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).

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Huang He fishing village

About two years ago, I set out to find the fishing village north of Zhengzhou, close to the Yellow River. It was reputed to be something of a minor tourist destination. I followed my trusty all-in-Chinese map, and although I got somewhat close, I never did find it. At the time I hadn't mastered the transit functions on my phone map, and ended up going slightly astray.

This spring I finally made it, and unfortunately, found it slightly underwhelming. The place seems to have given up on fishing and has given itself to hosting barbeques for the locals and especially their children.

The place doubles as a summer camp where students can practice art, while they live in abandoned rail cars.

Idyllic, but almost devoid of activity.

And what village would be complete without a monument to cabbage?

Saturday, March 4, 2017


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

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

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

Sauropod on display in Chicago O'Hare airport.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Virtue signalling in a cynical age

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

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

(Yougov/Business Insider)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Scenes from a plane

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

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

Snow in northern China

Part of the Great Wall, viewed from the air.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

"It's like being on the Moon!"

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

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

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

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

WW2 vintage barbed wire

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

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

Just for reference, here is a real moonscape.

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

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

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

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

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