Archive for August, 2007

 Glassblowing Is Harder Than It Looks

For my birthday this year, Dixie bought me an introductory glassblowing class at Third Degree Glass Factory. It was beastly hot, but it was a lot of fun and I learned a lot. Our instructors, Mike Hayes and Ben Klein are very talented and were willing to help all of us newbies learn the basics and create a souvenir. You can see the slightly wobbly shot glass I made. If you live in the St. Louis area and are looking for a unique experience, I highly recommend the six hour intensive class. But you might consider signing up for it in the winter instead of August!

 Working at the Bottom of the Sea

[I submitted this article to Damn Interesting in hopes of becoming a periodic writer for them.]

Three hundred and fifty million years ago, the vast area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachians was covered by what we now call the Colorado Sea. The sea is thought to have extended from Mexico all the way up into the Arctic during the Cretaceous Period. Over millions of years, the accumulation of calcium, magnesium, and other minerals on the ocean floor formed deposits of limestone, shale, and chalk so enormous that today, in some cases, they are the size of entire states. In fact, limestone is mined in 92 of Missouri’s 114 counties, and Kansas is home to one of the world’s largest chalk mines.

Limestone is used in everything from pharmaceuticals (antacids, like Tums, are almost 100% powdered limestone) to the building of roads. Farmers use limestone to neutralize the acidity of their soil, and limestone has extensive use today as a raw material in Portland Cement. Limestone is everywhere and it is used in everything. And we have the ancient Colorado Sea and millions of years of compression to thank for its plentifulness. In Missouri alone, 75 million tons of limestone products are produced each year — that’s about 10 tons for every resident!

In the late 1800s, mining of limestone began in the Kansas City, Missouri area. At that time it was primarily quarried, however, by the 1950s, leaving usable subterranean space started to become an aim of miners. They used something known as the “room and pillar” method of hard rock mining which left a grid of twenty-five foot square limestone columns to support the weight of the “roof.” In between these pillars are tunnels, some of which are sixteen feet high and forty feet wide.

One particular mine called Bethany Falls was purchased by the late owner of the Kansas City Chiefs football team, Lamar Hunt. His development company, Hunt Midwest Real Estate, has turned this mine into the World’s Largest Underground Business Complex™. Called SubTropolis, this massive complex is 160 feet beneath the surface, contains roughly seven miles of illuminated and paved roads (along with miles of railroad tracks), and currently has five million square feet of occupied office and warehouse space, with millions more still being developed.

One of the largest tenants is the US Postal Service which uses the large and climate controlled space for the storage of stamps for collectors. The space also houses thousands of Hollywood’s classic movie reels, including the original “Gone With the Wind.” Many other spaces are filled with libraries, computer labs, and other commercial office space, and it is even home to the nation’s only sanctioned underground 5K and 10K races, the KC Groundhog Run. Everyday more than 1500 employees report for work at the bottom of the Colorado Sea for over fifty different businesses located in the SubTropolis complex, where the weather is always 70 degrees and overcast.

 Baby 2.0

Noah’s time as an only child is coming to an end. Dixie and I are expecting again! Our baby is due in March and we couldn’t be more excited. Here is our first ultrasound (which they recorded and gave to us on DVD):

 For All You Fans of Electricity

Good news for electricity fans out there. First, residents of Missouri now have a bonafide net metering law. Haven’t heard about it? Yeah, me neither until a recent visit to the Earthways Center (a renovated house in the city of St. Louis that showcases conservation technology and alternative energy). You would think something this important would have been reported on, but multiple Google searches turned up nothing for me. So I’m about to become the number one site in the search engines for people looking for info about this.

According to the state Senate’s web site, SB54 was signed by the governor on June 26. It takes effect January 1, 2008. Missouri is the 42nd state to implement a net metering law. Before now, the snakes at AmerenUE have been charging retail for the electricity they provide customers but only paying wholesale (or less) for the electricity customers provide to them (it’s a shame you need a law to correct that kind of nonsense). So if you’ve been waiting to install that grid-tied, batteryless, photovoltaic array, your wait is over!

In other electricity news, Tesla Motors has announced that their first production model should be hitting the streets by the end of the year. Say a prayer for CEO Martin Eberhard. He’s not the first David to go up against the Goliath of the Big Three automakers. He’s liable to end up like Preston Tucker. Although, a lot’s changed in sixty years. Back then GM wasn’t reeling after having their ass handed to them by Toyota, and Chrysler wasn’t being shuffled from owner to owner like a hot potato.

So keep your eye on Tesla, because the electric car is by no means dead. But if $100K is too much for you (as it is me), maybe you should consider a couple cheaper alternatives, like the new Think City, or the Tango. You heard it here first folks — electricity is where it’s at.

 What About The Roads?

If I ever write a book about my conversion to anarcho-capitalism, I think this will be its title. Because this is easily the number one most-uttered response by those to whom I explain my belief that centralized government is immoral and must be abolished. What about the roads, indeed.

On the one hand, it is encouraging that most folks feel the most important service provided by government is transportation infrastructure — a service that is easily provided by private interests. On the other hand, it is unfortunate that so many people have come to rely on their government for something so simple. I should point out that no government anywhere has ever built a road (or anything else for that matter). Private companies build roads and bridges. Governments simply write the checks.

The recent bridge collapse in Minneapolis, as well as last year’s Boston tunnel incident, serve as evidence that as much as we might want to, government *cannot* be relied upon for the safety of these vital systems. That is not to say that private companies would be inherently more reliable (indeed the same contractors and engineers would likely be hired in both cases), but there are plenty of reasons to believe they would at least do a comparable job.

So who would pay these private companies? The obvious answer is those who use the roads and bridges that they build. Yes, that’s right, tolls would be collected from those who actually use these elements of transportation infrastructure. Rather than saddling the entire population with the cost of building and maintaining roads that they may never use, the cost would be born by those who actually use them. There was a time when many would object to the notion of tolls because the impractical means of collection would snarl traffic and impose an undue burden upon drivers. Even if that were true, it is no worse than the undue tax burden on non-drivers. And in reality, technology has reached a point where cars needn’t even slow down to pay a toll anymore, so this argument has been rendered moot.

Some would also argue that everyone benefits from the roads, so it is only fair that we all share the cost. By this same logic, my neighbors all benefit when I make improvements to my home (as it increases the property value of the entire neighborhood), so should I be able to send all of my neighbors a bill for the cost of these improvements? There are obviously direct and indirect benefits from virtually every action, but this doesn’t necessarily justify coercing others to finance those actions. Keep in mind that there was a long period in this country before there were any formal roads constructed, and the country still managed to prosper commercially. There is no question that transportation is at the heart of any good economy, however, should the cost of the infrastructure be shared by everyone, or just by those who directly benefit from its use?

 Noah Learns to Drive

I sure didn’t expect to see my little boy behind the wheel of a car so soon, but we saw this Hummer at a garage sale for $50, and couldn’t pass it up.