Saturday, March 30, 2013

Framing Space

One reward of travel is seeing how other places in the world divide up space. Used to walking through Princeton's spread out residential neighborhoods, I found this old narrow street in the Coyoacan neighborhood of Mexico City appealing.

The contrast of this quiet street with the newer, helter-skelter urban growth we traveled through to get there surely played a role. But there's something to be said for the efficient use of space and the multiple degrees of sanctuary. The street itself is framed and sheltered, and no wider than necessary. There is no need for a front lawn and the obligatory conformity and maintenance it typically requires, so all that extra space and time is saved.

The unified look of the walls allows the street to  serve a much greater variety of purposes. One door may open to a residence, another to a shop, office, or even a small parking lot, none of which anyone is forced to look at.

Fortunately, my daughter was there to let me in to the one that held our bed and breakfast.

Open the door and you leave the sanctuary of the street to enter the deeper sanctuary of the inner courtyard. Energy is reflected back rather than lost to the ill-defined spaces of scattered suburbia. One feels sheltered without even having entered the house.

Though we didn't feel any claustrophobia, there are these clever openings in the walls, which look like doorways to the neighbor's but turn out to be mirrors.

And if one wants a view, one can always climb up to the rooftop to look out across the neighborhood. If one wants open spaces, one heads to the public plazas and parks.

It's interesting to wonder whether an extended stay in such a neighborhood would lead eventually to a craving for the more open landscape of suburbia, but our brief stay introduced us to the satisfaction of navigating spaces that are well framed and no larger than they need to be, and where people are freed from the burden of lawn care.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Sleak EcoCabs and Other Attempts at Sustainability in Mexico City

A tourist in Princeton, seeking signs of sustainability, might photograph the nature preserves, a few bicyclists passing by, the farmers market, and attempts to compost food scraps rather than truck them to the landfill. A Princeton tourist in Mexico City might come up with the following:

Being the third largest city in the world, Mexico City is not exactly a model of sustainability. On the other hand, if 24 million people are going to congregate somewhere on the planet, it may as well be in a place with a consistently comfortable climate. Most buildings need no heating or air conditioning, which must make for a dramatically reduced demand for energy. Though Mexico sold off its passenger trains in the 1990s, and much of Mexico City is clogged with traffic, there is at least a quiet, smooth-running subway system and impressive intercity buses.

And then there are these sleak taxis, seen only at the city's center (the Zocolo) but perhaps found elsewhere as well. Mexico City was built on a drained lake bed, in fact was built over an Aztec city that was located on, and surrounded by, a lake. All of which is to say that the city is very flat, and therefore is a good spot for taxis like these, which run on batteries or can be pedaled. Princeton has examples of bicycles with battery assist, and New York City has the pedicabs, but this is the first I've seen of a streamlined fusion of pedals and electric for taxis.

Here's one of the vehicles at the Zocolo, in front of the government palace that holds Diego Rivera's murals depicting Aztec life.

An internet search reveals that they are called EcoCabs, are common in Europe and have offices in Canada and the U.S. This BikeHugger post shows one in New York City, and provides some details about the electrical component.

Another interesting vehicle seen in Coyoacan in southern Mexico City was this bus that looks like a second bus fell on top of it, upside down. A similar bus, that was fueled by biodiesel and actually was constructed of two buses one on top of the other, paid a visit to the Jewish Center of Princeton some years back (can't find my post about it).

Many parks in Mexico City include what are essentially outdoor gyms with elaborate exercise equipment, open to the public and well used. Benchpress for the People! This is one of the perks of a climate that's comfortable year-round.

Near that particular outdoor gym was the Viveros, a city tree nursery that doubles as a jogging mecca much like Central Park in NY City.

A couple times, I saw groups of bicyclists riding assertively in Critical Mass fashion.

Various bikes are adapted for freight purposes. A more common version is the tricycle in which two large wheels in front straddle a freight compartment, with the rider sitting behind over the third wheel.

Managed to add to my collection of photos of elegant settings for compact fluorescent lightbulbs.

Recycling looks haphazard, but who knows. This truck is filled with cardboard and bags of bottles and cans.

Near the Zocolo, this garbage truck remained parked for a long time while two guys loaded garbage into it, then sorted out various recyclables. This sorting is done before the trip to the landfill, reminiscent of the approach used by the highly organized and industrious "carteneros" of Buenos Aires. By contrast, in the documentary on the immense landfill outside Rio in Brazil, the sorting is done by hand at the landfill.

Most receptacles on city streets are paired as organic and inorganic. These use the same color scheme as Princeton University's outdoor receptacles. The effort to separate out organics is ambitious,

but the contents in one were indistinguishable

from the other. For people to actually pay attention to where they throw their trash, the receptacles have to have more dramatic and demonstrative body language than this.

For example, Freda Kahlo's house has what looks like a crib for collecting bottles. Everything about this receptacle sings out "BOTTLES!", which makes it hard for even the most distracted tourist to contaminate it with something else.

Even the receptacle for recycling batteries was tastefully painted with the house's famed color scheme.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Pipeline Panel Discussion Wednesday, 7pm

An expansion of the natural gas pipeline running through Mountain Lakes, Witherspoon Woods and other preserved lands in the Princeton Ridge has been proposed. Plans include not only laying pipe along the existing right of way but extending into additional forested areas. A panel discussion is planned tonight. Details below.

"Pipeline Education and Empowerment: A Panel Discussion"
On March 27th at 7 pm in Princeton the Central Group NJ Sierra Club, Princeton University student group SURGE, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association will be hosting an important educational forum. 

Join us to learn more about Natural Gas Pipelines and the detrimental impacts they are having on New Jersey. There are a number ofpipeline expansion projects currently being constructed across the state. 

The latest expansion proposed by Williams / Transco, the Leidy Southeast Expansion Project, would impact Princeton, Montgomery, Branchburg, Readington, and Branchburg.

These pipelines can damage our water quality, clear cut our forests and impact residential communities to carry polluting fossil fuels to distant locations. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration natural gas usage in New Jersey has remained steady for the last five years. However as drillers increase activity in Pennsylvania companies are eager to move their gas to markets.

A panel of experts will discuss environmental and safety impacts, construction techniques, legal issues and options for effective involvement by individuals and groups.

What: Pipeline Education and Empowerment: A Panel Discussion
When: March 27th at 7 p.m.
Where: Princeton University, McCosh Hall Room 46
Why: Pipeline projects target our lands, water and forests and our local community. Learn about the issues and options for us.

* Kate Millsaps, NJ Sierra Club, Pipelines in New Jersey, Pipelines in New Jersey - The Big Picture 
* Faith Zerbe, Monitoring Director, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Pipeline Construction Methodology and Impacts
* Jennifer Coffee, Policy Director, StonyBrook Millstone Watershed Association, The Local Environment 
* Alice Baker, J.D., Eastern Environmental Law Clinic, Legal Issues and Community Options
* Frank and Nancy Rumore, Fight the Pipe, One Community's Response

Moderators: Terry Stimpfel, Chair, Central Group NJ Chapter Sierra Club and Isaac Lederman, Co-President, Princeton University Students United for a Responsible Global Environment

Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Rusty Traveler

Extracting ourselves from our Princeton home for a (university) spring break vacation was like trying to escape from a vat of molasses. My brain went through the same sorts of coughs and hiccups that my minimally-driven pickup truck had exhibited when I last took it out on the freeway after months of puddle jumps around town.

Though it's hard to fathom the artist's original intent, the sculpture in this photo, seen later that day along a parkway in Mexico City, tracks closely the thought processes that went into selecting clothes and other necessary items for the trip, while time, represented by the taxi, raced by. By intent or coincidence, the sculpture also provides a good visualization of the decision-making process in calcified bureaucracies, as well as the layout of roads in Mexico City.

A less rusty traveler would have already arrived at the airport when we were just pulling out of the driveway, and would have remembered not only to turn down the house thermostat, which we managed,

but also to turn down the water heater that quietly consumes natural gas in the basement, heating water for no one when everyone is gone.

It's the least one can do before being catapulted by machines, first down Route 1, then down the runway, up and away and down to Mexico City, knowing all the while that periodic travel is surely good for personal sanity but just as surely collectively insane. They say that a capacity to hold two mutually incompatible truths in mind at the same time is a sign of intelligence. If so, then we are surely the most intelligent humans ever, knowingly living a present so incompatible with the future.

There was a time--before I read Elizabeth Kolbert's "The Darkening Sea" or seeing the graph of atmospheric CO2 rocketing upwards--when one could feel the pure, unpolluted awe for the wonder of our machine age, as I did when a Boeing 767 took us up and over the Andes from Buenos Aires, then elegantly expanded its wings to ease us down into Santiago. Travel is a beautiful thing; the future is precious. Precious little is being done to make one truth cohabitate well with the other. I return now with a harvest of photos and memories, and yet know that the planet, too, remembers all the trips I've ever made.

Bringing the present into harmony with the future, bringing personal interest into harmony with collective well-being--what sort of traveling machine can take us to that destination? That's the trip most worth taking.

What Shall We Fear?

(A post begun last August, returning from a trip.)

Heading home, having ridden on the wings and rails of ancient energy, I find yet more machines awaiting at Princeton Junction. From sea of planes to shiny sea of cars, this scene repeats all across America. The cars welcome us, each eager to serve our individual needs and destinations, yet each, on the back side, contributing in a collective way to a fate we all will share. Individual freedom and ease now, shared destiny and hardship later, Hurricane Sandy-style. It's an unfair choice, we shouldn't stand for it, yet few even notice a choice is being made.

So, a question asked, last August, when these photos were taken: What shall we fear?

The serving sea of machines
That will in time raise the sea
Above what we love,
At first one time but finally forever?

Or the spider that suddenly loomed,
Casting its net across the driveway.

Caught in the headlights,
Catching my attention
With its quiet intricacies,
It asks nothing from us,
Takes nothing from yesterday,
Changes nothing about our tomorrow,
Travels on nothing but the wings
Of a windy day.

I pulled up short and let it be, then found in morning light
Not a trace.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Veblen Open Space Legacy: A George Dyson Talk, March 21, 7pm

Follow many aspects of Princeton life back to their roots, and you'll encounter Oswald Veblen, a remarkable visionary and mathematician few have heard of. I first encountered his name after coming across an abandoned house and cottage in Herrontown Woods, which Veblen and his wife Elizabeth had left to the county, along with 95 acres, to be made into a nature center, library and museum for Princeton to enjoy on the northeast side of town.

Like the house, the Veblens' legacy has remained largely hidden and forgotten. That legacy runs like a deep river beneath many aspects of life in Princeton we now take for granted. A pre-eminent university, the Institute for Advanced Study, Einstein’s long and cherished residency--Veblen played surprisingly instrumental roles in making these possible. His vision and influence were also fundamental in Princeton’s contributions to early computer development.

A recurrent feature of Veblen’s legacy is his capacity to bring disconnected entities together to create greater meaning. The layout of Jones Hall on the Princeton University campus was designed by Veblen to bring mathematicians together to share ideas. The Institute, which Veblen's vision strongly influenced, furthered this goal of bringing scholars together, expedited by the tradition of afternoon tea the Veblens began. Whether recruiting mathematicians for the university, the Institute, or to help improve ballistics during the World Wars, Veblen displayed an uncanny knack for assembling talent. With Norwegian and Midwestern pioneer roots, Veblen himself combined extraordinary intellect with a love of hands-on physical work. A wedding of Old and New World can be seen both in the architectural elements of the Veblens' house and in their marriage--Elizabeth having been born in England.

All this “bringing together” can also be experienced when walking the trails of Princeton’s many nature preserves. A nature lover, Veblen served as "re-aggregator" of open space, consolidating small parcels in the 1930s with the intention of preserving large tracts--both at Herrontown Woods and the Institute Woods--and in that sense he began the process that continues today through Princeton’s open space movement. My research thus far suggests that Herrontown Woods, donated by the Veblens in 1957, was Princeton’s first dedicated nature preserve.

Though the Veblen House--a deep legacy next to a deep woods--remains neglected, Veblen’s founding efforts to mend pieces of land back together will be explored in a talk by author George Dyson on Thursday, March 21 at 7pm, hosted by D&R Greenway.

A writer and Princeton native, George Dyson has done a great deal to increase awareness of Oswald Veblen's remarkable legacy. In his book Turing's Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, Dyson devotes his third chapter to describing Veblen's life and his role in developing the computers we use today. But his talk this Thursday will focus on how Veblen's vision and initiative led to the Institute acquiring 600 acres of open space that later was preserved as open space. Dyson's thorough research and engaging writing style have been a great inspiration to me in my own efforts to make people aware of the remarkable legacy the Veblens left to Princeton and the world, at

The talk, open to the public and entitled "Princeton's Christopher Robin - Oswald Veblen and the Six-Hundred-Acre Woods", will take place at the DR Greenway's Johnson Nature Center, out Rosedale Road.
From a DR Greenway email: "Growing up in these woods, Dyson is in a unique position to recount its journey to preservation. Owned first by William Penn, then Princeton's Olden family, and passing, through Veblen, finally to the Institute, Dyson declares, "Veblen put the fractured pieces back together." More info at

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bridging the Princeton Environmental Divide

There is a great divide in Princeton that I navigate across at least weekly. It runs approximately along Nassau Street. On the university side, scholars are seeking solutions to the world's deepening problems, like climate change and coming shortages of food and water. On the community side, life goes on as usual, unfazed by the looming abyss.

Sometimes it seems like a subtle form of torture is being perpetrated. It's the scholars' job and passion to come up with possible solutions, while the world, indifferent and unresponsive to warnings, keeps making the scholars' task ever more vexing and Herculean.

Graphs seldom if ever seen by the public, like the one showing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere rocketing upward, tell an alarming story, while the scientists' voices maintain professional calm.

One speaker, as in these slides from a powerpoint, is helping develop a list of solutions to reduce food shortages and climate change that can be ready and waiting just in case any government entity is finally moved to act. The political tendency to ignore the findings of science comes at a time when scientists' computer-enhanced powers of analysis and prediction continue to make tremendous strides. What an exciting world it would be if we were using those hard-won insights to take on the challenges of our time.

In this context, it's heartening to see that a crossing of the divide from university to town is scheduled to take place tomorrow, March 15, at the Princeton Public Library, when Stephen Pacala and Michael Lemonick lead a "Conversation on Climate Change". The event is  being organized by the Friends of the library as a fundraiser. I was told by the library that it's sold out, but I just checked the website and it looked like tickets could still be bought. These are two of the most engaging speakers on the world's most compelling problem.

Late Night Lighting at the Library

People frequently wonder why the lights at the library are still on hours after it closes. I recently met with the director and then with the building manager to explore various ways to reduce energy consumption. Though it's important to make sure that any new buildings built in town are as energy efficient as possible, the community's greenhouse gas emissions will only go down substantially through improvements in existing buildings. 

The library, particularly as host of the Princeton Environmental Film Festival, has been a leader in programming aimed at educating the community about the dangers of climate change and the actions people can take to reduce our impact. I'm interested in seeing if and how the library could add another dimension of education by reducing energy use while still providing its great service to thousands of patrons every day.

Turns out things get complicated pretty quickly when seeking to make changes, but here's what I learned about lights after hours:

Custodians clean the library after hours. The aim is to begin on the third floor and work down, turning off each floor's lights as they go. If all is going according to schedule, the library closes at 9pm, the top floor gets cleaned and lights go off around 10:30pm, the 2nd floor at 11:30pm, and then the 1st floor an hour after that. The building manager can check video the next day to see when the lights went out. Given language barriers and turnover among workers, it's an ongoing struggle to get custodians to stick to this protocol.

One approach to reducing the lighting needed after hours would be to have the custodians only have one floor's lights on at a time, i.e. turn off floors 1 and 2 before cleaning floor 3, then turn floor 2 back on for cleaning, and so on. I've heard that an approach similar to this was used at Princeton High School, at least for awhile, with considerable success. But as with issues like recycling, it's always a question of training, motivation and sustained followup.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Turning Princeton's Organic Waste into Compost and Energy

Anyone wishing to know more about where foodwaste collected curbside in Princeton is taken can read about the compost operation at this link.

In the comments section of the NY Times article, I found links to some excellent articles on how yard and wood waste are being utilized in Europe for energy production. If Princeton has any aspirations to become sustainable, it needs to look to local sources of energy. The main source is the sunlight falling on the town. But the energy in brush, foodwaste, yard waste, and even our garbage and sewage sludge are currently being wasted. Instead of being utilized for energy production, these rejects of society require large amounts of fossil fuel energy to compost, landfill, or, in the case of sewage sludge, incinerate.

Here, and here, are the links to ways waste has been turned into energy in Europe, including a new generation of trash incinerators that minimize air pollution. Incinerators are now being located close to upscale communities in Europe, making it possible to utilize the heat generated by the plants, as well as the electricity.

It is particularly timely in New Jersey to be finding ways to convert wood waste to energy, because our very common ash trees are about to be devastated by the exotic Emerald Ash Borer, which will be coming into the state as it expands it range eastward from Pennsylvania. The pest, which kills all species of ash tree, originally found its way to the U.S. from Asia in wooden packing crates. Millions of trees have already been killed, following the pest's initial introduction into Michigan back in the 1990s.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Recycling at Hinds Plaza

It's hard to find recycling containers on downtown streets, but at Hinds Plaza, there is a redundant supply. New ones, on the left, were installed, while the old ones remain.

Last year, when I heard that Princeton Township had arranged for a grant from the county to spend up to $15,000 on new recycling containers for Hinds Plaza, my first question was why not just improve the existing ones and spend the money on installing recycling containers elsewhere downtown. I wrote a post describing a low-cost retrofit similar to what was done in the library's cafe. One point I raised was that installing new containers is not a very "sustainable" approach. There's the carbon footprint of building and delivering the new containers, and the old, still useful containers are instantly turned into solid waste.

Recycling in public places is difficult. One needs well-designed containers, and ongoing cooperation from both the public and custodians. This particular installation seems to be well-intentioned, but whether it actually advances the cause is hard to say.

Update (3/30/13): Have noted since this post that half of the new recycling bins have been transferred to Nassau Street. Progress!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

When Jets Downshift Overhead

A common sound in the skies over Princeton is a sudden drop in the pitch of commercial jets flying far overhead. It sounds like, and is, a relaxing of the engines, an easing back. An article from 1977 found on the web reports on what was at the time a new way for jets to smoothly descend while reducing fuel consumption and noise. My understanding from an in-law who flies the president of Argentina around, is that jets these days pretty much coast in from 50 miles out, which would correlate with Princeton's distance from airports in Newark and New York.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Would-be Einstein Lives Quiet Life as Cairn-Poo

I don't want to totally intimidate other would-be Einstein lookalikes preparing for tomorrow morning's Einstein Lookalike Contest at the Princeton Public Library, but out of a sense of mercy I hereby put them on notice that I've decided to enter my highly intelligent and charismatic dog Leo in the contest.

We are counting on Leo's obviously superior intelligence, extremely expressive ears, as well as any resemblance to the beloved genius, to carry the day.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Shopping Local

Serendipity struck on Nassau Street the other day for an unlikely shopper who made an unpremeditated entry into Hulit's shoe store. It was rare to find this man shopping, rare for his feet to encounter shoes that fit, and even rarer for him to encounter a salesman who loves talking not only about shoes but also all things related.

Like chickens, which really don't have anything to do with shoes, but the topic came up, eliciting a testimonial by the salesman about a teacher in a West Windsor middle school who had gotten his 6th grade daughter hooked on science, in part by having his students help care for chickens and ducks in the school courtyard.  So inspiring is this teacher (and the chickens and ducks) that his students return in subsequent years to visit and help with the animals.

Getting back to shoes, the shopper and salesman discussed various theories of whether to land on the heel or the ball of the foot while running, and the roots of running back in the hunter/gatherer days, when the naked advantage of superior cooling allowed us to chase animals until they collapsed from heat exhaustion.

Flattering the shopper, but in an authentic way, the salesman agreed that hiking on nature trails is better for the body than walking on sidewalks, because the uneven terrain wakes up muscles that otherwise don't get engaged by surfaces where each step is the same. It ties in nicely with those exercises that require balance and therefore engage multiple muscles, in contrast to most exercise machines that work only one muscle group at a time.

Interspersed in all of this were details about the shoes--waterproof vs. better ventilation, the pros and cons of rounded heels, and heels slightly raised vs. even with the front.

Having found a surprisingly good fit between shoes and feet, price and budget, thoughts and conversation, the shopper emerged in an unaccustomed state of grace, hands full and feet happy, his metal steed parked a few steps away, ready for the short bike ride home.

Shopping local at its best.

Friday, March 01, 2013

Recycling Policy Meets Reality

There's policy, and then there's reality. A recent posting by the county in the local paper stated what has been stated many times before in multiple media, that recyclables put on the curb in plastic bags will not be picked up.

In practice, the bagged recyclables are picked up, and though the bags may cause some problems at the sorting plant, occasionally getting tangled in the machinery, the inconvenience is apparently not enough to trigger any enforcement of the policy.

Enforcement might entail leaving the bagged items on the curb, with a note explaining why they weren't picked up. But that would slow down the crews and require additional staff time by office employees to handle ensuing complaints from homeowners.

The styrofoam here is not on the official list of allowed recyclables in Mercer County. It can, however, be readily recycled, and its bulkiness will take up space whether it's hauled to the landfill or the sorting plant for recyclables.

As can be seen, all of these prohibited recyclables were picked up, and all my research to date suggests that the items will end up getting recycled.

These photos also show how problematic the current 35 gallon green and yellow buckets are, as homeowners' recyclables outstrip the buckets' limited capacity, and the empty buckets roll around in the wind, blocking foot or car traffic.

Replacing them with one 95 gallon rollout bin per homeowner would provide more capacity, easier transfer from garage to curb, protection of recyclables from rain and snow, and maybe even reduced motivation to put recyclables in plastic bags, thereby bringing reality a bit more in line with policy.

By the way, the website, with a link above to their info on styrofoam, appears to be very comprehensive and useful for anyone with questions about recycling.