Sunday, August 28, 2011

Irene's Aftermath

As I had mentioned the predictions were yesterday in my last post, Irene came through as a tropical storm and not a hurricane. A few trees are down around town, and my ceiling collapsed a bit from water damage due to a bad window seal. Power stayed on. All-in-all, more or less what I've been expecting to happen since yesterday. Here are some pictures of a tree down on Market Street. I had just been thinking, were these planted in the 1980s? How big were they then? Sad either way. Green is good. Shade is good.


I watch almost no TV, so I didn't catch too many of the incessant discussions about this storm. I watched the weather maps online and read the direct National Weather Service bulletins. Facts and spin are different. Part of me, like many people, is a bit angry at the media for blowing this up so big. While it's pretty hard to over-prepare, I bet a lot of people are feeling kind of silly right now, hence the anger.

The other part of me says that although it was rapidly becoming clear this was not going to be the storm of the century, trees are down, power lines are down, water isn't running for people, and at least one person in Connecticut is dead. Is simply saying: "Bring your stuff inside, stay safe in your home, have food and water for your family for a day or so, and stay away from any downed lines if you must go out" scary enough to get your average American to not harm themselves? Considering people are dead in Virginia from deciding to go swimming...and it was a much larger storm down there...I'm not so sure. Here in New England, we know what to do about a Nor-Easter, we are much less used to hurricanes.

The other part I wonder about is how do you convey different messages to different people in an era of global media? I live in a massive brick building that survived the '38 hurricane, Carol, Gloria, and Bob. There is nothing nearby not made of brick to come flying through my windows. Irene was going to be a relative breeze no matter what (no pun intended), after the predictions changed through Friday and Saturday morning. If I lived in Rhode Island near the coast, or way up in the woods somewhere, I would've taken "Tropical Storm Warning" very, very differently.

As it stands, there was a Nor-Easter in April 2007 - the last time it rained sideways -which blew water in through my window seals. Therefore, I was prepared to handle that today. The Weather Channel isn't going to inform you about that stupid, localized risk, due to the construction of this building and the wind tunnel caused by the ones around it. On the other hand, if downtown Lowell is without electricity for more than a few hours and nobody can get in and out to somewhere that does have electricity...something really, really bad happened. I just don't have the same set of concerns that the media is screaming at us to have. Yet, people left cars parked under trees around here, and now they're crushed. You'll never get everybody to react appropriately.

Mainstream media aside, how has social media changed how we look at this? Does a few people freaking out - often appropriately - cause everybody to freak out - sometimes illogically? Do circulating half-truths online spur the mainstream media to quicken the drumbeat to continue whipping people into a frenzy? While it was interesting to watch - in real time - my friends up and down the Atlantic coast post how the storm was treating them (and in the age of smart phones that don't need electricity to post to Facebook, that's pretty incredible), it was also interesting to watch arguments begin over how people were reacting to the storm...and bizarrely, splitting down political lines.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Hurricane Irene

We all know we're getting a hurricane this weekend. My first reaction was "what do I care, I live in a sturdy building with nothing nearby that could fall on me." Then, I remembered the stories of the Hurricane of '38, which killed hundreds of New Englanders.

While most deaths were in Rhode Island, nearly 100 died in Massachusetts. The Merrimack River at Lowell suffered one of its worst floods in history - worse than 2006 or 2007. The storm passed over on September 21st, with the Merrimack cresting on the 23rd. At the time however, something protected the center of the city (where I live) from the flooding: The Francis Gate.

According to
Eighty-four years after the gate first plunged it was dropped again in the year 1936. The gate remained down in the canal for fourteen years before being raised again in 1950. During this time the gate protected the city during the flood of 1936 and the hurricane of 1938.
The gate is currently not down.

To be fair however, the '38 Hurricane was a Category 3 whereas Irene is supposed to be a 2. This is sounding a bit more like Hurricane Bob, which didn't even make the top 58 flood events for Lowell.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Letters of Note

Back in June I decided to give a full page of text in longhand a go. Today, I stumbled upon a blog via Facebook that is composed of letters to and from famous people. It's really cool - check it out!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Historical Populations of Massachusetts Cities

I was discussing with someone recently the rankings in population of various cities in Massachusetts. This is fun for me. I recalled that a few years ago, when Lowell fell behind Cambridge for a bit, I had graphed the populations of the top 10 cities in the state, and a few other interesting ones (the data came from Wikipedia, which took it from the US Census). Having not kept the graph, I decided to recreate it. I actually needed two, because Massachusetts has a few different classes of city sizes and I don't know how to play with axes in Excel well enough to get them all on one graph. Besides, the second one is ridiculously crowded as it is:

The first graph is on a scale Boston can dominate. It was, at its peak, a magnitude larger than many of the other cities in the top 10, so it requires a separate scale. Starting at the first US Census in 1790, this graphs the population of Boston against Worcester and Springfield, then starting with its first appearance in the Census in 1830 (founded 1826), is Lowell.

Lowell spent from almost its founding until the Civil War as the second city in Massachusetts, but by a small margin. However, starting around 1870, the second wave of industrialization in Massachusetts, that tied to coal as an industrial fuel and industries outside of textiles, quickly eclipsed Lowell. In fact, Lowell ceased growing by 1920 and has had an essentially stagnant population ever since.

Worcester and Springfield - both physically large regional cities (Central and Western Massachusetts respectively) with diverse economies - were essentially lockstep in growth, although slowing in 1920, until after World War II. At that point, their populations drop a little, with Worcester's beginning to reverse the trend about 1980.

Boston hit a population stagnation around 1920 as well, followed by a dive after World War II and a resurgence in the 1980s.

The post World War II decline seen in the three largest cities is likely due to deindustrialization, urban strife, and the automobile. The resurgence in Worcester, Boston, and to an extent Lowell, is timed with the Massachusetts Miracle. Lowell's early stagnation is a clear byproduct of it being essentially a single-industry, company town. Had Lowell's borders contained only the built-on areas in 1920, and the introduction of the interstates hadn't made it convenient to other industries out of town, it would be a much smaller city today. This is probably true of Worcester and Springfield as well, whereas I would bet (but don't know for sure) that highly urbanized Boston didn't have any more land to allow suburbanization in.

Again, I apologize for how busy this graph is! It begins with Lowell, ranks the next largest cities in the top 10 (Cambridge, New Bedford, Brockton, Quincy, Lynn, Fall River), and then adds in Lawrence, Haverhill, Salem, Fitchburg, and Holyoke for some perspective.

Little Salem is included because until the dawn of the industrial era, Salem's maritime industry made it Massachusetts' second city. In fact, it was the second municipality in the state granted a city charter in 1835, about a decade after Boston, and mere months before Lowell's explosive growth granted it the third city charter in the state. However, while Salem was a boom town itself, the shallowness of its harbor reduced its rate of population growth early. While it eventually diversified its economy and continued growing, the same industrial slowdown that hit every other city in the state right before the depression froze its growth rate again. Its location probably saved it from deep decline.

Holyoke and Lawrence are the next logical grouping of cities here. Like Lowell, they are first-generation textile cities, beginning explosive growth rates shortly after their foundings around 1845. Their growth rates match Lowell until 1920, when they both experienced stagnation and deep decline after World War II, like the cities in graph one. There is a brighter spot for Lawrence, as part of that decline was reversed, again, around 1980, probably due to the same Massachusetts Miracle that saved the rest. Holyoke, much, much further from Boston than Lawrence, even with an abundance of open land Lawrence has never had, never recovered.

The third grouping is Fall River, New Bedford, and Lynn. All three are coastal cities with traditional maritime economies, especially ancient New Bedford. However, the strong textile economy after the Civil War and these cities' location on deep water, made coal-powered factories extremely attractive, after the absence of the rivers driving growth in the grouping above stopped being a retardant. Both New Bedford and Fall River passed Lowell in size by 1920 (being physically larger and more successful), but their distance from Boston (about as far as Worcester is), as we've seen repeatedly, could not reverse the post-war population declines. Lynn was not as unlucky: it actually very closely resembles Lawrence. This is sort of expected with its heavy industrial history, but for some reason, perhaps proximity to Boston, never quite was hit as hard. In fact, during the "dark" years for Lowell, Lynn actually had slightly more people.

Cambridge and Quincy are all very close to Boston and should be the next group. Being commuter suburbs of Boston well before the automobile, they are sort of an odd-man out grouping here, perhaps more resembling Newton and Somerville, which would be in the top 15 cities. Cambridge is very close to downtown Boston, and therefore was almost always a fairly large community. Mid 19th-century urban expansion and the streetcar made it urbanize quickly. The same post-war trends we saw in all cities is here as well. Quincy is a little further out, and its growth seems to have happened after 1900, with the same growth drivers as Cambridge, but on a smaller scale. It too saw a post-war slowdown.

Brockton and Haverhill form a group as they are both very physically large cities without good rivers for power, but are reasonably close to Boston. Both have history in the shoe-making industry, which held on longer than textiles (I believe this was Lynn as well...). Brockton, it is obvious is much closer to Boston, as after the standard 1920s slowdown, grew by an atypically large amount after World War II. In exchange, Haverhill's old history as being located on a navigable part of the Merrimack for early ships, was (hard to see at this scale) but a large town very early on, beginning its industrial growth around the Civil War, a few decades before Brockton.

That leaves Fitchburg. I actually expected Fitchburg to resemble Holyoke due to its distance from large cities and poor location in general, but instead we see late 19th-century industrial growth, and the typical stagnation without a drop. It is also geographically large. Perhaps the location isn't as bad as I'd like to think!

There are a couple of easy trends I've mentioned repeatedly: The oceanside cities grew first. Then the powerful river cities, then the coal-based cities. Growth stopped abruptly right around 1920, beating the Great Depression by 10 years (a relation would be nice). Nothing much good happened during the Depression or World War II. After World War II the dense industrial cities suffered tremendously, whereas the commutable-to-Boston group saw a resurgence with the Massachusetts Miracle. Of course, I'm basing all of this off of a single demographic trend. It would be interesting to get income and population age in here as well, but I'm not up for that.

Well, I hope that was fun!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Oil Drum

When researching my last post on the Bakken Formation, I pulled some information from The Oil Drum ( According to Wikipedia (,

The Oil Drum is a web-based, interactive energy, peak oil and sustainability think tank and community devoted to the discussion of energy issues and their impact on society.

It then goes on to say British band Radiohead are a fan, so why not follow it as well?

I've been reading off and on for a few years, and today's article, about the potential consequences of trying to run an economy based on endless growth in a finite world, was a good one: Check it out.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Bakken Formation

There was a letter to the editor to The Sun on Saturday that essentially reproduced a chain letter that has been going around for a few years, discussing how the US Government is working to leave us dependent on foreign oil when we are just sitting on trillions of barrels of oil. This isn't exactly true so I couldn't let it lay. However, since they really want letters to be under 250 words and mine hit 500, I'll post it here as well:

An August 6th letter to the editor asked why, on the basis of an article in Forbes, the US is not exploiting oil in the Bakken Formation for $16 a barrel. Unfortunately, no such Forbes article exists – its origin is a chain letter ( Like many email chains, this one is only partially true.
The Bakken and the Green River formations are real, and they hold an incredible amount of fossil fuel. The first factual error is that what we actually have in these places is not what you’d call oil, but oil shale. This is rock that will generate less than a barrel of oil per ton of rock. Like the Canadian Oil Sands, it is very difficult to extract and refine, and it is located in a remote area. It takes an incredible amount of water, infrastructure, and heat to produce. This heat must come from other non-renewables like natural gas. Furthermore, the 500 billion barrels cited is oil shale in place. This is different from technically recoverable oil (oil we can get at any cost) and oil that can be recovered at a reasonable price.  According to a 2008 USGS report (, fewer than 4 billion barrels of that oil is even technically recoverable.
Since the US uses 20 million barrels of oil each day, we would use all the oil in the Bakken in under a year, if we could produce it that fast. While the Green River formation is in fact orders of magnitude larger (800 billion barrels of recoverable oil, or 100 years’ worth), not even the most optimistic reports ( suggest that we could be covering even a quarter of our today’s energy demands from this source within 30 years, and not for less than $30/barrel, and likely more. Unlike the Bakken, no commercial exploration of these fields has taken place, so there are quite a few unknowns.
Essentially, shale oil is not a magic bullet. We have known about these oil formations for decades, and they weren’t considered economically worth looking at until now. The fact remains that oil is getting harder to find and refine every year as more of the “easy” oil runs dry. Yet, world oil demand, especially in China and India, keeps growing. Eventually, the cost of oil will become prohibitive and demand will reverse and begin to fall. This is Peak Oil, and it will take the world economy down with it as modern life depends on huge quantities of energy.
The real question should be not why aren’t we developing our domestic oil sources – because we should be and are – but what can we do as a nation to reduce our demand while still maintaining a high standard of living? In Europe, where gas prices are much higher than here, people are much more reliant on mass transit. Perhaps instead of driving a private electric car from Chelmsford to Cambridge for work, one should be able to take transit from Chelmsford to new commercial developments in Lowell, or mixed-use village centers in Chelmsford.

Monday, August 8, 2011

You Know You're From Lowell When...

Over the past week or so, the changes in Facebook Groups has caused a flurry of activity in an old group "You Know You're From Lowell When..." There is a wonderful series of photos here, old postcards, etc. You might even recognize many of the photos from another site ;-) Check it out!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Life at 3.5 MPH

I did something I've wanted to do for a while on Saturday: I walked from my house in downtown Lowell to my family's house on the far end of Tyngsboro. Considering I've done the 20-mile Walk for Hunger a few times, this 10 mile "suburban hike" was a time sink without too clear of a purpose, but not a particularly challenging exercise physically. I had also considered walking to Lowell from Boston one day to mimic the path of Lowell's original Irish canal workers, but that'll have to wait...until likely never.

It took me about three hours and 15 minutes on a fairly good day weather wise, and I only stopped to sit down once for lunch (and another stop for coffee to go of course!) I figure then I actually walked for 2 hours and 45 minutes, or, I made a bit better than 3.5 MPH on average. Google's walking directions seem to estimate time based on a pace of 3 MPH, so, it is true: us New Englanders walk fast!

However, I did it, aside from "just because", because I wanted to look at a few things. Primarily, I wanted to see how safe the route was on foot, how bikeable it'd be (I just got a bike!), and how many of these places I'd never been on foot looked at 1/10 the normal speed. I also wanted to check out the time/space compression caused by the automobile: how far apart are things *really*?


Friday, August 5, 2011

George DeLuca used to have a blog at which has since been cancelled. However, it remains an excellent source for information otherwise. Recently, I caught up on his WCAP segments "The Lowell Connection", which are, fantastically, available on his site at I haven't listened to WCAP since my dad co-hosted The Computer Report back in the 1990s!

One great bit of information I learnt from these segments is that the train from New Hampshire to Lowell is planned to continue to Boston, express. It's possible that that ride might take what, 30 minutes?

Update 9/13: The blog is back!