Maligned Minerals and Serpentinite in Sun

Sunlight in Seattle has been hard to come by, and my poor beautiful chunk of serpentinite has been languishing in the house, unable to show off its colors. But the clouds cleared this afternoon, so I schlepped her out to the porch poste haste. Just look at her:

Hard to believe California tried to dethrone her as the state rock, isn’t it? In a way, I’m glad. When a clueless legislator slipped in language that would’ve nixed the category of state rock entirely, all because some people had no bloody clue where asbestos actually comes from, what it really is, or the fact that for it to do you any damage in its natural state, you’d have to crush and inhale it for years, the geologists went on the warpath. As a happy result, we got tons of excellent posts defending serpentinite, collected with an intense introduction by Silver Fox.

How could you not defend something this beautiful?

And special. You see, serpentinite isn’t just another pretty rock: it’s got a hell of a lot to say about plate tectonics. Read this gorgeous ode to the stone by Chris Rowan and this fact sheet by Brian Romans for its geologic and human history.

Do you see how her appearance changes as I turn her? Some rocks seem the same from every angle, but not this one. She reveals a different texture, a new bit of fascination, with every angle. No wonder Andrew Alden adores serpentinite.

I find myself adoring everything about her: her colors, her history, even her name. Serpentine. The name for her family of minerals comes from Latin: serpentinus, serpent rock. The smooth, sleek greens that sometimes form scale-like patterns do look like a serpent’s skin. And I’ve got a soft spot for serpents, after having done research on serpent mythology for a story I wrote. Those who limit themselves to Christian mythology are really missing out: serpent stories are cool. Serpents in many cultures were wise and wonderful, guardians of knowledge, and those are suitable myths for a rock that reveals so much about how our oceans open and our mountains rise.

For paens to her, you can read Garry Hayes’s series of posts celebrating and defending her. You’ll find that she’s more than just a stone with stories: some very unique life depends on her.

Get close to her.

Look in to her blues and greens, her faint traces of red. Look at her patterns. These next two photos will link you to Flickr, where you can enlarge her, explore her, and even download her if you wish.

And then, for a truly wild trip through texture, read Callan Bentley’s post on serpentinite and mélange. If you don’t start drooling, I’ll know you have no concept of beauty.

If California attempts to malign her again, I swear I’m filching her for the Washington state rock. We haven’t got one. How sad is that? All this glorious geology, and we haven’t got a state rock. Something in my soul is deeply offended. Luckily, I have this glorious chunk of serpentinite to cling to for some comfort.

And for those who want a little world serpent with their serpentinite, I’ve included an excerpt from that story below the fold.

This is from a story in which the Eternal Tarlah, masquerading as a human calling himself Anysos in 5th century BC Ashkelon, finds a hint that a fragment of one of his former allies still exists, and goes in search of him. He finds him in the guise of Níðhöggr, the Norse dragon (in some legends, serpent) who gnaws at the roots of the world tree Yggsdrasil. He takes on a Hebrew name in this discussion.

If this bit leaves you wanting the whole, I shall post it for you on ye olde writing blog. Those without access have only to ask, and they shall receive.

“Nahash, the serpent? Are you the same serpent they reviled in Israel?”

“They react rather violently to a little knowledge, don’t they?” Nahash grinned. “Imagine what they would have done had I been able to finish the business and give the woman wisdom as well. Of course, they say life, but those with wisdom know that wisdom and immortality are the same.” He patted the Tree. “I’ve given that gift of mine to many, some who appreciated it and some who didn’t. I’ve created many gods here, some who even turned on me later, thinking to keep wisdom for themselves. Which will you be?”

“None,” Anysos said. “I came to learn the truth of you. I have no need for your other gifts.”

“So it’s not fear that keeps you from tasting my fruit?”

“I have never feared you, Nahash. Not you, and not your gifts.”

Nahash took his hand from the Tree. “Well, then. The truth. Not many come here seeking that, at least, not that they’re aware of. They get a bit of it anyway, pity for them. The truth? The truth is, like you, I have many names. I was once Ningizzida, Lord of the Tree of Truth, and the Sumerians came to my garden without fear, without guilt, and with a healthy measure of respect. Perhaps too healthy: they respected me too much to partake too freely of my gifts. So things are.” He twined his arms around the trunk of the Tree, staring up into its higher branches. “In Egypt, Isis sent me to retrieve knowledge from Ra. Devious woman, that, stealing a man’s secrets. Thoth carried my symbol, and they worshipped him as knowledge. Such I was in Egypt, among other things.”

He unwound his arms, and spread them wide. “I am Shesha, the serpent bed of sleeping Vishnu, as he dreams the world. I once loosened the great mountain Mandara, and became Vasuki: they wrapped me around the mountain, and we used it as a churn for the milk of the heavens to make Soma, which some drank for immortality but the best used for wisdom.” He spun himself side-to-side, drew his arms in, and stopped. “We drank deep, in those days. We lost the making of Soma, but they still remember and honor me there in India. In fact, it was beneath this tree-” He slapped the trunk, and it became a Bo tree – “that Siddhartha sat those seven weeks, eating of my fruit and drinking of my waters. As Muchalinda, I spread wide my hood and guarded the future Buddha from the storm. Those are some of the places I was revered. There are others, older, before the coming of the heroes, that I was wife and mother, daughter and consort, the dark earth and the mystery. But they have mostly forgotten me as such. Go to some in Lydia, they will tell you of me: they still see me as the woman. Talk to others, and they will show you I bite my tail. I am the Ouroboros, circling the world, eternal.”

Anysos felt a shiver, deep in his mind. “You were, and are.”

“Of course. So what is Yahweh’s jealousy to me? He forbade mankind my fruits, and yet they still find their way to me, some in guilt, some in awe. And there are aspects of me even in Yahweh, much as they try to deny it.” He raised his fists to either side and shook them. “Heracles denied me – wisdom was his mortal enemy – but the snake goddess of Crete brandished me in either hand, and welcomed me. What does it matter, then, that Apollo cast me out of my oracle? Let him believe it’s his – the Pythoness could tell him otherwise.” He flung his hands at the ground. “They even sent Chronos against me: I let him cast me into the sea and take my crown. They hoped Time would defeat me, but what is Time to the eternal?”

-Excerpt copyright Dana Hunter. All rights reserved.

An Open Letter to Those Who Think Real Names Solve the Civility Problem

Dear People Who Think Real Names Make People Behave Better:

I understand the desire for a more civil discourse. Most of us would like that (except for the trolls, one supposes), but a “real name” policy isn’t the magic cure that will make everyone nice. Allow me to direct your attention to what people feel perfectly comfortable doing under their real names:

Ah, yes. Very civil. A shining example of the kind of respectful discourse one can expect when everybody knows everybody’s real name, isn’t it?

We’ve seen your arguments as to why real names are necessary, and Facebook has disproved very nearly all of them. Those Facebook hasn’t managed to provide demonstrations against are taken care of at the previous link. And I’m sorry, but your civility argument was so full of holes it could be used to drain spaghetti to begin with, and since then several people have hit it repeatedly with birdshot. I think there are some scraps left there somewhere, but they can’t be scraped together into anything usable now. Real names do nothing to rescue teh intertoobz from civility problems. People are too adept at being rat bastards for anything like a real name policy to stop them.

Ah, you say, but there will be consequences! Because, y’know, bosses and stuff will know who’s saying what, and they’ll get caught, and everything will be happiness and rainbows.

That may be true in a subset of cases. A few people may have to pay a real price for bad behavior. Lovely. Meanwhile, the bad behavior continues apace, because the chance of suffering consequences is so damned remote. And folks like, oh, lessee, Bob “Shoot to Kill” O’Connell and Joe “12 Gauge” Martinez are free to continue spewing their hate and death threats on real name forums like Facebook and Google+ while people like Bug Girl and GrrlScientist are shut out.

You don’t solve the civility problem with real names. Real names won’t stop a soul from frothing at the mouth. Even if everybody signing up for Google+ had to provide a photo I.D., therefore guaranteeing they have to use their really-real names, the civility problem would continue apace. Look at Congress.

I hate to tell you this, but the civility problem will never be solved. There will always be a subset of rotten jerks in any given population. The band-aid of a real names policy does nothing but give you the illusion things will be hunky-dory.

You mitigate it by having tools in place for folks to flag bad behavior. You mitigate it by having policies in place that deal with that bad behavior no matter what name it’s coming from. That’s what Google can do: provide some community guidelines (while keeping in mind that free speech shouldn’t always be nicey-nice speech), and provide tools for people to report bad behavior.

You yourself are going to have to take some responsibility beyond “real names!” to solve the civility problem. You’ll have to flag people who are being wildly inappropriate (and not just because you don’t agree with them, or don’t like their way of putting things, but truly bad, outrageous, nasty behavior). You’ll have to block those folks who make you feel icky inside, whose actions haven’t reached the level of a flag but are still not something you’ll allow in your online parlor. Speak out against behavior you find reprehensible. And step in and ask folks to behave better when comment threads on your stream get heated.

Whose fault is it if a place is full of assholes? That’s right. Uncomfortable but true.

So please, stop bleating about how real names are required to make the web a better place, and go about doing things that will actually make it a better place. Plenty of ‘nyms will be happy to join you in those efforts.

Dana Hunter

Cantina Collage o’ the Week: Rhodies

I never much liked rhododendrons much, growing up.  All the ones I’d seen were just plants with big boring green leaves.  I didn’t know what all the fuss was about.

Then I moved up here, and the place seemed covered in plants with big boring green leaves.  But in mid-spring, the things exploded with blooms.  I’d never seen anything quite like them.  All of the northwest bursts with blossoms in huge, colorful clusters.  Some of the rhodies are the size of shrubs, and some of them are trees.  Trees, covered in ginormous flowers. 

The street that leads up to my complex becomes a corridor of color every spring, between the rhodies, the bulbs, and the fruit trees.  It’s one of the reasons I haven’t moved.  I love that street.

These are some of the rhodies that rioted there this spring:

And a bee for scale:

I’m okay with the big boring green leaves now.  I know what they’ll get up to for several weeks next spring.  In fact, I fully intend to hie me down to the Rhododendron Species Garden again so that my Sony Cyber-Shot can do it justice.  Did I mention ginormous trees with huge flowers on?

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bard?

It may seem bizarre that in the land infamous for a dry sense of humor, satire is banned. But politicians in both Great Britain and Ireland, it appears, are terrified of people like Jon Stewart. So terrified, in fact, that they’ve come up with inane rules meant to prevent the carpets in their halls of power from being trampled upon by the muddy boots of comedians.

In Britain, you’ve got Rule Four:

Guidelines on the use of the pictures are less prescriptive. They do specify that no extracts from Parliamentary proceedings may be used in comedy shows or other light entertainment such as political satire. But broadcasters are allowed to include Parliamentary items in magazine programmes containing musical or humourous features, provided the reports are kept separate.

And in Ireland, ye olde fine print in the Rules of Coverage:

Please note that use of Webcasts and broadcasts of the Houses and Parliamentary Committees must be in accordance with the Standing Orders of both Houses and the Rules of Coverage of the Joint Committee on Broadcasting and Parliamentary Information, in particular: “… that recordings or extracts of the proceedings shall not be used in programmes of light entertainment, political satire, party political broadcasts or in any form of advertising or publicity, other than in the form of news and current affairs programme trailers…”.

And these are the rules that kept the Daily Show off the air, for fear that a wee bit o’ satire could bring the whole House down. You can read the whole sad saga via Graham Linehan. And then you can watch the dread content right here.

Why yes, yes, I am laughing my arse off. Whyever do you ask?

Thing is, it makes a certain sort of sense, based on history. The whole thing reminded me of a bit I’d read on Irish bards many years ago. It set me galloping through my books looking for the relevant bit, and I found it in The Celts by Gerhard Herm:

When they [the filids and the bairds] rose to tell the old stories, to report on heroes still living, the warriors would hang on to their every word, like actors waiting to learn whether they had performed well or not. Adverse or favourable criticism from such a source could alone set the seal on, or ruin, a reputation; woe betide the prince who failed to reward a singer properly. One who did prove to be tight-fisted had a poisonous quatrain directed at him: “I know him/He’ll give no horse for a poem;/He’ll give you what his kind allows,/Cows.” This kind of thing struck home, and noblemen tried to be generous, to reward good singers, with at least a horse.

I should say so.

So it appears that instead of buying the bards off, these days politicians are attempting to outlaw their more dangerous practices. Knowing that those whom the bards would destroy, they first make ridiculous, they’re trying to legislate dignity. The problem with this is, America has freedom of the press, and the world has the internet. This means that the bard’s tale can cross oceans at the speed of light. And when these pathetic little rules cause Great Britain’s weekly dose of satire to go missing, curiosity gets piqued, and then you end up with articles in the New Statesman. Nothing a comedian could do to politicians is quite as bad as what they do to themselves.

We are quite amused.

[And yes, I know, this week’s been rather light on the geology. I assure you, that unhappy state of affairs shall not obtain for long. For one thing, I’ve been doing research to ensure that my next post on the Skykomish is not merely a gallery of rocks with captions saying, “Ooo, pretty!” Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that, but I like giving you added value. Additionally, I’ve been working on the research for a series of posts on various consequences of the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that I believe will meet with your approval (with especial thanks to Evelyn Mervine, who slipped me a copy of a very delicious paper on drumlins). And, last (but only because I’ve saved the best for), my intrepid companion and I are headed up to Deception Pass this weekend. Three days of wandering about amidst some extremely delicious geology. You will have such pictures, my darlings. So do not despair: the drought will end, and geology shall be thine. Possibly sans cats, but I’ll see what I can do about gratuitous felid insertion.]

Dragonfly Summer

I’ve been watching the dragonflies fly all summer. They swoop and swarm over the grass by our forested hillside, and there are times when I see past the little jungle gym and the tottering old teeter-totter into a much more primordial time. So many things would change if we could travel through time, but dragonflies would be there beside any pond or stream, lake or river, for the past three hundred million years. Granted, they’d be a little bigger, a bit different, but recognizably dragonfly. That’s quite an extraordinary thing to realize.

Dragonflies have been an especial favorite insect of mine ever since I saw illustrations of them flying around dinosaurs when I was a wee little kiddie. They seem otherworldly, somehow, with their long four wings, their enormous eyes and their stick-thin bodies. They’re one of the most enchanting parts of summer.

Usually, I see fairly small ones, zipping about like the fighter jets of the insect world. But there was a sunny summer morning when I stepped out on the porch on my way to work, and saw this magnificent beastie, the size of my hand, hanging about on the rail.

There are times when it seems like Mother Nature has chosen out a particularly impressive example of her handiwork and set it out on display, just so she can stand to one side with a smug smirk while I stand there attempting to breathe. It took me a few seconds to unstick my feet and sneak back into the house for the camera. Work be damned. I’d never get a chance like this again.

I kept fearing it would fly away as I inched closer, but it never so much as twitched. If some crazy human with a camera wanted macros, it seemed to think, fine. Fire away. Any angle you like. Yes, I am magnificent, aren’t I? Look at me. I could fly off at the speed of a racehorse, if I liked, but instead I’ll hang out here with my dramatically transparent wings gleaming in stray sunbeams and show off the reason why evolution hasn’t done more than tinker round my edges. I am perfect.

As I shifted round it for different angles, its transparent wings gleamed, the sun striking iridescent highlights from them. Four wings that don’t fold – that’s how you tell a dragonfly from its close relative, the damselfly. Those veins give their gossamer wings strength. And there are things you’d never suspect about them, watching them fly about: that they’re fierce predators, with a prehensile labium evolved for swift biting. When you have something that can fly at incredible speeds, hover, change direction in an eyeblink, and thrust out part of its mouth to catch you, you’re a very unfortunate bug indeed if the dragonfly looks upon you and says, “I believe I shall consume you for my luncheon.”

And those eyes. Dragonflies have enormous eyes. I mean, no wonder they haven’t got large antennae – who needs them when you’ve got these peepers:

Each compound eye is composed of nearly 28,000 individual units (ommatidia), and together the eyes cover most of the head. More than 80% of their brain is devoted to analyzing visual information.

I wish I could see the world through those eyes, with that brain. It must be truly extraordinary. Just like great and glorious order Odonata.

This beauty very nearly tempted me to call work and explain I couldn’t be there, on account of being unavoidably detained by something primeval.

I’d never seen one this large before. Yes, granted, it’s minuscule compared to some of the monsters who flew the Carboniferous wetlands. A handspan compared to over two feet doesn’t seem like much. But it’s bloody well big enough to impress in our shrunken age, thank you ever so much.

Earlier this year, we saw a colorful little bugger whilst exploring the Skykomish River near Monroe. This one kindly posed on rocks for the enjoyment of the geologists in the audience.

 This appears to be a Plathemis lydia, Common Whitetail. Not that it has got a white tail, but if I’m right, it soon will have – it seems to be an immature male. Although calling it immature seems a little unfair – dragonfly nymphs can live for several years, after all, so this one might not be all that young. The aquatic nymphs are my buddies. They eat mosquito larvae. And the adult Common Whitetail likes to nom on mosquitoes, too, so they’re nice to have around.

The wing patterns make your eyes go all wibbly, don’t they?

This little gentleman flitted about from rock to rock, playing snap-me-if-you-can, unlike the stately subject on my porch. And there were garter snakes in the same nest of boulders, so I got a bit distracted trying to snap those. I enjoy garter snakes. But the dragonfly is, of course, prettier.

Looks like someone who should be out flying with dinosaurs, doesn’t he? Amazing little creature. Creationists seem to be amazed by them, to – search “dragonfly evolution,” and you’ll see a bunch of creationist sites babbling that dragonflies prove they were created because they haven’t evolved. There’s an edge of hysteria, there. Well, you’d be a little overwrought if you were clinging to a completely wrong position, with evidence that dragonflies did, in fact, evolve from earlier critters and have continued evolving ever since, even if the basics of their body plans have worked well enough that they don’t look vastly different from what they were when they came into their own well over two hundred million years ago. 

I also found out that the state insect of Washington is a dragonfly: the Green Darner. I had no idea we even had state insects. We’ve got state everything, apparently. I wonder what our official state tube sock is?

That’s a pretty outstanding state insect, though. Could’ve been much worse. Could’ve been a cockroach. Instead, we get something brilliant and beautiful and altogether delightful. But one gets the impression that this Common Whitetail is plotting to overthrow the Green Darner.

How else do you explain this pose on a rock that compliments the color of its wings?

If you wish to continue immersing yourself in dragonflies, do visit their page on the Tree of Life. And the next time you get a chance, pause a while with one, and let yourself be carried back to a time when we were nothing more than timorous little shrews while these creatures took to the skies with pterodactyls.

Oh, Yes. Very Frivolous

A while back, our own Chris Rhetts asked me to unlimber the Smack-o-Matic and deliver an epic beatdown. He pointed me to this:

And I watched the trailer:

And I grew very, very angry. Verily, I wished to unleash the Smack-o-Matic upon the deserving. Because, you see, I’d been taken in by that: by the media and the comedians and all the rest who had made bitter fun of the woman who sued McDonald’s for spilling a cup of coffee. None of them ever made any mention of the fact that she’d suffered life-threatening burns in the process. They just laughed: silly wench. She should’ve known better than to spill coffee on herself. What a trivial thing to sue a corporation for.

When the corporation serves its coffee at 180 degrees F – 85% of the boiling point of water – it’s not trivial.

This is how not trivial it is:

Each year, approximately 3,800 injuries and 34 deaths occur in the home due to scalding from excessively hot tap water. The majority of these accidents involve the elderly and children under the age of five. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) urges all users to lower their water heaters to 120 degrees Fahrenheit. In addition to preventing accidents, this decrease in temperature will conserve energy and save money.

Most adults will suffer third-degree burns if exposed to 150 degree water for two seconds. Burns will also occur with a six-second exposure to 140 degree water or with a thirty second exposure to 130 degree water. Even if the temperature is 120 degrees, a five minute exposure could result in third-degree burns. [emphasis added]

Go spill some water on yourself. I guarantee you will be exposed for more than two seconds. Now, imagine that cold water is 180 degrees, and you are elderly, and thus already vulnerable to burns. Look at the wet bits of you, and imagine this is what you see (don’t go below the fold if you can’t handle graphic):

Photo courtesy Brown University

Now imagine that is your face.

Corporations should know basic things like, “Even tap water can kill if it’s over 120 degrees. And even very cautious people can spill things in paper cups.” You would hope they’d then say to themselves, “Maybe we shouldn’t serve our coffee at nearly the boiling point of water, then. Our paying customers might get hurt.”

McDonald’s didn’t follow that train of thought. And when their product nearly killed a woman, they offered her a pittance, and a lot of people banded together to turn her into a laughingstock. People didn’t look at the temperature and the fact that McDonald’s was serving an ultra-hot product without warning that it was far hotter than what people normally expect their hot beverages to be, and their subsequent refusal to do anything approaching decent when the inevitable happened and someone got hurt. No, people just tittered over the fact that a woman had spilled coffee on herself and sued.

Well, she’d nearly died, she was left permanently scarred, but she gave them a chance to make things right. A multi-million dollar lawsuit turned out to be the only language McDonald’s could understand.

Tort reform in a country without meaningful regulations and a way outside of lawsuits for consumers to hold companies accountable for their actions is a sick, evil joke.

So yes, I would love to take the Smack-o-Matic to this subject in some depth, but I don’t get HBO, so I can’t do it in tandem with the documentary. But luckily, people with bigger Smack-o-Matics than mine are all over it. Go. Read.

And the next time someone tries to use an elderly woman’s nightmare as an example of a frivolous lawsuit, tell them that only native decency keeps you from suggesting they spill 180 degree coffee on themselves to prove how trivial it is.

Serpentinite and Cat

Sorry, folks.  The week got away from me, and I haven’t got a Dojo post ready. Besides, Karen wants pics of that delightful chunk of probable serpentinite.

Alas, I missed my chance Sunday. It was baking hot on the porch, I had Aunty Flow’s typical “hi, I’m here!” agony going on, and the weather folks assured me that all would be sweetness and light aside from scattered thunderstorms on Monday. “No problem,” thought I. “Scattered t-storms we can live with. Plenty o’ sunbreaks, I’m sure!”

What the weather folks apparently meant but didn’t state explicitly was, “Thunderstorms scattered through solid gray clouds that will not allow so much as a single stray sunbeam to alight upon your porch. No, not even for a second.”


So we’re going to have to go on with two pics I shot that include the cat, and that do not in any way do justice to the glory that is my chunk of serpentinite, but can be seen as a teaser.

There she is, lying on top of the bits of the glacial erratic I picked off the ground so that I could take them home and break them open and attempt to identify what it’s made of. The rocks from Carkeek are laid out neatly drying. I suppose she believes she’s helping. The serpentinite is that chunk o’ yum right behind her head.

Here she is lying beside my great and glorious chunk of serpentinite, out on the porch. Could’ve gotten a much better shot if I’d been in any condition to crouch, but at this time of the month, movement is severely restricted. Still, you can tell it is beautiful.

The light today is so severely filtered by clouds that the truly magnificent greens and blues of this thing aren’t properly displayed, but I can’t just leave you with mere glimpses. Here’s one taken near the window, with what little light we’ve got:

How amazing is that? Just imagine what actual sunlight does to it!

A macro:

Really, as much as I love my schist, I almost think I love this more. Once the sun comes back at a time when I can take full advantage, we’ll have some truly good pics and a proper write-up on what serpentinite’s all about. As long as this is serpentinite. If anybody suspects it’s not, now would be an excellent time to say so.

And, because I can’t resist:

How happy does she look, eh? Shot that with the zoom from inside the house, so as not to wake her up. In the summer, she spends a fair amount of her time out on the porch, basking in the sun. At least she’s lazy and doesn’t try to climb up on the roof like the neighbor’s cat. I can leave the door open and leave her to do whatever without worrying I’ll have to call in a ladder truck later. True, we get flies, but it’s a small price to pay for such a happy kitteh.