Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Saturday, March 4, 2017


This will be short--there are extreme VPN problems in China now, and it is uncertain when I can post again. I am finding that almost all sites are blocked, even with the VPN.

Tarbosaurus sp., on display in Hustai Mall, Ulaanbaatar.

Mongolia's principal dinosaur museum is in a suburban mall. I guess the idea is to go where the kids are . . .

Sauropod on display in Chicago O'Hare airport.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virtue signalling in a cynical age

A recent story on Yahoo Finance tells us that the popular perception of Starbucks has fallen since the company announced that it would hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years. The action is intended as a response to President Trump's attempt to block the entry into the US of refugees from selected countries.

According to the chart below, consumer perception levels have fallen by about 2/3 since the day of the announcement (orange arrow).

(Yougov/Business Insider)

It may be tempting to consider this a case of blatant racism encouraged by the election of President Trump. But I don't think so. I do think the phenomenon is related to Trump's election, but not in such an obvious way.

Virtue signalling doesn't work as a marketing strategy anymore. In fact, this understates the problem--virtue signalling (expressing moral values through a conspicuous action) is almost entirely viewed negatively. The world has grown cynical, and it is generally the fault of elites of all types, who have shown us time and time again that the more they play up their high morals, the worse their morals truly are.

Years ago, virtue signalling worked--companies would make an announcement about paying a fair price to third-world wage slaves for coffee, and people would ascribe a higher moral character to that company. Any company that has has exercised virtuous behaviour consistently over a number of years still benefits from it, but apparently any new attempt to signal virtue is viewed cynically as merely a tool to win favour.

In the old world, virtue signalling meant, "I am a good person." In the cynical world, it means, "I am a good person (but we both know that's not really true)."

More than twenty years ago, when I was teaching geology at the University of Toronto, it was common for students in environmental science to come visit me and tell me that they always recycled and composted. They were trying to sound like good people, but I perceived it as a lame attempt to suck up to the professor. I usually gave them a non-commital answer like, "That's nice. (Now go away, please)."

I prefer vice signalling. Once when one of my students told me about her prodigious feats of recycling, I told her that I actually encouraged people to create as much garbage as possible, because it meant more work for geologists, both in mining and in landfill siting.

In the old world, vice signalling meant, "I am a bad person." In the cynical world, it means, "I am a bad person (but we both know that's not really true)."

In the cynical world, the attempt by Starbucks to make themselves look good had the opposite effect. They might have been better off with a different marketing campaign. "At Starbucks, we believe in screwing over third-world coffee-pickers so you can have a great-tasting cup of coffee at an unbeatable price." Except the unbeatable price part doesn't fit Starbuck's positioning. But maybe some other coffee company could try it--it would be a killer campaign.

It is the cynical world, more than anything else, that is responsible for the election of President Trump. Virtue is simply out of favour. If Clinton had run her campaign twenty years ago, when the world was less cynical, she would probably have won. But in the cynical world, too many people thought, "she has to be a real crook to be trying this hard to look good."

For his part, Trump seems to have understood the value of vice signalling. Perhaps it was due to his businesses (for all their ups and downs, he always did market himself pretty well), whereas poor doomed Hillary and her advisors hoped that Americans still admired virtue. In the cynical world, virtue has fallen out of style. The worse Trump made himself look, the better people thought of him.

Is this the end for virtue? I think we have reached a watershed moment, where the world is so cynical, it has come to believe the opposite of everything we once held true. But the world tends to move in cycles, and I can't help but think we have stretched the elastic as far as it will go in this direction.

After the Trump presidency (however long it lasts), I think people will appreciate virtue again.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Scenes from a plane

I took a few shots from the plane during my return to China last week.

Sea ice in Hudson Bay. Impressive leads, with some refreezing.

Snow in northern China

Part of the Great Wall, viewed from the air.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"It's like being on the Moon!"

. . . said just about everyone about the terrain around Hamningberg.

Hamningberg is an abandoned fishing village in the northeast tip of eastern Finnmark--the northern part of Norway. The town was largely depopulated in the 1960s, although people still used some of the homes there as summer cottages. There was even a small coffee shop (or was, in 1993). What made the town special is that it is one of the few villages where buildings predate the war.

When the Germans retreated from Finnmark during the last winter of the war, they were ordered to burn everything. However (so I was told), the commander of the German forces stationed in Hamningberg took pity on the people, and so he disobeyed the order. This was probably made easier knowing that no other German units would be passing through to realize this. So while every other village in Finnmark was razed, Hamningberg remained.

 Things to do in town include visiting the abandoned German gun-emplacements, and, if you have a flashlight, the pillbox and the network of tunnels between ammunition storage areas, the observation area, and the rails for the gun.

WW2 vintage barbed wire

The picture quality isn't all that great--the slides look okay, but the scanner isn't doing a very good job of scanning them.

What I was most interested in seeing in the area was the landscape. Everyone I knew in Finnmark told me that going there was like going to the moon. Even this site describes it as a "moonscape".

Just for reference, here is a real moonscape.

The local geology around Hamningberg consists of alternating sequences of sandstone and shale, which have been folded so that the bedding is nearly vertical. The shale tends to get eroded out, but the more resistant sandstone beds remain as broken walls across the landscape. Craters are absent. So, the place doesn't look like the moon at all.

But there is something otherworldly about the place. I think the reason for this common description--like the surface of the moon--reflects the fact that the landscape looks radically different from any other landscape that most people have ever seen.

For one thing, there isn't a lot of vegetation. But (at least here in Canada), there are a lot of shield areas with practically no vegetation. The other reason has to do with the geometry of the landforms of the area.

In the early days of computer-generated landscapes, there were experiments in which people would be shown some of the simulations and asked to rate them as being realistic or not. Most of these landscapes were generated using simple rules, with a seed shape (usually a triangular pyramid) and a characteristic fractal dimension. It turns out people were remarkably good at picking out the landscapes which had fractal dimensions within the typical range of landscapes on earth. Anything outside of this range was "otherworldly".

For a computer-generated landscape to resemble Hamningberg, it may have to be seeded with rectangles rather than pyramids. I don't think the fractal dimension is anything unusual, however. But the description of the area is being otherworldly may reflect the preferences that people have for landscapes that conform to their ideas of what constitutes a "natural" landscape.


Saturday, January 21, 2017

Shiny things

For the new year, Bank of China is selling a variety of gold and silver products, in various sizes up to 500 g (not depicted). Here is the 1 g gold bar (coloured, this year)

And they have a 2 g silver bar. Man, this thing can't possibly be worth making.

Once again, they pressed.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The ruins of Manzushir temple

Mongolia just keeps giving.

The day after going to Hustai National Park, we planned to see the ruins of the Manzushir (also Manjusri) monastery.

A significant snowfall had occurred at night, which blanketed the area and added to the traffic chaos until we escaped the city.

Traffic back in the old days was quieter.

Larches and evergreens in the snow.


 The Manzushir monastery was established in the early 18th century, and was destroyed by the Communist regime in the 1930s. Prior to its destruction, it was one of the most important Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia.

Reconstructed temple, surrounded by ruins


Repainted door.

Ruins of the principal temple, currently grazing grounds for a herd of cattle.

Shrines have been reconstructed on the hill overlooking the monastery.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Realignment in Asia

Last month, China seized an American drone operating in international waters some small distance from Subic Bay, in the Philippines. China returned the drone shortly thereafter. There was some small amount of diplomatic ranting over the incident, but these things tend not to escalate.

They have been going on for a long time. In the 1980s, Russian ships routinely stole equipment that had been deployed by Canadian research vessels in Canadian waters, most of which were only doing innocuous things like measuring salinity, temperature, and the speed of sound in the water column, much as the Americans' drone is reported to have done.

Of course, even innocuous oceanographic data can have geopolitical implications. There is a lot of speculation that the Chinese were afraid that the drone was to collect information on Chinese submarines. I'm going to go with the American story here--that it was to collect oceanographic information. That doesn't necessarily mean the data was not detrimental to Chinese interests. The question is, what are the Chinese interests?

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

On the Grand Banks, we went from station to station, lowering an instrument at each one, which would be anchored in place. When it came time to recover them, the ship would emit an acoustic signal, which would trigger a cable release and the instrument (which was buoyed) would rise to the surface for collection. On our perambulations, we noticed one or more Russian ships heading to our previous station. When the time came for collection, all the instruments were gone. The Russians had triggered the cable releases and scooped them all up. Rather, that was our interpretation--we weren't close enough to see for certain that they had done this, as the stations were kilometres apart. But no other ships were operating in the area.

We were conducting acoustic surveys as well, including sidescan sonar swaths for mapping the seafloor, as well as profilers and depth sounding. I noticed a number of submarine channels on the Banks--basically underwater fjords--and also noted that their geometry precluded them from being accurately mapped with the instruments we had. In fact there was nothing that we had in Canada that could have done it back in the day, because the issue was not a technical one--it was due to the separation between the instruments we were using and the seafloor. The limitation of standard methods for mapping steeply dipping structures was a significant part of my thesis that I wrote at the time.

In those days, instruments were towed--the umbilical was necessary for power, but towing was difficult from a surface ship through a narrow, and very deep canyon. Particularly when the cost of the instrument was high, and they tended to blow up due to the stresses upon contact with the seafloor. At one time, we had had an instrument that could be towed at a much greater depth, but (as I was told) the Russians stole the prototype in 1981 as it was being deployed, and for whatever reason, the Canadian company that made it didn't make another. (note: I have never found any independent corroboration of this story!!)

Anyway, what could be more innocent than mapping the ocean floor? Well, it turns out that our inability to map these structures properly meant that things near the bottom of the fjords were undetectable from near surface. In those days, antisubmarine detection would be via near-surface towed sonar, which would be ineffective here. Of course, there were other methods that could be used instead, but as long as we Canadians remained ignorant of the existence of these underwater fjords, we would not have the equipment ready to scan them. Does it mean the Russians were preparing an attack? (Probably not--but maybe they would simply like to be the only ones with this information, just in case). Or maybe the Russians were just short of equipment?

There can be a geopolitical element to even innocuous data collection from the seafloor. What threats might the Chinese have inferred from American drones in the South China Sea?

This article suggests the Chinese are worried about Americans tracking their subs. Possible. It's also possible that the Americans are planning for some bit of nastiness involving the Philippines, particularly after Philippine President Duterte's shift towards China. Or maybe they just want the information just in case.

Sometimes, moves like this are meant to send a message. The Americans may want the Philippines to know they are studying approaches to their coastline. The Chinese may want the Americans to know that they are willing to support their new friends.