Saturday, October 24, 2009

Rockets in the News

It’s been a big week for NASA in the Ogden Standard-Examiner. Tuesday’s top front-page story was about the imminent test launch of the Ares I rocket, whose booster stage is manufactured locally at ATK. Then on Wednesday, the business section ran a wire-service article on the same subject, complete with photos and graphics--plus a teaser headline at the top of the front page with a picture of the rocket stretching all the way across. The launch is scheduled for next Tuesday, so I suppose we can look forward to at least one more big article.

Meanwhile, buried inside Friday’s paper was another article, with no illustrations, about the release of the Augustine Committee report. This appointed committee of experts has concluded that NASA’s ambitious plans for human space flight are unrealistic unless its budget is increased by $3 billion per year. Even then, the most glamorous mission we can afford within 15 years is to land on a passing asteroid or comet, or perhaps fly past Mars without landing. Oh, and the Ares I rocket is too small for such a mission.

Even Friday’s article devoted only one sentence to the question of why NASA should do these things. At least according to one committee member, the reason is “to interest the American public in new destinations.” I suppose that’s more or less equivalent to “because it’s there.”

The article gave far more space to Congressman Rob Bishop’s reaction to the report, which focuses entirely on what’s in it for his district: jobs at ATK producing Ares and Space Shuttle booster rockets.

I have to congratulate the PR folks at NASA and ATK for playing-up this test launch enough to push the Augustine report off the front page. And I can hardly blame the paper for caring more about jobs in Utah than vague long-term goals.

But I find it sad that human space flight, which once represented humanity’s loftiest goals, is now viewed as little more than another jobs program.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Happy Birthday, Dad!

My father, Vernon Schroeder, turned 92 today. In recognition of the occasion, let me try to outline his long and fascinating life.

Dad was born in western North Dakota. His parents were Fred Schroeder and Edith Jesperson, children of immigrant farmers. One family was German and the other was Danish, but most of all they were Lutheran.

When he was told, as a teenager, that nonbelievers would burn in Hell for all eternity, Dad decided there could be no higher calling in life than to save souls from such unthinkable suffering. So he decided to become a minister. He went to college in Moorhead, Minnesota, and then to seminary in St. Paul. After a year at that seminary he decided their theology wasn’t quite correct, so he transferred to the more doctrinally pure Missouri Synod Lutheran seminary in St. Louis.

As a minister he was never expected to serve in World War II. Instead he became pastor to a congregation in rural Minnesota for three years. Then he moved back to St. Louis and worked at the Missouri Synod publishing house where in 1949 he met my mother, Dorothy Schneider, the granddaughter of urban German Lutheran immigrants.

A few years after getting married, Dad took a job teaching Old Testament at a Lutheran parochial high school. That fresh look at the Bible convinced him it couldn’t all be literally true, and sent him down the slippery slope from fundamentalism to agnosticism. But though he may have literally lost his faith, he never lost his fundamental goal in life: to save people from suffering.

Years later, after he retired and my mother died, Dad finally had the freedom to pursue his dream of full-time “ministry” on his own terms. So he moved himself from the quiet suburbs of St. Louis to a retirement home in the center of Washington, DC. Those who didn’t know him well were astounded that at age 80 he would move farther away from his sons, to a city where he didn’t know a soul. But for him, it made perfect sense. He had always loved big cities, he was never that close to any of his family, and he wanted to go where he could find plenty of people to preach to, one at a time. Also, as he quipped only half-jokingly, he wanted to attack the world’s evil at its root.

Politically, Dad has always been on the far left. He grew up during the Depression, when it seemed perfectly reasonable to be a fundamentalist Christian and a socialist at the same time. Today his ideals seem incongruous. Like most liberals, he supports workers’ rights, minority rights, and the United Nations. Recently he has also embraced newer liberal causes such as environmental protection, abortion rights, and gay rights. But at the same time he despises the ACLU and its allies for trying to purge religion from the government and the public schools. Though he calls himself an agnostic, he cannot imagine morality without religion.

Dad has spent the last 12 years walking the streets of the nation’s capital, looking for people who will listen to him. He visits congressional offices, other government buildings, and nonprofit institutions, talking mostly to receptionists and security guards. He carries little homemade “tracts” in his pocket and hands them out. He frequently calls and writes to tell me of his ministry’s many dead-ends and ever-present hopes.

He readily admits that his platform is a little vague. We need to get rid of the corrupt corporations and government institutions and churches and over-paid professionals. We need to put religion and morality back into the schools. We need to bring people together in small groups for frequent serious discussion. Ideally, people should live in communes. Let the detail-oriented people work out the details.

Sadly, Dad has never understood my love of abstract science: How is it morally acceptable to spend time solving “problems” that don’t directly affect people? He sympathizes with my local political crusades, but considers them petty compared to the world’s big problems.

And my view of his ministry is equally critical. I wish he were more of a pragmatist and a problem solver, not just an idealist. I wish he could focus his thoughts well enough to gather up the one-liners into a coherent booklet or even a letter to the editor.

Still, he’s doing what he loves, working day and night to show the world that he cares--even at age 92. That in itself is enough to earn anyone’s respect.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Astrophotography for the Rest of Us

A couple of decades ago, when I was still using a fully manual SLR film camera, I tried some simple astrophotography: Long-exposure photos of star trails from a fixed tripod, and also some “piggyback” photos with the camera mounted on a small motor-driven telescope to track the stars. The results were satisfying but hardly spectacular, and the time required was substantial enough that my priorities soon turned elsewhere.

Then last January, at the start of the International Year of Astronomy, my interest in astrophotography began to return. By then I was using a marvelous little Canon point-and-shoot digital camera, and I was delighted to learn that it would take time exposures as long as 15 seconds. While spending the New Year’s holiday in remote Boulder, Utah (about as far from city lights as you can get in the contiguous 48 states), I decided to brave the cold and try a few shots of the winter constellations.

To my astonishment, that little camera recorded 10 times as many stars as my eye could see. Unfortunately, the photos were also plagued by digital noise that severely limited the aesthetic possibilities. I suppose this noise is the digital equivalent of the grainy appearance of photos on high-speed film.

Meanwhile, I had been marveling at the ever-better scenic night photos posted on NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day site. Following the links from some of my favorites, I discovered sites like TWAN and The Sky In Motion. These photographers were using digital SLR cameras to make stunning photos showing the sky in great detail behind interesting foreground scenes. The noise levels were acceptable, because DSLR cameras have bigger and better electronic sensors than my point-and-shoot.

A terrific resource for would-be astrophotographers is Jerry Lodriguss’s web site, Catching the Light. One of his technical articles indicates that even some of the cheapest consumer-model DSLR’s can produce excellent night shots. But did I want to spend even $500 for such a special-purpose toy? “Well,” I rationalized, “I’ve already had two astronomy students use DSLR cameras for their observing projects, and I need to learn how to help them when necessary.”

I got the new camera on September 10. Then even I, a professional geek, had to spend a week just getting familiar with all the buttons and menus. I also discovered that to shoot exposures longer than 30 seconds (without a computer connected), I needed to get a $25 remote switch. Finally prepared, I headed up to Ogden’s foothills on a couple of our recent spectacular September nights. The best shots from these sessions are posted here. In short, I'm amazed at what can now be done with amateur equipment and very little effort.

Incidentally, this was the first time I’ve ever been glad for light pollution. Although scattered light from the city brightened the sky (and pretty much ruined any shots facing west), that same light pollution cast beautiful illumination on Ogden’s mountains.

How much further I’ll take this hobby, I have no idea. Certainly I’ll try some photos from a few other sites around Ogden. And I’ll bring the new camera on camping trips, to see what it can do from some darker locations. Perhaps I’ll try to schedule these trips to coincide with favorable moonlight to illuminate the scenery.

But I’m not a professional photographer, so if you want to see really nice photos of the sky, follow the links above.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Innumeracy at the Standard-Examiner

Today's Standard-Examiner has an article about a small hydroelectric unit that Ogden will be installing at its water treatment plant. According to the article:
  • The unit is being funded by a $169,000 grant;
  • It will generate 131,400 kilowatts of electricity;
  • It will save the city about $10,000 each year.
Can you see that there's something wrong here? A kilowatt of electricity is enough to power an average home, so 131,400 kilowatts would probably power the entire city of Ogden. There's no way such a plant could be built for the cost of a single home, or that the energy delivered annually would be worth less than a new car.

It isn't hard to guess what the "131,400" figure really means: It's actually the number of kilowatt-hours per year. This is a unit of power that would make my physics students groan in dismay, but it's legitimate and even useful when you're thinking about annual budgets. Divide $10,000 by 131,400 and you get an average cost of 7.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, which is about what we pay for electricity here in Ogden.

So what's the plant's output in more conventional units? Divide 131,400 by 365 (days in a year) and by 24 (hours in a day) and you get exactly 15 kilowatt-hours per hour, that is, 15 plain old kilowatts. That's comparable to what your house would use if you turned on all the big appliances at once. And it's reasonable that a water treatment plant would use that much power on a continuous basis.

This isn't rocket science--it's something every educated person can and should understand. Everyone knows what a 100-watt lightbulb is, and most people know that "kilo" means 1000. A typical toaster or hairdryer uses about a kilowatt. A kilowatt-hour is the amount of energy that such an appliance uses when it's turned on for one hour. You need to know this to understand your monthly electricity bill, but few people bother to try.

Why don't newspapers expect their reporters and editors to know what a kilowatt is? Why don't universities expect every graduate to know this? Have we really decided, as a society, that thinking about numbers is only for specialists?

Monday, August 31, 2009


The name alone makes this a compelling peak to climb. (I sometimes pronounce it “Ppppffffeifferhorn” just for fun.) It’s located southeast of Salt Lake City on the ridge between Little Cottonwood and American Fork, about half way between Lone Peak and Snowbird. Summit elevation: 11,326 feet.

We’d been planning this hike since the annual Pfeifferhorn Award dinner last November, when my friend Joan from The Nature Conservancy suggested it. By the time of yesterday’s hike we had each recruited some illustrious company, so it was a grand outing to a grand destination.

With so many terrific hikes closer to Ogden, I don’t get to the rest of the Wasatch Mountains often enough. But the Cottonwood Canyons do offer a few things that Weber County lacks: Summits over 11,000 feet, large alpine lakes, and federally protected capital-W Wilderness. The Pfeifferhorn lies within the Lone Peak Wilderness (Utah’s first), and the route to it passes beautiful Red Pine Lake. In July and August the high altitudes offer welcome cooler temperatures. While ambling over alpine terrain you can enjoy the cute little pikas constantly eeping at you.

This hike isn’t for everyone. You need to be reasonably fit and have pretty good balance to negotiate the steep slopes and large boulders. It also helps to have someone along who has done it before, so you don’t take a wrong turn and get into real trouble. Snow and ice make the hike much more dangerous earlier in the summer.

As we made our way toward the summit, I especially enjoyed watching my friend Jock, an experienced alpine climber who did a winter ascent of the Pfeifferhorn a few decades ago. Now 74, Jock had planned to stop at Red Pine Lake but couldn’t resist going higher. As we traversed the steep boulders he shot ahead, clearly in his element. By the time I reached the top he was already on his way down.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Endorsement: Buffalo Grass

Lots of folks here in Utah wish they could keep their lawns green without using so much water. My approach, since I became a homeowner, has been mostly to avoid lawn grass completely. I’ve covered a lot of my yard with native shrubs and water-wise perennials.

But it’s nice to have at least a little lawn grass, where you can sit and enjoy Utah’s marvelous summer mornings and evenings. So last year I took the plunge and planted a patch of drought-tolerant buffalo grass in my back yard.

I got the idea from the High Country Gardens catalog, and from one of my colleagues who had also tried buffalo grass. You order it in little plugs, an inch in diameter by two inches deep. The plugs come in flats of 72 for about $40 per flat. I ordered ten flats, which arrived in mid-May 2008. By then I had roto-tilled the ground, raked out the weeds, and mixed in some fertilizer.

The part I hadn’t thought through was this: You have to plant the plugs one at a time. An industrious person could have done it all in a couple of days, but I took two weeks, working about an hour each day. I planted the plugs a foot apart, covering a roundish area of about 600 square feet which my friends call the putting green. Then I carefully watered and weeded and waited. Much to my amazement, the plugs grew and filled in by the end of the summer.

Buffalo grass has two aesthetic disadvantages. First, it spreads by shooting out “runners” that try to find bare ground where they can put down roots. Once the grass has filled in, some of the runners start shooting upward where they look a little messy and make the grass feel stiffer. Second, buffalo grass turns completely brown in the fall and doesn’t turn green again until late spring (around mid-May this year in my case). So a lot of people won’t want it in their front yards, where the neighbors might disapprove.

Meanwhile, the advantages are as advertised: Buffalo grass needs only half as much water as “regular” grass (once it’s established); it needs much less mowing (never growing higher than about 8 inches); it can easily handle moderate foot traffic; and it grows thick enough to keep out most weeds.

It was definitely a worthwhile investment.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Case Study in Blogging vs. Traditional Journalism

One reason I haven’t posted anything here in a while is because I’ve been working on a series of three long articles for Weber County Forum, about Ogden’s Junction development. This personal blog was never intended as a substitute for WCF, and most of my writing on local politics will continue to go over there.

But I’d like to comment here on how this episode illustrates the tense-yet-fruitful relationship between blogs and the traditional media. In Ogden the situation is extra simple, because the town has only one daily newspaper (the Standard-Examiner) and only one active political blog (Weber County Forum).

This particular story started as a rumor that I heard about a Taxing Entity Committee meeting that was held on June 25. I could have simply passed this rumor on to a reporter at the S-E, but I’ve learned through experience that they follow up on such things less than half the time. So I got a copy of the meeting minutes from the city recorder and forwarded them to blogmeister RudiZink, who broke the story on WCF on July 14.

During the ensuing discussion in the comment thread under that story, I got curious enough to look up some tax information on the county’s web site. That information made me even more curious.

The S-E finally printed its own story on July 19, and by then I was hooked. So I contacted several city and county officials over the next two weeks, asking question after question until I was satisfied with the answers. My three long-winded articles describe what I learned.

Meanwhile, the S-E has chimed in with three articles of its own that complement mine nicely, taking a closer look at the progress toward finally opening the Earnshaw building, the status of the Junction apartment leases, and the city’s continuing hopes to lure a hotel developer.

So how do the roles of the traditional news source (S-E) and the blog (WCF) differ? In this case, the S-E did a much better job of finding and quoting multiple authorities with different perspectives on the issue. On the other hand, WCF focused on hard evidence (meeting minutes and tax records), in-depth analysis (with tables and graphs), and connecting the dots together. The S-E articles were mostly up-beat, with hopeful promises for the future. WCF documented the broken promises of the past.

In many respects these roles were typical. The S-E hardly ever looks at actual documents or does any arithmetic or produces an original graph or even reminds readers of what was said in its own articles a year or two ago. And WCF hardly ever seeks out a diversity of viewpoints.

In one respect, though, this episode wasn’t typical. Usually the S-E will break a news story, and WCF will follow-up with detailed analysis and commentary. In this case WCF is way out ahead, and the S-E is playing catch-up.

No matter what your opinion of the newspaper and the blog, it’s clear that this city needs both.

Update, 20 August 2009:  The Standard-Examiner has continued its coverage of the Junction financial situation with an especially sloppy article that is misleading in several ways and omits some key information. My comment under the article points out several of its shortcomings.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Apollo 11

I don’t have anything original to say about the Apollo moon landings, but they did influence my life and so this anniversary is an occasion to reflect.

When Neil Armstrong stepped out of the lunar module and onto the moon, I had just turned seven. I barely remember watching the great event on TV, and I’m sure its significance didn’t sink in at the time. My parents were more interested in the other big news of the late 60’s: the Vietnam war, the civil rights movement, political assassinations. My brother and I were more interested in whether the Cardinals would get to the World Series.

But as I got a little older, and the Apollo landings continued, I began to show serious geekish tendencies. I bought and assembled plastic models of spaceships. I checked out all the astronomy books from my grade school library, and learned to identify the stars and constellations. In art class I drew pictures of imagined rockets that would take people to every planet in the Solar System. Eventually I grew up and became a scientist.

The moon landings had little direct impact on science. Sure, we learned more about the moon’s geology, but there were no big surprises. The real impact of the moon landings was cultural. Bob Park said it best:
How can Apollo 11 be described? It was a feat of skill and daring unmatched in history. The Apollo moon landing transcended the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union for world domination. It was a source of pride and inspiration for the whole human race, symbolizing the heights that humans are capable of reaching and overshadowing every space mission before or since.

The problem with putting on a great show is that everyone expects an encore. Where shall we go next?

And our Solar System offers no good answer to that question. The next nearest world after the moon is a hundred times farther away. That world is Venus, where the CO2 atmosphere has created a run-away greenhouse effect, scorching the surface with temperatures high enough to melt lead--and with an atmospheric pressure that would crush a nuclear submarine. Humans will never walk on Venus.

How about Mars? It’s only a little farther than Venus, and much more hospitable: very little atmosphere, and about as cold as Antarctica. Astronauts in spacesuits would be no worse off there than on the moon. The problem is the distance.

It took three days for the Apollo astronauts to reach the moon. Traveling at the same speed, it would take about a year to reach Mars. Ah, but that was 40 years ago. Surely rocket technology has improved exponentially since then, so we can travel much faster...?  

Actually, no. Rocket technology was already quite mature by 1969, and the laws of physics don’t permit any major, straightforward improvements. Perhaps we could shorten the travel time to a few months, but nobody has any idea how to get to Mars faster than that. We could probably keep a crew alive on such a long flight, but only at tremendous cost.

So human space flight has retreated to low-earth orbit, just above the atmosphere. Since 1972, no human has traveled farther from earth’s surface than Cape Canaveral is from Houston. Most of the scientific research that goes on during these orbital missions is aimed at understanding how the human body deteriorates during long periods of weightlessness.

Besides months of weightlessness, astronauts bound for Mars would be exposed to the serious radiation hazards of interplanetary space. And even if these hazards can be mitigated, the risk in such a journey would be tremendous. If anything goes wrong (think Apollo 13), the chance of a successful bailout is inversely proportional to the distance from earth. A failed mission to Mars would be a tragedy not just for the crew, but for all of humanity.

If the real goal is to inspire our children, I think there are better ways. It’s the robotic spacecraft that do NASA’s scientific work, touring the Solar System and peering at the distant universe from above earth’s obscuring atmosphere. Many of the technologies used by these spacecraft, to see and sense and transmit data, have advanced exponentially since 1969. Instead of watching a fuzzy transmission on TV, today’s children can use the internet to explore the surface of Mars or visualize the patterns in the cosmic background radiation.

Let us therefore celebrate human space flight by giving it a hero’s funeral--and get on with the business of exploring the universe with 21st Century technology.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

iPhone Astronomy

When I gave up my Palm Z-22 for an iPhone in March of last year, one of the few things I sacrificed was a free little astronomy app that would draw a chart of the planets and constellations for any date and time.

Third-party apps for the iPhone became available a few months later, and among the initial offerings were four good astronomy apps. They cost $9 to $12 each, but they were far more powerful than what I’d had before. Over the year since then, two of these apps have been greatly improved and three others have been introduced. The most powerful of them now costs $19, but there are good choices for $5 to $6 and one of the apps also comes in a pretty good free version.

I have no idea whether these apps are stimulating more interest in astronomy among the general public, but I sure hope so. They’re affordable, fun to use, and instantly available whenever you find yourself out under the stars wondering what you’re looking at. Although astronomy software for full-sized computers is more powerful still, it’s often more expensive and harder to use--besides being tied to a large, power-hungry device that you can’t slip into your pocket.

The iPhone (and iPod Touch) user interface is ideally suited for this kind of software. On the screen you see a map of the sky, automatically adjusted for your current location. The amount you see at any one time is limited by the screen’s small size, but you can move the map around and zoom in and out instantly, using intuitive finger gestures. The better apps are so easy to use that even if I’m sitting at my computer, I prefer to pull out my iPhone to look up the time of sunset or the phase of the moon or the best time to view the Andromeda Galaxy.

In a modest effort to promote these apps, I decided last winter to write a review of them. Not a quick off-the-cuff review, but a thorough review of all seven apps, with a detailed comparison table and lots of screen shots. Otherwise, how are users supposed to choose among the seven apps--or even know that they have so many choices? (There’s no easy way to even find them all on the iTunes Store, which outgrew its primitive organizational scheme long ago. Astronomy apps are variously categorized under Education, Navigation, and Reference.)

The review project ended up being a little too ambitious, and I’ve had trouble keeping the review up to date. Still, there are hundreds of people out there who have read the review, and I’m getting a steady trickle of email thanking me for it. If a few more people fall in love with astronomy as a result, it will have been time well spent.

Astronomy is just one of many subjects where computing makes more sense on a mobile device than on a bulky computer. Another is trail maps and nature guides, as I mentioned recently. I get the sense that most of us, including the software developers, are still adjusting to this paradigm shift, and I look forward to the next generation of useful mobile apps.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Last Printed Edition of the Outings Guide?

The Ogden Sierra Club Outings Guide is now being printed. If anyone out there is waiting to buy a copy, we should have them in a week or two.

The changes since the last (2004) edition are numerous but minor. I’ve squeezed in descriptions of three new trails, tweaked the descriptions of many others, and updated several of the maps. The length is unchanged (112 pages), as are the illustrations and most of the page layout.

Shown here is one of the delightful chapter-opening cartoons, which were drawn before my time (1980s or perhaps earlier) by someone I’ve never met (Richard Hogue). It’s an honor to work on a project that so many others have lovingly contributed to over the decades.

Since the Guide went to press, one person has already requested an electronic version of it. This leads me to ponder its future, and the future of books more generally, as the world rushes into the internet age.

Technology has already had a big impact on the production and appearance of the Outings Guide. The first three editions were produced with typewriter, scissors, and tape. Some of the maps were hand-drawn, while others were copied (with permission) from newspaper clippings. A copy shop then reproduced the pages using an analog photocopier.

When I took over as editor in 1998, the production process went digital. I typeset the text (using TeX, the same software I use to write physics books and class handouts), scanned the line drawings, and produced new shaded-relief maps based on digital elevation data. I recall delivering that edition to the copy shop on a Zip disk, from which they uploaded it to their digital copier. In the 2004 edition we switched to FTP and offset printing.

To the end user, however, the format of the Guide is still unchanged: a pocket-sized soft-cover black-and-white booklet, printed on dead trees.

An electronic final version would be environmentally preferable, and would make my life easier in several ways. No more agonizing over the locations of page breaks, or over how much information to try to squeeze onto a tiny black-and-white map. No more running around town making deliveries. No more having to wait until the inventory is depleted before making updates.

On the other hand, the initial creation of a usable electronic version would be a major challenge, in terms of both programming and design. Sure, it’s easy to brainstorm about full-color zoomable maps with links to and from a searchable database of trail descriptions and photos. But I’ve done enough programming and web design to know that producing such a software package wouldn’t be easy.

To their credit, Weber Pathways has put an electronic version of their trail map on the web. As you roll the cursor over an alphabetical list of trail names, the trails are highlighted on the map. You can click on a trail name to see a text description of the trail, and you can restrict the list to trails of a chosen difficulty level if desired. With a bit of patience I can even view this map on my iPhone, if I’m in a location that has service.

But the Weber Pathways electronic map isn’t perfect. The map is extremely small and can’t be zoomed. Nor can you identify a trail by pointing at it on the map. You can’t access the map while exploring the more remote parts of the county. And notably, the electronic version of the map is now out of date, compared to the latest printed edition. 

Are there better examples of electronic trail maps? If so, I’d love to see them. But I’m doubtful, because solving one problem would probably create others. A fancier web site could be prohibitively expensive to create and maintain. A stand-alone mobile app could have a slicker user interface, but would be unavailable to anyone who doesn’t have the right gadget.

The long-term maintenance issue is especially troubling. Already, the production process for our Outings Guide has become so technical that I would have a lot of trouble finding another volunteer to take it over. Switching to an electronic Guide would ratchet up the geek level a couple more notches, and might require hiring a professional programmer. And while it’s easy in principle to update an electronic document, in practice it can become a burden and even an expensive necessity, as hardware and software quickly evolve.

Then there’s the question of money. Selling Outings Guides has been our group’s main source of income over the years. But nobody is willing to pay to access a web site, and at least for now, the market for a mobile app of this type isn’t large enough to cover the cost of hiring someone to produce it. (Weber Pathways operates on a much different business model, raising money from charitable contributions and mostly staying out of politics. We need organizations like that, but they can’t do everything.)

The good news is that we’re printing enough paper copies of the Outings Guide to last another four or five years. By then technology will have progressed, and perhaps the right way to do an electronic Guide will be obvious.

I’ll promise one thing now, though: As long as I’m the editor, the Guide will continue to include Richard’s cartoons.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Collected Works from Weber County Forum

It’s now just over three years since I began blogging on Weber County Forum, and that’s still where I’m putting most of my political writing.  Today’s article, on Ogden’s utility rates, adds another to this growing list.

Oddly, Blogspot doesn’t seem to provide an easy way of pulling up all articles by a particular author. So for my own convenience, and that of anyone else out there who might want to see what I’ve written over this time, here is a mostly complete list of my Weber County Forum articles. (With one exception, this list includes only articles—not the hundreds of comments that I’ve posted over the years.)
Although some of these articles were written with the intent that they be placed on the Weber County Forum front page, others were originally posted as comments and were bumped to the front page by blogmeister Rudi. Rudi also wrote some of the titles and did some additional editing, just as a newspaper editor would.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Equal Opportunity?

At the start of each city council meeting we pledge allegiance to a Republic that provides “liberty and justice for all”. That’s not quite the same thing as equal opportunity for all, but many of us believe America should at least strive to provide equal opportunity. (Does this belief make me a liberal? Perhaps.)

The New York Times has just published two disturbing articles about the lack of equal opportunity in higher education.

First, Reed College (about as liberal as they get) has begun to base its admission decisions on ability to pay. Until now they practiced “need-blind” admissions, then provided adequate financial aid to every admitted student with demonstrated need. Now, as a result of the recession, they’ve decided to reject more than 100 students solely because they can’t afford to pay full tuition, and to accept 100 well-off students who otherwise wouldn’t have made the cut.

(My own liberal arts alma mater, Carleton College, began a similar practice about a year after I graduated--and I’ve protested by withholding charitable contributions to the them ever since. I’d rather see them spend money on financial aid than on fancy new buildings and higher faculty salaries.)

Second, the State of Illinois has launched a formal investigation into whether the University of Illinois (its most prestigious public university) has admitted hundreds of unqualified applicants in response to political pressure from state legislators and university trustees. If the allegations are true, this would be an egregious example of how it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Fortunately, my own employer can’t possibly suffer from these particular problems. Weber State University admits anyone with a high school diploma. (To borrow a cynical old Tom Lehrer quip, we’ve banned discrimination even on the basis of ability.) Does this mean we provide equal opportunity in every way? Of course not; there’s no way to be completely fair to everyone, and occasionally I hear allegations that students have been given special treatment for reasons such as family connections or gender. But overall, WSU and America’s other colleges and universities uphold much higher standards of fairness than you’ll find in the rest of our society.

Perhaps my background in higher education is part of why I get so outraged about politics, where you can almost always buy better opportunities with either money or political loyalty. Although high-profile corruption scandals draw attention to this system of unequal opportunity, for the most part the system is completely legal.

Ogden’s recent campaign finance revelations are a case in point (and a case that I’ve been obsessed with for the last few months). Just look down the list of Mayor Godfrey’s biggest campaign contributors, and you’ll see a list of people and companies who are doing business with the city. Or look at how the city attorney has the discretion to enforce campaign laws against one political faction but not against another. This is a system based on power, not equal opportunity.

Fortunately, Ogden just took a small, incremental step toward fairness, by passing a new campaign finance ordinance that will limit the largest contributions and provide more complete disclosure. Let’s hope we’ll see many more steps in the same direction.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

More New Trails

Still doing research for the upcoming revision of the Ogden Sierra Club’s Outings Guide, I recently hiked two more new trails.

The first was Ogden’s Birdsong Trail, which climbs the bluff just west of Rainbow Gardens. I had hiked it before, of course, but never in the spring. Although both ends of the trail are infested with weeds, there’s a lovely portion in the middle that winds around a bench area displaying what looks like entirely native plants: sagebrush, green grasses, prickly pear cactus, sego lilies, and a few other flowering plants. If you get a chance, be sure to check out this trail before it gets scorched by the summer heat.

Next I headed to North Ogden to check out a newly opened 5-mile section of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail. This section follows the power line corridor north and west from the North Ogden Pass road, traversing right under the south face of Ben Lomond. Many thanks to Weber Pathways and Rocky Mountain Power for making this trail possible. I’m glad the trail was put in place before the subdivisions climb up to it, which is just a matter of time. Some new water tanks have just been put in, and another is under construction, while work progresses on new roads just below. Haven’t they heard about the recession?

Friday, May 29, 2009

Pedaling the Parkway

My front-burner project right now is revising the Ogden Sierra Club’s Outings Guide booklet--the pocket-size trail guide that we’ve published since 1975. I took over the editorship 11 years ago with a major update, then made another big revision in 2004 when we expanded the coverage farther into neighboring counties.

But now the Guide is out of print, and it’s my fault. Before printing another thousand copies, I want to make sure it’s as up to date as possible. And there have been lots of changes to Ogden area trails since 2004.

Many of the changes are along the Ogden-Weber River Parkway, a multi-use urban trail that keeps growing every year. To see the latest improvements, I took a couple of bicycle excursions along the Parkway earlier this week.

I wish I knew the whole history of the Parkway. The first segment, from the mouth of Ogden Canyon to Washington Blvd., was newly completed when I moved to Ogden in 1993. I’ve heard that former city council member Glen Holley was one of the people most responsible--but I’m sure there were many others. This portion of the Parkway is still the most heavily used.

Next came a terrific trail segment along the Weber River in Riverdale, constructed in 1996. That year was the centennial of Utah’s statehood, and by then people were talking about a much greater vision: a continuous trail along the Ogden and Weber rivers, connected to the Bonneville Shoreline Trail to make a grand 27-mile loop called the Centennial Trail.

The person who worked hardest on the project at that time was undoubtedly Jay Hudson, who had asked me to join the city’s trails committee two years earlier. Jay was assistant to Mayor Mecham for a while, then retired and kept working on the Parkway.

Pretty soon Weber Pathways, a new nonprofit organization, got into the act. They’ve since grown to become the driving force behind completing the Parkway. I can hardly imagine the complexity of the negotiations with multiple land owners and government agencies, but I’m grateful to everyone (including Mayor Godfrey) who has supported this project.

During recent years, Ogden has pushed the Ogden River Parkway west through the central city and then over the viaduct to the 21st Street Pond. West Haven took it from there to the confluence with the Weber River, then southward up the Weber River and back into Ogden. A new tunnel now connects the Ogden Kayak Park to Fort Buenaventura.  

Only one more short segment, near the 31st Street interchange, is needed to connect Riverdale to Fort Buenaventura and all the rest. Thanks to a RAMP grant, that segment will be completed this summer. We’ll then have more than 10 continuous miles of river parkway (not counting several nice side trails), from the mouth of Ogden Canyon to the south end of Riverdale.

Economists could probably put a price on the long-term value of this amenity to our community--and I’m sure it would be at least tens of millions of dollars. To me, however, it’s priceless.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Laughing at Politics

Last night I had some fun at the city council meeting, reading a modest proposal for how a candidate can conceal the source of campaign contributions.  Sometimes politicians are so dense that they don’t understand anything short of ridicule.

Even John Patterson laughed out loud.

Gary Williams told me on the way out of the room that I’m “a petty man”.  At least I got his attention.

The writeup in the Standard-Examiner is humorless, of course.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Ogden’s Historic Building Scavenger Hunt

Time to brag a little:  I won a prize in Ogden’s Historic Building Scavenger Hunt!

This annual event, held every spring, is a terrific idea.  The city prints up a brochure (download a copy here) with a dozen closely cropped photos of interesting features on historic buildings.  Along with each photo is a brief hint.  A map highlighting all candidate buildings is also provided.  Your job is to go out and find the 12 buildings in the photos.  Turn in your brochure with at least one correct answer and you’re eligible for a prize drawing.  Get all 12 answers correct and you’re also eligible for the grand prize (a gift certificate to a restaurant and a copy of a Weber County history book).  The contest is jointly sponsored by the Ogden City Landmarks Commission and the Weber County Heritage Foundation.

I’ve now participated for three years in a row.  It’s a great excuse to get on my bike on a nice spring day and pedal around at a leisurely pace, enjoying the city and looking at amazing architecture that I never would have noticed otherwise.  I’d do it even if there were no prizes, though I do appreciate the bragging rights.

To avoid traffic I try to do most of my scavenging on Sundays.  This year it took me a couple hours each on two Sundays and a Monday--and I still found only 11 out of 12.  (I missed the one pictured above, then went back afterwards and took this photo, which shows a lot more of the building.)  But this year’s scavenger hunt was on the hard side, and apparently only a handful of people found all 12 buildings.  For whatever reason, my entry did win a nice prize:  a $40 gift certificate to a restaurant on 25th Street.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

From Foolishness to Fraud

One of my favorite popular science books is Voodoo Science by Bob Park. Like Martin Gardner’s earlier book Fads and Fallacies, it takes a critical and entertaining look at many things that superficially appear to be science but aren’t. Park’s targets include perpetual motion machines, cold fusion, and human spaceflight.

Most cases of voodoo science involve some level of fraud. Yet the people responsible almost always start out with good intentions. I’m always intrigued by this apparent paradox: How can “good” people commit fraud? Park summarizes the answer in his subtitle: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud.

In other words, what ends up as outright fraud usually begins as mere foolishness. We all make mistakes, and we all want to believe we’re right even when we’re wrong. At first, such a belief is merely foolish. But each time we exaggerate the evidence in our favor, or ignore contrary evidence, we take one more step down the road from foolishness to fraud. Each step down that road makes it harder to turn back and admit we were wrong all along. Eventually, in the worst cases, our dishonest attempts to maintain our position become fraud.

(My students make mistakes all the time, so I frequently remind them that the good scientists aren’t the ones who don’t make mistakes--they’re the ones who routinely check their work and fix their mistakes.)

Park limits his examples to the periphery of science, but it’s easy to find examples elsewhere. Most of us have had the experience of telling a well-intentioned “white lie” and then, faced with further questions, having to choose between telling a bigger lie to cover for it, or coming clean.

Politics abounds with examples of foolishness and fraud. The Iraq WMD allegations come immediately to mind. Here in Ogden, our biggest recent example was the “gondola” proposal. Others that come to mind include (at least in some aspects) Ernest Health, the ice climbing tower, and Envision Ogden.

In science, fortunately, there are mechanisms to correct foolish mistakes and root out fraud. It’s standard practice for scientists to brutally scrutinize new claims, and there are professional rewards for scientists who show that someone else’s results were wrong.

In politics we also have checks and balances: multiple levels of government with multiple branches; law enforcement agencies that investigate the most serious allegations; and the media who are free to conduct independent investigations and report multiple viewpoints. But the mechanisms for correcting mistakes are less effective than in science, for two reasons. First, the underlying subject matter is harder to probe for objective truth. And second, too much of politics is driven not by truth but by power.

Much of the inspiration for our democratic political system came from science during the Enlightenment, and the system continues to improve over time. The more we all participate, the better the system will work.

Cold Fusion and Gondolas

[I wrote this essay in July 2006, during the height of Ogden's gondola war. The intent was to submit it to the Standard-Examiner as a guest commentary, but I decided against using my professional credentials in such a political way.  Now, almost three years later, I guess I can say "I almost told you so!".]

I clearly remember when I first heard the news.

It was a spring morning in 1989.  I was a graduate student, finishing my PhD in theoretical physics at the Stanford Linear Accelerator.  When I arrived at the lab that day the hallways were buzzing with the news from Utah.

A colleague filled me in:  Two chemists at the University of Utah were claiming to have produced a sustained nuclear fusion reaction in a tabletop experiment.

I'm sure my jaw dropped.  Like my colleagues, I instantly knew that if this report were true it would be the greatest technological development since the steam engine.  It would provide the world with clean, abundant, inexpensive energy, averting the looming crises of fossil fuel depletion and global warming.

But the mood around our lab was not one of celebration.  Instead we were asking each other questions:  What was the evidence?  How, exactly, could it possibly work?  Have they tried such-and-such?  Who are these guys, anyway?

Nobody could be absolutely sure the claim from Utah was false, given the minimal and vague information that was available at that time.  But in science, as in everyday life, a person soon learns that most extraordinary claims, though they might conceivably be possible, turn out to be false.  Our motto is:  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

Everyone knows the rest of the story.  The initial excitement was tremendous and understandable—given the natural human tendency toward wishful thinking.  The Utah Legislature, in a ringing endorsement, even appropriated $5 million for additional cold fusion research.
Yet the extraordinary proof never came.  After the press conference announcing their "discovery," Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischmann refused to answer the many questions that other scientists were asking.  They never submitted a description of their experiment and their data to a scientific journal for scrutiny by their peers.  They stalled and dodged the questions as long as they could, with a series of excuses that gradually descended "from foolishness to fraud" (as described by Robert Park in his book Voodoo Science).

Meanwhile, working from what little information was available, scientists around the world tried to replicate the experiments.  Those with reliable and fully documented results all failed.  Pons and Fleischmann eventually left the country; the university’s president also lost his job.  The University and the State of Utah became the butts of jokes that are still told among scientists and others worldwide.

Fast-forward to Ogden, 2006.  The hallways are abuzz with another exciting idea, which promises to be the most important development in our city since the arrival of the railroad, bringing new prosperity to one and all.  I'm referring, of course, to the proposal to build a resort in Malan's Basin and a pair of gondolas connecting it to downtown, financed by a new foothill residential development around a redesigned Mt. Ogden Golf Course.
The extraordinary claims in this case are many:
  • A small, remote ski area on very steep terrain will be economically viable.
  • 350 condominiums can be built in a narrow mountain valley without creating geological hazards.
  • The resort will not require a road for construction or emergency access.
  • A high-tech sewage treatment system will make it safe to discharge wastewater into Malan’s Falls and pack out solid waste by gondola.
  • Modest-sized homes on Ogden's east bench will sell for nearly a million dollars each.
  • Moving the golf course onto steeper mountain slopes will make it more playable.
  • Adding 400 homes and six miles of streets to the east bench will improve our trail system.
  • Tourists will be eager to park downtown and take a 36-minute gondola ride to the resort.
  • The gondola can double as a practical means of urban mass transit.
Just as with cold fusion, there's a natural tendency to want to believe these wonderful claims—and we can't be absolutely sure that any of them are false. But again, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.  Even if we generously grant each of these nine claims an independent 50% chance of being true, the odds of them all being true are less than one in 500.

Several other parallels to the cold fusion story are equally striking:
  • The proposal is being pitched directly to the media and the public, before being scrutinized by experts.
  • There exists no formal description of how it all supposedly works.
  • The chief proponents, though not total amateurs, lack the credentials we would ordinarily expect.
  • The proponents have been elusive, declining to answer technical questions on the record.
  • A legislative body may be asked to endorse the project before we know whether it's feasible.
Disturbingly, some proponents of the Ogden development project are even taking the first steps from foolishness toward fraud, spreading misinformation about such things as the Snowbasin connection and alternative transit proposals.

Whether this story will continue to parallel that of cold fusion remains to be seen.  Let's hope, at least, that decision makers will wait for more facts before giving any endorsements.  If they don't, there's an excellent chance that Ogden will become the butt of jokes for decades to come.

Dan Schroeder is a professor of physics at Weber State University.  In his spare time he does volunteer work for the Sierra Club and the Ogden Trails Network Committee.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Hello, World!

This blog is a place for sharing thoughts about stuff I do, from teaching physics to environmental issues to local politics. Basically I need a place for unpolished or self-indulgent writing that I wouldn't put elsewhere. Thanks for reading.