December 23, 2010

What a wonderful quote from the New York Times article on the boom-bust cycle in Nevada.

Robert A. Fielden, an architect and urban planner in Henderson, said the state has been particularly hurt by real estate speculators who flipped property for profit and then just walked.   Reflecting the despair that can be heard in the voices of even Nevada’s biggest boosters, he said:

 “We have never faced anything like this before – What we are living with now is, we let the free market reign without any controls at all. We talk about the United States being built on capitalism. But this wasn’t capitalism. This was greed.” 

Happy Holidays!


To each, according to his shape

June 20, 2010

I took a bike ride along the Delaware-Raritan Canal near Princeton yesterday, and after lunch, I made a brief visit to the art museum on the university campus.  There,  I saw an exhibit of shapes from the Shape Project of Allan McCollum.  His objective is to have a unique shape for every human being on the planet.  He does not produce them with a computer algorithm:  he assembles them individually from a ‘catalogue’ of elements that he has created and indexed, using Adobe software, and then he prints them, or gives them to others to make sculpture, decorations, or whatever they like.  Obviously, he cannot create even the few billion shapes that are needed right now:  he just started the process, created a tool to index them so that no shape is repeated, and got the ball rolling. 

If you visit this site and do the math – 144 top parts, 12 middle, or neck parts, 144 bottom parts – you will see that 61,917,364,224 unique shapes are possible.  The idea that everyone could have an ID# number is easy to grasp, even though we recoil at the thought, but the notion of a shape for each of us seems somehow humane, sort of cool.  I like to think that in the future, when this crazy project is fully realized, parents will give their children shapes using some of the parts in their shapes, so the forms will be passed on down through the generations, changing with the genetic lineages of their family.  Will certain nations and regions have distinct tendencies in shape selection, leading to regional variation and cultural identification?  Doesn’t that happen now?  Isn’t that what we call culture?

How big and little?

June 4, 2010

~not to scale

I was listening to a talk on sustainability today, and the speaker showed a graphic depicting the Earth and a much smaller sphere that represented the amount of water on the Earth.  I don’t know if he meant it to be just freshwater or not, but that’s what is usually talked about.  Nobody cares how much saltwater there is to drink!

The point of his image was to impress upon us the relative scarcity of water as a resource for human life.  He did the same thing for the Earth’s atmosphere, presumably to show how small its total volume is so we take care about polluting it.  But, I wondered, how significant is this?  The fact that potable water is small in volume in comparison to the volume of the Earth should come as no surprise at all.  Is this just some enviro-sustainability scare story?  I did a few calculations:

Radius of the Earth ~ 6,400 km

Radius of the a sphere containing the Earth’s freshwater ~ 202 km

Radius of the liquid ‘biomass’ of the Earth’s human population ~ 0.4 km

That last one may have you puzzled, but I was just wondering how this hypothetical drinkable sphere compared to the mass of those that drink it.  I took the population of the globe, assumed an average weight of 60 kg (probably conservative, considering how many children and malnourished people there are in the world today) and assumed that 60% of their weight is water – estimates vary depending on age:  it seems to decline as we get older.  That’s how I determined our liquid biomass.

What does it mean?  Well, it’s very small compared to the water-sphere.  Of course, the water is not uniformly distributed, nor is it necessarily found where we need it.  For instance, a good proportion of it is locked into glaciers and the polar ice sheets.  But what does telling us that the water makes a sphere much smaller than the Earth tell us?  Not much there either.

Scale and perspective are key, and they are always in short supply.