Sunday, January 27, 2008

Warning: music content!

This weekend, I had an opportunity that increasingly fewer people get over time - to have an original composition of mine performed by a full symphonic orchestra. The more instrumentalists any given piece calls for, the harder it is to pull the necessary people together for a performance, and many orchestras know their programs at least a season in advance and have little interest in unsolicited scores by trying-to-make-it composers. This is why I feel extremely fortunate that the conductor of the university orchestra in which I play viola asked me if I'd written any pieces that the group could play.

I had exactly one piece. Every single one of my other pieces is chamber music - far more practical in terms of getting things performed. The only reason I'd written an orchestral piece at all was that the conductor of the non-music-major orchestra where I went to undergrad said, "If you write us a piece, we'll play it." I wrote the piece in the course of about ten days in 2005, and to cut a long story short, the orchestra for which it was written didn't play it after all. I was devastated at the time, and set the thing aside as a lost cause, but I was glad to dig it back out for another chance at a performance.

The rehearsal process was quite stressful, between bad intonation and gaps in the woodwind and brass sections that weren't filled until the week of the concert. But for all the things that went wrong in rehearsal and could have continued to go wrong, I ended up with two very solid and energetic performances, and a very positive response from both the audience and the orchestra.

I was pleased with how it went and glad that I had the opportunity, but at the same time, I never got particularly excited about the performances. I felt surprisingly indifferent about it for much of the rehearsal cycle, and barely told anyone that it was happening. I think this was in part due to the fact that I can write (and have written) better pieces than that one, and that it's not really the most representative piece for my whole body of work. But I also know that a lot of this detachment comes from my knowing I'm not continuing in that field after this year. My questioning the institution of Western Art Music and the role of the Academic Composer has been a long process, but the real paradigm shift (and the realization that I really didn't enjoy being in that field, and decision that I actually wanted to switch to formally studying earth science rather than casually observing) happened this past summer. This was the first performance of one of my compositions since then. If anything, the stress of the rehearsals only emphasized my feelings of not wanting to do this anymore.

I think I did a good enough job of acting the part of the capital-C Composer for the weekend, though. With all sorts of orchestra members, friends, and audience people I've never seen before in my life coming up to me and saying things like, "You must feel so proud," or, "I loved your piece," or, "Let me know when something else of yours is going to be played," I couldn't exactly tell them, "Actually, I have decided I don't want to be a professional musician and would much rather compose for fun, without pressure, deadlines, or institutional expectations," or with, "I spent about two thirds of the time I was playing the piece thinking about what would happen if the San Andreas Fault ruptured during the show." I just thanked them graciously and smilingly. And I really was glad that so many people liked it, and that the performance went so well. It was by no means a hateful experience, just an uncomfortable one.

Particularly uncomfortable were the questions of, "What are you going to do after you get your Master's this June?" I was able to dodge the real answer to this one by saying that I might be going to Java this summer; I didn't want to say I'm switching academic paths in favor of seismology, most prominently because I still haven't received that official letter yet, and there are people in the music department that I'm not planning on telling until I have that letter in my hand. Not to mention it might not be the most appropriate revelation to make right after such a musical success. I tried to explain how I was feeling to one of the bass players in the orchestra (who happens to be a physicist), and he kept telling me how I should stick to it through periods of disenchantment and find a thing in the study of music to latch onto and make it fun again, because he thinks I am a Natural Musician and a Good Composer and he likes playing my stuff. All very kind words of genuine encouragement, and then I would have felt like I was shooting him down to say, "I really don't want to find something to latch back onto in this field, and I'm planning on studying seismology instead, because it interests and excites me far more as an academic field and career path." And I also felt that if I'd said that, people would have tried to convince me not to - attempting to discourage me from a decision about which I really feel good because they liked a piece I wrote several years ago.

I also really don't like that I'm feeling so down over this right now. It really was a good performance, and it's not a bad piece either. Right after we finished playing, before I had to actually talk to people about the thing, I felt really truly happy, and that I had indeed accomplished something to be proud of. It's not something that's even slightly making me reconsider my decision to switch fields, but it's definitely the kind of thing I'm glad to have under my belt before that switch officially happens.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Nevada Beachfront

When I told my friends on the East Coast that I was moving out to California for grad school, many of them responded with comments like, "Please move back east before California falls into the ocean," or, "Be sure to buy a life vest once you're out there!" When I explained in turn that there was no such danger, illustrated with highly-technical sliding of hands past each other to explain the term "strike slip," most of those friends then told me that I was taking them way too seriously on their comments. One, however, still told me not to jump on the San Andreas Fault, just in case.

The fact that this came up in casual conversation with so many people, even on the East Coast, is only a small sign of how pervasive this misconception is. It's become a part of pop culture even more than it's something people actually worry about - well, I certainly hope it's more pop culture than genuine belief, but that would be a hard thing to gauge, and my circle of nerdy friends is probably not the best place to calculate such things. A quick Google search for "California fall into ocean" reveals all too many sites, some of which are those user-asks-question-another-user-answers database sorts of things, which assert that a big splashdown is imminent (this makes one wonder about the credibility of the other information on those question sites). And friend of mine did tell me recently that one of his relatives moved out of California after Northridge and bought a map with the supposed new West Coastline of the United States. One also has to wonder if that map was drawn as a joke, or if the mapmaker is hoping to use those funds from the maps to move away from the supposed sinking slab.

In some ways, the concept of the entirety of California going down doesn't seem too far fetched. This is, after all, a state that routinely has hundreds of square miles catch on fire, where even a moderate amount of rain sends people out sandbagging to curb any neighborhood-demolishing debris flows, where even not-The-Big-One can pancake high rises every decade or so. Not to mention those extremely-poorly-placed beach clifftop houses that do tend to surf the mass wasting events and wipe out in the water. It doesn't seem strange at all that an active imagination used to seeing such stories on the news might extrapolate to an even larger-scale disaster. No matter how much that thought may worry the imaginer, it only becomes truly troublesome when the actual science that disproves the myth gets ignored.

The California falling into the ocean myth actually predates much of the science that disproves it. Though I haven't been able to find any specific date or single source for the origin of this misconception, I have seen references to it in relation to the 1906 San Francisco quake. Following that temblor, all sorts of exaggerated "news" stories wired across the country, including one that the strong shaking had brought the ground under San Francisco down along with the city's buildings; this story quickly expanded to encompass all of California going under. When the San Andreas Fault was eventually blamed for the temblor and mapped out as extending through most of the state, the potential for more earthquakes and the clear line of breakage could have only fed the thought among the non-scientifically-inclined.
(This leads to a sub-misconception. Every version of the story I've seen cites the San Andreas as the line on which the break will occur, but many seem, well, shaky on where the Fault actually is. Some put it as the geographical line that separates California from Nevada. A great many other retellings of the story say that Los Angeles in particular will be swimming with the fishes, with no particular mention of San Francisco, San Diego, or especially not San Bernardino going along with it.)

The best way to fend this one off is, I think, better geology classes earlier on in school. None of this waiting until 12th grade to take a senior “slacker class” business – that’s more than enough time for the conspiracy theorists to get to someone. I don’t think any basic part of this misconception is too complicated to explain to someone in, say, middle school, if not even earlier.

But for all I hope people stop actually believing that California really is going to break off at the San Andreas Fault during a major earthquake and fall into the ocean, I would be sad if the idea faded away from the silly pop culture side of things. Without this myth, there wouldn’t have been those gloriously terrible sequences at the climax of the 1978 Superman movie, in which Lex Luthor implodes the Carrizo Plain section of the fault (highlighting another Faults Don’t Work That Way myth), then Superman flies inside the magma-ridden(!) crevasse to fix it, prompting the exact same footage of the collapse to be shown in reverse. Nor could that popular “End of the World” flash cartoon (NSFW for four-letter words) have gone quite as far with the silliness as it did. And this story has also prompted its fair share of songs, from Tool’s angry-good-riddance "Aenima" (also language NSFW), to Cass Elliott’s happy-good-riddance "California Earthquake", and the more obscure LA-based Little Girls’ perfect parody on SoCal surf tune style "Earthquake Song". Once people can recognize misconceptions as nothing more than that, why not have fun with them?

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Box Springs Mountains

The Box Springs is not a large mountain range, but its location, not its size, makes it a fairly prominent feature in inland southern California. It juts up in the middle of the Inland Empire, separating Riverside from Moreno Valley from Loma Linda and Redlands, about halfway between the San Bernardino Mountains, separating suburbia from the desert, to the Santa Ana Mountains, beyond which lies the alternate dimension that is Orange County. It is not a particularly unusual range compositionally, consisting mostly of granite and granodiorite, with some diorite, that was uplifted by faulting. It is a good place to introduce people to igneous rocks in the field (all of the Geo1 classes here go into the Box Springs for one lab), and it has some nice examples of granitic pegmatites and of weathering by lots of wind and not much rain.

The Box Springs also happens to be the backdrop to our campus, marked with a huge concrete yellow C that's a common destination for hikers when the weather is temperate. Considering that the street on which I live goes right up to the base of the mountain, there's really no excuse for why I've only gone up a couple of times. A couple of my friends from the Javanese gamelan ensemble in which I play felt like going hiking today, so we headed up there - only my third time ever.

Today's hike pointed out what I personally think might be the most geologically interesting thing about the Box Springs - the view. Because the range is fairly central, on even a moderately smoggy day (but not a day on which the whole region is on fire), one can see many of the large scale features of the area. The San Jacinto Fault runs through the Box Springs, so looking down the length of the range (and following that same line to the northwest, past the last peak) shows the location of that fault. Looking north from the big concrete C, there's a fantastic view of Mt. Baldy, the highest point in the San Gabriel Mountains. At the base of those mountains, one can see a little bit of alluvial fan patterning before suburbia encroaches on the slope. Looking in this direction, the notch of the Cajon Pass, where the San Andreas Fault pulls the darker San Gabriels past the fainter San Bernardinos, is also clearly visible. From here, looking to the west shows the line of the Santa Ana mountains, with the Elsinore Fault tracing along their base. On the loop of the trail we took that went between two of the peaks, we got an excellent look at the San Bernardinos and their San Andreas straight base from the Cajon Pass to where one of the Box Springs peaks blocked the view. There were some other trails heading down around that peak that we didn't take, but I'd like to go down that way some time, since I can at least hope that the whole straight section until the fault hits the San Gorgonio knot could be seen from up there.

(I'd post photos, except none of them came out terribly well due to distance and encroaching smog. Bah!)

I tried to refrain from going on and on about how awesome I found it to be able to see all these major features in panorama from the middle, since I figured not all ethnomusicologists or composers would find this as exciting as I do. But as soon as one of my friends' attention was pulled in by the shininess of k-spar in a pegmatite, and as soon as she asked me what it was, all bets were off, and I kept pointing things out. The comment that, "I had no idea this stuff could be so interesting," was all the reason to keep talking.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

My aftershocks: let me show you them.

I think I'm going to feel anxious about my application to our Earthquake Physics program until I get that official letter, no matter how many good signs I'm getting from people. So far, nobody has said or done anything that leads me to believe I won't be getting in - quite the contrary, really. I don't think a department expecting to reject someone would keep inviting that person to participate in departmental events and discussions, nor would someone on the application committee, when passing me in the hall, go, "We looked at your application today," and give a big grin and a thumbs up. And yet I am still nervous, and have a couple of weeks to go before I get that letter. Ahhh!

One of the departmental functions in which I have been invited to participate is Journal Club. Every Thursday, the EP faculty and graduate students meet to discuss recent research related to a specific theme (this quarter's is earthquake prediction) - this alternates between one person choosing a bigger article which we all read and discuss, or three people presenting shorter articles of interest from a particular journal they've been assigned. I've even been assigned a journal to search; everyone figured Nature would be a good place to start, since it's written to be understood by scientists of all types, not just insiders.

The first meeting of the quarter was this Thursday (I would have written about it that evening if my hard drive hadn't thought Wednesday night would be a fine time to die). We all read an article from Journal of Geophysical Research by K.F. Tiampo, J.B. Rundle, S. McGinnis, S.J. Gross, and W. Klein called "Eigenpatterns in southern California seismicity."

I had an immediate uh oh moment due to not understanding the very first word of that title, but I looked it up and forged ahead with reading anyway. I found it pretty hard to wade through much of the text as well, due in part to some terminology issues, but also because there were a lot of cases of them using really elaborate and circuitous phrasing to describe something not particularly complicated. Basically, what they did was take the catalog of southern California earthquakes and plug it into a computer program that checked, for any given location that has an earthquake on any given day, where else in the region tends to have quakes on the same day (and where else tends to have fewer quakes than usual on that day). Considering the types of patterns they were trying to pick out, one would expect the terms "aftershock," "triggered slip," and "stress change" to turn up a lot, but they really didn't.

But even with my not understanding all of the terminology or the specifics of the method, I was still able to pick up on plenty of hints that this paper is full of it. For one, there were some outright factual errors. There were repeated instances of the Joshua Tree-Landers-Big Bear sequence as having happened in 1991 rather than 1992, which is bad enough in itself, but becomes even more worrisome considering that the arbitrary cutoff date for some of the calculations was the end of 1991. It didn't look like Landers was included in those figures, but some were not so clear. There were also generalizations/assumptions in the paper. The authors stated that Parkfield quakes happen every 22 years, like clockwork, not that the average is 22 years. Big difference! And such statements do not credibility make. Another red flag came up very early in the article, when the authors stated that their goal was to identify "all possible space-time seismicity configurations." All possible? That's lofty and ambitious, particularly when they only have some sixty years of data to work with. You certainly can't come up with all possible patterns in such a small chunk of geological time, particularly not when most of the major faults in the area did not have a major rupture in that span (one would think they'd want to get the San Andreas in on their predictions), nor when there are who knows how many as-of-yet-undiscovered thrust faults whose current inactivity also puts them out of the calculation. I think "all possible" would be impossible even with much more data than this study used, so the fact that they've even aimed for it seems pretty ridiculous. Lastly, when events below magnitude 3.0 were taken out of the picture, or when the time interval they were using to check correspondence was changed, the results came out completely different from each other, a far cry from hard and fast prediction rules.

I came to the Thursday discussion with my low opinion of the article, but I also decided I wasn't going to say anything if everyone else didn't have a problem with the article. I was admittedly quite worried that I was completely off base, but those worries went away when the professor presenting the article started with, "I'm going to present this paper, or at least the parts that I understood." Turns out that everyone else thought the paper was full of it as well, so I felt much better about my reading/comprehension skills and participated in the discussion after all. People pointed out even more inconsistencies and problems, including some tweaking of the scale on the last couple of diagrams to make the results look more significant. We all agreed, though, that the paper would have gotten on our nerves much less if the authors had said, "We tried this method and found no correlation," rather than trying to make a big deal out of a couple thousandths of a percent. No correlation is a perfectly legitimate result to an experiment. Disappointing, certainly, but legitimate. But I guess that's not the sort of result that draws the mainstream media toward your ZOMG Earthquake Predictiashun Breakthrough, and apparently Tiampo et al got a decent share of attention for this paper, so there we go.

Next week is one of the sessions in which three people share shorter articles. It's not my turn yet, since I figured I ought to hold off until I see how it works, but I may volunteer for two weeks after that.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

On laptop accelerometers

I'm afraid I can't remember in whose blog I saw a link to SeisMac, a piece of freeware that uses the accelerometer built in to Intel Mac laptops to "convert" the computer into a seismometer. I do recall, though, how geekishly excited about the idea of that software I was, and then how disappointed I was when all of the times I tried to download it resulted in error messages. But now it seems that I'll be getting a chance to run some similar software on my MacBook after all.

It turns out that one of my professors is working on a project that aims to take laptop accelerometer readings beyond just a neat thing to watch on your screen, a fantastic procrastination tool, or a means for comparing the waveforms of actual earthquakes to the jolts caused by an overenthusiastic upstairs neighbor getting too involved in Wii Tennis (not that I have experience with such neighbors, of course not...). The software being developed for the Quake-Catcher Network will take that laptop accelerometer data and use it to help narrow in on epicenter locations, map shaking, and even give some degree of early warning for larger events. For people who only have desktops or whose laptop is too old to have a built in sensor, the project also involves development of a flash drive-sized USB accelerometer. (Even though my only computer is a laptop, I kind of want one of the USB accelerometers anyway, simply because the concept of carrying around seismic instruments on one's keychain makes me geekishly happy.)

The software is nearing the point where it will be tested by larger groups of people than just the developers, and even though I'm not technically admitted to the program here yet, I still get to help with that test. I'm sure I'll be writing more about how that goes once it gets started.

Another aspect I find particularly exciting about QCN is that there have been plans to use it for education from the get go. This should definitely show students (and non-geoscience-specific teachers) a side of California's chronic shakiness that they haven't seen before, which will hopefully in turn increase general awareness of how earthquakes happen and how seismic networks work, and maybe even prompt a few people to go on to formally study this stuff. I get the impression both from my own K-12 experience in northern Virginia and from talking with people in California that earth science is not considered by whoever comes up with the curriculim to be as serious of a science as biology, chemistry, or physics. In Virginia, there's an earth science unit in fifth grade science, and then a year-long basic geoscience class in high school (which, at the science and tech magnet high school I attended, was outright considered a joke class by most of the students); the other day, I was told that fifth grade is the only time some parts of California have earth science in the public school curriculum. I find it very strange that a state with little to no active geological processes would teach more than a state known for its earthquakes, mudslides, and fires, but at the same time, I'm not surprised based on some responses in the introductory geology class I took in university - only about a quarter of the class knew what the San Andreas Fault was (they'd heard the name, but couldn't explain what it actually is), never mind that it's only twelve miles from campus. Ideally, the curriculum will be expanded sooner than later to include more geoscience, but it seems to me that things like the QCN software used in schools will make the limited study that there is now more hands-on and meaningful.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Enter the Newbie

I've been poking around the geoblogosphere for a while, first as a silent reader, then as a sparse commenter describing myself as a "blogless newbie." I've enjoyed watching this internet discourse, and I have definitely learned a lot about both the science and the academic profession from reading all these different perspectives. The more I read online and the more I learn both here and in class, the more I've felt I wanted to say and the more I've wanted to talk geo-nerdy with people rather than just reading, so I'm making good on a New Year's resolution to do away with the "blogless" part of my self-description and engage a little more. Sure, I'm technically nine days late for a proper resolution, but the fact that today's the anniversary of the Fort Tejon earthquake has to count for something, right?

The "newbie" part of the description, however, is definitely still in place. I'm not just new to blogging, but new to studying the earth sciences as well. Despite the fact that I've been interested in earthquakes and volcanoes since I was very little (and safely away from those things, living on the east coast of the US), I didn't entertain the idea of professionally studying them until fairly recently. I moved to California to work on a Master's in music composition, and that persistent interest in things geological prompted me to start reading more seriously about earthquakes and faults, as I felt I should know about them if I was to be living near them. The more I read - in the popular science realm though it was - the more my interest was reinforced and the more I wanted to know. I want to understand things well beyond those popular science books, and I'm finding those unanswered questions to be far more compelling and interesting than just reading what people already do know. At the same time, I'm growing increasingly disenchanted with music academia and don't see myself as continuing to enjoy the music itself if I continue to study it in the way I have been. I've therefore started taking geology classes while working on my music thesis, and have applied to formally study seismology after finishing my MA this spring. I'm getting good impressions about admissions from the department where I currently go to school - they've been inviting me to participate in all sorts of department events since I expressed interest - though I'm trying not to get my hopes up too high because of my unusual background. At the time being, I'm particularly interested in the interactions between faults, though I'm still too early into my studies to narrow it down to a specific focus or methodology within that. (I realize that's not in line with the decidedly volcanic title of this blog, but it seemed like the obvious term for a wannabe seismologist with a music background to use!)

And so here's my blog. I'm looking forward to getting more involved in the geoblogosphere, and I can hope that I'll eventually be posting things on par with the insightful, original, and exciting discourse I've been reading thus far.