We need more Dionysian Science

Michelle and I just finished reading The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It was good. He can get a little rambling at times, but overall it was entertaining and enjoyable. The book follows the relationships between people and four plants, through history. The four plants are: apples, tulips, cannabis, and potatoes. It pairs with them four desires, respectively: sweetness, beauty, intoxication, and control. The connections are more than a little tenuous, but the histories are certainly worth examining. The apple chapter in particular has inspired me to learn more about hard cider (since it turns out that’s largely what Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman’s apples were used for, all across 19th century America). And who can resist an examination of cannabis’s relationship with humans, written at least partially while stoned?

One theme Pollan has touched on repeatedly, in this book and his others, is the competition between Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in nature and society. Apollo representing order and control, Dionysus wildness and chaos, both being utterly necessary for civilization to be dynamic and persistent, for knowledge to increase and broaden through time. E.g. our Apollonian monocultures of Russet Burbank potatoes are vulnerable because of their uniformity, but are also productive and economically efficient. The Andean potato farmers of antiquity grew dozens of different varieties in different micro climates, all the while allowing the plants to hybridize with the local wild potatoes, maintaining a possibly less productive, but certainly more diverse and robust system of potato cultivation, in which new biological innovation was constantly taking place, and in which the farmers were well protected against catastrophic collapse in any one year… unlike the potato farmers of Ireland in the 1840s. The potato chapter in particular focuses largely on a very recent interaction with the potato: the introduction of a genetically engineered variety called the “New Leaf” by Monsanto, that produces Bt toxin to guard the plant against the Colorado potato beetle and other insect pests. Continue reading We need more Dionysian Science

Texas says roads don’t pay for themselves

Recently the Texas Dept. of Transportation posted an article describing a study they’ve done showing that fuel taxes don’t even come close to paying for roads (reported on Streetsblog and Worldchanging independently). I’m not surprised by this, and it’s nice to have someone like Texas on my side. However, their article was light on details – what I’d really like to see is the GIS dataset displaying all the roads in Texas, color coded by what proportion of their maintenance costs they do generate in fuel tax revenue (the TXDOT article says explicitly that “not one road” in Texas pays for itself… suggesting that they have done this analysis).

However, when I contacted them for more information, I got this response:

Thank you for your inquiry and request for further information about the Asset Value Index mentioned on our Keep Texas Moving website. The article you referenced discusses a methodology that TxDOT has developed (and recently refined in response to comments made by the Texas State Auditor’s Office) to compare the costs and revenues associated with a particular segment of roadway. The attached report explains that methodology and provides a set of examples of its application. We have not performed this calculation for every roadway segment in Texas. And, we are not currently using the calculation at this time. However, we do believe that the methodology and the information produced from this calculation can be valuable in assessing roadway investments and needs.

If you have any further questions about the methodology after reviewing the report, please contact Lisa Conley or Ron Hagquist in the TxDOT Government & Public Affairs Division Research Section at 512-416-2382.

(emphasis mine) and a PDF of a report describing the methodology they used.

So, what’s going on here. Have they done the analysis or haven’t they? When will they release the full report, or are they going to keep it embargoed, if it even exists? Maybe I should give them a call.

The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley

I just finished reading Richard Alley’s little book The Two Mile Time Machine. It’s by far the best climate change book I’ve read so far. More information, less polemic. Personally I would have loved more plots and fewer long complex sentences explaining the relationships between different climatic variables, but maybe that’s just because I’m a scientist. Continue reading The Two Mile Time Machine by Richard B. Alley

Freeman Dyson on Climate

The futurist and physicist Freeman Dyson wrote a piece for the New York Review of Books on Climate Change. He’s a very (very) bright guy, but I think he is wrong. Actually, I think that the whole framing of the climate issue in the media, in the government, and possibly in many scientific circles, is wrong. Continue reading Freeman Dyson on Climate