The Ghost Fleet of Suisun Bay

On a train from Portland to Oakland last week, my husband and I were startled to pass the rotting carcasses of dozens of battleships, moored together in clusters in a still, reedy bay north of San Francisco.

Turns out, our Navy stockpiles warships the same way we stockpile nuclear weapons. These boats were, originally, meant to be waiting in reserve, ready to go fight when needed. At the peak, there were 400 of them in Suisun Bay. But that was a long time ago. Today, the ships rusted hulks that leech heavy metals and other contaminants into the surrounding water. Their numbers have been shrinking in the last few years as ships were moved and dismantled for recycling. Fewer than 55 remain today. By 2017, they should all be gone.

In 2011, photographer Scott Haefner published a series of photos taken over the course of two years as he and two other photographers managed to slip past the ships' security detail and document the ruins, inside and out. At his site, you can see the photos (obviously much better than mine, above) and read the story of how the shots were taken (it involves reconnaissance missions and the purchase of an inflatable raft — not to mention whole weekends spent living aboard the ghost ships). The results are fantastic.

Thanks to Graham Coop for the link to Scott Haefner's photos!

Your friendly neighborhood boring machine

Check out this great interactive map of the London subway system, showing the real-time location of the giant boring machines that are currently digging new tunnels beneath the city. (Via Nicola Twilley)

Critiquing the flying car in 1944

During World War II, a time when most manufacturing was concentrated on the war effort and Americans were living with ration books and scrap metal drives, advertising became a very strange thing. Companies wanted to make people aware they still existed, even though they weren't currently offering much for sale and unnecessary consumption was being discouraged. More importantly, the companies wanted Americans to associate their brand name with the promise of life after the War. So, what you got, were a lot of advertisements touting what this or that company was going to do just as soon as the Germans and Japanese were defeated.

The image above comes from a 1944 advertisement by the Association of American Railroads. That room is actually the lounge car on a train — or, rather, the hypothetical lounge car on an imaginary train that might be built after the War is over (provided the development of air travel and the construction of the interstate highway system don't doom the train industry to a slow decline). Basically, you had a lot of time when companies had little more than dreams to offer, so the dreams just kept getting bigger and bigger.

At the Paleofuture blog, Matt Novak writes about this ad as part of a larger trend, and offers up some examples of how the tendency to make big promises about the future of technology was being heavily critiqued even as it happened. Novak's posts help make sense of some of the more-ridiculous branches of midcentury futurism. For instance, by 1944 techno-dreamers were already beginning to imagine a future with a flying machine in every carport. At the time, it was helicopters, but it's not much of a leap to catch up to the more-iconic flying car.

The trouble — as pointed out in a 1944 issue of Science and Mechanics — is that owning a flying machine comes with safety and social concerns that make it a hard sell in the real world:

Read the rest

Fun with trains

For those of us who saw Mark's post on the train simulator game and thought, "Man, I want that," here's a couple more bits of train-related goodness.

First, back in February, I rode Amtrak's Empire Builder from Seattle to Minneapolis and did my best to live-tweet the whole, multi-day adventure. It's an amazing route, full of buttes, mountains, and some truly dramatic prairie landscapes. This video by YouTube user domtak doesn't quite capture how great the view out the window of the Empire Builder truly is, but it does give you a nice overview of how varied the geography of the United States really is. This 6-minute video covers a whole Portland-to-Minneapolis journey on the train. (With thanks to Thanland!)

Second, I didn't realize this until my friend Andrew pointed it out to me, but did you know that Reddit has a Train Porn page? Prepare to lose approximately five days of your life.

A car that can run on the road or the rails

This customized 1957 Pontiac was used by the Erie Mining Company to transport supervisors up and down the company's 74-mile-long Mainline railroad, which shipped taconite from mines in northern Minnesota to coastal ports and processing facilities on Lake Superior.

Every day, seven 96-car trains full of taconite travel down this rail line. The Pontiac was tricked out to allow it to drive on both roads or on the Mainline rails, themselves, with rail wheels that could be raised or lowered. You can see the rail wheels in the photo below.

Both photos come from my visit to the Lake Superior Railroad Museum in Duluth last month.

Crowd-funded epic journey across America by train

Last Monday, I spoke to the Boston Skeptics about energy, infrastructure, and my new book, Before the Lights Go Out. After that talk, I met Erik "Skippy" Sund, a guy who is about to embark on an amazing adventure that he's hoping to crowd-source.

Erik is planning on traveling across the United States by train. His itinerary starts in Boston, heads south to Florida, west to Texas, up to Colorado and west to California, north to Washington, and the back East, through Illinois and and Ohio. It's not a commuter trip. It's not even like my recent train experience—where I chose to choo-choo directly home from a conference in Vancouver. Instead, Erik is trying to recreate the American travel epic, a story as old as the founding of this country.

The impetus behind this trip consists of some assumptions about the way we have come to travel the world around us.


1. Traveling is simply the utilitarian process of getting from point A to point B and is not regarded significantly as an event in itself. I hope to flip this assumption by showing the benefits of choosing a transportation method that encourages a greater interconnectedness with fellow passengers and the environment.
2. We accept that in the United States we have freedom of movement. As a developed country this implies access to a well organized, affordable and user-friendly transportation infrastructure. I intend to explore the infrastructure and see how it affects the lives of travelers. In particular I will be traveling frugally and in a minimalist nature, taking only 2 carry on bags and riding coach.
3. American cultural identity is forever in flux and can only be defined by its point of observation in time through sharing personal stories.

Along the way I will be interviewing people, recording observations and conversations. I hope to collect, curate, circulate, and communicate every detail of this trip. Once the trip is finished I will start process for editing the blog as a book. As soon as that is ready I will post the books as a .pdf available under creative commons licensing to the blog. After that I will be doing a print-on-demand run of the book for interested parties.

A side project on this trip will to be create a series of fictitious travel stories a Crowd Sourced Narrative. This will either be compiled as a novel, a series of short stories, or as a compilation of ideas available for public use.

It's an interesting and ambitious project. Erik thinks he needs about $5000 to make it happen. If you're interested, you can donate to the project through Indiegogo. One of the best rewards comes with a $50 donation: A piece of random, weird, wonderful Americana mailed to you from a whistlestop, somewhere during Erik's travels. Awesome!

Get details about the project and donate at Indiegogo.

Read more on Erik's Posterous, where he's blogging his plans for the trip.