Friday, September 30, 2005

Hurricanes and barrier islands

Here is the reason why one should think twice about buying or building a house on a barrier island that is in hurricane country. This USGS website also shows convincingly that Hurricane Rita should not be misunderestimated :) just because it barely touched the Houston-Galveston area. It did plenty of damage where the right-front qaudrant made landfall - things would have been very different around here if Rita made landfall at Galveston or a bit to the West of Galveston.

And these images of a barrier island that migrates landward as hurricanes go over it make you wonder how much of the geologic record of barrier islands (and beaches in general) actually consist of fairweather deposits. Everything seems to be moving and redepositing during these storms.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

The largest traffic jam in the known Universe

Hurricane Rita is gone. And, as Stan Marsh of South Park would say, we learned something today: don't trust the local and state and federal government, people who are supposed to give you advice and help during an emergency situation. Don't trust them because they often seem incompetent, arrogant, dishonest, and self-congratulating.

To be more precise, on Wednesday, September 21, we decided that the best thing to do is to leave Houston, and left on the next morning. After six hours in the car, we were about 20 miles away from our home, and we already used up more then a quarter of the gas in the tank. That was the point when we turned around, and that was the right thing to do. Clearly, we were in the largest traffic jam in the known Universe. Important people like mayors and judges kept saying on the radio that (1) they were going to make all lanes of the highway one-way, and (2) gasoline was going to be provided by tanker trucks. After six hours, we could see no evidence of this whatsoever. We realized that we would sooner or later run out of gas and be stranded on the highway, at the merci of other people, or even worse, at the merci of the authorities who were arrogant enough to say at one point that they were not responsible for the traffic backups outside of their jurisdiction. And it is clearly better to be in a building as opposed to a car on a highway when hurricane-force winds start providing the entertainment.

I don't get this. Do you have to be a rocket scientist to realize that, if you put 3 million people or possibly more at the same time on three highways, you will end up with humongous traffic backups and all those people will have to spend tens of hours or even several days on the roads? I understand that you want to evacuate as many people as possible when a category 5 hurricane is approaching, but that does not mean that you should create panic and call for evacuation in a totally disorganized way. During the days before the landfall of Rita, I haven't seen on television a map of the three mandatory evacuation zones; I haven't heard a definition of so-called low-lying areas of Harris county (are they below the 20 ft elevation? 30? 50?); and I haven't seen a map of the road conditions on the major evacuation routes. How can you call this botched job a "successful evacuation" when there was no gas, no water, no food along the evacuation routes, opening up the counterflow lanes took forever, and most people went through a whole lot of unnecessary suffering and stress?

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Shameless plug for Google, Smugmug, and my own photos

Uploaded some new (and not-so-new) photos to smugmug. Here are a few from our recent geological trip to the Canadian Rockies (more precisely the Caribou Mountains near McBride, British Columbia); these were taken during the trip with my father and Aniko in Rocky Mountain, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone National Parks; and, finally, a bunch of nice ripple marks from Sea Rim State Park in Texas.

I have to say I am very happy with smugmug; it is not free (the cheapest membership is 30$ / year), but you certainly get what you pay for. I think the design and the style are great, you can upload and view photographs as large as you want, etc. -- see their list of advantages here. And recently they have adapted the Google Maps API to add mapping capabilities to the photos; that is, you can type in a latitude and longitude for your photo and smugmug will place a tag on the map. Check this out for example. I think Google is making fantastic progress with both Google Maps and Google Earth; who would ever want to go back to Mapquest or other indistinguishable map services after trying Google's maps?

Dawkins against Intelligent Design

Richard Dawkins (this time with Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago) explains it again, in probably the most clear language you can find, why intelligent design should not be taught alongside evolution in science classes:

What is wrong with the apparently sweet reasonableness of "it is only fair to teach both sides"? The answer is simple. This is not a scientific controversy at all. And it is a time-wasting distraction because evolutionary science, perhaps more than any other major science, is bountifully endowed with genuine controversy.

Among the controversies that students of evolution commonly face, these are genuinely challenging and of great educational value: neutralism versus selectionism in molecular evolution; adaptationism; group selection; punctuated equilibrium; cladism; "evo-devo"; the "Cambrian Explosion"; mass extinctions; interspecies competition; sympatric speciation; sexual selection; the evolution of sex itself; evolutionary psychology; Darwinian medicine and so on. The point is that all these controversies, and many more, provide fodder for fascinating and lively argument, not just in essays but for student discussions late at night.

Intelligent design is not an argument of the same character as these controversies. It is not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one. It might be worth discussing in a class on the history of ideas, in a philosophy class on popular logical fallacies, or in a comparative religion class on origin myths from around the world. But it no more belongs in a biology class than alchemy belongs in a chemistry class, phlogiston in a physics class or the stork theory in a sex education class. In those cases, the demand for equal time for "both theories" would be ludicrous. Similarly, in a class on 20th-century European history, who would demand equal time for the theory that the Holocaust never happened?

Talking about Dawkins: in the September issue of Discover magazine, there is an article about him entitled "Darwin's Rottweiler - Sir Richard Dawkins: Evolution's fiercest champion, far too fierce". The author, Stephen S. Hall, paints an overall positive picture about Dawkins, but, as he makes it clear already in the title, he thinks that Sir Richard is "far too fierce". This is how the article ends:

This recusal underlines the most obvious contradiction about Richard Dawkins and the cultural war in which he has so much to contribute: You can be the world’s greatest apostle of scientific rationalism, but if you come across as a rottweiler, Darwin’s or anybody else’s, when you enter that marketplace, it’s very hard to make the sale.

Well, first of all, in most of his writings and talks, Dawkins does not come across to me as a rottweiler. Read the quotation above: is there any barking and biting in it? I don't think so. It just states facts and draws conclusions that make sense to any reasonable person. 99% percent of his books consist of crystal-clear explanations of how evolution or science in general work. The remaining 1% is similarly well-written and convincing - it just happens that a lot of people are offended because it makes them uncomfortable. Should he never talk about religion just because some people get offended? There are incredibly few people who have the intellect and courage to talk about these issues honestly; even if you disagree sometimes with him, why should one of the most eloquent guys shut up?

At times when American science education is endangered by a few politically powerful, but scientifically challenged people, we would need to clone professor Dawkins, not to tame him. When it comes to speaking the truth in clear and honest terms, I wish we had more rottweilers of the calibre of Dawkins and fewer lapdogs that never bark and never bite.

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