Shallow Thoughts

Akkana's Musings on Open Source, Science, and Nature.

Tue, 31 May 2005

Geological Society of America (GSA) Conference

The GSA conference happened back when I was too caught in the whirl of events to write about them. It's been a over month now, but I did want to save a couple of impressions.

The field trips all started way too early. Sure, this is the whining of a non-morning person: but really, when your field trip starts with 45 minutes of everybody standing around because the rental agency that rents the vans isn't open yet, maybe that's a sign that starting a little later might be a good idea. Even aside from the wisdom of scheduling all your travel time for the height of rush hour.

The field trips were worthwhile, though. The most interesting parts were often topics that hadn't sounded interesting at all ahead of time.

The talks at the conference were terrific, total information overload, with maybe six sessions going at once. There are lots of people doing interesting research in geology, often fairly junior people (grad students or postdocs), and many of them are even able to talk enthusiastically about their research using words that make sense to a mere student of the subject. Dry jargon-laden talks did exist, but they were the exception, not the rule.

Everybody was friendly, too, and very willing to talk to students and explain their research or chat about other topics in geology. I went to one of the "Roy J. Shlemon student mentoring lunches" featuring a round-robin of geologists moving from one student table to another to share insight and stories: very helpful and interesting!

The conference organizers obviously worship at the altar of Bill Gates. There was apparently a conference-wide dictum that Thou Shalt Use Powerpoint and Thou Shalt Display On Our Windows Boxen, Not Your Own Machine.

The unsurprising result was that roughly 80% of the talks had at least some problems displaying slides, resulting in cursing, then apologies, with the speaker assuring the audience that it would make much more sense if only we could see the slide the way it had been written. Perhaps half of these followed up with a mutter about having to use Windows rather than a Mac. Macs are clearly big with geologists (though alas there was no sign of Linux use).

That said, the conference ran aggressively on time, each session having an appointed watchdog to sit in front and remind the speaker when time was running out. I've never seen a conference stick to a schedule so well, especially when filled with short (20-minute) talks. I had been prepared for the worst after problems getting schedule information before the conference, but the organization on site (except field trips) was flawless.

All in all, quite a good time. I'm only sorry next year's conference isn't back in San Jose. (It's in Alaska; I'd love to go, but finances will probably prevent it.)

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[ 23:04 May 31, 2005    More science/geology | permalink to this entry ]

Mon, 23 May 2005

Geology of Red Rock Canyon

I just finished writing up the final project for my field geology class.

The project involved discovering and mapping the geology of Red Rock Canyon. I'll probably upload the paper and other documents later; for now, just a few notes about the field trip, weekend before last.

Red Rock Canyon is in the Mojave desert, near Ridgecrest. I'd been through a few times before, since it's more or less on the way to Death Valley, but of course didn't know any of the geologic details, other than "Ooh, look at the pretty red and white layers and the eroded hoodoos!"

Actually, it's not technically in the Mojave. One of the reasons Red Rock Canyon is interesting is that it sits at the junction of three of California's geomorphic provinces, at the junction of the Garlock fault (dividing the Mojave from the Basin and Range) and the Sierra Front fault (dividing the Sierra from the other two). The Mojave is bounded on its south end by the transverse section of the San Andreas, but Red Rock Canyon is north of the Garlock fault, in the Basin and Range.

Our four day camping trip (two days of hiking, measuring, and mapping, two days devoted mostly to travel) covered a few square miles around the visitor's center, but we ended up with a surprisingly complete map and stratigraphy. Several people had trouble with the temperatures, which were somewhere in the nineties, combined with the pace of the hikes. That's not really all that hot, especially for desert, but it's hot for a group of people coming out of a bay area winter and an unusually rainy spring, especially the students unused to hiking. (This was all rather ironic since we'd switched our mapping project to Red Rock after being concerned about too much snow at the first choice location, June Lake. Those concerns were probably justified; it was snowing up until a few days before we left, so despite the heat, Red Rock was the right choice.)

Nevertheless, Red Rock is a great location to learn geologic mapping. The structure is fairly simple and easy to see (especially from the top of Whistler's Peak), with a series of cuestas of sedimentary layers each capped with basalt, and a couple of other interesting and distinctive layers in between. Luckily for us, there isn't much complex folding, just a fairly continuous tilt caused by uplift due to the El Paso fault (a branch of the Garlock). The rocks themselves are interesting, with lots of olivine and other crystals in one of the basalt layers, and an area at the base of the other basalt layer containing lovely rocks such as opals -- the area used to be an opal mine.

It's also a fairly nice place to camp, with campsites nestled back among towering cliffs (of the Tr5 fluvial member of the Ricardo formation, if you're curious for details) which provides a bit more privacy and separation from other campers than a lot of parks allow. I'm not really much of a camper (I'm a poor sleeper, and I do like my morning shower) but out campsite converted even the timid non-campers in the class.

White-throated swifts play in the turbulence along the face of the cliffs, calling loudly to each other. Their calls woke me up at daybreak each morning, but setting aside sleep deprivation, it wasn't all bad. It's mating season for the swifts, and it turns out they mate in midair. Two birds come together, and locked together they spiral hundreds of feet downward, finally separating just short of the ground. We have white throated swifts here in the bay area, but I'd never seen anything like their aerial mating dance before; let alone seen it set against towering desert cliffs in the stillness of dawn light.

Other interesting natural phenomena observed on the trip: a barn owl flew over the campsite every night, visible against the campfire light. Zebra-tailed lizards were ghostly white except for their black-ringed tails and some ghostly markings on their backs. We saw lots of jackrabbits and several alligator lizards (the latter have been numerous in the bay area as well, this spring). And we saw a lovely horizontal "rainbow" at mid-day of the first day which turned out, after much research, to be a "circumhorizontal arc". I took a telescope along, but we didn't have very good skies (haze, thin clouds, and disturbed seeing, and with all the campfires it was smoky and not even very dark) so we mostly looked at Jupiter, Saturn, and the moon (we did get good seeing at dusk one night for the moon, and we got a good look at the Mare Nectaris shock rings and the beginnings of Rima Ariadaeus).

A few of our group were disturbed to learn on the way down that they wouldn't have cellphone reception at Red Rock. Horrors! They rushed to tie up loose ends, and managed it before we finally lost reception passing by Mojave.

All in all, a very successful trip, although most of us were awfully glad to get home and jump in the shower. I'm even gladder to have my final report finished. Nevertheless, geologic mapping is fun: I'm happy that I had the chance to complete a map of an area like this. I may even be back to Red Rock some day, to try to trace out the extent of that mystery fault at the north end of the pink tuff breccia layer ...

5/25/2005: photos and report are up.

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[ 19:11 May 23, 2005    More science/geology | permalink to this entry ]

Sun, 08 May 2005

Wacom Rides Again

Updating the blog again after taking time off for various reasons, including lack of time, homework, paying work, broken computer motherboard and other hardware problems, illness, a hand injury, and so on.

This afternoon, thanks to a very helpful Keir Mierle showing up on #gimp, I finally got all the pieces sorted and I now have a working tablet again. Hurrah!

I've put details of the setup that finally worked on my Linux and Wacom page.

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[ 18:08 May 08, 2005    More linux | permalink to this entry ]