New Orleans

June 29th, 2017

In the opening scene of the wonderful novel A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly stands under the clock in front of the D.H. Holmes department store in New Orleans, waiting for his mother. He’s approached by a policeman, who finds it hard to ignore the obese, flatulent, and belching protagonist, slovenly dressed and wearing a green hunting cap with earflaps. So begins one of the most hilarious novels I’ve ever read…. and one which has a special memory for me because it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever read a book that I couldn’t continue because I was laughing so hard. My eyes watered over and tears streamed down my face, so I stopped for thirty seconds to compose myself…. but when I picked up the book to continue, I couldn’t get any further because it happened yet again.

Confederacy of Dunces & Ignatius J. Reilly

My wife, observing this, couldn’t wait to read it…. but then sat with a straight face the whole time “waiting for the funny part.” So it was with considerable trepidation that I decided to re-read this quintessential New Orleans novel during a trip to the Big Easy. Would I still find it so amusing almost four decades later?

I needn’t have worried. John Kennedy Toole’s book is a rollicking story that riffs on blacks, gays, feminists, college professors, the police, capitalists, communists and just about everybody else in this early 1960s New Orleans jambalaya mix. The 30-year old Reilly is lazy, lives at home with his mother, has considerable difficulty holding onto a job – & spends his time instead writing notebooks full of his views about the world (relying heavily on the Roman goddess Fortuna and philosopher Boethius). When these views clash with the reality of modern New Orleans…. well, I’m sure you can imagine a latter-day, obese Don Quixote with a hot-dog vendor’s cart rather than a trusty steed.

Andrew Jackson & St. Louis Cathedral

I made it a point on this R&R trip to visit the site of the novel’s opening scene on Canal Street, which has now been marked with a statue of Reilly (photo above). But the Confederacy story has a rather sad true-life ending…. despite the novel’s brilliance the author had trouble getting it published, fell into depression, and committed suicide at the age of 31; twelve years later, in 1981, it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

I hadn’t been in New Orleans for almost that same period of time – and this visit gave me a chance to re-visit some standard NOLA sites (the French Quarter & Bourbon Street, the Garden District, Jackson Square, etc.) & feast on some delectable NOLA cuisine: po’boys & chargrilled oysters, breakfast at Brennan’s, beignets at Café du Monde, etc. But the visit included newer landmarks as well: the 9th Ward (with many houses still boarded up, a dozen years after the Katrina flooding) and the repaired site of the 17th Street levee break.

Hirsute air pollution guy

In that last trip to New Orleans in 1979 I had presented a paper at a technical conference about siting air pollution monitors — & while that technical paper is now long forgotten, the published proceedings still shows some young guy with a (short-lived, & very scraggly) beard. Whatever was he thinking??

Tibet

June 29th, 2017

Potala Palace

Long before he achieved worldwide acclaim with his mega-novel A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth spent two years as a graduate student here at Nanjing University – and in between those two years (the summer of 1981), he hitchhiked home to Delhi in India via Xinjiang and Tibet. Luckily, he wrote about that experience in another award-winning book, From Heaven Lake: Travels through Sinkiang and Tibet.

I took a much, much easier route to Tibet…. simply hopping on a plane & flying to Lhasa! But I was able to visit many of the same sites that he did, and his travel book was an excellent companion. His depiction of the scene at Potala Palace:

The mass of people, pilgrims from everywhere in Tibet, devout and curious, chanting, praying, shoving against each other, spinning prayer-wheels, giving offerings to the Buddhas, and ladling yak butter from jars into the lamps, has reached a pitch of religious enthusiasm that is, to my exhausted senses, both exalting and disturbing. Impression blurs with impression, and later I cannot remember what any particular room was like. Everywhere there are silk brocades and banners of faded silk, dark wood on the walls, the smoke and aroma of chalice-shaped yak butter lamps, golden images of Buddhas. Lamas in maroon and saffron robes sit in alcoves intoning from the scriptures…. and the endless chant of ‘Om mani padme hum’.

Thirty-six years later, that’s still a pretty realistic description of the Potala experience – as well as that of the Drepung Monastery (at one time the largest monastery in the world) and Jokhang Temple in the center of Lhasa (considered by many the most sacred and important temple in Tibet).

The Sera Monastery was a bit more sedate, but here there was a fascinating ‘debate courtyard’ for young monks who were learning the precepts of Buddhism. The instructor would typically lay out a morning lesson, and the afternoon ‘debate’ session would challenge individual monks to come to terms with (and internalize) the ideas. Lots of hand clapping, arm gestures and dramatic movements were going on, although the picture suggests there is an underlying calm at work as well.

The debating courtyard at Sera Monastery

Seth spent a lot of time in his travelogue describing the various documents and permissions and approvals necessary to travel through the Tibet countryside, and the situation is still very much controlled. I could no longer travel alone like he did, for example, but had to join a group tour, and our guide similarly had a long list of oversight requirements. I wanted to take a picture of a lion statue on the roof of the Potala that Seth had included in his book – but such photography is now forbidden. The author had also hiked out to a site next to the Sera Monastery where locals performed traditional ‘sky burials’ (i.e., preparing corpses that could then be consumed by local vultures and birds); I made enquiries, but that site too is now closed to foreign visitors.

But still…. I was in Tibet!! An absolutely stunning experience, and one that I will never forget.

HNC Scholars – II

June 29th, 2017

Last year we had our very first group of Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) Masters students graduate from HNC, and it was certainly a very distinguished group. This year we similarly had a really great group of students, shown in the picture below.

China has paid a lot of attention to ‘greening’ its financial sector over recent years, and Ms. Yang Sha (on the left in the picture) and Ms. Chen Yunjie (on the right) wrote theses addressing China’s new green bond and green credit policies, respectively. Although China issues more green bonds than anywhere else in the world, none of these are municipal bonds – and Ms. Yang’s thesis addressed how China might bring itself into alignment with other countries in doing so. Ms. Chen examined how banks evaluated companies when making credit and loan decisions, and the manner in which the government’s ‘green credit’ policies face real-world implementation obstacles within Jiangsu Province.

HNC 2017 Scholars

Ms. Tan Yanqiu (center, next to me) wrote her thesis about the greenhouse gas emissions associated with battery storage systems used within the power sector – a topic which is becoming important as utilities adopt wind and solar renewable energy technologies, and one which she shows to play an increasingly significant role as those systems decarbonize. Other faculty members judged her thesis to be an “outstanding” one, and she has received a coveted position in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs — and will begin that work in Beijing later this summer.

A number of other students not pictured also deserve mention. Ms. Liu Chang received her Masters degree with a thesis addressing the potential role of third-party auditors in China’s upcoming national carbon market. We work our HNC Masters students very, very hard — I remember the painful corrections & revisions on my own Masters thesis; now imagine doing that same work in a foreign language! — & I suspect Ms. Liu was already off celebrating when the picture above was taken. But she will no doubt do very well in her future career. Similarly, Mr. Dai Lei graduated last year (off-cycle) with a thesis addressing the levelized cost of electricity for Chinese photovoltaic installations. He presciently found that certain regional feed-in tariffs were considerably above the costs of delivery, given the rapid decline in PV module costs – and the government adjusted those rates downward shortly thereafter.

Finally, Jiwoon Choi joined me for a UNEP-UNIDO meeting about green industry in early May, and did a write-up about it for our HNC blog. Jiwoon will be spending this summer as an intern with my good friends and colleagues at UN ESCAP in Bangkok, and she’ll then head to SAIS Washington to finish up her ERE Masters program there.

Paris

May 2nd, 2017

I was in Paris in late April for this year’s PEM & ENM lectures…. with a focus on front-end theory & political economy issues associated with carbon trading, as well as China’s new efforts in this area. Sidney Lambert-Lalitte agreed to tackle the middle ground: the EU ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme), & efforts over recent years to accomplish reforms in this key arena. I outlined America’s important historical intellectual contributions to pollution control ideas & economic theory…. but made no attempt, however, to justify its current political idiocy.

You might have noticed that I’ve been on a bit of an ‘modernist’ architectural binge lately…. taking ‘mid-century modernism’ tours in California, checking out Gaudi’s “Catalan modernisme” works in Barcelona, etc., etc. So I decided to use this Parisian visit to visit one of the godfathers of the movement: Le Corbusier.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who adopted the name Le Corbusier, was a Swiss-born architect who later became a French citizen. I mentioned in the recent Palm Springs posting that Albert Frey, the architect who designed that city’s earliest modernist buildings, had worked for the French architect in Paris – and Le Corbusier had a similar influence on architects all around the world, in both building design and city planning.

La Roche house interior

His buildings were guided by his famous “five architectural principles”: 1) The use of ‘pilotis’ – supporting columns – to carry the structural load of the building; this allowed 2) a free plan, since walls no longer had to bear the weight, and the interior could be freely designed; 3) the building’s façade was similarly freed, and could be made of light materials or even glass; 4) the light façade allowed the use of horizontal/ribbon windows throughout, providing plenty of light for all rooms; and 5) the roof should be flat (not sloping), and available for gardening, flowers and other (usually outdoor-type) domestic purposes.

These principles can be found in many of the Palm Springs (& numerous other) buildings, but the real showcase for them was Villa Savoye, a house Le Corbusier designed and built in the late 1920s/early 1930s in Poissy, a town about 25 km (15 miles) west/northwest of Paris. One of the exhibits at the Fondation Le Corbusier headquarters (located in the La Roche house in Paris’ 16th arrondissement) had a video showing various stages of construction at the Villa Savoye….. & so after checking that out, I hopped on the Metro & RER and headed to Poissy.

Villa Savoye

I find both the La Roche house and the Villa Savoye visually pleasing…. although I don’t think I’d like to live in either one of them. I had just come from a comfortable, heavy, stone-solid chateau in the south of France (see posting below)…. & suspect that that might have influenced my views. But I also routinely use Le Corbusier’s city planning ideas in the urbanization portions of my environmental lectures – as an example of what NOT to do. Most people are very glad that his ‘Plan Voisin’ was never built, as it would have wiped out the Marais section of Paris, replacing it with soulless 300 foot towers and a layout well-suited to the automobile instead of pedestrians.

Straight lines & glass & open-floor spacing can certainly be attractive at small scale…. & I tend to think the same thing about modernism itself; it’s nice, but only in small doses.

Plan Voisin for Paris
Credit: Fondation Le Corbusier

South of France

May 2nd, 2017

A couple of years ago, I did a posting entitled ‘German visitors’ which noted that both Dr. Janosch Ondraczek & Dr. Jana Stoever, husband/wife environmental economists from Hamburg, came to visit us at HNC…. & I used the opportunity to have both of them give lectures for our ERE students. I had worked with Janosch at the United Nations in New York, & we’ve kept in touch over the years – even as they’ve now moved to Luxembourg, where Janosch works for the European Investment Bank.

Chateau de Massignan

Carcassonne

The previous posting noted that the real star of the HNC visit, however, was their young daughter Anni, who charmed both students and faculty…. & who by the end of the visit spoke better Mandarin than me. Anni has continued her language efforts, & now has quite an impressive command of English. She also has a new younger sister, Suna…. only seven-months old & a similar charmer!

The whole family was very kind to invite me to visit them during their recent vacation near Narbonne, in the South of France…. & of course it’s really difficult to even think about turning down such an invitation! They were staying at a former wine chateau called the Château de Massignan… & so in additional to enjoying local vineyard specialties, we also hiked around Carcassonne (a nearby medieval fortress town) and Narbonne itself, a beautiful ancient town on the Roman road connecting Italy & Spain. It was a wonderful, relaxing respite from some hectic times…. & I really can’t begin to tell them how much I appreciated it!

Frederick Stark Pearson

May 2nd, 2017

Early in Xavier Moret’s book An American in Barcelona, a young boy is riding with his grandfather on the No. 22 tram car on a Sunday morning….. and when they reach Pedrables, a part of the city best known for its Gothic monastery, he sees a statue of a goddess clutching a laurel wreath of victory/achievement, with its plaque dedicated “A Pearson” [i.e., “To Pearson”]. That gives the grandfather an opportunity to begin the story — as the sub-title of the book notes — of “Dr. Pearson, The Man Who Brought Light to Catalonia.”

Dr. Frederick Stark Pearson

Frederick Stark Pearson was an electrical engineer from Massachusetts who also had considerable financial skills. After gaining experience with both Boston’s and New York City’s transit systems, he played a key role in bringing electric power generation and electrically-powered transit systems to cities around the world (e.g., Rio de Janiero, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etc.). He incorporated the Barcelona Traction, Light and Power Company in 1911, and was soon developing major hydropower systems to supply the city with electricity – until, at the age of 54, he & his wife met an unfortunate end as passengers on the Lusitania.

I was reading Moret’s book on this Barcelona trip, and while it’s billed as an ‘inspirational novel’ on Amazon (& the author himself calls it a ‘novel’ within the text), that’s not really the case. Instead, it is clearly a non-fiction piece of work, with only about half of the book about Pearson himself; the other half is self-referential, about a journalist writing a book about Pearson.

I didn’t remember reading anything about the engineer in Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – and a check of that book came up with nothing at all [& given the depth of research about interesting characters that Larson always brings to his books, it‘s definitely surprising there wasn’t any mention]. Pearson’s grandson refused to talk at all with Moret…. or even to discuss the long-gone engineer with members of his own family, who wanted to know more about their illustrious forebear. The technical organization IEEE does have some limited historical information about him – and Moret’s book is an interesting read, despite its constraints.

Pedrables Pearson tribute

The No. 22 tram no longer runs to Pedrables, but the No. 68 bus does….. & so I headed out on a beautiful, sunny Barcelona morning to check things out. I initially missed the stop… & hence got to see a lot more of this scenic city and its suburbs than intended! But I didn’t really learn anything more about Dr. Pearson — who remains a brilliant & capable engineering enigma, I’m afraid.

Barcelona

May 2nd, 2017

For many years, I’ve had to listen to friends and family members (and no, they’re not all football fans!) tell me that I’ve been missing out on one of Europe’s greatest pleasures because I hadn’t included Barcelona on my travel schedule. I recently had a chance to correct that situation over our HNC Spring break….. & now I’m faced with the fact that I have to humbly inform them that they were indeed correct.

Wow….. what an amazing city! Delicious tapas, football excellence, the Mediterranean, Gaudi architecture, Montserrat – where even to begin! Well, okay, you know it has to be with Antoni Gaudí. So, yes, of course I went to see Sagrada Família, Park Güell, Casa Batlĺo, & Casa Milà.

Sagrada Familia

I started with Sagrada Família, which was started in 1882…..& is still under construction. Considered a ‘temple expiatori’ – i.e., built with funds provided by penitents — it’s therefore not a ‘cathedral,’ representing (& thus supported by) the Catholic archbishop hierarchy. It’s expected to be finished in 2026, the centenary of Gaudi’s death. Truthfully I had always considered it more than a bit quirky — until I walked inside, that is….. & was totally blown away! Pictures cannot begin to do justice to what Gaudi & his acolytes have achieved – the manner in which the natural light from stained-glass windows suffuses & bounces off supporting towers and pale-colored stone, filling the inside with a veritable glow, both at ground level and high above! The pictures on this posting look like they must be using colored lamps inside…. but that is all natural light, and cannot begin to convey the towering architecture and majestic sweep of supporting columns, sharp-figured carvings, and imposing ambiance of a truly superb structure. I’ve noted in a posting above that I usually have to take modernism in small doses…. but this is literally breath-taking.

The Park Güell is a lot more playful, a mix of Grimm’s Fairy Tale gingerbread houses; Greek temples; English ‘garden city’ motifs; and a serpentine, mosaic-laden bench surrounding the main terrace area. I have to say that I never believed it would be possible to sit down on a stone bench that was so incredibly comfortable – so different than Frank Lloyd Wright’s awkward & stiff Midwestern furniture! And the roof terrace of his Casa Milà apartment complex was almost literally from another planet – indeed, as you can see, its chimneys on a undulating roof supposedly provided inspiration for the storm-troopers in Star Wars.

Rooftop at Casa Mila

There was lots more as well…. a trek up to the 10th-century monastery at Montserrat; a visit to Montjuïc, overlooking the harbor & the notable ‘three chimneys’ of one of the city’s earliest power plants; a tour of the old Roman city; the Pedrables/Pearson quest noted above; etc., etc. Yes, I’ll admit that I’m now fully convinced.

Hamilton

February 12th, 2017

When I visited Mount Vernon last summer, I noted that I might be considered contrarian for reading Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, while the rest of the world was reading his Alexander Hamilton. I enjoyed the Washington bio so much, however, that I too succumbed — & found the Hamilton work equally enjoyable & fascinating.

Paterson’s Great Falls & Hamilton statue

So much so that it led me to visit a place very important for his vision of establishing a vibrant manufacturing economy – Paterson, New Jersey. This was the site of the Great Falls of the Passaic River, which Hamilton envisioned as the water power source for a planned industrial city that would allow the new country to become economically independent. He described his vision in a Report on Manufactures, and established the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures (SUM), New Jersey’s first corporation. The water channels and raceways developed did indeed lead to a booming manufacturing hub, for locomotives, textiles, sailcloth, airplane engines, and a host of other manufactured products. Today, the Paterson Museum documents this industrial history, while the Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park has a statue honoring SUM’s patron and the city’s founder.

Hamilton memorial in Weehawken

And since I was in northern New Jersey, I also visited a place that was a lot more familiar: Weehawken, site of his famous (and ultimately fatal) duel, and my weekday home for four years during my United Nations posting. Every morning I would run along the palisades overlooking the Hudson River, passing by the memorial marking the site above river where the duel took place (and holding the large boulder he leaned against after receiving the fatal wound). Today, the skyline across the river is itself an even greater tribute to his genius.

There is one problem in reading such illustrious biographies, however — the recognition of just how far our political system has devolved. The conflict amongst parties remains the same…. but some current participants have succeeded by leaving science – and now even basic facts – far behind, in a scary political fantasy. It portends a rather troubling future when the facts catch up (as they surely will).

Virginia’s Eastern Shore

February 12th, 2017

Wachapreague, VA

A visit to SAIS in DC (including an HNC Chinese New Years reception there) offered an excuse to head down to see a friend of many, many years – Dr. Michael Willingham – who has now retired on Virginia’s ‘Eastern Shore.’ This is the narrow Delmarva peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay…. and Michael’s new home there offered a couple of days of respite from a rather hectic schedule.

I’ve known Michael for more than 35 years now (& mentioned him back in an April 2010 ‘Florence’ posting), and his career is definitely one of the most fascinating I’ve ever encountered: MIT mathematics degree; U. Pennsylvania M.S. & Ph. D.; defense industry quant jock; Peace Corp. in Uganda and Peru; maritime archeological hunting off the coast of Honduras; energy specialist on the Navaho Indian reservation; DC policy analyst in U.S. President’s Coal Commission & the National Commission on Air Quality (NCAQ); Technical Advisor in UN headquarters in NY; and, finally, one of the most well-read individuals I’ve ever come across!

You might have noticed quite a few overlaps: U. Penn, NCAQ, and the UN – and it is perhaps not surprising that we get along so well. Michael wanted to make sure that my visit was not wasted, & so – in addition to early mornings at a nearby cafe with his breakfast regulars (local salt-of-the-earth types, brimming with Eastern Shore know-how!) — we took in a number of other highlights.

One was a visit to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Laboratory (ESL) in Wachapreague. Michael recently prepared a proposal that looked at utilizing macroalgae to capture excess nitrogen in the Chesapeake Bay – it’s very hard to keep him retired! – and hopes that future (part-time) efforts in such a maritime setting will prove fruitful.

We also visited Chincoteague Island, well known to my daughters because of its feral horses and Misty of Chincoteague, a children’s novel about one such pony (that I have somehow completely eliminated from my memory bank). Most of the horses are actually on nearby Assateague Island, however, and Michael and I went there to the National Seashore to update his nighttime surf fishing license. You can see us standing near the surf, Michael wearing shorts despite sub-freezing temperatures […then again, perhaps that’s what Eastern Shore nighttime surf fishing-types actually wear (??)].

Dr. Willingham & an Eastern Shore tourist

Palm Springs redux

February 12th, 2017

A couple of months ago, I visited Palm Springs…. & noted two significant features: lots & lots of wind turbines, & also lots of ‘mid-century modern’ architecture. So I decided to follow up on both fronts, and re-visited the city in January, on my way back home for HNC’s Spring Break…. taking a couple of local tours to check things out in a bit more depth.

San Gorgonia wind farms with Chinese solar

The Palm Springs windmill tour does a really good job of laying out the historical development of renewables in the San Gorgonia mountain pass, a site which now has 40 wind farms, four major solar farms, and a number of natural gas-fired peaking plants. We had a chance to see all of these types of facilities, a harbinger of the mix likely to play an increasingly important role in the electric sector in the future.

Vestas 3 MW unit

What I particularly liked about the tour was that it wasn’t a ‘rah-rah, rose-colored-glasses’ type of renewable energy presentation. Instead, it spent considerable time showing numerous earlier failures – blades that flew off, towers that collapsed, gears that jammed because of wind-blown sand. One of the solar farms (with significant Chinese investment) had its own teething problems, and now has fixed rather than sun-following panels. But it’s very clear where the future lies – and despite the technical learning curves, the tour makes that readily apparent.

Trevor O’Donnell runs PS Architecture Tours, a fun and fact-filled tour of the ‘mid-century modernism’ found in the city – with some interesting learning curves there as well. Albert Frey, the architect who designed the city’s first ‘modernist’ building (& also the gas station/visiting center shown in the previous posting) had worked for Le Corbusier in Paris, and the post-WW II expansion of the city built upon Bauhaus and other internationalist influences.

Kaufmann house

One of the most interesting – and famous – buildings is the Kaufmann desert home, built for the same couple who a decade earlier had commissioned Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece in the Pennsylvania woods. Their Palm Springs home was not designed by Wright, but rather by Richard Neutra, one of his former employees – and Wright was not exactly happy. After the Kaufmanns divorced, the wife commissioned a new (larger) design that would sit on the hill overlooking the Neutra project….. and Wright’s design was essentially an anti-Neutra one (i.e., curving, feminine lines instead of the sharp, angular plan), with an unflattering image of the former in one rendering. But Wright’s Palm Springs project was never built, and today the site holds one of Zsa Zsa Gabor’s former residences. [Given the twenty marriages of the three Gabor sisters, however, former Gabor residences are not exactly a rarity within the city.]