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Memo-ing COVID

August 1, 2020
From the office of the Dean
Big State U.

Dear students, it is my pleasure to welcome you back to Big State U for the fall semester. We have spared no expense in making campus safe for everybody, and we look forward to your arrival (and a check from your parents) in the coming weeks. Go BSU!

September 2, 2020
From the office of the Chancellor
Big State U.

BSU students,
In these troubling times, we all need to work together so that BSU can continue to provide the educational experience you all have come here for. Of course, that means foregoing the social experience you were hoping for, but we all know that this is not going to be a major sacrifice while you pursue your dreams of a BSU diploma on the wall. So we expect you to obey all the COVID-19 rules, including wearing a facemask while walking on campus, indoors and outdoors, and for good measure when in your dorm room and probably too when you go swimming at the rec center–scratch that, we’ve closed the rec center. And of course stay socially distant from everybody–we suggest a 12′ diameter hula-hoop (with the BSU’s cartoon logo of a campus dean) that you can wear so as to avoid close contact.

Read More…

How to Write a Scientific Masterpiece

OK, so GG was asked about how to write a scientific paper after suggesting how you might read one. And, well, there are whole books and fully researched articles and stuff like that out there. But you know, that’s entry level scientific writing. Here’s the real advanced stuff!

  • Don’t start writing until all the work is complete! Why waste your time scribbling down things while you are in the midst of career-defining research. Every second counts! Plenty of time to write once you know the outcome; this way you avoid writing something you ditch later on.
  • Don’t keep notes. You don’t want some snooping competitor to find out what you’ve been doing. Best to just know in your heart all those algorithmic choices you’ve made. If you must write stuff down, be sure to use a code that isn’t described anywhere. No, Leonardo’s mirror writing tricks are passé now…
  • Don’t give talks before submitting for publication. Again, no point in tipping your hand. And after all, are those ninnies who always snipe at you really going to give constructive criticism?
  • Rely on the one computer script that rules them all. Sure, every time you want to adjust a parameter in your statistical analysis or simulation or what not, you overwrite that Python script while leaving plots and data files laying about from older versions of the script, but you are keeping track mentally, right?
  • Delete intermediate results. Less clutter the better, so deleting all that intermediate stuff is a great way to retain organization on your computer drive. Also makes it far easier to ignore demands from reviewers down the road (oops! that stuff is gone).
  • Ditch the background stuff. Blah blah blah, yeah, standing on the shoulders of giants. More like standing on the shoulders of gnats, rightly squished under your boot heel. Why waste the space in Nature or Science with drivel just meant to appease friends of old farts?
  • Find the big story. Originally you were learning the age of some speciation event but you realized the data is predicting the next great earthquake, well, forget that trivia you started with, even though you don’t really know much about earthquakes, your speciation dataset will support you through this.
  • Maximize surprises in the text. You’ve held this great work close to the vest so far–so you want the big reveal at the end, just as in all those murder mystery books. So throw in a few red herrings, make sure the abstract is misleading or obtuse so that the reader will be totally blinded by the brilliance at the end of the paper.
  • Minimize figures. I mean who really can’t make their own figure by downloading the binary supplemental information from your website, whose URL somehow got changed after publication. Real scientists read and digest huge data tables for breakfast!
  • The more jargon the better. Just who the hell do these readers think they are? Only true peers who know the particulars of your vocabulary of polysyllabic ultra-germanic mashups are worthy of receiving the wisdom of your work. Let’s keep the riff-raff out!
  • Maximize inferences. Sure, you just studied one rock from some corner of your garage, but that rock–that rock–tells the entire history of the solar system. Your conclusions should take full advantage of these insights.
  • Be a press master. Your college’s PR department loves to have click bait out there to prove that Big State U is really on top of the cutting edge of science. Feed their needs–why yes, this is revolutionary, and yes, it does show that Einstein was wrong and oh, of course this points the way to a cancer cure, too. No point in having this seminal work get overlooked.

And there you are, ready to take on the world. GG suggests having an off-shore bank account and maybe a spare passport just in case your brilliance attracts the attention of some authorities…

A Word from Big State U

From: Office of the President
To: Faculty and Staff

In these challenging times, where we have been so challenged, and you too have been challenged, we have risen to meet the challenge and in so doing have succeeded in not only identifying the challenge, but in rising to it. As with the nation, we will survive to meet more challenges.

While the pandemic has sown chaos across our university and town and state and nation, all of you have done your part to contribute to this effort. I particularly want to single out those who have sacrificed by accepting no more than their full salary while working at home under trying conditions. For those now blessed with cleaning unused bathrooms and unmarred floors, we look to your continued heroism when we ask you to accept some kind of pay cut so that those of us able to work at home can continue to contribute to the university’s mission of uplifting all who can afford tuition.

It is imperative at this time of crisis to update and expand our efforts to maintain Big State U’s position at the forefront of athletic excellence. So I am pleased to announce that we are promoting the athletic director to Senior Vice Chancellor of Physically Demanding Exercise. Each coach will now be a Special Assistant to the Senior Vice Chancellor. Our new Senior Vice Chancellor has announced his Vision 20/20 effort to put mannikins in all the seats of our stadium with cameras, speakers and wi-fi so that season ticket holders can go to the game and yell at the refs just as though they were really there! It is this kind of imaginative reaction to crisis that allows our people to make lemonade out of oranges.

Of course it is part of our mission to grace the airwaves with advertisements necessary to remind our state representatives that we are still a functioning university, complete with a diverse population photographed in perfect lighting and conducting obviously serious activities in photogenic parts of campus. In this, we cannot relax, and so we are filming special coronavirus-themed videos to show that we still have a diverse population of students and faculty doing serious activities from home. Kudos to our Special Assistant to the President for Advancing the University Through the Use Of Major Public Media for putting us at the forefront of COVID-related advertising.

One of the great lessons of the past few weeks is that we don’t really need to have all these professors and instructors on campus to provide a high quality education. I am proud to announce that I have just appointed a new Vice Provost for Migration to an Internet University, who will be reviewing our ability to capture the instruction already completed and reuse it time and time again in future years. This is a necessary part of our effort going forward to balance our budget in these trying times, and I particularly appreciate the efforts of the faculty who generated this easily recyclable material and look forward to congratulating them at their early retirement ceremony to be held on Zoom.

Of course we don’t want to be known as just another internet university, so it is important that our physical campus remain as beautiful as possible for those of us still present. I have therefore found in my estate’s personal gardiner the man who will now fill the role of Special Assistant to the President for Groundkeeping. He will work closely with the Special Assistant to the President for Advancing the University Through the Use Of Major Public Media to be sure that the proper locales remain available as well as the Vice President for Alumni Relations to be sure that all those memorable spots where alums used to make out or lose their lunch are still there for their future visits to Big State U.

Of course, to support the employment of our newly promoted or hired Associates to the President, Associate to the Chancellor, Associates to the Vice Chancellors, Interim Advisors to the Provost, Associate Provosts and the other members of the title salad gang, we are exploring cost-savings measures that should have a minimal impact on our main activities. These will need to be supplemented with savings that will offset our new expenditures on our coronavirus-aware athletic facilities and tele-education servers (not to mention the Virtual Professor effort being led by our campus IT department). Because we all love Big State U, I am sure that you faculty and staff will greet this news with gratitude for the opportunity to sacrifice once more for our great and storied university.

Remember, we are all in this together! Until, of course, we aren’t.

If Geoscience Reviews Were Like Movie Reviews

Having just posited what a paper might look like if it followed the standards in the movie industry (complete with acknowledging virtually everything), we can also imagine how a review of that paper along the lines of a movie review might look…

Review of My Important Paper, a Big University publication, I.M Fun-Ding producer, Hope B. N. Hyred director. 27 pages, available open source starting Friday from The Journal of Winter Nighttime Reading.Two microscopes out of five.

Going in to Prof. Fun-Ding’s latest paper, My Important Paper, this reviewer was expecting to see real fireworks given the provocative title. But in the end, this felt like another tired retread of material we have seen before.  Although director Hope Hyred has added a bit of spice in producing some dramatic images, the template and the message are clearly due to Fun-Ding’s heavy hand.

As seems rote with these tomography papers of late, the paper starts with the gratuitous demonstration of conflict within the scientific community. Really? Is there anybody left who is unaware that existing studies are inconclusive?  Just how many more papers have to end with “…and more study is needed” before we get the point? Perhaps this would carry more weight if the disagreement was demonstrated in a bar fight instead of dueling abstracts in an anonymous meeting room.

At this point we start to see the elements that can make this paper worth the time, as Dr. Hyred’s mastery of 3-d surface animations carries us forward with the hope that we’ll be transported away from the tedious and into more imaginative territory, but it is not to be. We quickly return to the commonplace sequence of snippets of field work, and while workmanlike under Hyred’s direction, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before.

It is at this point that we first encounter the main players for this paper, Honor Engtruth, Bull Forth and E.Z. Duzit. While all participate in the field experiment, it is left to Ms. Engtruth to carry the torch forward, which she does with admirable intensity. She is able to make considerable homage to the groundbreaking tomography of Kei Aki while building on that earlier style with her own twist of finite-difference wave tracing and synthetic waveforms. Again, Dr. Hyred’s clever approach to illustration helps to carry the viewer into the elegant advances Ms. Engtruth is advocating.

No doubt the high point of the paper is when the cast assembles to confront discrepancies between Engtruth’s conclusions and the dogmatic past, typified by the images of Prof. Fun-Ding’s past efforts that accompany this part of the paper. Although we are rooting for Engtruth’s earnest efforts to carry the day, the discussion descends into nearly impenetrable technobabble that leads to a final confrontation with Prof. Fun-Ding.  His mastery of technobabble leads to the conclusion, foregone since the early going and foreshadowed by the biased battle to start the paper, that his original interpretation was in fact the one that would emerge. Thus the paper’s climax is a fizzle as the tension of the earlier parts of the paper is dashed against the constraints of Fin-Ding’s model.

While a disappointment, we can only hope to see Dr. Hyred work with a different production team where her efforts might be rewarded more generously. And Ms. Engtruth has brought a level of earnest belief in her science that is genuinely touching. We will look to see if she can break the bounds of her lab’s format in future work. SO while this paper shows some promise for the future, the current incarnation will only appeal to those already dedicated to the Sierra tomography so beloved by Dr. Fun-Ding.

If Geoscience Papers Came From Hollywood

My Important Paper

A Big University Publication

in association with

Famous Private College Productions


A Big University Geoscience Paper

Financed by National Science Foundation … and people like you

The Preview: We zoom in on the Sierra Nevada, its elevations majestically rising from the lowlands of the San Joaquin Valley. But (ominous music) what lies beneath? How will we learn? Be sure to see the paper…you will be astonished!

Produced by: Prof. I. M. Fun-Ding

Directed by: Hope B. N. Hyred, PhD

Featuring a cast including
Honor Engtruth…as lead graduate student
Bull Forth…as the gruntwork student
E. Z. Duzit…as the overachieving undergraduate

We open on a confused scientific community, some believing the range is old and some thinking it young. We see an argument raging back and forth in scientific meeting rooms before we turn to look at the geology of the Sierra, the gold bearing gravels stranded above modern rivers roaring below, the younger river gravels now even higher above the modern rivers. And then we plunge into the subsurface to explore the topography of the Moho before encountering the gray unknown depths below.

In our second act we see a montage of seismic instruments being placed carefully across the region by our cast and extras, with the occasional disastrous flood, scenic vista, hilarious mule story, or unsightly bear damage to provide interest. We explore the reduction of data, the communication of data from field to data center to lab. We see imaging taking place before our eyes as the deep structure under the Sierra becomes clear. But is it real?

The final act sees Honor and Hope discuss what they have learned, refining their models and then considering what it means. They then finally sit down with Prof. Fun-Ding (in an extended cameo) to argue about the meaning, and we cut away to the climax to see the presentation at a national meeting that leads to huzzahs from the audience and a standing ovation as the challenges of the Sierra are now solved.

Credits roll…A Big University Paper…starring Prof. Fun-Ding, Dr. Hyred, and presenting Ms. Engtruth, Mr. Forth, and E. Z. Duzit. Technical support from Apple and Intel, computer support from Pressey Scape, and the technicians of the campus computing center (about 25 names here). Imaging services provided by MathWorks, Adobe, with computational aids from IRIS and open source software authors (about 50 names here) Financial support from Kent Adright, the departmental finance officer, Pick E. Pickey in the office of contracts and grants, with support from the entire OCG state (20 names here). Caffeination services provided by Starbucks, with a special role played by the crappy 1986 coffeemaker that sits on the lab fridge. Catering provided by StarvingStudentsDelivery (10 names of drivers here). Emotional support from multiple ex-best friends and family members (40 names here). Production babies…are you kidding? While getting through grad school?

This paper has supported 250 jobs through its creation and publication.

A Big University Publication

in association with

Famous Private College Productions

has presented

A Big University Geoscience Paper

The NSF has rated this paper “L”, suitable for scientifically literate audiences. Those who failed math and physics in high school or college require a successful college graduate or science journalist to assist them.

<screen goes dark>

Blowing Up Planets

OK, shouldn’t be news that the latest (last?) Star Wars film once again has given bad guys the means to blow up planets. While this is a very Star-Warsy thing to do, the notion kicks around from time to time (for instance, the Doomsday Machine of TOS Star Trek destroyed planets).  What would it take to blow up a planet?

Well, a quick approximation for the total potential energy of a uniform Earth is about – 2 x 10³² J (that is relative to everything being out at an infinite distance). To blow it up so all the pieces go far, far away would require roughly that amount of  energy (maybe more as you’d lose energy to phase transitions in the rock, lost energy to radiated light and heat, etc.). One way to do this might be to park a package of antimatter at the center and use E= mc², so m= 1.25 x 10^15 kg, or 1.25 teratons of antimatter (about 2 x 10^-8 percent of the mass of the Earth, or about 0.05% of the mass of the Death Star). That is a boat load of antimatter! Even allowing for just shattering the planet enough to make a pile of asteroids, you would need a whole lot of antimatter…

The Sun puts out about 3.8×10^26 watts continuously or about 1.4×10^30 J per hour, so to get to 2 x 10³² J of total energy we need to capture all the Sun’s output for about 100 hours. Hey, that feels more doable! Though tossing that blanket around the Sun would be a big ask…

While Star Trek went the antimatter route with its doomsday machine, Star Wars prefers big bright laser blasts.  But how does this work? The Physics of Star Wars took this pretty literally and imagined the laser igniting large oil deposits or, in the absence of that, melting the planet.  Frankly, neither of these seem likely (though some good news: melting the planet probably easier than blowing it up). As the book noted, to blow things up you’d need a mix of oxygen and volatile fuel, but such fuels are embedded in a reducing environment in the subsurface. So your odds of getting these to react in a proper ratio are about nil–you’d need space-based hydrofracking extraordinaire. And of course you’d have to hit such deposits where they are (most of the Earth’s crust lacks oil deposits). If Earth had perhaps 10,000 billion barrels of oil, burning it all might buy you about 6 x 10^22 J of energy–a mere factor of 10 billion too small to properly blow up our planet. So tossing in natural gas as well probably isn’t going to get us where we need to go.

Is there a way to make anything deeper become explosive? Frankly, it seems hard.  Our giant laser would bore a hole into the planet, probably vaporizing rock. The deeper this goes, the more pressure the rock is under and so volatilization could generate some pretty good forces, kind of like diatremes that erupt from the mantle at supersonic speeds. But that is mostly like opening a shaken can of soda: the forces developed are unlikely to really do much damage. Eventually the giant laser might go all the way through the planet. Conduction of heat from the big hole would be relatively slow, so even getting the planet to melt would probably not work well from this mode of attack; the greatest efficiency might well be flow of core material into the path of the laser. It seems implausible that this gas (well, plasma more likely) could exert an even greater force than the original metal core (more than likely, material would shoot back up the hole bored by the laser). Whether you could get stuff at those pressures to expand much at all (let alone go to gas) is problematic. So even if you hit the levels of being able to sink that kind of energy into a beam of energy, it is really hard to get your desired explosion.

And really, why blow up the planet?  Even if you want to remove all life on the surface, it is a lot easier to fling huge quantities of dust or gravel into the atmosphere to produce a global microwave environment or toss a big boulder into oceans to create monster tsunamis and the like. You can come back later and reuse the planet for something else.  Wasting all your effort on a galactic firecracker seems unwise, not to mention undoable.

Unprepared…or uninterested?

Recently an interview with NASA chief scientist Jim Green by The Sunday Telegraph led to a number of stories with titles like “the world may not be ready for the discovery” or “world is ‘not prepared’” or “Humans aren’t ready to accept there’s life on Mars“.

Um, really? Exactly what preparation do these folks think we need? I mean, will there be panic in the streets? “OMG, there are MICROBES in ROCKS on another planet MILLIONS of miles away! Let’s riot!” Do we need to take remedial biology classes? Will the Pope abandon Christianity? Is it time to upgrade our planetary defense systems? Should Trump’s Space Force be put on high alert? What exactly does Dr. Green fear?

(Frankly, GG is not remotely as optimistic as Dr. Green; to say “where there is water there is life” is not even accurate on earth–there is water in magma, gang, and not much in the way of life in that molten rock–and previously optimistic outlooks such as accompanied the original Viking lander proved to be misplaced. But whatever, could happen).

Read More…

End Days

No, not the apocalypse or even the robot apocalypse but the end of days because…we learn something?

Probably one of the more bizarre op-eds to hit the New York Times was by philosophy professor Preston Greene, who warns us not to try a test to see if our reality is really just a computer simulation. His logic is that the simulation ceases to be useful one it realizes it is a simulation. Who knew philosophers were into comedy?

The basis for tests like the one disturbing Prof. Greene is that you can’t simulate the whole universe without…a spare universe.  A rather daunting task. So the current logic is that any simulation would have approximations for more distant venues (and that Earth is the actual focus of study), and that somewhere those approximations would become apparent.

It doesn’t take much thought to question the internal logic and then the external logic here.  The internal logic says that a self-realizing simulation would be terminated as it wouldn’t be useful.  That all depends on what the point of the simulation would be. If it is to understand how civilizations react to learning they are simulations, then there is no risk.  Or if it is to study anthropogenic climate change, it might not matter either. And in practice, it isn’t clear that being in a simulation really would change how you go about your life, so would such recognition matter?  After all, people have lived their lives thinking that their path was ordained by God–how is this really different?

Frankly, if it was that important that the simulation would be unaware, you’d probably stick in some routine to warn of an impending test that might show this was a simulation so you could fudge the results of the test.

On the external side, you learn that philosophers aren’t very familiar with running simulations. For a real study, you want to make simulations that are focused on something you are interested in studying; ideally you leave out all the other junk that doesn’t matter–even if you could put it in. Does the rise and fall of civilization really depend on getting the ratio of lutetium to hafnium right in zircon crystals that were eroded and redeposited several times over the past 3 billion years? That Pluto have a geologic history? That the Earth’s magnetic field reverses from time to time? To make the Earth that geologists see, you’d have to simulate the whole history of the planet down to the isotopic content of individual mineral grains over about 4 billion years. Why would you bother? There is an amazing amount of information in some of the most prosaic of materials that actually makes sense.  Why trouble running a simulation for billions of years when you could just say “let’s start with these isotopic ratios everywhere at 5000 BC?”–particularly when you want to run “very many” simulations which could be rather time consuming.

So any kind of intellectual investigation seems unlikely (too much irrelevant detail). Who would make such a total and complete simulation?  Frankly, it would be some hobbyist who wanted to make a perfect simulation–probably in competition with another hobbyist.

It is hard to guess at motivations of some quasi-descendents who could master the resources of a solar system just to make a simulation–maybe outright boredom. But the logic that there would be lots of these simulations and therefore the odds are low of any one individual being “real” instead of simulated sits on a raft of pretty questionable assumptions.

Is J.J. Abrams Saving Science?

Its taken GG quite awhile to figure out the game J.J. Abrams is playing, but with the last Star Wars trailer release, things are finally starting to clear up.  You see, he is really trying to save science from the clutches of the movies.

Now, GG has been a tad critical once or twice but now sees the light. All that disregard of, oh, time or space or energy or light speed or aerodynamics or, well, physics in general wasn’t ignorance.  No, seeing in the preview the wreckage of a Death Star plopped out at sea reminded GG of the big spaceships in The Force Awakens that somehow landed on a planet in more or less one piece–clearly implausible, but now, having dropped a bigger piece of Death Star structure into an ocean now clearly challenges basic engineering, both as the craft had become nothing more than little sparkles when last we saw it and also because in plummeting to ground it would have broken apart even further and then ended up facing real gravity in a strange direction that would have surely collapsed the thing. (Not to mention it probably would have rusted profoundly sitting in water).

No, this ever-increasing incredulity is Abrams clearly saying to us all: these are total and complete fantasies.  Nothing would ever look anything like this, not TIE fighters skimming along the ground, not energy blasts instantly visible from distant star systems, not blasters or laser swords or Force ghosts…. No matter how real filmmakers can make the impossible look, it remains impossible. Don’t learn your science here, young ones!

So J.J., we applaud your efforts to free the public from any illusion that fancy special effects reproduce reality in any way shape or form.  Bravo!

Dunning-Kruger Dog Owners

Seems that a lot of pundits are having fun with evaluating various political figures as suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is often summarized as being unaware of how ignorant you are and so thinking you are quite competent (it is rather the flip side of the imposter syndrome, where people think they are less competent than they objectively are). Something similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to affect many dog owners, who are seemingly unaware of just how stupid their dogs are.

Now stupid in this context isn’t really dog stupidity (though it can include that), it is more dog misbehavior according to human standards. And in a dog-centric place like Boulder, demonstrations of dog owner obliviousness are widespread.

For instance, Boulder has rules for dogs allowed off leash on many trails.  Dogs are supposed to respond immediately when the owner calls; owners (well, guardians–you don’t own dogs in Boulder, but we’ll use owner for the broader non-Boulder public) are to keep the dog under close visual observation.  Dogs are supposed to leave other dogs and wildlife alone.

Frankly, it amazes GG that there are quite a number of dogs that behave extremely well under this program. And there are quite a few dog owners (like GG) fully aware that they and/or their dogs are unsuited to this and so keep their dogs leashed (GG’s golden would chase any wildlife to the ends of the earth if off leash). And then there are the Dunning-Kruger-ish dogs and their owners.

This third class of dog owners think their dogs are well behaved, a surmise not demonstrated by their canine companions. These owners are often found calling out to their dogs from hundreds of feet as the dog happily does whatever he or she finds interesting. And after about 5 or 10 or 20 calls, the dog bounces back to the owner, who greets the wayward pup as “such a good dog.” Such owners are offended if their utter inability to control their dog is pointed out: an open space ranger some years ago saw a dog run off, eat the eggs of a ground-nesting bird and then return to the owner, whom the ranger confronted. “Oh no, not my dog, he was right here with me the whole time.”

These folks are the reason there are dog feces scattered about in open space areas, and why there is less wildlife in many areas than there might be [though lets not let feral and outdoor cats off the hook]. (Boulder does try to protect more sensitive areas by requiring a leash on some trails and banning dogs altogether on others).

GG can look out over a small patch of open space behind his house and sees the off leash dogs wandering all over the place, some behaving OK and then others not so much. A woman running on a trail ran a good 100 yards past her large white dog, who, after sniffing around a bit, deposited some stool by the trail before rushing off to be greeted by his oblivious owner.

Occasionally the karma gods intervene. She ran a second time down the trail (ignoring the fresh stool) and the dog sprinted farther than she went this time.  She turned back and was calling from nearly the full length of the field, perhaps 200 yards. And after a bit her dog was sprinting back towards her–except the dog was now two-toned, white on top and black on the bottom. Hopefully he greeted her with open, wet, muddy paws…