Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Militarization of Maine's Working Waterfronts

Mainers take a lot of pride in the state's remaining working waterfronts, our in-town piers and wharves where marine industries haven't yet given way to upscale condos and quaint shoppes. People like me appreciate the working waterfront because it ties us culturally to a seafaring heritage and a tightly-knit relationship with the marine wilderness. The ragtag warehouses and stink of fish may not be pretty to everyone, but working waterfronts are a visible reminder that we still derive a good portion of our food and our livelihoods from the wild ocean.

But obviously, the working waterfronts are only a shadow of what they used to be. What's happened to Maine's shipbuilding industry has been particularly interesting and telling as a barometer of the rest of the state's waterfronts.

Maine's shipbuilding traditions have military roots from the Colonial era, when "king pine" trees (old-growth white pines) were marked and felled to build ship masts for the Royal Navy. Maine's Portsmouth Naval Shipyard was established in 1800 to build the new Union's naval fleet.

Nevertheless, Maine's shipbuilding industry flourished with the civilian, commercial trade in the 19th century. This 1901 article from the New York Times tells us that
"The Maine shipyards have on the stocks or under contract, including vessels launched since Jan. 1, 1901, 2 ships, 35 schooners, 8 barges, 5 steamers, and numerous small craft, and in all New England there are now under construction 131 vessels, with an aggregate tonnage of over 100,000. This does not include Government vessels... with a total displacement of over 50,000 tons.

"This is an era of mammoth fore-and-afters. In 1900 2 six-masters were built, one at Camden and one at Bath, including the Oakley C. Curtis... and the Rebecca Palmer. ... It is likely that Maine will produce a seven-master before the year is out."
At the turn of the century, then, New England shipbuilders were building lots of boats, and most of them, by tonnage and in raw numbers, were for civilian uses. The image above is the Rebecca Palmer five-masted ship mentioned in the article. The image is from the State Library of Queensland, Australia, and a Google search turns up genealogical references to service on the "Rebecca Palmer" from all over the world. It seems likely that Rebecca was a merchant ship, an industrial-era pioneer in global trade.

Today, though, Maine's shipbuilding industry is overwhelmingly reliant upon Navy contracts (and, depending on your perspective, pork-barrel spending brought home by Maine's swing-voting senators). The state's largest remaining shipyard, Bath Iron Works (pictured), built yachts, trawlers, and passenger steamships in its early days, but its last non-military contract was for two tankers in 1981. In 1995, General Dynamics bought the yard to officially claim Bath's working waterfront as a fixture in the military-industrial complex.

BIW is an impressive sight to see, and some part of me is glad that it's still there, even if it's spending my tax money for dubious reasons. Still, today's shipyards have nearly nothing to do with Maine's natural resources, unless you count the proximity of deep water. They have nothing to do with Maine's tall, straight trees, its fisheries, or its seafaring population. When these ships launch, their crews will rarely, if ever, have to worry about gales, currents, drinking water, or sustaining themselves with food from the sea. The militarization of Maine's shipyards has removed most of the shipyards' and the ships' distinctive relationships with nature.

And it's also removed the reasons why the shipyards should remain here, instead of anywhere else. BIW only remains here because of the inertia of history, the difficulty of moving huge cranes and laying off labor unions. Except for the inherent political difficulties, General Dynamics would probably just as soon move the whole operation to Mexico.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Anemometer going up at Portland's East End School site

Via the Portland Press Herald, Portland School Department's facilities manager, Doug Sherwood, is moving forward with plans to install a test anemometer at the East End School site on Portland's Eastern Prom - the first step towards installing a utility-scale wind turbine on the site, an idea I'd written about last November. After a few months of testing the winds, school officials should have an estimate for the best size of turbine to install there. Hopefully the scale won't be limited by what the school can afford (which isn't much). I could see a private or community-owned enterprise putting up the capital cost for a turbine or turbines, then selling some of the electricity back to the school at reduced rates in exchange for the use of their site.

The test anemometer would come on loan from the Efficiency Maine program, which recently acquired several anemometers for the express purpose of loaning them out to potential wind power developers.

A few months ago I'd spoken with a local utility-scale wind power developer about building turbines here, but he basically told me that his company wasn't interested in building in an urban location, because he was so certain that the neighbors would throw fits, and because the city's zoning doesn't allow it yet. I'd like to prove him wrong on the first point; on the second, I'd like our city's planners to get with the program and establish a flexible wind power siting ordinance.

Besides the Eastern Prom site, Portland also has a number of islands that could benefit from cheaper and more reliable power delivery if they were allowed to build their own wind generators.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What does "carbon footprint" mean, exactly?

NY Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg takes the term "carbon footprint" to task in today's Editorial Observer:

"What makes me uneasy is simply knowing how quickly humans adopt new phrases and how readily we confuse them with the reality - or the unreality - of our actions. The two things we seem to do most instinctively are manipulate language and create markets, and those two instincts converge when it comes to carbon footprints. Creating a market in moral carbon - offsets that counter our energy-rich lifestyle - feels a little like Rotisserie baseball, more illusion than reality...

"There is nothing trivial about grasping the idea that lies behind carbon footprints, trying to understand the scale of our consumption and its widespread environmental costs. Think about it properly, and it leads you to a profound critique of who we are and how we behave. Act on it, and you immediately see how carbonaceous our lives have become."

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

From Swimming Pools to Vernal Pools

The Wall Street Journal last month reported a great story on new ecosystems that are emerging from California's foreclosure crisis. As families lose their suburban homes, immaculately maintained backyards are growing into wild steppes, and formerly fluorescent blue swimming pools are accumulating nutrients and turning a murky tea-green. Can you spot the foreclosures in the aerial photo below?

But as swimming pools evolve into vernal pools, health officials are sounding the alarm about resurgent mosquito populations bringing diseases like the West Nile Virus into these neighborhoods. So governments are breeding and distributing small fish that eat mosquito larvae into abandoned pools:
"The Gambusia affinis is commonly known as the "mosquito fish" because of its healthy appetite for the larvae of the irritating and disease-spreading insects. Lately, the fish is being pressed into service in California, Arizona, Florida and other areas struggling with a soaring number of foreclosures...

"The mosquito fish is well suited for a prolonged housing slump. Hardy creatures with big appetites, they can survive in oxygen-depleted swimming pools for many months, eating up to 500 larvae a day and giving birth to 60 fry a month. That can save environmental crews from having to repeatedly spray pesticides in the pools while the houses grind through the foreclosure process."

Unfortunately, not everyone is happy with this solution:
"First you have fish, then you have birds that eat them" and then bird droppings, says Arnie Shal, a retired accountant, who lives next to several foreclosed houses with pools in Clearwater, Fla. "It's not really a healthy situation."

Suburb-dwellers, so accustomed to a landscape of control, are uninterested to having wild ecosystems next door. But the reporter found a different attitude towards the fish on the Left Coast:
"This is how we are supposed to take care of things,'' says Robert Kloepping, who lives next to a vacant home with a pool containing mosquito fish in Antioch, Calif. "I think it's cool, man. It's organic."

California's Contra Costa County also maintains an indoor colony of mosquitoes and has hired a staff entomologist, Steve Schutz, for scientific research on these new ecosystems of suburban foreclosure. One of Mr. Schutz's responsibilities is to keep the research mosquitoes alive with a regular "blood meal."
"He usually reads a book or works on a puzzle while the mosquitoes bite him for about 20 minutes. 'I have been doing it so long that it doesn't even itch that much,' he says. The district used to use a bobwhite quail for the blood meal, but Mr. Schutz says it's less hassle to offer up his arm."

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Catch of the Day

As seen on Treehugger:
The Surfrider Foundation packages the bounty of our beaches into seafood containers, which are then sold locally at farmers' markets. So Californians in Newport Beach can enjoy this fillet of condoms (note the safe handling instructions: "Every day, 1.3 billion gallons of partially treated sewage and trash are dumped into the ocean"), and Texans can partake of the Aerosol Valu-Pak:

Butts and Bits from Venice Beach:

Monday, June 16, 2008

The geography of "cyberspace"

The first time I used the internet was during my freshman year of high school, in 1994, when I walked across the football field to use Bonny Eagle Middle School's new computer labs and "surf the web," as they called it back then. I didn't know what URLs were or how to run searches, so my browsing was limited to following chains of links on some of the first web pages: from an MIT student's page, to the Mentos home page (one of the first commercial advertisement web sites, I think), to a web site of exploding Twinkie experiments that I thought was really funny.

In hindsight, we clearly had no idea what the internet would become, or even really what it was good for. The Internet seemed so strange, in fact, that we actually assigned it a completely new geography: "cyberspace," "the information superhighway," etcetera. We made up terms that defined it as a strange sort of parallel universe, because generally speaking, the stuff on "cyberspace" had little to do with what was in real space.

Now, of course, things are completely different. Lots of people have figured out that the internet is a great way to publish and share information, or to create and manage groups of people, for practically no cost at all. I just finished reading a great book by Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody, which details some of the remarkable things that the internet has enabled, and that we sometimes take for granted.

For instance, we now use the web to convene clubs, to read the news, to stay in touch with old classmates. We use it to conduct commerce with each other. And we use it for political activism and to blow the whistle on regressive government bureaucracies. In other words, the internet isn't a separate geography anymore: it's strongly integrated with real life, and it's made a lot of formerly difficult things cheap and easy to do.

Shirky's book struck me with this fact several times, but I'm particularly fond of this passage about the fading geography of "cyberspace":
"The idea of cyberspace made sense when the population of the internet had a few million users; in that world social relaions online really were separate from offline ones, because the people you would meet online were different from the people you would meet offline, and these worlds would rarely overlap. But that separation was an accident of partial adoption... In the developed world [today] the experience of the average twenty-five-year-old is one of substantial overlap betrween online and offline friends and colleagues. The overlap is so great, in fact, that both the word and the concept of 'cyberspace' have fallen into disuse... our electronic networks are becoming deeply embedded in real life."

Cyberspace is disappearing: the internet, e-mail, and all the rest of the "information superhighway" are no longer a separate space, but an expansion of real space.

In fact, it may be even more than that. In the course of reading this passage, I thought to myself: "it's true, when's the last time you heard the term 'cyberspace'"? Then I thought to myself, what if there were some way to measure the frequency of the use of the word "cyberspace" through the years?

As it turns out, there is a way to measure the frequency of use for the word "cyberspace," or any other word or phrase, and it's on the internet. Google Trends charts out how often people have searched for various words or phrases on Google over time. And here is the trend graph for the word "cyberspace":

In decline, sure enough.

But what strikes me as especially eerie about this is the fact that, in a flash of what seemed like insight, I had a question - "how has the use of the word 'cyberspace' changed over time?" - and a related idea - a statistical tool to measure the use of words over time - and to my surprise, both the idea and the answer to my question already existed on the internet.

Suddenly 'cyberspace' seems again like a strange and fantastic geography - one that contains and expresses my thoughts and ideas before I have them. It reminded me of a concept from philosophical mathematics: the set of all possible thoughts and ideas.1

Dr. Darryl Macer, a New Zealand bioethicist, has proposed that science should attempt to map this collection of possible human thoughts - a sort of "ideome" project to follow the human genome project. Such a collection is probably infinitely large and has only been talked about in theoretical terms until very recently. But as more and more people use and contribute their thoughts and ideas to the internet, it strikes me that the ideome project is already well underway.

1Jorge Luis Borges also thought of this stuff and wrote about it in his short story "The Library of Babel," which was published in 1941. The Library of the title contains all possible books, printed with every possible combination of letters, spaces, and punctuation. Like the Internet, the Library contains mostly nonsense - but because it is complete, it must also contain the works of Shakespeare (in every language), a directory of the Library's English-language books, books written in code, and every other great work of literature from the past, present, or future.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Power of the Gulf Conference

I'm blogging today for the "Power of the Gulf" conference, a project of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute and the University of Southern Maine's Center for Law and Innovation. We're learning about ocean-based wind and tidal power development, technology, economic development opportunities, and the rest.

Read all about it as it happens at

Monday, June 09, 2008

Biomimicry power plants

Thanks to Mitch for the heads-up on this one.

According to the BBC, a Glasgow architecture firm has won the International Design Awards Land and Sea competition with its proposal to anchor large lily-pad-shaped solar arrays in the middle of Glasgow's River Clyde (pictured). The firm is trying to sign the Glasgow City Council on for a small pilot project in conjunction with the city's science museum. The discs will allegedly rotate as the sun moves across the sky in order to maximize the panels' exposure.

So they'll generate clean electricity and also attract peoples' attention and activities to the river - sounds great. But by imitating lily pads, is it possible that this proposal could have more immediate effects on the River Clyde's ecosystem?

Plenty of urban rivers are too warm or too choked with algae to sustain much life, thanks to runoff that washes phosphates and other chemicals off from hot, sun-baked pavement. By shading the water, lily pads and other floating aquatic plants are able to divert some of the sun's energy from reaching the depths of a pond, which slows down algal growth and provides better habitat for critters.

Maybe too-warm rivers aren't such a big problem in Scotland, but they certainly are in a lot of American cities - especially on the west coast, where rivers like the Klamath and Willamette are getting too urbanized and too hot to sustain their ancient salmon populations. Maybe the shade of some solar lily pads would be just the ticket.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Storm drain stencils: a neat idea to get people thinking about how city sewers and storm drains actually work. Here's one in South Portland, Maine:

But how about some alternative messages?

Or, more to the point:

[idea inspired by Pruned]

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Victory gardening

Every Wednesday morning before work I wake up early to help the Snell family set up for the Portland Farmers' Market in Monument Square. In return for this work, we receive plants to populate our fire escape garden (shh, don't tell the fire marshall), and produce later in the year. Besides being extra-fresh and delicious, this payment is turning out to be more lucrative than tech stock options.

According to anecdotal accounts from the market's farmers, this is turning out to be a banner year for vegetable and herb plant sales. As food prices rise, it looks as though more and more people are taking up gardening to raise their own calories this summer.

In the San Francisco Chronicle, columnist Philip S. Wenz calls for a revival of WWII-era Victory Gardens to neutralize rising food prices:
"During the Second World War, which began while America was still recovering from the Great Depression, both money and the things that money could buy were scarce. Necessities such as food and fuel for heating and transportation were rationed at home in order to supply our soldiers abroad.

The American people and their government responded to the shortages by starting the ambitious Victory Garden program, which encouraged citizens to grow vegetables. Almost overnight, millions of gardens were cultivated in private yards, schoolyards and parks across the nation...

The results were spectacular. Victory Gardens yielded as much as 40 percent of the country's nonmilitary produce."
Of course, those victory gardeners were just coming out of a decade of Depression, and they had a lot more experience in self-sufficiency than today's Americans. We may be at war today, but instead of asking us to conserve resources and grow our food, our government now asks us to go shopping, and instead of a decade's worth of experience in frugality, we're coming out of a decade of morbid obesity. In other words, it's way too soon to tell whether today's gardeners will earn the "victory" label - but at least we can enjoy some better food and more time outdoors.

Image: San Francisco victory garden, from the Chronicle's files.