We Need to Stop Executing Peoplel

Last night, the state of Georgia executed a man who was very likely innocent. Like PZ, I don’t care whether he was guilty or innocent. I care that my country is one of the few countries in the world that executes people.

From Wikipedia

I used to be a strong death penalty supporter. Some crimes, I thought, could only be adequately punished by death. I didn’t ever believe it acted as a general deterrent, but as former FBI agent John Douglas said in Mindhunter, it surely acts as a specific deterrent: that particular person will never commit a crime again. When you’re talking about serial killers, that seems like an admirable thing.

But we kill too many innocent people. We come close to killing far more, before luck and persistence and the existence of DNA evidence, uncovered by tireless investigators, come to the rescue. Those are the lucky ones. Those are the ones who aren’t denied the chance to prove their innocence. How many other people have gone to their deaths because no DNA evidence existed, or if it did was never found, or if found, never allowed to be presented? We don’t know. And it’s unbearable that we don’t know.

So what about those cases in which evidence of guilt is undeniable? Where we definitely have the right person, and the crimes they committed are horrific?

I still don’t support the death penalty. Not even for them. Oh, I may want them to die, and die horribly; that visceral emotional reaction, that righteous outrage, is certainly there. But a civilized society should restrain itself. All we gain is another dead person, another traumatized family, proof that we aren’t able to rise above bronze age ideas of justice. We engage in violence to punish violence, and make our civilization just that much more violent.

Life in prison, no parole, is enough to keep society safe.

We spend an insane amount of money on killing people. That money would be far better spent on improving the conditions that lead people to violence in the first place. A society that takes care of its vulnerable members has less to fear from them, and so much to gain.

Troy Davis should be the last person to be put to death in this country. We’re the last country in North America to execute people. It’s time we joined Canada and Mexico in recognizing what justice truly is.

We Need to Stop Executing Peoplel

Dragonfly in Action

I meant to post something really nice and substantial tonight, but my darling Aunty Flow is being wretchedly evil this month. We’ll have to make do with a dragonfly instead. But whatta dragonfly! I shot this at Silver Lake, where a lovely visitor’s center and a nice walk on a nature trail built along and on the lake make for a good introduction to Mount St. Helens.

Dragonflies swooped round us, too active to easily photograph, but I got a fantastic action shot of one of the little buggers.

This is why I love my camera: that little dragonfly was several feet away in a riot of vegetation, and it still managed to capture him. Check out the crop:

Not bad for a little point-and-shoot, eh?

I love this shot, because it shows the weird contortions of a dragonfly’s body as it gets ready to launch. They’re such interesting little critters. Someday, I plan to park myself along Silver Lake for an hour or two and catch more of these guys – in addition to the blues, there were some delicious reds I didn’t get a chance to shoot, although Steamforged got a few and might be kind enough to put them up for us soon.

Dragonfly in Action

My Volcano Phobia is Officially Pining for the Fjords

We would have ended the summer adventuring season with a bang if Mount St. Helens had been so kind as to erupt.

I used to have a bit of a volcano phobia. I’d have nightmares of majestic mountains suddenly exploding, threatening me with pyroclastic flows and hot red lava. I remember those dreams: tense, terrified sequences that sometimes began with the first jets of steam and ash from an unexpected eruption, sometimes picking up in mid-drama as I tried to gather cat and loved ones and flee. There was a dream where I lived in my childhood home again: the Peaks were putting on a spectacular show outside the sliding glass doors, lava bombs and ash falling all round, hot bits of volcanic ejecta setting off massive forest fires. Lava flows once chased me all the way from Flagstaff to Phoenix, melting the car’s tires and cutting off escape routes. I’d wake up exhausted, heart pounding, eyeballing the nearest mountain for the slightest sign of unrest. I’d run through evacuation plans in my mind and check the news (at the time, rumor had it the ground around Flagstaff was rising by an inch a year, and I believed there was a magma chamber filling up below the mountains). I’d watch teevee shows about eruptions and consider that the oldest volcanics nearby were less than 1,000 years old. The volcanoes were sleeping, not dead, and I was ready: if they so much as twitched, I’d be outta there like a shot.

I never ever in my entire life wanted to see a volcano erupt live. Not even the tame little Hawaiian ones. Nossir. I’d take my eruptions on teevee from a safe distance of several hundred miles, thanks ever so much.

So what did I do? Moved to a subduction zone, where things regularly go boom. My stepmother laughed at me. But as I told her, they monitor these things intensively, and the moment one of them woke, I’d be on her doorstep with cat and suitcase in hand.

I never would have gone to Mount Saint Helens the first time if I’d known she was, actually, erupting. And I would have fled if I’d realized the pretty wisps of steam emerging from the dome weren’t merely residual heat, but active dome-building. The parking lot was filled with scorch marks from hot rocks falling from the sky. And I was damned glad we’d brought the fast car – if it looked to be an eruption, we’d be so outta there.

And we got home after a hell of an experience, and I looked some things up, and realized I’d stared into the heart of an erupting volcano, one that had violent tendencies, and nothing bad had happened.

Still, I’d run, wouldn’t I? If I saw her start to blow, I’d surely scream and run away.

Then I started studying geology.

And then I went back.

And found myself disappointed St. Helens is sleeping.

The scorch marks in the parking lot are faded now. The dome isn’t steaming. The seismometers on her slopes are quiet. And I wished she’d wake up. I wished she was busy dome-building again. I wished I could stand on the viewing platform at Johnston Ridge and watch her put on a show. Not a big one, mind, but just a little something for the kids. Cujo and Steamforged had never seen her in person before. I had the new camera. C’mon, girl, just a little plume for your old buddy Dana. I wrote you a get-well card when you blew apart in ’80, remember?

No such luck. But it doesn’t matter if she’s erupting or not – she’s still spectacular. The blast zone is still a virtual moonscape, despite all the wildflowers and alders. You just don’t get to see bald slopes and deep, wild erosion in western Washington. There’s nothing like a VEI-5 eruption to clear away all that pesky biology.

We took the long climb from the parking lot to Johnston Ridge Observatory. At first, the ridge hides the mountain. She peeks at you, gradually comes into view, and you almost don’t notice because you’re goggling at the downed trees and nearly-naked slopes of the blast zone.

Note the biology starting to get all uppity. I think we need another VEI-5 to teach it a lesson. Yes, it’s pretty; yes, that’s how western Washington’s supposed to be, but damn it, it’s beginning to block the geology views.

And yes, that’s a bit of the crater rim rising above the bushes. Stick with me. A few more feet of climbing, and you’ll see views.

Reach the top, stand on the shoulder of the ridge, and gaze into the amphitheater left by the 1980 eruption. After you’ve managed to unstick your awestruck feet, walk toward the Observatory. There’s another rise, and nestled at the base of that rise, facing the mountain, a monument.

The names of the dead are chiseled in black against the gray stone. Mount St. Helens killed, because we didn’t understand her. We didn’t know quite what to expect of her, or where the safe places were, or took risks for science, or adventure. Harry Truman stayed in his cabin with his cats, too old and too stubborn to flee his beloved mountain.

David A. Johnston died on this ridge. He had time for one last radio transmission: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!” I don’t know how much time he had to realize he wasn’t getting out. Two miles to the north, also directly in the path of the blast, ham radio operator Jerry Martin knew what was coming: he’d just seen David Johnston die. “Gentlemen, the uh, camper and the car sitting over to the south of me is covered,” he said in his last transmission. “It’s gonna get me, too. I can’t get out of here.”

You can hear David’s last words, in a film at the Observatory named for him. And after the movie, the screen goes up, the curtain rises, and there she is.

 Stand there for a moment of silence, then go on.

Inside the Observatory, they have some pretty outstanding displays. They’ve got a huge scale model that lights up, illustrating various phases of the eruption as a narrator speaks.

This one, I think, was showing the pyroclastic flows.

And some of the lahars:

I have a terrible feeling lots of folks have walked away thinking St. Helens spewed rivers of molten lava, but oh well. I wasn’t paying that much attention to it, aside from ooing at the sparkles. No, there was another thing there that demanded attention: a display that you could put your hands on to “feel” earthquakes and other seismic events, with a screen showing you what the seismometers had picked up (running elk, helicopter landing, rock breaking, landslide, various earthquakes) and the thing would shake and shake. This, I have to tell you, could keep a person occupied for hours. Wish I had thought to take a picture, but I was too busy playing with it.

Outside in the Plaza, there’s one of those USGS markers I love so much:

We stayed for the ranger talk, which I’ll be writing up, and then headed out. One last look back:

And then on down to a viewpoint overlooking Castle Lake, where the late evening light and several enthralled people compliment the mountain perfectly.

And with that, the summer adventuring season is well and truly at an end. Good thing, too. I’ve got so much geology to write up I’ll probably still haven’t have gotten it all by the time next summer rolls round.

Ending it here, with the mountain that introduced me to the splendid power of volcanic eruptions at the tender age of 5, seems fitting. Mount St. Helens has been part of my consciousness for nearly the entire span of my memory. She was the most spectacular event of my childhood. She’s become a part of me, she and the people who were caught up in that day of catastrophic destruction.

She’ll likely put on another eruptive display before I die, and unlike me, she won’t grow old. She’ll constantly be tearing herself down and building herself back up, long after we are gone. There’s something very nearly timeless in that, although she’s not eternal. She’s a moment in geological time. But what a moment she is!

My Volcano Phobia is Officially Pining for the Fjords

Dojo Summer Sessions: Writing Inspirations, Good Advice

I’m busy writing a short story that decided it couldn’t wait and trying to pre-load meaty posts for this long winter writing season. So I shall foist you off on other, wiser people who had quite good things to say to writers such as ourselves. This is a small collection of quotes I’ve gathered over some years and meant to turn into a Dojo article someday. They need no help from me: they can stand alone.

“You ask yourself the following question: To what questions in life have I not yet found a satisfactory answer?”

-Holly Lisle, “Finding Your Themes

“An American editor worries his hair gray to see that no typographical mistakes appear on the page of his magazine.  The Chinese editor is wiser than that.  He wants to leave his readers the supreme satisfaction of discovering a few typographical mistakes for themselves.”

-Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

“There is a curious thing that one feels sometimes.  When you are considering a subject, suddenly a whole train of reasoning comes before you like a flash of light.  You see it all, yet it takes you perhaps two hours to put on paper all that has occurred to your mind in an instant.  Every part of the subject, the bearings of all its parts upon each other, and all the consequences are there before you.”

            -Lord Wellington, quoted in John Keegan’s The Mask of Command

“A writer of fiction, a professional liar, is paradoxically obsessed with what is true….. the unit of truth, at least for a fiction writer, is the human animal, belonging to the species Homo sapiens, unchanged for at least 100,000 years.

“Fiction, in its groping way, is drawn to those moments of discomfort when society asks more than its individual members can, or wish to, provide.  Ordinary people experiencing friction on the page is what warms our hands and hearts as we write.”

            -John Updike, quoted in Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate

If at least one of those didn’t make your Muse sit up and take notice, then I despair of your Muse.

Dojo Summer Sessions: Writing Inspirations, Good Advice

Los Links 9/16

All right, people. Stop writing awesome stuff I feel compelled to read. Actually, don’t stop, but do allow me to throw my hands up in despair. I need another me who does nothing but read cool shit on the interwebz and can download the results directly into my brain.

Anyway. There’s this one post I have to put right up here, because it’s about the Cascadia Subduction Zone and it’s utterly terrifying, enthralling, and some of the best writing I’ve yet seen.

Outside: Totally Psyched for the Full-Rip Nine.

And now, on with the rest of teh awesome.


Anthropology in Practice: Pieces of the Human Evolutionary Puzzle: Who Was Australopithecus sediba?

Context and Variation: Menstruation is just blood and tissue you ended up not using.

Andrew Alden: Dietary Minerals and Real Minerals.

Obsidian Wings: A brook, run, creek, branch, or stream runs through it.

Glacial Till: The Molalla River, Oregon.

Scientific American: Wire Up Your Sense of Smell: How the Internet Is Changing the World of Perfumery.

Arya M. Sharma, MD: Should We Outsource Obesity Treatment To Weight Watchers?

Atomic-o-licious: The Smell of it.

Guardian: The versatility of science graduates should be celebrated not criticised.

Georneys: Geology Word of the Week: O is for Ooid.

Uncovered Earth: Sunday Science Photos, September 4 – 10.

Glacial Till: Meteorite Monday: The Hayabusa mission to Itokawa.

Denison Geoblog: Flint Ridge, Ohio.

Scientific American: Nile Crocodile Found to Comprise Two Different Species.

Butterflies and Science: Butterflies and Social Science.

The Atlantic: The Dark Side of the Placebo Effect: When Intense Belief Kills.

Clastic Detritus: Seafloor Sunday #89: Photo From the Deepest Part of the Ocean.

American Rivers: The importance of small streams.

Galileo’s Pendulum: A Planet With Two Suns.

The SciencePunk Blog: Five iconic science images, and why they’re wrong. (This solar system scale model is a bit more realistic.)

Scientific American: How to Improve Your Life with Story Editing.

Highly Allochthonous: One recipe for flooding: Take a tropical cyclone and add steep topography.

Scientific American: Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Situation Is in the Mindset of the Observer and Lessons from Sherlock Holmes: The Power of Public Opinion.

My Modern Met: Town Squeezed Between Giant Boulders.

Metageologist: What you ought to know about metamorphism.

Cosmic Variance: Trusting Experts.

The Conversation: Diamond planets, climate change and the scientific method.

Scientific American: Peace of Mind: Near-Death Experiences Now Found to Have Scientific Explanations.

Decrepit Old Fool: The alien menace.

Geotripper: Vagabonding across the 39th Parallel: A Canyon Along The Colorado River? Really?

Earth Literally: Dynamic Topography: What’s in a name?

Strange Maps: 531 – A Rio Runs Through It: Naming the American Stream.

Anthropology in Practice: On My Shelf: Geologic City (A Review).

Matt Kutcha: Mineral Cleavage Test.

Mountain Beltway: A dismaying course, part II: evolution  and Clinker.

Skepchick: Guest Post: Birdchick – Are sea eagles coming after your children?

Not Necessarily Geology: Folded Lakes Marble.

The Last Word on Nothing: Guest Post: Part of Me Forever.

Outside the Interzone: Volcanic Ramblings Part 3: Salt Creek Falls.


Pub Rants: In The Author’s Shoes.

LitReactor: Interesting new tool for writers, might be worth subscribing to.

The Coffee-Stained Writer: Fiction Friday: getting into your characters’ heads.

Nieman Storyboard: Story, interrupted: why we need new approaches to digital narrative.

Bob Mayer’s Blog: Marketing and Indie Authors: Our Successful Release of The Jefferson Allegiance.

The Book Deal: What authors can learn from the bestseller lists.

The Passive Voice: Is There Anything That Can Take the Pain Out of Ebook Formatting?

A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing: Guest Post from Bella Andre (aka Lucy Kevin) (aka Bella Riley).

A Brain Scientist’s Take on Writing: From St. Martins, to Self Publishing, to Amazon: Q&A With Barry Eisler.

Write It Forward: The real gatekeepers in publishing now? Authors.

Terrible Minds: Twenty-Sided Troubadours: Why Writers Should Play Roleplaying Games.

Genreville: Authors Say Agents Try to “Straighten” Gay Characters in YA.

Atheism and Religion

***Dave Does the Blog: Man Does Not Live By Bread Alone … but he doesn’t live long without it, either.

Lousy Canuck: Why don’t atheists just shut up and stay home? (a repost) and What is an ad hominem? What isn’t?

Oregon Live: Another faith-healing death of a child puts Oregon City parents on trial.

Camels With Hammers: A Living Illustration of the Problem With Trying To Love The Gay Person But Hate Her Gayness and How Religious Bullying Makes Atheists So Angry: One New Atheist’s Story.

On Humanity, Naturally: Concerns About the Religious Right Are Not Overblown.

Women’s Issues

White Coat Underground: A trick question.

Jezebel: County Attorney Accused Of Making Rape Jokes, Ignoring Child Porn.

Emily L. Hauser – In My Head: “Like a girl” – yes, again.

The Guardian: As the Topman T-shirts show, misogyny is now so commonplace it’s mundane.

The Guardian: Let’s get this straight. Gender studies isn’t about ‘women good, men bad’.

Slate: The Girl Scouts’ Allegedly Radical Feminist Lesbian Agenda.

The Daily Beast: Women: The Invisible Poor.

Science Sushi: Observations: Why do women cry? Obviously, it’s so they don’t get laid.

Ynet News: Cadets dismissed over woman’s song.

National Postdoctoral Association: A Postdoc’s Guide to Pregnancy and Maternity Leave.

ABC News: Forever 21′s ‘Allergic to Algebra’ Shirt Draws Criticism.

Almost Diamonds: And Then You Wait.

Gamasutra: Gamazon: ‘Feminist Whore’ Powers Activate.


ThinkProgress: GOP Legislator: Homosexuality Is ‘More Dangerous’ Than Terrorist Attacks Because We Have To Deal With It Every Day.

Paul Krugman: Setting Their Hair on Fire.

Wisconsin Gazette: GOP memo instructs DMV workers not to tell voters that photo IDs are free.

Thoughts from Kansas: Why science questions matter for candidates.

Media Matters: Murdoch’s U.S. Hacking Woes Grow.

Washington Post: Bachmann’s wrongheaded attack on HPV vaccinations.

White Coat Underground: Ignorance, beatified.

Almost Diamonds: Emily for Elizabeth.

***Dave Does the Blog: Lying Talking Points for the 2012 Election (Collect the Whole Set!).

Newser: Debate Crowd Cheers Letting Uninsured Die.

The Dish: Republicanism As Religion.

Politco: GOP grumbles about jobs plan.

Grits for Breakfast: From the off-topic irony department: Fire Follies.


Bioephemera: Pseudonymity: Five Reasons the New Scienceblogs/NG Policy is Misguided.

Society and Culture

Decrepit Old Fool: Dan Savage at Illinois State University.

Stories from the Heartland: Some real Shock and Awe: Racially profiled and cuffed in Detroit.

Jay Rosen’s Press Think: We Have No Idea Who’s Right: Criticizing “he said, she said” journalism at NPR.

Def Shepherd: Why A Heterosexual, Married, North Carolinian Father Of Three Cares About LGBT Equality.

Pam’s House Blend: Bible-beating Kentucky lawmaker wants to pass a bill to protect anti-gay bullies.

Mike the Mad Biologist: “Why the HELL Didn’t He KEEP HER IN THE HOSPITAL?” and Why Low-Income Parents Rationally Choose Failing Schools.

Foreign Policy: Got Cheap Milk?

The Mary Sue: How To Have An Awesome Wedding: Do it With Dinosaurs.

The Washington Examiner: You have a right to record the police.

Danger Room: How to Beat Terrorism: Refuse to Be Terrorized.

HamdenRice: Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.

Los Links 9/16

I Love the Smell of a Scam Crashing and Burning In the Morning

The Internet Age has been kind to scammers, who have used the toobz to find all sorts of hapless victims. But worms can turn. A little bit of Google-fu can turn you from potential victim to fraudbuster.

Case in point: Sai posted this awesome hunt for a fraudster on Google+. This shit’s like potato chips for me – I’m not satisfied after one little bite, I’ve gotta have the whole bag. So I clicked the link over to Popehat, and found myself vastly entertained for a half-hour. Upshot: if you receive an invoice from UST Development, US Telecom, or similar, research before you assume you owe. They’re a big ol’ scummy scam.

More importantly, however, this series of posts shows you how you can protect yourself by not assuming an invoice means someone in your company actually ordered a service just because there’s a slightly-odd invoice landing on your desk, and by doing a few Google searches to check things out. Don’t have a company? Doesn’t mean you won’t get scammed. Research anyone attempting to part you from your cash, or offering you unexpected money, or asking you weird questions.

I actually love this stuff. I think it goes back to the days when I used to watch all the cheesy 80s PI shows, and had a brief desire to become a private investigator. I gave up that dream early on, but still lap up true crime stories. One of my favorites was The Cuckoo’s Egg, which almost had me in college learning all I could of computers and networks just for the sheer joy of tracking cybercriminals, before I decided I should just focus on my writing instead. I’ve read Kevin Mitnick’s The Art of Deception, which opened my eyes to social engineering and has served me in good stead in my current job.

That book also helped me impress the pants off our fraud department.

Not long after I joined my current company, they threw a big job fair, where I got to meet really real FBI agents for the first time (they were super-nice and for some silly reason encouraged me to join the Bureau despite my lack of any useful degree, or indeed, any degree whatsoever. They have civilian positions, they said). And there was this booth, all tarted up with balloons and things, prize bags, clipboards, and a nice gentleman foisting a clipboard on me and saying all I had to do was fill out a survey to win.

I don’t remember what the banner said – something innocuous. They had a few books displayed. One of them was The Art of Deception.

“Sure,” I said, and took the clipboard. I looked at the questions. Mind you, I was already suspicious – with that book sitting there and these folks not saying what company or department within our own company they represented, I figured they were up to something. A glance down the list of questions confirmed it. Mother’s maiden name? Name of your first pet? Favorite color? And others, salted with a few questions that might distract you from what they were actually asking.

I laughed, handed back the clipboard without a single pen mark on the “survey,” and said, “No thanks.”

“Why not?” the squeaky-clean gentleman who’d handed me the survey asked.

“Because these questions are designed to get my passwords.”

He broke into a great big gleaming grin, and said, “You’re the only person who’s gotten that.” Which I found super-sad, considering all the classic signs of a fraud were there, combined with that bloody book. I’d thought it was blindingly obvious what was up.

The proprietors of the booth were from our fraud department, and I’ve still got the calculator in the shape of a cell phone they awarded me for being able to spot the bleedin’ obvious. If they’re ever hiring again over there, I might give it a go. There’s nothing I love better in my current job than getting a whiff o’ fraud, doing a bit of account research to confirm my suspicion, and then sending them a referral so they can do a proper investigation. That kind of thing leaves me glowing for days.

Wait, there was a moral to this story. It’s not just “look at me, I am awesome.” It’s this: scammers are clever, but you are more clever. You’ve got instincts you can hone. Pay attention to what people are taking from you when they’re offering you something for free. Are they asking the sorts of questions that often come up on those security questions thingies for password resets? Are they playing on your emotions, whether fear or compassion, a little too heavily in order to get you to give them money or answers? Is a bit of your brain screaming, “Hey, something’s not right!”?

If so, take the time to do some research, even if they’re all up in your face howling that you’ll miss the opportunity of a lifetime or kiddies will die if you don’t donate right now or threaten to set the law on you for not paying what they swear you owe them even though you can’t remember ever doing business with them. Decline to answer invasive questions. Use Google. Listen to that part of your brain that says, “This doesn’t pass the smell test,” but can’t quite articulate why.

And if some dude claims he needs you to send him money so he can send you a bunch of money from Nigeria, just say no. Unless, of course, you want to have a little fun fucking with the fucktards. In which case, go mad.

I Love the Smell of a Scam Crashing and Burning In the Morning

Caturday Sunbeams

And I’m spent. Also very, very behind in this week’s blog reading, so if you lot want a nice, fat Los Links come Monday, I’m going to have to pawn you off with a little light (ah-ha-ha) entertainment.

The sun has forsaken us now, but last week, Seattle attempted to apologize for not giving us an actual summer. Lovely 80+ degree days with wonderfully cool nights, my favorite. I usually don’t open the curtains in the bedroom, because keeping the place a dark cave prevents it from getting warm, but over the last several sunny days, I took to letting the sunshine is for the poor kitteh, who wasn’t getting enough quality porch time.

This met with some approval.

About the second or third day (I know, consecutive sunny days in Seattle, unheard of!), she figured out the routine. She appeared at the window before I’d even gone to it and stood there, little nose poked out and eyes half-closed, awaiting that magical moment when Mommy would let Mr. Sunbeam in. And this continued to be her routine most days thereafter. I wish I’d had the camera handy, but the one time I did, she broke her streak. On purpose, I’m sure.

But she did allow me to catch this moment of bliss:

Doesn’t she just look smugly self-satisfied? You’d think she was responsible for the fine weather.

You may be wondering about the blue thingy. That’s her hair tie. She won’t play with cat toys, but for some reason, adores chasing hair ties. She’ll even play fetch with them sometimes. And when she’s not chewing on Mommy, she likes chewing on them:

Funniest moment ever was when she started dry-coughing due to a developing hairball, but wouldn’t let the hair tie go, so it was dangling from a tooth as she wheezed. She’s ridiculously cute sometimes. I try to explain this to friends who wonder why I’ve kept an animal with homicidal tendencies. They just do not understand the power of her Massive Cute.

During the day, her sunbeam would move, but she’d sleep through it. So when I was home, I’d go back to the bedroom every hour or so and drag her a few inches over. I probably shouldn’t have done – this just taught her she didn’t have to do a damned thing for herself. No matter. Once the sunbeams had well and truly moved on, she’d amble out through the living room and onto the porch for a nice lie-down in the sunshine with her favorite rocks. So she did get exercise. Of a sort.

I’m looking forward to the winter writing season, but I’ll miss these times.

Caturday Sunbeams

Sapere Aude!

This post first sailed on the HMS Elitist Bastard, three long years ago, when PZ Myers hosted Carnival of the Elitist Bastards III. I’ve been meaning to repost it eventually, as many of you weren’t with me back in those halcyon days of joyous elitist bastardry, and I like this piece. I love the Latin phrase I found for its title: sapere aude, dare to know. So many incredible people dared to know, and gave us the modern world.

What will we dare to know? What world will we hand to those who come after us?

Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance from another. This immaturity is self-imposed when its cause lies not in lack of understanding, but in lack of resolve and courage to use it without guidance from another. Sapere Aude! [dare to know] “Have courage to use your own understanding!”–that is the motto of enlightenment.
– Immanuel Kant, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”

The Enlightenment. Those two words send a cascade of awe and delight down my spine. They set synapses to firing like chains of fireworks. Names and ideas erupt from the sparks: Newton, Spinoza and Leibniz released science and mathematics from their classical and medieval cages and advanced them by light years in a virtual instant. Voltaire, Diderot and Rousseau struck through chains and risked their lives to set human minds free. Locke, Smith and Montesquieu set forth major components of political and economic philosophy that led to democracy and capitalism. Franklin, Jefferson, and Hamilton created a whole new kind of nation from scratch. Beethoven, Mozart, and Goethe elevated music and literature to heights they had never known before.
Men, and not a few women, dared to know, and changed the world.
There had been hints of an awakening for centuries. A few flames burned dimly in the Middle Ages. A few flames flared up brilliantly during the Renaissance. But the Enlightenment was a conflagration, a wildfire beside a candelabra. In less than two centuries, the scientific method arose and began advancing knowledge at an incredible pace; the foundations of democracy and liberalism were laid and thriving nations built on them; education was no longer a prerogative of the fortunate few, but a practical gift offered to a broad swath of the population. The entire Western way of thinking changed virtually beyond recognition. All of those ideas we take for granted – freedom of religion, equality, political and civil rights, and countless more – emerged because of men and women who refused to remain ignorant.
Look at the lives and work of any group of Enlightenment thinkers, and you’ll see similarities. They were desperate to know and understand. They were determined to use rational thought to overcome superstition. They believed in man’s ability to understand the world. They didn’t believe religion had all the answers, or even most. They weren’t afraid to challenge established authority; indeed, they often risked their lives to do so. They found ways to make end-runs around the censors, evaded every attempt to silence them, and believed beyond doubt that what they were doing was right, necessary, and valuable.
They argued with absolutely everyone, each other included. They accepted no limits to their curiosity. There was nowhere to them that Man was forbidden to go.

All is not lost when one puts the people in a condition to see it has intelligence. On the contrary, all is lost when you treat it like a herd of cattle, for sooner or later it will gore you with its horns.

In the salons of Paris, the coffee houses and Gresham College in London, in the dining rooms and halls of power all throughout Europe, intellect raged. Pamphlets, books, magazines, scientific papers all poured into the streets and captured the imaginations of men and women who then used those ideas to create new governments, societies, and values. Knowledge was passed into the hands of ordinary people, and those ordinary people did extraordinary things with it.
The two revolutions of the 18th century, the American and the French, get all of the attention, but neither would have been possible without the revolution in ideas that preceded them. Never before in the history of Western civilization had common people been entrusted to govern. Even Greece, that thriving original democracy, was more of an aristocracy than anything else. But the Enlightenment thinkers believed that all regular people lacked was education and the freedom to use their native intelligence. Given those things, a peasant could rise to rule. Peasants eventually did.
It wasn’t just the aristocracy and absolute monarchy that the Enlightenment thinkers overthrew. They broke the stranglehold religion had over the populace. Religion didn’t escape their scrutiny. The sacred got subjected to the same empirical analysis as the natural world, and where it was found wanting, it suffered the same scathing criticism unleashed on politics, pseudoscience, and ignorance. Some of them treated Christianity with respect and reverence, but they were in a minority. Most Enlightenment thinkers had no use for a Church that sought to keep people in ignorance and servitude, a faith that led to intolerance and claimed miracles it couldn’t prove, and religions rotten with hypocrisy.
“Let’s eat some Jesuit,” Voltaire wrote in Candide. Baron d’Holbach proselytized for atheism, churning out a flood of books and pamphlets proclaiming that there is no God, only nature, and that only a society of atheists has any hope of being truly moral. He often had to publish his books under innocuous titles to evade the censors. But other philosophes left nothing to doubt with theirs: among the books on offer was Toland’s Christianity Not Mysterious. Pretty revolutionary for a world in which religion still ruled.
Other books might have seemed innocent enough until they were opened. Woolston’s Six Discourses on the Miracles of Our Savior proclaimed the Resurrection of Christ “the most notorious and monstrous Imposture, that was ever put upon mankind.” Voltaire, when completing the Philosophical Dictionary, wrote, “Theology amuses me. There we find man’s insanity in all its plenitude.” Jefferson removed all of the miracles from the Bible, a decision which Hume would have applauded.
The only sacred thing was the pursuit of knowledge. Rational thinking, empiricism, science, and intellect reigned supreme. The next world meant very little to them, if anything at all. People had to make a difference in this one. And that was exactly what they set out to do, and succeeded. They brought us the modern age.

A popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to Farce, or a Tragedy, or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance. and a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
-James Madison

The Enlightenment never truly ended: its results permeate every aspect of our lives. But there hasn’t been another time quite like it since. The passion for knowledge has been eclipsed. We’ve entered an age in which ignorance rather than intelligence is celebrated. As Kant said, it’s easier to be immature, to let others do the thinking. We become habituated to the yoke: we become afraid of freedom. “The guardians who have so benevolently taken over the supervision of men have carefully seen to it that the far greatest part of them (including the entire fair sex) regard taking the step to maturity as very dangerous, not to mention difficult,” Kant wrote. “Having first made their domestic livestock dumb, and having carefully made sure that these docile creatures will not take a single step without the go-cart to which they are harnessed, these guardians then show them the danger that threatens them, should they attempt to walk alone.”
He could have been describing our age.
Fundamentalist religion is attempting to rein us in. Governments want to control, not serve, the governed. This has always been the case. The powerful never relinquish power easily, and they always desire more power. It’s easier for them to take it from people made willfully powerless.
War, poverty, ignorance and despair are rising all around us.
We should be thrilled.
After all, the Enlightenment grew out of a desperate age. Europe was torn by war, crushed by despotic governments, ripped apart by religious strife, and it was from this harrowing that the philosophes grew. When I look at the conditions surrounding the Enlightenment, I see clear parallels. Strife can destroy people: it can also galvanize them.
I think we’re standing on the cusp of a new Age of Enlightenment.
Bloggers are the new pamphleteers. What bloggers are saying today about politics and religion, life and learning, show the same spirit as those tracts poured from the pens of subversive thinkers who went on to redefine the foundations of the world.
Comments threads and message boards have become the new salons, where ideas are exchanged and intelligence elevated. Those discussions wouldn’t have been out of place in the most illustrious gatherings of learned people.
All we need is the passion, the commitment, and the courage those revolutionaries displayed. Nothing is beyond us. But we have to step outside of the little boxes we’ve put ourselves in. Scientists need to brush shoulders with artists. Writers need to converse with mathematicians. Political philosophers and musicians should mingle. That cross-fertilization of knowledge is what leads to world-shaking ideas, quantum leaps in human understanding.
Politeness and deference are sweet social ideas, but we can’t defer to those who would impose ignorance and superstition. Contention was the order of the day during the Enlightenment. We should never shy away from it. Conventional thinking will get us nowhere. The world is on the cusp of a crisis: we’re never going to get anything solved if we don’t break away from tradition and habit. We won’t solve a damned thing if we don’t risk capsizing the boat.
The philosophes changed the world not by force of arms, but force of mind. Their ideas, their writings, their experiments, are what changed the world irrevocably.
It can happen again. Ignorance has no power to stand against those who dare to know. And those who dare have the power to change everything.

Here and today begins a new age in the history of the world. Some day you will be able to say – I was present at its birth.”
Sapere Aude!

A River Runs Through It – Sometimes At Flood Stage

Before Anne Jefferson, floods bored me.

I didn’t used to put a lot of thought into how rivers overran. I knew the basics: too much water = overflowing banks. Simple equation, one even an Arizonan can solve. We watched it happen. Rain had a difficult time soaking into hard desert earth. So, every rainstorm, there would be flash floods, and every monsoon season, at least a few people who didn’t quite grasp the fact that those floods were, in fact, flash, and furious: they’d get caught by surprise, and stranded, or drown. On one memorable occasion, some New River folk decided it would be a great idea to drive a backhoe into a flooding desert river that was usually a wash so they could see how deep the water was.

It’s not a great idea to do that. It’s too bad so many of them didn’t survive to learn the lesson.

I learned my lessons from other people, and stayed away from flooded things. If the road had water over it (and believe me, Phoenix has lots of roads that seem built specifically so they can flood reliably every summer storm), I’d go another way. I never lived in a place too close to water. I knew vaguely what a floodplain was – it was the place non-natives built houses, and then wondered why they got washed out every few years when the rivers rose. I didn’t directly experience a life-impacting flood until I moved to El Norte. Back in November of ’07, right after I’d begun working for my present company, North Creek flooded so bad we got evacuated. I had to drive through water that reached the bottom of my car doors – something I’d been told never to do, but the police were there directing traffic, and it was the only way out. I thought I’d come home to find I could float up to my third-floor windows, but Forbes Creek had behaved itself beautifully, and we were as dry as one can get in a Seattle-area winter.

That still didn’t make me think much of floods. In some vague way, the waterways in my story worlds would usually behave themselves. I thought of flooding on small scales, sometimes, but never really considered how rivers misbehave and what people who must live beside them do in order to tame them. Floods? Pfft. Boring. We had bigger matters to attend.

Then came Anne.

She’s in to something I’d never thought had anything much to do with geology: hydrology. When she wrote a blog post, chances were you’d be getting damp. This is a big world, and more than just strictly local bits of it flood. Some of those floods can impact a region, some an entire country. And, as she said in the title of one memorable blog post, “A flood is a disaster when people are in the way.”

Right. So, rivers don’t behave themselves all the time. But we like to live by them. So what does a civilization do to deal with it? How do you tame the savage beast?

In order to understand how a river or stream might be at least semi-controlled, you’ve got to understand how it behaves. What causes it to flood? And what sort of flood does it flood – because I’ve discovered through her posts that rivers aren’t just large generic entities. They have behaviors. A lot of factors influence how they’ll flood and what those floods will be like. You get in to geology and geomorphology, even biology. What happens after you’ve asserted your authority? Because if you change the character of a waterway, you change habitats, and even small changes can lead to drastic impacts. You and I might think nothing of removing a log from a stream so it doesn’t get all stagnant and backed up, but the critters who like that large woody debris might have something to say about it. If removing wood from a stream can have such dramatic impact, how much more can a dam, or dredging, or levees cause?

These are things I’ve never thought about before, not in any but the most fuzzy detail, but my characters have to know it. My civilizations have to deal with it. They have to deal with matters of sediment, how water undercuts banks and digs holes and behaves in different environments. If I want to have a realistic world built, I have to remember that rivers will be rivers, and have a science all their own. And sometimes, quite often in fact, they don’t do what you wish them to do.

Because of Anne, I’ve added a whole new word to my lexicon: hydrogeology. I pay attention to what streams and rivers are up to. I look at watersheds in a completely different way. They fascinate me in ways they never could before. And when I finish this novel and you (hopefully) enjoy it, if there’s an authentic ring to the rivers, remember: it began with Anne.

A River Runs Through It – Sometimes At Flood Stage

"Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-breaking"

“Make them like me adorers of the good science of rock-breaking,” Charles Darwin told Charles Lyell once, long ago. This, from a man who also once said of Robert Jameson’s lectures on geology and zoology, “The sole effect they produced on me was the determination never as long as I lived to read a book on Geology.” That, of course, was before Adam Sedgwick lectured him in geology and took him out for field work, which seems to have done the trick. He did read another book on geology, Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which became his constant companion on his voyage with the Beagle. The concepts of geology prepared him to think in deep time. Without his passion for geology, without deep time sinking deep in his mind, the theory of evolution that changed the world might not be Darwin’s.

Outcrop on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

I have become, like Darwin, an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking.

It’s a love that bloomed late. It’s always been there, since I was little and wondered at the mountains rising in my back window; at the vast chasm in the ground that revealed billions of years; at the sea that had become fields of stone. But just a bud, tucked away, unopened. I thought I knew what I wanted and needed from life: a degree in some sort of writerly discipline, like English or maybe History, until I decided the additional debt I’d have to take on wouldn’t teach me any more than I could teach myself, and I left academia for the world of daytime wage-slavery and nighttime scribbling. I set geology aside, because what a fantasy writer needed couldn’t be found in earth and stone. So I thought. I searched the stars, delved into physics, waved fondly to geology on my way to geography. I knew the basics: plates moved, mountains rose where they crashed. Enough to determine the shape of an imaginary world, wasn’t that?


And there was the small matter of a subduction zone, now: I’d moved away from the fossil seas. I didn’t understand this terrible and beautiful new place. It wasn’t a landscape I’d grown up with. So I explored it a bit, and the more I explored, the more I needed to understand, the more I realized a story world should be so much more than an ocean with a few haphazard continents sketched in. I wanted to understand this world so that I could understand that. So I delved, deep, into deep time, into continental crust and ocean floor. I turned to books on geology. They weren’t enough. I found a few geobloggers. They were more, still not enough. I began writing geology in order to understand it, because there’s no better way to learn than by teaching someone else. And it still wasn’t enough.

The more I learned, the more I realized I didn’t know.

And that isn’t precisely the problem. If it was, I could decide that knowing a little more than most is quite enough to be going on with, and settle down, content with my little gems of knowledge. If I’d just stayed a bit more ignorant, it would have been okay.

There’s a metaphor that explains why those few shining gems, no matter how many more I acquire, will never be enough. It’s in the story I’m writing right now, in which Nahash, the Serpent of the Elder Tree, is tasked with giving knowledge and wisdom to a young girl. And this is what he does, the first time they meet:

He led her round the tree, to the spring that bubbled out from between the roots, clear and deep. Another branch hung low there, and there was fruit on it, so heavy and ripe it was ready to fall. He plucked one of the fruits and turned back to her. “This fruit is knowledge. Do you see? It’s probably sweet. Could be sour. You won’t know until you’ve tasted it.” He held it out. She reached for it, but he pulled it back. “There’s something else. Once you’ve tasted it, no matter whether it’s sour or sweet, you’ll always be hungry. You’ll starve. And that water, there-” He waved at the spring. “Sweetest water in the world, maybe the whole universe, but once you’ve had a drink from it you’ll always be thirsty. Starving and parched. Is that how you want to spend your life? There are other ways of living, you know, and some of them are no less worthy. Some of them are even fun. Or so I’ve heard.”

She held out her hand, but didn’t speak.

“Are you quite sure? Because there’s no going back, you know. Not ever.”

Should I ever become a famous speculative fiction author, people will accuse me of being autobiographical. And, aside from the fact that I was an adult when I ate that fruit and drank that spring water, and didn’t actually munch unidentified fruit and drink from the spring of an actual World Tree Serpent, they’ll be quite correct. This is completely autobiographical. Since taking a bigger bite and a deeper drink from the fruit and springs of science, especially geology, I’ve been starving and parched. I’m desperate enough for more that I’ve considered going deep into debt for a degree I may never earn a living from. I’d beggar myself to get a full meal, and I know I’d walk away with a $30,000+ tab, and I’d still be starving. Add several fistfuls of dollars for grad school, and I’d still feel I hadn’t had more than a bite to eat and a drop to drink.

There’s no going back, now I’m an adorer of the good science of rock-breaking. There’s no end to it, you see. It’s a vast old Earth, and there’s no way for any of us to know everything about it. And even if we could, have a look out in space – lots more planets out there, all unknown, all fascinating, all with incredible rocks to break.

On Doherty Ridge, with George’s rock hammer. Photo by Cujo.

Anne Jefferson asked, “If you are a geology enthusiast but not professional… what do you wish you could get in additional formal and informal education? What would you like from geosciences students, faculty, and professionals that would make your enthusiasm more informed and more fun?”

And these are the things I’ll say to you professionals and pending professionals, you professors and students, you who have careers at surveys and for companies:

Do not withhold your passion.

If there’s a book within you, write it. Let your love pour onto the page. Put as much of your knowledge and wisdom into words as you are able, and get it into my hands. You don’t even need a publisher in this digital age: y
ou can upload it as an ebook. I’ll take whatever you’ve got. And if you need a wordsmith’s help, well, you know where to find me.

If something fascinates you, blog it. Even if it’s complicated and you think it’s of doubtful interest to anyone outside of the geotribe, post it up there where I can see it. If you love it enough to spend time explaining it, chances are I’ll love it enough to spend time doing my best to comprehend it.

If you’ve written a paper, share it. Blog about it, maybe even offer to send me a .pdf if you can. There’s a huge, expensive double-barrier between laypeople and papers: the language is technical and hard, and the journals charge so much that even if we’re willing to put in the work, we may not have the funds. We’ve already spent our ready cash on books and rock hammers and various, y’see. But if you’re allowed to send out a copy, and you can give me an iota of understanding, I’ll read it, struggle with it, combine it with those other precious bits of knowledge until I’ve made some sense of it.

Show me what you see. Post those pictures of outcrops. If we’re in the same neighborhood with some time to spare, put those rocks in my hands. I know you’ve got a career and a family, and can’t lead many field trips, but if you can take even a few of us out, do it. We’ll happily keep you in meals, beer and gas money just for the chance to see the world through your eyes, in real time and real life.

Answer questions as time allows.

Point us at resources.

Let us eavesdrop on your conversations with other geologists and geology students.

And hell, if you want to make some spare cash, and you’re not in a position where there might be a conflict of interest, consider teaching some online classes for a fee. There’s plenty of us who can’t quite afford college, but could scrape together some bucks for the opportunity to learn something directly from the experts.We’d practically kill for that opportunity, but the days when you were allowed to break rocks in prison are pretty much over, so there’s not quite as much incentive to break the law.

In other words, mostly do what you’re doing now, with maybe a few added extras.

That’s what those of us without the cash for a college degree and not even a single community college class on offer need. We just need you to share as much as you can, challenge us as much as you can.

And you there, with the students: make them, like me, adorers of the good science of rock-breaking. Send them out into the world with passion, a hammer, and a desire to babble to the poor starving, parched enthusiasts hoping for just one more bite to eat and drop to drink.

Lockwood, Dana, rocks and rock hammer on Doherty Ridge. Photo by Cujo.

This post is dedicated to the geobloggers who adopted me, answer questions and write remarkable posts and answer my plaintive “I can haz pdf?!” cries with a grin and a quick email. Dedicated most of all to Lockwood, who taught me how to properly break a rock, and gave me such rocks to break! Thanks will never be enough, so when you’re next in the Pacific Northwest, my darlings, I shall give you a fine road cut (or several), a substantial meal, and more than one beer. And I meant what I said about being your wordsmith, should you ever need help writing a book.

"Adorers of the Good Science of Rock-breaking"