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Wilderness Learning, Part 1

What is wilderness for? These days, it often seems to be a big outdoor gym, with folks trying to out-do one another on a time climbing a wall, running a trail, kayaking a river. While advocates for Wilderness Areas argue for a sort of spiritual renewal, is there anything there beyond recharging one’s emotional batteries or notching some personal best?

It seems a question worth asking in a day and age when we are revisiting what should and should not be allowed to go on in Wilderness Areas. To that end, GG is dropping the third person to talk a bit about personal experiences in wilderness that might be a bit different from expectations. This is pretty different from the usual fare here, both in length and tone, so consider yourself warned, and while the insights I hope to show in these posts could probably be distilled more thoroughly, I hope that the broader context of my (mis)adventures is of interest.

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Prisoners of the Meme

Certain knee-jerk phrases and assumptions just kind of get GG all grumpied-up.  The two from today? “Nevadaplano” and “Laramide flat slab”.

Now GG is not in possession of God’s plan for the universe or operating a time machine with X-ray vision into the earth. In fact, those who are explicitly investigating such concepts are not the targets of this venom today.  It is those who use these terms–or, probably more properly, use these memes–that drive GG to distraction.

Why? When Peter Bird spoke of a flat slab in his 1988 paper, it was crystal clear what he meant. There was no real ambiguity.  His flat slab had a real purpose, it was a firm creation that could be encountered face-to-face (after a fashion) and be dealt with.  If you spoke of Bird’s flat slab, you knew why it was there, how it hooked into everything, what it was and was not supposed to do.  It was something you could–and many did–disprove. It was an honest to goodness hypothesis.

But the flat slab of the meeting talks is a nebulous invention designed to deflect attention.  “The Laramide flat slab” could be almost anywhere in the western U.S.  It could start back at 90 Ma.  It might be lurking today under Mississippi or the Great Lakes or New Jersey [all such suggestions are indeed out there]–or under your bed calling you on the phone! [OK, that one isn’t in the literature]. It is, essentially, an invitation to suspend critical thought. The flat slab can move mantle lithosphere, hydrate crust hither and yon, it can depress the crust, or raise the crust, stop volcanoes or start them. It is all-powerful. Need something to happen?  Invoke the flat slab and criticism is silenced.

The other boogeyman is of a different stripe.  The “Nevadaplano” is one of those portmanteaus so easily rolled off the tongue that it was, from the moment of conception, a favorite in oral presentation. It was just too fun a phrase to pass up. While it lacks the powers of the flat slab, it, like many superheroes, has its own abilities: it flickers in existence between eastern Nevada, western Utah, eastern California and southern Arizona, appearing where needed just in the nick of time–whether that time be in the mists of the Cretaceous or the dying days of the Oligocene. Its partial namesake, the Altiplano, is known for being flat, a product of internal drainage, yet many (most?) incarnations of the Nevadaplano are externally drained. Nearly all the times speakers call upon the spirit of Nevadaplano, they really have no real need of it. They just need a highland in the right place at the right time–and there is good evidence for many of these highlands.  They just don’t look or behave like the image projected by the Nevadaplano, and one speaker’s Nevadaplano would spit on another speaker’s. You really do wish that the spirit of Nevadaplano would object and not show its face in such instances.

Science is supposed to be a precise business.  When we speak of the San Andreas Fault, the Navajo Sandstone or the Channeled Scablands, these are things that are well defined even if there are some blurry edges somewhere. Even multifaceted terms like “lithosphere” rarely convey different notions to different listeners within the context of a talk. But the flat slab and the Nevadaplano are, as usually used, lazy shortcuts designed to avoid grappling with a more complex world. They are oral mirages, temping visions made in one’s mind that cannot be examined too closely or compared with others. Simply enough, they are not science.

Meeting Survival

Sorry to have left loyal readers in the lurch without a dose of grumpiness for awhile–been taking the show on the road the past couple of weeks.

Presently though at the Geological Society of America conference, which means it is time to try to get through one of these meetings without going either broke or insane.

Now, if you have a grant where you actually budgeted for the real cost of the meeting and you aren’t trying to stretch that money to cover two meetings and an extra week of field work, stop here.  This isn’t for you, you lucky dog.

The rest of us find ourselves in meeting hotels that are usually insanely expensive but, thanks to the group rate from the meeting organizers, are merely expensive. What is amazing is just how expensive they can be after you’ve already paid for the room: of course there is the honor bar (“honor”–yeah, right, that is why they installed a frigging weight sensor in the fridge to charge you if you lift anything out). Gotta love that $20 mini bottle of wine–nothing says desperate than drinking a small bottle of grossly overpriced hotel wine from the honor bar while alone. And there is the little place in the lobby to buy things at only slightly under honor bar prices, or the gift store with fine and tastefully lacquered beer steins with pictures of the host city on them for a mere $50. For parents, nothing says “I love you, my child” more than a $15 hotel gift store pencil case with the corporate logo on it (unless it is the little bouncy balls some of the booths in the expo give away for free).

But while the rest of the world has decided that free wifi and a complementary breakfast should be part of nearly every American hotel stay costing more than about $60, here in the land of the $250 room (if you are so lucky), there is not so much as complementary mint at the front desk (well, ok, GG sees a Dasani on the desk here with a note claiming its free–but you know what? Can you really trust that its free?). Unless the meeting has arranged free wifi, be ready to drop a sawbuck a day on an internet connection (or plan to frequent local coffee houses that will let you use their wifi for the cost of a cup of joe–sorry, in Seattle now, PUMPKIN SPICE LATTE), or join the ranks of your peers plopped on the edges of corridors in the meeting area like the street people cadging quarters outside the facility while the glom off the free meeting internet).

Heaven help you if you brought a car.  That goes double if you rented it.

Then there is the actual reason you are here: the meeting.  Younger attendees wonder why the graybeards they are trying to meet are so hard to find, and the answer is that they have strategies to avoid the meeting except near their invited talks or when there is an NSF program officer available to strong arm. They’ve learned that a four or five day meeting is enough to send the strongest to a week of recovery in a spa.

With all of that, here are GG’s suggestions for surviving a professional meeting with a minimum of financial and mental damage.

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Monolithic Logic

Two substantial rockfalls at the east end of El Capitan (near where Horsetail Falls sometimes appears) have resulted in one death and two injuries. Frankly with all the climbers and tourists it is kind of surprising that this is limit of the human toll. This corner of the face of El Capitan seems to have had less activity prior to this than some other nearby corners of Yosemite.  Things could be a lot worse: Stock and Uhrhammer (2010) dated the very large rock avalanche from the east face of El Capitan to about 3600 years ago (in red on map below excerpted from Wieczorek et al., 1999), and a couple other younger rockfalls have come off El Capitan in historic time (the orange areas on the map). From the photos out there, GG has guessed at the approximate location of the debris that came down this past week (added to map below; the rockfall source is on an essentially vertical rock face).


Anyways, the intent here is not to consider the geology of this so much as a controversy that coverage of this event has sparked in some corners, namely, is El Capitan the “largest granite monolith” as termed by some reports?

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There is a sort of odd melancholy portion of the literature that exists in science, a sort of paper or papers that are almost the valedictories of scientists as they stand back from conducting science. A lot of them really don’t belong in the literature per se, as some are a jumble of thoughts, hunches, recriminations and other odds and ends.  Let’s call the whole collection codgertations. Frankly, they need their own home in the literature; to see why, let’s consider what some have looked like (no, GG is not going to name names; he is grumpy, not cruel).

At the more useful end of the spectrum are thoughts on seminal problems in the field that reflect experience of years but an inability to push through to completion, perhaps because of conflicts, physical disability, time, funding, etc. These are the seeds of proposals future, proposals these authors will never write, and so these can be gifts of insight to younger researchers who may have overlooked these problems.

Somewhere in the middle are kind of incomplete papers, stuff that’s been hanging out in a drawer (or a floppy) for many years that finally is being shoved out into the world to justify the effort made in keeping it all this time. Some of these are papers that were superseded years ago by other work; some are on things fairly tangential to ongoing research.  Others just don’t quite get anywhere. None are really damaging anything; they maybe are just taking up space.

The worst flavor of codgertation is the self-celebrating review of one’s greatest hits, the very worst being stewed in a vat of recrimination for past injustices, allowing for debasing the contributions of others. These tend to assert rather than derive or infer and come across as lectures from angry old people who can’t be bothered to properly cite the relevant work or logically support an argument.  “I’ve been in this field forever,” they seem to say, “and this is how things really are!” Right Grandpa, can you go back to watching Wheel of Fortune, please? Or yelling at those kids on the lawn?

What cements all of these is that they aren’t really typical scientific papers–and it is worth noting that only a fraction of practicing scientists ever write anything like any of these. But those that do are often counting on the deference of junior colleagues to allow them their say, and truth be told, there is indeed value in some of these papers. And we might actually be losing insights from those less egotistical senior scientists who choose not to write such unusual documents because they perceive that they don’t really belong. But if you review one of these papers, you can go nuts in trying to come to grips with egregious self-citation and a faint grip on the current literature, loosely connected topics, poorly supported logic, and other flaws that would sink a typical paper. Really reaming a paper written by such a senior scientist can seem disrespectful, yet letting it go as “science” feels dirty. So GG is suggesting that perhaps some journals should allow a new form of communication which (you presumably have guessed) would be termed “codgertations.” [OK, as the comment below notes, that is rude and self-defeating; the commenter’s suggestion of Reflections or GG’s Valedictories would be more appropriate.] The beauty of this is that we could capture the good without having to hammer the bad.  We’d encourage those on their way out the door to share some wisdom even as we know we’ll have to accept some scolding. And we wouldn’t be caught between honoring our elders and defending our literature.


The Denver Post profiles a group of (apparently earnest) Flat Earthers. They say they are persecuted for their beliefs.  Note to group: “ridicule” is not “persecution” [though to be fair, no member of the group is quoted using the word “persecution”].  It doesn’t sound like thugs are showing up to break up their meetings, for instance. In an age when a group of students can launch a balloon with a cell phone high enough to record the curvature of the earth, and thousands of years after the Greeks got a decent estimate of the size of the globe, it is embarrassing (on multiple levels) to hear somebody trained in software engineering say “I can’t prove the globe anymore.”

If a few folks can believe this stuff, is it any wonder that more complex ideas face stiff opposition?

Dog’s Life, Boulder Edition

From a Sill TerHar Ford Motors television ad running in the Denver area:

“I saw a Ford Escape in the park the other day, and there was a dog owner putting her dog in the back.  She was a really big Great Dane. She jumped in and with her head over the back seat, she was wagging her tail the whole time. I thought, that’s someone who really researched what they needed in a car.” -Jack TerHar

Not only do Boulder area dog owners insist on their dogs going everywhere, they let their dogs research and purchase cars. We have the best dogs….