Monday, February 15, 2010

The shape of things to come

This is the final post on NOVA Geoblog. From here on out, all my geoblogging will be done at a new blog, "Mountain Beltway:"


I have also started a new "announcements only" blog, which I've given the breathtaking name of "D.C. Geology Events:"

If you're in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area and you want to keep up on what's happening at venues like the Carnegie Institution or the Geological Society of Washington, I would invite you to subscribe to the D.C. Geology Events feed. Every time I find out about a talk or a field trip or a museum exhibit opening or whatever, I'll post it there. I'm also recruiting other D.C.-area geological cognoscenti to serve as co-authors on D.C. Geology Events. So far I've got two people to help out by posting stuff there. So, dear reader: if you are a pipeline for information about seminars, etc., and want to be able to post your events on D.C. Geology Events, please get in touch with me, and I'll add you to the blog as an author.

Why this change, this "avulsion" of my blog flow? There's several reasons.
  1. Blogger decided to stop publishing via FTP. I composed NOVA Geoblog on Blogger, but then published it to the NOVA servers. This was always problematic -- NOVA makes me change my password periodically, and it was difficult to keep Blogger in sync with it, resulting in many frustrating instances of failing to publish when I tried to, and then it shutting down my NOVA account access (which automatically locks after three unsuccessful attempts to log in). Blogger found it a pain too, and decided to stop dumping so many resources into supporting FTP. Fair enough. Turns out I'm happy enough to switch away from Blogger for a couple other reasons, too.

  2. I always hated the limits Blogger imposed on my typography. I'm an advocate of the old Chinese aphorism that "The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper names." Unfortunately, Blogger cannot seem to handle things like accent marks, tildes, degree symbols, and the like. This is a bummer. Even things like long dashes and curly quotation marks turn into garbled code mess when copied and pasted into Blogger. ("Copied and pasted" because you sure can't type them in directly.) So Blogger limits users that way.

  3. I started this blog as a way to communicate a stream of news items and web resources to my students. Soon after I started publishing it, though, other people discovered it, and now that extended global audience is primary in my mind as I am writing. I think re-inventing the blog as Mountain Beltway will allow me to directly serve that readership with less NOVA-flavored ambiguity. Fortunately, there is a new tool that allows one to transmit links to cool web resources with a minimum of infrastructure: So, I've decided to join Twitter, and import my Twitter feed into the sidebar of Mountain Beltway.

  4. Along similar lines, a clear issue with NOVA Geoblog is that I'm very much a local boy with a lot of interest in engaging with the local geologic community. Hence the frequent announcements about seminars, talks, meetings, etc. Mountain Beltway will be written from a D.C. perspective -- the name itself conveys that, I hope -- but it will be free of all "locals-only" meet-up information. That's what D.C. Geology Events is for.

  5. Because NOVA Geoblog is hosted on servers owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, the same people who employ me, and I never got official permission to blog on our webspace, I was always a little worried that someone would get upset with something I wrote, and get in touch with my bosses and shut me down. There are plenty of cranks out there, and plenty of lawyers to back them up. If I'm blogging on my own, and it's hosted by WordPress, that's no longer as acute an issue. I suppose it's worth disclaiming that there, as here, my opinions are my own and do not represent Northern Virginia Community College, the Virginia Community College System, or the Commonwealth of Virginia.

  6. To shake things up a bit. While NOVA Geoblog hasn't gotten "stale," exactly, I've definitely gotten a charge out of inventing Mountain Beltway. I'm excited to do some cool blogging there. In fact, I've been so motivated that I've already written the next ten posts that will appear there -- but I'll parse them out over the next ten days. So much for my plans to blog less, eh?
I got some great feedback in the survey that I blogged about yesterday, and one of the things I'm keen to do is engage in more discussion with other geobloggers and geoblog readers. Ever since my 1000th post, I've noticed an increase in the tempo and diversity of commenting here, and I'm grateful for it. I've also made more of an effort myself to comment on other blogs, and also to respond to comments here, even if they don't explicitly require a response. I've enjoyed the discourse: it's fun. Thanks to all who have participated. I envision a similar lively back-&-forth at Mountain Beltway.

I'll leave comments open on NOVA Geoblog for 1 more week, then shut them down, too.

I set the new blog up a week ago, so you'll find some content waiting for you. See you there.

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Linguoid ripples in snow?

Georgia Perimeter College professor Pamela Gore sent me these photos yesterday of some interesting structures she found in the snow in her yard. She was away for the storm itself, so she didn't watch them forming, but the morphology suggested linguoid ripple marks to her. If that's accurate, the current direction (wind direction) was from the north. Take a look at her photos below, and here's some photos for comparison.



Two shots that are zoomed and cropped from the image above:


Pamela e-mailed me again this afternoon to say that, "Looking at them in daylight, they look like they were formed by impacts of snow [clumps] from trees, landing at an angle and causing folding on the 'downstream' side."

What do you think? Are these linguoid ripples? Any sedimentologists want to chime in?

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Survey results

Thanks to the 88 of you who took the time to complete the short survey which was posted a couple of weeks ago here, concurrent with the 1000th post.

I wanted to share the results with you today... as a prelude to a major announcement tomorrow.

The first question attempted to gather demographic data about my readership.
Of the 88 respondents, there were...
9 friends of mine
4 NOVA students of mine
6 GMU students of mine
1 undergraduate student at another Virginia school
5 undergraduate students at a non-Virginia school
1 graduate student at Virginia school
7 graduate students at a non-Virginia school
14 university faculty
6 two-year college faculty
6 high school Earth science teachers
27 professional geoscientists
28 amateurs who are interested in geology
21 residents of the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area
3 former residents of D.C. area
21 geobloggers
6 non-geology bloggers
60 U.S. citizens in the U.S.
1 non-U.S. citizen in the U.S.
2 U.S. citizens residing abroad
14 non-U.S. citizens, residing in their home countries
5 Libertarians
3 Republicans
13 politically-centrist folks
34 Democrats
42 Liberals
12 who don't consider themselves political at all

0 young-Earth creationists
2 old-Earth creationists
4 who describe themselves as "very religious"
6 who describe themselves as "moderately religious"
34 who describe themselves as "not religious"
14 who describe themselves as "spiritually inclined"
22 who describe themselves as "agnostic"
27 who describe themselves as "athiest"
63 avid readers
50 avid Internet surfers
13 avid television watchers
6 hermits
50 males
33 females
1 chemist (write-in response)
1 environmental activist (write-in response)
1 newly retired marine biologist/science editor (write-in response)
1 retired widower anti-Church Californian (write-in response)
1 fan of post-modern formalism
(my favorite write-in response!)
Analysis: That's about what I expected. I thank everyone for sharing this demographic data.

The second question asked people why they read NOVA Geoblog. The responses (click here to read them all, then "BACK" to return to this post) clumped together into several major themes:

Diversity of topics presented (7 responses)

DC-area affinities (9 responses)

Travel stories (12 responses)

Teaching ideas (12 responses)

Writing style (22 responses),
...described variously as clear, instructive, balanced, and enthusiastic

Topics being discussed (25 responses)

Illustrations, including photos, including annotated photos (28 responses)

Several people also mentioned these topics: the Patagonia series, virtual field trips, current events, and "fun!" One person comes here for environmental stuff. One comes for practicing their English skills.

Here are a few responses to the "why I read this blog" question that stood out to me:

"I appreciate the way you integrate all different levels of geology content quite seamlessly into your posts."

"I like the genuine enthusiasm for geology/nature and life that Callan presents. The blog is honest and upbeat."

"It's probably the geoblog from which I learn the most, in the sense of gaining new knowledge and skills, above all the skill of looking carefully and understanding what I see."

"[I] wonder how I can grow up to live the Callan Bentley lifestyle. ;-)"

I also asked people what they liked about NOVA Geoblog. Here's a little graph showing the number of responses to the proposed answers I gave as options:

But I also had a space for "other" answers, and several people availed themselves of that opportunity. Among the "other" responses were:

Geopuzzles / me posing questions for readers

Reiteration of the popularly-noted choice above: the photos, travel photos, annotated photos, and illustrations.

Timelessness. Here's a quote: "I like the fact that I can read and re-read the entire 1,000 entries. It's an education in itself, and a great resource. Case in point: last Autumn as I hiked in the Sierra Nevada I recognized boudins in a rock formation. I would never have known what they were if I hadn't learned about them from your blog. Thanks for enriching my adventures."

Analysis: The geological content is the driver for this blog. I'm blessed/cursed with 'geology-colored glasses,' and a compulsion to share my interest in geological topics. That's the main reason I write, and the main reason readers read. Additionally, people really seem to like the way I do photos, annotations and illustrations. So do I! As a visual learner, I'm pleased to have some reinforcing affirmation there. I promise to continue that trend into the future (major announcement tomorrow about what the future holds).

If I'm going to ask about pros, I should also ask about cons; so I did. Here's the graph accompanying the question "What do you dislike about NOVA Geoblog?"

Less of a response here, probably not surprisingly. In the "other" category, we had the following items of feedback. My responses are in brackets, italics, and red type.

a lot of "there's nothing I dislike about it" (16 out of 36 "other" responses) [CB: Cool. Thanks.]

"I view blogs as personal diaries and as such I don't find much to dislike about a particular blog. If I don't enjoy the presentation of information on some level I simply stop reading the blog. This isn't the case with NOVA Geoblog. I think there is a diverse range of subject matter presented here and therein lies its value. I'm not always interested in the material and I don't always agree fully with the analysis, but I probably wouldn't be a geologist if I did. For myself, the point of reading a blog is to be aware of the scope of interests of other geoscientist in the world and NOVA Geoblog achieves this aim." [CB: I welcome alternative interpretations of the rocks or geologic systems that I write about. Chime in via the comments section!]

"It could be better organized, using tags & categories to make posts on particular themes easier to find." [CB: Point taken. You're right. This will be solved with the changes I unveil tomorrow.]

"This blog is well-balanced like perfect hoppy beer." [CB: Cheers!]

"It's not really about NOVA." [CB: Not all the time, no. The title wasn't meant to convey that all the content would be NOVA-focused, just that's where I'm writing from.]

"Callan (you!) often writes with the tone of voice of a DC native, i.e., a Beltway insider. To change that you will probably have to live in other places for a few years. I suggest a mix of rural areas, small towns, small cities, and big cities in Mississippi, Wisconsin, and New York." [CB: Hilarious! I've lived in Arlington and Williamsburg, Virginia; Martinsville, Indiana; the San Bernardino Mountains of California; a remote village in Mongolia (Ereentsav Sum, Dornod Aimag); the San Juan Islands of Washington; Homer, Alaska; and now in urban Washington, D.C. I've also spent the equivalent of several months apiece living in the high Sierra of California, and in Bozeman, Montana. I'm quite literally inside the Beltway these days, and doubtless I write with that perspective -- but I'm not lacking in experience of living elsewhere. Furthermore, I've got my dream job in a geologically-interesting place, surrounded by people I love. Unless something fundamental were to change, I'm not moving anywhere anytime soon.]

One person complained about the survey: that some of my questions were flippant, or that they could not imagine how they could be relevant. Specifically, they took issue with some of the demographic questions in Question #1 about U.S. citizenship and the "hermaphrodite" option. In response, I would say: I was just curious, that's all. Sorry that my asking offended you. As for "hermaphrodite," I was just trying to keep the mood light. My bad.

"Not really a complaint specific to this blog, but sometimes comments/questions posted in the comments section are left without response, which is somewhat puzzling in light of the professed desire for more comments. Lack of response to legitimate questions or remarks aimed at generating further discussion of an interesting topic (of course flames/trolls and spam are not to be encouraged) tends to discourage further commenting, and makes the reader think that the blogger is indifferent, or perhaps only interested in receiving praise--which raises a good question: what do bloggers want or expect to receive in their comments sections?" [CB: This is an excellent point. I am fully to blame for leaving legitimate questions hanging without a response. There are two specific examples that come immediately to mind: a twice-asked question about Ordovician glaciation evidence in the mid-Atlantic region, and a question about whether the Michigan Basin could be a bolide impact crater. Both of these comments continue to sit (fermenting?) in my e-mail inbox, as I wait for a time when I can compose a full, thoughtful response, including doing additional research about the Ordovician glaciation question. As for other questions 'left hanging,' I take the full blame, and I intend to change my frequency of commenting. In fact, I've been both commenting more, and getting a lot more comments, since the 1000th post that kicked off this self-reflection and request for feedback.]

Analysis: The prime complaint is one I anticipated: that the DC-area announcements were wearing thin on non-DC-area readers. With tomorrow's announcement, I will solve that problem. The complaint that struck home most forcefully with me is the last one in the list above, about the comments. I resolve to respond to all legitimate questions on the blog, and if I don't have a ready answer, then I'll use my response to say so.

Finally, and most prosaically, I asked how often people visited the blog. Here's the graph:

There were a few "others" here, too. They specified which RSS feed they used, or said things like "a few times a week." Nothing shocking there.

Analysis: The majority of people who read this blog either make it a daily habit or automate the habit via an RSS feed. If you haven't yet learned about RSS (Really Simple Syndication) yet, allow me to advise you: You really, really should. It's Really Simple. I recommend setting up an IG page with your Google account, and importing RSS feeds there. Alternatively, pipe them into your Google Reader account. It's quite simple to set up, and the best part is your computer will do all the work for you, scouring the web for the latest, and bringing it to one single page, where you can then view it. For instance, I personally subscribe to 183 separate blogs via RSS. Some update several times a day, others once daily, others sporadically. As far as I'm concerned, I no longer have to care about how frequently they update. If there's something new, I'll see it. If not, I don't have to think about it. With the RSS, I can be confident that I'm not missing anything, and I don't have to invest any effort or time seeking out the content.

Thanks everyone for all the feedback. I sincerely appreciate it. Tomorrow I'll reveal the future of my blogging.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Bill Burton does EPOD (Redoubt)

Last year's president of the Geological Society of Washington, Bill Burton of the USGS, is the author of today's Earth Science Picture of the Day (EPOD). It shows Mount Redoubt erupting an ash plume amost a year ago. Go on over and check it out.

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New geoblog with a GREAT title

Via the comments on my Bob Hazen book post, I found George D. Turner's thoughtful, fun geoblog Eclectic Plagiodoxy. You know I'm going to be intrigued by a title like that. Here's the beginning of George's explanation of that polysyllabic wonder of a title:

The word "plagiodoxy" came to me in a familiar place: in front of a classroom of introductory geology students. I was trying to connect the sometimes arcane jargon of the science with ordinary experiences the students were familiar with. In this case, I was working my way through the mineral group called feldspar, trying to make semantic connection with the two sub-groups, orthoclase and plagioclase. So I was chatting about ortho-dontists, ortho-pedists and ortho-doxy. I ended up saying something like "I suppose if you wanted crooked teeth, you would go to a plagiodontist. If you wanted crooked bones, you would go to a plagiopedist. If you wanted to learn to think on the slant, you would go to a plagiodox institution. That's called 'college'."

Go and check out the rest -- I think I like the way this guy thinks!

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Friday, February 12, 2010

2-year college geoscience departments: Workshop to be held at NOVA

If you're a geology professor at a two-year college (community college, junior college, etc.), then please consider attending a planning workshop June 24 to 27 here at my campus of NOVA. My department and I are hosting, and the talented crew at SERC, including Heather MacDonald, are organizing. More details at the SERC website.

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"Genesis" by Bob Hazen

Book month continues...

Over the Snowpocalypse, I read Bob Hazen's book Genesis: the Scientific Quest for Life's Origin. Hazen is a celebrated and charismatic scientist whose primary gig is at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, though he is also the Clarence Robinson professor of geology at George Mason University. (He's also the guy who got some time in the spotlight the year before last with his ideas about mineral evolution and one of the team manning the Carnegie's new initiative the Deep Carbon Observatory.)

The book is an insider's account of what insights science has gained into how life began on our planet. Spanning several decades and labs on three continents, the story is ultimately one of chemistry, and of people. The chemistry is the knowledge part of it: how did life's fundamentals (metabolism and genetics) come to be? We know a lot about how to put together polymers from smaller (and presumably abundant) monomers, and we know a lot about the rawest forms of both metabolism and the passing on of genetic information. But there is a gap, progressively narrowing through dogged science, which we don't understand. The book is very much about famililarlizing the lay-reader with the details, and limits, of our understanding.

It is also very much a book about scientists, the people who get science done. This is probably the more interesting part, at least to me. Some of the stories Hazen tells are insightful and endearing, as you get to observe major breakthroughs through the biographies of those who made them happen. There are also bizarre twists, like a debate between Bill Shopf and Martin Brazier in 20002 about the ALH 84001 meteorite, the one purported to hold fossilized Martian microbes. I'll leave the details for the reader to discover, but it sounds like a very uncomfortable scene. Also on the 'people' angle, I found it interesting to hear when Hazen was pursuing an interesting new angle, and was asked politely to stop by a colleague because the colleague had promised someone else the chance to test that particular hypothesis. Navigating the politics of research is something I don't have a lot of experience in, and so I found this intriguing. Similarly, the story of Nick Platts and the PAH World hypothesis was a neat case study in how science can work -- albeit more dramatic and "Eureka!"-ish than the usual lab monotony. Finally, I really enjoyed the flavor provided by Hazen's anecdotes about life around the Carnegie: beers, volleyball, crowded lab space, small stories about the people who I see at GSW.

Hazen's own contributions to the field are mainly centered on the high-pressure, high-temperature lab experiements he does in the "bomb" at the Carnegie, and his expertise on minerals as a geologist. He does element mapping of fossils, and experiments to see if mineral surface chirality can 'select' for 'left-handed' or 'right-handed' amino acids. This is definitely not the centerpiece of the book though: to his credit, Hazen shows himself to be but one scientist in an active, vibrant field. His contributions are presented with equal weight as compared to his peers' and colleagues' contributions. I think it's well balanced that way. He also pulls no punches when it comes to odd, demeaning, or outright political behavior on the part of his peers, and I can imagine that some of them would have issues with the book on that count. It seems to me that he tells it like it is. Reviews on Amazon are mixed, but mostly positive, with the main criticism apparently that this is a personal account of how the science is getting done, and not a textbook. To which I would say: if you expect a personal account, then you won't be disappointed.

Overall, I would give it 4 out of 5 possible stars.

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