Steamy New York

It seems to me that my reaction to New York is conditioned by my first experiences. In the late ’80s the city was a gritty place. Some parts of it were too dangerous to walk about in the evenings. You were told to be careful in Central Park, Times Square and Bryant Park. And through it all, steam wafted out from vents and chimneys, making everything look even more weird. It’s a new and more pleasant city now, but the steam still rises from the streets.

It has never been as easy to read about the world as it is today. I sat in a little cafe off 5th Avenue and found out more about this. I was not surprised to learn that the 170 kilometers of steam pipes under the streets of New York make it the steamiest city in the world. What surprised me were the uses to which the 40 million kilos of steam that flow these pipes daily are put. I’d lazily assumed that it was mainly for heating. Not so.

New York City: Steam chimney on 5th Avenue

The superheated high pressure steam is used for energy. Restaurants use it to power their dishwashers, and buildings to power cooling units in summer. The Guggenheim uses it to fine-tune the humidity in the building, and hospitals sterilize equipment using it. The system has been operated by Consolidated Edison since the 1950s, when it acquired the business from the NY Steam Corp which started up in lower Manhattan in 1880. As mid-town was developed in the 1920s, electrical cables and steam pipes were laid down together. ConEd claims to have around 2000 buildings as customers and seven generating stations. In three of these stations the steam is a by-product of ConEd’s electrical power generating plants. it seems that the operation is fairly green.

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The boatmen of Bhitarkanika

When I talked to people in Bhitarkanika and heard about boats I imagined little things like the one above. My imagination was influenced by photos of birders in Mangalajodi, which is the hot birding destination in Odisha. Imagining an open boat, I was little concerned about the weather. The temperature had started reaching record highs across the country even before Holi. As it turned out, it was only moderately hot when we reached Bhitarkanika. That, and the fact that bird-watching avoids the hot afternoon, meant that we had fairly comfortable weather.

Tourist boats of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

Due to my preconceptions, the first sight of the boats of Bhitarkanika (photo above) was shocking. They are large, with a two person crew, and capable of carrying more than ten passengers. They have a passenger cabin and an upper deck. Interestingly, they also have a head. We decided that sitting in the cabin would restrict our view of the birds, so we climbed up to the deck and leaned on the cabin. The crew handed us cushions and told us to sit on the roof of the cabin. We did that, and can certify that it is a very comfortable way to navigate the tidal creeks of Bhitarkanika while looking out for birds.

Small boats like the one in the featured photo are used by the locals to travel short distances. Occasionally we saw a man standing in one of these boats, poling himself along a stream. We also saw, once, two men in such a boat, letting out a fishing net.

Boatman of Bhitarkanika National Park, Odisha

This part of Odisha is poor. While great strides have been made in the last decade or so in bringing schools and primary health care to the people in this region, their income levels have not risen much. Direct employees of the forest department, even temporary workers, are much better off than those who are not government employees. The crew of the boat we were on (one of them is in the photo above) spent time foraging at the edge of the forest, but our wildlife guide did not bother to. This low level of income results in poorly maintained boat engines. There must be expertise out in the wide world on cheap and easy to maintain boat engines with low emission. I would definitely love to hear about it.

First tourists

The Family and I saw the movie "Hidden Figures" recently, on the recommendation of my eleven year old guide to Chicago. The week before, she’d told me about the movie which her school had taken her class to see as we walked through the Adler planetarium. We liked the movie, and recommended it to many others. The first text book on programming that I had ever read had a photo of Dorothy Vaughn in it; it has taken me many years to find out why her photo appeared there.

The movie reminded me of descriptions of the first flights, and the expertise that had to be created. It was not known what physiological effects space flights would have, how hot or cold the capsules would get, and, as the movie tells us, how to even predict the orbits of the capsules. I found a recent newspaper article which talks of the way those early flights were put together.

We stopped in front of one of these early space crafts, Gemini 12, which you can see in the featured photo. Standing in front of it, I understood why they were called capsules: they are nothing but a couch with a few controls in front of it, and a heat shield behind for re-entry. In 1966 James Lovell (famous later as one of the three astronauts in Apollo 13) and Edwin Aldrin (famous as the second man on the moon, in Apollo 11) flew in this little capsule for over four days. I usually feel cramped in a space like this in a two hour flight, and have to get out into the aisle to take a walk. Aldrin took three walks in space during this flight.

I doubt that I will ever be a tourist in space, but wouldn’t it be a wonderful if I had a photo of the earth from space on my phone, as a souvenir of my last vacation?