Archive | September 2015

Utopian Paper of the Future

NSF is essentially sponsoring a Geoscience Paper of the Future initiative that is now touring around the country trying to get geoscientists to make papers of the future.  A lot of what this initiative addresses amount to significant problems in earth science that need correcting.  But as often happens with such idealistic visions, somebody grabs the steering wheel and veers off the road and into the weeds and as a result leaves the rest of us unsure if this bandwagon will really go anywhere.

OK, first a quick summary: the idea is in essence one championed long ago by Stanford’s Jon Claerbout, namely the reproducible paper. The idea was that a “paper” would actually be something of a metadocument containing all the data and processing steps needed to make the paper from scratch.  You could ideally go in and tweak a few data points in a primary data table (or maybe add some) and then push a button and see the paper change before your eyes.  The beauty of this is that you can follow the data all the way from the source to the end result.  The main difference between this vision (which, by the ways, is perfectly enforceable) and the Geoscience Paper of the Future is that the GPotF recognizes distributed placement of the pieces.  It isn’t that you actually get everything in that one paper, it is that the paper tells you where all the pieces are.

Sounds great, and to the degree that researchers can create it, more power to them.  But there are some huge hurdles, and the GPotF team doesn’t really prioritize them.  The result: grumpy geophysicists….who might just forget the whole thing.

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Backpacking Movies Redux

So we have another backpacking movie, the amiable A Walk in the Woods, based off Bill Bryson’s memoir. It doesn’t approach Wild for emotional impact, but having two characters jawing most of the time yields more witty repartee.  Anyways it made GG wonder just a bit about what elements of backpacking make it attractive to backpackers and what part of that, if any, can transfer to the screen.

Certainly there are loads of hilarious backpacking stories, but they nearly all hinge on something that was uncomfortable, scary, or outright dangerous at the time, so it isn’t clear that this encourages future backpacks. (Hmm.  Maybe not all.  GG recalls a first backpack where a companion decided that the proper way to keep bears away was to place mothballs around the camp.  GG awoke from early slumber sick from dehydration to see said companion, naked save boots, walking around the camp with a flashlight dropping mothballs on the ground.  Yes, you worry about hallucination in that circumstance. You just can’t make this stuff up). OK, so a few come from the urban idiots in the wild routine, standard fish out of water stuff. Hollywood frankly has not come close to fully mining this vein (you find hints in Continental Divide and Wild and A Walk in the Woods  but it never is fully realized, and some not-quite-backpacker movies like City Slickers use some of the same ideas).

Obviously a key part of backpacking is simply absorbing a sense of the broader natural world. This is the landscape of the 19th century nature writers like Thoreau and Emerson and Muir and so on.  Most of us today are too jaded to glory the way Muir did (well, not all; GG recalls a double rainbow getting super high praise in a video not long ago). But there is definitely some rejuvenation there.

Certainly part of this is seeing stuff that can take your breath away.  One of the great things about backpacking is that you are out there the whole time; you aren’t eating in the restaurant when the sun sets, or driving in the car in the thunderstorm.  So you see things you wouldn’t see, and of course there are places you go you can’t get to otherwise.  It is hard to convey how special Evolution Valley is without going there, or the Bighorn Plateau at sunset, or coming up on Sky Parlor Meadow to see it ringed by snow covered mountains.

Some test themselves against the wilderness; this is more often climbing than backpacking and frankly some of it misses the point in GG’s view (setting a time record on the John Muir Trail is comparable to listening to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at 4x speed.  If you want to set time records, do it on roads, which are made to be fast). A lot of thru hiking can fall into this trap (GG would argue that the folks who do bites of these big trails over the years get more out than the epic summer of pain approach).

Hollywood is pretty familiar with comedy, so it actually seems a bit surprising that a full blown backpacking comedy never really materialized even as all movies with backpacking get at least a few good chuckles.  And certainly there are pieces of great cinematography in some of these movies, but film crews rarely get into the real wilderness (for one thing, land managers would refuse the permit for a typical film crew); there is room to really get that, but a problem is that any day now you’ll find Google Trail View will show you the whole of the PCT or Appalachian Trail, and anyways Google Maps will offer to show you all the photos folks have uploaded, so to really carry the emotional impact of these places as they become so familiar takes some genius. The internal journey a backpacker makes is a tougher nut to crack but is more the bread and butter of good scriptwriters.  It usually takes about 3 days before GG stops looking at his watch backpacking; to get that sense of engagement in a 2 hour movie is a real challenge. Wild probably gets closer than most, though the emotional baggage Cheryl Strayed carries in that film is far greater than a typical hiker; her journey was as much or more of recovery than discovery.

So it just seems that the perfect backpacker movie is still out there waiting to be made. Let GG know when you make it…

Weighty Problems (A tutorial)

Hmmm, another paper has emerged with a big role for dynamic topography as a cause for deformation in the western U.S. (Becker et al., Nature, 2015), and if you read the press releases and resulting news coverage you’d think this was the Big Answer to earthquakes away from plate boundaries.

Sorry, don’t think so.  But GG hasn’t had the time to really go through this paper in detail, and in any event feels kind of bad for picking on Thorsten earlier, who is a perfectly pleasant fellow. So let’s stand back and consider the root cause here, which is good old dynamic topography.  A simple test a lot of us like to apply is to look for free-air gravity anomalies that should be associated with dynamic topography.  While GG was involved with a paper that dealt with this is rather gory detail, let’s think of this really simply: what is a free-air anomaly, where and how can we use it, and what does it show where we can use it?

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Misunderstanding reproducibility

A lot has been written about the results of the Reproducibility Project’s analysis of papers in psychology (for instance, here and here). While some of the response has been overwrought handwringing, perhaps the most embarrassing response comes in defense of the work that was not succeeding in being reproduced.  Prof. Barrett at Northeastern wrote a NY Times op-ed saying that this was just normal science stuff: “But the failure to replicate is not a cause for alarm; in fact, it is a normal part of how science works“.

What balderdash.

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