Monday, November 23, 2015

Dad's World-Famous Enchiladas

Greetings from the JOIDES Resolution, sitting off the coast of... some random island in the Maldives.
I'm currently coming to the end of IODP Expedition 359 and one of the curators asked for favorite recipes for an IODP cookbook he's putting together.  I wrote this recipe out for him.

This is my World Famous Enchiladas recipe that I make once a week at home and everyone in the family inhales within 30 minutes.  Making these, and eating them with the family, is one of my favorite things, and among the things I'm looking forward to most when I get home -- that and Star Wars!

After I gave it to our curator, I thought it would be nice to post here for the rest of the world.  Bon appetit!  Ok, these are enchiladas so buen provecho!

Dad's World-Famous Enchiladas


21 corn tortillas
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes
1 15 oz can black beans
1 28 oz can green chile enchilada sauce
1 lb ground turkey (or ground beef, but we like turkey best -- and not the nasty stuff that comes in tube form)
About 2 1/2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
1 fresh lime
1-2 habanero pepper(s) (or more if you want 'em extra hot)
About 1/2 pablano pepper
1 bananna pepper
3-5 green onions
About 1/2 package fresh mushrooms
Some black pepper (freshly ground is best)
About 1 teaspoon salt
About 3 tbs olive oil (plus a little more to coat a baking pan)
About 1/2 package cotija (a.k.a. "queso fresco") cheese (buy the more expensive brand, because the cheap ones are wet and gooey)


Oven and stovetop
Cutting board and knife
Large frying pan and pancake-flipper (or turner, or spatula, or whatever you call it.  Metal ones are best for this.)
Three slotted spoons (one large, two smaller, if you've got them)
Three bowls (larger cereal bowl size)
One 13 x 9" cake pan
Aluminum foil
A plastic pancake-flipper for serving (so as not to tear the foil)


Oxo brand slap-chopper (available at Bed, Bath and Beyond, and your new best friend!)
Your favorite music playing (because the person making dinner gets to listen to whatever he/she wants!)
A large rum-and-coke to sip while you cook (or vodka-and-sprite, or tequila-and-... you get the idea)

This recipe requires about 30 minutes in the kitchen, followed by a 35 minute baking time.  It will make 20 enchiladas and should feed 4 - 6 people (depending on whether any of them are teenagers).


  1. Set the oven to 350 deg.
  2. Put your largest frying pan on the stove, add the olive oil.  Do not turn on the stove yet (or things will get unevenly cooked).
  3. Open the peppers up and remove the seeds, then wash the peppers off.
  4. Dice the peppers and mushrooms.  I use the slap chopper to make this easy.  You don't want them too fine so they turn to mush, but you don't want large chunks either.  As you chop them up, pile them into the frying pan.
    (If you use whole mushrooms, do not put a whole mushroom in a slap chopper as it will gum it up. Break them up by hand as you drop them in.)
  5. Trim off the onion roots and finely chop up the onions (you can try to chop the onions with the slap chopper, but I don't think it works as well).  Put them in the pan.
  6. Peel the lime and discard the peel.  Slice the lime up pretty finely with a knife (limes do not do well in a slap chopper).  Try not to waste any lime juice!  Remove the seeds as you do this.  Put the lime and all its precious juices in the pan with everything else.
  7. Open up the package of turkey or beef and have it ready to drop into the pan (so things won't burn in the frying pan while you get the meat ready).
  8. Turn the stove on to medium high and stir-fry everything, stirring constantly.  As you do this, add the salt and black pepper.  Do this for about 10-15 minutes.  Be careful not to let anything stay in one place for too long or it will burn.
  9. Add the ground turkey (or beef).
  10. Keep stirring and mix it all together.  Mix continuously as you cook, breaking up any chunks of meat that want to clump together.  Keep cooking until the meat is nicely done.  It should be crumbly and the whole thing should be fairly dry (if you used ground beef or inferior turkey-from-a-tube, there will be more liquid, which is not optimal, but ok since you have a slotted spoon).
  11. Open the can of beans and the can of tomatoes.  Pour the cans into separate bowls.  There's no need to drain the liquid off.
  12. Put the cheese in a third bowl. 
  13. Cover the inside of a large 13" x 9" baking pan with a single piece of aluminum foil (if there's a break the enchilada sauce will leak out while it cooks). 
  14. Cover the inner surface of the foil with olive oil (I like to use a spray can for this)
  15. Take a few paper towels and lightly wet them with tap water (use the sprayer).  Wrap your corn tortillas in the paper towels and microwave them for about two minutes.  This will make them easier to handle.  Be sure to do this immediately before assembling the enchiladas or of course they'll cool off and you'll have to do it again.
  16. Arrange everything neatly on your counter in this order:
    tortillas - meat mixture - beans - tomatoes - cheese - pan (set the can of enchilada sauce aside for now)
  17. Assemble the enchiladas as follows:
    • Take a tortilla
    • Spoon in a little meat mixture (about 1 rounded spoonful, depending on the size of your spoon)
    • Add a spoonful of beans
    • Add a spoonful of diced tomatoes
    • Sprinkle on some cheese
    • Roll it up
    • Place it in the pan, so that the edges of the tortilla are on bottom (i.e. open side down).  Press the enchiladas together  as you go.  The first one may be a little tricky, but after that they should hold together and not unroll.  (hint: I like to try to feed the end of one enchilada into the end of the one next to it across two rows.  That helps them hold together.)
  18. Repeat for 20 enchiladas -- two rows of 10.  Save the 21st tortilla. 
  19. Once you are done assembling the enchiladas, they should all be snugly pressed in together.  Some of the tortillas will have split open.  Take the last tortilla and tear it into strips, and cover the splits with a strip of tortilla.
  20. Sprinkle any leftover meat, beans, tomatoes and/or cheese evenly over the whole thing.  It's ok to add some extra shredded cheese now, if you want to splurge.
  21. Open the can of enchilada sauce and slowly pour it over the enchiladas, taking care not to let much of it spill over the edges of the foil (or pan).  Shake the pan a bit to make the sauce seep in.
  22. Take the 1/2 package of "queso fresco" cheese and crumble it by hand over the top.  It's ok to leave biggish chunks.
  23. Place the pan in the oven and bake for about 35 minutes.  The top edges of the tortillas should just barely be getting brown and a little crispy.
  24. Remove from the oven (carefully) and enjoy!!  (hint: use a plastic utensil to get the enchiladas out of the pan!! A metal one will tear the foil, and you'll get foil in your food.  Also, if you have a really wide spatula, you should be able to get them out of the pan intact, otherwise it will be trickier.  But if they break, they still taste great!)

Monday, August 03, 2015

A Thought Experiment / Puzzle to Entertain You

Suppose the U.S. government instituted a new lottery for all citizens that worked like this:
  1. On the first day of every month, each person who wants to play produces a single penny, which they will use to play the game.
  2. Each player flips his/her coin once, with one of the following results: 
    • Tails: The player is eliminated from the game, and the penny he/she was using is paid as the cost of participating.
    • Heads: The player is still in the game and continues to the next round.
  3. Repeat (2) until:
    • There is only one player left, who is the lottery winner, OR
    • There are no players left (because all remaining players flipped tails in one round), and there is no winner for the month.
  4. If there is a winner, that person gets the total amount paid by all players.  In other words, the prize money is calculated in dollars as: (total number of participants) / 100.
As an example, suppose an average of 300 million people play each month (about 25 million fewer than the total U.S. population).  Each person pays a penny, so the players will pay a total of $3 million to play. If one person wins, that person will win the full $3 million, and the lottery will generate no income for the government.

However, on months when there is no winner, the government will take in the full $3 million as income with no pay-out.

The cost to the government of administering this lottery is $1 million per month.

Here is the question: Assuming 300 million people play every month, will the government make money or lose money with this system? 

Assume that the pennies used all have a perfectly 50/50 chance of coming up heads or tails when flipped, and that there is no possibility of cheating by either the players or the government.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

A Strange Experience/Vision/Thing I Saw

A few days ago, I experienced something very odd.  I've never experienced, or even heard of, anything like it.  To be honest, it felt like the kind of thing one ought to call a "vision", and therefore attach significance to, yet I cannot see what the significance of it is or was.

I was at the height of suffering from bronchitis, and drugged, but not particularly heavily.  Bronchitis is something I've had before, and the drugs were nothing major, yet I've never experienced anything remotely like this before.

In all, the experience/vision/whatever-it-was lasted for more than 24 hours.

Let me explain:

In the middle of the night, I awoke.  As I lay there unable to get back to sleep, I noticed a single bright point of light in the darkness, with my eyes closed.

Now, I merely assumed this was nothing more than the normal kind of lights and morphing plasma-like shapes that appear when one's eyes are closed in the dark.  I assume that everyone sees this kind of thing when their eyes are closed.

I idly watched the point of light.  I remember thinking that it was about the same size and brightness as an average star, and wondered if, had I been looking up at the stars just then, I might have mistaken this point for a star.

As I watched, the point languidly drifted upward, and my eyes (still closed) followed it.

Eventually it drifted high enough that my eyes could no longer follow it, and in my peripheral vision I saw it continue upward and out of sight.  I remember thinking this odd, because things like this usually stop when my eyes can no longer follow (kind of like the "floaties" one sees in the daytime).

As I lay there, I then saw that it had not disappeared, but was re-entering my field of vision from the right.  As it drifted, it took on a yellow, sparkling tinge (very star-like), and was followed by another that came drifting in from the right.

As I wondered at this, another, and then another, came drifting in, creating a kind of curved connect-the-dots line of points.  More and more quickly came in, and in a few moments, I could see a long, curved, continuous line of these points.  At this point I was still awake (at least, I believe i was.  I knew I was sick, lying in bed, in my room).

This continued until my entire field of vision (including my peripheral vision out to infinity apparently) was filled with these points, all gently moving from right to left, and seeming to gradually "zoom out" so that the dots were getting closer together.  

After a while, I could recognize the shapes of cursive letters, and lines of text like a written manuscript. By this time the dots had converged into a continuous, sparkling line of very thin writing, in lines, like a page of handwritten cursive text.

As you might imagine, I was filled with wonder at this.  My mind was reeling at how my brain was able to maintain this intricate image consistently.  When I opened my eyes, I could still see the text superimposed over the darkness of the room about me.  I could see the windows, the blue light on my laptop speakers, and all the other normal sights in the dark room, but this image of golden cursive writing filled all my vision as well.

Of course it quickly occurred to me to read the text. Yet when I tried to focus on a line to read the words, there were several strange effects that prevented me.  First, when I focused on a letter -- say a lower-case "g" -- I could see that the line was made up of smaller shapes, which seemed to also be like writing, or maybe just intricate loops and such.  But more than that, the letters seemed to make no sense.  They were grouped and separated by spaces as if they were words and sentences, yet I could not see any intelligible words.  Almost every time I looked at a "word", it would at first remind me of a word, but when I looked more closely the letters seemed to be in continuous, fluid change, and before I could think twice about it the initial word I thought I might have seen would be nowhere in sight.

I might look at the "p" within a word I thought was "upward", but when I glanced at the "w" and back at the "p", it would have changed to a "b" or something else.

Also, if I looked fixedly at one letter, I could see in my peripheral vision that other words and other lines of the text were moving independently of that word/letter.  At several times I was able to see places where some text was drifting more slowly than the text immediately to its right, so that the text to the right was disappearing underneath the letters to the left, as if passing "beneath" and being obscured.  When this happened, the continuous line would nevertheless never be broken.

Also, in the curved lines between letters, I would sometimes see several tiny letters wedged in.  Like a child might do when he gets to the edge of the page and realizes he has several more letters to write, but not a lot of room to write them.

Now as time passed, these letters, and all this text, faded very, very slowly.  As I said, when all this was at its peak, I could see the text clearly with my eyes wide open.  Even when morning came, I could still see it all (still gradually proceeding from right to left, and with letters still morphing continuously) with my eyes open (but of course more clearly with them closed).

Eventually (especially in my state of illness) this became annoying and even painful.  It was impossible not to try to focus on the text in front of my eyes and not try to read it.  It made my eyes hurt, and made my headache worse.

Throughout the following day I could always see these letters.  Never before had any kind of image like this persisted like this for so long.  I was in wonder about it throughout the day.

Even by the following night, I could close my eyes in the dark and see the letters, but they were by that time much faded.  I could only see the 5 or 6 letters directly in front of my eyes, and only dimly.  Sometime during that night I awoke and could only see a letter or two, and it was hard to tell whether I was imagining it at that point, it was so dim.

None of this repeated the following night, or since, and now (3 days later) I cannot detect a trace of the letters.

I was never able to detect even a single intelligible word.  If the text had told me to do something -- almost anything, I think -- I would have taken it as a vision from God, so surprising and inexplicable was this whole experience to me, yet I could never detect any meaning whatever to the text.

Does anyone have any ideas what all this might have meant, or mean?  Please let me know in the comments, or if you know me personally you can contact me via email, or on Facebook.


Sunday, February 09, 2014

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 4: What Bill Nye Did Wrong.

In parts 1 through 3 I focused primarily on problems I have with Mr. Ham's young-earth creationism.  I was pretty hard on Mr. Ham, but I feel he deserved it.

In this last part, I want to talk about something that really bothered me about Bill Nye's presentation, and in fact it's something I've seen many other writers do, including Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and others.

It's a real problem because, well, I really think it detracts from what Bill Nye was trying to say.  It is a real stumbling block for a listener or reader like me -- a reasonably intelligent, educated person with a religious background.

Repeatedly, over and over throughout the debate, Bill Nye keeps referring to the Biblical accounts Ken Ham is defending as "Ken Ham's".  As if Ken Ham were defending a silly view he had come up with on his own, and which was new and unique to Ken Ham.  In addition to this, he keeps referring to Ken's views as being based on "an American English translation of the Bible".  This latter is really taking away seriously from the power of his argument, because any hearer with a grain of sense is going to realize that what Ken Ham is defending does not originate merely with a 20th-century "American English" translation of the Bible.  The worldwide flood, the seven days of creation, Adam and Eve, etc., etc. are all present in the original Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and have been believed, argued, and written extensively about for many centuries and in many languages.

Bill Nye is not alone is this.  Many great scientific writers do this, and I honestly can't understand it.  It does not add a smidgen of power or authority to their argument to speak this way about the ideas they are trying to argue against.  In fact, it reduces their power.

If I could rewind time and advise Bill Nye about his presentation, here's what I would say to him:

Never refer to the ideas Ken Ham is defending as if they originate with, or are unique to, Ken Ham.  The worldwide flood is "Noah's flood".  The seven days of creation are the "Genesis account of creation", etc.  Realize that even though Ken Ham is the man you happen to be debating now, you are not taking issue with anything Ken Ham invented or originated.  When you trivialize Ken Ham's case that way, you trivialize your own case as well.

Don't speak as if what Ken Ham is defending is founded upon anything recent.  Understand that the Biblical account Ken Ham is defending has been around for millennia.  By saying that Ken Ham's ideas are dependent only on an "American English" translation of the Bible, you not only reveal your own ignorance of his case, but suggest that you believe the texts in their original languages to be a better foundation for belief, and that's not what you want to say.

In short, you don't have to treat Ken Ham with any particular respect, in order to treat the very old, widely revered ideas he's defending with the respect they deserve.  By treating your opponents views with respect, you earn respect for the ideas you're presenting (which also don't originate with you).

Richard Dawkins at least tries to do something like this toward the end of "The God Delusion", even though he repeated Bill Nye's error many, many times throughout the rest of the book.  He at least tries to give credit to the Bible as a beautiful and hugely influential work of literature, largely the foundation of civilization throughout the world, required reading for any educated person, full of beautiful ideas, etc.  Unfortunately, that chapter seems a bit out of place in Dawkins' book (I felt), given all that had come before.

It would have been nice to see Bill Nye take at least a few moments to say a few words like that, if only to show his listeners that he knew what he was dealing with.

Imagine how much more ignorant and ridiculous Ken Ham would have looked if he'd continually referred to "Bill Nye's big bang", and "Bill Nye's evolution theory".  Ken Ham, to his credit, knew better than to do that.  In my opinion, this is the main reason why anyone thinks Ken Ham won the debate.  If Bill Nye had changed nothing in his presentation except to refer to "Noah's flood" and "the Genesis account", and removed "American translation", he would have had a knock-out victory across the board.

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 3: Making Predictions in Science

It's not clear to me at all that Ken Ham knows what Bill Nye is talking about when it comes to making predictions.

At (as I recall) two points during the debate, Ken puts up a slide supposedly illustrating the "predictions" his brand of creation science makes.  The first "prediction" listed is "evidence confirming an INTELLIGENCE produced life" (caps are Mr. Ham's).  This is not a prediction.  Also, none of the items listed on that slide are predictions, or even remotely anything like predictions.

A prediction, as Bill Nye uses the term, would be something like "if hypothesis X is true, then we ought to be able to observe Y".  Or, "if hypothesis X is true, then doing Y ought to produce result Z".  Perhaps  no one we know of has yet done Y, or if they have they didn't record the result -- and perhaps current technology isn't even capable of doing Y or measuring result Z.  But in principle, the hypothesis is falsifiable.

Falsifiability is very, very important in science.  In fact, if it's not falsifiable, at least in principle, it's not science.

A classic, oft-cited example of this is Einstein's predictions of how distant stars ought to be observed to move when their light passes very close to a nearby star, such as the sun.  When Einstein made these predictions, there was no telescope on earth capable of observing distant stars that close (from our perspective) to our sun.  But Einstein did the math, based on his relativity theory, and made very specific predictions about exactly how stars should appear to move as they were observed to come out from eclipse behind the sun.  Then, years later, with improved telescopes, the observations were made and agreed with extreme precision to Einstein's predictions.

A prediction, of the kind Bill Nye is talking about, says something like this: "If X is true, Y is a necessary result.  If Y can be shown to be false, then X is also false."  It's a gauntlet the scientist lays down and says "Here's what my theory predicts.  If you can show this to be false, you can destroy my theory".

For example, suppose I postulate the theory: "Santa Claus lives at the North Pole, and maintains a large, underground factory where thousands of elves manufacture toys."  Then I make this prediction:  "All these living creatures, and the necessary machinery of such an enterprise must generate a lot of heat energy.  Thus, highly sensitive infra-red photographs of the polar region taken from space ought to record a high level of heat energy radiating from the polar region."  I may not have access to satellites capable of taking such photographs, or the resources to launch them.  Maybe when I made the prediction, satellites capable of photographing the North Pole in infra-red didn't even exist.

What I've done there is make a prediction.  And I can take pride in my scientific hypothesis until some enterprising young upstart at NASA manages to appropriate time on a satellite above the North Pole and takes the photos.  When he publishes his findings, showing no significant heat energy radiating from the polar region, my theory takes a nose dive, along with my funding and respect in the scientific community.

Let's look at another of Mr. Ham's "predictions": "evidence confirming the TOWER OF BABEL" (again, caps are Ham's).

Again, this is not a prediction.  However, there are some predictions that might be made with regard to the Bible's "Tower of Babel" story.  The story tells of a time in human history when all the people of the earth spoke a common language.  Then, though a miraculous intervention by God, all the people were made to speak different languages all of the sudden.  And this all happened roughly 4000 or so years ago, in a specific region of earth.

Ok, so it seems to me that a good "creation scientist" might make some predictions based on this information.  This being a huge event taking place in a known region, at a fairly well-documented (in the Bible) period of time, we ought to be able to find evidence in archeological records that at one time everyone recorded everything in one language, and then suddenly at a specific point in history, all manner of different languages began to appear in that region, and spread out from that region.  A "creation scientist" might make the prediction: "If the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel is true, then no recorded history can exist anywhere in the world dating from before the Tower of Babel event, that's not in the common language of pre-tower earth". 

Once that prediction is made, if anyone can show ancient writings or engravings of any kind, from disparate parts of earth, demonstrating the use of different languages, then -presto!- the "Tower of Babel" hypothesis is disproved and people stop thinking about it as a part of true history.

But of course, nothing Ham is calling a "prediction" is actually anything like a scientific prediction, or is falsifiable.  It masquerades as science, but is not science.  It's like that game of shells where the guy manipulating the shells promises a reward if you can guess which shell hides the bean, but he's removed the bean from the game entirely, so there's no way to win the prize.

If you read the articles at the Answers in Genesis website regarding predictions made by creation scientists, here is the pattern Ken Ham's brand of creationists appear to follow when making predictions: "Some other scientists have presented evidence that X is true.  X contradicts (my interpretation of) what the Bible says, so I will study all the evidence the other scientists presented and see if I can imagine some explanation to explain the evidence, with the Bible still being true.  If I can come up with an imaginary scenario which could produce the evidence seen, without contradicting the Bible, then I will continue to regard the Bible as true and publish my findings as science."

So, think about a "Santa-ist" (not a "Satanist" -- this is a different thing altogether!) who encounters the evidence showing no heat energy radiating from the North Pole.  If he's a Ken Ham-like Santa-ist, he will proceed as follows: "Santa and his elves might have a sophisticated heat shield above their facility.  Heat shields do exist which can block radiated heat so that it cannot be detected from space.  Here, let me wow you with some complex information about these heat-shielding materials.  Santa and his elves must have such a shield."  He will call that a "scientific prediction" (he is, after all, making a kind of "prediction" that Santa has a heat shield over his underground facility) and consider it a good day.

But that's not a scientific prediction, because it doesn't suggest any kind of experiment that could, in principle, falsify the theory.  What it is is a logical fallacy called (in Latin) petitio principii, or "begging the question".  This happens when you offer as proof to one theory, an explanation that is as much in need of proof as the original theory.  And this is something Ken Ham does over and over throughout the debate. 

Saturday, February 08, 2014

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs. Bill Nye Debate

Part 2: The Fossil Record

When I was a kid growing up in churches, I can remember how creationists loved to talk about the "fossil record".  In particular, they loved to talk about "missing links". The picture they drew of the fossil record was one where a fossil was laid down every now and then of a particular individual creature who happened to be unlucky enough to fall into a bog or something.  Thus, to create an evolutionary continuum, one had to fill in a lot of wide gaps, or missing links.  One got the impression that these fossils were few and far between, and that it took a lot of imagination to envision a hereditary linkage between them.

Bill Nye starts out his 30 min. presentation talking about limestone underneath Kentucky, where they are holding their debate.  He makes the startling statement (and Ken Ham will never address this) that every layer of this limestone (millions of layers going down for miles beneath the ground) contains fossilized creatures which "lived out their lives".

But Bill Nye doesn't really take this far enough, in my opinion.

When I was with the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, I traveled all over the world and spent a lot of time with scientists studying long cores brought up from underneath the ocean floor.  Rather than talking about ice cores, I wish Mr. Nye had looked into what the IODP does.  The IODP regularly brings up many hundreds of meters of continuous core from underneath the ocean. I'm talking about hundeds of meters (even miles) of continuous core going straight down beneath the ocean floor. These cores are sometimes frozen, sometimes solid rock, or mud. They often show the same kinds of bands (like tree rings) which can be used for measuring their age, but this is just one of several independent ways the age of sections of core can be measured. Experiments are done on samples taken from the cores using instruments on board the ship, and these experiments give age estimates which generally agree to a high degree.  And they agree not only with other samples from the same core, but with other samples taken from cores that come from all over the world.  All of this information from literally thousands of miles of core samples taken from hundreds of locations from pole to pole is publicly available, and tons of research has been done on it.

And of course, the age estimates are always in the millions of years.

But there's another thing: every cubic centimeter of the stuff (be it rock or clay or mud, etc) is filled with tiny fossils. These little beings are called foraminifera and diatoms (and others). And they can be seen to be evolving over time. They evolve gradually and lay down so many fossils that if one took photos of samples from every few centimeters one could literally make a movie documenting ages and ages of evolution, though smooth, continuous changes (in fact this has been done).

They evolve both inside and out, and in many ways. If one looks at two specimens from, say, 100 meters apart in the core (which might equate to a few million years), they look as different as a polar bear and a pumpkin. The only way we know they are related by descent is that a complete record of their gradual evolution is available to us.

This is partly what Bill Nye was talking about when he was talking about the order of fossils in layers. When you look at these layers of tiny fossils, they occur in a very specific and predictable order.  If anyone were to find a sample containing creatures from different layers, it would be like finding an iPhone on Mars. It just doesn't happen. Anywhere. Ever.

I concur with Ken Ham's assertion that Christians (and people of other faiths) can be good scientists.  Aboard the IODP's ship, the JOIDES Resolution, I met many scientists from all over the world who were believers in God. In fact, I would say that a surprisingly high percentage of the scientists I met were religious in one way or another. Many of them would pray before meals, or could be found reading their Bibles (or other sacred books) on the decks now and then.

But I never met a scientist aboard the JOIDES Resolution that was a young-earth creationist. The reason is, the evidence for a long history of earth (and life on earth) over many millions of years is just absolutely overwhelming, and incredibly well documented with every core that comes up.  

My Thoughts on the Ken Ham vs Bill Nye Debate

Part 1: Ken Ham's distinction between "experimental science" and "historical science"

Ken says there is a distinction between science that involves things we can see and touch, and science that involves things that happened in the past, which we can't see or touch.  He seems to want us to believe that the latter involves nothing but arbitrary assumptions and therefore nothing in "observational science" can provide information which might, for example, help us figure out which of two contradictory statements about the past might be true. 

Moreover, Ken asserts that only "observational science" uses the "scientific method". 

Frankly, this distinction does not exist.  Moreover, all science is founded upon the scientific method.  Let me give an illustration (which does not originate with me, but I forget where I heard it):

Let's say you're exploring a house, and in one room you discover a long spring hanging from a rod extending from the wall near the ceiling.  At the lower end of the spring is a weight.  The spring is gently rising and falling in a regular motion.

After watching the spring expand and contract, with the weight moving up and down, several times, your think to yourself, "I wonder how long ago this was set in motion?"  Of course, it immediately occurs to you that if you measure the period of the spring and how it is changing over time, you can calculate an upper-bound on the amount of time that has elapsed since the spring was set in motion.  Let's say you do this, and determine that the spring cannot have been set in motion more than 5 hours ago.  In other words, if the spring was set in motion more than 5 hours ago, it would have had to pass through the floor below it, or past the rod at it's top, before slowing down to it's current motion.

So I will point out right away that the "science" you are doing is "observational", and yet it gives you a bit of information about the past.  Not a lot of information (yet), but it's something. 

Now, let's say a guy named Alex walks into the room and says "Oh yeah, I hung that there 15 minutes ago."  Having said this, he leaves the room.

Now you have an individual's eyewitness report that the spring-and-weight system has only been there for 15 minutes, and you have a choice to make:  should you accept Alex's word for it, or keep investigating?  If you accept Alex's word, your question is answered and there's nothing more for you to do with regard to your original question (and you are not doing science any more).  If you choose to withhold acceptance of Alex's report, you can keep investigating (and doing science).  Since you enjoy investigating, and nothing else in the house has been this interesting, you decide to keep investigating.

Let's be perfectly honest though, and admit that Alex is a person that you have learned to mistrust. Last week he told you that your shoes were untied, and when you looked down to see, he flicked your nose and laughed.

In any case, you now examine the spring-and-weight assembly more closely. You examine the means by which the spring is connected to the rod, and find that a metal band was wrapped around spring and rod, and fastened with a screw.  Using a powerful magnifying glass, you discover that each time the spring moves up and down, the slight movement of the spring is engraving tiny scratches on the metal band in a distinct pattern.  Moreover, this action is causing the spring to move ever-so-slowly along the band, so that new scratches are always being made on different parts of the band.  Also, the movement of the band against the rod is making marks on the rod.  On top of that, the scratches are continually exposing fresh metal to the outer environment, resulting in corrosion, and you can plainly see that the newer scratches show less corrosion than the older ones.

After a lot of careful analysis, using a powerful microscope to photograph the band in great detail, and many experiments involving making scratches on other metal bands and measuring the results over time (all of which is clearly "observational"), you trace back through each scratch and measure the corrosion on each one, and are able to count exactly how many times the spring has scratched the metal band.  The levels of corrosion on each scratch, along with your count of the scratches, give two independent means by which you can measure the amount of time since the spring was set in motion, and it comes to 3 hours, 10 minutes.  In other words, the corrosion measurements indicate that the oldest scratch is 3 hours, 10 minutes old, and the count of the scratches (along with known facts about the period of the spring, etc.) gives an initial start at 3 hours, 10 minutes ago.  That's a significant agreement between two independent sources of information!

Now, have you proven that Alex lied to you?  No, you haven't.  There could be several explanations for your observations.  Alex might have placed scratches on the bands in just the right pattern to make it look like the spring had been there for longer than it actually was.  Or he might have used a spring, band and rod that he found somewhere, which had already been hanging somewhere else for a while.

Also, I concede that you are making assumptions.  Perhaps in the past the gravity of earth within this room was different than it is today, causing the spring to behave differently.  Or perhaps the atmosphere in the room was different in the past, causing the metal to corrode differently.  But are these assumptions unwarranted?  Are they more unwarranted than the assumption "Alex is telling the truth"?  Also, there might be many more experiments you could perform to test whether or not the atmosphere in the room or the force of gravity within the room, has been changing.  These changes will have had effects on other parts of the room, such as the walls, or furniture, or the paintings on the wall.

The point I'm trying to make is that there is no difference between "observational" and so-called "historical" science.  It's all observational, and all science makes use of the "scientific method", which involves making a hypothesis ("perhaps X is true"), designing experiments to test implications of the hypothesis ("if X is true, Y should happen when you do Z.  Let's do Z and see if Y happens!"), which then either disproves the hypothesis ("Y didn't happen, so X can't be true."), or gives further strength to (without ever proving absolutely) the hypothesis ("Y happened just as I predicted, so I can be more confident that X is true!").  That's the "scientific method" as I understand it.

Therefore, the following is not science at all:

1. The Bible says X is true.
2. If X is true, Y should happen if you do Z.
3. Y didn't happen, but X is true anyway, because the Bible says so.  God is mysterious.

Or, what more frequently happens (and what Ken Ham seems content with):

1. The Bible says X is true.
2. There's no more to say.  X is true.  Let's sing a closing hymn.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Brian Greene's Mulder and Scully Illustration Demonstrated Graphically

Greetings to all my readers!

It’s been a very long time since my last post on here, so I don’t expect I’ve retained any of my regular readers (if I ever had any), but I had something I wanted to talk about today, and I couldn’t think of any better place to post it (actually, I did post about this at a couple of forums, but don’t know if I’ll get any response).

Several years ago, when I first read Brian Greene’s “Fabric of the Cosmos”, I was deeply fascinated by an illustration he gives for Bell’s Theorem.

If you’re not a math whiz – or even if you’re not interested in math at all – I urge you to stay tuned, because this gets quite interesting.

Greene’s illustration involves Fox Mulder and Dana Scully of “X-Files” fame. If you’re not familiar with Fox and Dana (it’s been a while since “X-Files” was on the air), the only important thing you need to know is that Fox is fairly gullible and prepared to believe fantastic claims about aliens or ghosts or whatever, while Dana is more skeptical and scientific. She won’t believe anything without concrete evidence.

Now I will try to reproduce Greene’s illustration from memory. If I’ve gotten any part of it wrong, I apologize. Here it is:

Fox is traveling in Paris and Dana is home in Washington D.C., when one day each receives a large package from an anonymous sender. The packages each contain 1000 small cubes, and on each cube are three small doors – one on each of three sides.

The cubes are numbered from 1 to 1000, and each of the doors is labeled A, B and C.

A letter is included in the package that explains that the cubes represent an alien technology that uses faster-than-light communications. It goes on to describe how the cubes work, as follows:

Behind each door on each cube is a light that will briefly flash either red or blue when the door is opened. Before any door has been opened on a particular cube, the colors that it will show have not been determined. The moment the first door is cracked
open on a specific cube, that cube randomly selects the colors it will show behind all of its doors, and at the same moment instantly transmits its decision to its corresponding cube in the other set, so that when any of that cubes doors are opened; they will show the same colors.

So, for example, say Fox is the first one to pick up cube #1, and he opens door A and sees a red light flash. What the letter is saying is that at the moment Fox opened the door, the cube randomly chose a set of colors to show behind its doors (say it picked red for A, blue for B, and red for C), and at the same instant transmitted this information to Dana’s cube #1 so that when she opens doors on that cube, she’ll also see the pattern red/blue/red for doors A, B and C.

Each numbered cube in Fox’s set is paired with the corresponding cube in Dana’s set. The first one to open one of the six doors in a pair initiates the random color selection, as described. Thereafter, the colors for that pair are set and unchanging.

The letter also explains that the cubes will self-destruct if tampered with, so Dana and Fox are unable to immediately test these claims by breaking open the cubes and inspecting their internal workings.

Now, as soon as Fox reads this letter, he calls Dana on the phone, full of excitement and wonder about this amazing “alien technology” that some anonymous benefactor has given them. But Dana is skeptical. “This is obviously a hoax”, she says, “and not a very good one at that. The bottom line is; the cubes will show the same colors behind corresponding doors on each cube, no matter what we do. Regardless which one of us picks up a particular cube first, the outcome will be that we’ll both see the same colors behind its doors."

"If you see red behind door A on some cube in your set, I’ll see red behind door A on the same cube in my set. How convenient that the cubes are set to self-destruct if we take them apart to investigate the letter's claims directly. For all we can tell, the cubes might just be wired up with Christmas lights, with each cube in my set wired identically as the corresponding cube in your set."

"There’s no alien technology here,” Dana concludes, “they’re just cubes wired up with lights, and somebody is trying to make fools of us.”

Fox is not ready to concede though, and gives it some thought. “You’re right,” he says. “The outcome is the same whether the letter is telling the truth, and the cubes behave as it describes, or you are right and the cubes are just wired up inside with red and blue lights. The key question is this: are the colors we see pre-determined, as with identically-wired Christmas lights, or are they not pre-determined, but chosen by the cubes at the instant one of a pair is first opened? Is there some test we can devise that could settle this?”

After considerable discussion, they realize there is such a test. Here’s what they do:

Fox and Dana both hang up the phone and proceed to open one of the three doors on each cube, in order, from 1 to 1000. For each cube they pick a door to open at random. As they do this, they record the cube number, the door they opened, and the color they saw. When they’re done, they each have a list that looks something like this:

Cube Door Color
1 A red
2 C blue
3 A blue
4 B red
5 B blue

Then they get back on the phone and compare their lists. First they look at a few entries where they happened to pick the same door for the same cube number. In these cases, they verify that they both saw the same color behind the doors. This verifies that at least that part of the letter was accurate.

Next they compare colors straight across, cube-by-cube, regardless which door was opened. Fox has predicted that if the cubes are just hard-wired with lights, they will have seen the same color for the same cube less frequently than if the cubes behave as described in the letter.

So that’s the illustration Greene presents in his book. He goes on to explain the math, but it gets confusing after that. The upshot of it all is that Fox is able to prove with this test that the letter is telling the truth. While a pair of cubes remains unopened, its colors are not determined – they could take on any combination of red and blue lights for the three doors. The moment one of them opens the first door on a particular numbered cube, and only then, the colors are determined for that cube number.

The important thing about this, and the reason this is so amazing, profound and so full of deep meaning about the nature of the universe, is that this illustrates something called “Bell’s Theorem”. If you know anything about the history of physics, you might recall that in Einstein’s time the field of theoretical physics we call “quantum mechanics” was just getting going, and one of the theories it proposed (or rather, its underlying math predicted) was that the properties of an elementary particle, including its position in space, its velocity, etc., are not absolute, but instead are defined by a probability wave that determines only the probability that the particle will be found at any point in space, throughout the universe. Only at the instant a person measures a particle’s position does it assume a definite position.

The critical thing to realize is that, according to this prediction of quantum mechanics, before you measure the position of a particle, it’s not just that you don’t know its position, it doesn’t HAVE a position until you measure it! By measuring it, you force it’s hand, so to speak – you make it take on a position, for that instant.

Einstein famously dismissed this theorem initially, saying “God doesn’t play dice”. By this he meant that he believed that the things in the universe, from planets and stars down to people, dust motes, and elementary particles, have a definite and absolute existence apart from our actions. Their position in space, their velocities, and other properties are real, and exist whether we take the trouble to look at them or not.

We may not know the position of a particle until we measure it, but it has a position before we measure it. When we take the measurement, we are only finding out something that was true already. Things do not just appear the moment we look at them, and then revert back to probability waves” the moment we look away.

Imagine you’ve lost a valuable gold coin somewhere in your house. When you go to look for it, where will you look first? Obviously, you’ll start by looking in the places you reason that it’s most likely to be found. You will probably not start out by looking on top of the roof. You won't go straight to your bathroom and start tearing up the tiles on the wall to see if its behind them. You certainly will not worry that maybe it’s sitting at the bottom of a crater on the moon.

Suppose you eventually find the coin in the pocket of a suit you wore the week before. When you find it there, you will think “Here it is! This is where I left it, and it’s been here all this time!” It would be very odd if you thought “before I found it, while I was still looking for it, it might have been anywhere in the universe. It had a high probability of being found in several locations throughout my house, including this suit coat, but the instant I reached into this pocket, it materialized here for me to find!”

And yet, according to Bell’s Theorem, something like this is exactly what really does happen when we look at things!

So, back to Greene’s illustration. If you search online, you will find a lot of discussions on physics websites, where people have tried in various ways to demonstrate Greene’s Mulder/Scully experiment and have come to the conclusion that Greene is wrong: the percentage of times Fox and Dana’s lists will agree when compared cube-for-cube will be the same, whether the cubes are pre-wired as Dana suggests, or behave in the exotic fashion described in the letter.

I have read through several such discussions, and no one anywhere (that I can find) has been able to show the veracity of Greene’s illustration. Being the software engineer that I am, a few days after I first read the chapter containing this illustration, I wrote a program in C++ to attempt to demonstrate the experiment. Like Fox, I was full of wonder at the implications of what the book claimed. I wrote a program that simulated the test both with 1000 pre-wired boxes, and 1000 “quantum” boxes that behaved as the book described.

But like the many others that have posted on these websites, I was disappointed. It seemed that no matter how I looked at the data coming out of my program, there was no appreciable difference between the outcomes. The averages would hover around the same number – 66.6% -- for both tests. There was some deviation, of course, because there is randomness involved, but I could detect no significant difference in the results.

Then the other day I was thinking about it again, and decided that maybe I’d done something wrong in my original program (which I don’t have anymore). I decided I’d try again. This time, I wrote my program so that it would repeat the 1000-box tests (both hard-wired, and “quantum”) many times, and record the percentage agreement over each 1000-box test in an Excel spreadsheet. Specifically, my new program conducts each 1000-box test 10,000 times.

I then loaded the spreadsheet into Excel and started graphing things. Initially I graphed the numbers straight-up, over time, and got the disappointing-looking result below. The red line graphs results for the “quantum” box tests, and the blue line shows the “hard-wired” results.

The graph appears predominantly red only because Excel draws the red line over the blue line. The black line at the center (sitting right around 66.6) is the “trend line” that Excel draws for both lines. This was not very encouraging.

Then I did something different. I wrote some Excel macros to calculate, for each line, the average percentage up to that point. So for example, the second line averaged the results from the first two tests, the 10th line was the average of tests 1 through 10, and so on. Then I graphed this “cumulative average” and got the surprising, delightful image below.

Looking at that graph, it is clear, I think, that there really is a very slight, but discernable, difference in the outcomes. It amounts to only about 0.1% over the 10,000 tests, but there’s no doubt that the lines are not converging on the same number.

So what is the point of all this? My confidence in Greene’s presentation of the facts, and in the ideas about the nature of the universe that they imply, was shaken by my initial failed attempt to demonstrate them for myself. This second attempt, and the “cumulative average” graph above helps to reestablish my confidence, and with it my sense of wonder and fascination with those ideas.

What do you think? If you're interested in seeing my source code, I'll be happy to provide it (this one's written in C#) to any who ask.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Expedition 327: Juan De Fuca Hydrogeology

Greetings landlubbers, from the decks of the JOIDES Resolution, where we're sitting 150 miles west of Victoria, BC, above the Juan De Fuca Ridge. The title of this post is the official IODP name for this expedition. Google it to find out more.

It's been a long while since my last post. In that time, we've left behind the beautiful mountains, lakes and forests of the Great Northwest, and to College Station, TX, with it's blistering heat, expansive skies, awesome lightening storms, and polite, friendly citizenry.

The move was very, very difficult (especially for my lovely wife Molly, who ought to get a special crown jewel in Heaven for what she went through while I was iceberg-spotting down under), but we've now got us a nice house, some great neighbors (I was serious about the friendly people here), and now I'm back out at sea, not so far this time from my old stomping grounds.

Above, you'll see a nice image (taken by someone else - I don't have my camera this time) of the crew dropping a re-entry cone into the ocean through the moonpool. The moonpool (I usually see it written as one word like that) is a hole that extends clear through the ship, through which the drill string can extend from the tower down to the sea floor. The re-entry cone is like a big funnel-shaped target about the size of a large jacuzzi. As you can see, it's strung through the drill pipe like a bead on a string. They drop it through the moonpool, and it free-falls all the way down to the sea floor, where it nestles into the hole. They can then pull up the drill string, refit it with a different bit, perhaps, or some other equipment, and be assured that they'll be able to find the hole again when they go back down.

They also sometimes leave these on holes they might want to come back to on some future expedition. In this case, I believe we plan to leave this site for now, go to another for a couple of weeks, and then come back here to put down a CORK.

What is a "CORK", you ask? CORK stands for "Circulation Obviation Retrofit Kit", which I swear is just jibberish that some clever oceanographer came up with so that they could call it a "CORK". What it actually is, is a very, very expensive (one million dollars each, I'm told) piece of hardware that fits down into the drill hole, and is equipped with all kinds of monitoring and measuring devices that continuously transmit data back to the surface. It's battery powered, and the batteries last for about 2 years, so they have to come back every once in a while to change them.

While all this interesting - but painfully slow - science is going on, I mostly sit down in the developer's office (lovingly called "The Dungeon") and work on software projects. For me, that's where the excitement is! So far on this cruise, I've made many much-needed improvements to "SampleMaster" and the "MegaUploadaTron", and started a brand-new project to streamline the Moisture and Density process called "MADMax" (The Moisture and Density process is called "MAD", and of course my new application will "MAXimize" the efficiency and accuracy of the process, so the name makes sense, while at the same time fitting in with our other goofy names).

We've yet to encounter any bad weather. In fact, every day I've been out here the ocean looks exactly the same - like a big lake, but without any visible shore anywhere. There's hardly any wildlife to see. My favorite nighttime activity is to sit out on the decks and try to spot the little white birds that fly about the ship sometimes (always in threes for some reason...). Once I saw a whale spout way out on the horizon, but other than that, nothing. Ok, some people reported seeing a sunfish near the ship, but I missed that.

Well, that's it for this post. Time for me to get back to MADMax.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Two Weeks at the Bottom of the World

Greetings, ye land lubbers!

Well, it's been two weeks, so it's time for a blog update.

After setting sail (ok, it's not a sailboat, but you understand), it took us a few days to pass by the lower parts of New Zealand. These were wonderful days of relaxation and enjoyment. During those happy times, I often reflected upon my good fortune, in securing this excellent job, while sitting on the warm, peaceful decks watching the sun rise, or set.

Once we passed New Zealand, the winds and waves of the open sea struck us, and everything changed in a rapid free-fall descent into the gaping maw of Hell itself. A ice-cold, watery, constantly moving roller-coaster Hell.

I got seasick. I knew this was coming, so I'd prepared for it. I'd brought several different brands of motion sickness medicine, and the on-board doctor had some others for me to try.

I suppose if I'd been in a car going over a few miles of winding road, or in a plane experiencing a few hours of choppy weather, or even spent a whole day at an amusement park, these medicines would have been sufficient to restore my equilibrium. But I was in a ship at sea, in a storm that lasted most of a week!

Yes, it was a storm. Probably most of my experienced shipmates thought it was a minor sqall, but to me it was the very wrath of God poured out. I'm not sure what he was angry about, but I must've done something!

I took a few pictures of the waves while it was still ok to go outside, but they fail to capture the immense terror of the roaring ocean. Some of the waves were high enough to strike the highest decks of the ship. At one point I saw a wave roll over the drill floor (that's the low deck between the poop and forecastle decks) and completely cover it, making it appear for a moment that the ship had split in two. The official report was that the waves reached 40 feet in height. For days, they struck the ship, sounding like bombs going off -- sounding like the ship was coming apart around my ears, as I lay either in my bunk, or in the ship's little hospital, or at times on whatever couch was nearest, or even the floor.

Eventually the storm abated, and calm weather came again. I'm told that we can expect to pass back through high seas and winds again on our return trip to Tasmania, but I'm hopeful that by that time I'll have my "sea legs" and it won't be as bad. We did have a few hours of bad weather one day last week, and I didn't feel anything, so there's reason to hope.

Once we arrived at our first drill site, the real work began. We drill out length after 9-meter length of core from beneath the ocean floor. Currently we're drilling at a depth of about 3 miles below the surface of the ocean (that's three miles below our ship), and about half a mile beneath the sea floor. I'm told we might be here a few more days yet, and get to a depth close to 2 miles beneath the sea floor. Pretty amazing. The hard-packed sediment we're bringing up has been sitting (mostly) undisturbed for 30 million years or so, and now we're mucking around in it, subjecting it to intense light, x-rays, gamma radiation, and all sorts of other tests and experiements. I put my eye to a telescope and looked at little foraminifer shells that drifted to the ocean floor 15 million years ago.

Once we finish at our present site, we'll be heading back to another site that was supposed to be our first, but was surrounded by huge icebergs. We're hoping it will be accessible now. After that, there's a site near the mainland of Antarctica that should offer some beautiful scenery.

That's it for now! Until next time!

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Update on my Seagoing Adventures

Greetings land-dwellers!

Today is our last day in port. Tomorrow morning at 7:00 AM we set sail for Antarctica!

I've been hearing some scary predictions about the weather for our transit from New Zealand to Antarctica: gale-force winds and very high seas. I talked to the doctor today and he's prepared to take care of me should I have problems with motion-sickness. They're telling everyone to secure everything -- anything free to move, will move!

I've spent the last few days -- since Jan 4th -- helping with the unloading and loading of the ship. It's been VERY exhausting work! Unloading core samples and trash and other stuff from the previous expedition, and loading all the stuff we need for this one. We've got everything imaginable that one might need for a two-month trip to Antarctica. The ship and all it's lifeboats could all sink, and I'd still be able to survive in my full-body survival suit.

I've been given a developer's laptop, with all the software development tools the IODP uses, and access to their source code. When I'm not directly employed as a Core Technician (and not sleeping), I'll be learning the ropes and experimenting with the tools and projects. I may even get a chance to fix a bug or two while I'm out here.

The people here are all very nice, and great to talk to! Some of my favorite times of the day are mealtimes, when I can sit down with some of the scientists or other IODP people and learn what they do, what they're hoping to accomplish on this mission, or just talk about where they're from or what interests them. There are about 25 or so scientists on board, and just about every one of them is from a different country. Then there are the lab techs, crew people and so on, who are also from all over. It's very cool!

I attended a meeting with the scientists this morning, and they talked a lot about what they are hoping to accomplish. A lot of it went way over my head, but one thing I found interesting is that some scientist somewhere has made a prediction based on some theories that he's proposed, and we will be doing some experiments to either validate or falsify his predictions. Kind of like when Einstein predicted, based on his relativity theory, the precise way light would bend around a star, which was later verified when telescopes were invented that were powerful enough to see the effect directly.

There is a ton -- actually several tons -- of cool scientific equipment on board. Just the little bit I've learned about that so far has my mind spinning.

I'm really excited, and somewhat scared, about leaving port in the morning. Well, it's not the leaving port, but the high winds and waves that has me scared. I'm pretty sure I'm gonna get seasick. The ship's doctor is ready to help though. He's got several kinds of meds for me to try, and says I shouldn't worry.

Keep checking back here in the days and weeks to come for more updates! Also, you can search YouTube for "IODP 318" (that's our expedition number) or maybe "IODP Wilkes Land" for videos. The videographer says he plans to release an update on YouTube every week. They should be fun and interesting, and you might catch a glimpse of me now and then!

Saturday, January 02, 2010

My Day in Wellington, NZ

Greetings once again to all y’all out there in the blogosphere.


I spent the whole day today (Sun., Jan. 3) in Wellington, New Zealand.  After eating my free breakfast that came with my room, I decided to visit two places: Weta Studios, and the Te Papa Museum (which someone on the plane last night had told me about).


So I went out of my hotel, hailed a cab – ok, the cab driver was just sitting there waiting for a rider, so I didn’t have to “hail” anyone, but I would have! – and told the driver to take me to the Weta Studio.  Turns out you can’t really go into the studio itself, but they have a little mini-museum and gift shop called “Weta Cave”.  The driver took me there.  I gawked at all kinds of LOTR-related stuff.  A life-sized statue of Gollum was awfully cool.  Lots and lots of exorbitantly priced figures, toys, etc.  A new comic book soon to become a movie caught my attention, and I wanted to buy an issue, until I found out that a single copy of the comic went for $15.00!  Since I can still remember when a comic book cost 25 cents, I wasn’t about to pay that.


I took tons of pictures there, of course.  It started raining while I was there, so I had the friendly cashier call a cab for me so I wouldn’t have to walk around looking for one.  The Weta Studios are in a very nondescript-looking residential neighborhood, and there’s a Christian school right across the street. 


To be honest, the highlight of the Weta Cave visit for me wasn’t the LOTR stuff (although that was really great).  The place was mostly filled with stuff having to do with a movie they’re working on now about some kind of retro-futuristic scientist/adventurer and his hot-chick sidekick.  I wasn’t very interested in all that, since I’d never heard of it, but the place was full of that.  The coolest thing there was the stuff related to the Halo movie that never got made.  They had some life-size Covenant weapons on display that were very cool (see picture above), and some as-yet-unreleased statuary that is going to be available later this year featuring the Halo characters.  If I had about $1000 to spend, I’d definitely have spent it on a couple of pre-orders for statues of the Master Chief and Arbiter, and one of the Master Chief attacking a Flood character.


They also had the actual gigantic pistol prop that Hellboy used in the movie, and lots and lots of other cool stuff.


After visiting Weta, I went to the Te Papa Museum, which is a huge place, showcasing native New Zealand art and history, and lots of really cool stuff.  Lots of interesting information about how New Zealand was settled by Europeans and what it was like there in ancient times.  One interesting thing that made me grin was a huge wall-size animated view of how the continents formed.  I’ve seen something like it before of course (but smaller) – how the continents broke apart millions of years ago through the shifting of the tectonic plates or whatever.  As the display showed the continents breaking apart, a voiceover was talking about “our land”, and “our country”, and I was unconsciously focused on North America when the display started fading out and a section of land in the southern part of Australia was highlighted.  I confess I was confused for a moment.  What’s going on?  The North American continent just sort of scrolled off the edge of the screen as the Island of New Zealand became the focus of the presentation.  It made me smile.  I’m so provincial!


They also have the complete skeleton of a giant squid on display.  I didn’t know squids had skeletons (thought they were like octopuses – octopi?), but there it was.  And a functional station wagon made entirely of corrugated roof material.  It got very windy while I was there, and I was almost blown over a few times as I walked back to hotel.


For the first time, I met someone else involved with the IODP expedition on the elevator today.  He wasn’t one of the software engineers, and to be honest, I didn’t even understand what his function on the ship was.  Some kind of assistant to one of the scientists I think.  When I got back to my room, I found an old email with the name of one of the software engineers and left a message for his room for him to call me later.


Tomorrow morning at 8:00 am a bus comes to the hotel to take us to the ship.  I’m very excited, but I also wish I had more time to spend in Wellington!  It’s so beautiful here, and I’d like to rent a car and drive out to see some of the countryside I could see from the airplane.

A quick update from Wellington, New Zealand before I leave to explore the city

Greetings from New Zealand everyone!

I’m in the James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor in Wellington, New Zealand.  Room 2009, if you want to call!

New Zealand was magnificently beautiful from the air, but here in the middle of the city it feels a lot like Seattle – only with different details.  The people drive on the wrong side of the road.  Everything’s closed on weekends for some reason (at 7 pm last night – a Saturday – nothing was open.  No restaurants, no shopping, nothing!)

If you walk out of my hotel, straight down to the water, there’s a nice little spot called Lambton Quay.  It’s not exactly a resort beach – there are loading docks and big cranes on either side.  But it’s nice.  I’ve included a panoramic picture I took (with my new camera).  I sat there with my legs dangling into the water for an hour or so last night just reading and watching the light fade as the sun set behind me.

Unfortunately it’s been overcast so I still haven’t gotten a glimpse of those strange and wonderful southern-hemisphere stars that I’ve never seen before.  I’m excited about that.  Hopefully it won’t be overcast tonight.  Down near the pole I think the sun will never set, so this may be my last chance to see the stars for two months!

Keep checking back, faithful readers!  More to come!

Thoughts on the flight from LA to Aukland, NZ

Greetings once again to all who read this.

I’m currently sitting in row 57K on a gigantic  (two stories!!) plane over the wide ocean.  Ocean is all I can see out my window, right to the horizon.  This is a 12 hour flight, so I’ve been sleeping (got a whole row to myself, so I can stretch out!), and watching movies (The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Hurt Locker), and reading (starting The Accidental Time Machine by Joe Haldeman).  According to my laptop’s clock, it’s 8:37 AM, so I’ve been on the plane now for 9 hours.  3 hours left.

Of the two movies I watched tonight, I liked The Hurt Locker better, even though Pelham 123 was a bit more entertaining, because it felt like (can’t really say whether it really was) a realistic depiction of military life, and it made me think about Josiah, even though he’s in the Marines, and these were Army guys, and Josiah isn’t in Iraq.  Anyway, it’s a story that makes you both proud to be an American, and sad that young people have to go through such things.

The movies are free.  Every seat-back has a video player, and a remote control built into the arm rest.  There are a ton of movies and TV shows you can watch, in several languages.  Every 15-20 minutes or so, a smiling flight attendant pokes a tray in my direction filled with snacks, which so far have been nothing but dried fruit, fruit juice, and apples.  These Qantas people eat healthy!

The book – The Accidental Time Machine – caught my attention in the bookstore this morning, because (1) it’s by Joe Haldeman, who wrote The Forever War, which is one of the best sci-fi novels ever, and because it’s about time travel, which is always entertaining (I just finished Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt a few weeks ago.  A fun read.)  So far all I can say is it’s caught my attention.  Im in chapter 3.

Oh, I forgot to mention New Years!  Midnight passed tonight just as we were taking off from LA, and it was a bit of a letdown.  A few people throughout the plane did a countdown, and there was a smattering of applause, and that was all I heard about it.  Sadly, no free beer or champagne.  As we took off, I saw a couple of fireworks from the air, and tried to get my camera and take a picture, but by the time I fished it out of the bag, we were over the ocean, and I couldn’t see anything.

It’s starting to dawn on me now that this is really going to happen.  In a few days, I’m going to board a ship and sail to Antarctica.  I’m going to live aboard a tiny ship down near the south pole for two months.  Honestly, at every step up to now a big part of me has been waiting for something to happen to spoil this.  There’s still part of me saying that I’ll get turned back at customs, or that the expedition will get cancelled at the last moment.  It’s that cynical, jaded part of me that’s grown so loud over the years.  Nothing really cool can happen to me.  I sit in a cubicle working on software I only marginally care about – if that much.  I don’t go sailing to cool places, doing amazing things.  Surely this is all some cruel joke God is playing – he’s gonna hold out a carrot, but when I go to take it, it’ll disappear, or be rotten.

Really, aren’t all carrots rotten to some extent, here on Earth?  It’s true: they are.  This job will have a shovel, like all jobs.  I’ve got to remember that, but still, a brighter, more youthful and idealistic part of me that’s been stifled for many years is starting to perk up again, and I’m glad to hear from him again.  Once he gets a taste of that salt air, he’s gonna be harder to ignore.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Expedition Trailer Now Playing On YouTube!!

Hey everybody, check out the “trailer” for the IODP expedition I’m going on! It’s so awesome – my excitement now officially knows no bounds!

I fly out of Seatac tomorrow evening (12/31) at 5:30 for New Zealand, where I will join this very expedition, and set sail for Wilkes Land, Antarctica! This is so mind-bogglingly cool – I can’t almost believe it’s actually happening!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

Greetings to all who read this.


Everything is now go for me to go with the Texas A&M University Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (TAMU IODP) to Antarctica for two months.  My plan is to update this blog as frequently as possible (supposedly I’ll have internet access aboard the ship, but it will be slow) with my activities, and pictures. 


I’ll be flying first to Wellington, New Zealand, where I’ll board the IODP’s ship, JOIDES Resolution, and go south to a spot off the Antarctic region called the Wilkes Land Glacier.  The ship is named for Capt. Cook’s ship HMS Resolution, and “JOIDES” stands for “Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling”.


We’ll do science for two months out at sea, then head back to Hobart, Austrailia (actually on the island of Tasmania, so I’m hoping to snap a photo of a Devil there), where I’ll board a plane and fly home to Seattle.  Then I get a whole month off to spend with the family I’ll be desperately missing by then, and hopefully work toward moving to Texas.


In order for me to learn the ins and outs of life aboard the IODP’s ship, I’m going this time not as a software engineer, but as a “core tech”.  As I understand it, the job of a core tech is to carry the core samples brought up from the sea floor around the ship to the different lab stations for whatever scientific experiments are to be done upon them.  I guess these things come up as long, narrow cylinders, and I have to carry them around, chop them up, carry the pieces around some more, chop them up some more, and finally carry the pieces to a holding area where they remain for the duration of the voyage.


It’s really nice of them to let me go on this expedition.  Aside from the wonderful adventure, and learning experience, the extra bonus pay will help Molly get the house ready for sale!  Molly’s getting the short straw this go-round: she’s gotta stay behind and oversee the preparations for our big move, while I get to go gallivanting around the globe.


The one downside: I’ve been told that during the expedition, everyone works 12 hours per day, 7 days per week.  That sounds crazy to me, but that’s what I’m told.


The nearest I’ve come to a sea voyage in my 46 years is …, let’s see, the Seattle ferries, and one short whale-watching cruise.   This is gonna be some adventure!


In addition to this being my first post about the new job, this is also my first post via email – a method I’m trying out because emails can be written up offline, and sent later, making it easier for me to post.  We’ll see if I can keep up regular posts for the whole two months.  I’ll do my best!  I hope it’s interesting!