Monday, March 31, 2008

The Gulf Coast Money Machines

Jess and I spent five days visiting old friends in Houston, Texas during her spring break two weeks ago. While we were there, we spent a gorgeous day in Galveston and paid a visit to the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Center, a museum housed in an old offshore oil rig that now resides in the shallow water next to Galveston's shrimp boat fleet.

The Ocean Star also has a great view across the harbor of a huge waterfront industrial area where construction companies rehab old drilling rigs. Maine readers may remember when Cianbro built a pair of these things on the Portland waterfront a few years ago, before they floated them off to punch holes in the seafloor near South America. The pictures I took do not do justice to how massive these things are.

These rigs are filled with extremely expensive equipment and very expensive labor. Offshore rig workers are highly-trained and willing to spend weeks at a time hundreds of miles out at sea, which, in today's labor market, means that they get paid more than Ishmael or Queequeg ever could have dreamed. Seeing models of rigs perched atop of 6,000-foot-deep underwater poles, or photographs of the elaborate fleet required to install a rig, plus the enormous rigs under construction across the harbor, all left the distinct impression that there is a stunning amount of American ingenuity and effort being devoted to getting oil out of the ground. And, as a corollary to that, there is a shit-ton of money being made.

Exxon-Mobil's $41 billion profits last year are just the tip of the iceberg: the big oil companies in turn pay trillions to other companies (many of them based in or near Houston) that specialize in exploration, underwater construction, geology, equipment manufacture, consulting, etcetera, etcetera.

One thing we couldn't help but notice on the oil rig museum was all the expensive-looking equipment with the "Halliburton" logo stamped on its side. And it was across the harbor, too, on a big building next to the oil rigs pictured above. Curse Dick Cheney all you want, but any time you buy gasoline, heating oil, or natural gas, you're inflating the old villain's ridiculously valuable stock options.

Above: the Ocean Star's drill rig, and (lower right) something very expensive from Halliburton.

With oil at over $100 a barrel, the oil rigs can essentially print their own money - and it's a lot more valuable than the cash coming out of the U.S. Mint. Knowing this made me a bit chagrinned that the oil rig museum, with all of its oil industry sponsors, still charged us $6 a person for admission. But it was definitely worth it.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

John Tierney calls for carbon etiquette

My feelings towards John Tierney, the science columnist for the New York Times, are similar to my feelings for The Economist and some of my favorite bloggers (like Tory Gattis in Houston): I may disagree with them often, but I also know where they stand and can count on them to present interesting arguments.

I'm really fond of this tagline from Tierney's blog, the TierneyLab:
The Lab's work is guided by two founding principles:
  1. Just because an idea appeals to a lot of people doesn't mean it's wrong.

  2. But that's a good working theory.
In other words, he loves poking at what he considers to be "conventional wisdom."

Unfortunately, Tierney also considers a lot of global warming science to be "conventional wisdom" - and as a result he can seem like a pretty conventional fossil-fuels apologist when he begins to talk up fringe viewpoints as legitimate points of debate.

Still, he's coming around, and he has good ideas. In his column in this week's Science Times, he discusses a hot topic in psychological economics these days: humans' failure to adequately acknowledge and plan for cataclysmic risks like climate change (see also this post from a couple weeks ago).

Carbon taxes, Tierney argues, won't be able to change most people's behavior: even if our electric bills did reflect the true price of generation, including global warming costs, there's a good chance that most people would keep on using as much electricity as ever, since the consequence of receiving and paying the bill is too far removed from the act of switching on your plasma television.

I'll grant that this might be true for individual households, but big firms and landlords - factories, office buildings, retail centers, etc. - tend to make more informed economic decisions and probably would adjust their consumption appropriately. Still, households are a significant source of carbon emissions, so it is a valid point.

Tierney suggests that the appropriate incentive for households might not be prices, but small psychological "nudges" toward a targeted social norm:
A study in California showed that when the monthly electric bill listed the average consumption in the neighborhood, the people in above-average households significantly decreased their consumption.

Meanwhile, the people with the below-average bills reacted by significantly increasing their consumption — not exactly the goal of the project.

That reaction was avoided when the bill featured a little drawing along with the numbers: a smiling face on a below-average bill or a frowning face on an above-average bill. After that simple nudge, the heavy users made even bigger cuts in consumption, while the light users remained frugal...

I’d like to see a new green fad for electronic jewelry with real-time displays of carbon footprints. These could be mood rings, bracelets, lapel pins or anything else that could change color depending on how much electricity you use, how much gasoline your car burns, how much you travel.
Here's my favorite part about this idea:
Besides putting the enthusiasm of greens to practical use, this fashion statement might also inject some realism into the debate about global warming. Once you start keeping track of all the energy you use, you begin to see the difficulties of making drastic reductions — and the difference between effective actions and ritual displays.

Installing a solar-powered hot-water heater or a windmill at your place in the country is not going to erase the carbon footprint of maintaining and traveling to a second home. Recycling glass bottles and avoiding plastic bags at the grocery store will not offset your car’s emissions.

Switching to a Prius will not undo the effects of frequent air travel. A couple of international trips can be worse for your carbon footprint than driving a Hummer for a year. If the delegates to future conferences on climate change are expected to wear illuminated symbols of their energy consumption, they won’t be visiting any more spots like Bali.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The violent streets of Portland

UPDATE 3/26: Staff naturalists at Maine Audubon tell me that the raptor shown below is actually a cooper's hawk, not a falcon.

As I was riding home from work this evening, the following incredibly awesome things happened: I turned down Park Street from Congress in the middle of Portland, and I noticed a huge bird flying right next to me. And THEN I noticed that a pigeon was struggling in this huge bird's talons.

I shouted, "whoa!" and almost missed the stop sign by the West End Deli. Then I managed to stop, point, and shout "Whoa! Whoa!" a couple more times.

The cars stopped at the intersection were oblivious to the birds, but I suppose I should be grateful that they weren't altogether oblivious to the very distracted cyclist in their midst. I had guessed that the bird on top was a falcon of some sort, based on its predatory behavior, the mottled stripes on its tailfeathers, and its sharp-beaked profile it showed when it landed next to the Greek Orthodox Church a block away. After watching it some more, I think it was a peregrine falcon, a species formerly protected under the Endangered Species Act [edit: I was wrong. See note above].

I safely crossed the intersection and approached carefully to get a closer look from behind a screen of parked cars. While I watched, the pigeon in the falcon hawk's talons struggled through its death throes. I had my camera with me, but to my extreme consternation the batteries were dead. Instead, I settled for pointing the spectacle out to a passing woman who lived in one of the nearby townhouses.

She definitely wasn't as enthusiastic as I was, but when I came back a few minutes later after a rushed attempt (unsuccessful) at charging my camera battery, she and another man were watching the feeding frenzy from their stoop. He'd taken some cell phone pictures, and might send me some by e-mail.

At that time, another husband-and-wife pair of passerby took the pictures below, and subsequently e-mailed them to me. Thank you, Mike and Alice!

I also returned about fifteen minutes later after a more patient recharging of my camera battery. As I expected, the falcon hawk was long gone. I don't know if a neighborhood dog had cleaned up any remains but there was remarkably little left:

I presume that those little seeds had been the pigeon's last meal. According to National Geographic, "Peregrine falcons are formidable hunters that prey on other birds (and bats) in mid-flight. Peregrines hunt from above and, after sighting their prey, drop into a steep, swift dive that can top 200 miles an hour." [EDIT 3/26- this little factoid isn't really relevant to this post anymore, since we're talking about a hawk now, but I'm going to leave it in here on account of the fact that a 200 MPH-speeding bird is damned impressive]

I like to think about how one of the last things that this eyeball pictured above ever saw was a pair of talons closing in on it at a speed of 200 miles per hour. [EDIT - since this was a cooper's hawk, not a falcon, those talons probably weren't going that fast, so so much for that fantasy. Still, they were definitely going fast enough for all practical purposes]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008


"Long, blue, spiky shadows crept out across the snowfields, while a rosy glow, at first scarce discernible, gradually deepened and suffused every mountain-top, flushing the glaciers and the harsh crags above them. This was the alpenglow, to me one of the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God. At the touch of this divine light, the mountains seemed to kindle to a rapt, religious consciousness, and stood hushed and waiting like devout worshipers."
-John Muir, "A Near View of the High Sierra"

I took a bike ride around the city this evening to celebrate the newly-saved daylight after work. Right before sunset, I rode through Bayside and found a newly-resurgent Bayside Glacier, bigger and more sublime than ever.

With this winter's near-record snowfall, the glacier - which is in essence a frozen pile of stormwater runoff - has actually spilled over to the vacant block east of Chestnut Street, where a smaller snowfield (foreground above) now grows.

Unlike last winter, this year's glacier has company in the form of new high rises going up one block north on Marginal Way. These projects forebode a time when glaciers will no longer grow here: this week, the city of Portland agreed to negotiate with three developers who intend to replace future glaciers with office buildings and housing.

But before the sun sets and the glacier melts away, this evening there was still time for an urban mountaineering expedition. I chose the easy eastern route.

Above: approaching the summit at 30 feet above sea level. I stopped here to acclimate and snap a photo.

A self-portrait from the summit, looking down the western arête. Luckily I'd brought my bike helmet, just in case I fell into a crevasse.

The steep western face (a technical climb) and the view towards downtown.

For a glimpse of the glacier's near future, check out this May 2007 expedition.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Sunshine State!

Some recent news stories and links related to urban nature in Florida:

  • In Port St. Lucie, a luxury golf course developer conserved about 120 acres of prime lakeside real estate for a pair of nesting bald eagles. As golfer habitat, the land could have netted $40 million. But according to developer Bobby Ginn, the eagles are more valuable: "For me, it's as big an amenity as golf or tennis or a pool," said Ginn in a Palm Beach Post article. "People want to see and enjoy wildlife and they should be able to do it from home." Watch the birds and their new eaglets on Audubon of Florida's web site.

  • In Delray Beach, the sewage treatment plant added some native plants to its percolation ponds, built a boardwalk for visitors, and created a wildlife park replete with herons and large predators. Check out the photos from Peter and Sally's visit.

  • 30 to 50 kilometers over Texas, but presumably launching from Cape Canaveral, there could soon be a giant banana floating in the sky in a geostationary orbit. But only if our space program can get its priorities straight. Visit for more information. Judging from the project team, this actually appears to be an initiative of the Canadian space agency.

    If someone acts quickly, the domain name is still available for purchase. Who's going to step up for America to ensure that Canada doesn't win the geostationary-fruit-in-space race?

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

"American Progress"

John Gast, "American Progress," 1872.

Here's a nineteenth century, unapologetically racist vision of nature and wilderness in the American west. I'd been reminded of this painting by yesterday's Chinese nature scene, which similarly portrays nature as something that should be intensively used and managed by humans, but also neglects to depict the consequences of that use.

In "American Progress," native Americans and wild animals (what 20th century environmentalists heralded as "real" nature, a paradise lost) are being chased away ahead of a frontier line of Conestoga wagons, an allegorical Anglo "Columbia" who carries a telegraph wire and a school book, and railroads, farms, and cities following close behind. The East, the source of civilization, is bathed in a soft light, while the wild mountains, savages, and beasts to the West are shrouded in darkness and clouds while they retreat. John Gast apparently didn't have much use for subtlety.

If you can set aside the racist allegories and focus on depictions of nature here, you'll see some similarities between this painting and the contemporary depiction of Chinese nature below. Just as the Chinese cartoon portrays a river that powers a dam, cools a power plant, and provides a waterway for boats, here the entire West is portrayed as as a bountiful outlet for a new empire's agricultural and industrial growth.

And, just as in the Chinese cartoon below, there is no indication here of any negative consequences of that growth: no consideration for where the buffalo herds will go when they're run off the edge of the continent, no battles over water rights, no foreshadowing of a cataclysmic Dust Bowl in sixty years.

The Nature in China

The scene above comes from a Chinese English-language instructional book for children, and I spotted it on BoingBoing in a post titled "Strange Nature Scene from Chinese Children's Book."

In addition to some elements that we'd consider familiar - mountains, sky, sandy beach, river - the scene includes some things that most Americans would not typically consider to be part of "The Nature": a nuclear power station seems most out-of-place, but there are also floodgates and a huge hydroelectric dam.

Fortunately, the first comment on this post came from a astute fellow named David Newland, who wrote
"This looks ironic only to New World folks who have had the privilege of imagining 'nature' as a space without people in it.

"Truth is, if nature has a future, it's as a massively managed space, whether we like it or not."
"Massive management" isn't necessarily an endorsement of building reactors in wilderness parks; rather, it's an argument for recognizing that nature also exists where people do, using that nature more wisely, and treating it better in our cities and towns. With all due respect to the Nature Conservancy, wilderness preserves in Wyoming or northern Maine aren't going to accomplish much in terms of solving global warming or slowing down the mass extinctions that are underway.

So in some ways, I find the "nature" scene depicted above more enlightened than the standard American post-industrial fantasy of wild, Edenic "nature." At least this scene demonstrates that Chinese children aren't receiving mixed messages about where their electricity or water comes from: that puts them ahead of a good many Western baby boomers who are spending their twilight years tilting at windmills.

But this picture, although more inclusive than most "nature" scenes, still leaves a lot out. Where's the seaside "dead zone" caused by nitrate runoff from those farms? Where do the hot isotopes from that nuclear plant go? Why aren't there any cars on those roads, spewing exhaust that smothers those quaint little villages in smog?

Chinese culture may be more clear-eyed than ours about how natural resources are harnessed for human habitats, but China's tremendous environmental problems indicate that there's still a cultural failure to appreciate the other side of the equation: how human economies affect natural (including human) resources. Nature may be abundant, but this picture doesn't acknowledge the real limits of that abundance - and China, of all places, needs to start recognizing those limits.

In that respect, this picture actually reminds me of a number of nineteenth-century allegorical paintings and political cartoons that depict the American frontier as a land of inexhaustible bounty. I'll discuss one of the more famous of those images, and how it demonstrates a similar view of nature as this contemporary Chinese illustration, in tomorrow's blog post.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Corvid commerce

This is a vending machine for crows. Using Skinnerian behavioral training, its inventor, Joshua Klein, taught crows to drop coins into a chute to receive a peanut in exchange.

Crows and other corvids, like ravens and jays, are pretty smart and logical critters . The training for the vending machine involved putting coins and peanuts side by side on the tray. When a crow accidentally swept a coin down the chute, more peanuts would appear. Klein eventually took away the peanuts so that the crows had to deliver coins that they found themselves in exchange for the snack.

According to Klein, the average rate of return is 6.8 cents per deposit, and there are $250 million worth of change lost annually in the United States (is this true? That would be about 20 billion lost coins every year). He's also looking into the possibility of using a similar machine to use crows to collect trash, or find lost jewelry.

Crows are sometimes considered pests, since they're so abundant, particularly in and around cities. But the crow vending machine proves otherwise: they're smart birds, and they'll work for peanuts.

Here's a video in which Klein explains his invention.

Link: Crow Vending Machine