Courtesy Science Museum of MinnesotaA few weeks ago I attended the Beaker & Brush Discussion in St. Paul, a public event about the intersection of science and art put on by the Science Museum of Minnesota the second Tuesday of each month. April’s topic was titled "Why We Collect", a discussion about why we as a society and as individuals like to collect things. Museum staff members were on hand to relate the museum's and their personal perspectives on the nuts and bolts of collecting. The subject particularly interested me because ever since I was a kid, I’ve collected stuff. Things like rocks and fossils, silent movie posters, space memorabilia, historic Duluth material, and early paleontology ephemera – I’ve collected them all. Lately it’s been dinosaur-related postcards. I got interested in collecting those because I designed some dinosaur postcards sold here at the museum gift shop, which, you know, I think is kind of cool. I like how it connects me to the long history of dinosaur postcards, which goes back quite a while. The two oldest cards in my collection date back before 1910. Both are related to industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s namesake dinosaur, Diplodocus carnegiei, which he had spared no expense extracting from the High Plains of Wyoming for his museum in Pittsburgh. Carnegie was so proud of his collection of bones that he had several mounted casts of the great sauropod created that he presented to heads of state in many countries around the world.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionThis brings me to a recent postcard I saw on eBay from the Field Museum of Natural History. The card showed a sepia-toned reproduction of one of paleo-artist Charles R. Knight’s murals. Knight was (and still is) a highly regarded natural history artist known for his exceptional talent at bringing long-extinct animals to life in his fantastic paintings. This one showed flying and swimming reptiles in the Cretaceous sea that once extended across the middle of the North American continent. Knight created the original painting (along with 28 others) between 1926 and 1930 for the Field Museum exhibits in Chicago, where they can still be seen today. A color reproduction of the same painting portrayed in the postcard also sets beneath the mosasaur skeleton seen at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Knight, by the way, was my grandmother’s maiden name. She was born in London, as was Charles Knight’s father, so I like to think that somewhere in the past, we might share a family connection.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionBut beyond that, I like Knight’s images and have several in my collection, so even though this postcard wasn’t actually of dinosaurs per se (dinosaurs didn’t fly or live in water), I considered bidding on it. But what clinched it for me was the address on back of the postcard. The reverse side, which the seller included in his listing, displayed a 1932 postmark and was addressed to Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt at 640 Fifth Avenue in New York City, an address with which I happened to be familiar.
Let me explain the connection.
Courtesy Mark RyanA couple summers ago, we went to visit my son, who at the time was living in upstate New York. He and his girlfriend were living in Barryville, a small hamlet in the Catskills on the Delaware River about 100 miles northwest of New York City. They were renting a place for the summer with another couple on an old farm and quarry once owned by a man named Hickok. The site contained three residences, two for rental and another used by the property owners. It was a very quaint and idyllic setting, surrounded by woods, with the three buildings close together on the property and set before a steep wall of quarry rock where a small waterfall tumbled over one corner.
The rock in the quarry, I discovered, was primarily sandstone (or more precisely a feldspathic greywacke) of Devonian age, and the largest bedrock unit of the Catskill formation. Deposited in a delta environment during the Acadian orogeny (ancestral Appalachians Mountains) about 360 million years ago, it’s essentially the same rock that underlies the Pocono Mountains to the south in Pennsylvania. The rock unit was first quarried in Ulster County, New York and became known as bluestone because of its color at that location but the stone can come in several hues – in Barryville it’s red. Over the years, the rock has been heavily quarried as an architectural and building stone because of its durability, resistance to weathering, and how easily it splits into slabs. Today, the term “bluestone” is a commercial designation rather than geological and can include many kinds of rock used for building.
One evening the owners related to me how some of the rock quarried behind their house had been used to pave the sidewalks of New York City, and in fact back in the late 19th century, the house they lived in had been moved several yards toward the river so quarrymen could get at one very large, continuous slab of rock. Once removed, the single slab was shipped by barge over the Delaware & Hudson Canal and down to NYC for placement in front of the Vanderbilt Mansion on Fifth Avenue. The Vanderbilt name is practically synonymous with “filthy rich”, at least back then during the Gilded Age. I enjoy history and geology so the story intrigued me, and later that evening I went online to see what I could find out about the story.
Courtesy Public domainIt didn’t take long at all to come across this 1881 clipping in the New York Times archives that describes, in detail, getting the massive 25-foot rock from Barryville to NYC and placed in front of the William H. Vanderbilt mansion being built on Fifth Avenue between 51st and 52nd Streets in Manhattan. If by now you guessed that the address was 640 Fifth Avenue, you’d be right (actually William H. Vanderbilt built two identical mansions at the same time on the block, one for himself - the 640 address - and another at 642 Fifth Avenue that was divided into two residences for his two daughters and their families).
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaWilliam Vanderbilt’s father, Cornelius “The Commodore” Vanderbilt, had amassed the family fortune via shipping and railroad interests in the mid-1800s, rocketing the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts to the very stratospheric top layer of the socio-economic heap. To put their vast wealth in perspective compare the Commodore’s $100,000,000 (an inheritance that William Vanderbilt doubled) to the guys who led the mules that pulled the canal barge transporting William’s monster sidewalk slab. They’d have to walk 15-20 miles a day, tend to the mules, and pump out the barges – all for about $3 a month! Even the other wealthy families of the time (i.e. Astors and Carnegies) paled in comparison to the House of Vanderbilt. The extended Vanderbilt clan owned several properties along Fifth Avenue but William Vanderbilt’s Triple Palaces, as they were also known, would be the finest along Vanderbilt Row.
Courtesy Public domainFor nearly two years, six hundred laborers (including 60 sculptors and artisans from Europe) toiled on William H. Vanderbilt’s 640 residence, creating a brownstone behemoth which he filled with extreme opulence, including over 200 original pieces of art now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to a book about the mansion published privately by Vanderbilt, everything inside "sparkles and flashes with gold and color...with mother-of-pearl, with marble, with jewel effects in glass...and every surface is covered, one might say weighted, with ornament." The gigantic five-story oblong pile of stone and marble contained seventy rooms - “most of them huge” - and 33 bathrooms. Many of the dozens of servants lived on site, maids on the 5th floor and attic, manservants in the sub-basement. One employee’s only job was to keep the building’s furnaces stoked with coal.
Courtesy Public domainWhen he died in 1885, William H. Vanderbilt was the richest man in the world (at a time when the US had no income tax!). The mansion at 640 was willed to his brother, George Vanderbilt (who also built a giant 125,000 acre estate in Ashville, North Carolina, called Biltmore), and when George died in 1914, the huge house with the pavement stone from Barryville passed down to Cornelius Vanderbilt III and his wife, Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the postcard’s addressee.
Courtesy Public domainGrace Wilson Vanderbilt was the darling of European royalty, and for many years New York’s leading socialite. Her marriage to Cornelius III caused him to be disinherited by his father (Cornelius II) and ostracized by many of the other Vanderbilts. (When his father died, rather than getting $60-$70 million, Cornelius III (nicknamed Neily), inherited only half a million dollars plus income from a million dollar trust fund. His brother Alfred threw another $7 million his way to somewhat even the score). Grace’s own father, Richard T. Wilson, was a New York banker of great wealth and close friends with Andrew Carnegie, but the Vanderbilts, for whatever reason, considered her a social climber. Despite the family animosity, Grace managed to make herself the Mrs. Vanderbilt, the family’s last grand dame of the social set. (An article in the November, 1905 Munsey’s Magazine stated Grace had attained her social status by learning “the art of success scientifically, from approved models” – meaning all the European royalty she met as a young girl). During her reign, Grace hosted huge dinner parties, usually twice a week, and even larger, lavish balls for a thousand guests (I guess this is when having 33 bathrooms comes in handy). She once claimed to have entertained 37,000 guests in a single year. Neily wasn’t as interested in his wife’s social activities. As a boy he longed to be a scientist, and graduated from Yale a mechanical engineer. He was also an expert sailor and career military man. When he wasn’t yachting or soldiering he’d spend his time creating various railroad improvement devices for which he owned several patents, or co-founding businesses like the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), New York’s very first subway system.
Courtesy Mark Ryan CollectionSo back to the postcard. The fact it had been addressed to the Vanderbilt mansion where the big sidewalk slab from the Barryville quarry ended up was enough to make it desirable to me, so I bid on it and won it. While waiting for its arrival in the mail, I looked more closely to the card’s inscription: a social regret and thank you for a box of candy to Grace signed simply “Eleanor”. This intrigued me, and investigating it further, I eventually came to the realization that the writer was Eleanor Roosevelt.
Courtesy LIbrary of Congress At the time her husband Franklin Delano Roosevelt (we share birthdays!) would have been governor of New York, and within 8 months become the president-elect of the United States. Now that was something. The card was cancelled with a St. Paul & Williston RPO postmark (railroad post office – my grandfather worked the Chicago-St. Paul leg). Eleanor could very well have been west visiting her nephew, Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. at the Field Museum. Like his father, TR - the former president - Teddy Jr. was a naturalist and explorer. Perhaps Eleanor was in Chicago to attend a memorial service for William V. Kelley who had fully financed her nephew’s 1929 Asian expeditions (Kelley-Roosevelts Expedition) for the natural history museum. Kelley had just died days before the postmark date.
Grace Vanderbilt was close friends with Alice Roosevelt, TR’s daughter, and Teddy, Jr’s half-sister, and obviously knew Eleanor, although, later, she and Neily would be vocal opponents of FDR and his New Deal recovery program, which they thought were socialistic. Sounds familiar, does it not? (Neily even called the president a traitor to his class). Of course the Great Depression had little effect on the Vanderbilts or their friends. The House of Vanderbilt’s range was widespread. Besides the Fifth Avenue mansions (and a boatload of private yachts), family members owned several summer homes in Newport, Rhode Island (e.g The Breakers, Marble House, and Grace and Neily’s Beaulieu. At Hyde Park, New York, a Vanderbilt mansion combines withFDR’s birthplace, and Eleanor Roosevelt’s getaway Val-Kill, to form the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt-Roosevelt National Historic sites. .
So, why do people collect things? According to this informative site, it can be for a number of reasons. Personally, I think I do it for several of the reasons listed: it connects me with memories of my youth or to some place I’ve visited, or just hooks me in with something that fascinates me. I know when I’m in the heat of my obsession - whatever that may be at the time, I find it difficult to part with any of my collection. Sometimes I’ll sell a lesser item to acquire something better, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. At some point my interest flags and I sell or give away most of the collection and move on to something else. But I find no matter what I collect, it often triggers an intense desire in me to find out as much as I can about it. Like this Vanderbilt postcard. Because of one silly postcard and a giant slab of sandstone, all these odd historical, geological, architectural, political, and socioeconomic connections have been brought together here. It makes for a good story anyway.
Courtesy Public domain via WikipediaI’ll end with one last anecdote. With all the interest this month with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, there’s a Vanderbilt connection to it. In April of 1912, George Vanderbilt and his wife – the second owners of the 640 Fifth Avenue mansion - were in Europe and had booked passage on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. But George’s mother-in-law expressed a very strong premonition and convinced them to make other plans. Lots can go wrong on maiden voyages, she said. Lucky for them, they followed her advice and removed their luggage from the doomed liner and made the trip back on its sister ship RMS Olympic instead. George’s footman, Frederic Wheeler, however wasn’t as lucky. Wheeler remained on the Titanic and perished in the disaster.
Queen of the Golden Age by Cornelius Vanderbilt IV, McGraw-Hill, 1956
Beetlehead’s 640 Fifth Avenue (excellent blog)
Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt, Munsey’s Magazine, Nov. 1905
Vanderbilt home and info on Flickr
Compared to another wreck around the same time, passengers on the Titanic were much more calm and composed. According to economist David Savage, that's because the Titanic sank so slowly that social order had time to kick in and dictate people's behavior.
Courtesy NPRWell, I learned about it a day too late to listen live, but NPR's Marketplace hosted a invigorating conversation on Climate and Sustainability yesterday. You can listen to audio and watch video of the event online. We need more events like this, bringing scientists and business leaders together to create a sustainable environment that works for humans in our modern economy.
A few weeks ago, I assumed that some of our readers were bored with the same ol’ climate change arguments. I know you know what I’m talking about: the Cuddly-Animals-are-Dying and the Catastrophic-Disasters-Will-End-the-Human-Race arguments come to mind first. Now, I’m not saying there isn’t some merit to these frames, but c’mon! Can’t we get a little variety?
Courtesy University of Minnesota
Lucky for you, University of Minnesota professor and Institute on the Environment fellow Stephen Polasky thinks creatively. In April, he gave a presentation on how adopting inclusive wealth could ultimately reduce climate change and its effects. And since virtually everybody likes money, I’m going to go out on a limb and bet you want to know more about the ca-ching!$
Here’s the skinny:
Economists say that just about everything has a monetary value, and how much something is worth plays largely into the decisions politicians make. Scientists like Polasky are increasingly saying that these traditional accounting methods do a poor job assessing value to natural resources, and these mistakes are leading us to make irrational choices. As an alternative, Polasky suggests adopting inclusive wealth theory.
Courtesy happyeclaire (Flickr)
Ready for the good stuff??
Economists and scientists both agree that the environment has worth, called natural capital, but they disagree on how much. In fact, not only do economists and scientists disagree with each other, but they disagree amongst themselves! To be fair, determining something’s worth can be extremely difficult. Because there are already economic markets for some natural resources like trees (i.e. lumber) and metals (i.e. gold), it’s easier to assess their value. Most ecosystem services, however, like the flood control provided by wetlands, are more difficult to put a dollar value on.
Inclusive wealth theory says that our decisions should be made on economic assessments that include true representations of the value of natural resources (difficult as that may be).
Politicians make important decisions regarding environmental policies, including actions that affect climate change. When politicians are choosing between multiple policy options, they are conducting policy analysis. One criterion that politicians pretty much always use is a cost-benefit ratio, or cost efficiency. In order to do that, politicians must determine the value of each policy option and weight the outcome against the rest. (It might sound complicated, but you do this same process informally everyday when you make decisions regarding what to eat for breakfast and whether to walk or ride your bike to school/work.)
Courtesy Ben Cody
Polasky and other like-minded individuals argue that under traditional accounting methods, politicians’ cost-benefit ratios are distorted – they are not accurately representing the true worth of the environment. Furthermore, as a result, we’re making some pretty big, bad decisions. According to Polasky, the solution is simple in theory, but difficult in practice: adopt inclusive wealth theory to more accurately measure environmental worth. If we increase the value of the environment in our analysis, the cost-benefit ratios will change and perhaps favor decisions that are more environmentally friendly. That is, under inclusive wealth, we might finally see how important it is to take climate change-reducing actions such as reducing our fossil fuel consumption, protecting forests from logging, and stopping eating so much meat… or not.
What do you think?
How much $$ is the environment worth to you? What about individual ecosystem services like pollination by bees or decomposition of waste by microbes?
Are politicians doing an accurate job of assessing the value of natural capital?
Post your comments below!
Suntech Power Holdings Co. Ltd., the world's largest solar module maker, suspended its plan to expand capacity by 40 percent in 2009. Instead, it laid off 10 percent of its 8,000 strong workforce.
Global revenues for photovoltaic solar panels are expected to drop 19 percent in 2009, believed to be the sector's first-ever contraction, as prices fall due to oversupply, research firm iSuppli said last December" Reuters
My hope is that a change in government incentives will prove to be a game changer.
First Solar was featured by Investopedia yesterday as a solar company to watch in 2009.
Courtesy Today is a good day
Or just mis-managing what we have? Blogger Fabius Maximus argues for the latter. He claims that most water "shortages" are actually the result of political forces: in poor countries, corruption and mismanagement; in wealthy countries, politically popular price supports.
Y'see, water is essential to human life. Therefore, governments try to provide clean, safe water to their citizens. And, being all egalitarian and everything, Western democracies want to make water equally available to all. So they provide it free, or at an extremely low price, so that everyone can afford it.
(Of course, nothing is "free" -- the water service is subsidized by taxes.)
Unfortunately, this leads to a little something known as the ragedy of the commons. If a resource is free, then there's nothing to prevent people from using way too much of it, or even wasting it. Thus, free-or-low-cost water leads to farmers growing rice in the California desert, or developers building water-intensive golf courses, or simply home owners tending lush lawns in climates not suited for them.
Now, I have nothing against rice, or golf, or lawns, even. (My own lawn, I'm a little less than fond of, but that's another story.) The point is, making water freely available to everyone to drink and bathe also makes it freely available for a wide variety of more wasteful uses, which leads to some of the shortages we see today.
Courtesy Arriving at the horizon
Researchers in Italy have taught capuchin monkeys how to use money to buy food in lab experiments. The monkeys were observed making simple economic decisions.
The study is not yet available on-line, but it sounds an awful lot like this research from Yale, published last year. There, the monkeys not only learned to use money, but to respond to price fluctuations, and even to steal. However, they could not budget and they gambled irrationally – a lot like their hominid cousins.
There was also an incident of flinging feces at fellow monkeys who did not play by the rules – perhaps the most dismal experiment in the history of the dismal science.
Meanwhile in Indonesia, industrious long-tailed macaque monkeys aren't waiting for handouts. They are supporting themselves by observed fishing, scooping fish from the water with their bare hands and eating them.
This is the first documented evidence of fishing in this species, though other primates – including baboons, chimps and orangutans – are known to fish. Researchers believe this behavior in macaques is an indication of their flexibility and ability to adapt to new conditions.
Another dismal post about the dismal science.
Today, we look at The Copenhagen Consensus. A group of economists are presented with a thought experiment: let’s say you had $75 billion to spend on solving one of the world’s problems – how would you allocate your funds?
Economists, being the dismal people that they are, take no account of what is “moral” or “right” or what “ought” to be done. They just try to figure out where you get the biggest bang for your buck. Their answer? Micronutirents for kids. Providing vitamin A and zinc to 80 percent of the 140 million children who lack them would provide almost $17 in health benefits for every dollar invested.
Other items in the top ten:
The majority of the most-efficient solutions deal with health, thus proving the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
The least-efficient proposal was a plan to mitigate global warming. Nobel Prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling noted that that spending $75 billion on cutting greenhouses gases would achieve almost nothing. In fact, the climate change analysis presented to the panel found that spending $800 billion until 2100 would yield just $685 billion in climate change benefits.
Economist Richard Nordhaus, in his book A Question of Balance: Weighing the Options on Global Warming Policies, draws a similar conclusion. Projects to massively reduce greenhouse gases end up costing more than they deliver—in some cases, many trillions of dollars more. OTOH, investing in alternative energy (wind, solar, etc.) and bio-engineering can produce great results for the amount spent on them.
The economists at Copenhagen felt funding research and development of low-carbon energy technologies was worthwhile, and ranked it 14th out of the 30 proposals they considered.
Other items at the bottom of the priorities list are proposals to reduce air pollution by cutting emissions from diesel vehicles; a tobacco tax; improved stoves to reduce indoor air pollution; and extending microfinance. These are not necessarily bad ideas. It’s just that other proposals provide more bang for the 75 billion bucks.
Courtesy Tracy O
Gosh, how long has it been since I’ve pulled out the old “there’s a reason they call economics ‘the dismal science’” trope? Must have been a good 15, maybe 20 minutes. Well, here it is again. How much would you be willing to pay to live a longer, healthier life? In order to answer the question, you have to put a dollar value on your life. How much is ten years’ of healthy life worth? The "fight aging!" blog discusses the situation in cold, hard terms of dollars and cents – a new therapy might add ten healthy years to your life, but if it cost more than those years were worth, would anybody still get it? What if it came down in price, but only the richest people could afford it? And how long would it take before it became affordable to everyone?
Putting dollar value on human life – man, those economist be whack!
A recent article in the NY Times discussed if it is possible to eliminate malaria. They need more money, better health systems and a vaccine. Some experts feel the big push to eradicate malaria is counterproductive or even dangerous. Dr. Arata Kochi, the W.H.O. malaria chief stated in the article that, “… enough money, current tools like nets, medicines and DDT could drive down malaria cases 90 percent. But eliminating the last 10 percent is a tremendous task and very expensive.” He doesn’t want people to have false hope.
A new vaccine
In spite of the debate, research is progressing to reach the goal of eliminating malaria. The Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (SBRI) is home to one of the largest malaria research programs in the United States. SBRI's Malaria Program is focused on vaccine discovery for malaria during pregnancy, severe malaria in children and liver-stage malaria. SBRI scientists are working on a vaccine that uses genetic engineering to render malaria parasites harmless. According to an article in the Seattle Times SBRI is looking for volunteers to be bitten by malaria-infected mosquitoes to aid in the quest for new vaccines and drugs. Scientists will analyze blood from the human volunteers to learn more about the body's immune response to the disease.
What do we do?
Economists believe that malaria is responsible for a ‘growth penalty’ of up to 1.3% per year in some African countries. When compounded over the years, this penalty leads to substantial differences in GDP between countries with and without malaria and severely restrains the economic growth of the entire region. Malaria costs Africa $12 billion every year in lost productivity alone.
What do you think? Where should we be putting our resources?