Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Concrete Thinking

In the movie "The Third Man" ; Orson Wells plays the devilish character of Harry Lime. Harry delivers one of those classic lines where he says "Italy for 30 years had war, terror and murder under the Borgias but in that time produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance; Switzerland had 500 years of peace and democracy -and produce the cuckoo clock."

That quote has me thinking of the cruelty and decadence of the Roman Empire. One of the more showy structures of those times was the Coliseum in Rome, thought in every major city in the empire was a similar but small copy of the original. The games in the Colosseum were spectacles of terror and murder and yet the building itself is a marvelous example of design and engineering.

The Colosseum could seat over 50,000 people but it could be emptied safely in as little as twenty minutes. Under the arena were trap doors so Gladiators and wild animals could make a dramatic entrance or their dead bodies de discreetly removed. The arena could be flooded and small manned ships could be used for mock sea battles. The Coloseum was one of the last Roman building this large to be built solely out of stone.  They used a soft limestone that was very similar to concrete.

The Romans became the masters of concrete. Buildings after the Colosseum were made with poured concrete with a veneer of marble or other decorative stone added on.  It was the beginning of a building boom as the imperial city of Rome became the home of over a million people.  I just wonder was concrete a product born from the depravity of emperors like Caligula or the boredom of the Pax Romana.

The Romans had a formula for concrete that harden under water. They found mixing horse hair in the concrete kept it from cracking and using animal blood instead of water made a finished product that stood up to frost.

Long after the fall of Rome Medieval masons mastered the art of stone cutting to make arches and vaulted ceiling that Roman builders made cheaper and quicker out of concrete.  The Romans were so adept with working with concrete the Pantheon still holds the world record for the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome.
It wasn't until the mid 1800's with the use of steel reinforcing bars (rebar)  that concrete enters a whole new world of architectural use. Today concrete is so ubiquitous it's difficult to think of the modern world without it but we hardly every think of it either. And when we do think of it, it's rarely flattering.

The plain homeliness of the material was been worked into an architectural school of aesthetics known as Brutalism. It could be best described as the idea of making something so ugly that it becomes beautiful.  It's sort of like the idea behind camp, where a movie or play is so bad it actually becomes entertaining. What works for entertainment didn't work for architecture. Brutalism never really caught on and the few buildings that were constructed in that style got torn down at first opportunity.      


There are so few examples of Brutalism left that the Historic Preservation Review Board in the District of Columbia felt any remaining buildings must be protected. One of those examples is the Third Church of Christ, Scientist -at 910, 16th Street in Washington DC.  The Christian Scientist congregation wanted a distinct presence in the nation's capital, they hired an avant guarde architect and ended up with a squat bunker that most people didn't even realize was a church.  The building was hard to heat and cool, expensive to maintain and as the congregation shrunk in size it was too large for their needs. Historic preservationists had blocked any attempt to demolish or renovate the building.

The city had turned the church's request for a demolition permit in 2008. The church filed a lawsuit to finally get permission to demolish the church in 2009. The details of the court case were interesting because it pitted the desire for Historic Preservation against both property and religious rights.

As much as I support historic preservation, I have to admit it's not only an ugly building but not everything can be saved. Any community needs hold on its past but it also needs permission to move forward and create new history as well.

Concrete gets no respect, it is seen as that cold gray material synonymous with all that is wrong with urban development. It doesn't have to be that way. One beloved concrete building is the Henry Mercer mansion, also known as Fonthill in Doylestown PA. Finished in 1910 the whimsical 44 room home is now a museum filled with the oddest and most eclectic collection of handcrafted "stuff".  It difficult to describe but well worth visiting in a very community centric town.

As the world population grows towards 9 billion and the majority of those people will live in cities, concrete will be even more important to construct all the new infrastructure that another 2 billion people will need in the next 50 years.

Concrete as a building material is changing to fit the times. There are now trans-lucent concretes that let light pass through. Some mixes can be made so thin because they are strong and flexible instead of brittle. For demonstration purposes engineering students have built canoes out of the stuff.


The one type of concrete that really looks promising is a porous concrete to be used for roads and driveways. Being that it's light in color means it does absorb as much radiant heat from the sun during the day.  That might not seem like much to think about until you realize over 1 % of the planet is paved over in asphalt. I've been told In the United States an area the size of the state of Oklahoma is paved. Think of a parking lot from hell if it all was combined in one spot. Think of how much climate changing energy is absorbed and stored in that black top.

The real ecological advantage to porous concrete is rain water can pass through the pavement. Instead of running off and flooding homes and rivers after a heavy storm, the rain would only soak the ground under the road.  More of the land can be used as a sponge, as it once did before the land was developed.

Part of the idea of living well is being creative with the materials you have on hand. If your focus is solely on short term profits then asphalt still works just fine. Very soon the calculus of future development will change because the idea of long term viability will start to have an obvious economic advantage.      

Monday, April 29, 2013

GMOs, Malthus and Haber

While at a local cafe there was a conversation a couple of tables over. The peoples at that table where talking about filming a documentary movie about genetically modifies organisms.  The owner of the cafe knew I had some experience in film production so he introduced us to each other.  

The woman who was the leader of the group was an ardent supporter of organic farming. Like all idealists she had a lot more enthusiasm and rhetoric than solid facts. It is not easy thing for people who disagree with each other to maintain a civil conversation. The internet is nice because you can back up facts but people still see what they want see.

I am not for the wide spread use of genetically modified organisms without careful scrutiny, testing and cautious regulations. But GMOs are only a logical extension of modern farming. I had to agree with the other party that today's farming techniques are not sustainable but I had to totally disagree that the answer is small scale organic farming. It is kind of scary if you think about the future where both alternatives are possible catastrophes.

Farming even with all the equipment is still labor intensive.  Take away that fossil fuel driven tractor and replace it with a team of horses and you'll find that plowing 50 acres is about the most a family farm can handle -and the maintenance and care for a team of horses is a lot more than the tractor that can replace them. The economics of farming changes real fast if you can only plow 50 acres a season. Those economics also change for the whole society as well as for the farm family. Any civilization is only able to develop in proportion to its supply of surplus food.      

It not uncommon to have a romantic image of farming partly because so few of us ever worked on a farm. The people who are making their movie about GMOs tried to segregate out "natural" from "unnatural" farming.  It's probably more accurate to separate very intensive farming from less intensive farming because the whole idea of farming itself is unnatural.  

When small tribes of hunter gathers became farmers they had to carve up the land, plant segregate fields of single plants, kill pests and selectively breed plants and animals for human needs -making most these plants and animals unable to return to the wild. Once people started to farm they had a chance at a regular supply and surplus of food. Once you had a surplus of food to trade other people could devote their whole day at crafts like weaving and pottery, that diversified talents and made civilization possible.

In the Middle East and around the Mediterranean Sea here are a number of ancient ruins. Many are cities that were abandoned when the farmland around them stopped being productive. Sometimes the soil was exhausted, sometimes there was salt intrusion from continuous irrigation, sometimes the local climate changed -but once the crop yields began to decline the city also declined.

Europe was once on the verge of mass famine. In the late 1700's a British scholar named Thomas Malthus pointed out how the population of Europe was growing much faster that the continent's ability to grow food. He predicted a population crash and his writings started a very pessimistic and conservative school of thought known as Malthusian Theory. What Malthus didn't see was the first wave of the Green Revolution that came out of the Industrial Revolution.      


New farm machines made farmers more productive. Steam ships not only ferried away millions of peasant farmers to new lands but also brought back food from all around the world. The Irish Potato famine was a terrible cautionary tale of depending on a monoculture crop but other varieties of potatoes in central Europe didn't succumb to the blight and feed many millions more than wheat or barely could have.  The introduction of the potato in northern Europe actually ended the seasonal re-occurrence of scurvy every late winter - early spring.

Even with all the improvements in farming, where farmers could more intensely exploit the land like never before, it was not enough. The production of food in Europe in the 1800's was only marginally out pacing the growth in population.  By the end of the century there was a renewed interest in Malthus. The problem was the fertility of the land is based on the amount of nitrogen in the soil. Most food and cash crops take nitrogen out of the soil.  Returning nitrogen back to the soil by crop rotation and spreading manure on the land both had limits.  And that's when we get to Fritz Haber, maybe one of the saddest figures in modern history.

Fritz Haber was chemist and a fervent German patriot. In 1918 he won the Noble Prize for synthesizing ammonia. This made ammonia nitrate fertilizer possible. With ammonia nitrate fertilizer the land could be cheaply over dosed with nitrogen. Crop yields jumped and less land had to be left fallow, so there could be more land in continuous production.  Again Europe was saved from famine by technology.

But there was a dark side to this seemingly happy ending. Ammonia-nitrate compounds are the basis of high explosives.  Prior to Fritz Haber the only way to make high explosives was to use naturally occurring nitrates that were mostly mined in northern Chile. Germany and the Austrian-Hungarian Empire  had no access to the world's nitrate deposits and would not have be able to fight a long war unless they could synthetically produce them at home.
This was only half of the story of Fritz Haber. He not only developed the fertilizer that made farmers more productive he also develop several very effective pesticides.  These pesticides were seen as miracles of progress.  

When World War 1 started Fritz Haber used his knowledge of pesticides to prefect poison gas as a weapon of warfare. The man who save Europe was also instrumental in tearing it apart and became known as the father of chemical warfare. To this day his mathematical equation between the concentration of the poison and the exposure time is still known as the Haber Rule.


The Kaiser awarded Fritz Haber with the rank of Captain. Haber was proud of his work and defended it. He felt poison gas was no more inhuman that all the other ways troops were killed in battle, that death was death by whatever means it was inflicted.

Fritz Haber was born into a Jewish family. As an adult he converted to Lutheranism. When the Nazi party rose to power Fritz Haber was shocked to find out that he was no longer seen as a German patriot, that he was no longer even a German citizen.

In 1934 Fritz Haber left Germany to escape the persecution. He prepared to start a new life in Palestine, what is today Israel. He died of heart attack and maybe even a broken heart in Basel Switzerland.

Of all of the bitter ironies history still had one more left. Most of Fritz Haber's family was unable to escape from Nazi Germany. In the 1920's, after World War 1, Haber kept on working as a scientist, particularly with insecticides. One of the insecticides he created was the cyanide formulation of Zyklon A  and that was the precursor to Zyklon B  -the gas used in the death camps.

Somehow, somewhere, I think this Faustian Bargain parallels the story of GMOs. That progress has benefits but there's always a price to pay later -and the price isn't always obviously linked to the product. 

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Price of Progress

There are some people who you see almost every day but they can still surprise you when they open their mouths to speak.  It could be the mildly inane, a sublime non sequitur or comment that leaves "your brain hanging upside down".

I like that expression, it comes from a Ramones song commemorating a bit of bad history. In 1985 to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of World War 2 in Europe Ronald Reagan placed a wreath at Kolmeshohe Cemetery which was a German military cemetery. Critics pointed out that some of the dead there were members of the Waffen SS -truly the most fanatical portion of the Nazi war machine.


Reagan being Reagan refused to back down even when over 80 Republican Congressmen asked him to change his plans. Be it stubborn pride or a real lack of understand history what should have been a display of US - German unity turned into a public relations debacle. The whole event left everyone's brain hanging upside down long before WTF was popular.

Back to yesterday, Harrison is somebody I see regularly several time a week.  Not far from my home and visible for many miles is the Limerick Nuclear Power Plant.  Harrison stares off at the 300 foot tall cooling towers and says "you know today is Superman's 75th birthday and tomorrow is the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl accident -where the hell was Superman on April 26th 1986?"

It felt it a little strange reminding Harrison that Superman is fiction but he assured me that he wasn't losing his grip on reality and that asking the question as a metaphor.  The nuclear accident at Chernobyl didn't happen by itself and there were actions both before and after the accident that shaped the final outcome.

The real Supermen where the 28 Soviet firemen who when on the roof so they could fight the fire after the explosion. They had to realize fighting the fire would mean certain death from radiation poisoning, they also knew if they didn't fight the fire  millions of people could be sicken and brought to an early death.

It's difficult not to be overwhelmed by that kind of courage.

The whole concept of a "superman" is a mainstay of mythology, comic books, fantasy fiction, philosophy and propaganda .  And yes, supermen are also in art. Art is the mirror that can get to reflect everything else that goes on in the world. 

So far there have been three major nuclear accidents; the Mile Island meltdown on March 28th 1979, Chernobyl and the Fukushima Daiichi disaster on March 11th 2011. There have been at least 30 other serious events since 1952.

The long term promise of nuclear energy being "safe, clean, too cheap to meter" has never come to pass. Potentially nuclear energy can be cheaper if you only compare the price of the day to day production of kilowatts.  If you have to add in the projected cost of dealing with the nuclear waste the price goes up. Since the current projections are only a WAG (a wild ass guess) and the real costs could easily outstrip the more convention ways to produce electricity.

As bad as nuclear energy might become, keep in mind there is no free lunch. Every way of producing energy has an environmental cost. Most of our electricity is produced by burning coal -to make steam -to turn turbines. Coal is filled with all kinds of impurities -like mercury. Even the cleanest smokestack using the best "clean coal" technology still spews out a mist of mercury that eventually gets in our water and food.

But coal's biggest threat is environmentalists  but instead other capitalists who are fracking cheaper natural gas.  But here again fracking has it environmental costs and many of those costs are going to be long term and not fully apparent until someday after the drilling companies have left.

Pennsylvania is one of the epicenters of the fracking boom. Pennsylvania was twice the home of earlier energy booms in the 1800's. The state had the nation's first commercial oil field in the far northwest corner.  And Pennsylvania is dotted with both active and abandon coal mines.  Many of the abandoned coal mines and oil wells are over a century old and they still leak all kinds of toxic pollutants into the environment. The state government of Pennsylvania  (which here really means the taxpayers in this case) spends millions of dollars every year to clean up or at least reduce the damage left behind. They may have to spend millions more for many years to come to pay for the cheap energy of a former generation.

Art is one way ordinary people can voice their resentment over the bad decisions of powerful people and institutions. Art can be a powerful tool of protest. Governments have always be fearful of artists  because they can create an image that becomes a lightning rod for change. It's difficult to argue with an image but on some level it can quickly make a truth apparent. A work of art can make a point better than a thousand, or even ten thousand well thought out words  

Now the rich and the powerful often prove themselves to be real Philistines when it comes to art but they do have the tools of propaganda and advertising.  They can try to make nuclear power look environmentally friendly by saying "no greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere when they make power" but that's the kind of truth that used to mask the real environmental harm they create.

The overall cleanest way to produce energy is with renewable resources. Solar and wind energy are still discouraged because the powers behind short term profits are more politically active than the people who would benefit from the long term results. 

Last week someone was attempting to shout me down on my view points over solar energy.  Their claim was solar energy was still too expensive, too idealistic, too impractical to work.  It's funny how many critics demand that solar energy has to compete  economically to be considered viable  -and yet coal, oil, gas and nuclear energy all get billions in government subsidies that renewable energies could never even hope to receive.

I thought about this. I thought of how expensive a nuclear accident at the nearby Limerick power plant would be.  Though I was assured an accident could never happen here.

Satirically I thought how there's never been a meltdown of solar panels. Then I had to ask the other party if Limerick had a special security team and tactical plan to protect the plant against terrorism?

Immediately I was told "of course they did, it would criminal negligent if they didn't".

I thought about why those rods of uranium had to be protected by armed guards and then had to ask "do you think terrorists will every come here to steal solar panels?"

I felt a little Harrison asking that question but the other party understood exactly what I meant. Like Ronald Reagan at Bitburg, right or wrong -his heels were dug in. He would not concede that the world would be a safer place with more solar panels and less nuclear power plants.