Archive | October 2018

Poll Goals

Just taking a quick minute to de-grumpify. Lots of phone calls of late, clearly many from polling firms. Which is annoying.  Years ago you’d be flattered to get to be in a poll; now you’d be flattered if they lost your phone number.

And yet you go to, say fivethirtyeight and they are constantly saying “we need more polls”. Why? So we know how the horserace is shaping up! And of course the candidates are running polls (most to learn about the sentiment of the electorate, but some of course are push polls designed to push you away from a candidate). Fivethirtyeight regularly asks “good use of polling or bad use of polling” in some of their podcasts.

Here’s the answer.  All of this polling is a waste of polling. Why? Consider this sentence from a piece in the New York Times discussing the massive disconnect between what congressional staffers think the public wants and the actual opinions of their bosses’ constituents:

Since most congressional offices cannot regularly field public opinion surveys of their constituents, staff members depend heavily on meetings and relationships with interest groups to piece together a picture of what their constituents want.

This is precisely when you would want to have good polling.  Every Congressman and Senator should be asking, what do my constituents want on issue X?* Why not save that polling money for a really good use (or even do these polls during election season) and forget the horse race polls. Because, you know, we have a really solid reliable poll–and it reports back to us on Tuesday.

* Not that the politician has to do what they want–you might use the information to recognize the need to educate your constituents.

The Mirage Of Knowledge

Are college administrators making graduates dumber?

GG is late to this party but got pointed this way by an Ars Technica review of Tom Nichols’s book on the death of expertise. But this dimension of his argument is pretty well articulated in an article he wrote last year for The Chronicle of Higher Education. It is an interesting and well-written article; the point GG Is moving from is Nichols’s indictment of colleges and universities treating students as customers instead of as students, which leads to intellectual laziness. There is much to ponder there, but let’s look at why GG is indicting administrators.

Here is what matters to administrators: butts in seats, dollars in endowments (and dollars in research accounts). Period. Why be this crude and casual? Because we see on a near-daily basis the advice we are given from on high and the actions accompanying it. One of the reasons college has gotten expensive are the accommodations; here at CU, there seems to be a constant renovation of dorms to make them more attractive. Nice dining facilities, all kinds of recreational activities, big new rec center–and CU is probably trailing the pack at that. Update the chemistry building? Don’t have the bond space right now because we’re building a better football stadium for, you know, the alums who we hope will donate money.

Read More…

A Peek At Risks

High Country News has a pretty in-depth article online about a couple specific oil/gas fires and explosions in Colorado and just how severe these can be; it includes audio clips from firefighter communications and is built on interviews with workers and firefighters involved. While one event (the exploded Firestone house) got considerable media attention, the other was dismissed as a small, well-controlled fire that injured an employee. See if you agree after reading how it all went down. It is an indictment of the contention of the industry that they are “good neighbors” as the industry is unquestionably a dangerous one for its workers and arguably a significant risk for its neighbors.

Does this potentially influence Colorado voters? We shall see as the politics of industry rights vs. community safety take center stage.

Un-time-ly illogic

Well the end of Daylight Savings Time is near and so the demands for year-round savings of daylight increase as the sun drops lower towards the horizon.  Federal action must be taken! We must all be on DST! California voters get to vote on this, Florida passed a law asking for this– except that neither can take effect until the federal government acts. Congress forbid states from going on Daylight Savings all year long.  They can stay on standard time all year (which is what Arizona does, to the confusion of visitors to Laughlin who fly into and out of Bullhead City, whose clocks are only an hour different in the winter). But move that clock an hour ahead? No.

Well, you know you can fake it, right? Just go to standard time (which is allowed under the law) and start school an hour earlier, work from 8 to 4 instead of 9 to 5.  How hard is that? It is even a bit liberating–leaving work at 4 might feel like you are playing hooky every day.

But wait, I hear you cry, even that still wastes daylight! Here in Denver there are 15 hours of daylight near the summer solstice–even with DST the sun gets up at 5:30 in the morning. Who needs that! That’s at least an hour and a half of daylight we’re wasting.

So since we all now use cellphones and computers to tell time, and since they all can make these calculations with ease, GG proposes Uniform Sunlight Time (US time!).  In US Time, every morning the sun rises promptly at 8 am. So in the summer months the sun sets here in Denver 15 hours later, at 11 pm. Lots of saved daylight.  And in the depths of winter when we are down to a miserable nine hours and 22 minutes of daylight, the sun sets at 5:22 pm so the average wage earner gets a few rays after work. No more putting a pillow over your head at 6 am in the summer as the sun blasts through your curtains! No more oversleeping that business meeting at 9 because it was darker than the inside of a dog when you went to get up! And all that saved light!

But…but…but–that would change the length of a day! Spring days would be something like 24 hours and 2 minutes and fall days would be about 23 hours and 58 minutes. Well, if you want to get picky, days don’t stay the same length as it is–if you don’t believe it, put a rod in the ground and every day at precisely noon, see where the shadow points. It won’t be the same direction every day because high noon to high noon is almost never 24 hours. Why? Because of the Earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun. Solar noon moves by about a half hour relative to our 24 hour clock over the year. This 24 hours stuff is just an average over the year anyways; why not monkey with it?

Now we probably don’t want to redefine the length of a second every day.  We could, but that probably would mess things up (after all, you probably wouldn’t want to have to change the stickers on computers every day to correct their processor speed for that day–today only 2.0018 GHz!). So just like going on Daylight Savings, we simply tidy up when most of us are asleep, say at 2 am. From the winter to the summer solstice we spring forward a minute or two, so we might go from 2:00 am directly to 2:02 am, and in the other half of the year we fall back a little. No big deal. We could even mildly adjust the frequency of AC power to get mechanical clocks aligned with this while all our digital toys automatically take care of the switch.

GG is sure that this will solve all our problems with time. So feel free to write your Congressman or Congresswoman–GG is sure they would be delighted to hear about something they could actually do and be a pleasant diversion from partisan screeds they currently find in their in boxes.

Yes, its time for US Time!


One wonders whether there will be payback down the road for the dismantling of the scientific advisory system in the federal government.  This game can be played both ways, after all.  A liberal administration could decide to punish industries with expensive, unrealistic and ineffective restrictions by avoiding scientific review under the guise of reducing pollution.

But that’s for another day (or an alternate universe).  More recently we have the former employee of a major coal lobbyist now disbanding the science panels reviewing particulate pollution limits. Particulate pollution is, of course, a rather prominent part of pollution from burning coal. And particulate pollution is increasingly seen to have an important impact on human health. So who will oversee this aspect of pollution science now? An oversight panel that, as one member of the disbanded science advisory panel told Greenwire, consolidates input “to a small, and in some cases unqualified, group of individuals, and ultimately opens EPA up to the charge that it is politics, not science, that is driving this new policy.”

Um, you think? This from folks involved in a failed lawsuit to dismantle the existing regulations? Naaah….

Again, science advisory panels tell administrators what the state of the science is. That opponents choose to oppose this scientific input not by refuting the science but by silencing the scientists is an extraordinarily shortsighted approach to government regulation. But then we’ve said that before…and before…and before. With the public’s focus on such trivia as the heritage of a member of Congress and the antics of a rapper in the Oval Office, you get the feeling that the bread and circuses approach to governing works well for those with an active but probably unpopular agenda.

Big Ones (Book Review)

Dr. Lucy Jones has spent her career standing in front of TV cameras and telling the people of Southern California what just happened in the last earthquake and what it meant.  [She is no relation to GG, if you wondered]. She developed over years of practice the ability to issue a soundbite acceptable to newscasters while still containing a scientifically defensible statement that provided useful information to a concerned public.  The number of working scientists with that background probably can be counted on one hand. (GG recalls seeing her do a live stand-up while one of her children wrestled with her leg–she gave no indication to the viewing audience what was going on just below the edge of their screen nor did it affect her delivery). She has recently been leveraging that experience to try to affect public policy through the creation of her own center on science and society.  An outgrowth of this is her book, The Big Ones: How Natural Disasters Have Shaped Us (and What We Can Do About Them).

It is worth reminding you of her scientific work, as many times the public face of an organization isn’t really an authority.  Lucy got deeply involved in the question of just what aftershocks really represent, which includes the question of what is going on when the aftershock is bigger than the original mainshock? This has been a tremendously practical approach to better quantifying short-term earthquake hazard, and she has worked to incorporate it in the messages to the public. This has led her to respond to reporters’ queries with simple yet fact-based responses, like when asked “what should people do after this last earthquake?” she might respond “Don’t leave town, but make sure your bookshelves are securely fastened to the wall and you aren’t sleeping under something heavy that could fall on you.”

It is this clear-spoken and practical approach that informs the book. She concerns herself with disasters of a magnitude large enough to threaten societies, such as the great Lisbon earthquake and tsunami, 1783-4 Laki eruption, the 1861-2 California flood, Katrina, and the Boxing Day and Tohoku tsunamis. (The one category she leaves out is drought). She argues that these events are of a totally different scale than more routine floods, earthquakes, and eruptions and that we are unprepared for just how destructive these things can be. In the end she argues (based on her own experiences with government) that making a more resilient society is the necessary goal and sets out guidelines for how to get there.

The disasters discussed range from the obscure (not many people know of Laki or the Lisbon earthquake these days) and the well known (Pompeii shows up with Katrina). In some instances she can shed light on events in ways most others could not (the Tangshen earthquake tragedy following the fortunate if lucky prediction of the Haicheng quake, the inability of California flood planners to accept the reality and possible recurrence of the 1862 floods, and the mistakes made in the L’Aquila earthquake prediction/unprediction and court case). The summaries of each are placed in a brief social context and provide a human dimension to the catastrophe (focusing on what happened to Pliny the Elder in the Pompeii eruption, for instance). Each has a bit of a moral about what this tells us about such mega disasters.

The book is a success, an easy read with good storylines for the reader and some twists and turns of interest even to seismologists, but there are a couple things that might have made its point more powerful. One is the absence of examples of societies that failed in the face of natural disasters; the closest example in the book is a small society wiped away in the Banda Aceh tsunami. Others seem not to be failures of societies so much as adaptations to some changes (did New Orleans go away? Did Sacramento rebuild? Did Rome fall from Pompeii? Would the Chinese Gang of Four really have ruled in the absence of the Tangshen earthquake?). Real failures might not be a lengthy list, which brings into question whether these Big Ones really are as challenging to societies as Dr. Jones would like us to believe.  Perhaps the collapse of Minoan civilization in the face of the Santorini eruption or the abandonment of Anasazi centers or Chaco culture due to drought might make the case that there is a real to a society’s continued survival. The devastation of Haiti or Puerto Rico might yet make the case, but Haiti’s quake isn’t mentioned and Puerto Rico is a brief aside.

The other loss is Jones’s dodge of the really Big One: climate change.  While Dr. Jones does a nice job of illustrating how the global reach of media and social media in particular is bringing home to all the terror and impact of big disasters, the presence of an ongoing global disaster seems to just not fit her narrative. Was this a decision to avoid alienating parts of her audience with a more politically charged topic, or just a disaster that was in a totally different class? Given concerns about storms described in the book becoming more common with a warmer climate, going beyond the resilient community recommendations in this case would have been welcome.  After all, we can’t lower the intensity of an earthquake, but we can undercut the most extreme storms, making communities more resilient on both ends of the spectrum.

Those are minor objections, though. Dr. Jones discusses her time with the City of Los Angeles working to get a program in place to retrofit the most dangerous buildings in the city. Her perspective is an interesting one for scientists loathe to step into the fray, as she is neither encouraging taking over the role of making policy or simply pitching academic studies over the fence for policy makers to do with what they will. Whether others can follow in her footsteps is yet to be seen, but she has laid out a case that big disasters are in our future and we are far better off preparing to mitigate their effects than preparing to respond once the emergency is underway.

Unnatural Degrees of Disaster

A op-ed-ish piece at CNN takes the devastation of hurricane Michael and seeks it to be labelled something other than a ‘natural disaster’. The main argument is that human emissions have led to warmer ocean waters, a warmer atmosphere and higher sea level, all of which allow for stronger and more impactful hurricanes. This is not news in the climate community, which has been striving the past few years to be able to say something about the effect of global warming on major storms, heat waves and droughts. But, of course, this is not the only way that humanity makes disasters worse.

A seismological aphorism is “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings kill people.” Although an approximation (tsunamis are pretty capable of dealing death, as are quake-triggered landslides and avalanches), this does highlight the other way that humanity makes nature even more powerful. As a result, geoscientists often walk around shaking their head and muttering under their breath “Why’d they do that?” Adobe buildings in earthquake prone areas. Beach houses on barrier islands. Developments at the base of landslide-prone mountainsides–or on active landslides themselves. Cities in floodplains. Insurance designed to force the reconstruction of things in the same hazardous places. Frankly, it is so bloody obvious that these are stupid things that you want to throw your hands up in the air and embrace the inevitable extinction of such an incompetent species.

Of course these are all things that make natural disasters worse for people, but they don’t actually make the actual trigger worse, right? Um, true, but we already do plenty more than just supercharge hurricanes. Injection of waste water into deep wells has produced quite the swarm of earthquakes in Oklahoma. Paving over wetlands made floods in Houston that much worse than they would have been without paving. Human-caused fires set the stage for catastrophic landslides and mudflows that might not have happened without the fires. Subdivision have been crushed and roads destroyed because bulldozers removed the toe of stable landslides that then failed. Excessive watering and water from septic systems is likely the cause of the Portuguese Bend landslide in Southern California as the old slip planes got lubricated and the soils above increased in weight.

In sum, we’ve been at this business of making our own “natural disasters” for some time. All we’ve done with global warming is to carry our local disaster mania on the road. Arguably we’ve reached the point where a truly natural disaster is a rarity.