Mountains that Remade America

Jones_comp proof

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers.

GG will give a talk at the Rocky Mountain Map Society on September 10, 2019, at the Denver Public Library, fifth floor, Gates Room, 5:30 pm and open to the public.

Read More…

Why review? (Poll!)

GG is a bit frustrated having now asked 10 scientists to review a paper.  At the moment there are 2 recently contacted with no answer, 5 outright “no”s and 3 no reply after a long time.

So this prompts GG to ask the question, how do you decide when to review a paper? Give your best answers below and maybe GG will figure out what he is doing wrong….

War on Science: Dear Leader edition

OK, now we’ve crossed another bright line.  While it was bad enough to have an unsigned letter claiming that Trump wasn’t wrong about Alabama being hit by Dorian, a report in the New York Times says senior NOAA officials were threatened with being fired if they didn’t toe the line and say that Trump was right.

This is unforgivable, and the person whose job should be on the line (assuming this reporting is true) is Commerce Secretary Ross. Weather Service personnel did what they are supposed to: relay accurate information to protect the public.

Enough of gaslighting on, of all things, the potential impacts of a hurricane.  The utter and total disregard for facts, for scientific professionalism, all to appease a man increasingly behaving like a tin pot dictator is utterly shameful.

Educational Tension

GG has taught a lot of classes over the years and generally does somewhat below the departmental average as measured by a questionnaire filled out by students in the last weeks of the term, here termed an FCQ (Faculty Course Questionnaire).  Does this mean GG was the worse instructor?

It turns out that something relevant has shown up in studies of different forms of teaching.  So-called active learning has been found in multiple studies to result in greater comprehension of material than a standard passive lecture. But active learning isn’t as widespread as maybe it should be, and part of the reason is that professors say their students don’t like it.  This has been confirmed by a study that both shows that students think they learn more from a lecture, and that they actually learned more from an active learning class. While there are many facets to this, part of it is that a well constructed lecture is apt to sound so simple that students think they have mastered some concept even though actually trying to implement that concept might reveal less mastery.

The point being that asking a class how much they think they learned is probably an exercise in self-deception.  We already knew that such evaluations were tied to the mean grades in a class and have long suspected that personality plays an important role in student happiness with a course. None of that reflects the actual success in teaching.  The problem is that finding a tool suitable for measuring learning is hard.  Physics in some ways has it easier: the concepts are quite clear and the material is pretty well circumscribed.  There are a lot of physics learning inventories that are pretty well vetted out there. In earth science the available tools are fewer and far less comprehensive.

So do lower FCQ scores mean GG is a less effective teacher?  We don’t know.  Quite possibly the answer is yes, but in not knowing we run the risk of keeping less effective instructors in classrooms and moving more effective ones out.

Why Alabama Matters

A week ago on Sept. 1, President Trump tweeted out what seemed, on the face of it, to be a pretty innocuous message: “In addition to Florida – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated. Looking like one of the largest hurricanes ever. Already category 5. BE CAREFUL! GOD BLESS EVERYONE!” Later, in a briefing on Dorian, he said “It may get a little piece of a great place — it’s called Alabama. And Alabama could even be in for at least some very strong winds and something more than that, it could be. This just came up, unfortunately.”

The National Weather Service in Birmingham 20 minutes after the tweet put out their own tweet that Alabama would not be seeing significant impacts of the storm–which proved to be correct. And here is the National Hurricane Center’s map from their 5 am 1 Sept. update on Dorian:


(You can see the full collection of graphics at the National Hurricane Center’s site). Now such plots are routinely misread (winds extend out tens of miles from the storm’s center, for instance, and tracks in days 4 and 5 are often missed about a third of the time), but the forecast probability for tropical storm force winds barely nicked Alabama, while showing a greater threat to Virginia, Maryland and Delaware:


What followed bordered on slap-stick comedy that echoed many other times when the administration’s message was misaligned with reality, such as his first encounter with misbehaving weather when he said it wasn’t raining at his inauguration when it was. But this time some things were different: Trump had potentially panicked people in Alabama, and his defense utterly muddled the ongoing warnings of the actual impact of Dorian on the southeast coast.

While this administration’s many U-turns in public pronouncements along with over the top grandstanding and “what-aboutisms” have long been fodder for political pundits, few if any of those pronouncements carried the weight of “this affects what you should be doing right now.” Of course the weather service in Alabama had to react when Trump said that emerging information indicated that Alabama was at risk when it wasn’t. People in Alabama needed the best information so they might prepare–or, in this case, not.

Had Trump simply said “sorry, misspoke thinking of some graphs I saw four days ago” nobody really would have thought much about this; the storm’s post-Bahamas track had been very troubling for forecasters and some confusion was understandable, if regrettable. But by instead insisting he had spoken correctly and showing a fairly old (and doctored) map of Dorian’s path just as Dorian was turning to chew up the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the President risked confusing residents of coastal areas about when and where the storm would strike.

The last straw for many was the attempt by NOAA to appease the President, claiming that graphics like those above that show he was right even though they rather clearly show he was wrong.

There can be a lot of disagreement about how a President should behave and what policies he should advocate, but inflicting worry and possible chaos in potentially life-threatening situations is outside those bounds. In a way, this seems like a continuation of the administration’s war on science. We need a President to help warning those who should be warned–or just staying out of the way–not bickering over an errant tweet. Especially when the sole purpose is to pretend that the President is always right.

Nature, Nurture and the Anthropocene

Kind of a few thoughts bouncing about the internet about land and how it should managed and how that relates to the challenged term of the Anthropocene epoch.  Collected, they indicate how confused we are about nature and humanity’s impacts on nature. Let’s work our way backwards through time in pondering this.

First up, a story about a transfer of management from the federal government to a Native American tribe. High Country News covers this transfer in Oregon, where the Cow Creek band of the Umpqua Tribe took over control of land just in time for a considerable fraction to burn in a forest fire. They had yet to implement a management plan, but they know the path they want to follow:

[Michael] Rondeau explained that the management of Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians reservation lands would reflect Indigenous values: an example separate from either industry or conservation groups. “We don’t believe in locking up the forests and allowing them to ‘remain natural,’ because it never was,’” Rondeau said. “For thousands of years, our ancestors used fire as a tool of keeping underbrush down, so that the vegetation remains healthy and productive.”

As the article points out, this places the tribe at odds with many environmentalists, a conflict that actually goes pretty far back–though maybe not quite as far as some would have it:

“The conservation movement began as a way for settlers to justify the seizure of Indigenous lands under the pretext that Native peoples didn’t know how to manage them,” says Shawn Fleek, Northern Arapaho, who is director of narrative strategy for OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon. “If modern conservation groups don’t begin their analysis in this history and struggle to address these harms, it becomes more likely they will repeat them.”

This is an interesting take on frontier justice, for while conservationists were indeed complicit in accepting the status quo that followed removal of Native peoples, given the opposition from locals to withdrawal of lands from private use, it seems a reach to imagine gold miners triggering armed conflict under the banner of conservation.

At the heart of this dispute is the question of what exactly do we mean by “nature”? Read More…

End Days

No, not the apocalypse or even the robot apocalypse but the end of days because…we learn something?

Probably one of the more bizarre op-eds to hit the New York Times was by philosophy professor Preston Greene, who warns us not to try a test to see if our reality is really just a computer simulation. His logic is that the simulation ceases to be useful one it realizes it is a simulation. Who knew philosophers were into comedy?

The basis for tests like the one disturbing Prof. Greene is that you can’t simulate the whole universe without…a spare universe.  A rather daunting task. So the current logic is that any simulation would have approximations for more distant venues (and that Earth is the actual focus of study), and that somewhere those approximations would become apparent.

It doesn’t take much thought to question the internal logic and then the external logic here.  The internal logic says that a self-realizing simulation would be terminated as it wouldn’t be useful.  That all depends on what the point of the simulation would be. If it is to understand how civilizations react to learning they are simulations, then there is no risk.  Or if it is to study anthropogenic climate change, it might not matter either. And in practice, it isn’t clear that being in a simulation really would change how you go about your life, so would such recognition matter?  After all, people have lived their lives thinking that their path was ordained by God–how is this really different?

Frankly, if it was that important that the simulation would be unaware, you’d probably stick in some routine to warn of an impending test that might show this was a simulation so you could fudge the results of the test.

On the external side, you learn that philosophers aren’t very familiar with running simulations. For a real study, you want to make simulations that are focused on something you are interested in studying; ideally you leave out all the other junk that doesn’t matter–even if you could put it in. Does the rise and fall of civilization really depend on getting the ratio of lutetium to hafnium right in zircon crystals that were eroded and redeposited several times over the past 3 billion years? That Pluto have a geologic history? That the Earth’s magnetic field reverses from time to time? To make the Earth that geologists see, you’d have to simulate the whole history of the planet down to the isotopic content of individual mineral grains over about 4 billion years. Why would you bother? There is an amazing amount of information in some of the most prosaic of materials that actually makes sense.  Why trouble running a simulation for billions of years when you could just say “let’s start with these isotopic ratios everywhere at 5000 BC?”–particularly when you want to run “very many” simulations which could be rather time consuming.

So any kind of intellectual investigation seems unlikely (too much irrelevant detail). Who would make such a total and complete simulation?  Frankly, it would be some hobbyist who wanted to make a perfect simulation–probably in competition with another hobbyist.

It is hard to guess at motivations of some quasi-descendents who could master the resources of a solar system just to make a simulation–maybe outright boredom. But the logic that there would be lots of these simulations and therefore the odds are low of any one individual being “real” instead of simulated sits on a raft of pretty questionable assumptions.

How to mislocate an earthquake [nerdy]

One of the bread-and-butter things seismologists do is locate earthquakes. There are kind of two main flavors of this: one is global and the other is local/regional.  GG doesn’t do global relocations (but will point out that depth of such locations often relies on the presence of depth phases like pP reflections from the surface or the relative strength of surface waves) but has done local event locations.  And there are gotchas out there that often aren’t as appreciated as they should be because all too often data is pitched into an inversion code and the resulting output is accepted as correct.

We’ll start with some simple things and move into somewhat complex stuff a bit but will stop short of the really ugly problems of locating events in a 3-D structure that is in part determined by those same travel times.

Read More…