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. (The paperback version will be out in February 2020).

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Depeopling Peaks?

Probably one of the oddities of the western U.S. is the way that peaks acquired their names. While in the east some Native names survived and others were named by American locals for a shape or some local dignitary, in the west an awful lot of the names were thrown on by government surveyors. Some of these names are now insulting, some were borderline obscene at the time, and some record some pretty minor events (Disaster Peak in the Sierra is not where the Donner Party met a gruesome end, nor is it the site of a massacre. It is where a surveyor’s legs were smashed by a dislodged boulder). A fair number of those survey parties were staffed by scientists, so there are a lot of names of scientists out there–including no small numbers of members of the survey parties.

This is troublesome on many levels. Most of these people had no connection to these landscapes at all. And sometimes their connection hasn’t survived the test of time well: Mt. Evans memorializes a territorial governor of Colorado who now is best known for being associated with the Sand Creek Massacre. A proposal is out to rename the peak to Mt. Blue Sky. Other names have been proposed, and Colorado’s governor has acted to create an advisory board to consider a whole host of names across the state.

While the initial focus will be on names that insult people and names of individuals who are no longer viewed in a positive way, there are a lot of other peak names out there with names of scientists. Should these survive?

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Was the “War on Science” essential to Trumpism?

GG encountered an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times arguing that science education was a means of combating the “fake news” dismissal of unpleasant facts that we have seen in the past few years. While this seems a bit of a stretch to GG (there are scientists who have advocated some pretty dubious interpretations of reality–Robert Millikan’s embrace of eugenics, for instance, is causing his name to be removed from the Caltech campus after practically being a campus saint for decades), it does suggest a question: was science itself viewed as a threat to the exercise of power by Trump and his appointees? It feels like the answer is yes.

Over the years there have been plenty of times when administrations did something that scientists argued was unwise. In general, federally employed scientists would provide their insights, and usually (but not always) would be allowed to testify to Congress about what their scientific research says about particular policy questions. Policy makers might decide against scientific advice, but that advice was on the table.

However, if the policy objective is to make facts irrelevant (in essence, to gaslight the nation), then the less access scientists have to governmental information, the less they are present within the government to give advice, the easier it is to claim that outside scientists don’t have all the information and make claims that decisions are being based on science when they are not. In this instance, it isn’t any particular science or any special issue that demands the sidelining of science, it is the essence of what science is that is a threat to the government. Viewed through the prism, the rather widespread actions taken to remove outside scientists from government and political pressure put on scientific groups in the government makes sense. The “war on science” was really an assault on knowing things, which is kind of the direction science takes.

What does this mean going forward? If the GOP has decided that a core tenet of the party will be dismissal of facts, then science will be politicized whether practitioners agree with it or not. This is a major departure from the past and portends of dangerous times ahead for science and scientists, not to mention for wise governance of the country. Some describe Trump’s rise as one of a populist nature; it isn’t clear that populism per se would crowd out science. Demagoguery, on the other hand, can find misinformation useful. Is this what the Republican party really wants?

It is important to note that through the Trump years, requests for gutting the budgets of scientific agencies made by the Trump administration were generally ignored by Congress. Whether it was pressure from constituents, from industries, or just a need to bring home the bacon, Congress wasn’t interested in crippling science in this country the way the administration was (even when the GOP held both houses of Congress). So hopefully the trends that existed within the Trump administration do not characterize the GOP as a whole.

War on Science: Victory?

What a difference a week makes. Whereas Trump took a couple of years to name a science advisor, Biden not only had such a person named before taking the presidential oath, he wanted that person to sit in his cabinet. After years of pushing out science and scientists from government, the return invitation was more than a return to an ante-Trump normal, it appears to be quite the promotion.

On the face of it, this make sense. Two of the main priorities of the Biden administration are COVID-19 and climate change, both of which demand competent scientific advice. So making the wisdom of scientists more prominent at high levels is long overdue.

There are risks. Scientists are not generally the best at determining policy. Eager to shoot holes in hypotheses, the same behavior when considering policy options can result in total gridlock. “Letting the perfect be the enemy of the good enough” might well be a scientific motto. Additionally, “failure is not an option” is anathema to scientists, where failing a theory is where glory lies. So the reward structure of science might be a little screwy in appearance to non-scientists. Thus the policy choices scientists might make could reflect a very different balance than most people would want. Sure, there are exceptions, but you might not want to count on always identifying the exceptions.

And in this case, after a brutal and divisive time, elevating scientists so prominently can make them the object of political attacks. This does not serve the country or science well, but with widespread attacks on public health officials over all manner of guidelines fully based on science, it is quite plausible that science as a whole could become viewed as partisan. If we descend to a point where one political party denies the reality measured by scientists, we will be in a world of pain, ping-ponging from one set of behaviors to another. The hope is that the Trump administration will prove to have been an anomaly in that regard.

GG’s hope is that having scientific advice at the highest levels will become standard behavior in the U.S. and that it not become a political football. GG would also hope that while scientists’ concerns and findings be heard and understood by those setting policy, that policy-setting stay in others’ hands. Scientists are members of a very elitist group; their experiences and concerns are likely out of step with many citizens. Many scientists (especially those reaching levels like this) are cocky and overconfident in their abilities outside their home fields. There are times when it can be amazing just how certain a scientist might be about something that, realistically, they barely comprehend (see some non-earth scientists’ screeds about climate change for examples). We absolutely need scientific findings to be available and considered in the rooms where decisions are being made; we do not need to have a scientific oligarchy controlling American lives, for the good of both Americans and scientists.

But you know, it’s nice to see that we are wanted again.

Left holding the bag by Adobe

Some years back many of us saw an opportunity to make electronic publication of science more than just a limitless pile of page images. We could have interactivity: the deeper and richer datasets and models being created and interpreted could be more fully presented to readers who could interrogate the data directly rather than having to, say, download raw tables and replicate a bunch of work before being able to see if looking at the data a bit differently yielded a different interpretation.

And so some of us demonstrated such tricks by embedding interactive material into pdfs of scientific papers. While some of this was the trivial use of layers or embedding a movie, other examples were more sophisticated. These typically relied on Flash.

Well, as you no doubt know, Flash is no more. Adobe, like the rest of the world, has moved on to HTML5 tricks and beyond. But what was stranded–entirely and apparently irrevocably–are animations embedded in pdfs. There is no tool for embedding html5 in pdfs. There is no scaled-down Flash viewer that works with pdfs. Nope, all you get now from those pdfs is a message that Flash is dead and a worthless link to an FAQ online that doesn’t even consider the possibility that you got there from trying to look at a pdf.

GG had hoped that there would be some substitute. The underlying language of Flash is in fact open source. Adobe wouldn’t just utterly kill off a major capability of their software, would they? Well, the answer is now crystal clear: it is “yes”. And what is more, there is no real substitute out there (the closest are epubs, which are not particularly well supported, especially when it comes to real interactivity).

In an online-always world, maybe you shrug and convert over to html 5. Which, realistically, means you only can access a document live as it will depend on a host of other files to fully become a document. And after the misadventures with Adobe and Flash, just how future proof do you think html5 is going to be? So interactive scientific publication is, once more, dead. Yes, you can do a few tricks with layers and (oddly enough) embedded 3-d models still work (an odd thing to carry forward). But anything more than that is dead and gone.

GG has a couple of papers using these tools that are now very difficult to read; one had even won an award.

All this was unnecessary. Macromedia and then Adobe could have knifed off the troublesome hooks that Flash had developed into the operating system and returned it to a local, sandbox-friendly tool. Apple sounded the alarm when they prevented Flash from running on iOS many years ago. But they fell prey to the same fantasy of write-once-deploy-everywhere that has been a goal for many, from Bill Gates’s versions of Basic to the initial promises of Java and on to Flash (frankly, Python is showing signs of the same lack of hubris).

So we raise a proud middle finger to Adobe and its carefree disregard for its users. You showed us a path forward and then took it away. And so many of us now wish the same oblivion for you.

War on Science: “Don’t Let the Door Hit You On the Way Out” Edition

Honestly, you’d think with just over a week left to the Trump administration, and with a few other distractions in the air, that the years of denying science might have already ended. No such luck.

Perhaps the most desperate move was to take a number of climate-denier essays and plop them on official letterhead of a part of the government that didn’t actually review these documents. These weren’t even posted on a government site. Ars Technica has more details, which includes that the postings might be illegal and that it is unlikely that they can be considered official government documents. Terms like “laughable” and “fifth-grade-level” show the kind of respect these documents are attracting.

The more dangerous move was the establishment of a rule essentially codifying the HONEST act of Lamar Smith from several years ago. While some earlier rules put forth made it harder to prove that certain chemicals were harming humans, this rule actually can prevent the use of more direct scientific evidence simply because there are privacy issues that prevent satisfying the terms of the rule. While this particular rule might well be rescinded by Congress, saving the Biden administration from formal efforts to repeal it, other rules will continue to be challenged in court or require new administrative efforts to change the rules. The New York Times compiled a list of climate and environment related rules the Trump administration made that will bedevil the new administration for some time. While many of these are more political footballs than science policy issues, there are several that reflect both a willingness to ignore settled science and a desire to prevent scientific research from influencing policy decisions.

So as we bid adieu to an administration that arguably was more at war with science than almost any other part of American society, we can expect that repairing the damage will take some time. What is less obvious is the longterm impact of the Trump administrations approach for future GOP administrations: will they adopt “science as enemy” or return to a more mainstream approach when they return to power?

Herd Racing

So how does the pandemic end? While we’ve discussed possible and likely overall mortality, the details of the end of the pandemic were so far away that it wasn’t worth much thought. But with vaccinations underway, we can start to see the end with herd immunity in the offing. But it probably isn’t what you are thinking. Let’s play with a straightforward scenario: Vaccinations proceed roughly as has already been outlined. Does this mean that COVID cases gradually die out? GG isn’t so sure.

Here in Colorado the governor’s main worry has been overwhelming hospitals, and he has been eager to remove restrictions on businesses. So by the end of February all those 70 and over who want a vaccination will get it. By the state’s calculation, this will reduce pressure on hospitals overall by a third, deaths by nearly four-fifths, and ICUs somewhere in between. So sometime in March the reports on deaths will plummet and the numbers hospitalized will drop. Two things are likely at this point: the state will probably reduce restrictions on businesses, and the public’s perception of the hazards of personal interaction will decrease.

So what seems highly plausible is that we’ll see the pent-up demand for movie theaters and restaurants and weddings and all the rest start to go upward. With vaccinations reaching the 60-70 year old crowd, the fraction of those infected that go to the hospital will drop by more than a factor of two. For instance, in Boulder County, a quarter of those 75 and older who test positive end up in the hospital or morgue. 65-74 year olds only end up in the hospital 7.5% of the time. 55-64 6%, 25-54 less than 2%. And the fraction of 25-54 year olds who are infected but never tested is probably higher than the older population, so it is quite possible that the actual hospitalization rate is well under 1%. So by the time the 60-year-olds and up are immunized, personal acquaintanceship with dire stories of saying goodbye to grandma via the phone will be fading fast, to be replaced with more folks saying “it was like a bad cold, not so awful, really.”

So there is an excellent chance that rather than seeing numbers gradually decline, there will be one final wave of COVID-19, one tearing through young adult communities more than likely (communities that have already demonstrated the impatience of youth). Given that we are seeing rates of infection in LA County where 1% of the population is testing positive each week–and probably 2-3 times as many are actually infected–it might be a race to see if more people become immunized by having had COVID-19 or by having gotten a shot. While hospitals and morgues will be far less likely to be overwhelmed, case numbers could skyrocket in this final wave. This might end quite abruptly as we rapidly approach herd immunity levels of exposure+vaccination.

In a way this sounds hopeful: we’d actually reach herd immunity sooner in such an environment. But that is not an unmitigated good. While less than 1 in 50 of these victims of the disease will be hospitalized, that is still a huge number of people. And given the high rates of long-term effects of COVID-19 among those hospitalized, ending the pandemic by a final wave among younger people would carry some real costs in terms of disabilities and collateral illnesses.

What might prevent this? Keeping high-risk businesses closed longer might well help; this realistically requires these businesses to get financial support from the government (here in Colorado, Gov. Polis has noted that the absence of such support figures into his decisions on COVID interventions). Having a known date to get the vaccine might help, too. If your calendar reminds you how many more days until you get the vaccine, you might be more willing to tough it out than to break with your good behavior to go out with friends. Certainly the faster vaccines are distributed, the fewer cases of COVID we will see. And finally, there is the weather factor. Going into spring we might see cases decline simply because we have fresh air in houses and spend more time outdoors; maybe this is enough to counterbalance these other impulses.

So while the end is in sight, how the end comes remains in question.

The ICU Christmas

Pictures from around the country, but especially California, are giving GG déjà vu. Two years ago I had the misfortune to spend Christmas (and New Years) in an ICU room. Seeing the images of drawings of Santa or snowmen taped to walls or plastic tents brought back memories of the decorations my family brought in to the hospital. Not really warm, wonderful memories.

I discovered that ICUs are usually pretty quiet over the holidays (this year an obvious exception); this largely because elective surgeries are on hiatus for the most part. Other than that, I can’t imagine it is all that different from the rest of the year in terms of routine and inconvenience; it is of course quite different emotionally. One day you are stringing up lights, and then you’re the one strung up on tubes.

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The Curious History of Counties

Apparently some folks are thinking that Biden lost the election because he won so few counties. Which, of course, is silly because counties don’t elect presidents in any way shape or form. And the Census Bureau pointed out awhile back that most Americans live in just a few counties. But just how is it that the counties look this way? A trip through the Atlas of Historical County Boundaries can provide some insight.

GG has an exercise he’s used in a class to examine how counties have changed in western states over time. It is interesting to compare, say, Kansas and Colorado. In Kansas, the size of counties is unimodal: they are all about the same size. Pretty much as soon as an area was occupied by settlers, they broke a previously large county into smaller ones. The result, early on, was that counties tended to have the same population (with the exception of Kansas City, Kansas). Whether the county size was dictated by how far away a county seat could be considered accessible or by a count of people per county, the effect was pretty obvious: Kansas counties were all about the same by the early twentieth century. As of 1960 (and essentially the same as 1880), Kansas counties had an average area of 784 ± 218 (1 sigma) square miles.

Since then, of course, western Kansas was decimated by the Dust Bowl and has further suffered by the consolidation of farms into megafarms. Aside from communities along the main highway (I-70), most have plenty of empty store fronts. Meanwhile, the cities in Kansas have grown, so the population per county has become bimodal despite the uniform size of the counties.

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COVID killed which learning?

Last spring the word was that because of the coronavirus, remote teaching would finally be the killer app that would make good on the promise of MOOCs and other efforts to liberate colleges from the hidebound methods of teaching that date back to the Middle Ages. College presidents looking at budgets heavy on old professors’ salaries were rubbing their hands with some glee; this could finally make colleges more financially secure. Then students weighed in with “ick.” Over the summer the institutional response was, well of course the old farts couldn’t teach online that well, you had to do it right with preparation and tools and workshops. Universities spent money on IT resources and the various teaching improvement groups held workshops and faculty played with Zoom breakout rooms and such not. So here in the fall, we were to see the conquering of education by remote teaching after the slap-dash failure in the spring.

What did we get? Um, lawsuits demanding refunds for lower than expected teaching quality. Schools cutting programs because students were not flocking to get an education through a somewhat small TV screen. So where are we going?

Right now, of course, there will be more of the same for the spring. But let’s skip past that. What will things look like in the fall of 2021?

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Tenure, the coming COVID fatality

Universities and colleges have been under tremendous financial pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic. This is particularly true of state schools that have seen general fund moneys decline markedly since the Great Recession. While students and families yell, scream, lobby or file lawsuits to try to get money back from an educational environment that they find to be substandard, the response from most colleges and universities is, we hear you, but our pockets are bare.

What does this mean for the future? Well, administrators are now saying things like “our budget is quite brittle”–which kind of means that if stressed, it doesn’t bend, it breaks. If you get beyond a certain level of cuts that can be managed with furloughs and temporary salary reductions, the next step is outright dissolution of departments and programs. Part of the reason is presented to be tenure, though the reality is that tenure protections do not extend to financial hardship of the university. Of course it can be hard to show that a tenured faculty member had to be let go while colleagues in the same department continue forward; it is for this reason that most schools view the easier solution as ending programs.

So what is the solution?

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