Archive for the '[Science in Society]' category

Riding the Freight

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

Photo by Lauren Mitchell. Click on image for license and information.

My father was a delivery man for an office supply company. He delivered coffee, soda, plates, cups, and sugar, but he was known as the "Coffee Man" to most of the people he delivered to. He got up every morning at 4 am—which might have explained his impatience with me and my sister when we slept in on weekends—and drove out to Hicksville, NY to load his van before driving into Manhattan. His goal was to be there by 7 am or 8 am and be done by noon or so to beat rush hour in both directions. I think part of the appeal of this type of work was freedom it afforded him to set his own schedule. In Trinidad, he had tended toward employment that let him set his own terms, and this may have been the closest match to those types of jobs.

It's with no small sense of irony that I pass his distribution center every morning on the LIRR on my way to my office job. My company does not use an office supply company like the one that he worked for—and indeed the growth of chains like Fresh Direct and the expansion of office supply companies like Staples heralded the end of his job long before that end was really known to us. Still, there's no end of delivery men (and some women) who filter through the office. They come up through the freight elevator and they largely pass unnoticed through the office; sometimes, they're waved irritably away to reception if they choose to announce themselves (the freight elevator is near the back of the office). They make up an invisible class of workers who provide services to keep the City running.

When I was nine, I decided I would spend the summer working with him. I didn't have a sense for what that would mean. I was lonely and bored. He agreed with the condition that I would wake myself up and get ready. And I did: I'd ride with him to the distribution center, hunkered down in the passenger seat because I was still mostly asleep, and then follow him on his delivery routes.

We don't make it easy for delivery people to do their jobs. They come in through the service entrance so as to not mar the appearance of professionalism and exclusivity the building strives to maintain. There is a perception that these service professionals get in the way. They're treated with impatience if they board the front-of-house elevator, doubly so if they are carrying anything more than a letter, but how many of us have ridden the freight? Continue Reading »

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Past and Present: Selling Newspapers in New York

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them? Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

Are you still reading newspapers? How do you get them?
Photo by Jon S. Click on image for license and information.

New York City takes pleasure in assaulting your senses. You turn a corner and hit a wall of garbage bags that have timed a particularly pungent release just for you. Or you stumble from the train half asleep in the morning and find yourself in a maze of gridlock. You might find questionable substances dripping on you from above where old air conditioning units are holding court. Or you might get to the landing in the stairwell in the subway and encounter an almost tangible odor of urine. Make no mistake: these are calculated attacks. But occasionally the abrasiveness gives way, and under the grime you'll catch glimpses of the harmonies that help shape the New York City. Newspaper hawkers are one such thing. Continue Reading »

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Summer Panhandling Strategies

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

Image by Ed Yourdon. Click on image for license and information.

My office moved a few blocks south earlier this year, which puts me in the Flower District and means that I have a fifteen minute walk from Penn Station. As the summer months wane, the obstacle course of tourists and panhandlers grows more complicated. In this regard, New York City is like any summer town: an influx of visitors during the warmer months means an increase in profitable opportunities in many contexts. It's a pattern that you can readily observe in some of the smaller towns on the eastern tip of Long Island and in other small town vacation destinations. In a metropolis like New York City (and this applies throughout the boroughs), it might be harder to catch because the hustle and bustle never quite slows to sleepiness as it does in "proper" summer towns, but the ebb and flow is there: as the number of tourists and vacationers increase, so too does the number of panhandlers. Continue Reading »

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Mad Science! Creating a River of Slime

Oct 29 2010 Published by under [Etc], [Science in Society]

River of Slime. Copyright Columbia Pictures

It's pink. It's angry. And it wants you to be angry! It's the river of slime that the Ghostbusters saved NYC from in the 80s. Fortunately, Vigo has been banished--permanently, since there haven't been any instances of of giant Stay Puffed Puft Marshmallow men and the Statue of Liberty has remained firmly anchored in the harbor. But all the same, it might be sort of neat to create your own river of slime to deploy--as long as it was slime that lacked the ability to be emotionally manipulative:

Well, now you can! PopSci has a five minute video on how you can make your own rheopectic slime! What's rheopectic slime? It's slime that doesn't follow Newtonian laws:

Most fluids get less viscous the more you manipulate them--think of how honey or oil become "wetter" as they warm up and more solid as they cool. Those are Newtonian fluids. But non-Newtonian fluids do the opposite: they get more solid the more they're manipulated. So if you let this slime sit on a surface, it will pool out into a flowing mess, but if you play with it, it becomes thicker and bouncier. You can even form it into a ball.

This would have worked perfectly for the river of slime--the slime would have done all the work on it's own in terms of "flowing" forth and conquering the city. To recreate the effect, all you have do is let the slime loose on a flat surface. Maybe strategically place a few miniature figures in the way? So, grab some Borax (use less for flowing slime, more for slime you want to shape), pink food coloring, glue, and water, and get to it! Here's the video: DIY: Make Your Own Slime.

Disclaimer: Kids, don't try this alone. Grab a parent and do it together. Do not eat the slime. (why would you want to? It's slime!)

For even more fun, mad science/scientist posts today,  visit the Scientopia homepage to see what's been brewing on some of the other blogs.

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Smarter Traffic Solutions–But Will They Work in the City?

Oct 06 2010 Published by under [Science in Society], Transit

Hey, Drivers, is there a traffic light you know you have to make? You know the one--it takes ages for the light to change from red to green, and the green light is only what feels like a few seconds long. Well, what if there was a smarter traffic light? What if it could sense the traffic flow, and change to match the volume of cars on the road? According to ScienceNews, researchers from the Santa Fe Institute are working on just this particular solution (see original working paper here.) It sounds like the end of road rage, but will it work in New York City?

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Women’s Health Writeup Roundup: The Best Cities for Women

Sep 27 2010 Published by under [Science in Society], Health

Sci had a great idea to dissect the articles in Women's Health and take a look at the information being offered to women on heath, wellness, relationships, and life. It meant taking a good, hard, in-depth look at the popular expert material offered to female wellness consumer. The results were a little alarming. Take a look around Scientopia today for more on beauty tips, doctor's visits, fidelity, and more.

Hey ladies, want to feel better? Or have a stronger heart? Maybe you'd like to prevent breast cancer? Or find a hot date, or just live longer? Well, what if I told you that I could show you the secret to achieving one of these goals? Really, pick one and I could give you a little assurance on how you'd just taken a preventative measure. How? Well, according to this slideshow from Women's Health, it all depends on where you live. They've identified the best cities for women interested in pursuing one of the objectives above. But before you pack your bags, let's take a look at the information they're really offering.

First Women's Health reports that San Jose, California has the second lowest depression rate in the nation. The reason? More women reported working out at least twice a week in comparison to other places surveyed. Exercise releases endorphins which increases positive moods--that's great, but does it really mean that if you live in San Jose you'll be more likely to exercise? It's possible. Over time, you may be more influenced by your peer group, and if they're into exercising, then you might take up that activity. But that's not a guarantee.

The other benefit of living in San Jose, apparently, is the serotonin:

San Jose averages 300 sunny days a year, so residents soak up mood-boosting serotonin and vitamin D (five to 30 minutes in the sun twice a week is all you need).

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter. It helps regulate the cardiovascular and muscular systems, and parts of the endocrine system. And some research has suggested that low levels of serotonin may be linked to the onset of depression. While sunlight may help boost serotonin production, it does not account for the sole means of your serotonin supply. Your body naturally produces serotonin in levels that are related to diet, exercise and stress. Just so we're clear, "soaking" up the sunlight is not the only way to get serotonin--in fact, you've probably got the right supply already. Not that there's anything wrong with getting some fresh air and exercise and enjoying the sunlight (while wearing sunscreen), but living in San Jose will not necessarily restore your body's chemical balance.

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The wind began to switch / The house, to pitch *

In 1938 Eastern Long Island took the brunt of a hurricane that swept through the New England area. It was devastating:

Credit: SUNY Suffolk

The Dune Road area of Westhampton Beach was obliterated resulting in 29 deaths. A cinema at Westhampton was also swept out to sea; around 20 people at a matinee, and the theater — projectionist and all — landed two miles (3 km) into the Atlantic and drowned. There were 21 other deaths through the rest of the east end of Long Island. The storm surge temporarily turned Montauk into an island as it flooded across the South Fork at Napeague and obliterated the tracks of the Long Island Rail Road.

Since then experts have been warning New Yorkers that we could get hit again. It's become a favorite fact on Discovery Channel disaster projection programs that New York City is only a few feet above sea level and the storm surge could wreak havoc, particularly by immobilizing the subway system. As Live Science writer Robert Roy Britt says, "it is a question of when, not if."

But the promised storm has only been a vague threat so far. A few weeks ago, New Yorkers braced for Hurricane Earl. The Wall Street Journal's Metropolis projected that:

Residents will see the worst of the conditions as Hurricane Earl makes its closest approach. That means gusts up to 80mph on the Jersey Shore and Eastern Long Island, with gusts to 100mph at Montauk Point.  The city could see gusts to up 40mph, higher in the top floors of Midtown skyscrapers.

We all waited a little anxiously. And then nothing. Earl gave us some wind and a bit of rain, but it largely ignored New York City and western Long Island--though I'm told there were some fantastic swells out at Montauk.  This cycle of warnings and misses has left many New Yorkers a bit skeptical about "a big one." And curious as well about what these storms can actually do. Well, last night Mother Nature decided to give us a taste of what sudden strong winds and heavy rain could do and the responses were interesting to note.

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Change in a New York Minute

Rendering of updated NYC skyline. Credit: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects.

So there's been some fuss recently over proposed new additions to the New York City skyline. A developer has set his sights on 15 Penn Plaza, which has upset the owners of the Empire State Building. One of them, Anthony Malkin, is particularly upset by the plans:

"Would a tower be allowed next to The Eiffel Tower or Big Ben’s clock tower? Just as the world will never tolerate a drilling rig next to The Statue of Liberty, why should governmental bonuses and waivers be granted to allow a structure as tall and bulky at 15 Penn Plaza to be built 900 feet away from New York City’s iconic Landmark and beacon?"

He has also said that the proposed building will "ruin" the skyline and it will be a "black eye."

Hah.

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Greening the Big Apple

The Manhattan skyline is unmistakable. And it's a fan favorite—search Google "best skylines" and it will consistently be ranked in the top favorites. It has become a symbol of the city itself—sold on coffee mugs, in snow globes, on t-shirts. But what if the straight edges of the buildings and roofs were softened? If the roofs didn't pierce the sky but melded urban and natural a bit more easily? Imagine a skyline that could shift seasonally, and not simply as a result of new construction. It would be a subtler change that might confer a more real sense of the vitality of the cityscape. The icing on the cake? It would be good for us too.

Our recent discussion about infrastructure is definitely very much on my mind—particularly as my commute has now become longer and more congested as a result of shortsighted planning. The fire at the switching station on the LIRR has been a reminder of the vulnerabilities that lurk below the surface of our constructions. And provocations, stress on the system, can come from anywhere, including nature—something that New York City already knows: A thunderstorm on August 8, 2007 caused 7,000 kilograms (about 15,000 pounds) of dirt and debris to flood the subway system during the morning rush hour forcing New Yorkers and city officials to acknowledge that our subway drainage system is ill equipped to handle suddenly water surges. But this should not have come as news to anyone—we've been through this at least once before in recent memory: Lower Manhattan was flooded in December 1992 as a result of a storm.

Nature seems to be our biggest threat at the moment, and it's time we started planning and building with this in mind. A article from Scientific American earlier this year, reports the ways poor infrastructure can compound the effects of climate change. For example, a rise in temperature means it will get hotter underground as well. New Yorkers, you think it's hot in the subway during the summer months now? A 2 - 4 degree increase (predicted by 2100) may not sound like much, but you'll likely feel differently as the sweat pools at the base of your spine. One solution would be more vents to help push the hot air out of the subway, but more vents means that more water can get it—so we're back to dealing with flooding.

But it's not just planning below ground. What we choose to do with our open space is also an issue. We construct buildings. Fine. We all need places to live and work—I'm definitely not going to be the one to say we need to live in mud huts or caves or gather around an open campfire. But many of our buildings are capped off by black tar roofs. In the summer, they become infernos and add to the sweltering effect felt in the city.

One idea that is slowly gaining popularity is the suggestion that we can reclaim these spaces, these miniature hells, as National Geographic writer Verlyn Klinkenborg referred to them last August, saying that the urban roof is "a lifeless place of bituminous surfaces, violent temperature contrasts, bitter winds, and an antipathy to water." This doesn't need to be the case. But it will require changing the way we think about our landscapes—and our skylines. Green roofs reintroduce plants, supported by shale and clay to allow for drainage, and as an added bonus, they attract birds and insects, who may have been displaced by urban development. They can a more natural feeling to the concrete jungle.

A local, public green rooftop space on Water Street in Downtown Manhattan.

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9 responses so far

Exploring Urban Foraging Stations

Are you wearing comfortable walking shoes? If not, best go grab a pair of sneakers—we're going foraging! Well, it's not quite foraging because we actually have to pay for our finds, but I figured that telling you that we were off to forage might pique your interest more than if I were to admit that we're actually going to the supermarket.

Well, we are going to the supermarket, and I still think you'll need those shoes because I tend to wander the aisles when I'm there even if it's just for one thing—if I don't have a list, I tend to wind up with more than I intended to buy (which happens sometimes even with a list, I admit). Anyway, over at AiP one of my early posts explored an ethnic supermarket and considered the ways food can help immigrants retain a connection to their native countries. I have some plans to continue this series—it's really a matter of writing the posts—but in the meantime, I've been thinking more about how people obtain groceries in urban centers, and how their experiences are shaped by the services they use.

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