Creationism Stealth Campaign in TX

The following is quoted verbatim from DailyKos:

Boy am I hoping that Republican Pat Hardy wins her primary for the District 11 seat on the Texas State Board of Education. All I know about Pat Hardy is this:

Ms. Hardy is no free-thinking liberal. She’s a rock-solid Republican and dyed-in-the-wool Southern Baptist who firmly believes God is behind all of creation.

But she also believes in teaching evolution in science classes. Her opponent, Dr. Barney Maddox describes evolution as

“a myth” and “a fairy tale.”

Why is this race so crucial? Well, right now seven of the fifteen members of the State Board of Education favor introducing some form of intelligent design creationism into Texas science classes. If Maddox wins, they gain the majority.

Update: Frederick Clarkson has more here.

Here’s an AP story from Feb. 23. Haven’t turned up any local coverage. I don’t know anyone in the vast district, which stretches out from day trip country near Austin all the way out to the New Mexico desert. I can’t believe this is getting so little notice in Austin (and presumably College Station). I don’t think this will do wonders for faculty recruitment. Aargh.

Systemic Inefficiency

Some fool shut down a power substation that among other customers services the Pickle was hit. Hence Ranger and Lonestar, our supercomputers, which were out of full service yesterday. Interestingly, backup power kept the building going. Those of us privileged to breathe the same air as the world’s largest computer (this month anyway) who were not actually typing at a login node didn’t notice.

The fool was duly electrocuted, but posterity will find this story of interest mostly because after his critical burns the poor fool was shipped to a hospital 80 miles a way in San Antonio, according to the brief news account.

I suppose there is a burn unit somewhere in Austin. I wonder whether his prognosis improved by this transshipment. I wonder how much energy was expended.

I suspect this all has something to do with money. Shifting responsibility from the wealthier community (Austin/Travis) to the poorer one (San Antonio/Bexar) is not to my way of thinking an obvious benefit. Putting the idiot’s life at additional risk (which, by treating him at all rather than shooting him, we presume we care about), and expending a lot of energy sending an ambulance 80 miles down the road at speed and 80 miles back at leisure makes no obvious sense to me. At what gasoline pricing does the perverse motivational structure that this story implies break down? Are we just going to be sticking Bexar County with an even larger bill next summer when gasoline is up to $4?

Fergus, Roger Sr., and James !?!

I imagine Fergus and James have this up but I discovered it via ICE who points to the informal publication on Roger Pielke Sr.’s “blog-qui-n’est-pas-un-blog-car-on-ne-peut-pas-commenter

“Is There Agreement Amongst Climate Scientists on the IPCC AR4 WG1?” I’m pretty much in agreement with ICE, so I’ll just paraphrase for those who don’t read French. Basically, a set of published authors in a preselected set of climate journals (somehow including me in the mix, a bit of a stretch I’m afraid) was asked to what extent they agree with IPCC WGI. The majority thought it just right, with about equal numbers thinking it overstated vs understated the risks, and not a single person contacted supported the “no such thing as global warming” hooey, unsurprisingly.

ICE says (if I may translate) “overall, I find the whole honest and the results unsurprising”. … “The incorrigible Pielke nevertheless presents these results as being much more diverse than commonly asserted and the failure to publish in EOS or Nature indicates a scandalous politically motivated repression of contrary opinion.”

ICE doesn’t address this lack of publication. I can’t really account for its rejection as an EOS Forum piece, entirely. It might be reasonable to avoid polling of scientists as a legitimate form of scientific inquiry. Rather it might be seen as belonging in policy journals. After all, the interesting question is how well the position of the scientific community is represented in the policy sphere; not a geophysical question at all. To be sure, Pielke says

From this experience, it is clear that the AGU EOS and Nature Precedings Editors are using their positions to suppress evidence that there is more diversity of views on climate, and the human role in altering climate, than is represented in the narrowly focused 2007 IPCC report.

Perhaps the most interesting thing is how new thought patterns emerge from the online community, and how people with enough respect for truth can collaborate despite known differences of opinion. Thanks and congratulations to all involved.

Update: Joe Romm has a thoughtful opinion piece about what Fergus’s poll means up on Salon.

Please direct comments to Fergus’ blog here. Comments are off for this posting.

NYT Op-Ed: There WIll be Floods

A New York Times Op-Ed by chef Alex Prudhomme (coauthor with Julia Child) of all people:

anyone familiar with the drowning of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina will tell you this: Levees fail.

In Texas City, Tex., for instance, levees protect 50,000 residents and $6 billion worth of property, including almost 5 percent of the nation’s oil-refining capacity. Imagine the consequences, in this day of $100-a-barrel oil, if those defenses fail.

Even more vulnerable are the 1,100 miles of levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, north of San Francisco. Cobbled together 150 years ago to provide farmland, they are now part of an intricate, fragile system that supplies fresh water to California, the eighth-largest economy in the world.

Should the levee crack, be overtopped by a storm or liquefied by an earthquake, saltwater will surge inland, destroying lives, perhaps flooding Sacramento and paralyzing California.

There’s much more; read it.

I’m no expert on this matter but it seems plausible enough to me based on what we have seen lately. It seems like yet another problem with the same “don’t bother me ’til it’s too late” flavor that we’re seeing everywhere; yet another place where competent government has taken a back seat to political expediency and knee jerk tax aversion.

Here’s the mentioned list of 122 known at-risk levees according to the Army Corps ca. 1 year ago. The Texas gulf coast levees don’t make the list, but they seem pretty vulnerable to coastal settling and sea level rise. There’s also nothing here about New Orleans, so make of it what you will. It seems from the accompanying press release that this might not be intended as an exhaustive list.

La Vida Tejana


Here’s a very effective picture of a modern Texas landscape (in this case in San Antonio) via a link from a link from a comment by Dano.

This isn’t unusual. If you spend any time here in Texas you will end up somewhere that looks very much like this.

The only way to avoid it is to drive in on a back road and never enter a big city, or to stay at an airport for a few hours and fly out. Funny you never see scenes like this in the postcards. It’s both very typical and very striking, actually.

Most Texans will pass through a spot like this today and many of them will stop. I only have an 8 minute commute to work but much of it looks rather like that.

Update: The morbidly fascinated can find lots more like this at the unofficial Texas Freeway site, including my commute (US 183 through Austin) viewed mostly from below. Another very striking image is image A on the I-10 and Loop 375 intersection (El Paso) page.

Empathy Counts for More Than Reason

In another reminder that democracy and science are different games played by different rules, a recent Slashdot story links to this story on Ars Technica
The recent AAAS meeting had session devoted to understanding how the public receives and evaluates scientific information. I can’t find any primary information about it but the AT artcile itself is interesting. I’m especially interested in the report of Anne Schuchat of the CDC’s assessment:

Simply speaking from a position of authority isn’t enough, Schuchat argued. She cited surveys indicating that, for credibility assessments in areas of “low concern” (she suggested Tsunami risk in foreign countries as one example), US citizens are happy to defer to expertise, rating it as accounting for 85 percent of their assessment. When the topic shifts to areas of personal concern like family medicine, the importance of expertise vanishes. Schuchat said that it drops to where it accounts for only 15 percent of the decision, equal to a sense of honesty and openness, and far below the value of empathy, which accounts for roughly half of the decision. The message was pretty clear; for the public, how decent medical information is conveyed counts for more than the quality of the information itself.

The conclusion of the article strikes me as about right. It’s where “In It” came in.

The clear message of the session was that a command of facts is never going to be good enough to convince most segments of the public, whether they’re parents or Congress. How the information is conveyed can matter more than its content, and different forms of communication may be necessary for different audiences. As became clear in the ensuing discussion, most of the public act as consumers of information, with journalists acting as middlemen. To connect with the public, scientists have to work with the press to ensure that two things happen. Reporters have to overcome their ingrained aversion to the uncertainties of science, and have to avoid presenting uncertainties as a matter of balance that’s addressed via material from crackpots with credentials.

Framing, in other words.

The best advice is to be honest and patient, and look honest and patient while you’re doing so. Don’t attempt an advanced undergraduate lecture series every time you are asked a question. That is not how the truth will out. Remember that you have adversaries playing a very different game.

Is There a Downtown Austin?


I have had quizzical reactions from Austinites when I suggest that Austin has no downtown. It’s true that high density condos are going in, and it’s true that there is a scattering of large commercial buildings in the center of town, but bricks don’t make a downtown.

In Jane Jacobs’ terms, an urban core is a “macro-destination”, (mentioned in passing in this interesting article about suburban governance) a place where one goes to do more than one thing. When I go to downtown Chicago, or downtown Montreal or Manhattan or even Ottawa or Madison, I park the car and walk around. Often I have several destinations in mind: restaurant, theatre, grocery, bookstore.

Every time I have gone to central Austin I have driven to my destination, done one thing, and left. I suppose there has been an occasion where Momo’s and Katz’s have been combined; these are actually places I go that are in the same building; a music club and what passes in Texas for a deli style restaurant.

Recently I combined a trip to BookPeople and the Whole Foods flagship store. Those are very close on the map, but the walk between them is sufficiently unpleasant and inconvenient that I found myself driving from one vast parking lot to the other. Admittedly this makes me part of the problem. In Toronto or Montreal or even Houston there would probably be a pleasant climate controlled pedestrian tunnel linking them, but that’s asking too much. In Madison or Ottawa, the walk between them would be short and pleasant, landscaped and decorated, attractive in itself. The idea of a five minute drive being less unpleasant than an absurdly circuitous fifteen minute walk mostly through huge parking lots and a pedestrian-hostile intersection just wouldn’t come up.

I believe that Austin, like any mostly post-automotive city in America, expects this behavior. To the extent that my hypotehsis is true it means that the urban density downtown is mostly theater. It’s not a macro-destination at all, just a dense cluster of microdestinations. Not surprisingly it has traffic problems.

Yes, the summers are wretched here, but eight months out of the year the climate is delightful. A little landscaping, a little attention to human scale, and a little less attention to the convenience of vehicles would go a long way toward pulling downtown together as a destination in itself. Unlike on the bicycle front, I think Austin is working hard toward this end. I just think it has a longer way to go than it likes to think.

Suburban Collapse?

There are signs that some suburban neighborhoods in the US are in rapid decline.

People tend to blame this on oil prices, and the day may indeed come when that is a big factor, but I think it’s more a consequence of 1) the attractions of density and 2) overbuilding as a direct consequence of growth mania built into the decision making system. It doesn’t matter how cheap oil is; spending two hours a day in traffic jams is a huge cost I’d prefer to avoid.

Here’s an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger that makes the case for abrupt decline of the sprawl, entitled “The Next Slum” and blurbed “The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.” In a nutshell:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

Recycling as Theater

I am, as ever, unsure what to do about the blogroll.

Should the tech blogs I follow be on there? Maybe they aren’t interesting to my readers, but they are interesting to me. Regardless, those are the blogs I follow. Take it or leave it.

Anyway as I’ve mentioned here once already I consider Ian Bicking a man to watch. He’s got a bachelor’s degree from the University of No-Place, but he’s easily one of the smartest people I’ve ever encountered and I’ve learned a great deal from him. His cleverness is more mathematical than technical in flavor. I don’t even know if he’s had any calculus, but has an amazing knack for finding the right abstraction that pays off in his work as well as in his writings.

(It really peeves me how little appreciation the academic sector has of how smart and insightful software professionals are, and how much the scientific community has to learn from them. That’s another story though. Ian himself gets plenty of attention from the people who matter to him, and this is my gripe, not his.)

Usually Ian writes about software, but here’s an entry from him about recycling as theater that In It readers might find interesting. Best line:

People actually get angry when recycling programs restrict the plastics they will take. It doesn’t occur to them that some plastics are simply garbage. They are worthless, and moving them around in special recycling containers just wastes everyone’s time. They are angry because they want to pretend they aren’t being wasteful. They aren’t getting enough environmental theater.

Both Ends Against the Middle

In another good catch by Atmoz, Jeffrey Sachs has an opinion piece in Scientific American. Quoth Sachs:

The growing understanding that serious climate-control measures are feasible at modest cost is welcome.

More directly to brass tacks (David Roberts are you listening?):

A promising core strategy seems to be the following. Electricity needs to be made virtually emission-free, through the mass mobilization of solar and nuclear power and the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants. With a clean power grid, most of the other emissions can also be controlled.

The economics are also favorable. Carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fired power plants might raise costs for electricity as little as one to three cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The mass conversion of the U.S. to solar power might involve an incremental cost of roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour, with overall electricity costs on the order of eight to nine cents per kilowatt-hour. These incremental costs imply far less than 1 percent of the world’s annual income to convert to a clean power grid. The costs in the other sectors will also be small.

It’s both ends against the middle here.

Don’t listen to those who say that everything has to change or we are doomed. The romantic left and the righteous right agree that this is a battle for the soul of civilization. This idea is wrong and dangerous.

It’s just a matter of well-placed and substantial but not overwhelming intervention into commerce. That’s a tall enough order but it’s not at all impossible. Let’s take our medicine and make our corrections so we can get back to making progress on human dignity and peaceful collaboration.

I’m not a middle-of-the-roader about climate change itself. Physics is not susceptible to compromise. We are indeed flirting with an unprecedented catastrophe.

I’m just pointing out that there are apparent agreements among the political extremes that we have to be very careful about buying into. We need good old fashioned rational intervention by the body politic and we no longer have much time to waste about it.

Addressing our problems does **not** require a total reinvention of all the world’s cultures, and that’s a good thing because there isn’t time for that.

I think the people in power have come around to this, and are simply waiting for the current ignorocracy in the US to end before taking action.

Much of the public is still missing the point though: the fix to our problems isn’t easy but it isn’t anywhere near as hard as the no-fix scenario. The fix is technical and regulatory.

The technical/regulatory clean energy strategy is the path that avoids the social upheaval, not the one that demands it. If the word “conservative” still meant anything I would swear it was by far the more conservative strategy. God only knows what some of the people calling themselves “conservative” think they are conserving.

Here’s my nomination for something worthy of conservation: