Anak Krakatoa

The emerging successor - Anak Krakatoa.

The emerging successor - Anak Krakatoa.

Today is the 125th anniversary of the catastrophic eruption of the Krakatoa volcano.

Last week we discussed Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa, certainly the best available book of the causes, context, events and consequences of the devastating eruption. In the epilogue to his work, Winchester describes climbing to the summit of Anak Krakatoa – the “son of Krakatoa” – rapidly growing successor to the agent of “the day the world exploded”:

“The sky widened farther and farther; the sea below became a dazzling, gleaming sheet of steel; the temperature rose in an almost terrifying way that seemed to have no relation to the tropical sun. After thirty wearying minutes more, we stepped over a rock edged with a crust of yellow-stained sulfur crystals, and across the teeth of a ridge – below, spread ahead like some infernal dish of hell was the crater itself.

“The white smoke had by now enveloped us: It was hot water vapor, mixed with the curiously attractive smell of sulfur dioxide and dust. The surface I could see ahead was a fragile-looking crust, newly baked and broken in places, with plopping gobbets of hot mud spurting into the air and hissing, machinelike jets of gas roaring and and whistling up into the cloud. From afar the volcano had appeared quiet; but up here, on the very lip of its mouth, at the working end of the heir apparent to the greatest volcano the modern world has experienced, it seemed anything but.

“The mechanics of the making of the world were all in evidence, just a few feet ahead of where I stood. All this talk of subduction zones, of the collision between two of the world’s immense tectonic plates, of the unfolding of the ring of fire – it all came down to this. Here, in this hot, crystalline, yellow-gray, wheezing, whistling, mud-boiling cauldron, was where the consequences of subduction were being played out.

“The power of the process was all too apparent here also, in the strangely compelling symphony of grinding and snortings and sulfurous snarlings, in all the rushings of yellow and green gases, and in the snapping and straining of the rocks and crystals and crusts. This was a place that was filled with nameless and unfathomable activities, and it had a terrible, fascinating menace. It was a place that was all too evidently primed, ready at an instant to explode again . . .

[For additional information on volcanoes, consider the text-only version of Robert I. Tilling’s brochure Volcanoes at the US Geological Survey website; the USGS Current Alerts for US Volcanoes; and the USGS World Map of Volcanoes, Earthquakes, Impact Craters, and Plate Tectonics.]

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Published in: on August 27, 2008 at 12:04 am  Comments (1)  

Political Polling Update

Pollster.com is an excellent website which reports and analyzes political polling information, and, like RealClearPolitics (discussed in the immediately preceding post), produces a composite polling index and tracks projected electoral vote totals. Writing in today’s Pollster blog, Charles Franklin reports judiciously and perceptively How Pollsters Affect Poll Results. For anyone seeking to understand the value and limitations of contemporary public opinion polling, it’s well worth the few minutes it takes to peruse.

Published in: on August 25, 2008 at 3:11 pm  Comments (1)  

Hitching Post 005: Political Polls

Truman savors unanticipated victory.

Truman savors unanticipated victory.

With the dog days of summer drawing toward a close, the political party conventions ramping up to endorse foregone conclusions, and the “traditional” Labor Day onset of the fall campaign season looming les than a dozen days away, it’s time to consider some of the resources available to those who may wish to follow this year’s presidential campaign in the finest possible detail.

One particularly excellent resource is the website RealClearPolitics, a relatively comprehensive and fairly objective online resource with selected daily news, opinion, political analysis, transcripts, speeches, blog links and much more. One of RCP’s most useful features is a voluminous listing of political polling results from a broad range of public opinion monitoring firms across the spectrum, coupled with their own polling average, which has proven to be of significant accuracy and value. RCP also offers a detailed view of state-by-state polls, and summarizes the results in terms of electoral vote outcomes.

For instance, today’s RealClearPolitics average of political polling data gleaned between August 4th and August 18th has Barack Obama over John McCain by 1.3 points, 44.9 to 43.6 nationally. In terms of electoral votes, RCP presently projects Obama at 228, and McCain at 178, with 132 toss-ups. Assigning all toss-ups by current polls, no matter how narrow the margin, they have McCain at 274, Obama at 264, while yesterday they had Obama at 275, McCain at 263. Any way you slice it, going into the political conventions it is an exceedingly close race.

The RCP average comprises a number of polls from Reuters/Zogby (a poll of 1089 “likely voters” conducted from the 14th to the 16th, which has McCain up by 5 points) to Quinnipiac (a poll of 1547 “likely voters” conducted from the 12th to the 17th, which has Obama up by 5 points) and includes Gallup Tracking, Rasmussen Tracking, LA Times/Bloomberg, Battleground, and IBD/TIPP.

For an even more detailed view of the specifics of these polls and others, check out the Haysville Community Library’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Internet directory of political polls, which contains links to more than 20 polling firm websites.

In this same context, another useful comprehensive site with significant commentary on multiple polling efforts is Congressional Quarterly Politics’ PollTracker Today’s PollTracker update reports the implications of the two latest national polls under the rubric New National and State Polls Show A Struggling Obama A detailed discussion of the state-by-state polling results was also updated with the latest information earlier today in Latest State-by-State General Election Match-Ups The summary PollTracker take at the moment:

“Two national polls are out today with different pictures of the race, although neither of them are particularly good news for Barack Obama. There has also been a series of state polls in the last two days which showed the Democrat having difficulty gaining any ground.

“The George Washington University Battleground 2008 survey conducted Aug. 10-14 has John McCain in a dead heat with Obama leading him 47 percent to 46 percent with 2 percent preferring ‘other’ and 19 percent undecided. The poll is conducted jointly by the Republican Tarrance Group and the Democratic firm of Lake Research Partners.

“A Reuters/Zogby poll conducted Aug. 14-17 has McCain moving out front 46 percent to 41 percent with 13 percent undecided. The margin of error is 3 points. Last month, Obama had led by 7 points.

“These two polls come on the heels of yesterday’s Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg survey that had Obama and McCain in a statistical tie, with Obama ahead 45 percent to 43 percent in a survey conducted Aug. 15-18. The margin of error was 3 points.”

Finally, the one most important think that the informed consumer of political polling information should always keep foremost in mind: a very healthy sense of skepticism. Two websites offer especially useful tools to aid you in doing so. The Roper Center, a pollster attached to the University of Connecticut, offers an introduction to the art and craft of political polling in Fundamentals of Polling – Polling 101 and a follow-up Polling 201 in Analyzing Polls: Interpretive Analysis Both are well worth your time. Equally useful is 20 Questions a Journalist Should Ask About Poll Results from the National Council on Public Polling. While designed specifically for working journalists, it raises precisely the kinds of questions the well-informed consumer of news and information should ask before granting credibility to any reported polling results.

That’s enough in the way of basics for today. In subsequent posts we’ll consider a completely different alternative for predicting election results, a variety of websites analyzing electoral votes, and other questions of interest to observers of and participants in American politics.

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 4:18 pm  Comments (1)  

Krakatoa

Next Wednesday, one week from today, will mark the one hundred twenty fifth anniversary of the catastrophic volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa, the first extraordinary natural disaster of the modern era of global communications.

The scope of the devastation was immense. Tens of thousands perished as entire villages were expunged, primarily through the action of an enormous tsunami, producing a wave which in places exceeded the height of a twelve story building. Billions of tons of ash, steam and volcanic pumice were cast into the stratosphere, coloring sunsets and affecting the climate for several successive years. The explosion was heard nearly three thousand miles away (as if a detonation in San Francisco were to create a blast that would be audible in Philadelphia), and the pressure wave circled the earth seven times before dissipating. Not even the explosion of the largest nuclear weapon approached the power of the destruction of Krakatoa. The island was simply blown to bits, and disappeared beneath the waves.

The event itself and, even more importantly, its crucial context and ramifications in the realms of geology, biology, meteorology, technology, culture, history and art, are related in substantial, at times even intricate detail, in Simon Winchester’s excellent work Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded.

Some few readers may be disgruntled by the general design of the work, a kind of vortex which initially spirals about the central event, placing it in the context of historical and scientific developments, ever more closely approaching the disastrous explosion of August 27, 1883. (Those wishing to focus exclusively upon the explosion, its immediate aftermath and consequences, might begin with chapter eight, but only at the cost of missing crucially relevant and intriguing elements of the tale.) Others will object to certain rather trivial details. (For instance, Winchester appears to have a deep antipathy toward Charles Darwin, peculiarly tinged with an irrational variant of class consciousness, which leads him to what can only be characterized as a seriously flawed perception of the relationship between Alfred Russel Wallace and Darwin. But the errant description is essentially peripheral to Winchester’s larger history.)

Despite such minor blemishes, Krakatoa is an excellent and unquestionably worthwhile book. As Richard Ellis wrote in the New York Times, “it is thrilling, comprehensive, literate, meticulously researched and scientifically accurate; it is one of the best books ever written about the history and significance of a natural disaster.”

Published in: on August 20, 2008 at 10:42 am  Comments (1)  

Moon Butter Route

The Moon Butter Route is an occasionally raucous, frequently irreverent, consistently hilarious vision of the small southeastern Kansas town of Epic, situated in Buffalo County, just up the road from Armageddon. Narrated by emerging teenager Wally Eugene Gant in a masterfully mangled variant of the English tongue, the novel relates the events that transpire over the course of a single summer more than sixty years ago, during the Second World War and, more to the point, during the long years of Prohibition in Kansas. (As the novel’s jacket explains, it was a time when “Kansans will vote dry as long as they can stagger to the polls.” And indeed, as Kansas author Max Yoho explains in a prefatory note, Kansas Prohibition began nearly forty years before the adoption of the 18th Amendment ushered in “national temperance” and lasted until 1949.)

Wally’s very first paying job is for the Strang Dairy, a “two-pronged” operation distributing milk and . . . other beverages. Filled with a cast of “colorful” characters and related in a riotously funny (but let me remind you, incontestably irreverent) vernacular, The Moon Butter Route reminded me of nothing so much as a more contemporary version of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I’m not asserting imminent literary immortality for this pungent little work of fiction, but the resemblance is more than skin deep.

If you are a fervently humorless grammarian (for instance, if this is a phrase you will not put up with); if you consistently vote a straight-party Prohibition ticket; if you cannot abide a certain, shall we say, liberalism of speech; if neologisms appall you – do not read this book. But if you’d enjoy what comes perilously close to the funniest book ever written by a Kansas author, Max Yoho’s The Moon Butter Route is the book for you.

Published in: on August 19, 2008 at 10:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Back From the Brink?

The American chestnut once dominated the forests of the Eastern United States.

The American chestnut once dominated the forests of the Eastern US.

The American Chestnut Tree

A hundred years ago the hardwood forests of the American Northeast and Midwest United States were dominated by enormous American chestnut trees. Dozens of bird and mammal species feasted upon the rich nutrients of the chestnuts, just as our ancestors celebrated the pleasures of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”

Because chestnut trees bear a consistent crop year in and year out, they were a far more dependable food source than many other trees. Most other tree species that yield nuts or acorns bear heavily only in alternate years.

Often towering over a hundred feet, the American chestnut was a majestic and beautiful shade tree, equally prized for its excellent timber. Rapid and straight growth, even grain, and excellent resistance to rot, made chestnut wood versatile and valuable. It was used for paneling and furniture, shingles, fence posts, mine timbers, railroad ties and telegraph poles.

But in 1895 a load of imported Asian chestnut seedlings for the New York Botanical Garden brought the chestnut blight fungus to America’s shores. Unlike its oriental relative, which tolerates the fungus that is native to its home range, the previously unexposed American chestnut was devastated by the infection. Entering the tree through injuries in the outer bark, the fungus would spread into the xylem and phloem layers, which carry nutrients from leaves to roots and back.

In less than 40 years, the American chestnut was nearly extinct throughout its once vast range. Only a few isolated mature trees remain. The forlorn stumps of once majestic specimens can still be found in scattered areas, sprouting tiny, pathetic shoots that grow briefly, until they too succumb to the blight.

But scientists at Purdue and other American universities have been developing blight resistant hybrids by crossing the few surviving American chestnuts with their oriental cousins. Once they have obtained highly resistant strains, they then work to create trees that are genetically 94 percent American and 6 percent Asian hybrids. Others are at work attempting to develop a method for inoculating the American chestnut from the blight, or seeking out possibly resistant strains surviving in isolated pockets. Finally, there is an effort to develop transgenic chestnut trees by implanting the genes for blight resistance from Asian varieties into the American chestnut.

If any of these alternatives prove auspicious, horticulturists will eventually begin to release a limited number of blight-resistant chestnut seeds and bare root trees to the public. If these pioneers prove successful, significant plantings would follow over the ensuing decade.

With good fortune, the noble American chestnut will someday once again grace our nation’s landscape, feeding small animals, gracing our parks, perhaps even roasting in hearths from Kansas to Maine.

I’m prompted to relate this tale by a review, appearing in the American Scientist, of Susan Freinkel’s American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. I have yet to read the book, and in fact, it’s not yet in the library. But you can bet that it soon will be, and I hope to be the first to check it out.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about trees and forests, or how you can plant trees that feed wildlife and make our community a more beautiful and friendly place, just drop by ask your Haysville Community librarian for help. For further information right now, try the American Chestnut Foundation’s Restoring the American Chestnut Tree or the website for the American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation at Virginia Tech, or Bruce Carley’s New Hope for the American Chestnut.

Published in: on August 18, 2008 at 11:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Razor’s Edge

A Brief Review of Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, by Walter R. Borneman

Hands down, no contest: He is the greatest American president Americans know next to nothing about.

And what they do know? Arguably, it just isn’t so.

Open up your billfold or pocketbook, and if you have at least one of each of the basic denominations of US currency, you have a handy guide to four of the five greatest presidents of America’s first century, on four of the five basic bills. You’ll find George Washington on the $1 bill, Thomas Jefferson on the $2 bill, Abraham Lincoln on the $5 bill, and Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill. But on the $10 bill you’ll find, not a president, but Alexander Hamilton, our first Secretary of the Treasury.

Who’s the missing fifth president?

Without Washington, there would be no American presidency. The office was created and shaped as it was only because he was who he was.

Without Lincoln, there would be no America as it is. Without his determination to preserve the union at the cost of any sacrifice, there would be no union. Without his freeing of the slaves, the union would never have had a chance of being truly free.

Without Jefferson’s bold decision to act in violation of every principle he had declared inviolable about the powers of his office and the limits of American government, our nation would be a mere fragment of itself, a radically smaller nation clinging tenuously to the Atlantic coast, a wispy shadow of what might have been.

Apply a similar test to the presidency of James K. Polk, and you cannot but admit that without him America would be a far different nation, far less extensive and less powerful.

James K. Polk made a difference.

On the day of Polk’s inauguration, what would become Haysville, Kansas, was near the southwestern extremity of the United States, not more than about 150 miles shy of the border — just as it had been since Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase more than forty years before. After the four short years of the Polk administration, it would be at the rough geographical center of a nation nearly doubled in size. Less than two years later, California would become a state and America would stride the Pacific shore.

This transformation came about only because, “unabashedly proclaiming the policy of the United States to be one of continental expansion, Polk welcomed Texas into the union, bluffed the British out of half of Oregon, and went to war with Mexico to grab California and the Southwest.” In delivering his final message to Congress, Polk noted with satisfaction that “the Mississippi, so lately the frontier of our country, is now only its center.”

Polk’s opponent in the 1844 election had been Henry Clay, running for his third and final time. In sharp contrast to the victor, Clay appeared at best indifferent to the admission of Texas, and declared that “I think our true policy is to settle and populate our immense territory east of those [Rocky] mountains and within the United States before we proceed to colonize the shores of the Pacific; or at all events postpone the occupation of Oregon some thirty or forty years.”

As Borneman exclaims, “how different the map of the United States might look today” if Clay rather than Polk had been elected. Yet a change just over 5,000 votes in the state of New York would have elected the Whig and not the Democrat.

In a scenario eerily familiar to those who have observed the past two presidential elections, Polk was elected with less than a majority, and only because of the presence on the ballot of a third party candidate who almost certainly cost Clay the crucial votes in the crucial states that would otherwise have elected him. Like another Democrat one hundred fifty six years later, Polk even failed to carry his home state of Tennessee – and yet he won.

But more important than winning the election was what Polk did with the office. “Polk came to the White House with a stronger determination than Jackson had to use its powers – whether to acquire California, declare war on Mexico, or stand on principle . . . This determination made James K. Polk the most assertive chief executive prior to Abraham Lincoln.” The result was a far larger, more powerful and more assertive America – and, not coincidently, a more powerful chief executive.

Incontestably, James K. Polk made a difference.

Oh, yes, and about the smidgen of fact that almost everyone who knows a bit of history believes they know about James K. Polk – that he was the paradigm of a presidential “dark horse candidate” who was elected by the memorable war cry of “54-40 or fight”? Neither true. But you’ll have to read the book to find out why.

If we take away no other lesson from the life of James K. Polk, perhaps this final distillate remains of “The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America”: Once every four years, in war or in peace, in prosperity or in destitution, in a fit of optimism or with a cry of despair, we elect an American president. Which person we choose can make all the difference.

Published in: on August 7, 2008 at 1:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hitting the Brakes

Each and every day traffic accidents result in the loss of 118 lives, on average, and are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 6 and 33.

This October 10th will be the eighth annual “Put the Brakes on Fatalities Day”, a day to focus on all the ways and means of reducing our nation’s 43,000 traffic fatalities per year.

As part of the program for this year, the Kansas AAA is sponsoring a poster art contest around the theme of “put the brakes on fatalities” for kids and teens age 5 through 13. Eighteen Regional winners in Kansas will each receive a new bicycle and helmet courtesy of Wal-Mart and Safe Kids Kansas.

Statewide winners will win a $50 fuel card from the Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association of Kansas and one of several family hotel packages.

All entries must be postmarked not later than one month from today, September 5th, and mailed to AAA Kansas/Public Affairs in Topeka.

For complete details, drop by the Haysville Community Library sometime soon.

Crossroads Update

In a similar vein, our Crossroads entry in Hitching Post 004 featured the Safe Road Maps traffic safety website, and in Bridging the Gap we looked at a new publication of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials reporting a need for $140 billion worth of work on America’s bridges alone.

The conjunction and relevance of these two posts is punctuated by the fact sheet How Road and Bridge Improvements Save Lives on the Put Brakes on Fatalities website. As they suggest,
“every $100 million invested in highway safety improvements will result in approximately 145 fewer traffic fatalities over a 10-year period.”

According to the fact sheet, “key local road and bridge improvements evaluated over a 20-year period by FHWA and the related reduction in fatality rates” are:

Improvements at Intersections Reduction in Fatality Rate

Turning lanes and traffic channelization: 47 percent
Sight distance improvements: 56 percent
New traffic signals: 53 percent

Bridge Improvements Reduction in Fatality Rate

Widening a bridge: 49 percent
New bridge: 86 percent
Upgrade bridge rail: 75 percent

Roadway Improvements Reduction in Fatality Rate

Construct median for traffic separation: 73 percent
Widen or improve shoulder: 22 percent
Realign roadway: 66 percent
Groove pavement for skid treatment: 33 percent

Roadside Improvements Reduction in Fatality Rate

Upgrade median barrier: 66 percent
New median barrier: 63 percent

Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 12:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Back to School

With a new school year just around the corner, many parents are focused on the end of their children’s summer vacation and a major transition in their daily routines. A little help in planning for the changes couldn’t hurt.

This past week, the Federal Citizen Information Center featured a free publication that just might be of help. The title makes it sound as though it’s a bit ‘behind the curve,’ but Choosing A School for Your Child — despite its focus on just what the title says – is an excellent little guidebook, available in print or online, to more than it claims. It does have some good advice and a number of resources for parents making choices about their child’s education. But it also provides an invaluable listing of ways to evaluate, and help to improve, the school your child is already (or soon will be) attending. It also includes pathways to such other helpful websites as Great Schools and School Matters. And you can always keep it handy for next spring or summer when you’ll be thinking about making important choices for the future once again.

Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 10:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Hope for Homeowners

A new bill just signed into law is intended to aid homeowners facing financial difficulties maintaining their present home mortgage.

The Federal Housing Administration of the Department of Housing & Urban Affairs has a quick fact sheet on the requirements and basics of this new $300 billion “Hope for Homeowners” program. Implementation begins this coming October 1st, but interested families can consult the fact sheet to determine eligibility and prepare for the application process today.

Published in: on August 5, 2008 at 10:29 am  Leave a Comment  

Library Award

Library Board President Zoe Burgess presents special service award to George Snider, celebrating his eight year tenure on Library Board (1999-2007)

Library Board President Zoe Burgess presents special service award to George Snider, celebrating his eight year tenure on Library Board (1999-2007)

Published in: on August 1, 2008 at 10:58 am  Leave a Comment