Category Archives: Science and Technology

Cardboard Kayak Race, Redux

By Johna Till Johnson
Photos by Vladimir Brezina

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Last year, I wrote about the first annual Cardboard Kayak Race, held on City of Water Day at Governors Island.  This year, I was in it!

No, it’s not what you’re thinking. We didn’t build a boat out of cardboard and then race it. But others did! And I was part of a fleet of “safety kayaks” whose job it was to rescue paddlers whose cardboard boats sank (and fish out the sodden detritus).

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Weekly Photo Challenge: Room

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is Room.

I wonder what it’s like to always be inside your room, to carry it with you everywhere you go—

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—or does your room become so much a part of you that it no longer stands between you and the world around?

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(Florida fighting conch: more photos are here.)

This is in fact a real question in philosophy (Heidegger comes to mind), neuroscience and neuroethology (mind-body relations, motor learning, tool use), artificial intelligence… see for instance here.

Weekly Photo Challenge: On the Move

By Vladimir Brezina

This week’s Photo Challenge is On the Move.

On the move through New York Harbor (click on any photo to start slideshow)—

From last September’s Hidden Harbor Tour.

Another, more ephemeral, take on On the Move is here.

Travel Theme: Work

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Work.

Work is done upon an object when a force displaces it through a distance—

Work

—and nowadays, when everything works as it should, gigantic amounts of work continue to be done even when the workers take, for a few moments at least, a break from work—

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From a Hidden Harbor Tour through New York Harbor in September 2013. Story and more photos are here.

New Bridge Over the Hudson

By Johna Till Johnson

As many of our readers know, I’m a huge fan of bridges. To me, they’re beautiful both physically and metaphorically—lovely structures that bring two sides together. Although my favorite bridge is the Hell Gate Bridge, I’m passionate about all the New York waterway bridges.

So it’s a big deal to me that New York will be replacing the Tappan Zee Bridge—and the new structure will be complete relatively soon (supposedly, by 2018).

Here’s what the Tappan Zee Bridge looks like today:

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And here’s what it’s supposed to look like in future:

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I’m not crazy about the outward-reaching “harp” towers… but it is a bridge, and I love bridges… What do you think?

Ceres

By Vladimir Brezina

A week ago, over the Columbus Day weekend, we were kayak-camping at Stockport Middle Ground, one of my favorite places along the Hudson River, to paddle among the Fall colors (story and photos forthcoming!).

So on Monday a week ago, I paddled out onto the still river, shrouded in fog, as the first colors of dawn softened the sky. Honking geese flew overhead.

But what was that strange buzzing sound, and that strange object emerging from the fog upriver, gradually growing bigger?

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It was Ceres!

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Book Review: From Pigeons to Tweets

By Johna Till Johnson

From Pigeons to TweetsFrom Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications, by Clarence E. McKnight and Hank H. Cox. History Publishing Company, Palisades, New York, 2013.

Okay, I know I have weird tastes in reading material. But when I picked up “From Pigeons to Tweets”, I didn’t expect what I actually got.

The subtitle is “A General Who Led Dramatic Changes in Military Communications”, and the author is Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight Jr. (along with journalist Hank H. Cox).

Given that, plus the relatively staid promotional blurbs from a range of military luminaries, I was expecting a dry treatise on the history of military communications technology.

That would have been interesting enough. I’m fascinated by military technology in general, and military communications technology in particular. (I told you I have weird tastes!)

What I got was (in part) a rollicking and thoroughly absorbing memoir by a man who rose to the highest ranks of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps (the branch that focuses on communications technology) and who had a reputation for hands-on effectiveness in setting up communications systems. (“McKnight could communicate from Hell,” says one of his colleagues—as a compliment.)

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How Many Bridges Circumnavigating Manhattan?

By Vladimir Brezina

Some of the Manhattan bridgesIt’s interesting to look occasionally through the search terms that people have entered to reach your blog. And recently, quite a few people have been arriving at Wind Against Current with the query “how many bridges circumnavigating Manhattan”. They’ll have been disappointed in not finding an answer—until now!

Another popular query is “how many islands in New York City”. Unfortunately, that question does not have a definite answer—it depends on what you consider an island, and on the state of the tide.

But “how many bridges circumnavigating Manhattan” does have a very definite answer. And the answer is…

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Hidden Harbor Tour

By Vladimir Brezina

DSC_0729 cropped smallOnce in a while it occurs to us that there might be other ways to see New York Harbor than by kayak.

And so, on Tuesday evening, we traveled down to the South Street Seaport and boarded the yacht Zephyr, for one of the Hidden Harbor Tours organized by the  Working Harbor Committee. Our appetites had been whetted by the recent Tugboat Races, also organized by the Committee. And reading the description of this tour, it promised to be another highlight:

This tour passes by the Red Hook Container Terminal and visits Erie Basin, home of Hughes Brothers Barges and Reinauer Tugs before crossing the harbor toward Staten Island. It then enters Kill Van Kull, the area’s busiest waterway dividing Staten Island and Bayonne, passing tug yards, oil docks and marine repair facilities. It then passes under the Bayonne Bridge and visits the giant container ports of Newark Bay, Port Newark and Port Elizabeth where the world’s largest container ships tie up. On the way back, we pass by Military Ocean Terminal, the 9/11 Teardrop Memorial, the Robbins Reef Lighthouse and another container port, ending up at the Statue of Liberty for a moment before returning to Pier 16.

We got all of that and more.

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Travel Theme: Hidden

By Vladimir Brezina

Ailsa’s travel-themed photo challenge this week is Hidden.

In our kayaks, we can poke into the most obscure corners of New York Harbor. And we do! And over the years, we’ve found there many fascinating hidden things.

SchamonchiMany of them are remnants of the maritime and commercial history of the harbor. There are substantial ships tucked away at the ends of narrow waterways, acres of wrecks,

The Yellow Submarine

even a submarine…

Here is another strange, intriguing structure. It’s located a little out of the way, in Port Reading, NJ, on the Arthur Kill behind Staten Island. It’s not exactly hidden—as you paddle up the Kill you can see it in plain sight from a long way off. But you have to notice it particularly, as it blends rather well into the general decayed industrial look of the shoreline. And, on the first visit, the pink wreck of the Major General William H. Hart just in front of it (in the first photo below) completely steals the show.

So, although we’ve paddled past many times, we’ve only once taken a few minutes for a closer look. This was in September 2010, when these photos were taken (since then, the structure has reportedly deteriorated even more).

At that time, we didn’t really know what we were looking at. Now that we do, we must go back for a careful inspection!

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So, what is it?

It’s a McMyler Coal Unloader. Built in 1917 and operating until the 1970s—according to some accounts, until 1983—it’s the last remaining one of its kind in the New York area. Originally there were at least eight of them along the shoreline of New York Harbor, each operated by one of the railroads that brought coal in from Pennsylvania and the Alleghenies. One, described in loving detail here in a 1951 article, apparently was located on Jersey City’s Pier 18, a now completely vanished 900-foot quay extending into the Hudson River between Liberty and Ellis Islands!

In operation, an open-topped railroad car full of coal was pushed into position inside the unloader’s tower. It was then grasped by the machinery, bodily lifted up, and turned upside down so that the coal spilled down a chute into a waiting barge (moored about where the tug Turecamo Girls is moored in the photos above). The empty car was put back onto the rails and given a little shove, so that, like on a roller coaster, it rolled away by gravity down an incline while the next full car was pushed into position…

The Garden State Central Model Railroad Club has built a working model of a McMyler Coal Unloader, seen in action here:

No dainty opening of little hopper doors here. This was a crude, brute-force approach that worked. The McMyler Coal Unloader could empty a 100-ton car every minute or so, continuously. A fascinating relic of the heroic industrial age—it might have been built by giants!