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Mistaking Desire for Solution

As many may have noticed, there has been a big recall of romaine lettuce in the U.S., and this has affected the local school district’s lunch menu.  But there was an interesting quote at the end of the local story about this:

She [Food Services Director Ann Cooper] said this most recent recall is a symptom of a much larger problem of a global and national food system.

“If it was summer, we could get everything locally,” she said. “It’s because we have a broken, un-localized food system that causes these huge problems. If we had a regional system, we wouldn’t have this problem.”

Probably true.  If we had a localized food system, the kids would be eating potatoes, because lettuce doesn’t grow outdoors in the snow so very well. Or there would be a lot of greenhouses with a lot of energy being expended to grow a crop that, well, just grows all by itself in other climates.

Of course if there was any contamination here, we wouldn’t know it until there was quite a bit of illness locally–and by then you’d have no other options for food as well as a pretty severe local outbreak. Sure, you’d be able to go back to the grower and bop them on the head right away, which is undoubtably a big plus, but there are a lot of other costs that would get in the way of replacing our current system.

The food system is broken, but not quite in how Director Cooper is saying. We can’t track back food to its source, and that is indeed hard to understand in this day and age. This means that most of the lettuce that was pitched was perfectly fine, and the disruptions to the marketplace are way out of balance. But it is not because food is transported across the country from places where it is (ahem) dirt cheap to grow to places where it is not. While there is a lot to like about locally sourced produce, cheap and abundant and year-round is not often what is on the table.

Its hard to remember sometimes that humanity moved from everyone collecting their own food to specialization, allowing most of us to do something other than farm.  And so farmers specializing in what they can grow more cheaply than others is no surprise either. Is that why people get sick and it takes weeks to figure out why? No. Let’s try to recognize the actual problem and solve it, not impose our personal desires on top.

A Fortnight In A Day

We are all such creatures of the indoors that there are some simple and obvious things about the sky above us that we don’t really get. Most Americans would not know the phase of the Moon unless they were looking at it, and a lot of folks don’t realize you can see the moon in daylight just fine (let alone Venus, under the right conditions). GG likes poking around in such little oddities as the offset from the earliest sunset to the shortest day. Here’s another one: you can kind of see the whole year of sunshine play out in a month of watching the Moon.

If you look for the Moon at moonrise on successive days, you will notice it moves around. A lot. As the Moon is pretty close to the ecliptic, you are in fact seeing the same motion that sunrise makes over the course of a year, though the phase varies with the season. Right now (Nov. 25th) the Moon rose nearly at the same place the Sun will rise on the summer solstice–the longest day of the year. In a couple of weeks, it will rise near the place the sun will rise a few days later, on the winter solstice. Of course, you might not notice that as it will only be a narrow waxing crescent just two days after being new.

How long can you see the Moon on a given day? Most people might think 12 hours (maybe even less). If you recognize that the lunar month means that the Moon has to make a circuit of the sky in about 28 days, you might guess 12 and a half hours–and on average you’d be close (if you guessed 11.5 hours, you just had the Moon in a retrograde orbit). But here is the difference between moonrise and moonset for Denver this November:


The average is a bit less than 12 1/2 hours (about 12:24 here), but you can see that some days you can see the Moon a long time, and other days you don’t see it for long at all.  Near the winter solstice (either hemisphere), the full moon is high in the sky a long time (full moon above is on the 22nd)–just like the Sun near the summer solstice. But in the summer, the full moon is low in the sky and not up nearly as long.

This can drive photographers batty. First, the Moon will rise in a different spot nearly every night–the exceptions are when it is near the northernmost or southernmost positions. The second is that the timing of moonrise will vary–and not just by that 48 minute average difference between a full lunar “day” and a solar day. When the lunar day lengthens the most, the moonrise will come only about 30 minutes later each night–around the 18th day in the plot above. And then when the lunar day shortens the most, as near day 3 above, it will take over an hour. These extremes are when the north-south position of moonrise changes the most.

All this is because the Moon traverses the ecliptic in just under a month while the Sun takes a whole year on the same journey. One night for the Moon is 12 days for the Sun. So when it seem like it will take forever to get through winter, go look for the moonrise and see it change day to day. It might help the long winter nights pass more quickly…

One has to wonder how often archeologists look for lunar alignments in ancient constructions.  There is often considerable attention paid to solar alignments, and for good reason, but don’t you think that sometimes ancient peoples might have marked lunar positions as well?

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.


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

10/26/18 update: Cohen is still fascinated by Nucla but does seem to have found a few more corners of Colorado to be fascinated with. So some of the criticism below might be overstated….

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…

Read More…

Means Vs. Ends

Heated rhetoric seems the tone of the day, but it is interesting to see where the battle lines get drawn.

On the national stage, nobody wants to see more gun deaths–there is no disagreement about the end goal.  Homelessness? Would like to see less of that, along with poverty and malnutrition. Education? Most Americans want their kids to get the best education possible. Even something more polarizing is probably not as extreme as it seems–nobody wants there to be lots of abortions, though there is a serious disagreement on how close to zero is fair and appropriate. What there is for all these topics is a massive disconnect on the means.  Usually when you agree on a goal there is room to compromise on means (say by some combination of gun purchasing checks and school security or mental health outreach). What is amazing about modern American culture is that so many of the hot-button arguments are over means and not ends.

Its not clear to a mere grumpy geophysicist why this should be.  Certainly there are cases where there are some actors for whom the means are ends (gun manufacturers, say, in a gun control debate have little interest in shrinking their market; public school teacher unions are not eager to support private school vouchers). So it might not be a surprise that some will be acting to make a debate over means as polarized as possible, but why does this seem to push policy makers to the fringes of the debate? Most of us are in the middle somewhere, we all want to get going in more or less the same direction. As Rodney King said long ago (and had placed on his tombstone), can we all just get along? Most of these questions are not winner-take-all; compromise and examining the outcomes of different blends of solutions can move us toward a better world.  As a scientist, a field where we like to see some experimental results to guide us, GG is frustrated by the lack of ability to focus on solving a problem rather than simply arguing over methods and getting nowhere….

That said, there are a few winner-take-all arguments out there. Most of them involve land, and one of them got GG thinking on this.   Read More…

Would Really Old Grumpy People Matter?

Science fiction stories and some prospective science fact articles suggest that much longer lifespans are just around the corner.  GG wonders how things would be different now if we had natural lifespans of, say, a couple centuries.  On the face of it you can imagine some fun meetings (say, Albert Einstein chatting with Stephen Hawking, or John Muir swapping stories with David Brower or Edward Abbey; seeing Harry Truman dress down Donald Trump might be entertaining).  It is hard to imagine that today’s political perspectives would remain the same were Eisenhower and Marshall still around to defend NATO. But GG’s point here is one of societal perspective on what is normal. This is most clearly discussed in the context of climate and the natural environment.

Most of us tend to define as normal weather the kinds of weather we grew up with. A period of exceptionally bland weather like the late 1950s and 60s tuned a generation into thinking that weather should be pretty calm, but those people who grew up a few decades earlier saw far more extreme weather events. The result of baby-boomer misapprehension in some cases was to underestimate the chances of major floods or droughts, oversights that have proven costly to correct. Would having living voices from different periods recalibrate how society views weather and climate? Would having, say, a 200 year old resident of an area telling of how winters were in the 1890s and 1880s when blizzards could isolate communities for months affect younger people enough to realize that things really have changed a lot?

Perhaps more telling might be that testimony on how the land has changed. Most people today think of woods in the northeastern U.S. as wild and primitive where the reality is that nearly all are second or third growth over old farmlands. How might we view those woods if the last farmers on those lands reminded us how they came to be? People driving across Nevada today might see an empty natural environment, but the folks who lived there or passed through with wagons in the 19th century might recall the grasses that fed their animals being wildly different from the plants there now. Fishermen in California might drool at the stories of the fish that were in the rivers just over 100 years ago. Farmers in some areas might be startled to hear how much soil used to be present in their fields. Would this inform us at a gut level on how deeply altered the physical landscape is? Would it make us better stewards of the land? Or might these same voices express even greater satisfaction at having made such profound alterations? Would an old beaver trapper look out over Salt Lake City or Denver with remorse or pride?

We as a society technically know a lot about these changes.  Field biologists can point out the plants that don’t belong because of the descriptions and samples made by those who encountered these lands far earlier. Historians can point out where the old fields were, geologists can document the rapid erosion in some places. Maybe we can imagine standing on the Santa Monica Mountains and looking out over an oak-dotted grassland that is now the totally urban San Fernando Valley, but how much more would we truly embrace that knowledge were we standing next to one whose eyes had actually seen that sight?

The point? Humans constantly reset their collective view of normal by simply dying off. And in some ways, that is probably for the best.  We don’t need old Germans advocating for the return of the greater Germany of 1900 any more than we need a return of the USSR or the colonialism of the British Empire. But when it comes to the planet as a whole, the lack of perspective hurts. Efforts to preserve nature can be misdirected to preserve “natural” places that are are utterly unnatural while neglecting ecological treasures that don’t fit in with our evolving sense of normal nature. We get unglued about addressing global climate change because we don’t remember such a big snowstorm from our youth. In short, we have trouble placing our own limited experiences within a broader context; we often instead replace that broader context with those experiences. Frankly, we need help to do this better, and maybe longer lifespans might help. Too bad it will be too late for much of the natural world…