Admission into the “Big Three” was fairly easy if the applicant possessed a “manly, Christian character.” He had to pass subject-based entrance exams devised by the colleges, but the tests weren’t particularly hard, and he could take them over and over again to pass. Even if a student didn’t pass the required exams, he could be admitted with “conditions.” Once enrolled at Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, he would focus primarily on his social life, clubs, sports, social organizations, and campus activities, while often ignoring his academic work.
Admissions began to change, however, when Charles William Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869. Annoyed with “the stupid sons of the rich,” Eliot sought to draw into the university’s fold capable students from all segments of society. To ensure that smart students could attend Harvard regardless of their means, Eliot, in 1898, abolished the archaic Greek admission exams that were popular up until that time. He also replaced Harvard’s admissions exams with exams created by the College Entrance Examination Board because it tripled the number of locations where applicants could be tested. The result of Eliot’s changes was the admission of more public school students, including Catholics and Jews.
The most fundamental lessons we can draw from Sandy revolve around predictions: how we make predictions of the atmosphere’s behavior, and how we respond to them once they are made. Weather prediction is a unique enterprise. People make predictions of many kinds: about the outcomes of elections or baseball games, or the fluctuations of the stock market or of the broader economy. Some of those forecasts are based on mathematical models. Most of those mathematical models are statistical, meaning they use empirical rules based on what has happened in the past. The models used for weather prediction (and its close relative, climate prediction), in contrast, are dynamical. They use the laws of physics to predict how the weather will change from one moment to the next. The underlying laws governing elections or the stock market—the rules of mass human behavior that determine the outcomes—are not known well, if they exist at all. The models need to be built on assumptions that past experience will be a guide to future performance. If weather prediction were still done in this way, it would have been simply impossible to predict, days ahead of time, that Hurricane Sandy would turn left and strike the coast while moving westward. No forecaster had ever seen something like that occur, because no storm had ever done it. For the same reason, no statistical model trained on past behavior would have produced it as a likely outcome.
In Sandy’s case, forecasters not only could see this outcome as a possibility over a week ahead of time, but they were quite confident of it by four or five days before the storm hit. Forecasts such as the ones we had as Sandy formed and moved up the coast don’t come from the heavens. They’re the result of a century of remarkable scientific achievement, beginning in Norway in the early 1900s. The intellectual foundation of the whole enterprise of weather prediction was the idea that the laws of physics could be used to understand the weather, a radical idea in the early twentieth century. Carrying this out required multiple conceptual advances, over decades, and improvements in technology (especially digital computers).
[T]he most serious problems highlighted by Sandy were not in the preparations right before the disaster or in the response right after. They were in the construction of our coastlines over the span of many decades. Over that long term, too, there had been good forecasts of what could happen to our built environment along the water in the New York City area. These were not forecasts of a specific storm at a specific date and time, but rather scientific assessments of the risk of a storm as bad as Sandy, or worse. It had been known for decades at least that New York City was vulnerable to flooding by a hurricane-induced storm surge. The consequences that would follow were also clear, in broad outline. The flooding of the subways, for example, had been envisioned since the 1990s.
Sandy didn’t need climate change in order to happen, and the story of the disaster doesn’t need climate change to make it important. The main subject of this book is Sandy, and you can read large fractions of the book without seeing climate change mentioned at all. But climate change looms large when we try to think about what Sandy means for the future.
Street and highway design suffers from bad design choices made decades ago before traffic flows were well understood. Jeff Speck's book Walkable City (recommended) details urban design and points to simple ways to create more efficient and safer traffic flows. He has a piece in The Atlantic on one of the recommendations - reducing street widths from 12 to 10 feet ...
Why do they do this? Because they believe that wider lanes are safer. And in this belief, they are dead wrong. Or, to be more accurate, they are wrong, and thousands of Americans are dead.
They are wrong because of a fundamental error that underlies the practice of traffic engineering—and many other disciplines—an outright refusal to acknowledge that human behavior is impacted by its environment. This error applies to traffic planning, as state DOTs widen highways to reduce congestion, in compete ignorance of all the data proving that new lanes will be clogged by the new drivers that they invite. And it applies to safety planning, as traffic engineers, designing for the drunk who's texting at midnight, widen our city streets so that the things that drivers might hit are further away.
The logic is simple enough, and makes reasonable sense when applied to the design of high-speed roads. Think about your behavior when you enter a highway. If you are like me, you take note of the posted speed limit, set your cruise control for 5 m.p.h. above that limit, and you're good to go. We do this because we know that we will encounter a consistent environment free of impediments to high-speed travel. Traffic engineers know that we will behave this way, and that is why they design highways for speeds well above their posted speed limits.
Unfortunately, trained to expect this sort of behavior, highway engineers apply the same logic to the design of city streets, where people behave in an entirely different way. On city streets, most drivers ignore posted speed limits, and instead drive the speed at which they feel safe. That speed is set by the cues provided by the environment. Are there other cars near me? Is an intersection approaching? Can I see around that corner? Are there trees and buildings near the road? Are there people walking or biking nearby? And: How wide is my lane?
From allowing young people to socialize without the chaperoning of clergymen and other merchants of morality to finally liberating women from the constraints of corsets and giant skirts (the “rational dress” pioneered by bike-riding women cut the weight of their undergarments to a “mere” 7 pounds), the velocipede made possible previously unthinkable actions and interactions that we now for granted to the point of forgetting the turbulence they once incited.
History, Winston Churchill famously said, is written by the victors. Don McLeroy no doubt agrees.
McLeroy is a dentist from Bryan, Texas, a self-described Christian fundamentalist, and an outgoing member of state school board of education (SBOE). Over the past year, McLeroy and his allies formed a powerful bloc on the 15-member elected board and pushed through controversial revisions to the statewide social studies curriculum.
“Sometimes it boggles my mind the kind of power we have,” McLeroy recently boasted.
To many Texans, however, what’s more mind-boggling are some of the revisions. Critics charge that they promote Christian fundamentalism, boost conservative political figures, and force-feed American “exceptionalism,” while downplaying the historical contributions of minorities.