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.