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Fighting the Environment

GG was recently pointed to a book review of a book on how geology shaped the world. Although the review seems to start out happily, before long the reviewer pounds the book for sinking into environmental determinism. It is easy (almost trivial) to find some geological aspect to human activity and ascribe that activity to geology. Decimation of Native Americans? Hey, that was because of sea floor spreading since the Cretaceous! Election of Donald Trump? Hey, Precambrian iron deposits! D-Day? The flood that created the English Channel! Never mind the lengthy route to connect these dots (an exercise left to the reader), its just that so much human history intervened in ways that might well have twisted almost any geology in the same direction.

This was something that concerned GG in writing his own book; whether he succeeded or not is up to you, the reader.  Basically, the geology allows certain things but does not demand them.  The California Gold Rush and subsequent industrialization of California certainly required the multiple styles of gold deposits in the Sierra, but those same deposits might have led to a vastly different history if found at a different time (imagine the response if Junípero Serra and his crew stumbled across that discovery in the late 18th century before the U.S. even reached the Mississippi River). But let’s consider a couple of really spectacular examples of people over environment from the West: Los Angeles and Denver. (we’ll pass on the easy marks like Las Vegas and Phoenix). Neither seemed well-suited from their geography to become the transportation hubs they are today.

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Is J.J. Abrams Saving Science?

Its taken GG quite awhile to figure out the game J.J. Abrams is playing, but with the last Star Wars trailer release, things are finally starting to clear up.  You see, he is really trying to save science from the clutches of the movies.

Now, GG has been a tad critical once or twice but now sees the light. All that disregard of, oh, time or space or energy or light speed or aerodynamics or, well, physics in general wasn’t ignorance.  No, seeing in the preview the wreckage of a Death Star plopped out at sea reminded GG of the big spaceships in The Force Awakens that somehow landed on a planet in more or less one piece–clearly implausible, but now, having dropped a bigger piece of Death Star structure into an ocean now clearly challenges basic engineering, both as the craft had become nothing more than little sparkles when last we saw it and also because in plummeting to ground it would have broken apart even further and then ended up facing real gravity in a strange direction that would have surely collapsed the thing. (Not to mention it probably would have rusted profoundly sitting in water).

No, this ever-increasing incredulity is Abrams clearly saying to us all: these are total and complete fantasies.  Nothing would ever look anything like this, not TIE fighters skimming along the ground, not energy blasts instantly visible from distant star systems, not blasters or laser swords or Force ghosts…. No matter how real filmmakers can make the impossible look, it remains impossible. Don’t learn your science here, young ones!

So J.J., we applaud your efforts to free the public from any illusion that fancy special effects reproduce reality in any way shape or form.  Bravo!

Football Spotlight

The New York Times has swung its spotlight on Boulder once again, but this time with the somewhat implausible notion that CU is leading the way to end college football. The motivation for the piece is a pair of votes by two regents against approving the contract for a new football coach–not because of any objection to the coach himself, but to protest supporting a game that damages the brains of its players.

This arguably is the third strike against football here at CU, but don’t expect any changes.  There was first a series of recruiting scandals that took out most of the university administration, then there continues to be an uproar over the amount of money collected and spent on football and how little goes to benefit players, and now we are recognizing the incongruity of higher education being the site for systematic brain damage leading to early death or suicide. Add them all up you’d think this would be the death knell for the sport at CU. Don’t hold your breath, (though it would probably end college admissions scams we’ve heard so much about recently)….

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Dunning-Kruger Dog Owners

Seems that a lot of pundits are having fun with evaluating various political figures as suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is often summarized as being unaware of how ignorant you are and so thinking you are quite competent (it is rather the flip side of the imposter syndrome, where people think they are less competent than they objectively are). Something similar to the Dunning-Kruger effect seems to affect many dog owners, who are seemingly unaware of just how stupid their dogs are.

Now stupid in this context isn’t really dog stupidity (though it can include that), it is more dog misbehavior according to human standards. And in a dog-centric place like Boulder, demonstrations of dog owner obliviousness are widespread.

For instance, Boulder has rules for dogs allowed off leash on many trails.  Dogs are supposed to respond immediately when the owner calls; owners (well, guardians–you don’t own dogs in Boulder, but we’ll use owner for the broader non-Boulder public) are to keep the dog under close visual observation.  Dogs are supposed to leave other dogs and wildlife alone.

Frankly, it amazes GG that there are quite a number of dogs that behave extremely well under this program. And there are quite a few dog owners (like GG) fully aware that they and/or their dogs are unsuited to this and so keep their dogs leashed (GG’s golden would chase any wildlife to the ends of the earth if off leash). And then there are the Dunning-Kruger-ish dogs and their owners.

This third class of dog owners think their dogs are well behaved, a surmise not demonstrated by their canine companions. These owners are often found calling out to their dogs from hundreds of feet as the dog happily does whatever he or she finds interesting. And after about 5 or 10 or 20 calls, the dog bounces back to the owner, who greets the wayward pup as “such a good dog.” Such owners are offended if their utter inability to control their dog is pointed out: an open space ranger some years ago saw a dog run off, eat the eggs of a ground-nesting bird and then return to the owner, whom the ranger confronted. “Oh no, not my dog, he was right here with me the whole time.”

These folks are the reason there are dog feces scattered about in open space areas, and why there is less wildlife in many areas than there might be [though lets not let feral and outdoor cats off the hook]. (Boulder does try to protect more sensitive areas by requiring a leash on some trails and banning dogs altogether on others).

GG can look out over a small patch of open space behind his house and sees the off leash dogs wandering all over the place, some behaving OK and then others not so much. A woman running on a trail ran a good 100 yards past her large white dog, who, after sniffing around a bit, deposited some stool by the trail before rushing off to be greeted by his oblivious owner.

Occasionally the karma gods intervene. She ran a second time down the trail (ignoring the fresh stool) and the dog sprinted farther than she went this time.  She turned back and was calling from nearly the full length of the field, perhaps 200 yards. And after a bit her dog was sprinting back towards her–except the dog was now two-toned, white on top and black on the bottom. Hopefully he greeted her with open, wet, muddy paws…

Petty Thoughts part 2…

GG’s travels ended with a road trip.  And the first thought is, somebody should start doing some serious roadwork. There was a bridge on a toll road that was more patches than original road surface. There were places where unavoidable potholes and associated patches made it across the entire lane. Having the suspension go “bang…bang…bang” was a far-too-common occurrence. Although we can hope that gas-powered cars will be on their way out, odds are awfully good that we’ll still be needing roads for quite some time to come.


Of course if you travel roads, you read road signs.  The one trolling the most was the electronic road sign in Illinois (above) asking you to quit taking pictures of the road sign (and yes, the passenger took the photo; sign didn’t say to not take a picture while being driven).

GG is always fascinated by how ambiguous many road signs really are, largely due to the absence of punctuation  (“Slow Children at Play” is a longtime classic in that regard). A new one was in New York, where a service area had on the exit sign a small blue sign saying “Text Stop”. We puzzled over this advice for awhile, trying to decide if we were to text the word “stop” to somebody (maybe the highway patrol), or ungrammatical advice that we stop texting, or being informed that this was a place to stop and text (so could we stop and not text?). It turns out that other signs are indeed advising people to not text while on the roadway but save it for a “text stop” like the service area or rest area.

(We also noticed rest areas are going away; there are a number that have been fully decommissioned but are still recognizable as rest areas from the past.  Are people’s bladders getting bigger?).

Anyways, just random stuff….

Petty Thoughts…

GG is traveling.  Today was by air and GG was reminded of a trick the airlines play on us that started some years back.  That is, the “departure time”.  As anybody who has travelled on an US flight knows, arriving at the departure time will allow you to wave at the plane that is already pulling back or even is starting down the runway.  The airlines hide this truth behind a warning the the doors will close 10 minutes before departure–but doesn’t that then kind of count as “departure”?  Why do we have to do this mental math? GG’s flight today left 6 minutes before departure.  Was there anybody arguing with the gate agent while we blissfully pulled back?

Something like the same trick occurs at the arriving airport.  On a flight that doesn’t have mechanical issues and doesn’t encounter unusual weather, the stated arrival time is (in GG’s experience) always 10-30 minutes later than the actual, “normal” arrival time and GG has seen flights arrive a solid hour early. If you don’t pay attention when you go to pick up a visitor, you can discover they’ve been cooling their heels for quite some time while you were arriving when the airline said the plane would.

Many of you are saying “Well, duh.  Airlines get penalized for late flights so they play the game of having the flight leave before it is supposed to on a route that should take significantly less time than is allowed.” Yes, understood.  This is another fine example of how changing a metric into a target means it is irrelevant as a metric anymore. Do on-time percentages mean much about airline efficiency? Not really–it just says who will bend the numbers to their best advantage.  GG imagines that Japanese visitors, accustomed to public transit that is exceptionally precise, must go nuts with American air travel…

So in the meantime we get to treat airline schedules as more like suggestions than actual timetables.

Space views

CNN ran a piece about a couple of men who hiked the whole length of the Grand Canyon–which is a pretty substantial achievement. But reading this, GG hit this quote and, well, got grumpy:

Being inside the only canyon on the planet that can be seen from space makes you feel miniscule.

Oh, come on! Didn’t this kind of ill-informed prose die out decades ago?

You really think Kings Canyon, Hells Canyon, any number of major Asian or Andean canyons, are somehow invisible from space?

This “seen from space” fallacy has been kicking around forever (at one time, it seemed like every tourist bureau had something that was the only one seen from space).  Wikipedia uses the definition of “seen from space” as something visible from low earth orbit without magnification (since, as most of us recognize these days, you can see pretty nearly everything from space that is outdoors with the proper optics). The Great Wall of China seems to have been the prototypical “thing uniquely visible from space,” but it turns out it is awfully hard to see from orbit.

You can see lots of stuff from low earth orbit. Reservoirs, for instance, are man made and easily visible.  Get the right light and you can see canals like the California Aqueduct glinting in the sunlight. The gray stain of urban areas is easy recognized. And pretty nearly any canyon you care to mention.

Now to be fair, the Grand Canyon is peculiarly visible because it is cut into strata with different colors within a smooth plateau with far more uniform (and bland) colors.  So it stands out more than, say, Kings Canyon, which is cut into granites lacking much color contrast and is surrounded by rugged topography. But only canyon visible from space? Puh-leeze.