on some extraordinary growth rates. Bike for scale.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Book Review: The 2020 Comission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks...

Book review: The 2020 Commission Report into the North Korean Nuclear Attacks against the United States
By Dr. Jeffrey Lewis

This book is a speculative fiction story about the use of North Korean nuclear weapons in the near future- specifically early 2020. Speculative fiction is nothing new. But unlike Harry Turtledove or John Birmingham, Jeffrey Lewis is, in addition to being an author, a world expert in nuclear proliferation and arms control. The book’s format, closely paralleling the 9/11 report down to the opening paragraph, plays to this strength. However, despite the author’s academic and think tank background, this book is a gripping page-turner, make all the more compelling by its fact-based and thoroughly researched nature.

The book describes a possible scenario in which poor communications and saber rattling result in the DPRK shooting down a commercial airliner en route from the Republic of Korea to Mongolia, and the subsequent escalation and miscommunication that leads the North to launch a pre-emptive tactical nuclear strike, under the mistaken impression that it is under attack. This then escalates to an all-out war, with the DPRK’s long range missiles striking several US cities, with millions of casualties.

The book is a page turner. I read it in a single sitting the day after I got back from Korea. However, because Dr. Lewis is an arms control expert, and not a novelist, it also comes with 20 pages of references for the 270 page novel. As such, it is as much a report in narrative form (much like the actual 9/11 report) as a story in its own right. Except, of course, this book is a report on a disaster that has not (yet) happened.

Overall, it was a good read, both entertaining and educational. Dr. Lewis is obviously knowledgeable on nuclear weapons, their effects on human health, and the havoc they wreak on civilian infrastructure. And he uses his expertise to great effect. While reasonable people can argue about in what areas historical records are pertinent and in which areas technological change has made them obsolete, his well referenced arguments are an excellent place to start any discussion, whither you agree with his points or not.

I found a few things disappointing. The main thesis of the book is that the DPRK, if it believed it was under conventional, regime-changing attack, could use nuclear weapons tactically, (or at least locally) to give itself a chance. This hypothesis was never really investigated in any detail, however, which makes to difficult to judge how rational such a counter strike would be.

My main complaint, however, is that Dr’ Lewis cannot refrain from taking cheap shots at President Trump, when describing the American response. He does have some reasonable criticisms around issues like the President’s lack of appreciation for communications security and the difficulty in responding to a crisis from his various private properties. But he also takes generic liberal cheap shots, which don’t build his case and are distracting from his well researched work. More ominously, they risk politicizing nuclear war, an outcome which everyone should be trying to avoid. We all know what a debacle the polliticization of Global Warming has been; imagine how much worse things could be if the same thing happened with Nuclear War. In fact, while he doesn’t specifically mention this possibility, there are hints at how hyperpartisanship could risk nuclear stability. But that is another topic for another day.

Tuesday, October 09, 2018

IPCC 1.5 degrees of obfuscation

So, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released an important document today, allegedly demonstrating that 1.5 degrees of warming is preferable to 2 degrees, and that with an enormous about of effort, we might actually be able to achieve it. I, an Earth Scientist with a PhD and 17 years of professional experience, tried to read it, because it is important, and good scientist citizens ought to at least try to do the right thing.

Unfortunately, the report, as I found it on the IPCC website, is an incomprehensible tangle of bureaucratese and parenthetical rabbit holes. For example:

Warming greater than the global annual average is being experienced in many land regions  and seasons, including two to three times higher in the Arctic. Warming is generally higher over  land than over the ocean. ( high confidence) {1.2.1, 1.2.2, Figure 1.1, Figure 1.3, 3.3.1, 3.3.2}
Trends in intensity and frequency of some climate and weather extremes have been detected  over time spans during which about 0.5 ° C of global warming occurred (medium confidence). This  assessment is based on several lines of evidence, including attribution studies for changes in  extremes since 1950. {3.3.1, 3.3.2, 3.3.3}
A.2. Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre -industrial period to the present  will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in  the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these  emissions alone are  unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence ) {1.2, 3.3,
Figure 1.5, Figure SPM.1}
 It has all of the pitfalls the 9/11 report managed to avoid, in terms of failing to ensure accessability, readability, and currency to your average human being. In fact, it comes across as a fantasy edict beamed down by aliens, which is probably not too bad a description of Ivory Tower science these days. For example, It spends lots- perhaps most (I've pretty much glazed over a third of the way through the Summary for Policy Makers- you know, the part that should be clear and simple for non-specialists) of the time describing the benefits of aiming for a 1.5C warming target instead of a 2 degree target.

Of course, we aren't on course to hit a 2 degree target. We are on course for a 3 or 4 degree target. So the relevance of the report is completely at odds with the reality of the world we live in. Now, there are technical reasons why it is hard to write a report describing the difference between 4 degrees and 3.5 degrees. It has been tens of millions of years since the world was that warm, so reconstructing that climate is much more difficult than a 1 or 2 degree warmer world, which we had an order of magnitude more recently. So explaining where we are going is actually quite hard. But they don't even try, or acknowledge this. Instead they are off in this fantasy land where we all have ponies, and they want to sell us on the benefits of unicorn horns and sparkles in the manes.

However, this may be more of a dark fantasy than a rainbow pony fantasy. The "target" CO2 emission reductions curves (Figure SPM.3a) they show have no rollover or transition period, but drop precipitously from the present day at a rate comparable only with that seen in the collapse of the USSR. They don't explicitly talk about this, but there is a blathering world government waffling towards the end that goes:
Cooperation on strengthened accountable multilevel governance that includes non-
state actors such as industry, civil society and scientific institutions, coordinated sectoral and cross-
sectoral policies at various governance levels, gender-sensitive policies, finance including innovative
financing and cooperation on technology development and transfer can ensure participation,
transparency, capacity building, and learning among different players (high confidence). {2.5.2,
4.2.2, 4.4.1, 4.4.2, 4.4.3, 4.4.4, 4.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 9 in Chapter 4, 5.3.1, 4.4.5, 5.5.3, Cross-Chapter Box 13 in Chapter 5, 5.6.1, 5.6.3}

In otherwords, the governments of the world, which are currently assassinating skeptical journalists,. locking up children, and dropping trillions of dollars of bombs in proxy wars which endanger millions of people,  all just have to join together and sing kum-by-yah while dismantling their transportation and industrial facilities, and we'll all be fine. Frankly, I suspect we're more likely to solve global warming with nuclear winter at this point, at the IPCC report gives me no hope that they have a more reasonable or concrete plan.

In summary, the world experts on climate got together and wrote an unreadable report.  If you piece the bits and pieces that might mean something together, it awkwardly hints that saving the planet is completely possible if the entirely of human nature and politics is magically transformed in the next year.

In other words we, every one of the 7.8 billion of us, is totally, completely, and thoroughly fucked.

Sunday, August 26, 2018


So I bumped into Nelly Furtado the other day, and of course I immediately started to explain to her all about Atlantic hotspots and a couple of Canadian cities I’ve never been to and some styles of music that I don’t really know anything about, but she must have had something really important to go to because she walked away before I could tell her that she got the lyrics to her 2006 #1 UK hit all wrong:

Everybody listen to me
I walk in the door and you start fleeing
Come on everybody want to hear more?
Well actually this how it all goes.

Everybody get your pot to crack around
All you crazy people come gather 'round
I wanna tell you all one more point please
You either want to be deaf or flee me

Mansplainer: ignore work hard stupid libtard
Make you want to plug his hole
He’s a manslpainer what a blowhard catch you off guard
Stroke his ego's his one goal

He’s a mansplainer: ignore work hard stupid libtard
Make you want to plug his hole
He’s a manslpainer what a blowhard catch you off guard
Make you wish you never ever met him at all

And when he talks he talks with passion
When he stalks he stalks to interject shit
When he asks “but as you know” he means it
Even if you never understand it.

Everybody get your pot to crack around
All you crazy people come gather 'round
I wanna tell you all one more point please
You either want to be deaf or flee me

Mansplainer: ignore work hard stupid libtard
Make you want to plug his hole
He’s a man-slpainer what a blowhard catch you off guard
Stroke his ego's his one goal

He’s a mansplainer: ignore work hard stupid libtard
Make you want to plug his  hole
He’s a man-slpainer what a blowhard catch you off guard
Make you wish you never ever met him at all

No never ever met him at all
You wish you’d never ever met him at all…

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Looking back at my ASI years

It has been two and a half years since I stopped working at Australian Scientific Instruments. I haven’t written or said much about it since then. But I probably should. The best way to do that is probably to focus on the positives. Here are several benefits that I gained as a result of working at ASI for almost six and a half years:


Prior to working at ASI, I had never been to Asia, aside from airport stopovers. I managed to reach all the other inhabited continents during my PhD back in the late 90’s, but somehow I had managed to miss the big one.
And Asia is a big deal. More than half the world’s population live there. Six of the cities that I visited have populations bigger than Australia, and thus were far bigger that New York, the place I grew up thinking of as the Big City.

The reason that these cities are so big is that Asia has been having an enormous economic boom. In my lifetime, hundreds of millions of people ascended into the middle class. And they way that they did so is fundamentally different than how European and American technological societies developed. In many places, it seems like the 20th century, in which I grew up, was skipped over entirely, and 19th century societies had jumped straight into the future.

The cultural differences are of course, both confronting and educational. I have never realized what it is like to not be able to read anything until I first went to China. But even though the writing systems, history, and culture are vastly different to the western world I’ve grown up in, the humanity and the science is still the same.

I am not a city person, but the nature of the work we were doing generally had us in capitol cities or other major urban areas.  And while this was hard for me, it also means I learned a lot by virtue of being challenged.


Ever since I can remember, I have resented being a Junior, and for most of my post-pubescent life I have been trying to distance myself from my parents as much as possible. This has resulted in me settling down in Australia, which is about as far as one can get from New Jersey without blasting into space. It turns out that my dad is a scientist too, and he is quite well respected in the field of surface and semiconductor analyses. This doesn’t have a lot to do with geology- that was one of the appeals of geology- but because he built one of the first SIMS instruments with a quadrupole analyser back in the 70’s, when I started building SHRIMPs at ASI this offered me an opportunity to reconnect with my dad. We even ended up writing a paper together. If I had stayed working in Alice Springs as a Central Australian fieldwork contractor, that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened.

Technical awesomeness

The Australian Scientific Instruments teams were, quite simply, ludicrously good at their jobs. A lot of the people I knew as an undergrad went to work for NASA, my first job outta college was in Menlo Park, the heart of Silicon Valley. The ANU, where I did my PhD was at that time a world leader in building technical equipment for geologic purposes. None of them could hold a finger to ASI. I suppose it must have just been an evolutionary necessity. After 25 years of competing against a 40 billion dollar multinational, you need to be pretty good at what you do, and we were.  Some highlights included:
All kids of multicollectors. The original SHRIMP multicollector at ANU was eventually taken apart and simplified, but ASI refined the design until it could be built, setup, shipped around the world and set up all over again. When the discovery of 4 isotope sulfur fractionation meant that three head collectors were essentially obsolete, we built a cleansheet design from scratch on a shoestring, and popped two on a couple of SHRIMPs in Japan with minimal complications.
The IRMS++. This is a 5 cup, Nier-Johnson mass spectrometer with an electron cyclotron resonance source, which we built from scratch for ANSTO. The original plan was for us to assemble it off of drawings they provided, but at our first planning meeting, on of our engineers took a look at what they were proposing, pointed out how many manufacturing and assembly issues can be obviated by thoughtful design, and then just took ownership of the project. There aren’t that many groups who can simply build all-new multicollector magnetic sector mass spectrometers from an ion trajectory, and I’m fortunate to have worked for one.

It was always strange to go to Silicon Valley, or Tokyo, of Beijing, and be treated like royalty, only to disappear back into our Fyshwick garage when we got home, but I guess that’s just one of the quirks of being a world-class outfit based far off the beaten track. And honestly, that’s kind of how we wanted it. ASI was a place of quiet achievement.


One of the lesser known highlights of ASI was the workplace culture. When I first arrived there, the company was about half immigrants, and half white Australian men brought up on the land. And the culture that evolved there- part tech startup, part paddock, was amazing. There was an expectation that everyone would do their own work well, without pride or preening, but there was also a willingness to help out if you could do something better or more efficiently than someone else. There was also a knowledge of who was good at what and how things could most easily be completed. It was a culture of low key, quiet achievement, and probably didn’t help the sales & marketing folks much, but it directly lead to the technical excellence listed above. And there was never blame, or finger pointing. It wasn’t until outside management came in towards the end that the word “fault” meant anything other than a broken electrical connection. And while everyone was fairly introverted- even by my standards- that didn’t stop things from getting done, and done well, and quickly.

 In these days, with the commodification of knowledge and know-how into intellectual property, the ability to create and improve often gets overlooked. But ASI was an exemplary example of a group of people who could do things, and I’m lucky to have been a part of it for so long. But the broader issue, and one reason I’m sharing all this, is that a lot of Australian ability suffers from similar dilemmas. This country has a traditional culture of quiet, selfless achievement. And while this can be very effective, in this day and age it is not always clear how this can be utilized and advertised. The culture of quiet achievement does not always mix well with the boosterism demanded by the short attention spans of some people these days who don’t think deeply enough about what they are doing and what can be achieved.

The Possibilities

The last thing that really appealed to me was how many low-hanging developmental fruit there were in teaching the SHRIMP new techniques. Because it has a two stage secondary acceleration column, the extraction field at the sample surface is more like a quad SIMS than any of the other magnetic sector SIMS instruments. So there are all sorts of analytical setups which could be implemented with only a tiny bit of additional engineering, which would allow the instrument to do types of analyses that simply weren’t possible before. I’m a little bit disappointed that I won’t be the guy to build and develop new techniques. But hopefully the new generation instrument that they’re building now will be able to do some neat stuff.

With the acquisition of the laser ICP stuff, there was obviously an opportunity to make all sots of cool multi-platform microanalytical synergy. I’m a little less optimistic that will happen- even though we did get a SHRIMP running on Geostar (as described in the technical supplement of our Geology Paper), I don’t know that anyone is currently working on following that work up. But it was promising enough for me to push it for as long as I thought there was a chance it would work.

In the end, I left because it wasn’t clear what staying would accomplish. In October of 2015 we had a round of layoffs, which included a successful senior engineer who was the most outspoken person with regards to resisting management’s attempts to put us on contracts instead of renegotiating our Enterprise Agreement. I was next in line to take up the mantle of employment rights agitator, and my value to the company was diminished by the fact that my boss had bailed from the Silicon Valley meetings I set up for him to drum up business,  thereby ensuring that I wouldn’t be bringing any new work in any time soon. I still second guess my choice to leave- The brave thing to do would have been to stay and try to bring a union in, but I convinced myself that getting off payroll would maybe save someone else’s job.  And though I second guess myself often, it isn’t clear what I could have done better.

The first 18 months of my new job has been settling in, and for most of the last year I’ve been trying to be more involved with my family and take better care of my health. As for what next? It’s hard to tell. But suggestions are welcome.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Book Review: The Political Value of Time, by Elizabeth Cohen

I study geologic time for a living. That’s my job, and my day to day work involves making sure that the scientific instruments we use to figure out how many billions of years old various rocks are haven’t started to malfunction in ways that can generate millions of years of errors.

Apparently, though, most people don’t live their lives across the spans of eons and millions of years.  It’s good to remind myself of this every now and then, preferably before our fridge runs out of milk. One way to do this, and to gain some perspective on other ways of contemplating time, is by reading books of academic experts who study human interaction, instead of billion years old rocks. One such study is The Political Value of Time, by Professor Elizabeth Cohen (Syracuse University, USA).

Geosciences have a variety of ways to measure time. Of course, the fundamental unit of scientific time is the second- defined by atomic oscillations, from which minutes and hours are derived. But there is also astronomical time- days, months, years, and Milankovic cycles derived from the movement of rotating or orbiting moons and planets. And there are the various radioactive decay schemes, which give us 238U time 40K time, and other lesser used decay schemes, which are generally tied to one of those two systems. Comparing and cross-calibrating these various schemes is a lot of what geochronologists have been doing over the last 20 years.

The Political Value of Time combines all of these in to scientific time- e.g. the time measured by clocks and calendars. It discusses this, as opposed to other qualitative types of time used by social scientists, such as leisure time, overtime, and quiet time. Oddly, political researchers seem to have spent less time thinking about scientific time than some of these other fuzzy sorts, and this book tries to redress this situation.

The book shows that governments appropriate the time of their citizens in a way that constitutes a political economy of time. It then shows that there are several philosophical, practical, and technical reasons for this to be so. However, it points out that, because this area is understudied and the ramifications are not thought through, many of the unconscious and structural biases that burden other economies also make the economy of time less fair than it ought to be.

As it is outside my area of expertise, I don’t have the background to critically appraise the interpretations of French revolutionary philosophers and other cited works. Taking their referenced statements as given, however, yields a book with a clear, compelling, and straightforward argument. The vocabulary is specialized, and I reached for the dictionary many times in the introduction. However, the terms are used consistently and precisely through the entire book, so once the introduction is finished, the vocabulary becomes less intimidating.

As someone who used to travel extensively internationally for work, the queuing section struck all sorts of chords on the intersection of time, money, duty, efficiency, and information technology in the area of airport customs queues.

Over all, it is a good book, clearly argued. It looks like there are lots of opportunities for future research.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

Where on Google Earth are the dearly departed?

Callan Bentley of the Mountain Beltway has announced, via Twitter and Facebook, that Ron Schott has passed away. Ron was a long time of internet advocacy for Geology, both through his blog, his twitter account, his gigapan advocacy, and other activities which I haven't kept up with. He was an enthusiastic, good-natured, and helpful geologist, and though I only met him once, in 2009, his passion for explaining the stories of geology at all scales and structures was memorable. And just as fantastic geologic events leave their stories imprinted in the rock record, so too can the traces of Ron's digital Earth Science outreach be found buried and the blogs and feeds of social media. However, like the paleontological records left behind by vanished creatures, these digital fossils serve mostly to remind us of the sense of loss that we have in knowing that we can no longer meet their creator. Rest in Peace, Ron. We miss you.