Archive for February, 2017


Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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

Sunday, 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.]