Reports of a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the inevitable accompanying tsunami in Hawai`i were greatly exaggerated. According to a story on Hawai`i Public Radio this morning, Civil Defense (by which I assume they meant the Oahu Civil Defense Agency) had received about six hundred phone calls asking about a 9.0 earthquake supposed to occur between midnight and 7a.m. HST. We were alerted to this imminent doom when a woman in Borders last night asked everyone within earshot if they had heard rumors of the `quake. Meanwhile, there was neither quake nor tsunami as of 7:30a.m. 11:30a.m. 3:30p.m. HST. The specifics of the rumor (quake magnitude, centered off of the Kona side of Hawai`i Island, narrow time window) remind me of many of the props used to give credibility to the asteroid impact rumors that crop up on the internet periodically.

Just to be completely clear, with current technology and theories, anybody who claims to predict earthquakes is probably highly accomplished at bending spoons. Notable events in quake forecasting include a Chinese government prediction in 1975 based upon a series of foreshocks but often erroneously attributed to animal behavior that was, indeed followed by a significant quake. This prediction followed by a quake was soon rebutted by another possible permutation: no prediction of any kind followed by a big quake. In 1976, the Tangshan earthquake killed at least a quarter of a million people. Continuing the annals of unsuccessful (though less disastrous by far) case studies includes another high profile prediction—that of the USGS for Parkfield, CA between 1988 and 1992. No earthquake occurred on that fault until 2004, well outside the prediction window.

IMHO, Oahu Civil Defense Agency missed an opportunity to up their street cred after the recent fallout from actual earthquakes. Their ‘Latest Information Updates,’ web page dates from more than six months ago and alludes to the 7/7 transit bombings in London more than a year ago. This seems to be both a classic moment of Security Theater and an opportunity for citizens to do as Bruce Schneier suggests and refuse to be terrorized while demanding better disaster response planning. In contrast, Hawai`i County Civil Defense has a brief, sane, and highly germane message. It looks like what people like Howard Dicus and Doug Carlson are calling for: greater efforts for government transparency and public education.

A palette of eligible but still unusable earthquake prediction techniques include monitoring metal levels in groundwater and satellite radar measurements of deformation. So far, however, none has moved from the level of anecdote to that of data, much less to theory. A debate engendered on the pages of Nature some years ago ended with resounding pessimism towards developing that capability in the near to moderate future. A little farther out on the fringes of establishment science are theories about strange lights, animal behavior, electrical field changes and cloud formations. While I don’t know enough to evaluate those, their absence from any discussions by better-qualified and highly motivated people makes me skeptical.

Meanwhile, here are some sites listing recent earthquakes and giving helpful tips to prepare for and mitigate damage by larger tremblors. [N.B.–It turns out that the old wisdom of sheltering in doorways or running outside during earthquakes has been updated to duck, cover, and hold under a sturdy piece of furniture.] As far as asteroid impacts go, I know some of the people who work to detect them, and they don’t seem the conspiring types since they are distinctly lacking in pencil-thin mustaches. This is not even to mention the tens of thousands of amateur astronomers who spend their time discovering comets and supernovae, and would certainly blow the lid off any astro-cabal. Any internet rumor that gives date and time of an asteroid/comet impact but not the site of impact is patently false, and in fact, very few events are described as certainties, ever. In summary, separating the hoaxes from the science can be difficult and may be made more so by scientists own elaborate theories, narrow applications, and obtuse jargon. But, as always, consider the source. Baloney detection may be more art than science, but it does require science.

Ah, happy, cartographic, world-dominating Google: endlessly searchable information and maps, downloadable Google Earth. Unfortunately, none of it could tell me what I wanted to know; namely, what the antipode of Uganda is. My sister Carrie’s good friend Mariah and Mariah’s daughter Jaelyn are spending a month in Uganda doing research for a writing project. Check out her blog (with photos) here.

Anyway, the Africa connection got me thinking about how much we know about the other side of the world from ourselves. Many cartographically-inspired pilgrimages are delightfully tweedy historical studies but likely not to broaden our cultural horizons dramatically. Our all but arbitrary system of latitude and longitude is a fascinating academic study and useful tool, but far from the only way to describe locations and navigate to them. Polynesians, for example, used a vast and interrelated knowledge of time of year, astronomy, ocean currents, regular winds, animal behavior, island locations, and weather forecasting in their navigation, sailing on blue water journeys for thousands of miles. And all that without instruments or a written language–it’s enough to make any biographer of Bligh blush.

One feature of geography independent of the system used to describe it, though, is the concept of the antipode. It’s a little hard to illustrate in two dimensions, which computer screens remain despite all evidence to the contrary. But it is stupendously easy if you have a globe: set it on the floor to rest on your current location and the point on top of the globe is your antipode. From Hilo, on the island of Hawai`i this falls somewhere in Botswana in sub-Saharan Africa. The latitude and longitude of an antipodal point can be found by flipping your latitude across the equator (changing the sign, as it were, from minus to plus or vice versa). Then by take the complement of the longitude (subtract the number of degrees from 180) and flip the East/West direction to the opposite of the original. Thus, Hilo, Hawai`i at about 19 degrees North and 155 degrees West transforms to about 19 degrees South and 25 degrees East, in northeastern Botswana near the border with Zimbabwe.

Identifying the antipode so you can find it on Google Maps turns out to be a little tougher if you live someplace where landmarks are even fewer and farther between. And by this I mean that Uganda, which runs from roughly 1 degree South of the equator to about 4 degrees North, and from about 30 to about 35 degrees East, is antipodal to a big empty swath of the Pacific Ocean. The closest speck of land seems to be Malden Island, an atoll and part of the Line Islands controlled by Kiribati. It’s about five degrees of longitude off (more than three hundred miles at that latitude) from the real point, but hey.

In a more generalized case, the all-volunteer Degree Confluence Project is attempting to visit all the intersections of integer latitude and longitude lines and take pictures of them. They have a list of pairs of antipodes with pictures of each. I found their website via that of Dan Jacobsen, who has a really neat geotrivia page. The point of all of this being that, seeing a similar view from (literally) the other side of the world might induce some empathy with those who live there. Or maybe it’s just a really geeky project.

To take the geekiness down a notch or two, here are two points about the Pacific region to consider, one humorously faux-colonial and one tragically obscure.

First, when I searched Google Maps for the Marquesas Islands (located at about 10 degrees South, 140 degrees West), flailing around to get in the ballpark, I got the following sponsored link:

Looking for Marquesas Islands?
Find exactly what you want today.
http://www.eBay.com

I wonder what the Buy It Now price is?

Secondly, Malden Island was the site of three British hydrogen bomb tests in 1957. While Malden was uninhabited except by sea birds, Marshallese students on campus occasionally put up a table on the Campus Center Plaza to educate people about American nuclear tests in the 1940s and 50s in the Pacific, when people were displaced and poisoned. We need to remember these events. I recently saw some physics students agog at videos of the American tests, but to the students, the tests were context-free displays of raw power. No nuclear tests are free of either context or harm. When we think about the lives of others on Earth, it is perhaps easier to worry about them when we feel connected. Who lives opposite you?

Science is objective, hmmm?

15 November 2006

The first article in this discussion (article discusses use of fetus visuals in a TV program about birth) is perhaps most interesting to the audience, but the whole thread is suggestive of a big debate about how we assign a lot of accuracy to media simply because they are easy to interpret.

I contend, however, that biology does not “to a greater extent than most sciences depend on things you cannot see first hand.” Astronomy has its suite of immense instruments and non-unanimous software, chemistry has any number of obscure -meters, and geophysics has more remote sensing than you can shake a color-IR, vegetation-enhanced stick at. These disciplines all possess (mostly) stable means of using these tools in analysis.

The reposting continues

15 November 2006

If you read nothing else on line today, stop by Feministing for some brilliant analysis and wide-ranging news. I was particularly interested by the contrast between their post about John Tierney, as compared to the (lack of) discussion about the same guy at Frontal Cortex.

For a slightly related six-minute diversion, here are Jane Fonda and Gloria Steinem on the Colbert Report. That one is just for fun?

Feel free to make of that what you will, but it blew my hair back yesterday. The narrator of everything ever written, but especially fiction, is always a construct of the author. Or something.

Anyway, I’ll just be a slacker and repost something today, because I haven’t yet written the post on how, at my house, burning propane makes my beer cold.

Via Uncertain Principles a poem about academia by Tom Wayman, of whom I had never heard until I read this post:

Did I Miss Anything

Tom Wayman

Originally from: The Astonishing Weight of the Dead.
Vancouver: Polestar, 1994.

Question frequently asked by
students after missing a class

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 per cent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring this good news to all people
on earth

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human existence
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
gathered

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

Ponder. And if you really enjoy science, it’s good for you to occaisionally wander into a well-taught lecture on literary theory.
Be seeing you.

Scuttlebutt has always been pervasive but subdued about how science isn’t really as objective as we say it is, but like good little quantitative analysts, we’re starting to respond now that we can see some tables and graphs.

Dr. Free-Ride continues as a role-model in the disucssion, citing two other people with insight and deliberation of this question. The following excerpt is from her post here. In in, she references C. Kristina Gunsalus, a lawyer with extensive experience on research ethics, and YoungFemaleScientist, who has evident passion for and attention to detail on this issue.

Despite some quite reasonable worries people have expressed (like YoungFemaleScientist in this excellent post) about folks accused of scientific misconduct being ruined forever even if the charges turn out to be baseless, Gunsalus has argued that more frequently the lack of real penalties allow the cheats to stay in the system and cheat again. There’s a fairly high recidivism rate on cheating in science, according to Gunsalus; it’s hardly ever the case that someone is caught for misconduct without having a history of similar deeds.

Any of the religion/English/women’s studies types out there have input, or is this just a biology issue?

Speaks for itself

3 November 2006

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