Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From "drill, baby, drill" to "burn, baby, burn"

Looking at the coverage of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, I'm puzzled by something. Several of the commenters I've looked at have expressed horror at the idea of burning the oil at sea. Two things: first, we were planning on burning most of that oil any way; second, while bad, burning it at sea is orders of magnitude less horrible than letting it hit the beaches. The wreckage of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig has already pumped out about half as much oil as the Exxon Valdez lost in 1989. It will keep leaking for days, if not weeks, more. The oil from the Exxon Valdez spill traveled 460 miles and covered 1300 miles of shoreline with varying amounts of oil. In the Gulf, that would be equal to covering the beaches from the mouth of the Mississippi, across eastern Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and another 200 miles or so of the Florida panhandle. It would coat the Breton National Wildlife Refuge and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, penetrate into the lagoons behind the barrier islands, and foul Mobile Bay. It would cost billions to clean up, as far as that is even possible. The environmental damage would linger for decades. The economic damage would possible surpass Hurricane Katrina. With this alternative, I say "burn, baby, burn."

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Our mollusk overlords

In a thread on Twitter, our friend Southern Fried Scientist made this claim: "rewind the tape and mollusks could have easily replaced vertebrates." Rewind the tape is a reference to Stephen Jay Gould's Wonderful Life. In the final chapter, Gould argues that there was nothing inevitable about the course of evolution, that it does not aim toward any result. We are a fluke. Intelligence is a fluke. Rewind the tape, start over, and you might get a different story every time.

Many of you are probably familiar with the humanoid dinosaur imagined by the Canadian paleontologist Dale Russell in the early eighties. Russell presented a thought experiment wherein the end Cretaceous extinction never happened and the Troodon evolved into an intelligent, tool-making biped that just happened to look a lot like one of the extraterrestrial species that a subset of UFO buffs believed in. This idea that evolution tends towards something human-like is exactly the opposite of what Gould believed. However, the illustrations and models that Russell's intelligent dinosaur spawned were too irresistable and refuse to go away.

Southern Fried's mollusk world needs its own intelligent, tool-maker and an illustration. I humbly submit the following:

Tell the Discover Channel that SFS and I are open to discussions of a documentary about mollusk world and marketing plans for super mollusk.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Shpigs? Peeps?

This is not a Photoshopped picture. These are Mangalitsa pigs (also spelled Mangalitza and Mangalica). They really do have curly, sheep-like wool. They were developed in Hungary in the nineteenth century by cross-breeding local swine with Serbian swine to create a fattier, easily kept pig. Since WWII, fatty pork has gone out of style and the herds have dwindled to just a few thousand in the Balkans and Hungary. A closely related British, curly-haired hog went extinct in the 1970s. Many foodies think the trend toward leaner pork has gone too far, with modern pork becoming a dry, flavorless meat that requires brining or cooking in liquid to bring out the flavor. Re-enter the woolly pig. Several British and American farms have imported Mangalitsas and begun selling the pork through farmers' markets and gourmet outlets much to the joy of pork lovers. Since they are also terribly cute, I imagine Mangalitsas will soon show up as exotic pets. Even if they were not cute or tasty, there would be value in keeping a herd here and there to maintain genetic diversity.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It was a mangy weasel

Last month, two women in the Sichuan province of China captured an ugly, dog-sized animal that they found raiding their chicken coop. Because it was like nothing they had seen before, they kept it captive. The next morning, as word of the strange beast got out, neighbors began flocking to Ke Suying's farm to gawk. Eventually, the local Forestry Department heard about the capture and took the animal in to do tests and find out what kind of animal they had. A Ms. Chen in the same county had been feeding an unfamiliar animal on her farm. When she heard about Ke's mystery animal, she called the Forestry Department to come take her animal and see if they were the same species. Ke's animal was described as:
...around 60 centimeters in length--bottom-heavy--and its tail adds another 30 centimeters. There is a wound on its stomach. Almost all of its fur is gone apart from a few sparse, brown-colored hairs on its back. Its head looks mostly like that of a dog, but its nostrils are that of a cow, and it has a few short whiskers hanging from its cheeks. It has round ears and folds on the skin on its neck. Its hindlegs are far longer and heavier than its forelegs, and each of its four wide feet has five toes, almost like that of a lion or tiger.

Foreign tabloids named Ke's animal the Oriental Yeti--which is both redundant and silly--and the Chinese Chupacabra. One of the foresters who looked at it said it looked like a common badger. My best guess was that it was a binturong. Several other bloggers opined that it was a palm civet. Chen said she thought her animal was a beech marten.

The Daying County Forestry Department has finally announced their results. They're calling it a Himalayan weasel with mange. It is the first time one has been reported in Daying County. The suggest that recent reforestation efforts might have drawn it in. Despite the fact that Himalayan weasel's are known chicken thieves, the foresters treated it for its mange and released it back into the forest. The foresters decided Chen's visitor was a masked palm civet and also set it free. Just to keep things confusing, an English language story from Xinhua translated the name for Ke's mystery animal given out by the Daying County Forestry Department as "albino civet cat."

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Who knew?

Finding a Sanjak level breakdown of the 1905 Ottoman census online is harder than you might expect.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Greatest hits

I've begun rerunning some of my older mammoth posts over at my all mammoth blog, Mammoth Tales. The first installment is Zombies of the Mammoth Steppes, the history and debunking of a certain mammoth myth that will not die.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

What is a supervolcano?

Supervolcano is not a meaningful geological term, it is a media term. What most of us think of as a "normal" volcanic eruption is caused by ash and lava being vented from a magma chamber, a miles wide bubble of molten rock that has risen through the crust to a point just a few miles below the surface. Because it is hot, the magma wants to expand. As it gets close to the surface, the magma is able to create cracks above it that allow some of the molten material to escape. The surface manifestation of these pressure valves are volcanos.

For the last decade or so the term Supervolcano has been popular for describing caldera collapses. These happen when the the entire surface above the magma chamber gives way at once. If a normal eruption is a pressure cooker letting off a little steam through a safety valve, a caldera collapse is a pressure cooker without a safety valve blowing its lid. These produce enormous amounts of ash and gas. They produce sudden cooling events around the world; if other conditions are right they can tip the Earth into an ice age. And, of course, they bury and kill lots of things downwind from the eruption, preserving lots of high quality fossils. Think "giant Pompeii". The key points here are that these are singular eruptions lasting only a few days and producing mostly ash.

Lately, supervolcano has been being used in the press to describe flood basalts. These come from a different type of event that is not a familiar type eruption and does not form a volcanic cone. Flood basalts form when molten rock comes to the surface through long cracks and flows across the land covering hundreds--even thousands--of square miles of land. The flows can last for years and new flows can appear in the same area repeatedly over millions of years, burying the land under thousands of feet of rock. The Columbia Plateau of Eastern Washington and Oregon is the result of over two hundred seperate flows that occured over about a seven million year period of time (the dating of the flows is extremely contentious). These do not produce very many fossils because lava flows slowly enough for most animals to simply walk away and most plants get burned up. Even so, there are some fossils produced under special conditions. The key points here are that these are very slow events that produce mostly rock.

I'm complaining about this distinction because of news articles like this:
Scientists Explore Origins of 'Supervolcanoes' on the Sea Floor: Ancient Goliaths Blamed for Multiple Mass Extinctions

"Supervolcanoes" have been blamed for multiple mass extinctions in Earth's history, but the cause of their massive eruptions is unknown.

Despite their global impact, the eruptions' origin and triggering mechanisms have remained unexplained. New data obtained during a recent Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) expedition in the Pacific Ocean may provide clues to unlocking this mystery.

The article does not make clear that they are talking about flood basalts and not caldera collapses until paragraph twelve.

It appears that "supervolcanoes" is being used by journalists, and scientists who talk to jouranlists, to mean "big ass volcanoish happenings." They have managed to take vague term and make it completely useless.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Just saying

In the entire history of the republic, only one supreme court nominee has been filibustered. He was corrupt. No supreme court nominee has ever been denied an up or down vote for partisan, ideological, or philosophical reasons. Until now. Republican senators John Kyl and Lamar Alexander are threatening to filibuster Stevens' replacement if they don't like his or her positions. I look forward to the GOP and its Fox overlords explaining why this state of affairs is Obama's fault.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The problem with multiple authors

From the Wikipedia entry on the island of Rhodes:
On 19 July 1944 the Gestapo rounded up the island’s nearly 2000 Jewish inhabitants, to send them to extermination camps. About 160 of the island's more than 600 Greek Jews survived.

It's not technically wrong, since we can all agree that 2000 is bigger than 600. Really people, when you add a sentence to an Wiki article read the article first. If that's too much work at least read the sentence next to the one you're adding.

Speaking of mange

(BBC) A man who survived last year's deadly bush fires in Australia is recovering in hospital after falling victim to a rare attack by a wombat. Bruce Kringle, 60, was pulled to the ground by the animal and bitten on the legs and arms after apparently stepping on it by mistake. He escaped after killing the wombat with an axe. Animal experts said it appeared the wombat had been suffering from mange, which had made it irritable.

While this is a sad story for both man and wombat, you have to admit, the "attack of the mangy wombat" has either folk song or low budget horror movie written all over it.

Non-mangy wombat

Monday, April 05, 2010

Mystery animal baffles scientists!!

Not really. The Daily Telegraph says,"A creature dubbed the 'oriental yeti' is being examined by scientists after emerging from ancient woodlands in remote central China." This sort of mystery animal pops up all the time and all over the world. They are always some familiar (or at least known) animal in an unfamiliar condition. Sometimes they are found washed up on a beach after having been the water long enough to lose their hair and get bloated but, for some reason, not yeat eaten by scavengers. Other times, they are suffereing from mange or some other skin disease, like this miserable looking fellow. I'm calling dibs on it being a Binturong. Any other bets?

Mystery animal. A Binturong with mange?

Binturong without mange.