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Friday, April 16, 2010

RUBBER DUCKIES

I find that as I rush toward old age my view of the oceans has been defined by two cartoon shows from my youth. One was the first episode of ”Johnny Quest” in which he and Bandit battled ”The Mystery of the Lizard Men” in the Sargasso Sea: and the other was the “Rocky and Bullwinkle Show” when the flying squirrel announced he had an important message and the Moose asked if it could be “Fan mail from some flounder?” Call it “The Oceanography of Hanna Barbera”.
The Sargasso Sea was first reported by the Carthaginian navigator Himilco, and first crossed by Christopher Columbus on his way home from "discovering" America. The Sargasso lies in the center of the North Atlantic gyre, trapped between the north and eastern flow of the Gulf Stream, the south bound Canary Islands Current and the westbound Atlantic Tropical Current, which brings hurricanes to North America.
Legend (and Johnny Quest) has it that these “Calms of Cancer” are chocked with sea weed and littered with trapped ships. Of course they are not. The Sargasso sits beneath a weather high pressure zone, where wind driven currents are slow and floating patches of sea weed are common enough to provide shelter for adolescent fish, eels and sea turtles. But it is hardly so crowded with Sargassum weeds as to foul propellers and trap ships. But why spoil a legend (or a cartoon show) with reality?
The Sargasso Sea has a counterpart in the infamous “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. Charles Moore first sailed through this man-made sea in 1988. “As I gazed from the deck…I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic….In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.” It almost sounds as of the Lizard Men could be walking about by stepping on all the empty gallon milk jugs. Actually things in the north Pacific aren’t that bad. In a way they are worse.
What we commonly call plastics are a product of what I call the “Oil Age”, roughly from 1900 to approximately 2035 or so, when petroleum was (is) still common enough to be cheap enough to be used as 3F - i.e. used as fuel, fertilizer and fat (as in extravagant).
It takes 685 gallons of oil (line at the top of the chart) to make one ton of plastic, which is what makes plastic a “fat”. And that is not counting the oil you have to burn to heat the crude to 750 degrees Fahrenheit in the cracking tower (on the left side of the chart), which is when the petroleum molecules line up in endless chains called “polymers”, which is another name for plastics.
Because polymer chains endlessly repeat themselves they never completely break down, they just get shorter. And even if the sun finally degrades the plastic in a six-pack ring so that a sea gull can no longer get her head caught in it, the polymer chain merely becomes small enough to be swallowed by jelly fish or plankton, which can then be eaten by sea turtles, which can then be eaten by sea bass, which can then be eaten by sea gulls and humans.
About the same time that Captain Moore first laid eyes on the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” it first occurred to large numbers of people to start wondering where the water went when they flushed their toilets. If you live in Asia, or the West Coast of North America, the answer is, eventually, The North Pacific Ocean. And it turns out that is a problem.
On January 10, 1992 a container ship crossing the Pacific out of Hong Kong bound for Tacoma, Washington, ran into heavy weather as it neared where the 45th parrallel touches the International Date Line. A dozen containers stacked on deck washed overboard. About 10,000 such containers fall off cargo ships each year. And in this case, one those 44 foot long aluminum boxes cracked open, releasing 29,000 “rubber duckies” and rubber beavers, turtles and frogs into the cold Pacific waters. At that point the ocean currents took over. In October of 1992 the duckies, frogs and beavers began washing up on beaches near Sitka, Alaska. Between November ’92 and August of 1993 they washed ashore between Cordova and Coronation Island in the Gulf of Alaska.
From here Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer has calculated that a few of the “floating Friendlies” would be carried northward by the Berring Current into the Artic Ocean, where they might spend as long as four or five years trapped in the sea ice. But eventually, Dr. Ebbesmeyer figured, a few would pass through the Davis Straights and reach the North Atlantic Ocean.
And right on time, in July of 2007,  Ms. Penny Harris, a retired schoolteacher, found one of the duckies washed up at the high tide line of a beach in North Devon, Wales, thus proving that no matter where or when you flush your waste, it all ends up in the same place. Eventually that includes even the very bottom of the ocean: which in the Pacific is the Challenger Deep, a section of the Marianas Trench 35,827 feet below the waves. Mount Everest, dropped into the trench, would still be 8,000 below the surface. The pressure here is a thousand times greater than that at sea level.
Humans have visited the Challenger Deep just once, on January 23, 1960, when US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and a Swiss citizen, Jacques Piccard, spent 20 minutes on the bottom, staring out at the featureless ooze. They did not find a "Rubber Duckie" but a flat flounder did wiggle past their porthole.
It has since been argued that it wasn’t a flounder but a sea cucumber, but I refuse to accept that arguement. You can’t get fan mail from a sea cucumber – that would just be silly.
This is all just something to think about next time you flush. And we all have to flush.  "Rubber Duckie, you’re the one, You make bath time lots of fun, Rubber Duckie, I’m awfully fond of you; Woo, Woo be doo”. (lyrics by Jeff Moss)
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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

KADESH!

I know the name of the world’s first horse-whisperer: Kikkuli. He was from Mitanni, in what is present day Syria. And about 1345 B.C.E. the new Hittite King Suppiliuma found Kikkui training horses in the Beqaa Valley, and hired him to modernize his army. At the time, horses were very high tech.
See, in North America the horse went extinct with its ice age compatriots the Woolly Mammoth and the giant sloth, while in EurAsia the horse survived. And the only difference between the two environments was that in EurAsia humans invented the wheel.
A wheel can reduce the energy required to drag your belongings across the ground by a factor of twenty-five, if the ground is fairly flat and not too rocky, like the steppes north of the Caspian Sea. That makes an expensive horse a reasonable investment  And a clue to the importance of the wheel for the horse is that its Proto-Indo-European root word, “kwel”, (to revolve) can be traced directly back at least 8,000 years to the grasslands right where the archeological evidence indicates the horse was first put before the cart. And the first great empire to perfect the use of the horse and cart in war was the bad boys of the Bronze Age, the Hittites.
Nobody knows where the Hittites originally came from. They invaded Anatolia (central Turkey) about 3,800 years ago. They brutally conquered the real Hittites, replaced their royal family, enslaved their population, adopted much of their culture and language and even co-opted their name. These guys were paranoid in the extreme.
They built their new capital of Hattusa away from any major roads, and three miles from the nearest navigable river, to make it as difficult as possible on an attacker. And they cultivated a reputation for violence and vengence, as when they sacked Babylon in 1660 B.C.E. in a sudden and brutal surprise attack. The key to their military power was their use of the chariot. And the Kings of Hattusa intended upon extending that advantage.
Kikkuli, the self-billed “master horse trainer” wrote one of the first training manuals in history, four cunnuform tablets detailing a 75 day training regimine for chariot horses. Now, a dedicated chariot horse is very expensive to maintain. They have to be endlessly trained, pampered and exercised to remain in a state of readiness. And like a modern battle tank, the bronze age chariot was fragile to travel long distances by iteslf. It had to be carried to the scene of battle. And for more than a three hundred years the competing powers of the the Middle East, Egypt and the Hitties, defined themselves by their fleets of chaiots, in much the same way that later generatiotions would use battleships.
The function of the chariot – fron the Gaulic word “carrus”, meaning a car - was to suddenly deliver the bow or spearman to within killing range of the enemy, and just as quickly withdraw him back to safety. The Hittite chariot, a “triga”, was pulled by two horses. The designers had lightened the wheels by reducing the spokes from eight to four. But they offset this weakening by moving the axel from the back to the center, stabalizing the fightiing platform. They made use of the weight savings by adding a third man to the “car”; driver, spear-or-bowman, and shield man. Kikkuli had given the Hitties a lead on developing the chariot’s powerplant. But, as any weapons’ designer can tell you, in the world of high tech, all advantages are transitory
The border between the two powers was a small city on the upper Orontes River in Syria, known as Kadesh (or Qadesh). The lands to the south were controlled by the Egyptians, ruled in 1274 B.C. by Ramsses II. He intended upon capturing Kadesh and moving the border further north. He was leading 37,000 infantry and almost 2,000 chariots. His army was divided into the Amun, Ra, Seth and Ptah divisions of about 10,000 infantry and 500 chariots each. And as he approached Kadesh, Ramses learned that the Hittites were still to the north. He decided to exploit this tardiness by leading his Amun division on an overnight forced march, across the Orontes River by dawn. Before noon Ramsses had established a siege camp just north of the city, isolating Kadash from the main Hittite army. Or so he thought.
As his men were fortifying the camp, his scouts brought in two Hittite soldiers. And after some enhanced interrogation, Ramsses learned that the entire Hittite army was lurking just over the next hill. He had been duped. The following Re division had just crossed the Orontes River, while the other half of his army was still on the south bank. Ramsses barely had time to consider the scope of his predicament, when the Hittites fell upon the Re division. They caught it still in marching column and shattered it in a single charge. Twenty per cent of Pharos’s army had been destroyed in the opening moments of the battle.
Then the Hittite chariots and infantry fell upon the Amun division’s camp. They smashed through the half built defenses. Slowly the Amun infantry were constrained and slaughtered, while the Amun chariots, surrounding Ramsses, were forced to pull back.
Meanwhile still more Hittite chariots and infantry had crossed the Orontes River and were pummeling the unprepared Seth division. It looked as if Ramsses’ over confidence had destroyed his entire army. Two things saved him. First there was his own courage. Surrounded by battered, confused and defeated men, Ramsses led his chariots on repeated counter charges against his own camp. And second, by accident or design, this played into the strengths of the Egyptian chariot, which was based on a different design than the Hittite one.
The Egyptian chariot was a “biga”, and carried just two men; the driver and the spear/ bowman. This made the lighter Egyptian chariots nimble and quick. And Ramsses used that speed and maneuverability to repeatedly throw his men at the exhausted and disorganized Hittite troops, while avoiding getting too close.
 By late in the afternoon, after six charges, Ramsses had managed to cut down the Hittite strength, fight his way clear of the Hittite chariots, re-cross the Orontes River and rejoin what was left of his army.
It had been the biggest chariot battle in history, with 6,000 carts and some 36,000 trained horses wheeling back and forth across the plain before Kadesh.
When he got back to Egypt, Ramsses II wrote his own version of the battle on his temple walls. In this comic book version he humiliated the Hittites. But the treaty which ended the war (and this is the first international treaty we have copies of from both sides) shows that Kadesh remained part of the Hittite Empire. At best Ramsses had fought the Hittites to a draw. However,…
Hittite causalities were so high that just a century after the battle of Kadesh, in about 1160 B.C.E., the strain of maintaining order tore the empire asunder. A civil war broke out in the Hittite royal family. And in the middle of the night, the mysterious Hittite rulers stripped Hattusa of all its wealth, burned the palaces and temples to their very foundations, and then faded into the dark corners of history from which they had come. There is no record of where they went, or what they became.
It was not until 1906, when German archeologists first uncovered the city, and began reading the 30,000 soot stained cuneiform tablets which had been left behind in Hattusa.  Among the tablets were Kikkuli’s book on the care and feeding of chariot horses, and the Hittite copy of the treaty of Kadesh, and the only independent report detailing the Trojan War. And it was through those tablets that the Hittite Empire was resurrected, along with missing details of the history of humans and the horse.
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Sunday, April 11, 2010

AMAZING RACE: PART V - THE OTHER MAN RETURNS

I had to do some work to locate the starting point for Bob Fowler’s second attempt at a transcontinental flight. For one thing it has been buried under concrete and asphalt for a century. For another, some histories have mis-labeled it as “Wiltshire Field”, but that seems to have been a "spell check mis-correction" of the name "Henry Gaylord Wilshire". If you are familiar with Los Angeles at all you recognize that name. In 1895 Gaylord bought 35 acres around what would one day become MacAthur Park. Gaylord then humbly allowed the city of Los Angeles to build a road right through the center of his property, on the conditions that they not allow any street cars to use it and that they name it after him. Then he promptly packed up and moved back to New York. He left his name no where else in Los Angles.
Wilshire Boulevard’s beginnings were very humble indeed, bisecting mostly beet fields. In 1910 that made the intersection of Wilshire and Fairfax Avenue an ideal location for an airfield, close to the budding metropolis of Los Angeles (320,000 citizens already) but open enough to allow pilots to crash regularly without killing the neighbors, because there weren’t any, except for a few deceased Dire Wolves stuck in the tar of the nearby La Brea Tar Pits, just down the street. (BTW: "la brea" means tar in Spanish - so the "La Brea tar pits" translates as 'the tar - tar pits'.
There should be a plaque in the sidewalk or something at the corner of Fairfax and Whilshire, because not only did Bob Fowler start his second transcontinental flight from here on October 19, 1911, but it is also where Ameila Earhart took her first flight lesson, in a Curtiss Jenny, in 1921. In fact, lots of aviation history has happened at that corner in Hollywood.
Movie maker C.B. DeMille , in town to direct the first blockbuster “Squawman”, operated an airline out of there for a year or so (Mecury Aviation), until the airline went bankrupt. 
Then in March 1921 the air field was bought by flyer Emory Roger and his wife, and renamed “Rogers’ Field”. Emory then started up “Pacific Marine Airways”, in partnership with Sid Chaplin, brother to Charlie Chaplin. They flew to Catalina Island and sold Curtiss airplanes out of a showroom on the field - at least they did until Emory died in a plane crash in November of 1921. Then Emory’s widow ran the field until 1923, when she sold out to developers, and the airfield disappeared. That is what happens to everything historic in Los Angeles, sooner or later.
But that was all in the future in 1911. On October 19, 1911 Wilshire Field was just an open space out at the end of Wilshire.
Late on that afternoon Bob Fowler, at the controls of his new Wright B Flyer, renamed the "Cole Flyer", lifted off and headed east. He made only 9 miles that first day, landing in Pasadena. But the important thing was that he was back in the race.
Bob’s financial backer, Reed Grundy, had always wanted him to start from Los Angeles because the mountains Bob had to cross here were so much lower that the Sierra, and because the Los Angeles Board of Reality was coughing up a $10,000 bonus if he started from L.A. - okay, Grundy mostly liked L.A. because of the bonus.
In fact, early the next morning, October 20, the day after Bob's 9 mile flight to Pasadena, Grundy called and begged Bob to fly back to Wilshire Field. It seems Grundy had been offered another paycheck if Bob made an appearance down Fairfax Avenue at the L.A. motordrome with Barney Oldfield and other racer car drivers. But Bob put his foot down and said he’d rather give up flying all together than start this trip a third time. Grundy got the message and Bob flew on to Riverside, California, probably spitting and cursing all the way about what a jackass his manager was. I’m sure NASCAR drivers feel the same way about their sponsors, once in awhile.
In two days of flying Bob Fowler had covered only 69 miles. And the next day, October 21st, went even slower, because he was approaching the San Gorgonio Pass. The pass is only at 2,600 feet altitude, but it runs 22 miles long between the 9,000 foot tall Mt. San Gorgonio and the 11,000 foot tall Mt. San Jacinto, making it one of the deepest passes in the United States. For a cloth and wood airplane flying at between 2 and 4,000 feet above the ground, passing between towering mastiffs meant dangerous cross winds. The Cole Flyer struggled to make progress, but Bob kept going.
Just as the 14,505 foot tall Mount Whitney stands just 76 miles west of Badwater, Death Valley, at 282 feet below sea level, Mount San Jacinto stands less than 100 miles west of the Salton Sink, at 220 feet below sea level (far upper right in photo). The line from the Gulf of California, through the Salton Sea, Death Valley (and north to Mono Lake) is the joint where California is being twisted, torn apart, bent and broken between the San Andreas Fault and a newly forming rift valley which, eventually, will fill as a new arm of the Pacific. Someday, in fourteen or fifteen million years, this is going to be the new west coast.
But having finally left this geological drama behind him, Bob Fowler was now over flatlands and flying in cool winter temperatures across the desert. And on October 25 he landed in Yuma, Arizona. Finally, after almost sixty days of starting and stopping and starting and crashing, Bob Fowler had escaped California.
Two hundred miles later, following the Southern Pacific Railroad line, Bob landed at Tuscon, Arizona. And there Bob had his brief encounter with a fellow traveler, the only other man on God’s green earth who truly understood what he was going through; Cal Rogers. They were together barely long enough to shake hands, and nobody had time to produce a camera. And then they separated without so much as a backslap or to compare notes: so much for the brotherhood of the air. After all, there was a race on.
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NEXT WENESDAY; AMAZING RACE PART VI - RISING OIL PRESSURE.

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