Oily Pasts and Futures (book review)

Politics and industry make strange bedfellows.  Politics is often short-sighted, with most politicians locked in to the next election, or even the next round of polls, but multifaceted.  Industry, on the other hand, can look over longer timespans but is narrowly focused (“can” is not always “does”). You might hope that the pair could produce public policy that was both broad and longterm, but the reality seems to combine the worst characteristics of each.

Nowhere is this more evident than in peering into the future of oil. Mason Inman’s recent biography of M. King Hubbert, The Oracle of Oil (Amazon link), provides a nice reminder of this interaction from an earlier time. Hubbert’s views on oil, which were made with an eye towards a fully sustainable economy, conflicted with corporate and political motives. Corporations are in a specific business and like to hear that their future is bright, a disastrous approach when the future is changing (see Eastman Kodak’s fall as digital photography bankrupted their film business). Thus there is a tendency within a company to both develop rosy forecasts and believe them (the more pessimistic will tend to leave).  Politicians want happy news about tomorrow–Cassandras don’t tend to get elected. So what happens when unhappy predictions are made?

Read More…

Signs of Mineral King


A SkiCooper trail sign.

Well, it’s January and ski season is in high gear in North America, halfway between the Christmas and Presidents Weekend high water marks for ski areas.  So many of you have seen lots of signs like those above. The irony is that these symbols, now so universal, were developed for a ski area that never was.

In 1964, the nascent National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) decided to try to make relatively uniform sign markers for skiers in North America. European ski areas had simply used colors; the new USA system would add shapes to the colors (which has obvious advantages for color blind skiers and for monochrome signage). But they committed a bit of a faux pas: the US intermediate color was used in Europe for out of bounds areas.


As this system was being promoted, Walt Disney Corp. was working on ski areas, largely because Walt had decided after the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley that he’d like his own ski area. Disney settled on Mineral King Valley, which set up a lengthy legal and political battle, but as part of the work being done for that development, Disney Corp. studied what would be the best signage to use. They were perhaps more sensitive to this given their experiences getting people around Disneyland.  Their studies suggested that circles were the softest shape and most suitable for easy slopes, followed by the squares and then diamonds. The NSAA saw their work and adopted it, pitching their own system aside.

Disney was never able to use their system at their own resort.


Disney and his Mineral King area. Via SAMLAND blog, micechat.com 

As is discussed more thoroughly many other places (including GG’s own Mountains that Remade America), first the Park Service (that had to approve a realigned road) dragged its feet, and then the Sierra Club chose to oppose the development. Toss in the additional requirement of an Environmental Impact Statement, the death of Disney shortly after holding a news conference in Mineral King, a change in political representation and a general shift in the public from favoring development to favoring preservation¹ and the eventual death of the ski area proposal becomes clear.

Anyways, those signs (er, and the Country Bears Jamboree) are among the most lasting reminders of the Mineral King debacle. The influence of Disney’s work on skiing symbols even evolved into a warning system for something a bit more hazardous: volcanoes. Although the USGS was blocked for awhile after a volcano advisory in Mammoth Lakes misfired, because communication with local officials and, later, the public became necessary, the Long Valley USGS group used these now-familiar symbols for awhile (1997-2006):

So while Disney loyalists to this day pine for the ski area that never was, they can console themselves (a little) in seeing these reminders on any North American slope they care to visit.

¹ for instance, during this time Denver went from seeking the 1976 Winter Olympics to refusing to host them, largely over financial concerns but also because of environmental objections.


Perhaps the most bizarre aspect of the migration to electronic media is continued use of one of the most annoying aspects of the original print-electronic split, namely the electronic supplement. Originally intended as a way to keep things like data tables from overwhelming print copies of journals, this appendage to publications has become more a scourge than a help.

The first attempt in the geosciences to do something like this was the ill-fated split of GSA Bulletin papers into a paper version and a microfiche version (ick). This actually devastated the journal as authors fled to safer harbors. As more and more papers are being accepted with small stubs as the “article” and the main text as the “supplement”, journals seem hellbent on replaying GSA’s old blunder.  The only difference is that this time, there is no real excuse for doing so.

Basically, at this point, why would any supplement that is either text or pdf format be excluded from being part of the electronic version of a paper? These are often no larger files than the “main” article, and increasingly these parts of papers are where the real nuts and bolts are that you need to really evaluate a paper.

There might be reason to keep supplements for non-readable materials (binary files, mainly), but it is time to bury them for stuff that is human-readable. Call these things appendices, put them at the end of the paper, and include them directly when you go to download the article.  Enough of this business of realizing later, after you’ve pulled down the article and started to go through it thoroughly, that the guts are still sitting somewhere online.  Worse, all too often the outline of the logic is in the main paper while the supplement contains the pieces of the body, often tossed together in a disorganized heap that was spared any copy editing. Reassembling the true logic of the scientific work is harder than it would have been had the paper been written as (gasp!) a single, long paper.

Why are we continuing to allow paper journal formats to mangle our science?

War On Science Update: The Scientists Fight Back

Earlier GG noted that the EPA (and to a somewhat similar degree, Dept. of Interior) were engaging in what actually seemed to be a war on science. If you didn’t catch it, some of the scientists booted off advisory panels at the EPA have filed suit alleging that the government violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act.  The Union of Concerned Scientists joined the suit, saying that EPA’s actions were an “affront to the scientific integrity of the EPA and the federal government.”

Of course, the administration can always fall back on their other approach to advisory committees and simply not convene them.  For instance, most members of the National Park System advisory board resigned because, basically, nobody would let them meet. This 80 year old advisory board was responsible for, among other things, approving new historic or natural landmarks and was just one of 200 advisory boards suspended early in 2017.

One characteristic that seems to define this administration is arrogance. It is one thing to hear advice and choose not to take it (which, arguably, was the kind of arrogance the Obama Administration was accused of by rural westerners), but it is a totally different level when you won’t even allow advice to be spoken to you. This is the same arrogance that results in people insisting on driving their sedans over bad or abandoned mountain roads and either dying or being rescued after suffering through an ordeal.  Is this really the best mentality for operating a government?

Charitable (Mis)givings

The end of the year or start of the new year is when GG decides to catch up on annual giving to his family’s favorite charities.  He has long resisted their attempts to get a free pass to take money out of his bank account every month, but one wonders if there might be a perk–namely, a lot fewer mailings with large type on the envelope about MEMBERSHIP RENEWAL ENCLOSED or DON’T LET YOUR MEMBERSHIP EXPIRE.  There is something profoundly ironic about organizations that nominally are out there to protect the environment sending enough junk mail to give the mail carrier a hernia.

Now GG doesn’t want to forget his favorite charities when he finally pulls out the checkbook to write an annual donation, so he dutifully plops each new missive in a stack with the older ones. And now, pulling them all out and sorting them, it becomes clear that some organizations assume we all suffer from profound mailing-attention-deficit disorder, or, um, MADDer. When the stack of mail is high enough to create avalanches that launch cats up the stairs, you know some of these organizations really need to reexamine their priorities.

Here is GG’s take: the more mail a charity can send, the less it needs GG’s support. Keep putting that lowest value checkbox a full $100 over last year’s donation? Watch as GG discovers the little blank space where you can write in your own amount–which will likely be the same as last year or even lower. So, charity fund raisers, a suggestion: Don’t run your organization like a spambot.  One renewal request is plenty; if a month or two later you don’t hear back, another request is fine.  More than that? Well, I know I’ll be hearing from you again soon, so maybe I’ll just toss all the requests in the recycle bin (and yes, GG has done this with at least one annoying charity).

So who wins the title for least obnoxious? For GG, it is a three-way tie: The League To Save Lake Tahoe, Sequoia Parks Conservancy and Rocky Mountain Conservancy.  Bravo, gang: only one notice in the past year each. You get the first checks, when GG still has a positive bank balance and a more generous outlook.  Close behind were Meals on Wheel Boulder (2 notices) and Community Food Share (3 notices). And for your assumption GG is not in need of near-daily reminders that he gave you money (or apples, in Community Food Share’s case) last year, you also get links from this blog post.

The worst? How about an organization that acts as a consumer watchdog, that is always decrying misleading advertising and yet chooses to entice you to donate to them with prize drawings? Yes, it is the Consumer Reports Foundation (which is hard to pry apart from the magazine).  Maybe their idea of subtlety has been distorted by looking at so much advertising nonsense. A couple of national environmental groups are close behind.

Something you might notice: the smaller charities with very specific goals aren’t so pesky.  Larger national groups seem more eager to inundate donors with mad alerts, upcoming renewal deadlines, renewal deadlines, “did you forget to renew” pleas, donate now for matching opportunity, special opportunity, special challenge, limited time special offer, or free gift inside! So maybe you too want to notice just how much attention your mailbox gets from the charities you like. (And as a reminder, for those national groups it is certainly worth looking through sites like CharityWatch to see if the cause is as good as it seems).

The Sierra See-Saw

It seems like the Fall AGU meeting brings some new wrinkle to the GPS measurements in the Sierra.  In the past we’ve seen suggestions that the Sierra were going up tectonically, then that they were going up because of water removal from the Central Valley, then they were still going up even with water removal in the Central Valley, and now we have the Sierra going up because of water removal in the Sierra itself. This latest missive is from Don Argus and several colleagues at JPL deserves a look; their paper on this was published about at the same time in the Journal of Geophysical Research (though that paper doesn’t have the coda from the AGU talk about the loss of elevation in the wet winter of 2016-2017)

Basically they wrote that during the California drought from 2011 to 2015 that the Sierra lost 48 km³ of water and so rose at least 17 mm from that loss while also rising an additional 5 mm from water loss in the adjacent Central Valley and then might have risen no more than 2 mm from tectonics for a total elevation gain of 24 mm (or just about an inch). That is a lot of uplift for a few years. This interpretation means that the Sierra actually stores a lot more water within its granites than is typically thought to be the case, which aligns with earlier work by Argus and colleagues.

How did this differ from the Amos et al. work a few years earlier that assigned all that uplift in the Sierra to unloading of the Central Valley?   Read More…

Book Knowledge

Well, its been several months since The Mountains that Remade America came out, and it feels like it is worth a moment to contemplate the process, particularly the surprises.  Just in case anybody else is interested.

Writing an academic trade book is kind of neither fish nor fowl.  A textbook is in some ways a glorified collection of lecture notes. Now you do have to go through and fix up things, and often you realize there are things you don’t teach that should be in the book, but this is material you are deeply familiar with.  Often the hardest part is coming up with exercises at the end of chapters that aren’t too bland and aren’t too hard.  Tedious, yes.  In some ways the oddest part about textbooks is that you don’t generally cite the source material the way you might in a journal article, which can be liberating.

A regular trade book (you know, like novels or anything without footnotes) is similarly liberating: maybe you sort of recall some piece of information, and you are pretty confident it is right, but you can’t lay your hands back on it, well, you can stick it in.  Now depending on the topic, a fact checker might be employed to look for mistakes, but that can be somebody else’s job.

No, an academic trade book rests on the author’s shoulders more squarely. Read More…