Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Big Box Aviary

The Christian Science Monitor reports that house sparrows love home improvement warehouse stores:

These birds have set up housekeeping in Home Depots, Lowe's, and other big-box stores around the industrialized world. But here's the really amazing thing: from Maine to Virginia, England to Australia, and points in between, house sparrow populations everywhere have learned the motion detector trick [fluttering in front of automatic door sensors] to let themselves in and out of their cavernous homes. In other words, it appears that all these far-flung flocks have independently discovered how to use technology to their advantage.
Home improvement stores offer near-ideal habitat for sparrows: there are none of the housecats that decimate bird populations elsewhere in the suburbs, no hawks, no weather, and there's an abundance of birdseed.

The Monitor article reports that one Home Depot employee in Maine put up a decoy owl to scare away the birds from turding on the kitchen and bath display. Other stores have installed fine-meshed nets around the ceiling rafters to prevent the birds from nesting.

Friday, June 26, 2009

ACES: American Clean Energy and Security Act

There's a climate change and renewable energy bill being debated right now in DC, and it might even have a fighting chance.

Do yourself a favor and call your representatives to help it win. Think of it as a sort of retirement plan: a small insurance policy against famine, drought, and failed states to go along with your 401(k).

1Sky has the phone numbers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Heavy rains and the fecal ocean

A public health advisory:

In the past week, most of the northeastern Atlantic seaboard has received several inches of rain. The storm drains and sewers of the region's cities have been overwhelmed by millions of gallons of runoff, carrying whatever garbage was lying in the gutters and frequently discharging a mix of raw sewage and street runoff in older cities' combined sewer systems.

So (and I'm sorry to be such a bummer), even though it's finally sunny and warm, it would be kind of gross to take a dip in the ocean right now.

Here in Portland, for instance, the East End Beach has been under a pollution advisory for most of the past week, and was closed completely over the weekend. In New York, several beaches in the Bronx and North Queens are under advisory or closed, and a number of beaches around Boston in Massachusetts Bay are either closed or nearing the health limit.

Beach water quality is determined by the number of enterococci bacteria found in a 100 milliliter sample, which is highly correlated with the number of other pathogenic bacteria that are often found in sewage, including fecal coliform. The federal limit defined by the EPA is 35 colonies per 100 mL, but keep in mind that the federal standard has been influenced by lobbyists: Hawaii, the state with the strictest water-quality standards, posts warnings on its beaches if its testing samples find any more than 7 bacteria in 100 ml of water.

So, for instance, you might not want to swim at Boston's Carson Beach, even though its open, since the sample taken yesterday found 31 colony-forming units of enterococci. Scarborough Beach State Park found 20 colony-forming bacteria in its sample on Tuesday. And even in relatively isolated areas of the coast, weird stuff is washing up on beaches - for instance, dozens of used hypodermic needles on a beach in Harpswell, in midcoast Maine.

So, as tempting as it is, I will not be visiting a beach this afternoon. If I were you, I'd lay off the bottom-feeding bivalves and crustaceans for a week or two as well. Luckily, the ocean is good at washing itself out with several tides every day, and if the dry weather continues I might take a dip this weekend.

Here are the public health websites where you can read up on bacteria counts and beach advisories for the Northeast's major cities:

Maine Healthy Beaches
Massachusetts Bureau of Environmental Health
New York City Beach Quality Reports
New Jersey Ocean Beach Information - NJbeaches.org

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Alpha Site: the Navy's nuclear Grand Central, in the suburbs of San Francisco

Here's a ground-level photo of yesterday's mystery site on the eastern fringes of Concord, California, from flickr user topherus:

Looking at the map, I noticed that these rails all led to the US Naval Station Port Chicago, about three miles away on the shore of Suisun Bay (the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta). A quick search uncovered this globalsecurity.org blurb about the base:
The Detachment’s primary purpose is the loading and unloading of large quantities of weapons and equipment from cargo and pre-positioning ships. This differs substantially from most other naval weapons stations and detachments, where weapons are loaded aboard combatants, amphibious vessels or replenishment ships one at a time or in very small groups. Base infrastructure is uniquely suited for bulk quantity operations with one floating crane, seven shore cranes, 1 superstacker, one Rough Terrain Container Handler, 342 forklifts, 101 miles of railroad track, and 79 miles of roadway. During wartime conditions, Detachment Concord has the capability to load 4,500 tons of munitions per day.
This is how frightened we used to be of the Communists: imagine building all this in order to send hundreds of bomb-packed boxcars to explode over Siberia on a daily basis, because the Russians were also planning to send hundreds of bomb-packed boxcars to explode over California on a daily basis. Stuff like this gives me some comfort in knowing that our global society isn't quite as batshit crazy as we were during the Cold War.

The base's inland portions, including those pictured above and in yesterday's post, are massive weapons bunkers, designed to transfer boxcars full of explosives into storage, and then onto waiting Navy ships. The area is currently in the process of being decommissioned, and in the course of planning for redevelopment, newly-declassified details are emerging. One "community representative" at a recent meeting learned from the Navy’s “Historic Radiological Assessment” team that nuclear missiles were stored in these bunkers, and moved through these railyards on a fairly regular basis. The "Halfway to Concord" blogger reports:

The area of these bunkers can be seen from Willow Pass Road as your approach Highway 4 looking South East, there is a set of bunkers set aside surrounded by a double wire fence with telephone poles surrounding it with floodlights on them. It was called in various documents: the Alpha Site or in RAB records as Site 22 Bunker Group 2...

The period of atomic weapon storage was ended “long ago”, but the implication elsewhere is that they removed more than 25 years ago and maybe into the late 70’s...

In the main ‘Bunker City’ area [pictured above] opposite the Dana Estates there were 6 bunkers that housed ammunition for the Phalanx Weapon System that used depleted Uranium bullets. This material is about 1/3 denser than lead, which is why it makes for a better bullet for this weapon system.
The author also notes that, in the city's redevelopment plan, much of the base would be sold off to housing developers to house 33,000 new residents. The area of these bunkers, the Grand Central station of Cold War naval warheads, would become the site of "low density ‘Estate’ style housing," which is Californian for "McMansions."

Other than the fact that Contra Costa County has averaged about 100 foreclosures a day for the past year, building new, radioactive trophy houses is probably a fantastic idea! Hey, Californians: here's some inspiration from ye olde East Coast.

PS- Kudos for commenter Jake D. in the previous post for guessing correctly what these were.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alpha Site: Concord, California

I was looking at Contra Costa County, California for another project when I spied this odd-looking place, just east of the city of Concord:

"Graveyard," was my first thought, which turns out to be not far off. Zoom in and you'll see that the grid is traced with railroad tracks. Any guesses as to what it could be? I'll post the answer here tomorrow at noon.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Making C02 Visible

This morning, a huge new billboard went up near Penn Station in New York, devoted to keeping track of how many metric tons of greenhouse gases are in our atmosphere at any given moment. The clock started this morning at 3.64 trillion metric tons, based on estimates and reports from the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

You can track the clock online here, at the Deutsche Bank's website. As I write this, another 1,000 tons are being added into the atmosphere every second. The billboard doesn't say so, but the survival of civilization and most life on earth relies on stopping this clock and beginning to turn it backwards in the next ten to twenty years.

Anyhow, as I've said before, one of the biggest hazards of climate change is the fact that it's hard to perceive: unlike other pollutants we've dealt with, CO2 is invisible and odorless, and you can't feel the effects of a multi-trillion-ton blanket in the atmosphere until a category four hurricane is at your doorstep.

The carbon counter helps with that problem. I'm also encouraged by the fact that the billboard's being paid for by a major global bank: as Mindy Lubber wrote today in the Huffington Post, the costs of greenhouse gas emissions aren't on anyone's balance sheet, which makes them a huge financial loophole in the global economy. Tallying greenhouse gases on a huge billboard in the world's financial capital is a step in the right direction (and
it gives Deutsche Bank a measure of credence in the carbon accounting and trading businesses that are expected to emerge once the United States passes a climate bill).

This is just a couple of blocks away from the well-known "debt clock," which hasn't been successful enough to forestall the addition of another digit when the debt went over $10 trillion last fall. This counter will never need another digit: if our atmosphere accumulates that much carbon, there won't be anyone around to keep the lights on.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Cartographic Tattoos

Of the several hang-ups that prevent me from inking myself, a big one is how a tattoo will last your entire life: no matter how much you may change as a person, you'll always have some emblem of your past stamped on you. A note to my 70-year-old self: you might be cringing at the turn-of-the-century prose here, but you owe me some thanks for not embarrassing you with a puckered White Whale on your flabby bicep.

Nevertheless, here's a tattoo that strikes me as more interesting because it's almost explicitly designed not to stand the test of time: the cartographic tattoo. Here's one of the city of Portland, via the Strange Maine blog (an 1891 map of the city is on the right, for comparison):

Sure, the cartographic tattoo has some of the same hazards: what if the wearer moves out of town? Or loses her interest in maps? But as the person changes, so will the city: the tattoo will maintain its interest as a historic artifact of how we understood the city in the early 21st century. The city in the tattoo, and it our contemporary mind's eye, is defined by its coastline (in blue), and its highways and principal streets (in red). The railroad lines that featured prominently in the nineteenth-century map are absent from Julia's tattoo, and the coastline has changed, too, as low-lying marshland got filled between the Civil War and the establishment of wetland protection laws in the 1970s.

But fifty years from now, the city's maps will have changed again. The coastline will be somewhere else, as rising sea levels inundate some of the land-filled neighborhoods again; maybe some of the highways will have be gone, and transit routes will figure more prominently. The pleasure of looking at a historic map and reflecting on how a city has changed, in this case, would be amplified by talking with the person who is tattooed. "Hurricane Gordon back in 2012 destroyed this bridge, here. The government couldn't afford to rebuild it so they decommissioned the freeway," she might tell you. Or: "All this was solid ground until 2020, when I was living near this mole, here. That's when they restored the marshes that are there now."

More: Portland, Maine in historic USGS topographical maps

The Strange Maps blog also has a post about a woman who inked an 1896 map of Hannover, Germany on her entire back.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The High Line in 2009

The High Line, which I wrote about at the end of 2007, opened to the public this week as a newly-landscaped public park. It looks pretty great:

But it's interesting how the context of the High Line has changed since its current incarnation went under construction two years ago. Back then, Manhattan was in the middle of a real estate boom for the ultra-wealthy. The overgrown High Line was a romantic idiosyncrasy - a few acres of overgrown, abandoned meadowland that held itself aloof from the city's real estate obsessions.

The High Line was initially pitched as a new park by a few activists who wanted to preserve this beautiful bit of wilderness in their neighborhood. Here's what it looked like back then:

The idea may have come from the grassroots, but the High Line became a reality at the hands of developers and politicians who wanted an amenity for the wealthier, less wild neighborhood they envisioned in place of the industry and empty lots of the old Meatpacking District.

Construction began near ground zero of the real estate boom. Workers scraped away all of the High Line's wild growth and replaced it with new soil beds and plantings according to architectural plans designed to mimic the abandoned landscapes they were replacing. Meanwhile, a new forest of ultra-luxe high rises began to rise in the surrounding neighborhood, fertilized by the new high-concept park.

Then, of course, the housing market fell to earth - which, for Manhattan's real-estate space cadets, was a very, very long way to fall. Suddenly, the old High Line's overgrown abandonment wasn't a such a novelty: we began seeing the same triumphs of nature in suburban backyards and half-finished construction sites all over the country.

They're still building new high-rises around the newly-opened High Line, but it's a lot less certain, now, about who's going to pay millions of dollars to live in the skyscraper with the car elevator (it lets lucky residents park their cars on the same floor where they sleep*).

Photo by meganificent on flickr.

In the new economy, the High Line feels a lot weirder. It was meant to be a futuristic preserve for New York's past - especially its overgrown lots and abandoned industrial infrastructure. Now that the park is open, though, the ultra-slick High Line feels a bit out of place. Instead of evoking New York City's past, the High Line looks more like an expensive simulation of conditions in inner-city Detroit, or of a foreclosed backyard, or of any of the thousands of newly-defunct car dealerships nationwide. Those conditions were rare in New York City two years ago, but now that they're fairly commonplace in society's consciousness, the High Line seems more artificial and contrived.

This sounds harsher than I mean it too: lots of park landscapes are artificial and contrived, and also successful. I'm actually very much looking forward to visiting this new park, and I'm excited that so many New Yorkers had the vision to recognize and preserve this bit of wilderness in the middle of the city.

My point is that even though every sapling, rusted rail, and clump of wildflowers is in its place according to the architectural plans, the High Line Park that opened this week is quite different from the High Line Park that was designed two or three years ago. Our experiences in society shape our experiences of nature, and society is changing a lot right now.

I hope that there will be many more parks like the High Line, and I expect that one of many silver linings of this recession is that there will be. What better place to think about our society's changing relationships with nature than on an overgrown ruin of the old economy?

* Re: the car-elevator condo: I don't understand how people willing to pay for a drive-in elevator - in order to minimize their exposure to public places - are expected to benefit from their proximity to a park like the High Line. It seems as though they'd be just as happy - if not happier - living next to a heavily-guarded prison. Or in one: after all, in the real estate market for multi-billionaire captains of finance, prison cells are probably one of the fastest-growing segments.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Death by Transcendentalism: The Mast Head

A few weeks ago I wrote about Amy Stewart's backyard poison garden, and how the idea of nature as something that can restore your spirit, as in a garden, is still a relatively new one compared to the idea of nature as something that's going to kill you.

I don't think that these are inconsistent ways of thinking about nature. But I do think that acquainting us with death is one of the things that makes nature interesting, and even spiritually uplifting. Most gardens are the landscape equivalent of muzak: feel free to space out, they tell us, and just enjoy the scenery. But the poison garden commands respect: if you value your health, here's a botany lesson you won't ignore. Life in the poison garden is a lot richer than in a corporate campus planted with pansies.

Anyhow, the poison garden's rebuke to tiptoeing through the tulips reminded me of Herman Melville's famous lampoon of transcendentalist space-cadets, in Chapter 35 of Moby Dick: The Mast Head. I was going to incorporate this passage into the previous post, but it really deserves its own. More from Ishmael:

It was during the more pleasant weather, that in due rotation with the other seamen my first mast-head came round.

In most American whalemen the mast-heads are manned almost simultaneously with the vessel's leaving her port; even though she may have fifteen thousand miles, and more, to sail ere reaching her proper cruising ground. And if, after a three, four, or five years' voyage she is drawing nigh home with anything empty in her--say, an empty vial even--then, her mast-heads are kept manned to the last; and not till her skysail-poles sail in among the spires of the port, does she altogether relinquish the hope of capturing one whale more.


Let me make a clean breast of it here, and frankly admit that I kept but sorry guard. With the problem of the universe revolving in me, how could I -- being left completely to myself at such a thought-engendering altitude, -- how could I but lightly hold my obligations to observe all whale-ships' standing orders, 'Keep your weather eye open, and sing out every time.'

And let me in this place movingly admonish you, ye ship-owners of Nantucket! Beware of enlisting in your vigilant fisheries any lad with lean brow and hollow eye; given to unseasonable meditativeness; and who offers to ship with the phaedon instead of Bowditch in his head. Beware of such an one, I say; your whales must be seen before they can be killed; and this sunken-eyed young Platonist will tow you ten wakes round the world, and never make you one pint of sperm the richer. Nor are these monitions at all unneeded. For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy, and absent- minded young men, disgusted with the carking cares of earth, and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber. Childe Harold* not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates: --
'Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!
Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.'
Very often do the captains of such ships take those absent-minded young philosophers to task, upbraiding them with not feeling sufficient 'interest' in the voyage; half-hinting that they are so hopelessly lost to all honorable ambition, as that in their secret souls they would rather not see whales than otherwise. But all in vain; those young Platonists have a notion that their vision is imperfect; they are short-sighted; what use, then, to strain the visual nerve? They have left their opera-glasses at home.

'Why, thou monkey,' said a harpooneer to one of these lads, 'we've been cruising now hard upon three years, and thou hast not raised a whale yet. Whales are scarce as hen's teeth whenever thou art up here.' Perhaps they were; or perhaps there might have been shoals of them in the far horizon; but lulled into such an opium-like listlessness of vacant, unconscious reverie is this absent-minded youth by the blending cadence of waves with thoughts, that at last he loses his identity; takes the mystic ocean at his feet for the visible image of that deep, blue, bottomless soul, pervading mankind and nature...

There is no life in thee, now, except that rocking life imparted by a gently rolling ship; by her, borrowed from the sea; by the sea, from the inscrutable tides of God. But while this sleep, this dream is on ye, move your foot or hand an inch; slip your hold at all; and your identity comes back in horror. Over Descartian vortices you hover. And perhaps, at mid-day, in the fairest weather, with one half-throttled shriek you drop through that transparent air into the summer sea, no more to rise for ever. Heed it well, ye Pantheists!

*I had to look up Childe Harold: it's a romantic narrative poem about a seafaring traveler in foreign lands, and Lord Byron's first big literary hit.

Friday, June 05, 2009

I Endorse This Book: Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

I've been reading Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities for a few months now. In short vignettes, Marco Polo describes the cities of his travels to their emperor, Kublai Khan, who has never seen the cities and never will. The cities Polo describes may or not exist, or the stories he tells may be numerous descriptions of the same place. That's not the point, though: Calvin0's fictional Marco Polo demonstrates that cities - or places in general - exist primarily in our perceptions and imaginations.

If ten people were to describe modern-day Boston to Kublai Khan, the Khan would imagine ten separate cities. The St. Louis experienced by someone who arrives by a cab ride from the airport is completely different from the St. Louis experienced by a hitchhiker, which, in turn, is different from the city experienced by one who arrives by riverboat.

Similarly: most people see our cities as agglomerations of buildings, roads, shops, and people, but with this blog I try to shake up our everyday perceptions of the places where we live. What Thoreau found at Walden Pond (which itself was no backwoods hermitage, but a working landscape on the edge of town) is available to any of us today, no matter where we are. All we need to do is perceive the wildernesses where we live, whether in empty lots, in the underground watersheds of sewer lines, or in the complex ecology of an economic system.

Environmentalism is all about being more perceptive about the world around us. Invisible Cities is about being more imaginative in how we create and interpret those perceptions.

It's an amazing, brilliant book, but one that is taking me ages to finish. I find that after finishing every 2-page description of one of the cities, I need to put the book down and think about it for a few days. On the other hand, I know that when I do finish it, I'll feel a sense of loss for not being able ever to read it again for the first time. Well done, Mr. Calvino.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Victory gardening for renters

For the past couple of summers, I'd been raising cucumbers, herbs, peppers, and tomatoes on my fire escape. Last year's garden is pictured at right, early on in the season. A few weeks after I took this photo, though, the landlords called and asked me to move the plants, since the garden violated fire codes.

So this year, I'll be raising herbs and a few tomato plants on even more limited real estate, on a shelf inside the southwest-facing windows. This way, I'll only be blocking my fire escape from the inside, which is perfectly legal.

Although I expect the greenhouse effect of the windows will give me a longer growing season, the amount of space I have is considerably smaller. But I recently found a great blog devoted to gardening in small spaces: Eight Square Meters is all about maximizing the yield of food that the author can grow on his 8-square-meter apartment balcony in Dublin, Ireland. The latest post has handy pollination tips; here's some advice on maximizing the yield from potato plants in boxes, and here's a photo of his "greenhouse," which actually looks like one of those dust-covers you'd use in a wardrobe.

Good stuff! I'll post some photos of my own indoor garden as soon as I get all of the plants potted and situated.