Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Taking the niggers out of Huck Finn

At the beginning of this year, there was an internet brouhaha over the politically correct decision to replace all instances of the word “nigger” with "slave" in a forthcoming edition of the American classic novel, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”. I have been vehemently opposed to political correctness ever since I was told at college orientation that exercising my first amendment rights was grounds for dismissal from university. So when I read about this controversy, I chose to react in the most politically incorrect manner possible: I decided to take the time to re-read the book instead of spouting off instantly and emotionally. Six months later, the internet has long since forgotten about this event, and I’m finally ready to comment.

Being politically incorrect, my first reaction was that, if they were going to start substituting words, they ought to be adding slurs, not removing them. For example, the text of Huck Finn contains 51 instances of “white”. What if we were to replace all these with “trailer trash”?

The answer, of course, is that the story starts to make less sense. For example, consider the introduction of Huck’s father:

There warn't no color in his face, where his face showed; it was trailer trash; not like another man's trailer trash, but a trailer trash to make a body sick, a trailer trash to make a body's flesh crawl -- a tree-toad trailer trash, a fish-belly trailer trash.

Since more than three quarters of the instances of “white” in the story do not refer to race, it requires a bit of picking and choosing to get this substitution to work:

And here comes the trailer trash woman running from the house, about forty-five or fifty year old, bareheaded, and her spinning-stick in her hand; and behind her comes her little trailer trash children, acting the same way the little niggers was going.

Of course, trailers are an anachronism, and as far as epithets go, “trailer trash” is about as mild as they get: the only people likely to be offended by it probably haven’t discovered the internet yet. And it isn't even politically incorrect, since the only people it is politically correct to slur are the uneducated rural whites. So let’s try something else.

One obvious use of politically uncorrect substitution is to determine whether words are being used derogatorily. For example, if "lady" is used in a class warfare, resentful, or sarcastic context, then substituting a politically incorrect derogatory synonym (of which there are many) should preserve the tone of the passage. Performing the substitution allows us to test this hypothesis, which the very first of the 12 substitutions finds wanting:

Three big men with guns pointed at me, which made me wince, I tell you; the oldest, gray and about sixty, the other two thirty or more -- all of them fine and handsome -- and the sweetest old gray-headed cunt, and back of her two young women which I couldn't see right well.

Rachel Grangerford (the grey-haired lady/cunt) is depicted as a sympathetic, motherly character. Even in outback Australian trucking circles, where every fourth word is cunt, the above passage would be incongruous. She is the subject of five of the first seven instances of ‘lady’, and the other two refer wistfully to drawings made by Emmeline Grangerford, another sympathetic character. Most of the rest of the uses of ‘lady’ refer to fine-looking circus performers, who are not viewed particularly badly.

In fact, there are relatively few horrible female characters in Huck Finn. The least sympathetic would probably be Miss Watson, the evangelizing sister of Huck’s legal guardian who tries to sell Jim downriver. The following passage retains most of its original meaning, for example:

I noticed dey wuz a nigger trader roun' de place considable lately, en I begin to git oneasy. Well, one night I creeps to de do' pooty late, en de do' warn't quite shet, en I hear de old cunt tell de widder she gwyne to sell me down to Orleans, but she didn' want to, but she could git eight hund'd dollars for me, en it 'uz sich a big stack o' money she couldn' resis'. De widder she try to git her to say she wouldn' do it, but I never waited to hear de res'. I lit out mighty quick, I tell you.

Of course, one has to be careful doing an automatic search and replace of all 110 instances of “miss”. Firstly, cunt is not a verb, and secondly, the story is set on the Missouri bank of the Mississippi river.

But I digress. The uproar about this book is not the cunts. It is the niggers. And if the politically correct way of addressing this is to turn all instances of nigger to slave, then the politically anticorrect response should be to change all the original uses of the word slave to nigger. And this is where things get interesting.

Despite the word nigger appearing in the text 212 times, slave only appears 11. Five of those are in “slavery”, and another refers to “slave country”. The remaining five are related to Jim’s sale to the Phelps family by the King, Huck stealing him, and the news that Miss Watson freed Jim in her will on account of feeling bad about trying to sell him.

The word slave is only used to specifically refer to the condition of someone (usually Jim) being owned. It is not used to refer to people as human beings. In the original text, it is simply not interchangeable with nigger, or black, or any other reference to people, African-American or otherwise.

Slavery is an institution that quite literally reduces people to mere property- it is the ultimate form of objectification. So the original texts refusal to label the people subjected to this institution with the word slave is probably important, given that the author had hundreds of chances to do so. In this way, the text condemns the institution in a way that would be lost in the politically correct rewording.

Of course, "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is not the only form of literature to have been deniggered. For example, the well known nursery school rhyme:
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a nigger by the toe.
If it hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe

Has been edited to replace nigger with tiger. To the best of my knowledge, this did not precipitate howls of outrage among the self-appointed internet literati. However, such a substitution might be a bit awkward for Huck Finn:
Tigers would come miles to hear Jim tell about it, and he was more looked up to than any tiger in that country. Strange tigers would stand with their mouths open and look him all over, same as if he was a wonder. Tigers is always talking about witches in the dark by the kitchen fire; but whenever one was talking and letting on to know all about such things, Jim would happen in and say, "Hm! What you know 'bout witches?" and that tiger was corked up and had to take a back seat. Jim always kept that five-center piece round his neck with a string, and said it was a charm the devil give to him with his own hands, and told him he could cure anybody with it and fetch witches whenever he wanted to just by saying something to it; but he never told what it was he said to it. Tigers would come from all around there and give Jim anything they had, just for a sight of that five-center piece; but they wouldn't touch it, because the devil had had his hands on it.

It may be that politically correct readers wish to substitute something other than slave or tiger throughout this novel; feel free to leave suggestions, with examples of replaced text, in comments.

A more general point is that experimental search and replace is an interesting tool of textural analysis. Obviously it can only be used in the case of works available in an editable format, which for practical purposes means the public domain. But it shows that the traditional scientific methods of exploring a system by changing one variable at a time can be applied to literature. There has be much in the news of late about the controversial practice of statistically mining literature. So experimentation is the next obvious step in the sciencification of literary analysis.

Systematically changing the language of various masterpieces is a useful analytical tool. But I suspect that anti-science traditionalists will see this technique as blasphemous vandalism which is even more offensive than the derogatory words used freely in this post.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


Is my favorite geological word. Or rather, my favorite formerly geologic word. From a lawyeristic point of view, it hasn’t been a geologic word since 1982, despite having been the preferred name for Ca TiSiO5 for the 4,566,999,971 years prior to that date. These days, you don’t sphene spoken of much, as most of us who mutter it are busy yelling at the young whippersnappers to get off our psilophytopsid lawns. However, it has not totally disappeared from the scientific literature, despite the best efforts of the IMA to discredit it. And the materials scientists might actually still prefer sphene (God belss them).

Of course, most mineralogists these days dutifully go along with the official name (the “T-word”, since despite my use of cunt, nigger, and fuck in this blog, I do draw a line at really offensive words, like t*&#%ite). And why shouldn't they use the official name? They are just following orders. But there are still a few cowboy rock smashers around who got into this field because we were never particularly good at following the rules. And while I am not so old-fashioned as to refer to element 41 as columbium, I do prefer sphene.

The T-word is a stupid name. The mineral was known (and called sphene) long before the element titanium was discovered. The name is derived from the greek word for wedge, whoich describes the shape perfectly. In contrast, commercial titanium is mined from ilemite or rutile, not sphene. And the element was originally discovered (independently) by processing ilmenite (in the UK) and rutile (in Germany) in the 1790’s.

Sphene has a domain name.
The t-word does not.
Sphene is pretty.

Finally, any sphene used in geochronology was almost certainly sphene when it crystallized, and only morphed into the T-word at a very late stage in its evolution. Fortunately, the sphene/T-word transformation does not upset the U-Pb isotopic system, so that dating of sphene is still possible today.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Three reasons that Conservatives should fight global warming

Here in Australia, as in America, the conservative branch of politics remains firmly opposed to meaningful action to slow climate change. This is unfortunate, because climate change offers several opportunities to conservatives, were they to move aggressively to transition away from fossil fuels. I will list three below.

Note that on occasion, liberal opinionators will describe reasons that conservative should act on climate change. Those reasons generally boil down to something along the lines of “well, basically they should stop being so conservative.” This is not one of those lists. Instead, I will describe three ways in which action on climate change will help conservative causes at the expense of the left.

1. Unravel the unions

The fossil fuel industry is generally more heavily unionized than the general population in most countries. In union-poor countries like the US, sectors like coal are amoung the few in private industry where unions remain relevant. In heavily unionized countries like Australia, union penetration of energy production is extremely high.

In contrast, many renewable energy companies are small, entrepenurial, and union-free. As far as I know, there has never been a crippling strike by the united brotherhood of rooftop solar panel installers, because no such organization exists. If the left is allowed to guide the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, they will probably find a way of transferring union power into the new field. In contrast, the shift away from fossil fuels offers conservative a one-in-a-generation opportunity to destroy unions by closing down the industries in which they operate.

2. Neuter the NIMBYs

Transitioning from fossil fuels to a renewable economy will require a lot of development. Power generation and transmission facilities will all have to be built, and built fast, in order to effect meaningful change before irreparable damage is done to the polar ice caps. This can’t happen if small numbers of highly connected recalcitrant people have the power to block development. A prime example of this is the Cape Wind fiasco in Massachusetts, where local opposition led by the liberal Kennedy political dynasty has stymied the project for a decade and added billions to its cost. Rapid and effective changes to the energy system will not be possible if the NIMBY obstruction industry is allowed to continue blocking it, so they will have to be disempowered.

3. Embarrass the United Nations

The United Nations has been trying to act on climate change for almost 20 years. Under its Kyoto protocol, emissions have actually increased faster than what was considered the worst case scenario at the time. This is due mostly to the industrialization of Asia, where the flight of Western industry has created wealth and opportunity for billions of people in countries that were once destitute. While this is great for Asia, it shows that the UN plan was completely useless in terms of slowing CO2 emissions. A smart, effective, conservative-based, locally controlled emissions plan that immediately cuts into emissions would show to the world that in general, the most effective thing the UN can do is to get out of the way.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

One hundred major impacts: part two: the deep ocean

A few months ago, I guaranteed the readership of the Lounge that none of them would be killed by a meteorite impact. In laying out the estimates that allowed me to do this, I took an equal area map and bombarded it with one hundred 400m projectiles. Objects of this size hit the Earth about once every 100,000 years, and are locally devastating but globally insignificant, so this seemed like a good way to look at where an impactor “big enough to wipe out LA” was actually likely to land.

Of these 100 impactors, 71 landed in the ocean. 19 of these were within 1000 km of the coastling of an inhabited continent (e.g. not Antarctica), while the others were far out in the ocean basins.

For impacts more than 1000 km offshore, the impact effect calculator of Marcus, Melosh, and Collins suggests that the main effect would be a tsunami. The tsunami details are not in their linked paper, and the amplitudes vary significantly, but the maximum amplitude at 1000 km from the impact area is about 4 meters or smaller. This is broadly similar to that of a magnitude 9 earthquake such as those that struck Japan this year and Sumatra (and the Bay of Bengal) four years ago. The tsunami takes about 1.8 hours to travel 1000 km, so warning times would depend greatly on detecting the impactor in space and seeing the fireball with antiproliferation satellites (this impactor is equivalent to a 3000 megaton bomb, so the fireball would be far larger than that of a nuclear weapon). The seismic signal of a hit to the deep ocean would actually be fairly minor, as most of the energy would be absorbed by the water.

Of course, the main difference is timing. Half of the impacts in this simulation were in the deep ocean, so with an impact repeat rate of 1 every 100,000 years, we would expect one deep ocean impact every 200,000 years. In contrast, a magnitude 9 earthquake strikes about once every 25 years. So over a million year period, we would expect 40,000 tsunamis from earthquakes, and five from deep ocean impacts.

Monday, June 13, 2011

How a carbon tax should work

I have been fairly critical of the current Australian Government’s approach to a range of issues, in particular, global warming. The current proposal is for a carbon tax. While my preference for dealing with carbon emissions is to let the damages get worked out in the courts, a carbon tax can work OK, if done well. I don’t have confidence that the current government can do anything well, but it is rude to criticize unconstructively, so the least I can do is propose a sensible carbon tax which the government and the special interests who run it can ignore. So here we go:

The goal of a carbon tax is to reduce climate change, preferably to the point where the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps don’t melt and flood Australia’s world-class beaches.

A carbon tax therefore needs to reduce carbon emissions. Australia is a large per-capita emitter, and is also a large carbon exporter, in the form of coal, and to a lesser extent, natural gas. So the basic idea of the carbon tax is to guide the transition from carbon-based energy infrastructure to lower carbon forms. In order to do this, it has to be broad-based, scaled to the potential threat, and predictable over a several decade timescale.

Luckily, there is an easy way to do this. The climate scientists tell us that atmospheric CO2 concentrations greater than 350 ppm are likely to cause troublesome warming, with higher concentrations bringing more trouble faster. We are currently at 388 ppm. So, CO2 emissions are not a problem if there isn’t much CO2 in the atmosphere, but become more problematic, the farther over the safe limit we are. Thus, the sensible thing to do is to scale the carbon tax based on the atmospheric concentration.

The easiest and most transparent way to do this is to simply tax CO2 emissions at one dollar per ton, for each ppm in the atmosphere over 350. So at the current level of 388 ppm, the rate would be 388-350= 38 dollars per ton (I’m assuming we all work in tons of carbon, but if the standard value is tons CO2, please correct me). At the current rates of rise, this rate will go up by a little under 2 dollars per year.

The tax rate will stop rising when CO2 emissions stabilize, as it should. If sequestration ever takes hold in a serious way, the rate could even come down. And if carbon producers manage to sequester our atmosphere back down below 350 ppm, then the tax rate would drop to zero, which would be entirely fair.

Economic modelers can project future CO2 rise rates, which gives them more confidence and planning abilities than they have right now, and this scheme would be far preferable to an unknown tax rate that will last for an unspecified period of time and be subject to God-knows what kind of increases, changes and repeals.

The only remaining challenge would be figuring out how to apply it to the world’s other six continents, and their respective economies.

What the money gets spent on is another issue, but damages and consumer compensation are easy places to start.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

3QD semifinalists announced

Three quarks daily has announced the semifinalists for its 2011 3QD science blogging prize. The Earth and planetary science blogs generally fared well. Of the entries I listed last week, the following have advanced:

Geology word of the week: O is for Ophiolite, by Evelyn Mervine at Georneys.

Ocean acidify-WHAT!? By Sheril Kirshenbaum at Convergence (originally posted at the Intersection).

The Pelican's Beak, by Brian Switek at Laelaps.

Prehistoric Clues Provide Insight into Climate’s Future Impact on Oceans, by Allie at Oh for the love of science.

Rare Earth elements aren’t rare, just playing hard to get, by Sarah Zielinski at Surprising Science.

Levees and the illusion of flood control, by Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous.

While five other nominations (including mine) failed to advance.

Overall, this is a 55% success rate for Earth science, significantly better than the 23% overall, or the 18% for non-geoscience. Way to go, geoblogospheroids! The 3 quark daily editorial team now whittles the 20 remaining entries down to six for the final judge. Good luck folks.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Conference swag question

Here is a question for any lemming loungers who may have attended a scientific conference at one time or another during their careers (scientific or otherwise). What is the best “swag” or free commercial promotional giveaway, that you have received? Has the digital revolution changed this? For example, is there any point giving out pens and notebooks at a conference in 2011, or is everyone using usb sticks or handheld devices? Or are old-fashioned pens and paper notebooks vital for the later afternoon sessions where everyone’s device batteries have faded away?

On a broader note, do y’all spend much time looking at commercial booths at all? Or is the lure of the oral sessions too compelling for such time wasters? How do you divide up conference time anyway?

Back when I was a student, I would spend most of my time in talks or informally chatting with people in my field from far off lands whom I had never met in person. Evenings would be drinking beers with old friends. These days, I spend most of my time in a booth, or talking to potential customers.

In the 15 years since I first went to a scientific conference, I don't think I have ever been to a plenary session.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Government by TV stunt

In an abhorrent display of incompetence and cruelty, the Australian Government has, without warning or study, suspended cattle exports to Indonesia.

Dry season cattle country, Northern Territory, Australia. Yes, there are cows in this picture. Squint, or click to enlarge.

The Northern Cattle industry works like this: In the Australian summer months, the summer monsoon brings plentiful rains to the northern third of Australia. This provides ideal conditions for cattle, which grow fat and multiply during the times of plenty. It is a good thing that these conditions suit them, because the rains also make travel very difficult.

Sometime around March or so, the rains taper off, and April through October is the dry season. During this time, little or no rain falls, and the vegetation goes dormant. The road also dry out, and cattlemen thin their herds by exporting animals from Darwin to various buyers in Southern Asia. As the creeks and playas dry out, the cattle become dependent on pumped groundwater, and eat the remaining dried standing grass and shrubbery from the wet season. The southern limit of cattle production in Australia is actually set by groundwater salinity- if the groundwater is too salty for cattle, then they can’t be maintained over the dry season and the area can’t be grazed. So the cattle which are trucked to Darwin for export are sent off their stations chiefly because the land is not able to sustain them through the dry season.

What happened this week is that, without any planning or deliberation, the government had decided to suspend exports to Indonesia, as a short-sighted response to a reality TV stunt which filmed the brutal conditions of some Indonesian abattoirs. This move is in itself a cruel thing to do, as it jeopardizes the careers of thousands of people in both Indonesia and Australia without any cost to the moralizing oppressors who demand this action. But to do it in the middle of the dry season without any thought to what do to with the cattle is wasteful.

A planned phase-out of this industry should start in the wet season when transportation is low, and pastoral capacity is high, and would allow for construction in Australia of meat processing facilities and/or the procurement of other export markets. As it is, we have tens of thousands of Brahmin cattle in or en route to Darwin, with a ban on transporting them, no facilities for processing them, insufficient holding facilities for keeping them alive, and no forward plan for letting the pastoralists destock through the dry season. How does this leave any person or cow better off?

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Quality Earth Science blogging

Three quarks daily has announced its nominations for the 2011 3QD science blogging prize. Several Earth and planetary science blogs are represented. While I would certainly appreciate some support, my only request is that anyone wishing to vote read at least two of the nominated posts before voting. If you have already read two, then find at least one you haven’t seen, even if you have to stoop to browsing through the entries from other forms of science. There’s some good writing out there.

In geochronological order, the Earth and planetary science nominations are:

Reflections on the Gulf Oil Spill - Conversations With My Grandpa, by Christie Wilcox at Observations of a Nerd gives an oil-cleanup insider’s view on the 2010 Gulf oil spill.

Ocean acidify-WHAT!? By Sheril Kirshenbaum at Convergence (originally posted at the Intersection) explains how increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations make the ocean more acidic.

The Pelican's Beak, by Brian Switek at Laelaps, describes the evolution of pelicans, crocodiles, and other slowly changing species.

Rare Earth elements aren’t rare, just playing hard to get, by Sarah Zielinski at Surprising Science explains the basic economic geology of the rare Earth elements.

Prehistoric Clues Provide Insight into Climate’s Future Impact on Oceans, by Allie at Oh for the love of science describes the oceanic apex predators of the Miocene.

Geology word of the week: O is for Ophiolite, by Evelyn Mervine at Georneys describes what ophiolites are.

A plethora of Planets by Mr. Temple at Is this your Homework? describes the Kepler exoplanetary mission and some of the early results.

Super Moon, by Steven Schimmrich, the Hudson Valley Geologist, talks about the Moon’s orbital characteristics.

Finding my tears; when 1 is worse than 10,000 by Brian Ziemund-Fisher at the Risk Science Blog explains a personal tragedy related to the Japanese tsunami.

Dear Hypothesis by me at Lounge of the Lab Lemming is a breakup letter to a hypothesis that didn’t fit the data.

Levees and the illusion of flood control, by Anne Jefferson at Highly Allochthonous describes how levees simultaneously protect towns and increase flood heights in the Mississippi river.

Although those individual blog posts are the official entries, several commenters on the voting page have mentioned the excellent coverage by Georneys of the Fukushima Nuclear disaster as a highlight as well.

*Update: Laelaps nomination added (sorry Brian).

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Born again zircons

Last summer, I spent a bit of time back at Geoscience Australia as a geochronologist for hire, helping out with some of their state and territory geochronology programs. The report from the study I SHRIMPed zircons for is now out, thanks to the awesomeness of the first author, Dr. Nat Koscitin.

In theory, zircons are forever. The oldest known Earth materials are zircons, and there are countless* papers describing how they accumulate overgrowths through numerous heating and melting events.

So I was intrigues when I saw the following embayments on one of the samples. It is obvious that the zircon structure has been altered somehow. Prior to analysis, I assumed that it would be metamict- zircon where the accumulated radiation damage has destroyed the mineral structure.

Embayed zircons (c) Geoscience Australia

Usually, metamictization allows the radiogenic lead to escape, leading to geologically meaningless uranium-lead ratios. So I was surprised when these inliers gave a beautiful age that was 25 million years (plus or minus five) younger than the igneous crystallization age.

Igneous ages (red) are distinctly older than embayment ages (blue), which are surprisingly (to me) tightly clustered (c) Geoscience Australia.

The inliers have very low, “metamorphic type” Th/U ratios, suggesting that the zircon was drastically recrystallized, if not completely destroyed and regrown. These zircons weren’t forever; they had their insides dissolved and reprecipitated when they were 25 million years old. I had a brief look through the literature, but didn’t find anything that looked particularly similar. So I flicked the interpretation back to the petrologists and/or fieldies in the text. They didn’t come to the rescue- at least not yet.

If anyone knows how these things form, what they mean, and where I can read about previous descriptions, I’d appreciate it. I hear that the Curtin University gang has seen something similar, but I don’t have a particular reference. Any tips out there?

* Well, hundreds at least

Friday, June 03, 2011

The modern middle passage

There are two big foreign affairs stories here in Australia this week. The first is that Australia is banning the export of cattle to certain Indonesian slaughterhouses because the conditions are inhumane.

The second is that Australia will transport immigrant children caught sailing towards Australia to Malaysia. There's a word for transporting people across oceans against their will to countries which refuse to recognize their human rights. And it isn't "humane". Let's just hope they don't use the idle cattle boats to do it.

p.s. It's a good thing Jessica Watson isn't still at sea.