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).

Friday, November 16, 2018

Anthropocene exhibit at the AGO

Last week I took my son to the AGO to see the Anthropocene exhibition. There were other things I wanted to see as well--mainly the famous staircase.

The Anthropocene Project is about reclassifying our current geological age as one dominated by human activity--at least on and around the Earth's surface. An important goal of the project is to be "revelatory rather than accusatory", and the pictures certainly are a revelation.

The gallery was well attended, mainly by families, and with some of the enriched content (encoded digital goodies that could be seen on your smart phone, or with supplied ipads), the kids that were there remained interested.

I was struck by the printing of some of the images, which almost seemed three-dimensional to my eye.

Unfortunately, there was something of a sour note at the end of the exhibit. At the exit, there was a small exhibit which was only superficially connected to the main exhibition. In fact, I thought it struck a bit of a sour note.

The image shows the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In the same room, there was a survey, where you were permitted to choose one word to summarize your feelings about this display. Of course, it isn't clear if it is about the non-accusatory Anthropocene exhibition, or the short CO2 exhibition. Most of the words you were allowed to select (there were seven) were synonyms for alarmed. There was also one for relaxed and one for suspicious, in case you were a Trump supporter or a conspiracy theorist.

The goal of the Anthropocene project is informing, not alarming. But someone, presumably at the AGO wants you to be alarmed.

There were plenty of other exhibits at the gallery, but we didn't stay much longer. We climbed the staircase.

The top of the staircase ended in a gallery which was closed. Partway down, we entered the modern art exhibit.

A plaque tells us the artist is sealed in the cocoon on the floor.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Silver is really unpopular

So says my anecdotal evidence.

In China, where silver sells for about four times the world price, it is no surprise that it is unpopular. I tried to give silver jewellery to a girlfriend there--she didn't want it. There was more acceptance of the charming notion of providing a silver spoon as a gift for a baby, as the Chinese do believe that silver draws the toxins out of foods.

I became interested in silver in about 1998, and originally bought it from a local coin shop. Looking for other sources, I found the local United Church held sales in the spring and fall, and jewellery was one of the main topics. Back in those days, nobody was interested in silver, and I bought a lot of old jewellery and the occasional silver spoon, and even a few candlesticks, all at good prices. Some of the jewellery I bought there were listed among my wife's favourite pieces, including an antique piece from Republican times in China, which included a secret pocket for secreting opium.

By around 2004, it began to get more difficult to buy used silver. Groups of young men began to show up at the church sales, aggressively buying up all the silver (and occasionally berating the bemused old ladies administering the sale for not lowering prices when the silver price began to fall). So by about 2006, I had stopped looking for silver at the church sale, and just bought used CDs, games for the kids, and baked goods.

I had been in China for the past few years, but was around for the church sale last week. I decided to see if anything was available in the jewellery section. And there were very few people there, mainly old women, and nobody was interested in the silver. I ended up buying something for my daughter. So this is a more anecdotal evidence of a general lack of interest in silver.

Monday, October 15, 2018


This song has been buzzing around in my ear lately.

I'm not sure where this has come from, as it seems to be more of a spring song than an autumn one.

But for the past four years, I have spent autumn and winter in China. And come to think of it, I have spent very little time of any autumn in Canada since about 2007--so maybe it is a response to seeing the autumn colours of Canada for the first time in a long time.

In China, you mostly get yellows. Before China, I spent a lot of time in West Africa, and you get some colour changes in some trees during the dry season, but mostly there is no change

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The new New Age

Anthropocene is a movie which appeared in the Toronto Film Festival this year. It has since gone on to appear in a few cinemas hereabouts.

It is a visually striking film. But if you are already familiar with its message, it is a little slow.

The movie trailer is unfair to the gentleman from Hong Kong who owns the ivory shop. All of the ivory depicted in his segment in his store is fossil ivory, something made clear in the film, but not the trailer. I went to one such shop when I visited Hong Kong--if you want a carved tusk, you can have one for about the price of a house.

I first encountered the term "Anthropocene" as a proposed name for a new geological epoch--one in which the forces modifying the earth's surface are dominated by human activities--in 1987 or 1988, in an issue of Geology. I only remember the time because it was when I was in Newfoundland, and looking back casually through recent publications only shows more recent references.

The original article was very short, and as I recall, attracted a firestorm of responses in the form of letters to the editor. Most of these suggested alternative names to this epoch, ranging from "Neocene" and "Cenocene" (often accompanied by dry, pedantic discussions about why one name was superior to another), but there was one clever wag who proposed we call this new epoch the "Shouldhavecene". Yes, we should have.

Anthropocene seems to have won out, or at least it has the upper hand.

Thirty years ago the world was a different place. At the time the first article appeared, it seemed like a joke, this idea that humans could dominate the surface features of the planet. Part of this is a kind of blindness. Grow up in cities surrounded by farms and this landscape seems like the most natural in the world. Add to this Canada's managed forests, some tourism commercials, and it was easy to think that nearly the entire country was untouched wilderness.

Onwards in the theme of human impacts on the world. Yesterday we had the second (annual?) Progressive Mine Forum, held in the MaRS Discovery District, which is a sort of breeding tank for tech industries. It covered numerous themes related to modernizing the industry, from mechanization, reducing fossil fuel usage, "green" mining, battery metals, and so forth.

Quote of the day: "You know who likes big trucks? Ten-year-old boys and mining engineers." I think that was Nathan Stubina of McEwen Mining.

Interesting idea of the day: Just as Uber is the largest taxi company in the world (which owns no taxis) and Airbnb is the largest hotel chain in the world (which owns no hotels), might there arise a large mining company that owns no mines? The speaker, George Hemingway of The Stratalis Group mentioned that Apple is proposing to use only recycled material in their products. What if they do the recycling? What if they became so good at it that they begin to supply recycled material to everyone else. Apple (or any other large tech company) has a huge advantage over traditional mining companies--they have no trouble attracting financing to projects with no projected return.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Mathematics and the Search for Perfection: the Inner Meaning of Tron

The problem with philosophy in mathematics is that it is no longer part of the high school curriculum (at least not here in Ontario). It used to be, but in the last reorganization of the curriculum, it was sadly removed.

Most of us don't get to study this in university either. Most science majors are directed into some form of applied math (frequently calculus, the Bane of Geologists*; otherwise statistics). Consequently, most don't think about the differences between scientific reasoning and that of the mathematical kind. I know I never used to.

Scientific reasoning is inductive; meaning that whatever truths there are in the Universe have to be inferred from observations. You never know if your perception of the truth is accurate, however, all you can say about it is that it appears to be consistent with observations.

Mathematical reasoning is different because mathematics is a human construct. A system of mathematics is composed of a few true statements and a set of rules (rules of inference) for transforming those few true statements (axioms) into other true statements (theorems). The rules are chosen carefully so that the statements which sprout from them are true, provided they were seeded with truths.

But we get to decide what rules to apply. We don't always have to agree; but like playing a game, if we change the rules, we change the game. That doesn't mean that other games are less enjoyable than the one we normally play.

For Euclidean geometry, one of the axioms states that given a line and a point not on the line, there is only one line parallel to the first which passes through the point. However, if you want to play a game where there are no parallel lines, then you are pursuing elliptic geometry. Or if you prefer to have more than one parallel line, in which case you are pursuing hyperbolic geometry. Arguing about which one is true is meaningless.

What defines a great mathematical system? Well, first of all, it should be consistent--meaning that as long as you apply the rules of inference to a true statement, only true statements result. In other words, all provable statements are true.

Secondly, we would like the system to be complete, meaning that it is possible to prove all true statements. In other words, all true statements are provable.

Both of these criteria have different meanings, despite their similarity. A major goal for mathematicians has been to develop a system which is both consistent and complete, and in their Principia Mathematica, Whitehead and Russell believed they had accomplished this.

Consistency is easy--the key is that the rules of inference tend to be simple (e.g., if a = b, then a + c = b + c). But completeness is really difficult. Can we know every true statement? Can we know they are all true?

Consider Fermat's last theorem. First proposed (as far as we know) in 1637, it was not successfully proven until 1994. So for over 350 years, the truth of this theorem was unknown (it was then called Fermat's Conjecture). Once it was proven, we knew it was true. Prior to its proof, it was also a true statement, but we didn't know it was true. There may be other true statements out there that remain unproven. There are probably other conjectures which may be false, but our inability to prove them is not enough, by itself, to know that they are false.

So completeness is a very difficult hurdle to cross.

Spoiler alert--this discussion was rendered moot by Godel, who in 1931 showed that all non-trivial mathematical systems are either incomplete or inconsistent. We normally insist on consistency--the price is completeness. There are always unprovable truths.

Which brings us to Tron: Legacy (2010). There may be some spoilers ahead.

In this film, we have the character Flynn, who is the Creator of a virtual universe, his creation (Clu), his son (Sam), and his apprentice (Quorra). It's an old story--the one about the creation turning on his creator. Flynn has been seeking to create a 'perfect universe'; unfortunately, what is meant by perfect is not adequately described. Flynn does reference freedom and openness a lot.

The essential conflict in the story is between Flynn and his creation. Through flashbacks, we learn that as Flynn is building the virtual world, something unexpected happens. A new group of programs, isomorphic algorithms ('Isos') appears. When asked how they appeared, Flynn says, "They manifested . . . the conditions were right and they just appeared."

We might say that the Isos were emergent properties of the system. But here Flynn and Clu disagree about the meaning of their appearance. Both regard these as unexpected phenomena in their 'perfect' system. But Flynn looked at them in a positive manner, unexpectedly emerging from a system he imagined he'd controlled. From the lyrical way he describes them, we can see that he believed they represent a key to life and creation--manifestations of a blinding truth, which was inexplicable within the rules of the system. The beauty of this unexpected creation brings Flynn to the realization that there are states better than perfection.

Clu, by contrast, only sees the Isos as inconsistencies. Unfortunately, there is no positive spin you can put on an inconsistency in a system. It means a complete tear-down is necessary. And of course, the inconsistencies have to go.

Even worse, Clu sees that his Creator had become corrupted by these inconsistencies, having declared his intentions to protect them. So not only must the Isos be destroyed, but Flynn has to go to.

Flynn and his buddy Tron, moments before Clu stages his coup

Clu: "Do you still want me to create the perfect system?"

Flynn: "Yeah . . ."

And the coup begins. Flynn escapes into exile within the digital world, while Clu destroys the Isos and remakes the world into his image of perfection.

Flynn struggles to regain control of the world, but it turns out the more he fights, the stronger Clu becomes. He realizes his only hope is to do nothing. Clu is thus free to remake the world, but is unable to find Flynn, who therefore remains a potential threat, somewhere at the edge of the world. A kind of stalemate ensues, which Clu tries to break by introducing another piece to the board--luring Sam into the virtual world.

This is where the movie starts--we see Sam's attempts to understand the new world in which he has unexpectedly arrived. Facing death by gladiatorial combat, Sam is rescued by Quorra, and reunited with his father.

The remainder of the film is a fairly linear storyline that eventually brings Flynn and Clu back together again, and for a moment it looks as if some sort of reconciliation may be possible. But Flynn, as a human, has been able to add to his understanding, which is why he can so easily abandon his quest for perfection. Clu, the construct, is frozen at the level of understanding that Flynn had when he created him--and he simply cannot abandon his pursuit of perfection. The final resolution is somewhat devastating, although Sam and Quorra are transmitted to the real world.

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* While in grad school I used to occasionally ask acquaintances why they studied geology as opposed to, say, engineering or chemistry, and a very common answer was, "Because I couldn't pass calculus". I loved the stuff, but then I was actually a geophysicist.