Respects to the Hobbit Man

hobbit bookAbout a week ago I was at JRR Tolkien’s grave. It is not my habit to seek cemeteries containing the tombstones of fantasy writers. However, my wife, two young kids, and I were staying at a guesthouse in Oxford. The thoughtful woman in charge of towels told my 13-year-old that we could visit JRR and his wife Edith. They were resting just across the road. So we crossed the road.

Wolvercote Cemetery, set along Banbury Road on the north end of Oxford, is a pleasant spot for pausing for an eternity. Fortunately, we didn’t stay that long. An hour was enough. We found Tolkien amid flowers in the far southwest corner of Wolvercote. His spot is more modest than most of his neighbours’ and there was inconspicuous signage all the way from the road, directing those on a Tolkien pilgrimage. Roses grow from the center of the Tolkien plot. People had left coins on the soil (to pay their respects?). And tucked to his gravestone was a recent note written with some form of Middle Earth runes. It is apparent that not only humans attend Tolkien’s grave.

A message to Tolkien. Instructions, actually.

A message to Tolkien. Instructions, actually.

The touching note of respect, left by an anonymous hobbit (or, less likely, by a human) is reproduced here, above. Even if you are not an expert in Middle Earth languages, you should need less than five minutes to decipher the script. I’ll eventually do that for you, but go ahead and give it a try. Tolkien himself was a languages professor (he studied and taught Anglo-Saxon at Oxford). He even invented languages which he deemed appropriate for the characters who lived in his fantasy worlds. I think he would have appreciated the gesture of a few words written in Hobbit-world runes.   (By the way, after looking at the note, we tucked it back into the same spot we had found it. A sentiment this good deserves to be preserved.)

JRRT beeWe are all story-tellers. Tolkien was simply one of the best. He created entire worlds, populated by strange races which vied for both peace and power. All of his characters were bound by rules of Tolkien’s own creation. These were sometimes outlandish rules which included magic and mysticism, but the rules of Tolkien’s worlds were always self-consistent. Rings could manifest great and dangerous power, but those powers had to be sustained and unwavering, else Tolkien’s worlds would become chaotic and unbelievable. There is a message here for the writers of science.

Like Tolkien, scientists are inventing languages, telling stories, creating worlds. There is no single correct rendering of science. Just over 50 years ago, important geologists insisted that the idea of continents adrift was a ludicrous tale of fantasy. The world of 1960 was one of permanent continents. Details build upon facts. Facts come from observations. Half a century ago, these created a version of the Earth where the distance between Europe and America never changed.  It was wrong, but it was a self-consistent tale – until new observations challenged the story.

An alternate reality crept in. New facts and speculations appeared. The existing story of non-mobile continents was tweaked to accommodate new data. Magnetic anomalies, heat flow from ocean rifts, seismic recordings at deep trenches, the unexpectedly young age of seafloor crust (What happened to the old stuff?), and much more eventually made the earlier story about our planet unsustainable. A new tale had to be written so that all the details made sense and were contained in a new self-consistent story. The ocean floor ripped apart and the continents left their moorings, free to drift across the globe. Plate tectonics is our current story but one day it, too, may be replaced by a new tale, a story more suitable to new evidence. As scientists and science writers we should constantly remind ourselves that our present sense of reality may be no more real than JRR Tolkien’s greatest fantasies.

It serves us well to remember and honour all those who showed great imagination and shaped our views of our planet and its life. In the end, there may be peace in Thorin’s last words to Bilbo Baggins, spoken just before Thorin Oakenshield’s death. As repeated in the cryptic note which my son found on Tolkien’s tombstone, you may eventually “Go back to your books and your armchair; plant your trees and watch them grow.” Although this may be a comforting reward for dead poets, there is little satisfaction in such an existence for most of us among the living. Instead, it seems better to create new worlds and find adventure within them.

I have long been a fan of Tolkien. I appreciate his contributions to our collective imaginations. My youngest brother tells me that I used to entertain him and my younger siblings by recounting Hobbit epics during the long hours we endured in the root cellar on the family farm, chopping seed potatoes into quarters and eighths in preparation for spring planting. It was forty years ago – I scarcely remember the tales I told, but I certainly remember that the potato cellar was a dank and dark low building, dug into the side of a small hill. A single bare one-hundred watt bulb hung from the ceiling. The six of us (I was oldest at about 15, Joe was 7) sat on overturned potato crates, each child’s small hand holding a sharp paring knife, cutting apart the slowly rotting potatoes heaped in front of us.

Joe says the hours passed quickly as I embellished Tolkien’s tales of Bilbo Baggins (still my favourite Hobbit) and the gallant Gandalf. I thank the Oxford linguist for making childhood less dreary for many of us. Tolkien could not know that farm children half a world away were beneficiaries of his creative spirit. And now I was at Wolvercote in Oxford, as close as I will ever get to thanking him in person. As the note atop the dead poet concluded, “Thank you for everything.” Thank you especially for kindling imagination that creates new worlds.

JRRT DRH walking

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Busted by Oil

Calgary: The world's cleanest oil city.

Calgary: The world’s cleanest oil city.

The list is long. Spindletop in Texas; Drake’s well in Pennsylvania; Petrolia, Ontario; Baku, Azerbaijan; Boryslav in Galicia. And many more. These are places spoiled by the boom and bust, rust and dust of oil production. I wonder if one day my hometown of Calgary will be listed among the burned out former glorious petroleum towns? Probably not, for reasons I’ll explore in a few moments.

I’ve been reading an interesting blog piece from a site called Europe between East and West – an excellent effort that showcases central European history and culture to westerners. I am a westerner – born in North America – but my grandparents are from ‘over there’ so I read blogs about central Europe with a personal keenness. Last week, in a post called  Black Gold in Galicia, the author gave a detailed story about one of the biggest forgotten oil booms in history.

Galicia – a place that had princes and principalities – is now chopped up between Poland, Ukraine, and Slovakia. It was once called Austrian Galicia, though few Austrians cared to live in the provincial hinterlands ruled by Vienna’s Hapsburgs. Galicia seems almost completely lost to history now. So is its messy oil explosion, a boom that shattered the quiet Jewish village of Boryslav over a century ago. With the discovery of oil, the village became a city – its population grew 30 times in ten years. At its peak in 1908, 5% of the world’s oil came from the farmland surrounding Boryslav and the area was the world’s third largest crude producer. Today, a hundred years later, the city has little more than oil-smudged soil as a reminder of once glorious days.

Oil field Boryslav

Boryslav at the peak of its oil days.

Concurrent to Galicia’s oil boom and bust was the development of western Pennsylvania’s oil fields around Titusville in Crawford County. Europeans once compared the two places favourably. Although the Galician oil wells were drilled first and with better technology, Pennsylvania eventually caught up. The flash of oil from Crawford County built noisy cities along the Appalachian foothills, though the area is again rural and quiet. After 500 million barrels of oil were pumped from the Pennsylvania hills, the wells ran dry, the industry collapsed, and the wildcat drillers moved on.

Titusville Oil Boom, around 1859

Titusville Oil Boom, around 1860

Some oilmen went to Texas where a stubborn engineer named Tony Lucas (Antun Lučić) drilled over a thousand feet to strike the world’s most famous gusher at Spindletop. When Lucas finally pierced the reservoir at the Gulf Coast salt dome, the overpressured petroleum reservoir blasted a million barrels of oil onto the bloated prairie field – deflating the dome and destroying the surrounding fields. Even today, a thousand-foot-wide splotch of grease marks the ground of the famous discovery. The well that helped power America’s amazing industrial boom is commemorated with a kitschy park and simulated boom town, built a couple of kilometres to the north in Beaumont. Tourists may delight in the plastic reconstruction of one of the country’s greatest moments, but for a more authentic glimpse of history, they need only cross the highway and venture to a dead end near Sulphur Drive to see the blackened field where industrialization really began.

Spindletop, October 1902

Spindletop, October 1902

A similar tale can be told of Baku, Azerbaijan. Like Boryslav, there are still minor remnants of the foresaken oil industry in the form of aging Soviet-era refineries and factories. The earth beneath Baku once delivered hundreds of millions of barrels of oil. In 1901, half the world’s oil came from Baku and the shallow Caspian Sea immediately adjacent to the town. The fields were rapidly decompressed. Within twenty or thirty years, the party was largely over, though Azerbaijan continues to produce a million barrels of oil a year from fields in more distant parts of the country.

Baku, Azerbaijan oil field along the Caspian Sea, 1925

Baku:  Azerbaijan oil field along the Caspian Sea, 1908

The ugliness and environmental degradation of last century’s depleted oil fields give pause when you live in one of the world’s important oil cities, as I do. For three generations, Calgary has been the home office for several hundred oil and gas companies.  Just a few dozen kilometres south of this city of a million, the western Canadian oil boom began in 1914. The area was called Hell’s Half Acre because of the flaring of natural gas from oil wells. Thousands of hellish wells were drilled within a few years. Geologists, wildcatters, and investors stayed in Calgary, about two hours away by automobile at that time. Calgary stayed clean while 10,000 oil wells were drilled each year during the 50s, 60s, and on up to this decade in reservoirs scattered throughout the province. Even the distant oil sands – the world’s 3rd largest oil deposit – is overseen from Calgary, though the city is 700 kilometres southwest of the digging and pumping.

Calgary is unlikely to suffer the fate of Boryslav or Baku. Calgary regularly scores first in the world for clean air and water – according to the yearly analysis of Mercer Global which studies such things. (By the way, after Calgary in cleanliness are Adelaide (Australia), Honolulu, Minneapolis, and Kobe, Japan). No one foresees Calgary as a wrinkled and rusty collection of pipes and pumps. However, just as all the other oil boom towns of the past saw their fortunes fail as oil fields were depleted, Calgary may also suffer an economic downturn. Remaining provincial reserves are shrinking. Production costs are rising – it becomes progressively more expensive to recover oil when fields start to decline. The oil sands of northern Alberta may last a century or two, but producing oil from tar is expensive. Doing it right – with minimal environmental damage – is costly. So what might the future of the city be? I’m optimistic. It will find its way.

The southwest edge of Calgary, where Canada's big oil boom began.

The southwest edge of Calgary, close to the place Canada’s big oil boom began a hundred years ago.

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Human Kidney acquires a Woolly Mammoth Gene!

In a fascinating scientific breakthrough, scientists have transplanted a gene (TRPV3) from a spare woolly mammoth rump into a human kidney. The mammoth – frozen for 35,372 years – was discovered in a freezer at Muckatuk’s Emporium, a popular eatery just north of latitude 74 on the Going-to-Chukchi-Sea Highway in Siberia. Mr Muckatuk claims he bought the meat from his brother-in-law, a local entrepreneur. Rather than delighting patrons with a mess of his signature woolly rump stew, Muckatuk sold a prime slice of frozen mammoth rump to a team of visiting geneticists.

Muckluk's Diner, est. 1902.

Muckatuk’s Diner, as it appeared in 1902. (Like the flag?)
Photo by Ria Novosti.

Kidneys, awaiting genetic enhancement

Kidneys, awaiting genetic enhancement

The peripatetic biologists took the meat home. In an unusual experiment, a string of DNA extracted from the mammoth piece of meat was stitched into a human kidney. As almost any physician can be persuaded to attest, human kidneys often get cold. This can lead to a condition called icy waters, an uncomfortable disorder which village witches used to cure with hot herbal tea. However, using gene splicing, doctors now have a more sophisticated treatment for icy waters.  After sewing the mammoth’s hardy TRPV3 gene into the human kidney (the patient was probably anesthetized), attending interns tested the cold resistance of the freshly-enhanced kidney. As it turned out, the patient seemed unaware of dry ice pressing against his kidney. The experiment was considered a success – mammoth genes can grow in human kidneys! And they exhibit qualities that can make Siberian winters enjoyable.

To read another version of this same story, you can check this original research paper, or maybe this newsy article. By the way, some scientists think that TRPV3 is also responsible for the wool on the woolly mammoth, so the kidney may need shaved regularly. (As always, consult a physician before trying this, or any other, genetic transplant at home.)

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Crater Lake

California Prospector, 1849

California Prospector, 1849

During the 1849 California Gold Rush, the easy pickings around Sutter’s Mill were staked off and scooped up rather quickly. The ’49ers, as the first prospectors were called, put gold in the bank while the ’50ers had to look further afield. One late comer apparently found the mother of all lodes, Ali Baba’s missing horde, up near Oregon. Trouble was, he couldn’t remember quite where, but if you’d buy him a shot of whiskey (or two) he’d draw you a map and tell you everything. This ploy kept the barfly well-lubricated because his audience would head up to Oregon from San Francisco and never come back. Meanwhile, a new green prospector from Chicago would arrive to hear the tale.

John Hillman, a California gold rush prospector, was seduced by the story of the Lost Cabin Mine. He wasn’t successful, but his wanderings took him to the edge of a lake he named Deep Blue Lake. It was rather clever of him to realize that he had found a deep lake. He might have thought it was bottomless. That’s what Major Clarence Dutton of the US Geological Survey must have thought when he cast his first depth gauge into the lake.

Major Dutton

Major Dutton

Dutton, a Yale graduate from New England, fought at Fredericksburg in the American Civil War, then spent much of the rest of his life in the American West as a geologist. He was head of the United States Geological Survey’s Volcanic Geology Division – a role that placed him on volcanic mountains in California and Hawaii. His exploits included sounding the enormous depth of Crater Lake in Oregon. That was not an easy task – it is the deepest lake in the States, but reaching its remote mountainous shore with exploration equipment was nearly impossible.

Dutton’s team – 35 soldiers with 65 horses and mules – carried a half-tonne boat up the lake’s surrounding mountain rim, then carted it down a steep twenty-storey cliff to the water’s edge. Finally they lowered their dinghy onto the cold water. Soldiers maneuvered the survey craft around the lake while Dutton plumbed the icy depths with heavy weights tied to piano wire. He needed those heavy weights to keep the wire straight as it unfurled to the water’s bottom. He made almost 200 measurements. A plot of the depths revealed the throat of a caldera, created by a violent volcanic eruption which natives of the area described in ancient legends.

Klamath and Modoc aboriginal groups had lived and traded around the Oregon lake for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. The Klamaths had an oral history that described the birth of Crater Lake as a mystic event that included a war between sunny good forces above and evil dark forces within the Earth. A fight between Skell, the good, and Lao, the bad, included the legendary virtue of a human woman. The Klamath myth tells of a huge explosion which ended the good force’s rule over the woman and her earthly lands.

We now know that the explosion of a volcano created the lake’s caldera in an event which would have released as much energy as one thousand atomic bombs. When the volcano Mount Mazama erupted, just under eight thousand years ago, the mountainside was populated. The tale of the loss of those people, the continual tremors, and occasional earthquakes that followed, has remained in oral tradition for all the intervening thousands of years.

When Dutton’s team threw their first cable from shore, it disappeared two hundred metres into the water. Then four hundred. It kept descending, so they retrieved the wire to check for mechanical failures. It seemed to be working correctly. They left the shore and began measuring from their boat. During July and August of 1886, the crew took three soundings each day from spots atop the calm blue water. They surveyed in concentric rings, narrowing inwards. Surveyors stationed along the crater’s rim used line-of-sight plane tables to map the boat’s positions. The greatest depth took a lot of piano wire – over 600 metres, or about 2,000 feet.

Crater Lake. The island is Wizard Island, a cone in the middle of the volcanic caldera.

Deep blue Crater Lake. The island is Wizard Island, a cone in the middle of the volcanic caldera.

The depth sounding points, plotted on a map of the circular lake, revealed a flat-bottomed caldera with cinder cones, mostly submerged, though one cone rose to form Wizard Island. Major Dutton of the USGS had discovered that Crater Lake is a topless, water-filled hollow volcano. For half a million years, the volcano had grown through steady stages of minor activity to become a mountain. Then Mount Mazama blasted apart – expelling 50 cubic kilometres of volcanic ash and rock. The pulverized pumice covered millions of square kilometres with gritty dust and ash. On the opposite side of the Earth, the sky darkened in Mesopotamia where people had settled small villages and were  learning to cultivate crops and fashion copper into tools. The Mount Mazama eruption lasted just a few brief moments, then the remaining centre collapsed. It took a thousand years for the hollow mountain to fill with rain water and melted snow. The blast which created the Crater Lake and the Oregon caldera was the most violent eruption North America had ever experienced. Today it’s quiet. If you are camping at Crater Lake this summer, enjoy your visit – the mountain is unlikely to explode again.

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I just finished Infinitesimal –  a book that describes how a peculiar new idea was undermined by religion. Careers were ruined; people were imprisoned for promoting this idea that ran counter to prevailing religious notions. This time, I’m not talking about evolution. Nor the Earth’s position in the solar system. Nor the discovery of germs, the roundness of our planet, the existence of sub-atomic particles, nor the age of the universe – nor any of the many other discoveries that have left preachers and priests irritated and vengeful (until they eventually agreed with the science). For about two hundred years, it was math that was sinful. People who advocated calculus as a tool to investigate science could find themselves in considerable trouble with authority types.

infiniesimal bookThe book, Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World, recounts (in considerable detail) the struggle between the Church and a group of mathematicians who found it useful to divide time, length, area, and volume into tiny pieces, then sum up all the pieces to solve various math problems. The volume of an irregular pyramid, the interest owed on a loan, and the circumference of a circle were early problems. When it became apparent that accuracy improved as slices became thinner and more numerous, mathematicians began to realize that exact answers might be found by summing up an infinite number of infinitely small pieces. That’s the heart of calculus and modern science requires this approach.

But the thought of anything being infinitely small and infinitely numerous was anathema to the bosses at the Vatican in the year 1600. It was contrary to spiritually derived knowledge – and contrary to the prevailing interpretation of Aristotle’s science. Such math was blasphemous. Books were banned and the idea of infinities was rooted out. A number of clever priests saw the value of calculus (as did scientists such as Galileo) but others (especially the Jesuits) saw heresy in calculus. God is infinite; oxcart wheels, beer steins, and cumulative interest are not.

Pope Paul III - grantor of the Jesuits' charter, 1540. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus told the pontiff it would be "The pope's own army," an enforcer of papal decrees.

Pope Paul III – grantor of the Jesuits’ charter, 1540. Ignatius, founder of the Society of Jesus told the pontiff it would be “The pope’s own army,” an enforcer of papal decrees.

Infinitesimal is an interesting book because of the era described and because of the tenuous situation mathematicians faced three or four hundred years ago. Unfortunately, I found Amir Alexander‘s telling of the story a bit tedious with much material revisited too frequently. I was paying attention and didn’t need to  be reminded of what I had just read. For example, some players were introduced two or three times, as if each occasion was their first appearance in the book. Infinitesimal needed a good edit before hitting typeset. Worse, parts of the book are simply dry, making for tough chewing.

Nevertheless, it is a fine historical documentation with convincing research and analysis. Until reading Infinitesimal, I was completely unaware of this particular Church vs Science battle. The author makes a strong case that religious opposition caused Italy to fall far behind northern Europe in math and science, dropping from first-place to something rather dismal, a condition from which Italy never recovered scientifically. The Church dictated what could be taught in schools under Rome’s influence. Calculus, for 200 years, was not part of the curriculum. Inevitably, it seems, churches eventually  do catch up with science. But sometimes it takes centuries.

Posted in Book Review, Culture, History, Religion | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Monkeys on Trial

Darwinian Monkey-Man, 1871

Darwinian Monkey-Man, 1871

The monkey trial.  It was 90 years ago. We know the key players – the fabulously successful criminal trial lawyer who defended Scopes (but lost) and the 3-time Democrat presidential candidate (and erstwhile preacher) who attacked Scopes (and won). It was Clarence Darrow against William Jennings Bryan. But what about John Scopes – the young man on trial? Scopes, the teacher-defendant during the 1925 monkey trial was found guilty of subverting young minds with scientific ideas. You might think his life was ruined. And the judgement should have ended the pro-evolution and pro-science nonsense that was so rife back in the 1920s. The guilty verdict against the teacher should have put an end to the theory of evolution. But science keeps rearing it’s ugly head. So today, we know about things like DNA and mutations and genetic manipulations. We treat congenital disease, try to disrupt rapidly evolving bacteria,  and we fight cancer with ideas taken straight from The Evolutionist’s Songbook, instead of The Methodist’s Hymnbook. What went wrong? And what ever happened to John Scopes?

Scopes was 24 years old, hired to replace Dayton High School’s biology teacher for one year. But he actually taught algebra and physics during that year, and likely never gave a single high school lecture in evolution – which by 1925 was a 65-year-old scientific reality pretty much universally accepted by biologists everywhere. But Tennessee had outlawed teaching the idea in the state’s schools, believing that teaching evolution to children would make them act like monkeys.

Some inspired businessmen in Dayton, Tennessee, hatched a plan to put their town on the map and into the history books. Their leader was George Rappleyea, a geologist and the manager of a local coal company. Knowing Scopes had just a one-year teaching contract, Rappleyea asked Scopes if he’d mind very much becoming famous. The American Civil Liberties Union agreed to fund the defense of John Scopes. The trial attracted Clarence Darrow, the world’s most famous trial lawyer, as Scope’s defense attorney. In opposition was William Jennings Bryan, a fundamentalist, professional populist, and perennial failed Democrat candidate for president of the United States. In July 1925, radio was new and the trial was broadcast to a bored public that didn’t have much else to gossip about that summer. The Dayton businessmen were right – the trial caught the attention of the country and made their town famous. Think of it as, say, the 1925 equivalent of CNN’s coverage of the missing Malaysian airliner or OJ on a slow drive through LA. After eight days, Darrow lost, Scope’s was found guilty of teaching evolution and he was fined $100. But the case was overturned on appeal for a technicality. The anti-evolution legislation stayed on the books in Tennessee for just another 42 years, being repealed in 1967.

I guess everyone knows the cultural effect of the Scope’s Trial. Monkeys were allowed in biology textbooks, evolution was accepted by everyone, and science prevailed. Or maybe not. But some interesting points were made. Clarence Darrow cautioned that the Bible mentioned a talking snake, Eve’s construction from a rib and the mysterious appearance of Cain’s wife. (Where did she come from, anyway?) So it was obvious, to Clarence Darrow, that the Bible was not intended as a science textbook. If only such logic prevailed everywhere. Astonishingly, hostility against science in America seems as strong today as it was in 1925 – even if the anti-science folks don’t mind using scientific discoveries each and every moment of their miserable lives.

John Scopes, 1925

John Scopes, 1925

What happened to John Scopes? He learned his lesson. He quit teaching school. Scopes became a geologist. He realized his reputation as an earnest young Tennessee science teacher wasn’t going to carry his career very far. So he went back to college. Scopes earned a master’s in geology (he had minored in geology for his first degree). He worked for Gulf Oil in Venezuela, where he met his future wife. He was baptized as a Roman Catholic before they married. The couple settled in Houston where Scopes found oil and gas for United Gas Company. (Reserves that are millions of years old and made from the fatty bodies of some of our ancient cousins.) Scopes had a good career. John Scopes died in 1970, aged 70, in Shreveport, Louisiana.

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License Plate Tectonics

I write about plate tectonics. I eagerly jumped from my news feed to the story: “License Plate Tectonics” after I read the headline. About time, I thought. We license everything else – hunting, fishing, driving, marriage. Why not license plate tectonics? There must be some money in it for the government. Make magma pay. License plate tectonics. When the story opened up on my computer screen, I slowly realized that I had fallen for click bait. Bait obviously intended to trick thousands of geophysicists into cranking up the Richmond Times Dispatch’s rank on search engines.

The word license, as used by the Dispatch, is an adjective, or perhaps a noun, forming the compound noun ‘license plate’. I thought it was a verb. In every part of the world (except for the USA) English speakers have licensed two licences. Here in Canada, with an ‘s’ it is a verb; with a second ‘c’ the word is a noun. But the Dispatch is an American paper, so they recklessly (and correctly) used the ‘s’ spelling for every instance of licence. After a while I realized the article was talking about licence plates – the clever sheet of metal attached to the rear ends of cars to give out-of-state tourists a reason to fear traveling. There was no magma anywhere in the story. (I read it twice, just to be sure.)

I am not going to go into a lengthy discussion on clarity of writing and honesty of intent (after all, it’s the internet that we are talking about); nor will I speculate about what Steve Pinker might write about the curse of knowledge and how it relates to this story. But I will continue to lament my disappointment – for both the lack of tectonic stories in the newspaper and for the persistence of Confederate symbols on Virginia licence tags, which is what the piece was really about.

Here’s an excerpt from the Richmond Times Dispatch story:

license plate tectonics

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