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All Your Vowell Are Belong To Us

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Starting today, “using existing geostationary satellites, Outernet will broadcast a signal that will contain, in this early test phase, Project Gutenberg literature, Wikipedia articles, and news from Deutsche Welle. In a world where only 35.5% of humanity has access to the information on the Internet, this marks an enormous step towards universal information access. All Outernet content is available for free to anyone who wants it. Users are invited to contribute to Outernet’s open source software and open hardware. Outernet has released details on how to assemble a receiver to access the Outernet signal, available on their website.”

This is a revolutionary endeavor that combines free data, open source, global information equality and cheap-open hardware, and I am proud that Project Gutenberg is a part of it. As Greg Newby, Director of the Project Gutenberg Literary Archive Foundation, says, “Outernet has a vision that is wonderfully aligned with Project Gutenberg, encompassing free access, freedom from censorship and monitoring, and unlimited distribution.”

To learn more about Outernet, how it works, its reach and how to build your own receiver, check out these resources:

Outernet: Information for the World from Outer Space

Outernet explained: Broadcasting the content of the Web [L.A. Times]

The contents of the internet, via satellite [Marketplace]

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The Wasatch Front

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“When you push the leading edge of analysis, you risk giving away proprietary information.” – a manager at almost every science-technology company today

vs.

“Tesla knows that its best chance of dominating a large electric vehicle industry depends on there being a large electric vehicle industry.” – Matt Hall on Tesla’s decision to share its patents

All my life, I have been a great lover of science, gadgets and books. Little did I fathom as a kid that these things would be controlled one day not by scientists, authors and creators, but by corporate attorneys, publishing houses, for-profit scientific societies, government representatives in the pay of narrow interests and shareholders.

Now, as a corporate oil and gas geoscientist, board member of Project Gutenberg and human, I am increasingly negatively impacted by “proprietary,” “copyright,” “patented” and “intellectual property.” In two graduate programs and three different companies, I’ve worked on groundbreaking and impactful projects, but very little of it is known outside of that immediate circle of colleagues. Be it new findings and interdisciplinary collaborations in structural geology, 3D visualization, mature oilfield development, geospatial research or frontier oil exploration, I’ve asked to publish and the response has always been the same: An edict from the research institution or senior management that publishing on this topic is only possible if official channels of management/partners/government/lawyers approve it. Once past The Process, the manuscript takes a few years to make it to press in a limited-access journal to which few in the public have access.

Elsewhere, the fight against copyright term extension continues on which rests the fate of thousands of books that are now in the public domain. And, on a much more personal level, the frustrating inability to freely access taxpayer-funded medical and pharmaceutical research that can save precious lives.

I see a very urgent need for (a) an open and accessible repository of scientific information on the scale of Project Gutenberg, (b) rapid cross-platform/cross-software exchange of big data (as in big databases AND data-files-information of MB-PB size) to increase the speed and efficiency of scientific analysis and (c) a strong open-science lobbying organization that has a good working relationship with and backing from the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Creative Commons.

Closed, inaccessible, proprietary, exclusive and walled are not unrelated; they are a direct result of treating information and analysis as property for purported financial gain and enacting laws to protect this system. However, the quality and progress of science and human knowledge suffers, fewer people know of and have access to said science and knowledge, and money and value are not really made using this short-sighted model. If Company X drills a well in the same area as Company Y and shares its findings with Y in a timely fashion, both X and Y stand to gain from the shared knowledge and more hydrocarbon is discovered. If I were allowed to share my geophysical analysis in an open-access forum, other geophysicists could quickly critique my work and the science and my employer move forward.  If scientific societies and conferences were to open up their journals and conference proceedings to the public, it would only increase results dissemination, interest in sciences and the number of its practitioners. Instead of creating more of our industry and in a meaningful way, we swallow our own tails. This has to stop. To save our science and livelihoods, to achieve more books and readers and to keep people alive, copyrights, patents and other barriers to access have to be short-lived.

One can argue that competitive advantage is a key requirement for corporate success, that the secret formula is what keeps customers buying your product over others. But, too many times have I seen companies bank on a single, once-great formula for too long and realize later that their competition or up-and-comers have moved on. (Whenever I come across a situation like this, I am reminded of Jason Robards as Murray Burns in A Thousand Clowns and this bit of dialogue: “It is definitely second-rate garbage. Now, by next week I want to see a better class of garbage, more empty champagne bottles and caviar cans! So, let’s snap it up and get on the ball!”) Innovation, be it their own or someone else’s, keeps a company’s R&D on its game and from believing its own press. Something else to consider: If you’re a company of more than one, your secrets aren’t really that well-kept. So, let’s snap it up, get on the ball and publish them in an open and accessible manner!

There is a reason I say “accessible” and “open.” Just because information is out there doesn’t mean you can find and get it easily. And once you get it, it doesn’t mean you know what to do with it. Open information, using my scientific context as an example, is useless unless I can find it in a web-searchable database, download it in a widely-readable format, use the data in software I have and understand findings easily or with minimal effort. An item’s purposeful impenetrability, be it in the form of obtuse academic jargon or proprietary/arcane file format, is as good as not sharing it at all.

In this day and age of global internet access and web-based everything, it is our responsibility as scientists to share our work in an efficient and meaningful manner so that many may learn, grow, live and produce. We’ve got to start challenging the barriers starting with our own management and on to attorneys and elected government representatives. And all of us have to ask ourselves this: How and when do we as a society redefine monetary value in terms of the sustainable and widely-beneficial? If this question isn’t addressed and soon, we will not just lose scientific knowledge and health, we will increasingly not return from each following recession, and they’re coming. There won’t be anything to come back to.

***

In three weeks’ time, I will attend the ninth annual and my very first Science Foo conference, which throws around 250 of the world’s scientists, technologists, thinkers and other troublemakers in the Googleplex for a weekend to see what happens. It is very much an interdisciplinary unconference in that there are no pre-planned topics and talks, attendees define the agenda on the first day and the only real rule is that you come prepared to talk and share. I will be signing up to give a lightning talk on the openness and accessibility of scientific data and research findings as outlined above, and hope this topic is chosen. Furthermore, I’ve proposed a work session on the rapid, cross-platform/cross-software exchange of big data (big databases AND data-files-information of megabyte to petabyte size) to increase speed and efficiency of scientific analysis. It looks like several others are interested in big data from the perspective of the relationship between academic research and industry, discovery of signals in big datasets, visualization and what comes after big data. Livetweeting will happen; liveblogging if the muse strikes.

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No year is complete without the crossing of at least one tectonic plate boundary, in my geological opinion. At the end of May, D and I returned to the Virgin Islands, specifically St. John and some St. Thomas. We did a lot more swimming and snorkeling with friends this time around and, thanks to my new little Olympus Tough, were able to capture some of the beautiful, vast and nicely protected underwater ecosystem of these volcanic Caribbean islands. Here is the full album and a few choice submarine pictures:

Snorkeling Maho Beach, St. John, USVI

Snorkeling Hawksnest Beach

Snorkeling Honeymoon Beach

Snorkeling Honeymoon Beach

Snorkeling off Buck Island

Snorkeling off Buck Island

The islands are not just beaches, but extinct arc volcanoes and/or accretionary wedge material associated with the convergent plate boundary between the Caribbean and North American plates. In fact, 60-70% of St. John is the Virgin Islands National Park, land donated by Laurance Rockefeller to the US National Parks Service in 1956, with well-maintained hiking trails. Friends Jon and Mo and I decided what a great idea it would be to hike the Reef Bay Trail (on the list of Top 10 Caribbean hikes and second most strenuous hike on St. John). A mile down to Reef Bay along the Reef Bay Gut (river valley), look at some old Taino petroglyphs along the way, check out sugar mill ruins and jog back up the trail to the main island road – No Problem, Mon! Lickety Split.

So, let me tell you about subtropical areas after heavy rains; they breed my (second-)worst enemy (after roaches): mosquitoes. Oh, honey, these aren’t your microscopic Houston-spring babies, I’m talking giant Vampire Mosquitoes that roam in armed gangs and have evolved to attack you no matter what permutation of permethrin-treated clothing and DEET repellent you have on or attack them with. Holy mother of dengue fever. Not ten minutes into the hike, we were swarmed by All The Mosquitoes. All of them. Each time we slowed down to look at a plant or an animal, we formed a collective landing-strip-and-buffet for the little bastards. At one stop, there were a couple of guys – one resembling Channing Tatum with a jaw and the other the middle-aged love child of Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, who both turned out to be Beltway journalists – asking if we had any bug spray, which I reluctantly parted with. We needs it, precious. In essence, we had to keep going, but I did manage to get a few good pictures of lovely stuff that grows in virgin Caribbean forest. For instance, a gigantic wild bromeliad, which as my dad loves to point out, is from the same family as pineapples:

Bromeliad

Also along the trail are ruins of a few slave-trade-era plantations, mostly just foundations now with the forest and weathering processes taking over. Before getting all the way to the bottom of the trail, you can veer off to the west for a short hike to see the Upper Waterfalls and Taino petroglyphs. The falls weren’t very spectacular during our visit, but the low water level allowed a good view of the rock carvings theorized to pre-date Christianity, made during the northward travel of native South Americans to North America via the Caribbean Islands (the ones that stayed became known as Taino). Here’s an example of a petroglyph – pretty sure it’s a depiction of an alien and a chupacabra:

Reef Bay Petroglyphs

At last, we got to the unforested, fresh, mosquito-free Reef Bay, where sit the ruins of an old sugar mill. Sugarcane plantation + slave labor = sugar for European consumption, and yet another reminder that, for tiny-assed nations, England, Holland and Denmark covered a lot of ground and wreaked even more havoc in the colonial era. From a very detailed description of the Reef Bay Trail by Gerald Singer:

… One side of the boiling room housed the boiling bench and the row of copper boiling pots where the cane juice would be boiled down into a wet raw sugar called muscavado. The fires were fed from the outside of the building. Bagasse would often be burned to provide heat for the boiling operation. The muscavado would then be dried and packed into 1,000 pound barrels called hogsheads. Sailing vessels bound for Europe would arrive in Genti Bay to pick up the shipments of sugar.

A number of Reef Bay Trail guides encourage you to check out the ruins. Take as an example this TripAdvisor tip: “The remains of the sugar mill at the end of the trail deserve your thorough exploration.” What they neglect to tell you is that the “thriving bee hive which is neat” inside one of the buildings has grown to epic proportions. There I was admiring a giant gear while thinking about the poor workers who were forced to operate it before steam power came along, when a bee suddenly stung the back of my neck, I grabbed it out of my neck before it got too far, the damned bee then got wedged between my index and middle finger, and it stung me on my middle finger before falling to its death. This was followed by Jon’s and my tragicomic discovery that I am not allergic to bees and don’t need an epi pen after being stung by one. (All while Mo was off splashing in the waters of Reef Bay, completely oblivious to my misfortune.)

Jon: “How do you feel?”
Me: “I just got stung by a f-ing bee, Jon. How do you think I feel? No, I’m not in shock, really more startled than anything else.”
Jon: “Ok. It’s ok. Let’s walk this way in the ruins.”
Me: “Are you out of your mind? Do you want me to get stung again?”

Point made, bee. Your sacrifice was not in vain. I’m outta here.

Seriously, by that point, I was hot, sweaty, mosquito-bitten, adrenaline-ridden and kinda irritated at the local who witnessed my bee sting and suggested dabbing pee (yes, human urine) on it, and just wanted to leave. Except, as you probably guessed, the only way out was to climb back up the 15-20° incline we had just come down. We made it back up in pretty good time (despite the triple distractions of more mosquitoes waiting for us, my thudding heart and helping look for someone’s lost dog) and Jon’s brother was gracious enough to pick us up at the top of the trail, after a short wait when we were devoured by even more mosquitoes.

An artist’s rendition of my trek down to Reef Bay and back. Click to enlarge.

Then we went to Wagapalooza, a benefit for the St. John Animal Care Center and the Cruz Bay equivalent of the parade of the Krewe of Barkus. Apparently, the phenomenon of dogs in costumes with the annual crowning of royalty knows no national borders. Don’t forget to spay and neuter your pets, folks, even the mosquitoes!

Wagapalooza 2014

I highly recommend the Reef Bay Trail when mosquitoes aren’t out by the thousands, but if you’re looking for a quicker, drama-free option, there is always the Lind Point Trail which you can hop onto in Cruz Bay and leads to three beautiful beaches, including Salomon, Honeymoon and Caneel. Honeymoon Beach is my favorite (it’s where we saw the turtles):

Honeymoon Beach

We also took the opportunity to cruise around St. Thomas on a Wet Woody’s charter, stopping at some nice beaches and coves to swim and snorkel. God, I love fast powerboats and this one was a sweet ride. This trip also gave us some of the best views of outcrops of accretionary wedge, which is:

A wedge- or prism-shaped mass of sediments and rock fragments which has accumulated where a downgoing oceanic plate meets an overriding plate (either oceanic or continental) at a subduction zone. The sediment is generally marine sediment that has been scraped off of the downgoing plate by the overriding plate. However, sediment from the overriding plate can also contribute to the accretionary wedge. Fragments of rock from the colliding tectonic plates can also accumulate in an accretionary wedge. The sedimentary rocks which form at accretionary wedges are deformed, faulted, poorly-sorted mixtures which are often referred to as “mélange” (which means “mixture” in French).

The Virgin Islands are directly south of the Puerto Rico trench, which itself is located at the transition between the subduction of the North American plate beneath the Caribbean plate to the east and a transform plate boundary (where the two plates shear past each other) to the west. Two items of interest here: 1) There is more translation than contraction at the Puerto Rico trench, which is good or St. John may be an active volcano, and 2) movement along the southern Enriquillo–Plantain Garden fault zone of the strike-slip system to the west caused the big 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Here’s a spectacular outcrop of dipping mélange. Can you imagine living in one of those houses and being able to walk out everyday and stand on such beautiful structure? *sigh*

Wet Woody's Boat Ride

Jodorowsky’s Dune, a documentary about a really pretty but pretty bad conceptualization of one of my favorite science-fiction novels, Dune, which was ultimately and thankfully directed by David Lynch, was in the news when we were in the Virgin Islands. As we cruised past this mélange outcrop, I explained the mechanics of subduction zones to my friends, closing it with, “The accretionary wedge is the spice,” which I thought was tremendously clever, but fell on deaf ears. (I think D heard me and understood, but ignored it, as usual.) Worm = mélange = accretionary wedge = spice. Get it, get it? Ok. Good.

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Vacations with good friends, good food and beautiful rocks and water. Can’t ask for much more. Except for lots less mosquitoes and no bee stings.

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