Thursday, July 31, 2008

Cheaper than mining

According to the NY Times, thieves have been stealing catalytic converters out of cars to sell the PGEs. Maybe science education isn't universally good after all.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Look daddy: entropy

I’ve been trying to teach her that thermodynamics can define entropy more rigorously than a mess on the floor, but my attempts to teach her the significance of dQ/T have not been quite as successful as the hands-on exercises.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Stratigraphic column software

Does anybody out there know of any good, basic, easy to use software that will turn core logs into nice looking stratigraphic columns? It doesn’t have to be fancy, or have the ability to deal with structure- I just need something basic. And as always, cheap would be nice and free would be better. I just want something that will save me the wrist strain caused by drawing forty million little squares all the way down 3000 meters of carbonates.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Genocide or homeopathy?

Radovan Karadzic was captured yesterday, after more than a decade on the run. I heard on the radio this morning that while in hiding, he was a practitioner of alternative medicine. Usually I leave anti-crankery to other people, but I thought this was too good not to mention. Update: The denialism blog has background and photos.
Update: Sean at Cosmic Variance has more.

Sloganeering for Cnidarians

Over at Maribo, Simon reports that scientists at the last ICRS were highly concerned about the impact of anthropogenic carbon dioxide on coral reefs. However, he reports that despite a sense of urgency among the participants at the conference, their attempts at outreach on this matter may not be direct or clear enough. He closes his post with:

Doesn't the community need a far, far stronger message? Any suggestions?

So, in bumper sticker format, here’s my artistically challenged suggestion. Anyone else is welcome to one-up me.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Making jokes vs taking them

Over at drug monkey’s, we were discussing discriminatory behavior on the part of university units not under our control, and how to respond. Being a bit of a cowboy, I prefer action over words, so here’s the story of how I responded to a low grade harassment issue last year:

Back when I was a technician at the ANU, one of the female PhD students complained about a sexist joke that had been mailed to professor Y and stuck up on a bulletin board in a public area.

I suppose we could have involved the system, but the sexual harassment officer* was more interested in grabbing ass than promoting a positive work environment, and the complaining student was concerned about appearing to be a person without a sense of humor (this is Australia after all- few personal traits are more important).

A close look at the printed email revealed the sender to be Professor X, and overseas researcher who I knew well enough to ascertain that a humor based solution could be effective. So I sent professor X the following letter (after running it by the aggrieved student to gain her approval):

Dear X,
As sexual harassment officer at the Research School of Earth Science, it has come to my attention that you are the owner of a remote control found in the unspecified common room after a late night "analytical session" conducted by the former professor Y last November. In case your recollection does not extend into past semesters, the offending unit can be viewed here:
Let me state in no uncertain terms that this sort of equipment is unacceptable at the Australian National University. Your behavior has been reported to the University X board of regents, and to the US EEOC. These institutions will doubtless begin their own investigations. If you wish to avoid the fate of Ms. (formerly Prof.) Y, we suggest you immediately perform the following acts of contrition:

-Agree to voluntary surveillance of all electronic communication with the university to detect bias, abuse, or humiliation.
-Guarantee that all meetings with female ANU personnel he held with a chaperone.
-Provide all current female RSES grad students with a 3 year, fully funded post-doc upon completion of their degrees.
-Submit, to the spring or fall AGU meeting, an abstract that repudiates your previous body of research on elemental partitioning between phases A through G. You must instead present a feminist theory of geochemical differentiation, which empowers individual geologic systems to take their personal thermochemical evolution into their own hands. Particular emphasis must be placed on the rights and abilities of anions in a Catriarchal paradigm under which electron acceptors have been historically repressed.

Failure to complete all these acts of contrition will result in swift and terrible punishment at the hands of the university disciplinary committee.
Sincerely yours,
Chuck Magee
Lithophile harassment officer

And just to be sure the message sunk in, I cc’ed his wife in on it.

Who’s the joke on now?

* This was the SHO from when I was a student. I wasn’t sure if it was the same person or not still in that role. Either way, I had faith that the system was only good for protecting the University's reputation and/or empowering the really nasty people who game the system for sinister ends.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Outback sunrise

There aren't a lot of clouds in the outback, but the few we see sure can be pretty. Click for full-size image; some of the details are worth seeing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Warm all over

Hosted by comedian Wil Anderson, the Australian TV show The Gruen Transfer provides a humorous insight into the advertising industry and its products. Each week they have a competition on advertising the unsellable, where two agencies are given the task of putting ads together to sell something absurd.

Previous topics have included selling whale meat, An invasion of New Zealand, and a return to child labor. This week’s pitch is to emphasize the positive aspects of global warming. The two contestant videos can be found here. I found the first ad a bit too close to a serious American greenwashing attempt to be all that funny, but the second ad was hilarious. Have a look for yourselves.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Australian carbon trading

The Australian carbon trading system is supposed to be unveiled tomorrow. I fear that it will be a symbolic system, designed to give the appearance of progress while protecting core labor constituencies like coal and manufacturing. But since I’m an optimist, I’ll discuss my hopes instead.

As a major coal, ore, and natural gas exporter, Australia actually sends a sizable chunk of the emissions from its economic activity offshore. Obviously, manufacturing groups are sensibly concerned that putting a cost on manufacturing emissions will simply drive even more heavy industry offshore. So there has been talk of exempting such industries from carbon costs, thus creating a giant loophole that protects industry at the expense of the planet.

But there is a better way. Instead of giving vulnerable industries a free pass to pollute, the trading system could instead impose a carbon cost on exported raw materials, equal to the carbon cost needed to refine those products. Overseas manufacturers could then get this fee refunded if they use less than the assumed quantity of carbon to process Australian raw materials.

Of course, this would make Australian exports less competitive. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. The Australian economy is currently overheating, due almost entirely to the increased revenues from coal and iron ore export. The fiscal measures that have been imposed to slow the economy have had the effect of penalizing struggling workers in non-resource parts of the economy. So an export tariff would slow the economy without bankrupting the outer suburbs.

Additionally, allowing foreigners to reclaim the cost with low carbon technologies would give developing countries which import Australian raw materials an incentive to buy into the Australian trading system. Since these countries are generally exempt from Kyoto limits, allowing them to use the Australian system would give them an incentive to reduce emissions which international agreement do not currently provide.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Why the rev-head gene is so dominant

I have a feeling that this joke has been done before by someone with far more artistic talent than I possess. If anyone finds a reference, feel free to post it in comments.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Mermaids in the outback

One of the great things about Australian English is the richness of unique and colorful expressions that are foreign to those of us who grew up speaking one of the Northern Hemisphere variants of the language. Some of these are common throughout Australia. indeed, there exist lists on the internet that will provide translations of various terms, albeit devoid of cultural context. And having lived here for 11 years, I’ve heard most of the slang that is in widespread usage. But there are some choice terms which, due to either the physical isolation of the outback or the cultural isolation of my former career in academia, I have not heard. This is one of my favorites:

Mermaid: A weigh bridge operator.

It may be that some of the readers of this blog are the sort of isolated, industry-deficient people who have no knowledge of logistics. As such, one or two of them may not have used a weigh bridge, or even know what they are. So for their elucidation, here is an explanation.
A weigh bridge is a set of very large scales, which are used to weigh freight trucks. This is done to determine compliance- or lack thereof- with any of the various rules in regulations that govern the trucking profession. In addition to checking weight, the weigh bridge also serves as an enforcement point for other rules, such as logbook inspection, etc.

Usage: The mermaids dinged me for being less than a quarter ton over on my rear axle.
Sorry I’m two days late to site- I had to take the rig down the 4WD track to avoid the mermaids.

Most truckers seem to be drawn to the profession for reasons other than the bureaucratic quagmire that has been imposed on it by road safety. As a result, these rules and regulations are resented by many in the transport community, especially the small, independent operators who don’t have a head office to sort things out- or in some cases, the ability to read. This resentment towards the people who weigh their trucks explains where the term “mermaid” comes from.

Derivation: A cunt with scales.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Question for conservationists

Am I as environmetally virtuous as a person who takes daily three minute showers, if I take a single 21 minute shower once a week?

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Gas background suppression during ICPMS analysis

This is a brief technical note for any ICPMS users out there who are trying to analyse elements with carrier gas interferences. Although I am not in the private sector, I still interact socially with academic researchers from time to time, and a post doc recently approached me with a analytical problem that may be related.
In laser ICPMS analysis, it is commonly assumed that any background that exists in the carrier gas prior to sample acquisition will remain constant when the laser comes on and ablation introduces sample into the system. However, as a result of this recent query I dug up some 2 year old data where I investigated this effect, and I noticed that for gas interferences with high first ionization potentials, sample introduction can reduce the background. Thus if you subtract the unreduced background from the sample signal, you will oversubtract, and underestimate your abundance.
The following table shows a) the mean background counts for one Xe and two Hg isotopes (which are both contaminants in the Ar gas); b) The mean counts during signal acquisition, and c) the ratio of signal/background.

Note that when ablating the doped Na-Ca-Al-Si NIST 612 glass, the Xe signal is reduced to 93% of the background, while the Hg is reduced to 98%. Interestingly, this effect seems to be matrix-specific; ablation of rutile only reduced the Xe to 98% while leaving Hg unchanged.
I have no idea if this sort of thing has been published- its easier to mine the data then slog through a library which I can’t access. And since I’m not an academic, I don’t particularly care. But chances are this sort of effect is machine specific, so anyone trying to measure isotopes such as 130Te, 82Se, or 204Pb would be wise to check their own instruments before trying to quantify unknowns.