Small Streams

January 2, 2011, 10:08 am
Filed under: awareness, cities, ecology, railbelt, technology, thinking, Tourism, walking | Tags:

This story in the NYTimes caught my fancy. It’s about urban adventurers, sewers, media, the wilderness, and the unconscious. Two or three men and a media entourage take a trip through the sewers and tunnels below New York.

Futurama and others have already explored NYC’s underground as metaphor, but these earnest explorers — one of them a climber of Mt. Everest — show the satisfactions of life in the urban wild.

When you’re not worried about getting caught or dying, . . . it’s really nice being underground.

Wilderness is, indeed, our refuge, though I would hope for one less smeared in feces. I also think of the brook corralled into a sewer and think that maybe it will see daylight again, someday.

I must also mention that writer Alan Feuer’s scene setting, commentary, and picaresque detail (cough drops and whisky for breakfast, anyone?) turns the travelog inside out in a delightful manner.

Low-Hanging Fruit
June 13, 2010, 8:18 am
Filed under: awareness, community, ecology, food, gardening, networking, walking | Tags:

I haven’t written anything here in four months and have felt bad about not dedicating myself to long form writing, that is, anything longer than a sentence. Why feel bad, though? Why not just write?

One thing I’d like to write about is free food, not freegan food, like you find in a dumpster, but all the nuts and berries you can find all over.

Anyway, I’m going to start documenting this with a Twitter tag: #lhfpgh.

Gotta go. so much for long form.

The Continuing Adventures of Agrobots
December 31, 2009, 8:09 am
Filed under: ecology, eutechnics, Pittsburgh, research, technology | Tags: ,

The Economist has a summary of what servo-control devices are doing on farms. It seems mostly they’re doing a lot of speculative, expensive work. Robots, though, will invade our countryside soon enough.

I’m hoping that robots won’t look sophisticated. I think that farms will be best served by small and cheap cultivators and sensors, hundreds of little spidery devices that will weed and prune and detect insects or blights. This machinery as opposed to the current six figure tractors that are air-conditioned, Internet-enabled enclosures 10 feet off the ground might provide a greater appreciation of the health of the soil.

Also in the article is the continued fetish of increasing production and reducing labor. I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s constant harping on the need to increase farm labor. Although few of us really want to work on the farm.

The best line in the article comes from a Pittsburgh robotics engineer:

“It is actually not hard to pick an orange, but it is very hard to pick an orange cost effectively,” says Tony Stentz of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

World’s Deepest Rubbish Bin
October 30, 2009, 7:31 am
Filed under: awareness, ecology, education, eutechnics, mind, research, technology | Tags: , ,

Volkswagen started as the people’s car company. During the ’60s they embodied an ethos of do-it-yourself auto-maintenance and tongue-in- cheek subversiveness. A generation later I believe they’re at it again. Their fun theory initiative is part Candid Camera, part Big. Yes, it’s about branding, but it’s about the joy of using things and making things and not accepting the status quo.

Here’s a fun way to throw away the trash.

Odorless and Colorless
September 13, 2009, 6:39 am
Filed under: business, ecology, health | Tags: ,

The Times’ reporting on violations of clean water regulations is nothing short of devastating. Clean water is something you take for granted, but the article by Charles Duhigg is a vial of smelling salts to make us think of an issue too easily ignored. The article is a combination of research, moving stories of people victimized by a rigged system, and lots of hand-wringing or silence by politicians and public officials.

In Charleston, West Virginia, the water is unfit to bathe in, let alone to drink.The poor water quality is due — not according to coal companies but anyone with a shred of scientific capacity — to coal companies injecting slurry back in to the ground. State DEPs and the EPA have been hamstrung in their efforts to police bad behavior. According to one regulator . . .

“We were told to take our clean water and clean air cases, put them in a box, and lock it shut. Everyone knew polluters were getting away with murder. But these polluters are some of the biggest campaign contributors in town, so no one really cared if they were dumping poisons into streams.”

So the costs were externalized onto the people of Charleston, who can’t take a shower for fear of getting a rash, or take a drink for fear of losing their teeth or gall bladders.

The problem with enforcing the regulations is that it’s not so apparent that our water is polluted. Toxic chemicals found in tainted water can be invisible. In the ’70s when The Clean Water Act was instituted, the problems were more apparent. Raw sewage made a better target than minuscule quantities of arsenic.

Regulations come with a cost. Fining and restricting coal mining activities will surely raise the price of coal, and therefore of electricity. The average utility user will bear the burden. But it beats having to use bottled water to brush your teeth. Plus, we’ll have the bonus of being awake.

The Dispersal of Seed
August 9, 2009, 10:09 am
Filed under: ecology | Tags: , ,

While we were in Massachusetts, Liz picked up a book for me at the Annisquam Seafair. The book, Pittsburgh Regional Economy, seemed a long way from its origins. But I can imagine its sojourn to New England on the fetters of an environmentalist, its dormancy, and the happenstances that led to a planting into my hands.

Paperback, saddlestitched, and typeset with an IBM Executive typewriter, this 38 years-old book would only seem to be classified as ephemeral, what with all the technological developments and the shifting environmental landscape.

Unfortunately, the problems remain the same (air and water pollution, gypsy moths, strip mining, the degradation of bee habitat, ad infinitum) and the public awareness and will has barely changed. If you go back another 30 years you begin to think we’re seriously moving backward.

We entered the war [World War II] with a vast and well-organized collection industry of over 200,000 junkmen withh their horse-drawn carts, push carts, and motorized trucks. By February, 1942, the federal government had
organized the junkmen, gas station personnel (no gas to sell) and the
rest of the civilian population down to the city ward levels with Allegheny County having 5 pick up zones. The whole country went from one pick-up drive to antoher with scrap rubber campaigns being the most numerous. For rubber, tin, and lead there were house-to-drives as well as campaign goals for the nation, the state, county and collection zones. The 1942 June scrap rubber drive achieved its commonwealth goal of 355 tons but not all collection zones achieved their target goal in our area. By 1944, the scrap rubber campaign ended as a result of a reduced demand for rubber goods by the military and the production of adequate synthetics by industry.

From Pittsburgh Regional Ecology, edited by Earl R. Schmidt,
published by Vulcan Press, State College, PA, 1971.

Think of it, a network of 200,000 junkmen, most likely free agents with volumes of embedded knowledge, and myriads of customer and vendor connections. Talk about a distrbuted solution! What if we could make ragman as desirable a position as barista?

Food Miles Myths
November 15, 2008, 1:53 pm
Filed under: ecology, eutechnics, food, gardening, technology | Tags: , , ,

Via Andrew Sullivan:

An article in ReasonOnline by Ronald Bailey about food miles.

As one who rec’d a free “Eat fresh. Eat Western Pennsylvanian” t-shirt and wears it proudly, I look skeptically at Bailey’s attempt to debunk the beliefs of some foodies’ fondest myths that eating locally saves energy and is food for the planet.

Transporting food, Bailey reports, accounts for little of the energy use and for fewer greenhouse emissions. In some ways the article is an unblinkered look at food economics: Reality doesn’t favor us stocking the corner market with local goods; hothouse plants emit five times the amount of greenhouse gases than transported tropical plants do.

On the other hand, I have a feeling that a society conscious of the origins of its foods, that devoted more time and attention to the cultivation and preparation of its food, is a society that will be paid off.

Bailey says that such time is better spent in leisure or in doing something more productive (I’m guessing he means something more productive for the GDP.). But in the Amish/Wendell Berry sense, such work, agricultural work, is good for the soul, and for the community, and is an asset that trumps the others.

Sorry to be short on specifics. Perhaps I should just plant something.