Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best of 2008

I know that year-in-review articles are lazy and I've debated whether or not I should post one here. But as you can see, I've decided to do it. I know that I gained a lot of new readers with November's post on how soil types determined voting patterns in the Deep South. That may well have been the most interesting thing I will ever write and my crowning achievement as a blogger.

Still, even if the other posts on this blog can't quite live up to that standard, I still think they're somewhat interesting, and worth a visit.

From January:
Shout-outs to my mentors in urban wilderness appreciation: Mark Dion and William Cronon. I was also on a bit of a militaristic kick a year ago, with posts on Korea's DMZ wilderness area and the military heritage of European-style boulevards.

From February:
The next manifest destiny for the American west: parched and scorched suburbs. Speaking of suburbs, land trusts in wealthy suburban communities like Cape Elizabeth, a blue-blooded coastal suburb of Portland, are more interested in preserving real estate values than they are in providing real environmental benefits.
A new wind turbine rivals the downtown garbage incinerator's smokestack in a small Maine city's skyline.

From March:
More on the Manifest Destiny and "American Progress," the way it looked 130 years ago.
Action and adventure: I scale Portland's Bayside Glacier! A few days later I witness a bloody mid-air battle a few blocks from my house (and get some gruesome photos to prove it!).
And during spring break in Houston, we visit the Ocean Star Offshore Energy Museum: marvel at the Gulf Coast's incredible money machines.

From April
With energy and food prices rising in tandem
, ethanol would appeal to Marie Antoinette, I think: Energy crisis? Let them burn cake.
I also dig through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's old basement and find some victorian-era junk before they bury it all under a new hotel in downtown Portland.

From May:
The growth of city street networks follows the same mathematical pattern as the growth of leaf capillaries or cells in living organs: cities are organic. May is plastic blogging month at the Vigorous North: I write about Portland's plastic spring foliage, and the Pacific Ocean's floating plastic island. Recycling plastic is a no-no in Berkeley, but it might be OK in Maine.

From June:
A proposal for new storm drain stencils. The geography of "cyberspace" is fading away, but the human ideome project is just beginning.
The foreclosure crisis transforms swimming pools into vernal pools throughout the Sun Belt.
Maine's working waterfronts used to rely on local natural resources, like our fisheries and timber. Now, military contracts keep our few remaining shipyards in business.

From July:
America means choice: comeuppance for Ford and General Motors.
New parks are exhuming pieces of London's ancient rivers.

From August:
Monuments in city parks? Nature abhors a statue. It's summer in Maine, blogging takes a break.

From September:
Ike bears down on Texas, and I write about how Galveston lifted itself up (literally) after the devastating 1900 hurricane.
Portlandhenge, LAhenge, DChenge, and the autumnal equinox.
Sometimes, inner-city "open space" is bad for the environment.

From October:
A hiking guide to Portland's Stroudwater Trail.
An urban wildlife guide to the Virginia Opossum, the spirit animal of President Taft.
Hundreds pack a Lewiston chapel to hear their pope Michael Pollan speak.

From November:
Wildlife corridors in Pittsburgh, and other inner-city wilderness areas in the news.
The big story, thanks to attention from Kottke.org and many others, was about how Obama owed his success in the deep south to the rich, loamy soils laid down 85 million years ago, in the late Cretaceous period. Down in Dixie, the blue counties have black people and black soil; red counties have red clay.

From December:
A $17 billion tour of the fabulous ruins of Detroit.
Urban snapping turtles as "the fatty palimpsest on which the toxic legacies of our lakes and rivers are chronicled."
Portlandhenge returns: the winter solstice on Winter Street.

Happy new year!

Monday, December 22, 2008

Eye on the Pipeline

My friends Nate and Iona just moved to town and got an apartment with a splendid view of the South Portland oil terminal. They just put up a new website, and Nate has already written a post on the supertankers that dock here, ejaculate their oil, and head back to the oil fields.

According to Nate, there's a very loose network of global ship enthusiasts that tracks the comings and goings of these ships in various harbors around the globe, but coverage is spotty. Once upon a time, local newspapers in coastal cities would report all of the ships that came into port on a given day. Apparently harbor traffic is less newsworthy today, but Google searches can turn up some interesting info. For instance, a quick search for "MT Waltz," the ship that Nate photographed the other day, uncovers this undated press release. Apparently the Waltz is a brand-new ship, which was scheduled to be delivered to its owners, Hartmann Shipping, on April 30 of this year.

Said press release also declares that "the vessels MT 'Tango' and MT 'Waltz' are so-called 'Green Ship Suezmax Tankers', which are built in compliance with latest antipollution-standards." A green oil tanker - the whales and dolphins must be so happy!

But if more curious harbor-watchers like Nate were able to accurately track the transoceanic commerce of these ships, we might have a better idea of where our oil is really coming from. It could be a black-gold analogue to the BBC's The Box project. Is our oil British, from the fields of the North Sea? Or Arabian? Russian? Venezuelan? For now, that's the proprietary knowledge of shipping and oil corporations - but it's knowledge that's free for the taking, for anyone with harbor views.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Portlandhenge II

The (almost) winter solstice sunrise, looking along the length of Winter Street.

For more, see The Autumnal Equinox: West Street, or Portlandhenge Returns, or this post on Cityhenges in general.

As a side note, how would you answer the following mathematical problem?

Let E(x) be the function of Embarrassment, and let A(y) be the function of Awesomeness. Fill in the blank:

A(Portlandhenge) _____ E(Publishing a photo of your grimy windows)  +  E(Publishing a photo that you took five minutes after waking up in a 45-degree apartment, and is so poorly composed that an amorous tryst between a digital camera and a snapping turtle would have produced a better result)

As you can see, I chose ">".

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Garden

Tonight at Portland's SPACE Gallery they'll be screening "The Garden," a documentary about Los Angeles's South Central Farm.

The Farm enjoyed a vibrant 12-year history as a diverse ecosystem of central American crop plants raised on small plots by about 350 local families. It also served, temporarily, as one of the largest green spaces for South Central Los Angeles, an area with a high proportion of minorities and elevated levels of air pollution (in the 1980s, the City of Los Angeles temporarily owned the site with the intention to build a new garbage incinerator, but environmental justice protests sank the proposal).

Ultimately, though, southern California's red-hot real estate market scorched the farm. Bulldozers ripped through the site in 2006, but not before some high-profile protest songs by Joan Baez, and a two-week tree sit by a group that included Daryl Hannah (yeah, that Daryl Hannah: tabloid story here, Daryl's first-person account here).

The forty-acre farm site is now a barren, empty lot, surrounded by razor wire. Just as soon as the real estate lawyers beat the farmers' pro bono legal team into submission, the site will sprout a new Forever 21 distribution center and warehouse.

For more info:
The Garden movie website
South Central Farmers: official web site

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Wilderness game theory

Above: female lechwe in Botswana. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

There are three things that tickle me about The Economist: fun, safety, and their writers' knack for tying a broad range of topics into the free-market economic theories of Adam Smith.

To wit: this week's issue includes a summary of new research that demonstrates that a rare species of African antelope, the Nile lechwe, is somehow capable of making strategic decisions about whether to give birth to a male or female offspring, depending on its age, in order to maximize the probability of passing on its genes to future generations.

For some as yet unknown reason (possibly because sons are generally heavier), lechwe are three times more likely to die in childbirth while delivering a son than they are while delivering a daughter. So giving birth to a son is a risky proposition for a lechwe. It's also more of a genetic gamble: a male lechwe has some chance of becoming dominant and breeding a lot, which could be a genetic jackpot, but if a male fails to become dominant, it becomes a genetic dead-end. Daughters, on the other hand, are the safer bet, since nearly all females breed and will pass on some of your genes to another generation.

In theory, if a mother could somehow choose between sons and daughters, a lechwe should choose to give birth to more daughters while she's young, then take a chance on a son or two once they're old and expect to die soon anyhow. If possible, the mother should also put in more resources into making sure that her offspring are larger as she gets older, so that if she does give birth to a male, it has a better chance of becoming dominant.

It's more or less the same strategy that explains the old Publishers' Clearinghouse Sweepstakes contests and their demographics. The Sweepstakes take up a lot of time and postage, and the odds of payout are so low that most young or working people couldn't be bothered by it [if you doubt the demographics, how do you explain Ed McMahon's spokesmanship and the fact that the ads always ran among pitches for Metamucil and adult diapers?]. But if you're old, retired, and have nothing better to do with your time, why not buy crappy paperback novels you don't want and spend hours at the post office? After all, you could win ten million dollars!

Of course, a variable reproductive strategy would assume that lechwe are capable of dynamic optimization, a complicated subdiscipline of economics that utilizes multivariable calculus. But as it turns out, lechwe somehow are capable of changing and optimizing their reproductive strategy as they age.

Researchers at the San Diego Zoo's 90-acre Wild Animal Park witnessed the birth of over 176 lechwe calves over a 38-year period. They found that yearling lechwes had sons 57% of the time, but by the time those mothers became seven years old (roughly middle age for a lechwe, whose average lifespan is 12 years) the odds of having a son rises to 67%.

Not only that, but older mothers are more likely to give birth to larger offspring as well.

Lechwe probably aren't capable of making a conscious choice between male and female offspring, the way humans might choose between small-cap and fixed-income IRAs. But the dependence of their reproductive strategy on age does indicate that the lechwes' reproductive strategy is the product of evolution: females who are more likely to give birth to males later in life are more likely to pass their genes on to future generations; therefore, after thousands of generations of lechwes, most females somehow possess this unusual reproductive characteristic.

With some imagination, an alternative solution to our credit crisis presents itself: let humans breed for a few dozen more generations, and the surviving offspring of our most fertile and successful money managers will be able to solve our financial problems with ease.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Chelydra serpentina

Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Snapping Turtle, Chelydra serpentina, is a common dweller of inner-city wildernesses, especially in rivers and shallow lakes.

Snapping turtles typically live about 30 years in the wild, which is an unusually long life span among species of urban wildlife. This, combined with their opportunistic, omnivorous diet (snappers are important aquatic scavengers) means that urban turtles' fatty tissues end up absorbing a lot of toxic substances from their environment.

This Canadian research paper analyzed turtle eggs at various sites around the Great Lakes, including in so-called "Areas of Concern" like the Detroit River and the Hamilton Harbor complex southwest of Toronto. From the abstract:
PCBs, organochlorine pesticides and dioxins/furans in snapping turtle eggs and plasma (Chelydra serpentina) were evaluated at three Areas of Concern on Lake Erie and its connecting channels (St. Clair River, Detroit River, and Wheatley Harbour), as well as two inland reference sites (Algonquin Provincial Park and Tiny Marsh) in 2001–2002... Dioxins appeared highest from the Detroit River. The PCB congener pattern in eggs suggested that turtles from the Detroit River and Wheatley Harbour [sites] were exposed to Aroclor 1260... Although estimated PCB body burdens in muscle tissue of females were well below consumption guidelines, estimated residues in liver and adipose were above guidelines for most sites.
Even more interesting, a short blurb on snapping turtles from the book Concrete Jungle, edited by Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman (Juno Books, 1996) asserts that
In some areas, when the turtle dies it must be treated with toxic waste protocols.
The long-lived snapping turtle: the fatty palimpsest on which the toxic legacies of our lakes and rivers are chronicled.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit

With overpaid executives begging Congress to keep a shrinking, 1920s-era industry limping along for another few months (just in case Hummers come back in style), it seems like a good time to showcase one of my favorite websites: The Fabulous Ruins of Detroit.

This Studebaker plant built autos between 1910 and 1928, and burned to the ground in 2005. The Studebaker corporation produced its first electric autos in 1902, and its first gasoline autos in 1904. Its car manufacturing business was defunct by 1964:

Packard Motors produced its first automobiles in 1899, and closed its last plants in 1956:

East of downtown, the former industrial Rivertown neighborhood is one of many accidental restoration sites where wild prairie ecosystems are re-infiltrating the city center. Looming in the background is "The Renaissance Center," the ironically-named GM headquarters complex, aloof from its surroundings, destined to become Detroit's next fabulous ruin.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Five Gigawatts in the Gulf of Maine

Floating wind turbine A concept drawing of a floating wind turbine, using technology from floating oil-drilling rigs. From StatoilHydro.

Midcoast Maine is becoming more and more like a Houston country club: every summer, more retired Texan oil millionaires arrive to fly the Lone Star flag from their waterfront summer homes. But one of those millionaires, Matthew Simmons, of Simmons & Company International, has taken his retirement from the fossil-fuel industry to an unusual extreme.

In the past year, Simmons has become the "prophet of peak oil," citing his extensive geological knowledge to argue that the world's supply of oil can't keep up with demand, and has predicted middle-term oil prices to rise as high as $300 a barrel (the recession, of course, has evened the balance between consumption and production for the time being). Here's a clip of him on CNBC last year.

Simmons is very concerned that the existing economy can't sustain itself with dwindling supplies of oil. So he started the Ocean Energy Institute, a nonprofit based in Rockland that's dedicated to finding alternative energy sources derived from the oceans. Maine could become to renewable energy what his old hometown of Houston was to oil.

The Institute has quietly floated a plan to build a 5 gigawatt complex of floating wind turbines far offshore in the Gulf of Maine. As proposed, the project could produce more electricity in steady winds than all of the state's existing power plants combined. Even more power is possible, but the 5 gigawatt scale was chosen because that's how much electricity it would take to replace oil as a source of winter heat in Maine's buildings.

At this point, it seems more like a thought experiment than a serious proposal: the $25 billion price tag is more than double the amount of T. Boone Pickens's monumental wind farm in the Texas panhandle. But unlike Pickens's project on the prairie, this one would be a lot closer to the cities where electricity is consumed, which means that its transmission costs could be significantly lower.

So if the economy does recover and oil shoots back up to $300 a barrel - in three to five years, say - I could see this moving forward. With it would come a huge mobilization of workers in Maine's shipyards, the likes of which haven't been seen since World War Two. Imagine the work required to install two thousand wind turbines onto floating platforms, ship them out to sea, connect them to the grid, and keep them in good working condition.

In the past half century, Maine's industries have mostly turned their backs to the sea, and our state's shipbuilding tradition has mostly relied on largesse from the military. We've also gone from heating our homes with wood we grew in our own forests, to heating them with oil from God knows where. Maybe 21st-century wind power technology will restore Maine's traditions of self-reliance, and hard work on the high seas.