So it turns out octopuses will never rule the earth.

Wow, here’s one of those science articles in The Atlantic–“Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” by the excellent science writer Ed Yong–that demand a full reading because every paragraph is a cephalopodic mind freak. Turns out that cephalopods have an extraordinary ability to edit their own nervous system genes in a massive way. The astonishing nervous systems and intelligence of the octopus has been created by editing the RNA, as if humans could go in and edit our own DNA to make us smarter, say. Which we can’t. Hence Trump.

The downside of this is that in order to this, cephalopods have to maintain the integrity of their RNA…and I mean maintain it over hundreds of millions of years. So their nervous systems have evolved to incredible degrees–human brains are much more intelligent than any cephalopod, obviously, but the other parts of our nervous system are infinitely less so–we can’t disappear into our surroundings, say, or communicate via rapidly changing colors in what is probably language, or control eight limbs that operate autonomously from one another. But if you carefully edit your RNA to dispose of any unwanted mutations you are essentially putting a brake on natural selection, that is, you are not letting evolution make the changes that alter the genome and create new species out of older species. Humans are the result of series of changes in genomes from apes twenty of thirty million years ago that went into overdrive about four million years ago. The Australopithecenes four million years ago were basically bipedal chimpanzees. Two million years later was Homo erectus , every inch a human. We showed up 200,000 years ago, though none of us today are exactly the same as we were then. We have not stopped evolving (our brains are larger, for one thing, and structured a bit differently). And we are still apes, just dramatically transformed by an extraordinary number of mutations. Our genome has changed fundamentally over and over, and you can even see that process at work around you. In me, for instance. I’m way taller than most people, everything bigger. I’m full of mutations. I could have eventually led to a sub species of really huge, really dumb homo sapiens–homo sapien brickus–and ruined everything. Luckily I had no kids.

But this can’t happen among cephalopods. Well, among coleoid cephalopods, the smart ones, that is octopus, squid and cuttlefish. Nautilus never made that adaptation–this may have been nearly half a billion years ago–and so never developed the ability to edit their own RNA. And while an ocean existence makes for far less evolutionary change over vast expanses of time than a land existence (the ocean changes very little, and is much safer) so that the nautilus today looks remarkably similar to the nautilus in 400 million year old fossil beds–natural selection at some point extended its lifespan to twenty years. That is a very good age for a mollusc (cephalopods are molluscs.). That was about how long our own early ancestors, australopithecines like Lucy, lived. Nautiluses have unedited naturally occurring mutations in their genes, and while Nautilus lives are so stable and unchanging there is little chance for any of those mutations to succeed as new species, it has lengthened their life span because living longer is apparently useful (or not unuseful, anyway). And that was a very fundamental change in the nautilus genome. Three hundred million years ago they probably lived no longer than an octopus, two years. The genome was fundamentally altered. Probably very slowly, over tens if not hundreds of million of years, but it was altered, and now a pet nautilus would live longer than your cat.

Your pet hamster would outlive your pet octopus, though. Would outlive virtually every coleoid cephalopod (that is, all the cephalopods but the nautilus). For at least 350 and perhaps as much as 480 million years the octopus has carefully maintained the vast number of edits in its RNA, because their extraordinary nervous system is based upon the integrity of that design, just as the computer you are reading this on can only function if the memory maintains the integrity of its design–go in their and randomly mutate the thing, moving chips around, deleting some, adding others, and you’ll be looking at a blank blue screen. The cephalopod nervous system, perhaps as extraordinary a work of nature as our own, is a delicate construct, built by billions of generations of cephalopods carefully maintaining the original RNA structure and making myriad new carefully selected edits. It’s like they’ve been speaking the same language for half a billion years with the same basic grammar, so that one could pick up a book written hundreds of millions of years ago and be able to read it still. It would be less changed than English now has changed from English a thousand years ago. There is a continuum in octopus RNA across deep time. Nothing has fundamentally changed, Roman Latin didn’t turn into Chinese. The same basic design has remained for half a billion years, just fine tuned to an amazing degree. Which means you can never have a giant six legged octopus attacking ships and tearing the Golden Gate bridge apart. You would need to have a genome that can change dramatically with unedited RNA allowing for mutation. Nor could ever have them leaving the water and becoming land animals. Or shedding limbs and walking about. Or flying starships and colonizing other planets. You can’t even change the octopus genome to let them live longer than two years.

So you have extremely intelligent invertebrates–smarter than probably 99% of vertebrates–trapped in bodies that, like some ancient, primitive molluscs of the Cambrian Era, live a couple years, lay a zillion eggs, fertilize them, and die. You can fine tune your nervous system till you are an eight legged Einstein but you can’t alter that ancient method of self-destructive reproduction. So you have invertebrate geniuses trapped in bodies designed for no brains at all. Octopuses will never rule the earth. They’ll live an astonishing two years–some only six months–and die. Squids live a year. Even giant squid live less than five years. (Their vertebrate arch enemy, the sperm whale, lives to be seventy.)  And so “Octopuses Do Something Really Strange To Their Genes” was one of the most exciting articles I ever read, and one of the saddest.

However…recently a deep sea Graneledone boreopacifica was observed guarding its brood for an astonishing fifty three months (the longest brood time ever witnessed in the animal kingdom)…which is over twice as long as the typical longer lived octopus lifespan (some live as little as six months). A female octopus spends about one fourth of her life brooding and then dies (of starvation) and if that ratio holds, the Graneledone boreopacifica could live as long as twenty years….or about the length of a nautilus life span. Somebody let some mutations slip through, apparently. Perhaps there’s no reason an octopus can’t live as long as a nautilus. An incredibly smart nautilus at that. Of course, that depends on whether those mutations don’t unravel that beautifully maintained matrix of RNA edits that goes back half a billion years upon which the extraordinary sophistication of the coleoid nervous system is dependent. But a problem solving, tool using octopus could do quite a bit in a twenty year life span. Maybe in a hundred million years we’ll know. Well, we won’t. We’re terrestrial animals, and mammals, and primates, and humanoid. Ours is a tough neighborhood. All the various human species have had a million years or two and then gone extinct. It’s a rough world out here on land.

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/04/octopuses-do-something-really-strange-to-their-genes/522024/

DNA testing

So apparently if you get one of those DNA tests, they send you a chart that shows you all the percentages of what ethnicities you are. Then you get to pick out the one that is coolest and be that, as if only that little slice of your genetic heritage made you what you are. But sadly, your Cherokee great great great grandmother didn’t leave you the least bit Cherokee other than a smidgen of Cherokee genes, or your Zulu great great grandfather or the one Irish great grandmother left you neither Zulu nor Irish. Think about it like math–an eighth (your great grandparent) or a sixteenth (your great grandparent) or a 32nd (your great great great grandparent) is just a tiny little bit of you, and the other seven eighths and fifteen sixteenths and 31/32nds long ago washed out most of that inheritance. You are what you are, which is whatever most of you is, all mixed up together, blended, and poured anew into what became you after hopefully a terrific simultaneous orgasm. Your Cherokee great great great grandmother would never even recognize you as one of her own, nor would you take in anyone who said he has 1/32nd of your own genetic background. After all, there are probably hundreds just like him out there, all equally related to that same woman who was born maybe two centuries ago. Which kind of takes the shine off of those DNA tests. It’s just DNA. But it doesn’t mean you have any actually viable connection to any of your distant ancestors other than sharing some of the same genes. And many (if not most or all) of those genes would have mutated during some of those successful couplings between you and your great great great grandmother anyway, so they aren’t even all the same genes. Go back far enough, in fact, and provided you do not come from a carefully maintained line of strict inbreeding (sisters marrying brothers) there will likely not be a single genetic behavioral trait–that is, something that makes your personality distinctly you–remaining that you share directly from your very distant ancestor. The genes behind those traits have all been replaced during successful couplings since then. The raw material of genetics are there, and have always been there, since life began, but the actual genes last only so long. None of us share any of the exact same genes from critters millions of years ago that we have descended from (the synapsids, or mammal like reptiles, for instance), and none of us are passing on specific genetic traits from even several hundred years ago. Maybe your great great great grandfather from Ireland was a writer. And maybe you’re a writer. Did you inherit writing from him? Nope. Lots of people are writers. It just so happens that two people out of the 32 people in the line from your great great great grandparent to you happen to be writers. And two out of thirty-two is almost surely nothing more than coincidence. You might look like him…but then you might look like people you are not directly descended from. After all, that great great great grandfather is only one out of 32 grandparents having sex 16 specific times that gives you the DNA that, all mixed together and randomly mutated, is you. You are much more likely a writer because you had a good English teacher than because one of those 32 great great great grandparents also wrote. Culture trumps genetics in most human endeavors.

Stick with reincarnation. That gets around the whole genetics thing, saves you money on DNA testing, and maybe you slept with Shirley MacLaine in Ancient Egypt. She was a queen. You a slave boy with gumption. Torrid passions two hundred generations ago in the shadows of the pyramids. I mean why not? Though that might make you 1/1280 of yourself in a past life.

Mammal-Like Reptiles

None of my Synapsid ancestors were writers.

 

Can your car be hacked?

(2010)

Here’s something you probably never thought you’d have to worry about, (courtesy the Norton Cybercrime News which pops up on the screen here monthly and magically and a tad creepily even). Can Your Car Be Hacked? it asks, in a big bold font. Oh yeah baby:

Vehicle disablement — After a disgruntled former employee took over a Web-based vehicle-immobilization system at an Austin, Texas, car sales center, more than 100 drivers found their vehicles had been disabled or their horns were honking out of control.

Tire pressure system hacking — Researchers from the University of South Carolina and Rutgers University were able to hack into tire pressure monitoring systems. Using readily available equipment and free software, the researchers triggered warning lights and remotely tracked a vehicle through its unique monitoring system.

Disabling brakes — Researchers at the University of Washington and University of San Diego created a program that would hack into onboard computers to disable brakes and stop the engine. The researchers connected to onboard computers through ports for the cars’ diagnostic system.

Wow. More fear, icy fingered, merciless, terrifying, annoying. It just keeps piling on. Must be the recession. There are fears everywhere, some big, some little, some a disgruntled employee making my horn blare in the middle of the night or a tire pressure monitor going nuts or my brakes failing on Baxter St., plummeting me down onto the Glendale Freeway at the speed of light.

Ya know, I get the OnStar Diagnostic Report which pops up monthly and magically and a tad Star Treky which tells me what condition my car is in, including the aforesaid brakes and tire pressure (and maybe even the horn, hell I don’t know.)  I can also press a button on my rear view mirror in the middle of nowhere a thousand miles from home and some dude in OnStar World Headquarters can tell me why this or that light came on and if I am doomed or merely inconvenienced or even not to worry at all. That’s very Star Trek too. OnStar also lets me call people and yell at them over traffic noise, it helps get the schedules of two-car ferries that cross the Mississippi from the middle of nowhere Illinois to the middle of even more nowhere Missouri, and there’s a button to press when you are dying and a guy will tell you not to die.  It’s pretty cool. Cars are full of Star Trekness anymore. Or maybe Forbidden Planet, and the dudes at OnStar are the Krel, knowing and doing all for $18.95 a month, except without the Walter Pigeon voice (or Ann Francis legs.). But it never occurred to me that they could take control of my car. The whole monster of the id thing, but it’s Manny, Moe and Jack’s id. Who knows what their evil plan is. I don’t want an air freshener in my car. Especially the pina colada one. I found one hanging from my rear view after a car wash. I get in and there it is dangling, reeking to high heaven of the worst pina colada ever. There are probably bars in Ensenada that smell just like that. I did the Repo Man thing and chucked it out the window before peeling out of there. But it was too late. That cheap tropical smell took weeks to fade away. It was a piece of shit car though. I used to fill the trunk with a beaten up drum kit and play loud abrasive music in the unseemliest dives ever. Those were the days. I smell pina colada and I think of my youth. Back then no one hacked into your car except to swipe the battery. No one was stealing AM radios anymore.

And here I am, decades later, and it’s Good Friday morning and I’m wondering if some evil twerp will make my horn blare between noon and three. Or sunder my brakes on a steep street. Or just mess with my car somehow.  And I’m telling myself not to worry about it. It’ll never happen. Bad things never do to good people. Which is a lie of course and doesn’t help me at all. This didn’t happen in my parents’ 1967 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser, I tell you. We controlled our own destiny then. We were masters of our own flat tire.

4/2/2010

Cats–a forgotten draft

(an early draft of Cats, 2012)

Mockingbirds are strafing one of the neighborhood cats. A whole little mockingbird community, who spend all night and days shrieking at each other (at 3 a.m. it was a battle of car alarms) have banded together to dive on the hapless cat, who is frantically looking for cover. The birds are all fired up, having just driven off a pair of nest robbing ravens. So much violence.

I find it hard to feel sorry for Fluffy. Fluffy (not his real name) is a friendly cat, yes. Cute even, on occasion. None of the people around here have any issues with him. But mockingbirds have damn good reasons for taunting him. Cats love stalking and pouncing birds. People deny that their cat does — kitty would never kill a bird — but pet cats let outdoors have wiped out a lot of urban bird populations. They can’t help it. It’s what they do, cats. They’re hunters. And so are coyotes, and all those pet cats people let outdoors provide a steady diet for coyotes. I suspect we wouldn’t even have populations of urban coyotes if it weren’t for all the house cats people let outdoors. The more cats people have, the more cats there are outside, the more coyotes can survive living among people. You could probably graph the rise in the popularity of cats as pets with the increase in the urban coyote population. You could, but you’d have a hard time getting laid afterward.

We used to have a local population of feral cats. Some big mean toms. They’d fight all night, those eerie, annoying cries of their’s waking everybody up just in time for the burst of intense violence that followed. Sometimes you’d hear cat bodies being thrown against the side of the house with some serious force. Amazing how much energy a cat can expend in a fight. Not for very long. Cats are anatomically sprinters, not long distance runners, like dogs. All their energy has to be in astonishing bursts, since the oxygen in a cat’s blood is quickly depleted. Hence their contests are more build up than action, and size almost always wins. So the biggest, meanest cats ruled our neighborhood. Nearly all of them were feral. The pet cats would skitter home beat up and bleeding. It was getting to be a problem. Cats making a helluva racket all night. People yelling at the cats. No one getting much sleep.

Then a pack of coyotes moved into the neighborhood. End of problem. The endless war cries of cats were replaced by the occasional high pitched yelps of excited coyotes. You’d hear them running down the street on the hunt. It’s weird, a quiet neighborhood and the yelping of wild canines. Like all this civilization wasn’t even here. Like it has been stripped away for a moment and you could hear what it was once like. It’s so spooky it’s thrilling.

The coyotes ate all the stray cats. And they ate a lot of pet cats, foolishly let out by their owners. They ate a lot of little dogs, too, right in their back yards. Sad little flyers appeared on telephone poles. Rewards were offered. There’s one right outside now. I can see it from my window. The little dog is just darling. The reward is one thousand dollars. There’s a lot of money in Silver Lake.

I like cats. And I dig coyotes. And birds. Ours are indoor cats only, so off the menu, and birds are off theirs. They watch the birds from the window. My wife feeds birds. Sparrows, finches, a couple kinds of doves. Every once in a while a scrub jay drops in and scares off all the other birds. Not as often as before, though. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a lesser goldfinch, a hooded oriole, or a towhee. A long time. There were more bird species in Silver Lake when we moved here in the 80’s. Especially here near the river. The explosion in the pet cat population coincided with the disappearance of several species. Birds like the towhee which spend a lot of their time on the ground were just too easy for cats. There are far more cats now than there were twenty years ago. Everyone has a cat or three. Crazy cat ladies don’t seem so crazy anymore, merely eccentric. People leave food out everyday to feed the strays to feed the coyotes. Funny how coyotes might increase the bird population. I used to think they might. Haven’t noticed it, though. [I do now, in 2016. Even the towhees are back.] For every cat eaten there must be two more cats being brought into people’s homes. People are just mad about cats.

There are several theories about just why. The weirdest one is that cats have passed on a parasite that has altered our behavior and makes us pay lavish attention to our pet cats. Parasites can do that, nature is full of examples. The theory got lots of attention, a big story in The Atlantic, and the scientist behind it was all over television. The science is a little sketchy, though. Let’s just leave it now and agree that people are nuts about cats. And cats are nuts about killing birds.

Cats are natural killing machines, remarkable animals, though we don’t really notice. The design hasn’t changed much since it’s inception around 30 million years ago. That cat, the proailurus,or dawn cat, looks remarkably like your cat.

Proailurus

It was even about the size of your cat. Amazing how little things have changed in thirty million years. The head seems a bit larger now, which might be to make room for a larger brain. The proailurus’ jaws seem extended a bit, too, more dog-like, and the evolutionary transition to a modern cat jaw probably accounts for the larger head of the modern cat. The one pictured above has decidedly more weasel like proportions…or more kitten like. The tail of today’s house cat is maybe two thirds as long. Perhaps because modern cats use their tails to communicate and a longer tail could not be held straight up as easily. A tail straight up implies fear, for instance, and held aloft with the top few inches at a 90 degree angle shows friendliness. That larger jaw of modern cats also helps with communication, I’d guess. Small sounds resonate more inside a larger mouth, vastly increasing the cats vocabulary. House cats have an extraordinary range of sounds they make to each other. Some they make to us. Some they make for each other. They’ll call to each other and you’ll try to get their attention and they completely ignore you. Some kind of intense cat to cat thing going on, and we’re not supposed to know, like when two people break into a language you don’t know with you standing right there. When they want to talk to you they’ll let you know.

Felines have been compared to sharks as being perfect predators. Perfect hunting machines. And like sharks, once the initial design was laid out there wasn’t much alteration needed afterward. Of course sharks go back over 400 million years, but evolution in the open ocean, where conditions change very little over enormous stretches of time, can proceed much slower than on land. Things on solid ground are much more volatile. Species are under constant pressure to change or go extinct. Think of how humans have altered in just a few million years. Indeed, look at how much size variation there is even with our own species (writes the six foot five inch man). Not cats, though. All the small cats, from the cute, vicious little sand cat to the largest of the small cats, the cougar (which purrs just like the domestic short hair in your lap) come from proailurus, and all look very similar. Today’s big cats–lions, tigers, panthers, leopards, cheetahs–all descend from pseudaelurus, which itself descended from proailurus.  Weird to think about, he says, a housecat staring at him as he types.

The action outside my window has abated, for now. The mockingbirds are back up on their branches, quiet, looking for threats. Fluffy is up on the neighbor’s porch, glowering. And as the sun sets a siren wails and the coyotes come to life.

Earthquake

(2014)

southern california faultzones

3-dimensional view of major Southern California faults. Vertical faults like the San Andreas are pencil thin lines, those at an angle to the surface are broad brush strokes. (Taken from the highly recommended site earthquakecountry.org.)

That Puente Hills fault that caused the quake out in Brea yesterday (in 2014) is the one that terrifies geologists. They used to think the Elysian Park fault was the killer–our house sits right atop that one–but it now appears to be dormant. But in the last ten thousand years the Puente Hills fault has snapped in a huge way four times, and each of those quakes was a 7 plus on the Richter scale. That would be ten times at least as powerful as the 1994 Northridge quake. Furthermore, the Northridge fault directed its energy away from downtown (with explains how places as far away as Fillmore were leveled) but the Puente Hills fault would direct its energy towards downtown. I suppose that is how people in downtown last night felt the shaking of a quake centered in Brea so strongly (and why we scarcely noticed while we were out in Tujunga). The Puente Hills fault stretches from roughly Brea to Beverly Hills, and it has three active areas–Brea, Whittier (remember the Whittier Narrows quake in 1987?) and here. And I mean right here…downtown Los Angeles is square in the middle of it, and the zone’s width goes from just below USC to about where I am in Silver Lake. In fact, being that I am typing this while literally astride the Elysian Park fault, our place is just outside the Puente Hills fault zone, not that we wouldn’t shake like hell anyway. We wouldn’t shake as bad as people on the nearby flatlands, their homes built as they are on layers of sediments, but we’ll be shook up something awful. I dread the thought of it. It won’t be boring, anyway. (There was another shaker on the Puente Hills Fault in January 2015 that got everyone’s attention just a few blocks from us but that we literally did not feel at all. Not even the cat noticed.)

The Puente Hills fault is a thrust fault. Everyone knows how the San Andreas fault (which cuts through the Antelope Valley down into the Coachella Valley fairly distant from us) is between two plates that slide past one another. Every once in a while the plates get stuck and then snap apart. The movement is horizontal. West of the fault goes north, east goes south. But a thrust fault is vertical movement, that is the fault zone is thrust upward. As the tectonic plates move, pressures build up in the rock beneath us. Stress fractures appear, which we call faults. Those pressures reach a point where something has to give and when they do, you get an earthquake along one of those stress fractures. Most of the times these quakes are imperceptible to anything but a seismograph machine. Sometimes they are strong enough to wake the cat. Sometimes they are strong enough to set off a flurry of chatter on Facebook. And sometimes they are bigger than that. In a really big quake along the Puente Hills fault zone, the ground will suddenly lurch up a meter or two, meaning that the part of town from USC up through downtown will be instantly elevated above the area south of it. Think of it this way: all the north south streets–Alameda, Hope, Flower, Figueroa, Hoover, Vermont, etc.–would suddenly be unusable, because at some point past Exposition Boulevard there would be a three or even six foot drop straight down. Not gradual, not sloping, but straight down. You will need a ladder to proceed down the sidewalk. That is what huge quakes on thrust faults do.

No one knows when this will happen. It will happen. There is no way it will not happen. But it could be before I finish this post, or it could be in a couple thousand years. Every city on the West Coast from Anchorage (trashed in 1964) to San Diego (my first earthquake memory) faces the prospect of a disastrous earthquake. That is the geologic reality of living on the Pacific Rim. It’s scary as hell if you think about it much, so I don’t think about it much. We try to be a little prepared, though. Just in case. Ya never know.

I wasn’t going to post this. Like maybe it’s too creepy. But maybe people should know. A lot of you do already. But it’s amazing how many residents of this area have no idea what might happen if we roll seismic snake eyes.

Now I need a drink.

And you will too, after seeing this Visualization of a Puente Hills Earthquake. It is in real time, and the color key represents the degree of shaking. Blue is the least violent, green more so, yellow even more and on into the red. You notice that the more intense shaking–the greener, yellower and even red colors, are in the flatlands between downtown and the Palos Verdes Peninsula. The sediments of the basin there are up to six miles deep, laid down mostly when the land was ocean bottom and compressed into the easily crumbled rock that you see in some roadcuts. But the meandering Los Angeles River has over thousands and thousands of years left deep, sandy soils that once made for terrific farmland and now are really prone to intense liquefaction when the ground shakes. There was intense damage in this area after the Northridge quake, probably all of which was caused by liquefaction. The ground under overpasses on the Santa Monica Freeway lost its solidity and the poor things just toppled. That’s an impressive sight, and immense concrete bridge in pieces on the ground. That was the destructive power of liquefaction. And that epicenter was much further away than this hypothetical Puente Hills quake would be. The damage from a 7 magnitude quake in the Downtown area would be exponentially greater. A lot more overpasses would topple. A lot of houses will be red tagged. What a mess.

Probably be some great yard sales, though.

1964-alaska-earthquake-anchorage-everett

Anchorage, 1964. You’ll be happy to know that no matter how nasty a quake the San Andreas has in store for Southern California, this sort of thing will not happen. The Anchorage quake was one vast tectonic plate (the Pacific) suddenly shoving itself beneath another (the North American plate). Subduction they call it, a slow process that every once in a while gets stuck. When subduction unsticks you get scenes like this. The North American plate side of 4th Street here wound up 38 feet above the Pacific plate side, making parking difficult. This cannot happen on the San Andreas, which is where the same two plates just slide past each other, one heading north, once south. Occasionally things get stuck and then, after some time, unstuck. It was the unstuck that leveled San Francisco in 1906. And it will be a similar unsticking that will someday level Palmdale and Palm Springs, shaking the rest of us something awful. However, there would be no displacement like that in Anchorage–the San Andreas unsticking would be a sudden horizontal movement, not vertical. If that makes you feel any better.

Deep time

(No idea when I wrote most of this….)

Next time you go up the 5 through the Grapevine, and come to the place where Highway 138 comes in, you’re crossing the San Andreas Fault. Fault zone, really. It’s fairly wide. You can see it on the highway itself, which is in permanent repair–shifting earth makes for busted up concrete. And you can see it in the land itself…take a look at that rippled terrain. It smooths out again as you go towards Gorman. And south of there is just steep hills and canyons/valleys. But right there at the junction you can see how the terrain is being pulled apart and pushed together as the plates grinds past one another. And dig the intense folding in the exposed layers of rock. Hard to imagine the force that can warp and bend solid rock like that. People and everything we are nothing compared to that sort of force. If you’ve ever been through a serious earthquake you know what I mean. That feeling of being very small and squishy and fragile as huge forces erupt under our feet. And then there’s the whole deep time thing. Our lifetimes barely measure a century, pile up those centuries and you’ve got a hundred, maybe two hundred thousand years and, I’m sorry to say, that’s about as far as human time goes. If you want real recorded history, then you’ve got only a few thousand years. Big things happen in a few thousand years, big human things, civilizations rise and fall. But all those things are nothing in deep time. Just a finger snap. A flicker. A match flaring and going out again. A human lifespan is a nanosecond of deep time. A million years is a small integer in deep time. But the earth happens in deep time. The plates move in deep time. Continents drift in deep time. Rarely does human time and deep time intersect, though when they do it is with terrifying suddenness. The world shakes and big beautiful concrete ribbon freeway exchanges collapse.

You’ll notice that the folding along the rest of the drive is more linear…it still dips and curves, but it appears to be under much less compression, and hasn’t fragmented. I love how you go from the Pacific Plate to the North American Plate right there. The North American plate is some ancient rock, man. Going way back. In the very center–the American Midwest–it’s what they call a craton, a really ancient slab of continent. Flat, with thousands of feet of soil on top. In California the North American plate is what they call orogenic, all tore up and mussed up and stretched and pulled and broken from the plates sliding past one another. All our beautiful topography and localized ecosystems and microclimates are the result. I think, if I remember my revisionist geology right, that the stuff on the Pacific Plate side is probably all kinds of islands and the like compressed into a mess as the Pacific plate pushed east. So southern California is a conglomerate of junk all moving northeast at a remarkably fast (tectonically speaking) three to four inches a year, while the North American plate is land that has been there a billion years through the comings and goings of various supercontinents. It’s moving, too–the entire surface of the globe is moving and will till the planet’s insides grow cold–but it moves at a comparative crawl and in a southwestern direction. The two massive plates grind past each other. Sometimes they stick in places, and when they unstick all hell breaks loose. That’s what happened to San Francisco in 1906…the plates came unstuck.

If it weren’t for earthquakes and the occasional panic when someone points out a fault running through the middle of Hollywood (perfectly visible to geologists) people would never see the evidence of slowly moving earth all around them. You’d never notice it here in Los Angeles, too many distractions, too many things to do, too many buildings and streets and parking lots and whatever cover it all up. There are faults running every which way through the Los Angeles basin–I’m sitting right on top of the Elysian Park Fault as I type–but people kind of pretend they aren’t there. And though potentially dangerous, these are all just little things compared to the San Andreas. Faults in this town are the result of all kinds of local pressures–basically the Pacific Plate being squeezed up against the North American and everything getting scrunched up and cracking like plaster on a slowly buckling wall–but the San Andreas is the big time, two plates coming together. The earth’s core is so hot that the mantle around it has liquid properties and the crust, the stuff we live on, sort of floats atop it, plates wafting in currents,  pushed by the mantle emerging from great fissures in the ocean floor and forming new crust. The plates are shoved into each other. Sometimes one pushes on top of the other and the loser is subducted back down into the mantle. Earthquakes of terrifying power can occur then, bigger than San Francisco’s even–Anchorage was virtually destroyed by one like that in 1963. Japanese civilization sits precariously atop another such subduction zone. Luckily here in California the plates exist in relative peace, pushing past each other. A little rough, but nothing tectonically existential. I know this may seem relative if you live in, say, San Francisco or Santa Cruz or the Coachella Valley or even Gorman. A 7.5 or so earthquake is just as scary to think about as a 9.5. You’ll still lose all the fine china. But the street won’t suddenly drop twenty feet.

Up the Grapevine you can see the effects of all this movement. You can see it because that whole pass is pretty much beyond the reach of civilization. Miles and miles of beautiful nothing and the occasional ranch house or empty farm or inevitable McDonalds. There’s all that land there, all those hills and bluffs and cliffs revealing tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands or even, in spots, millions of years of slow geologic history. You can see the forces at work. But only a frame at a time. Our entire lifespans are only a few feet in geologic time. If you live to be eighty years old and live in Los Angeles the land will have moved north with you on it maybe eight feet. Two hundred human lives laid end to end would see the Pacific Plate move northwest less than a mile. That’s it. And though relatively fast in tectonic terms, it’s not much progress. Just about nothing. Meaningless even. People will come through the Grapevine a thousand years from now and see all those rocks, and the rocks will be in the same place, pretty much, as when I last looked. A few landslides will shift things around, some flash floods. Otherwise, though, you’d never know anything had moved at all. A thousand years from now (and one hundred and twenty five feet from here) you and I will be long forgotten. That is just a hint of geologic time. That is the deep time we flit about in, changing nothing.

The San Andreas Fault...dig the layers there. They were originally laid down horizontal and quite flat. Now they've been compressed and rolled into a strudel. How much time are we seeing there, a million years? More?

The San Andreas Fault…dig the layers there. They were originally laid down horizontal and quite flat. Now they’ve been compressed and rolled into a strudel. How much time are we seeing there, a million years? More?

The earth beneath our feet

(This was a quick Facebook post and is a bit of a mess but I’ll leave it as is….)

In wonderfully telegraphic prose, a comrade posted “earthquake in japan now. pacific rim is heating up. cali needs to be ready?”

A ha. Rocks. Earthquakes. The very earth beneath our feet. After myself, my other favorite subject. I actually decided against a career in geology for a career in punk rock, epilepsy and writing about me.  Say a’a, the doctor said, and out flowed this:

About 90% (I began) of the world’s earthquakes happen in the Pacific Rim’s Ring of Fire, so it’s shaking all the time. There’s no connection between California and Japanese quakes, though. Our quakes happen because the eastern spreading portion of the Pacific plate (and a smaller connected plate) are being pulled under the North American plate, while Japanese quakes happen because Japan sits where the western spreading portion of the Pacific plate is being pulled under the plate that eastern Siberia is on. The fault zones are unconnected.

In California the plates are sort of moving past one another, the Pacific plate sliding beneath the North American plate at an angle, while in Japan the plates together slam head on. Subduction is not a pretty process. Geology, mostly, is violence in slow motion, a few inches a year. Those undulating layers you see in California road cuts are layers once horizontal subjected to immense pressures. The bend slowly. Sometimes, though, you see layers shattered, as if they exploded. That’s because often they did. You might be looking at the frozen remains of earthquakes. Rock busts into fragments and the surface above shakes. Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. The San Andreas Fault is where two tectonic plates slide past each other at about an inch and a half per year. Sometimes they catch and remain stuck till enough pressure builds up that they uncatch and destroy San Francisco. But there is vastly more energy to be released when plates collide directly than when they slide past each other, hence the frequency and power of Japanese quakes. Japan actually is the result of two (or is it three, I can’t remember) plates being dragged under (or subducted) beneath two other much larger plates. In Japan you have these two or three separate collisions (not just the one I alluded to in an earlier paragraph, keeping things simple), and each collision is vast and inexorable, and all that friction and compression and crunching and pushing causes nearly incessant earthquakes of sometimes unbelievable power and destructiveness. Indeed, Japan itself is a result of these collisions, with sea bed forced upward and vast amounts of the liquid rock mantle being released from cracks in the crust through volcanos. Geologically it’s a helluva mess, volatile and unstable and virtually quivering and literally quaking with pent up seismic energy.  Just be thankful, Californians, that we have nothing even remotely similar to this. (They do in Alaska, which is how Anchorage was leveled in 1964, the Pacific Plate suddenly lurching violently and shoving itself beneath the North American Plate, leaving one side of the street thirty feet higher than the other.) The San Andreas may pop off every couple generations. Japan has giant quakes every couple years. They handle them with aplomb. Their buildings don’t fall down. Port au Prince Tokyo is not. It’s not even Fillmore.

As for the devastating Nepali quakes these past several days, those are the result of India slowly crashing into Asia for the past 50 million years. It’s weird to think that in that span of time there have probably been a million huge quakes in what is now the Himalayas, just like these last two. A million quakes raising the earth six inches each time is what created the Himalayas. The top of Mount Everest was at the bottom of a shallow sea a half billion years ago. The rocks way up there are full of fossil crinoids. Imagine how many earthquakes it took to raise them 30,000 feet into the air.

Next time you pass through a roadcut, take a look at the rocks exposed. The violence in those bent and twisted layers is incredible. So much power moving a couple millimeters a year. The earth moves in millions of years. We are nothing, our entire lifespan a geologic nanosecond, like we aren’t even here.

Still, I love rocks.

A roadcut on the I-40 outside Kingman AZ, with a layers of sediments as horizontal as when they were deposited being split in two by a young fault. Come back in a few million years see what it looks like.

A roadcut on the I-40 outside Kingman AZ, with layers of sediments as horizontal as when they were deposited, now being split in two by a young fault. Come back in a few million years to see what it looks like.