The Conspiracy Line


By the 1960s, of the hundreds of streetcar lines that had once been a primary mode of transportation in cities and suburbs across the United States in the first half of the 20th century, only a small fraction still operated, and usually only in city centers. Competition from automobiles and buses was one cause for declining ridership of streetcars, and supposedly the costs of installing and maintaining lines was higher than costs associated with infrastructure for cars and buses. The history of what happened in the major mid-century makeover of American urban mass transit is muddled, and one explanation for it that keeps popping up has to do with the machinations of the automobile manufacturers, chiefly General Motors (GM).


The idea springs from how GM bought out streetcar lines around the country, and then dismantled the lines, junked the streetcars, and signed city governments to contracts for purchase and ongoing use of the buses GM manufactured. GM also sold cars to urban and suburban commuters who found themselves with fewer alternatives than they had before the 1920s, when the streetcar lines were still thriving. That’s a neat story, and it certainly fits in with the behavior we have come to expect of large corporations and the executives who run them, but in this case it turns out to be a little too neat and only partially true.

Purchase Street, New Bedford, Mass (68412)
A postcard circa 1930-1945 depicts Purchase Street in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Photo from the Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection.

Market forces generated by consumer preferences played the greatest part in the decline of ridership on streetcar lines starting in the 1920s and accelerating through the next quarter century. The streetcar lines were privately owned and the companies bore the costs of maintaining the tracks they operated on and other infrastructure costs, even though they used the same publicly maintained roads as buses and cars. The streetcar lines were more and more at a competitive disadvantage as public money benefited those other modes of transportation and as consumers came to prefer the relative freedom of driving their own cars or taking buses that weren’t restricted to tracks.

Comforting as it might be to blame the automobile and gasoline industries for ripping up streetcar tracks around the nation, depriving commuters of a useful commuting option, the truth in this case is that the public shoulders the greater responsibility. Individual consumers operating in their own self-interest took advantage of cheap gasoline and publicly financed road building, such as the interstate highway system started in the 1950s, to buy at least one car for every household. In most cities, taxpayers balked at public ownership of the streetcar lines, a move which would have saved many of the lines from the corporate scavenging that ultimately killed them off. In other words, GM and other auto and gas corporate interests didn’t precipitate the demise of the streetcar lines, but neither did they mourn their loss, and ultimately, of course, GM and the others profited greatly from the makeover of the American transportation system.

By the time of the 1959 release of Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, the streets of Manhattan were dominated by vehicular traffic, and mass transit options for New Yorkers were limited to subways and buses. Bernard Herrmann composed the music for the film, and Saul Bass designed the titles. The director makes his cameo appearance at the end of the title sequence.

More than a half century after streetcars were all but wiped off the map in America, they are coming back in spots like Brooklyn, driven by the desire of some people to get around town without the hassles of car ownership, the pollution of cars and buses, the blight of enormous parking lots, and the swallowing up of green spaces for more roads to alleviate the congestion on existing roads, only to have the new roads fill up as well. Streetcars powered by electricity generate pollution at a remove, to be sure, but as more power plants use renewable energy sources, that problem should lessen. Meanwhile, building out more mass transit infrastructure should take off the road some of the oversized vehicles too many Americans appear to love, and which the automobile makers and the fossil fuel industry love turning out for them since they are highly profitable. It has taken a century for Americans to learn anew the value of mass transit options like streetcars, and perhaps soon, before we reach the end of the line, gridlock on the roads will clear, and so will the air everywhere.
— Vita


Poor Man’s Fertilizer


Historically, the term “poor man’s fertilizer” has referred to snow cover which upon slowly melting releases nitrates into the soil, and particularly to spring and autumn snows which make that fertilizer available to plants either just starting top growth or sending food down to their roots in preparation for winter dormancy. Expanding the definition to include the rain from summer thunderstorms makes sense because the “poor man’s fertilizer” of nitrates formed in the atmosphere comes down then in torrents, releasing far more than the trickle from melting snow, but the nitrates for greening up farmers’ fields and homeowners’ gardens is every bit as free and as welcome.

People and animals would no doubt rather do without all the drama accompanying the rains from thunderstorms. An ordinary sort of rain shower, however, does not produce the amount of nitrates for fertilizing plants that a raging thunderstorm can make in its electrical transformation of nitrogen into nitrates. Plain nitrogen, even though it is listed as such on commercial products as a fertilizer, is not the actual chemical used. Plants cannot do anything with plain nitrogen, nice as that would be since it is the most abundant constituent in the atmosphere, making up 78 percent of the air around us. To make anything of all that nitrogen, plants need it transformed into nitrates, and while rain and snow gently falling provide some, the lightning from a thunderstorm creates nitrates in abundance.

Albert Bierstadt - Buffalo Trail, The Impending Storm
Buffalo Trail: The Impending Storm, an 1869 painting by Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).


Because a thunderstorm can drench an area with over an inch of rain per hour, many of the nitrates it produces run off into streams and rivers before providing any benefit to plants on land. This fertilizer runoff becomes more of a problem when it is increased by contributions from people who either added fertilizer to the land themselves, or dumped it into the atmosphere as a byproduct of their manufacturing and energy production. Sulfuric and nitrous oxide emissions from industry and vehicles produce particulate pollution that hangs in the air until it comes down in solution as acid rain, which is also heavy with nitrates. It is the countryside downwind of industry and heavily populated areas that suffers the worst effects of this excess of nitrates. For farmers and gardeners downwind, thunderstorms produce too much of a good thing.

For all the damage thunderstorms can do, from wreaking havoc on home electronics to pelting livestock and crops with hail, they also provide benefits by fertilizing the soil and cleaning the air. Native Americans were well aware of the duality in thunderstorms, and tried to take the bad in stride with the good. Part of staying safe during a storm comes from maintaining a healthy respect for its destructive potential, and then part of enjoying life comes from stepping outside after the storm has passed and taking in the fresh smells and sights of rejuvenation.
— Izzy


Shave and a Haircut


Two bits! There, that feels better now, doesn’t it? A sense of completion and the comfort of familiarity. The phrase “two bits” indicates twenty-five cents specifically, and can also mean something cheap generally. The digital currency bitcoin apparently derives its name from the old fashioned uses of “bit” to indicate parts of a dollar or other currency. At the current exchange rate of around 15,000 dollars to one bitcoin, however, a bitcoin itself represents anything but parts of a dollar. Quite the opposite.

From the 1988 film Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the irresistibility of finishing off “Shave and a haircut, — —-“.

The record high valuation of bitcoin may not stand for long, and in six months one bitcoin may be worth 30,000 dollars or it may be worth 150 dollars. No one knows for sure, and that’s what is fueling a lot of argument and speculation. High amounts of speculation in the market are what inflates a bubble, and the question with bitcoin is whether it is indeed a bubble and when it might burst. That generates more speculation. More small investors buy into the market. Historically what has happened in such cases is that something happens, a large investor or two gets spooked, dumping shares on the market, a selling panic ensues as everyone tries to get out of the market while the watch the value of their investment plummet, and that’s it, the bubble burst.

Bitcoin or something like it will be around for as long as there is an internet and a demand for a monetary barter system which is decentralized and doesn’t involve significant charges going to middlemen such as banks or credit card companies. As more people use digital currency and more merchants accept it in transactions, the volatility of its valuation will settle down. Tulips are still around, after all, and people still value them, just not to the unrealistically high degree they did when the bulbs were novel. The long term problem with digital currencies generally, and bitcoin in particular, will be in decreasing the horrendous energy demands of mining them and, to a lesser extent, processing transactions. The electricity demands of mining bitcoin are now equivalent to those of Serbia, and will soon be on a par with Denmark’s electricity use.

Discussion of whether the current valuation of bitcoin represents a bubble often refers to Charles Mackay’s 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and particularly to Chapter 3, “The Tulipomania”.

Much of the mining occurs in China, using electricity generated by coal-fired power plants. At a time when combating the effects of global warming is becoming a top priority, the mining of bitcoin could present an ecological catastrophe when it reaches the same level of energy consumption as that of the entire industrialized world, as it is predicted to do in the early 2020s. The digital currency genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no stuffing it back in. That leaves two options, or a combination of both – finding more energy efficient ways of mining digital currency, or using more environmentally friendly energy sources, such as solar.

The solar energy option is immediately attractive because it would help defray installation costs of solar arrays more quickly and because poorer countries, which are generally nearer the equator and hence in sunnier climes, could see income from a source that is neither environmentally nor socially destructive the way production of sugar or other cash crops has been for them. Puerto Rico, the United States territory that recently had its conventional power grid devastated by Hurricane Maria, could benefit by rebuilding with the intention of using solar energy at least partially for the profitable production of digital currency. Surplus energy from the arrays built with money from bitcoin mining would power homes and businesses at subsidized rates for people who could not afford it otherwise in very poor parts of the world. Smaller, locally owned solar arrays would be a better way to produce power because of the inefficiency of transmitting solar power long distances either in the form of direct current, or after inverting it into alternative current. Decentralization of the means of production would also serve to keep power and money in the hands of locals.

De Waag Bitcoin
Bitcoins accepted at a café in Delft, The Netherlands, in 2013. The Netherlands became a center of the tulip trade in the seventeenth century during “The Tulipomania”, and remains a primary grower of the bulbs to this day. Delft lent its name to a particular kind of pottery and the shade of blue it is renowned for, which has also been applied to some flowers bearing the same shade of blue. Photo by Targaryen.

Should you invest in bitcoin? That depends on your outlook. In the currently volatile market, investing in bitcoin should be treated like gambling. In other words, don’t invest any more of your government backed (in the United States the currency is actually backed by the Federal Reserve System, a private institution of the banking industry, though it is insured by the federal government) currency than you can afford to lose. For some people that can be quite a lot, but for most people that would amount to very little.

Should you get involved in bitcoin mining and processing of transactions? At the current valuation of bitcoin, that could be quite profitable. Tomorrow its valuation could drop below the cost of the electricity required to mine it. At any rate, the “mining” simile is somewhat inaccurate, since in a comparison of the digital currency market to real world mining, the people with computer equipment engaged in its production and in the processing of transactions are actually more like the merchants in a nineteenth century American mining town who sold goods to the miners who were hoping to strike it rich.

The opening scene of Powaqqatsi depicts working conditions at the socially and environmentally disastrous Serra Pelada gold mine in Brazil. This 1988 film by Godfrey Reggio, with music by Philip Glass, is the second in his Qatsi trilogy of meditative documentaries.

A very few of those miners struck gold, and most went bust, while the merchants usually did consistently well, a few becoming household names still known today, like Levi Strauss. If you do get involved in bitcoin “mining”, it might help to connect the equipment to a solar array rather than the conventional power grid, because then when the bubble bursts and the valuation of bitcoin drops to the floor, you can possibly still operate at a profit when others cannot, or at the very least you will have an inexpensive, environmentally friendly source of power for your other ventures.
― Techly


Racing Ahead


In the 1965 comedy film The Great Race, loosely based on a 1908 race around the world, the lead characters drive racing versions of gasoline powered internal combustion engines. That the earliest cars used gasoline would seem to be without question considering how things developed through the rest of the twentieth century. It comes as something of a surprise then to learn that electric cars were quite popular in the early years of motor vehicle development, and it was an electric car that won the first closed circuit automobile race in the United States, in 1896.

Halfway in their race around the world, the characters portrayed by Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk, Tony Curtis, and Natalie Wood are marooned on a melting ice floe in the Bering Strait. Though certainly unintentional in 1965 when the film was made, there is some irony to their situation given the perspective of today’s warming climate.

As anyone can tell, electric cars all but disappeared until recently, as infrastructure and cost improved for gasoline engines in the early twentieth century, overtaking the electric option by 1920. The price of oil went down, giving a boost to the market for gasoline engines, while the crude state of battery technology limited the appeal of electric cars. Environmental impacts were not even a factor in the equation for most consumers or manufacturers until late in the twentieth century. Even then, the initial assessments of the impact of vehicular pollution was limited to local problems such as smog. It wasn’t until the last decades of the twentieth century that at first scientists, and then the public, looked at the larger impact of tailpipe emissions on the global climate.

Now, in the early twenty-first century, after some halting steps by manufacturers to reintroduce electric cars, it appears they are gaining in popularity, particularly in places like China which face deadly levels of air pollution. Battery technology, the Achilles heel of electric cars, has made great strides lately. A question that doesn’t crop up often enough, however, is whether electric cars are as environmentally friendly as the manufacturers would have the public believe they are. In many cases, electric cars still run on power generated by burning fossil fuels, it’s just that they give an illusion of green running because they’re not emitting noxious fumes. The noxious fumes are instead displaced to a coal or natural gas fired power plant more or less many miles away. Out of sight, out of mind.

Kintigh Generating Station - Somerset, New York
The coal fired Kintigh Generating Station in Somerset, New York, in 2007; photo by Matthew D. Wilson.

The batteries in electric cars don’t present as big a problem from an environmental standpoint as they used to, now that up to 98 percent of the materials are recycled. To make an electric car run truly green, the power source used to charge its batteries needs to come from renewable generators like wind and solar. Since most air pollution comes from gasoline internal combustion engine exhausts, it stands to reason that a major switch over to electrically powered vehicles running on renewable energy will make the single greatest impact on reducing air pollution, and with it the particulates and gases that are contributing to global warming.

Organizations like NASCAR and Formula One racing could do their part in flipping the switch by turning all or part of their circuits over to electric cars. Besides being a spectator sport, car racing has always served as a proving ground for manufacturers. The big racing organizations are still clinging to the old technology, which may be popular with fans who enjoy the noise and familiar smells produced by internal combustion engines, characteristics evocative by long association with high horsepower. To continue glorifying this outmoded technology means that well-known racing organizations have abandoned any meaningful proving ground aspect of their sport for the sake of pleasing the crowd with loud noise, fumes, and ludicrously low miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Never mind tomorrow, they’re living for today, come what may.

Younicos Solar Filling Station at Solon SE Headquarters in Berlin, Germany in 2009; photo by Busso V. Bismarck.

Newer racing organizations are stepping forward with their own electric car circuits. As drivers test and prove the newer technology on the race track, manufacturers should be able to improve efficiency of the batteries and perhaps drop the price of consumer models to be on a par with, or even cheaper than, comparably equipped gasoline powered cars. When that happens, electric cars will start to overtake the old technology, the same way they were overtaken in their earliest form by the internal combustion engine in the early twentieth century.

The crucial piece of the puzzle needed to solve pollution problems comes from the power generating source, not the cars. That may happen on a more individual level than on a corporate or government level, as people will find it convenient to do most of their car charging at home, where they can be assured of a cleaner source by installing their own solar panels or wind turbines. Waiting for government to promote the necessary infrastructure changes to ensure cleaner power generation will not push improvements in transportation, decrease pollution, and ultimately limit the effects of global warming, not with the government currently in power.
― Techly


Sowing Doubt for Fun and Profit


The first frost of fall was late this year across much of the U.S., in some places by one to three weeks, depending on the source of average frost date information. People who spend a lot of time outdoors tend to notice this, and also that a trend has developed of fall frosts arriving later and the last frost of spring coming earlier. Even people who pay attention to climate only sporadically may have noted the muted fall colors of the trees this year in parts of the eastern U.S., a result of extended warm weather and drought.

Fall Colors, Interstate State Park (1502556726)
Fall Colors, Interstate State Park, Wisconsin and Minnesota;
photo by Tony Webster


Cumberland Power Plant smokestacks
Cumberland Power Plant smokestacks,
Cumberland, Tennessee;
photo by Steven Greenwood

The growing season has increased over the last forty years or so, but that is not necessarily a good thing considering that short-lived creatures, such as insects, adapt more readily to swift changes than longer-lived plants and vertebrate creatures. Forty years is swift in the long view of climate. The short view is called weather, or weather events. Adding up weather events over forty years plots a trend in the climate. Unfortunately for the sake of rational discussion, too many people fail to make the distinction between weather and climate.


Not everyone agrees that the climate is getting warmer, or that if it is then humans are the cause of it. Some of those climate change deniers are motivated by their religious beliefs, others by a suspicion of government regulators, and still others are unmoved by the weight of scientific evidence, citing doubt about the conclusions. Who has sown that doubt? As always, we are well advised to follow the money. It comes as no surprise then that Big Oil, following the example set by Big Tobacco with regard to the link between burning their products and cancer, has worked to sow doubt about how the burning of fossil fuels contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and causes a warming climate. Where there is doubt, they know, effective action against them can be hamstrung, and profits will continue to roll in until we all burn up from second hand smoke on a global scale.

Cigarette smoke
Cigarette smoke; photo by Flickr user Challiyan


Again following the money, the insurance industry is coming around to the reality of global warming and the increase in expensive weather events it is causing. The insurance industry, conservative gamblers that they are, are most interested in the economic facts they can pin down so as to minimize risk and maximize profit. They are not swayed by emotional appeals to religious or political views, but only by appeals to their bottom line. Another group whose costs are affected by the results of global warming are states and municipalities. As seas rise and severe weather events increase, causing unprecedented flooding, these entities have to pay for infrastructure improvements and higher insurance premiums.


States’ attorneys general are beginning to go after the fossil fuel industry to recoup costs, much as they did to the tobacco industry in the 1990s. It will be an even more protracted fight in this case because of the gargantuan amounts of money the fossil fuel giants can bring to bear; not everyone smoked in years past, after all, but today practically everyone uses gas, electricity, natural gas, plastics, and the list of products goes on. Some of these products can be replaced by use of renewable resources like wind and solar, but ultimately, like the reduction in use of tobacco products due to increasing social opprobrium, the steps for overcoming reliance on fossil fuel products and thereby breaking the economic stranglehold of Big Oil need to be taken by consumers, and that will require some wholesale changes in lifestyle, especially in the industrialized nations.
– Izzy