Archive | August 2017

Courting Disaster

For those of us in earth science, this past week has highlighted an awful lot of potential “told you so” moments. Like how warming climate and a warming ocean will lead to higher precipitation events. Like how you really do need to plan for floods. And we just missed hearing more about the barrier island/marsh protection talking point. And almost at the same time we’ve been greeted with ever more evidence that the Trump administration has little or no use for scientific input–not even choosing to ignore it, they seem more eager to simply not have any scientific input at all. Just as it is ever clearer that we are facing real decisions in trying to prepare for a warmer world, we seem the have a government yelling “la la LA LA” with its fingers in its ears.

But that isn’t the point here today.

One aspect of the tragedy in Houston is that the absence of any sensible planning has led to more flooding (the worst example might well be letting houses be built within the basin and below the spillway elevation of flood control dams); this is exacerbated by the combination of government subsidized flood insurance and the out-of-date or inadequate flood zone maps. Of course some now point to the zoning-free and laissez-faire approach to building in Texas as the bargain they made with the devil, implying that other places where strict zoning has been enforced will be safer.

Dream on.

If GG has noticed one thing about strict zoning (and Boulder has a pretty heavy hand on building), it is that it is rarely used to prevent building in stupid places–it is mainly used to keep people from building on land other people enjoy as it is. Some years ago when Colorado Springs was approached by a developer who wanted to build houses on an active landslide, the city council had to look away from the evidence they were given in order to approve this ongoing disaster. You can find similar stories elsewhere. Yes, fear of flooding is brought up when a new development is proposed…but mainly as part of the larger arsenal serving Fort NIMBY (sometimes there is a legitimate fear, but sometimes it is greatly exaggerated). California has the Alquist-Priolo act to prevent construction near active faults, but it only moves buildings 50 feet from an active fault.  Direct destruction of a building by a fault being directly under it is one of the least likely modes of destruction (even some dams do OK on faults: the Upper Crystal Springs dam survived having several feet of offset in the 1906 earthquake). Earthquakes do most damage by shaking weak soils: recall the Marina District in San Francisco, far from surface faulting, where shaking from the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged dozens of structures. What strict zoning clearly does is raise housing prices.

The main exceptions to non-use of zoning as a disaster preventative is in the wake of disasters. Even then, the most common refrain after a disaster is “we’re going to rebuild and bring it back better than before.”  After a tornado, this makes sense.  After a flood, whether storm surge or heavy rain? Not so much. The harder statement? “We learned a lesson and we aren’t going to make that mistake again.” It is very hard to say, but if we are going to avoid paying to rebuild over and over again in increasingly vulnerable places, risking the lives of inhabitants in the meantime, it’s time to start saying it and then walking the walk.


Utility of Fantasy

Secretary of State Tillerson was quoted this weekend as saying “Racism is evil — it is antithetical to America’s values, it is antithetical to the American idea.” From this, a naive listener might think that racism has been opposed throughout American history, which is of course fantasy. Racism has lived within America for a long time and has been embraced at times (as in the internment of Americans of Japanese ancestry in WWII, not to mention slavery and Jim Crow laws) as formal government policy. We like to think we are better than that, and so we think that our good ancestors of course embraced our modern vision of “the American idea.” This all got GG mulling about a far more pedestrian fantasy.

You see, we Americans (well, mainly non-Native Americans) have this fantasy of the empty wilderness continent. The idea that there was Nature, untouched and primeval, that Euro-Americans encountered on invading the New World. Now this is utter and complete balderdash on several levels.  First is the obvious presence of Native Americans in the many millions on the continent; although some rationalize away their impact as somehow treading so lightly on the land that they made no changes, this is absurd.  These peoples were apex predators, and many groups farmed or managed “wild” lands through burning, harvesting, planting and so on such that their absence from many landscapes led to vast changes in ecosystems. There was no “wilderness” for them.

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Golden Rules (book review)

GG has finished reading Mark Kanazawa’a Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush. It is not light reading (reader should beware that this is part of the University of Chicago’s “Markets and Government in Economic History” series).  In a sense, this book seeks to explain through economic theory how water law (and, to a lesser degree, mining law) evolved as the Gold Rush progressed. In some places this provides real insight, and in others it felt like forcing a straitjacket onto history, but the evidence presented is quite interesting.

Basically there are three main datasets mined here: descriptions of mining activity in the Alta Californian, mining camp rules, and California legal cases. As an economic historian, Kanazawa is clearly hoping for some quantitative data to sink his teeth into, and so the intent is to see trends over the whole of the goldfields.  As such, he is hoping that the record in the Alta Californian and in the available mining camp codes are not biased by the newspaper’s editorial slant or the fragmented record of the early mining camps.

With these in hand and the writer’s interest in economic history, the text generally explores a number of particular cases that suggest general trends, substantiates these with an overview summary analysis of the evidence, and then interprets this in terms of economic theory. For the general reader, the economic arguments can seem to wander into unfamiliar terminology rather too quickly, but the remainder of the book is very accessible. Given that the water rights that emerged from California have come to dominate the West, this is an important work if you want to understand resource law in the West.

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Changing Shades of Gray

A comment on an earlier post got GG reflecting on just what counts as the professional literature.  Some 20-30 years ago, things were pretty clear.  Professional literature was what was published in journals and certain professional books (like AGU monographs and GSA special papers). These were reasonably well indexed and accessible to academics. Then there was the gray literature: stuff that was sort of out there.  This included theses, field trip guides, meeting publications, and reports of various flavors. To some degree books were a little less than ideal. Finally there was proprietary stuff, things like industry-acquired reflection profiles and analyses that sometimes were allowed to see the light of day in some compromised form (e.g., location undisclosed). Although these are earth science materials, there are comparable things in other fields.

How is this holding up?

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Patently Geoscience

When representatives of scientific organization and funding bodies go before Congress, they will often remind representative and senators that basic science is a crucial underpinning of practical progress.  Those of us who pursue such basic science often feel warm and fuzzy inside at such defenses, but how delusional is this?

In Science, Ahmadpoor and Jones attack this question by following citation trees, both within the patent world and the scientific world to see what fraction of the literature is connected to patents. And, kind of amazingly, the connections are stronger than many of us might have guessed; they come up with 80% of cited papers are connected down the line with patents, and 61% of patents are sourced in part on scientific literature.

Not surprisingly, this varies a lot by discipline. Virtually every nano-technology paper has spawned a patent, while only 38% of mathematics papers are linked to a patent. So GG dug into the supplementary material to see where geoscience came out in all this.

Geochemistry and geophysics had 66% of papers being connected to a patent with an average chain of about 3.4 citations to the patent (a value of 3 meaning the average paper was cited by another paper was cited by a paper that was cited by a patent). Interdisciplinary geoscience was about 63% and an average chain of 3.6 papers, geology 61% and 3.9.  Oddly mining and mineral processing papers (about as applied as earth science categories get) only figured in patents 61% of the time and still needed about 3.4 citations to get to a patent (evidently the more useful papers got classified as metallurgy and mining, a category with 77% of the papers tying in to patents).  Mineralogy did surprisingly well,  67% of papers figuring in eventual patents after an average of 3.5 citations.

Oddly, petroleum engineering was rather poor with only 52% of papers being cited in patents (one wonders if some papers had to come out after patenting had started).

Given that a lot of the geoscience literature is probably more closely tied to understanding individual resources than new techniques that might be applicable to eventual patents, these numbers are pretty reassuring to those of us who don’t follow how our work might go into practical application.  But a caveat: by using full citation indices, the authors of this study make no attempt to determine which of the cited papers really were critical and which were window dressing. So, for instance, a paper that developed a new geophysical tool that was tested in the western U.S. might cite a review paper on the geology of the region in the introduction; that paper gets credit for contributing to the new tool even though any insights in that paper might be utterly incidental. Still, these numbers do make us on the basic research side of things feel like we aren’t selling snake oil in suggesting that eventually our research will prove of practical use….

Weird World of Books

Already have been amused by the rank listed at Amazon for GG’s new book, but now that the book is listed as shipping, there are several companies offering the book as used! Wow.  Where might these used books come from? Do they buy them wholesale somewhere and then toss them around a room or something? (The publisher is only just now sending copies to reviewers).  Such a strange business….

What Merits Correction?

A rather interesting comment chain on the website of a social scientist got GG thinking about corrections.  (The blog post and comments deal with how to address published mistakes, with comments ranging from “never contact the authors” to “of course you contact the authors”).  If fact, GG has gotten into lukewarm water with a couple of folks for pointing out things in their published papers in this blog. Anyways, what merits a correction?  And what merits making a stink when there is no correction?

Take, for instance, a map.  GG can identify several instances where maps in papers were simply in error.  In one case, the author had misaligned a published map he was copying from and put a bunch of isopachs far away from where they belonged.  In another, an author was rather cavalier about his location map, which placed a sampling locality far away from its actual location. Now in each case the problem could be recognized (in the first, by looking at the original source that was cited in the caption, and in the second from data tables with coordinates).  Neither of these errors have been corrected (and in one case, I know the author is aware of the problem). As in neither case does the error influence the interpretation in the paper, is this worthy of correction? Of a comment?

Let’s rise up a level.   Read More…