Thursday, December 25, 2008

AGU 2008

...or, How I Psyched Myself Out, 1906-Style

I have finally recovered from the conference-excitement-lack-of-sleep, the redeye flight, the jetlag, and the frantic preparations for a certain winter holiday. Now it is time for the belated Conference Post! I'm going to do AGU all in one go, since my attempt to day-by-day blog SCEC failed worse than an unreenforced masonry building in a 7.8 quake. One of my resolutions for 2009 is to be better about posting more things in a more timely manner - and about commenting more on all of your posts as well!

Monday, 15 December
My flight from Ontario (California) left at a perfectly sane 9 AM, but I was kind of stupid and spent three hours on the 14th playing bluegrass music with friends, then realized that I still had to pack and get everything ready. The end result was that I only got about three hours of sleep, between late bedtime, not sleeping well due to excitement, and having to get up at 6 to catch the airport shuttle. Despite crappy weather, there were no problems getting to Oakland by air, and then by BART to San Francisco proper. My main thought after checking in was food, though, and I was able to meet up with friends from school for this reason. Upon looking at the schedule, we realized that none of the talks that afternoon were all that relevant to our own research, so we decided to take the afternoon and be lazy zombie tourists and go stare at the sea lions at Fisherman's Wharf. The sea lions are awesome. I think that if I lived in San Francisco, I would still go down there to watch the sea lions. By the time we were done there, it was late enough that I could check into the hotel. This was exciting, because happened to be having a huge rate sale on a particular historic place the day I was checking rates for AGU. I therefore got to stay at The Palace, established 1875, which managed to not shake down in 1906, even though the fire still gutted it. It was rebuilt in time for a 1908 reopening, and the interior is still very different from modern hotels. It really felt like staying in a different time, particularly since there was no internet in the room and I was thereby cut off from my little white lifeline to the intarwebz/modern world. I was utterly thrilled by this notion of antiquity, even though I think it ended up psyching me out a little.

Tuesday, 16 December
The psyching out started immediately. I'd set my alarm for 7 AM, but I woke up at 5:10, and couldn't fall asleep again until the clock had gone past 5:12 - which was the exact time of the 1906 quake. At least I did fall back asleep, and I was excited enough about going to sessions that waking up at 7 wasn't hard. My first order of business, though, was to help set up the UCR booth in the exhibition hall. My adviser had sent me to SF with a suitcase full of propaganda, a banner, and a string with which to somehow put up said banner. I wasn't quite sure how to set this up, and after much frustration, the kind people at the Rice booth took pity on me and gave me velcro, which worked. After everything was set up, I went to a session on fault zone evolution through the seismic cycle that gave me a bunch of ideas for things to look into/possible directions to go once I've entered into Dissertationland. Sure, I'm still in Thesisville, but the more ideas the better for later! I met up with my adviser and his other student for lunch, and we discussed those ideas, as well as some work on tsunamis I might be helping with this coming winter. On Tuesday afternoon, I went to a session on earthquake faulting, which turned out to be much more about using waves to characterize/outline fault zones than about fault mechanics. This meant I didn't get nearly as many ideas for my own work as I had from the morning session, but it did fill me in on some of the background I don't have, so it was still a very useful thing. I spent the later session on Tuesday browsing the exhibit hall (and picking up all kinds of stuff, and doing such things as finally joining the Seismological Society of America). The evening was filled with having dessert before dinner, then celebrating the birthday of a friend who was also at the conference, and who is abandoning Riverside for Winnipeg. I will assure her here, as in person, that polar bears will not eat her during her fieldwork.

Wednesday, 17 December
I woke up at 4:31 AM. Though it was early, I was initially glad, since I thought the psyching out had only lasted one day. Then I remembered that the Northridge quake was at 4:31 AM, and it was on the 17th of the month (though January rather than December), and I felt like punching my subconscious in the face. At least I was able to get back to sleep this time as well, and to wake up just fine at 7. I spent the first part of the morning at the UCR booth, which managed to attract no visitors whatsoever while I was sitting there. None of the other school booths seemed to have much attention either, probably because they stuck us all in the back, but it was still kind of lame. The second half of the morning was spent in a session on earthquake simulators, which covered different types of code people were developing to run individual quake simulations, as well as longer-term whole-California multi-cycle simulators. One of these talks involved a state-wide simulator and the phrase, "This starts with the Hayward Fault going in 2008." There was nervous laughter. Would it not be a worst-case scenario not just for that fault to go, but for it to go while all of the people who study quakes are in a place that would be hit hard? Yikes! I noticed one Andrew Alden standing behind me during this session, but I didn't want to turn around and mention that I knew him from Teh Intarwebz mid-session. He left before I could catch him and say hi. I managed to miss the first afternoon session (I'd planned on going to one on earthquake strong motion) because it took so long to find a restaurant without a line, then to still wait and eat, then to go drop off/pick up stuff in my room. I did make it back for the 4 PM session on fault simulations, but this also wasn't want I expected - it was mostly lab friction experiments, the highlight of which unrealistically involved melt spewing out of a rotary fault plane.
There was one thing about Wednesday that I'd been eagerly awaiting from the beginning of the conference, if not earlier - namely, the geoblogger meetup at the Thirsty Bear. I'd read about this meetup last year, before I'd started my own blog, before I'd been accepted in to the geophysics program. I wanted to be there and meet you guys, and I'm so glad I got to this year! It was great to meet Kim, Ron, Lee, David, Dave, Jay, and Sciencewoman in person; we talked about all kinds of things, from which people in our respective parts of the field should be known to people outside the field, to where are good places for gigapanning, to what should or shouldn't be put in a blog. Ron posted photographic evidence and more details here.

Thursday, 18 December
I woke up at 5:20 and immediately thought, "Yes, progress!" before going back to sleep. I was pretty much a slacker about attending things on Thursday morning, too. I did at least cruise through the poster hall to look over the tectonophysics posters on understanding strike-slip fault systems, and some of the seismology posters on laboratory fault experiments. The best part about this was a few posters on the Garlock fault, its geometry, and the possible stress conditions that could have led to its formation and current state of motion/slip. We sort of had a little Garlock fanclub going in that corner as we discussed these things, and I came out of that with another set of ideas for Dissertationland. After this, I went to lunch with my friend who's abandoning SoCal for the Great White North, and I kept giving her crap about the souvenir San Francisco thermometer in the chocolate store might be a good reminder of California, but it didn't go low enough for where she was headed. She also admitted she'd rather be eaten by a sea lion than by a polar bear. Thursday afternoon made up for my morning slackerness, though; all of the fault dynamics seismology talks were that afternoon, as well as the strike-slip system tectonophysics talks, and in some cases, I was torn over which talk I wanted to hear more. Not fair, I say, putting the two most relevant sessions to my work at exactly the same time! I ended up running back and forth between these two sessions quite a bit, and I think I made good choices for the specific talks, because both Thesisville and Dissertationland received many new idea-inhabitants. A friend of mine who was a SCEC intern at UCR over the summer had a talk during the latter seismology session - her first ever conference talk - and she did a particularly good job and received good questions. For this resounding success, as well as the success of one of our department's undergrads at her Wednesday poster session and at my impending Friday morning session, we (three students, plus my adviser and a friend of his from a nearby school) went into Chinatown and had dinner at a fantastic restaurant called House of Nanking. My adviser's friend told the waitress to hit us with the kitchen's best shot, and they kept bringing out plate after plate of delicious food. I highly recommend this place, though I don't remember the specific address. I just know it's on Kearny, and on the left, if you're walking from Market. On the walk back after dinner, we got a UCR fault dynamics lab photo at Lotta's Fountain, which is the site of the yearly 1906 anniversary ceremony.
I'm the short one with the seismogram sweatshirt.

Friday, 19 January
I woke up at what felt like early, but was frustrated and refused to open my eyes for a few seconds. Finally, though, morbid curiosity gave in, and I opened my eyes just in time to see the clock switch from 5:12 to 5:13. Curses! I only got to sleep for another hour after that, because I had to be at the Moscone Center by 7:30 to put up my poster. I was initially worried, since they'd given me a Friday morning session, that most people would have left, but the hall ended up being as packed as it was earlier in the week. I'd put up a sign saying I'd be at the poster from 8 to 10, but so many people came by with good suggestions and input and thoughts and questions that I ended up staying and discussing until 11:15, and the only reason I left then was because I had to check out of the hotel. Almost all of the input was positive (the one negative response was along the lines of, "I don't see what this research is for," rather than "you suck and this is stupid"), and I came out of the session with more specific ideas of what I am going to do immediately next, before writing up this paper, as soon as winter break is over and I'm back in the lab. It also did a lot for my confidence - while I feel like I'm doing good work, and people in my department have said so, I still have a serious nagging confidence issue directly related to my background in music. People saying they wanted to keep in touch on the progress of my work was awesomely encouraging, as was the fact that some of the main people who work on fault geometry issues told me that I had impressive results for just one quarter of grad school so far. The music issue only even came up with one person, and he was pretty much floored when I told him. A couple more conferences like that, and I think I'll have squished the lack-of-confidence issue pretty well. After checking out of the hotel, I had lunch and coffee with a friend who's a geophysics undergrad at Berkeley; he wasn't attending AGU, but he came across the Bay to hang out, which was a lot of fun. We had very nerdy conversations, walked around a lot, and he made a point to show me some buildings that still had very obvious 1906 burn marks. For all I've read about that quake, for all the photos I've seen, seeing the scars in person drives it home all that much more. Once he left, I spent the last part of the afternoon in the poster room, hovering near mine (though I had no more visitors) and skimming others that I hadn't had a chance to check out in the morning. I was actually pretty sad when it came time to finally take the poster down and head out, since I'd enjoyed myself and learned so much in those five crazy busy days. At least I didn't have to leave the City yet, though; I hadn't managed to get a flight to Washington DC (where my family lives) until the 20th, so I had a whole other day, even though I had to relocate to a different hotel in Millbrae.

Saturday, 20 December
I woke up and the clock said 5:12. Even removed from The Palace, it continues! Ahhhh! I was free to not set alarms and be generally leisurely that morning, though, but even without deadlines, I still was on BART back into San Francisco by 10 AM. I spent the entire day just wandering around the City on foot - along the Embarcadero, stopping for lunch at Fisherman's Wharf (and spending more time watching the sea lions, of course), then taking the streetcar back into the financial district and wandering up and down many of the streets. I was trying to find as much 1906 as I could - that is, buildings that had withstood the storm, or those that were proud to proclaim they were among the first ones to be rebuilt. I found quite a few. Some of them, like the Hotel St. Francis or the Flood Building, were ones that I knew specifically to look for, but I came across just as many by accident. They're in there among all the newer buildings, integrated into a city that's beautifully eclectic, speaking loudly of a history from which they recovered but cannot - and should not - escape. They show that San Francisco could take what was thrown at it, and if it could be that strong then - even with the lack of scientific knowledge, and with the bad handling of certain aspects of the recovery effort - it will hopefully be as strong the next time. And there will be a next time, which struck me as sadder than ever after spending a week in San Francisco. I couldn't help but visualize walking down the devastated streets of the historic photos, with the jagged broken brickwork against a dusted-out blue sky, all the while I was glad for being in the solid modern city. Thinking about that, and walking past Lotta's Fountain and the burn-scarred DeYoung building every day on the way to the Moscone Center, made the concept of leaving San Francisco even harder. Some part of me worried - irrationally, I hope - that it might be gone before I could go back. I admit to almost having cried, thinking both about 1906 and about having to leave. But leaving had to happen, and I took BART to the airport, had stupid layover in LAX (worst airport EVER), and red-eyed it over to Washington DC, where I am now.

And so it was a great first AGU. I got so much out of it - from the insight and background into all things earthquake, to specific ideas for my own research, to meeting all kinds of awesome and interesting people, to the realization that I totally want to live in San Francisco some day. I already look forward to next year!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Geological Morbid Curiosity

I completely failed to feel a magnitude 5.1 earthquake last night. A paleoclimatologist friend and I were at one of those paint your own pottery places making holiday gifts for relatives, and the only way we found out about the quake there, in absence of the internet, was a USGS text message and another message from an ethnomusicologist friend asking if I'd felt it. The quake was out near Ludlow, in the middle of the Mojave, a good 80 miles from Riverside. I was impressed that people here felt it at all, especially with all the faults and mountains between here and there, but apparently several thousand people still did. I was admittedly extremely disappointed by this, and kept harping on about it for the entire night.

My harping about not feeling it led to discussion of things we have experienced. While I can talk of bad Virginia winters (blizzards of '93 and '96, hideous ice storms of '94), my paleoclimatologist friend described her experiences with the Landers and Northridge earthquakes. Despite knowing full well the damage and injury that these earthquakes caused, I realized I was actually jealous that she'd been there and I was stuck on the east coast. I guess this explains why I'm a seismologist, huh?

And then, the conversation turned to the matter of whether or not all people who study active and potentially dangerous processes have some morbidly curious internal (or open) desire to experience that major dangerous process in person. It's not that we want to have anything to do with the loss of life and property that would come out of disastrous process of choice; some of the work we do is to try and avoid that loss! It's just curiosity about the actual process, and about wanting to know how much of the hypothesizing and modeling in our work would be comparable to the real thing.

My friend admitted that she's intensely curious to see what would happen if a large part of the Greenland ice sheet catastrophically collapsed into the ocean. And I admitted in turn that, even while being scared by that video of simulated wave propagation for the ShakeOut scenario, part of me does want to be here when the next Big One rips the San Andreas. I certainly would be terribly depressed to see that degree of earthquake damage up close - I wouldn't wish it on anyone even on my crankiest nastiest of sleep-deprived days, and I wouldn't want to experience the damage myself. The photos from 1906 that so fascinate me do so partly (even largely) because they're an unimaginable sort of horror. But yet, I admit to being extremely curious about what that degree of close-up shaking would feel like, and I'd love to see the surface rupture, and I'd particularly love to get a look at all the data that would come out of such a quake.

Do any of you geobloggers (or other readers) share this sort of morbid curiosity? If there were some assurance that your major/sudden/cataclysmic geologic process of choice wouldn't hurt anyone, or that you'd get to experience on a version of Earth otherwise devoid of civilization except for yourself, what do you have to admit you'd like to be there for?

Or are my friend and I the only ones, which makes us perhaps uncomfortably weird?