Organic Rocks?

I have in front of me a catalog advertising “Organic Stone Sculptures.”  These “sculptures” are stacks (they call them “cairns”) of five or seven river rocks with steel rods running up through them so they won’t fall apart.  Referring to these things as “sculptures” and “cairns” is stretching both definitions a bit, but “organic” is just plain wrong.

The term organic may mean slightly different things, depending on who is using it.  If a chemist refers to an organic chemical, she means a chemical containing carbon.  If a biologist says something is organic, he means it is alive, or was alive, or was produced by something that is or was alive.  These uses are related, though not exactly the same, as the element carbon, and it’s ability to form chains and rings and other elegant and complex structures is the basis of life on earth.  What the term means when used by the produce manager of your local megamart is less well defined, but is generally accepted to mean grown without synthetic fertilizers and pest controls.  Similarly, “organic” milk comes from cows not fed antibiotics or synthetic hormones.

None of these definitions apply to a stack of river rocks.


The most ironic thing about irony is how many people have no clue what it means.

In watching a program on forensic science (the real stuff, not the CSI franchise’s magic) the sister of the murder victim commented that it was ironic that her sister’s killer was found by science, since the victim was a biology major and interested in forensic science. That isn’t ironic. It is appropriate. It would have been ironic if the victim had been a science denier whose murder was solved by science.

In the continuing melodrama that is crackergate, and I don’t intend to comment extensively on what I consider to be essentially adolescent behavior by all parties (and stupidly adolescent behavior from Donohue et al), The Confraternity of Catholic Clergy has observed that

The Chancellor of the University refused to reprimand or censure the teacher, who ironically is a Biology Professor.

What, exactly, was supposed to be ironic about it? Irony involves contradiction, a discord between words and meaning, or persona and action. As PZ Meyers, the biology professor under discussion, rightly notes in his own blog Pharyngula

There’s nothing ironic about the fact that I’m a biologist, nor did I claim my profession gave me special qualifications to see through the foolishness of faith.

If a Catholic theology professor had desecrated a host in the middle of a lecture on transubstantiation, that would have been ironic, but when an avowedly atheist biology professor does it, in his own home, with no connection to his role as professor, it is deeply offensive to some, and profoundly silly to others, but it is in no way ironic.

It is understandable that the sister of a murder victim, under the pressure of a TV interview, would misuse a word. It is far less unremarkable on the part of a group of supposedly educated men in a statement prepared for publication.

It makes me wonder about the much trumpeted superiority of Catholic education.

It was just a 5.4.

You would think from listening to the national news casts tease the story, that LA had had a major ‘quake.  One tease I heard actually said ‘a major earthquake.’  Come on guys, the fact that your reporters in LA got scared doesn’t make it a major earthquake.  Most of the network reporters assigned to LA are probably not natives, and get scared far too easily, as did our governor with his ‘we dodged a bullet.’

A 5.4 is not a major ‘quake.  It’s barely a small ‘quake.  Nobody got hurt.  There wasn’t even much damage.  Some unreinforced masonry buildings had sections of wall come down, and a few stores had to clean up stuff that spilled.  Not an impressive report.  So what did they report on? how scared everybody was.  They didn’t have any real devastation to report, so they did a number on how psychologically devastating it was, complete with scenes of the people in the Big Brother house freaking out.  When did they become the standard of reasonable and intelligent response?

I loved the scene from the LA city council meeting.  The crowd was all seated, watching the lights swing, not particularly upset, except that they guy with the microphone kept repeating, ‘We’ve got and earthquake — it’s still going,’ as if the people in the room couldn’t figure that out for themselves.  They didn’t start to move out of the room until he repeated ‘it’s an earthquake’ several times, then somebody had to tell them that the building was safe and they shouldn’t leave.

This is California.  It is seismically active.  If you’re going to live here you have to learn to live with it.  Making a big thing of a 5.4 is not going to do anything but make those of us who have lived here long enough to have been through a real ‘major earthquake’ laugh at you.

Oil prices…

…have been going down for the last few days, and I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

I don’t say that because I have oil company stock.  I don’t.  I don’t say that because I have lots of money and don’t care about the price of gas.  I’m not rich, and I do care.  The rising gas prices have screwed up my personal finances just like everyone else.  But anyone who takes global warming seriously, and I do, has to realize that high gas prices are a good thing in the long run.

As H. Beam Piper noted in Space Viking, good things in the long run are often very unpleasant while they are happening.

Skyrocketing gas prices are finally getting people out of SUVs and into fuel efficient cars.  Four-day work weeks are suddenly seeming reasonable to a whole lot of people who sneered at them before.  Mass transit ridership is up, as is telecommuting and college classes over the internet.  All of these things have been advocated for years by people who are concerned about the environment, but it took high gas prices to get people to actually do them.

Will these trends continue if gas prices drop?  My experience says no.  We made some of the same changes during the last oil crisis, and abandoned them as soon as gas was cheap again.  Which is why I am not sure that falling oil prices are a good thing.  If I thought that this was the good scare we needed to break our addiction to oil, then I would be happy to get gas prices back down to where I’m not having to think about how much each trip is costing me in gas, but as a society we are more inclined to turn the oxygen off for a few minutes so we can smoke another cigarette than to actually break our addiction.

I’ve been thinking about this since the prices started going up, but a post by Mike the Mad Biologist brought it to a head.  The post points out that we have been subsidizing cars through road building and maintenance that is not covered by gas taxes, yet people complain about subsidizing mass transit.  We subsidize all transit systems, and it may be time to start looking at total cost in making decisions about what kind of transit gets priority in funding.

And so, my reluctant conclusion that high gas prices may be a good thing in the long run is not entirely based on the schadenfreude I experience watching someone fill the tank on their Hummer.

Light-years ahead

I was only half listening to the radio on the way home, so I don’t know what computer innovation the reporter was gushing about, or even whether he was talking about software or hardware. I didn’t really focus until he referred to it as ‘light-years faster.’


A light-year is a measure of distance, not speed, or time.

Light-seconds, light-minutes, and light-days are also measures of distance, but I never hear them misused on radio and TV, basically because I never hear them used at all. They have not really entered the public consciousness, but everyone who has watched Star Trek has heard of light-years, even if they are rather vague about just what light-years are. They just know that light-years sound sciencey, and are really, really big.

A light-year is the distance light travels in a year. (Light travels at approximately 186, 282 miles/second. Calculation of the number of miles in a light-year is left as an exercise for the student.) You can, indeed, be light-years ahead of the competition, just as you could be miles ahead of the competition, but it would not be due to being light-years faster.

I warn my students about using words they don’t understand because they want to impress people, and it is a warning reporters should also heed.


…is not a word. Neither is theirself, or theirselves, nor is it correct if you turn it into two words — their selves — though spell-check will be happy with that.

I suppose there is an apparent consistency to it. Myself and herself seem to be formed out of the possessive, which would make hisself and theirselves seem to make sense, But her, the objective form, not hers, the possessive, is the root of herself, and myself is a vowel shift from meself, which you can still hear in some dialects.

Reflexive pronouns, which is what you call these things, form from the objective — himself, herself, themselves.

But even well educated people, who would never make those errors, misuse reflexive pronouns. “Please give your response forms to Mr. Jones or myself at the end of the presentation.” Wrong. That should be “… to Mr. Jones or me…” This is mostly Mr. Jones’s fault. The speaker wouldn’t have said “to myself” if there hadn’t been someone else in the sentence; they would automatically have said “to me.” Reflexive pronouns should never appear without a pronoun to refer to. “I” has to appear somewhere in the sentence before you can use “myself” — “I did it all by myself.” Similarly “she” needs to be in the sentence before “herself”, “he” before “himself”, and “they” before “themselves.”

Unless you are a Celt referring to your chieftain, in which case Himself (or presumably Herself) becomes a title/name and is treated as such.