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.

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Geoperil

Not what you think.  GG was hiking recently on a 15 mile loop in the mountains west of Boulder when, seven miles from the trailhead, he encountered a fellow walking with his dog.  As he passed, he stopped and asked, “is this the way to the loop?” “Um, what loop do you mean?” “The one back to Fourth of July.” “There is no loop to Fourth of July.”

This fellow apparently was told in about the vaguest possible terms that there was a loop hike from the Fourth of July trailhead.  The loop probably was the one GG was hiking that day, but that loop was out of Hessie.  Had the fellow not stopped (and had GG not wanted to know what loop he was talking about), his fate might have been dire. He had no map and didn’t seem to have much if anything in the way of gear to survive a night in the wild.

Were this a one-off, GG would chalk it up to random chance.  But he has encountered numerous folks wandering those trails with no idea where they were, where they were headed, or how to find their way out. Such nimrods occasionally have to be officially rescued, like the pair with a dog on Shoshoni Peak recently. Wearing tank tops and shorts, they were fortunate to have a sat phone, but when asked what happened, the men said they got on the wrong trail. Which might be understandable were there, in fact, a trail to Shoshoni Peak. (There is a route that somebody put into OpenStreetMaps using the same markings as a trail, but there is not and has not been a real trail). Other similar stories are common enough that only the most local papers ever relate them (and those usually have to be sufficiently unusual to merit even the smallest interest from the media).

GG frankly cannot recall in years past such widespread disregard for knowing where you were and where you were going and having the tools to confirm that you were on the right path.  Long ago there was a decent excuse for getting lost–finding a place selling the appropriate topographic maps, knowing how to read them, having a compass and knowing how to use it were all significant barriers.  But now there are dozens of phone apps that can offload maps for use away from cell towers and use GPS to plot you on those maps. Or buy a preloaded handheld GPS with all the maps you need. Even paper maps are more common than in years gone by and are often more user friendly than older topographic quadrangle maps that lacked current trail locations and often required mosaicking to be useful. Online trail guides with decent maps can be printed and carried, often with GPS coordinates that can be used with many devices. In short, it has never been easier to know where you are in the wilderness, and yet it seems more and more people are going in utterly ignorant of the terrain, the trails, and the troubles that can ensue.

This has been a bit of a theme GG has noticed.  In the geoscience literature, it is expressed as increasingly poor citations to the literature despite tools making it much easier than years ago. Or the scientists publishing a paper every five days. You see stories of people blindly following a GPS onto bike paths or into blizzards. The belief that your Google searches are superior to an expert’s training and experience seems to be related. The quest for views and likes encourages outrageousness and stupidity rather than study and subtlety. Basically, lazy slap-dash work is rewarded equally to careful and complete work, or at least it isn’t so punished as to make it unrewarding. So we have people wandering in the hills who are rescued by the few who know what they are doing, or those who answer 911 cell calls, or search and rescue teams. We have papers submitted where the authors say “oh, that will get caught in review, we don’t need to worry about it.” We have kids who aren’t inoculated who get protected by herd immunity, people diagnosing and treating their maladies from the internet, we have interlopers generating misleading materials to tilt elections.

How much of this is cause and effect? Are we just all getting stupider for no reason, or are these amazing aids crutches that atrophy the intellect? When you have a voice telling you where to turn, what happens to your spatial awareness? When every trivial fact is a click away on your smartphone, why retain any knowledge at all? When opinions that reinforce your beliefs are all around you, why bother to challenge them?

GG isn’t sure.  But he thinks maybe we should make sure cell signals don’t go into Wilderness and sat phones carry a minimum fee of $1000 per call.  Maybe then the benefit of preparedness will outweigh the cost of ignorance enough to start getting folks to anticipate disaster instead of merely survive it.

Meme Shopping

Arguably the sweetest job in America is to be an Op-Ed columnist for a major publication. Like everybody else in America, you have opinions you want to spout off on, but instead of lecturing from a barstool, standing on a street corner with a megaphone or writing an occasional letter to the editor, you get paid cash money! And a big audience! And what additional responsibility do you carry in exchange for this financial windfall? Frankly, it isn’t entirely clear there is any.  Imagine that you go visit friends while on vacation and they tell you how horrible the local government is.  You go home and write a column saying how horrible that local government is and isn’t it a shame that it isn’t better. Of course, that isn’t what columnists do, is it?

Well, try reading this column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times. Go ahead, we’ll wait…

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Too Prepared?

One of the things that strikes GG as odd is the semester-long reading plan. Basically a week-by-week or even day-by-day list of pages to read, this has become so ingrained in academia that course management tools now actually can automatically build it into the syllabus. And with this is the temptation for the more driven student to try and read well ahead of the class.

Now to be clear in many cases there is little harm in this.  Maybe in a math class you might find a student wanting to short-circuit the more awkward and basic set of derivations or calculations in favor of the better stuff later in the class, but for the most part seeing the more complex stuff to come will have little impact on how the current material is being taught and learned.

But in other cases it seems like it can be a distraction. If the instructor is trying to lead the class through material through discussion, building on material just covered to lead the class to see the utility of the next section, knowing the inevitable outcome kind of forces conversation or exposition towards that next reading. Any sense of exploration of the material is damped if not extinguished by knowing precisely where you are going.  And the driven student? He or she might be lacking the context necessary to really know what the reading is about when reading it weeks before classroom discussion.  Too often students seem to approach a reading as a series of facts to digest instead of a logical argument to parse and evaluate and getting far in front of the class risks encouraging that sort of shallow comprehension.

And for the instructor? She or he is handcuffed–syllabi are gospel to students and you risk changing anything in them at your own risk.  So if you find that the class is lagging from your expectations or is progressing more rapidly, it is hard to adjust. Worse yet is if you realize there is a different facet of the material that you should explore.  You’ve put your class in a straitjacket.

So maybe reading lists should stay hidden through the term, or at least be clearly provisional.

Mineral Eminence

One of the peculiarities of American law is that mineral rights tend to trump everything else. Basically, if somebody owns the mineral rights under your property, good luck keeping them off, as many owners of split estate surface rights have learned.

One irony is that this is not what some of the original court decisions favored. In a California Supreme Court decision in Biddle Boggs vs. Merced Mining Company, Justice Stephen Field (who would later be the longest serving member of the U.S. Supreme Court) wrote

There is something shocking to all our ideas of the rights of property in the proposition that one man may invade the possessions of another, dig up his fields and gardens, cut down his timber and occupy his land, under the pretense that he has reason to believe there is gold under the surface, or if existing, that he wishes to extract and remove it.

And with this, the court found that the surface rights prevented miners from entering John Fremont’s Mariposa Estate to seek and extract gold. (Only later did the courts decide that Fremont owned the gold under terms of his patent). But later decisions eventually upended this, giving the owner of mineral rights the opportunity–indeed, the right–to invade a surface right holder’s land to get at their minerals.

The result of the upper hand mineral rights holders have had has been that oil and gas developers have forced themselves on individuals and communities that are not welcoming their presence. Here in Colorado that has led to efforts from communities to ban development–efforts that have foundered on the supremacy of state law. So now the effort is to impose state-level restrictions on oil and gas development that would probably prevent development in nearly any city or town but would also restrict it in more rural areas where the rights are not split and the person occupying the house near the oil well is the one receiving the royalty checks every month.  The fight over this issue has led the oil and gas community to advance their own proposed amendment, one that would cripple everything from zoning laws to fire codes to noise ordinances. Just how this approach by both sides will play out remains to be seen, but it is clear that strong battle lines are drawn and there will be unintended casualties.

An alternative GG has never seen advanced is to use the eminent domain power of government to intervene in mineral development when it is contrary to the public interest. Eminent domain is not itself uncontroversial–while mainly used to do things like build a road, it has also been used to condemn an area to make way for new shopping centers, and so it is the bane of libertarians. But it is a well-known and well-established power in the U.S.  So why not use it for retiring mineral rights?

The first and most obvious answer is that the cost is too high. Most communities, and especially those with lower income residents, wouldn’t be able to afford the rights.  But maybe this isn’t as clear-cut as it seems. First, it isn’t the value of the oil or gas, it is the net value that should matter.  When it costs millions of dollars to sink holes in the ground, the return is relatively meager.  So meager, in fact, that many financial people are now viewing the oil and gas industry as one threatening to drown in red ink. When the federal government is getting about $450/acre for oil and gas leases, it would seem that the price of shutting down an oil play in a town could be pretty doable.

The second reservation may well be that eminent domain is limited to surface rights.  GG is not a land law attorney and so has no idea. But it might not be hard to change state law to allow it if indeed you can’t do it today.

A third reservation is that this wouldn’t stop imminent drilling. But that in fact can be stopped by municipal action–drillers have face moratoria as local governments have tried to settle on requirements regarding drilling in floodplains, near schools, etc. Simply putting a moratorium in place until an eminent domain purchase is concluded or denied would seem to be in line with current Colorado law.

In a sense the City of Longmont has kind of pursued this already, swapping rights in the city for income from rights the city holds elsewhere. As this included shutting down existing wells, it is a bit harder to relate to the question of using eminent domain, but the $3M price tag would seem to be higher than what would result from precluding drilling rather than shutting down existing and proposed wells.

Odds are that the current scorched earth approaches both sides are taking will be rejected by voters.  Coloradans are unlikely to want to so greatly eliminate the ability of rural residents from cashing in on their good fortune, but they are also unlikely to approve of making it impossible for their city or town government from enforcing such basic rules as zoning laws or noise ordinances. Perhaps after the dust has settled interest will shift to other means of addressing the legitimate concerns of drilling neighbors.

Teaching Time

With Labor Day at hand here in the U.S., between assembling materials for his first-year seminar, GG was thinking a little about teaching labor. This is also prompted by a local initiative to increase wages for public school teachers that was attacked by a letter to the editor of the local paper. That letter basically argued that school teachers work all of 180 days out of the year in a low-hazard job and so why should they get more pay? This is an echo of a comment years ago from a legislator who was on a committee overseeing Colorado’s public higher education. I mean, we’ve all been taught by teachers, so we know what teachers do, right?

It seems safe to say that those saying teachers have it easy have no experience teaching. It seems there is a perception that if you know the material, all you need to do is parade to the front of the classroom and tell the students what they need to know. Easy! But then there is the first reminder that you usually ask students to do work that you, the teacher, need to grade. Well, OK, so there is grading time–surely that can’t be much. And maybe you have described some teachers–undoubtably the worst teachers.

There is a challenge that teachers face that most of the rest of us really don’t. If you tell somebody something–don’t touch that lever, write up that memo, go to this address–you aren’t usually too concerned about how successfully the listener really got the message.  There is a pretty clear outcome (things happened or didn’t) and presumably you respond accordingly (keeping somebody employed or firing them). Basically the burden for success sits on the person lower in the pecking order–either they figure this out or they are out the door.

But teaching isn’t like that. Read More…

D2L Canvas Smackdown

This is only of interest to those of us using these course management systems.  Everybody else can find some other grumpiness on the site….

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Transparently DisHONEST

As we’ve noted a few times before, the attempts by certain members of Congress and this administration to use transparency as a subterfuge to torpedo science they don’t like.  Sometimes discussing this can seem like arguing with these folks for the sake of arguing–what could be wrong with transparency in science? Maybe the general arguments are just too vague.

So it happens that a very specific case with very specific outcomes and with a lot of strong indications of industry pressure to get to the “right” result might illustrate the problem better.  As reported by E&E News and reposted by Science, a group at Columbia made very detailed studies of a few hundred low-income women and their children who were exposed to the pesticide chlorpyrifos during pregnancy before the pesticide was banned for indoor use. The results of the study and its follow-ups were damning enough that the EPA moved to ban the pesticide outright.

Being a popular pesticide, producers lobbied to overturn the finding.  Some of those lobbyists now work within the administration, and now the EPA wants to delay a ban for at least 5 years, arguing that the original data needed to be available for all to play with. But when a federal appeals court demanded that the EPA follow through on the ban, the EPA tried to claim that the study’s data were “inaccessible.”

The problem is that the study was so detailed and from such a small area that identification of the members of the community that participated would be possible were the entire dataset made public. While Columbia offered a few alternatives that would preserve the privacy of the participants while permitting more detailed reanalysis, industry and the EPA were apparently uninterested, which seems to confirm the notion that their purpose was simply to reject the findings by claiming the data were insufficiently transparent.

This is the rather obvious playbook that those who pushed the HONEST Act effectively are trying to implement and apply to many other outcomes they dislike. If there was real honesty on the part of these people, their effort would include real money to help make anonymous the data as much as possible and would require that all industry-sponsored studies (not only the ones they want to promote) would be similarly required to share all their data.

Don’t hold your breath waiting…unless a plane just flew over dusting with chlorpyrifos…