Category Archives: Technology

My story on Mars analogs is up at Smithsonian Air & Space magazine.

Check it out: http://www.airspacemag.com/space/mars-fakers-180964343/

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How to Build a High-End High-Rise

A Step-by-Step Guide

September, 2016

So, you want to build a high rise. Maybe you’ve got a couple hundred million dollars burning a hole in your pocket and an acre or two of vacant land in Kakaako, and you’re wondering: How can I get in on the action? Right now, a half-dozen high rises are going up around town, and another handful getting ready to break ground. So, just in case you were thinking of adding your own giant condominium tower to the Honolulu skyline, we’ve made it easier for you by putting together this step-by-step guide.


The obvious approach would have been to follow the construction of a single high rise from beginning to end. Unfortunately, the typical high rise takes almost three years to build, and that’s not counting the many years it usually takes for permitting or design. But we didn’t want you to have to wait that long.

It turns out that, as part of its Ward Village development, the Howard Hughes Corp. has three high rises going up right now, all within a couple of blocks of one another, and all in different stages of construction.  Waiea is almost complete; Anaha still has about six months to go; and Aeo is just coming out of the ground. That gave us a convenient way to telescope the process of high rise construction, dividing it into three stages. Along the way, we focus on parts of the construction that highlight just how much you’re going to have to depend on distant, often unseen partners to build your high rise.


STEP 1
COMING OUT OF THE GROUND

Before you start to build, you have to prepare the site. If you’re lucky, you start with bare dirt. More likely, you’ve got old structures to demolish, and pavement or old concrete slabs to remove. Even then, you’re probably not done. Much of Kakaako was built on low marshland. Aeo’s property, for example, was only a few feet above the water table. To gain a little elevation, the general contractor, Layton Construction, trucked in thousands of tons of gravel fill, then spent weeks compacting the ground so it would bear the enormous weight of the building. That also makes it possible for the backhoes to trench so you can bring in utilities from the street.

In a sense, though, construction starts with a soil scientist boring test holes in the ground. This is crucial, because your skyscraper is going to perch atop scores of narrow concrete piles that reach as far as 90 feet below the surface. These are augur-cast pi-lings, meaning they’re drilled into the ground with a powerful augur, then, the resulting holes pumped with concrete as the augur is removed. While the concrete is still wet, a cage made of reinforced steel bars – rebar – is lowered into the hole. Once the concrete cures, you’ve got a piling.

It’s the friction of the earth against the rough surface of these pilings that actually holds your skyscraper in place. That’s why you need so many. It’s also why the soil engineer is crucial. By studying the soil beneath the building, she calculates how much friction it will generate. That determines how deep you have to bore the holes for your piles. In some places, it might be 60 feet; in others, nearly 100 feet.

The deeper you have to dig, the more time it takes and the more concrete and steel you have to use. That all costs more money.

Once the pilings are in, they’re tied together by pile caps and grade beams. “Grade beams” is a misnomer, because they eventually lie below grade. Trenches are dug to expose the tops of the pilings, then lined with plywood or steel formwork, and filled with concrete and rebar. When the concrete sets, the formwork is removed and the trenches backfilled with gravel and dirt.

Pile caps are similar, but they tie together pilings that have been clustered to support major load-bearing features, like the elevator shaft or structural columns. Once the grade beams and pile caps are in place, the slab can be poured to tie the whole structure together.

Congratulations, your high rise has come out of the ground.

Left: Much of Kakaako is close to sea level. At high tide, the areas excavated for pile caps and grade beams can fill with salt water. Right, top to bottom: 1. Trenching reveals how much fill is used. 2. Clusters of piles exposed for pile cap. 3. Exposed rebar, ready for the next course of forms and concrete. 4. Building a high rise starts with digging.

Left: Much of Kakaako is close to sea level. At high tide, the areas excavated for pile caps and grade beams can fill with salt water. Right, top to bottom: 1. Trenching reveals how much fill is used. 2. Clusters of piles exposed for pile cap. 3. Exposed rebar, ready for the next course of forms and concrete. 4. Building a high rise starts with digging.

 

STEP 2
GOING UP

The articulating boom that delivers concrete to the top of the building is directed by remote control.

The articulating boom that delivers concrete to the top of the building is directed by remote control.

Congratulations, your high rise has come out of the ground. Thus begins the rhythm of construction. Floor after floor, formwork is built over the stubs of walls and structural columns. Rebar cages are fabricated and lowered into place. Utilities are led through conduits and ductwork. Then comes the slurry of concrete. The floors are poured, and the formwork filled, and the walls gradually rise, always with a toothsome row of rebar jutting out the top, ready to accommodate the next course of formwork and concrete. In fact, this is where it becomes clear that, although your high rise may ultimately look like it’s made of glass and steel, at heart, it’s a colossus of reinforced concrete.

1. Hoppers of extra concrete are hoisted by crane. 2. The concrete pump boom swivels on a tower of its own. 3. Until the new concrete has cured, the floor is supported by a forest of jackstands.

1. Hoppers of extra concrete are hoisted by crane.
2. The concrete pump boom swivels on a tower of its own.
3. Until the new concrete has cured, the floor is supported by a forest of jackstands.

One striking feature  to most modern high rises is the  engineering in the floors. They may look like simple slabs, but technology has evolved to make them thinner so you need less concrete and can have more headroom and more floor space to sell. You’re going to use the same method to strengthen your floors that they do at Anaha: post-tensioning.

Concrete is heavy and, when you pour a big slab, it tends to sag in the middle. This creates tension in the concrete and, while concrete is very good at handling pressure, it doesn’t take tension well. (That’s why concrete is always reinforced with steel.) To correct for sagging, hundreds of powerful cables are run through conduits in the floor and the concrete is poured over them. When the concrete is hard enough, jacks are used to pull the cables tight and the ends are secured to the edges of the floor. The effect is like a trampoline, with the post tensioning putting the concrete into compression instead of tension. In the old days, it used to take 14 days for the concrete to get hard enough. With modern concrete, the floors are ready in two to three days, greatly accelerating construction.

One key feature of high rise construction is the ability to pump concrete to the upper floors. That requires a massive pump and a giant, articulating boom to deliver the concrete to every point on the floor. The pump can stay on the ground, but the boom is attached to the pump by a large- gauge pipe that runs up the inside of what will eventually be the elevator shaft. That’s because the boom has to climb to keep up with construction. To accommodate that upward movement, it’s mounted on top of a self-climbing platform that also fits inside the elevator shaft. It’s a massive machine – 40 feet long, 12 feet wide and three stories tall – that uses hydraulics to hoist itself up tracks that are temporarily bolted to the walls of the elevator shaft. The construction crew often fit out the lower levels of this contraption with a microwave and bathrooms, using it like a temporary lunchroom, says Larry Schrenk, the director of construction in Hawaii for Howard Hughes. “On really big skyscrapers, they actually put in a Subway sandwich shop so the crew never has to come down.”

When the last floor is poured, the platform is disassembled and lowered to the ground by the crane.

STEP 3
FINISHING UP

The roof of Anaha’s garage doubles as the amenities deck and is completely waterproofed. It will eventually house the members’ club house as well as a pool and other waterworks. One end of the pool will be glass and hang out over the property.

The roof of Anaha’s garage doubles as the amenities deck and is completely waterproofed. It will eventually house the members’ club house as well as a pool and other waterworks. One end of the pool will be glass and hang out over the property.

So, your high rise has topped off.

The last floor (which is actually the roof) has been poured. The windows are all in. Now, it’s time to make the space livable. In some ways, this is the part of the process that most resembles the building of single-family homes.

To frame the interior walls, steel studs are bolted to brackets that have been attached to the ceilings and floors. Plumbers and electricians rough in the utilities. Then come the armies of drywall workers. The sheetrock is screwed to the studs. It’s mudded and sanded several times, then primed and painted. The ductwork is connected to the HVAC system. The hardwood floors are installed and the tile-work finished. Carpenters come to hang the cabinets in the kitchen so the appliances can be fitted into place and hooked up. It’s all very familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a house being built.

But there are still differences. For example, some of the penthouses at Waiea have a private swimming pool on the lanai. That calls for pool masons and specialty plumbing. Another example is the floor. Despite intensive efforts by the contractors to get the concrete even when they pour the floors, they’re rarely level. “You can’t imagine how it snowballs if you have a floor that’s even just an inch out of level,” says Howard Hughes’ Larry Schenk. “You’d be able to see that in each room. The lines where the walls or cabinets meet the floors would go up and down.”

Top: Many wires are routed through ducts concreted into the floor. Middle: Additional concrete is frequently needed to level the floors. Bottom: High-end buildings require high-end cabinetry and amenities.

Top: Many wires are routed through ducts concreted into the floor.
Middle: Additional concrete is frequently needed to level the floors. Bottom: High-end buildings require high-end cabinetry and amenities.

That’s not acceptable, particularly if you’re building a high-end condo like Waiea. To remedy this problem, once the walls are in, gangs come through and fill the low spots with an easy flowing layer of mortar. The high spots get chiseled away. This takes place all over the building, because you can’t install the hardwood or the tile until the floors are absolutely level. “We literally spend millions of dollars just getting things back to flat,” Schenk says.

Sometimes there are special considerations. Howard Hughes wants Ward Village to be the largest LEED certified community in the country. That imposes restrictions on the construction process. For instance, the ductwork and blowers for the air-conditioning system are put in fairly early in the finishing process, but they all have to be sealed in plastic. If the ducts and gratings were left exposed, they would likely be filled with dust during the drywall installation. But your AC system will have to be dust-free if you want LEED status. So the plastic can’t come off the ductwork until the construction is almost done.

The buyers of an expensive condominium unit often customize their finishings. Model units give them some design options and show the view.

The buyers of an expensive condominium unit often customize their finishings. Model units give them some design options and show the view.

One other thing: If you’re building a luxury high rise, like Waiea or Anaha, your buyers will often want custom finishes. That means you’ll be working with boutique suppliers and will need a way to track and store the products they send you. In other words, you’re looking at coordinating with more supply chains. And you’ve got to make sure the right products end up in the right units. To ensure that happens, every unit has its own “bible” hanging on the door. This folder can run to several pages and lists specifications for all the finishes in that unit.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_12When you build your own high rise, you also have a “bible,” albeit a figurative one. It contains the building plans and architectural drawings; the spec sheets and supply lists; and the schedules, with their critical path analyses and Gantt charts. Nowadays, all this information is digital, credited in programs like AutoCad or Revit. If you were to print them all up, though, they would come to thousands and thousands of pages. Sadly, there’s no shorter way to explain how to build a high rise. So we’d like to close our little guidebook with an admonition you often see on products: “Some assembly required.”

Please see instructions before you begin.


UNDERSTANDING THE SUPPLY CHAIN

The Concrete World

Your concrete is part of a vast, international industry.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_2By volume, it’s the most traded man-made substance on Earth, yet it has a deceptively simple composition: gravel, sand and cement. The gravel and sand provide the strength; the cement binds them. Cement production involves baking a mixture of crushed limestone and clay at 1450˚C to produce quicklime, which is mixed with a few other ingredients to create a hard substance called clinker. The clinker is then blended with a small amount of gypsum and ground to a find powder: the famous Portland cement.

Although Hawaiian Cement is one of a handful of local companies that mix and sell concrete, it’s the only source of cement in the Islands. All its cement is from Asia Cement. This massive Taiwanese conglomerate delivers as many as 10 shiploads a year to the deep water port at Kalaeloa. Last year, that came to $23 million of cement.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_3Hawaiian Cement has a pretty sophisticated system to handle all that cement. When it’s unloading a bulk carrier, the fine powder is moved pneumatically, sucked like a fluid from the hold of the ship and pumped into a pair of, hemispheric storage tanks that tower over the docks.

From there, a computerized overhead pneumatic system allows the company’s drivers to load the trucks themselves. In boom times, as many as 90 trucks a day pass through the Kalaeloa facility.

Of course, by weight, concrete is mostly aggregate – gravel and sand.

Hawaii, despite its famous beaches, has a shortage of sand. Hawaiian Cement has to import that from British Columbia, where’s it’s quarried from ancient dunes beneath the spruce and fir forests. About three times a year, a bulk carrier brings in about 40,000 metric tons of sand; so much that it takes 50 trucks five days to cart all of it from Kalaeloa to the Halawa facility.

In lesser quantities, Hawaiian Cement imports other ingredients. Certain chemicals can be added to concrete to make it flow better, or cure faster or slower. Some federal contracts require the use of fly ash, a byproduct of burning coal, as a substitute for some of the cement in concrete. All of these products are made elsewhere, adding to the layers of people involved in building your high rise.

The only local ingredient in your concrete will be the gravel. At its Halawa facility, Hawaiian Cement quarries, crushes, and grades millions of tons of gravel a year. Since the aggregate is what gives concrete most of its strength, this local basalt is what ultimately holds your high rise up. And, in an industry that’s famously dirty (worldwide, cement production accounts for 7 percent of human-produced greenhouse gases), Hawaiian Cement runs a surprisingly green operation. Concrete, for example, is water intensive – both for mixing and for dust suppression – but Hawaiian Cement recycles non-potable irrigation water from a nearby farm. They also scrupulously monitor Halawa Stream to make sure runoff from the gravel yard doesn’t alter the pH of the water. They even accept old concrete, crushing it to recycle the aggregate.

Concrete has to be tested. It takes as much as 50,000 cubic yards of concrete to make a high rise. That means mixing thousands of batches of concrete. Because of subtle irregularities in the cement, no two batches are necessarily alike. But your concrete has to meet strict engineering standards. It’s particularly important that the concrete harden quickly to keep construction on schedule.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_4That requires testing, says Gavin Shiraki, sales manager for Hawaiian Cement’s Concrete and Aggregate Division. “The contractor has a third-party lab that checks the concrete on a daily basis,” Shiraki says. Hawaiian Cement conducts similar tests. For every batch of concrete, several samples are taken and formed into four-inch cylinders. Then, at intervals, those cylinders are crushed in a powerful press to measure their strength. Only when the concrete reaches its prescribed hardness can you remove the forms and jack stands and move on to the next floor. Before you complete your high rise, thousands of these little concrete cylinders will be crushed.

 

It Looks Like It’s All Glass

The dominant feature of a high rise is frequently its glass facade.

In fact, with a curtain wall, sometimes that’s all you can see. Not surprisingly, that makes glass one of the project’s larger budget items. “The glass contract for Anaha is about $30 million. That’s over 10 percent of the total cost of construction,” says Larry Schenk.

So, if you want to understand why building a high rise is so expensive and complicated, the glass is a good place to start.

When you build a single-family home, most of the key elements are available at your local hardware store. In fact, the house was probably designed around the specs of standard windows, doors and hardware. That’s not the case when you’re building a high rise. Each high rise is unique and everything is made to fit. Especially the glass. As Schenk points out, “None of the exterior glass of Anaha is off-the-shelf. It’s all custom.”

All that customization means that, to build your high rise, you have to deal with an elaborate, highly specialized supply chain.

First of all, the technical name for modern plate glass or window glass is “float glass.” The term refers to the manufacturing process. For most of the 20th century, plate glass was made by flattening a blob of molten silica sand and a few other ingredients between a pair of steel rollers. This technique was cheap and yielded a relatively smooth surface, but the resulting panes of glass still had to be polished on both sides to be truly transparent. This was time-consuming and expensive. Then, in the late 1950s, an Englishman named Alastair Pilkington devised a quicker, cheaper approach. Instead of using metal rollers, the molten glass was poured evenly onto a bath of molten tin, where, because of the two materials’ difference in density, it floated like oil on water. Because the glass spread evenly over the tin bath, it was perfectly smooth on both sides. The thickness could be controlled by modulating how quickly the molten glass was poured onto the tin, and how long it took to cool.

Acccording to Dennis Jean, the senior project manager for AGA, the glass contractor for Anaha, the float glass for the building is manufactured by a California company called Guardian Glass at its Kingsburg plant. Guardian adds a tinted reflective coating to the raw glass to make it more energy efficient. Sometimes, it also adds spandrels to make it opaque. Then, they ship the glass to the next company in the supply chain: Northwestern Industries in Yuma, Arizona.

At NWI, the glass is cut to size and fabricated into individual window units. Each unit is composed of two panes of quarter-inch glass, with a half inch of space between them, and enclosed around the edges with a polymer seal. Sometimes, argon gas is injected into the space for additional insulation. These finished units are then trucked to AGA’s plant in Livermore, California, where they’re fitted into custom-made aluminum frames, packed into custom crates called “bunks,” and shipped in containers to Hawaii.

That’s the easy part.

A key design feature of Anaha is the curved glass at all four corners of each floor. If your skyscraper is going to use curved glass, that adds another step to the supply chain. Instead of Yuma, the raw glass is shipped from the Guardian factory to Standard Bent Glass, a specialty glass fabricator in Pittsburgh. There, each pane is heated until it’s plastic enough to bend over special forms. Only after the glass conforms to the proper radius can they fabricate the individual, double-paned units. Those are then installed in their custom aluminum frames, crated and shipped to Honolulu.

Getting the glass here is only half the job. It still has to be installed. On site, AGA’s local glaziers are responsible for the custom-made mounting brackets and molding that hold the windows in place. They also install each window. For curtain walls – the kind where the entire surface of the building is glass – they bolt the windows to aluminum brackets that were embedded in the edge of each floor when the concrete was poured. In this system, the weight of the glass is carried entirely by the brackets. For “window glass,” the weight of the glass rests on top of the floor or a wall; the brackets merely hold it in place.

The whole contraption is fabulously complex. “For Anaha,” Jean says, “each glass panel has 147 different parts: brackets, bolts, screws, glass, etc.” Maybe more to the point, almost every one of those 5,000-plus panels is unique.

Onyx Has Its Own Specialists

If you want to build a high-end skyscraper, you  have to include high-end finishes.

HB-09-16-High-Rise_14Each of those has its own supply chain, often with tentacles that reach around the globe. For example, the designers at Waiea wanted to use book-matched slabs of pink onyx to line the walls of the showers in several penthouse units. It turns out, though, there aren’t many sources for pink onyx. The giant slabs in Waiea came from an old, family-run quarry in Iran. But the trip from the mountains of Persia to Kakaako is circuitous. Bruce Kumove, whose company, BMK Construction, is responsible for the onyx, walks us through the process.

It starts with a man named Raoul Luciano, a Swiss stone expert who acts as a sort of third-party inspector and quality-control consultant. “This guy is the best,” Kumove says. “He did the stone at the new World Trade Center in New York and the stone for the Getty Museum. He’s been in the business for 35 years and has offices in London, New York, Los Angeles and Houston. This is all he does.”

Luciano’s main job was to make sure Waiea got onyx that would work for book-matching. That means taking a thick slab and slicing it into two thinner slabs, then opening them, like a book, so that the vein patterns in the onyx radiate symmetrically from the centerline. Onyx is quarried in giant blocks – in this case, with nine-foot faces – so it’s hard to assess the color on the inside. “Luciano hand-picked which blocks to use so they would mirror properly,” Kumove says.

Although the Iranian quarry had the best pink onyx, it wasn’t able to finish the stone to the standards Waiea required. “Once Luciano selected the blocks,” Kumove says, “they were put on 40-foot semi-trailers. They were so large that, if you were lucky, you could get three blocks to a trailer.” Then, the blocks were trucked through Turkey and Eastern Europe to Italy. It took six months to get the stone from the quarry in Iran to Italy.

Processing the marble took another eight months. The big blocks were cut into slabs using a gang-saw. This is a gigantic industrial device with a rack of evenly spaced saw blades at the top and a hydraulic lift at the bottom. It works by setting the onyx on the lift and hoisting it inexorably through the scything rack of saw blades, cutting the stone as clean as sliced bread. Then the slabs are carefully numbered so that adjacent slabs can be used for book-matching.

Cutting onyx is slow, but it’s not the only time-consuming process, Kumove says. “Onyx is a very unstable and brittle material. It cracks very easily because it’s full of cavities. So, once they cut the book-matched slabs, they have to fill the cavities with epoxy and polish it. They also apply a layer of epoxy and mesh to the backs of the slabs. That’s why onyx is such an expensive stone: it’s so difficult to work with. There’s also a lot of wastage. You might get 20 slabs out of a block, but 50 percent might be waste. And it takes a lot of time for all this to happen.”

Even after the onyx is crated and shipped, the international nature of the stone industry doesn’t end. “There aren’t a lot of people that understand how to deal with book-matched onyx,” Kumove says. “It takes experienced marble masons. To make sure the job is done right, we have a special crew that we built especially to handle these slabs. Most of them are Ukrainian.”


CHOREOGRAPHING THE WORKERS

Building a high rise calls for a lot of coordination between workers. Clockwise from top: 1. Concrete worker signals the boom operator. 2.The temporary elevator requires an operator. 3. Boom operator supervises concrete pour. 4. Metal formwork gives the concrete its final shape.

Building a high rise calls for a lot of coordination between workers. Clockwise from top: 1. Concrete worker signals the boom operator. 2.The temporary elevator requires an operator. 3. Boom operator supervises concrete pour. 4. Metal formwork gives the concrete its final shape.

The job of your general contractor is to organize all the different construction activities. Every subcontractor needs space and time for staging and loading. They need to be able to work without interference from other subcontractors. They have to be able to get supplies when and where they need them, so they need some of that scarce crane time.

And it’s not just the subs that need coordinating. As the contractor, you’ve got to deal with moving utilities, traffic stoppages and temporary structures to protect pedestrians. You’ve also got to respect the needs of your neighbors, some of whom may also be tenants.

For example, to make sure Pier 1’s and Nordstrom Rack’s stores would still be able to access their loading dock, Howard Hughes designed Anaha so the bottom level had enough vertical clearance for a semi-trailer to pull in under the building and do a three-point turn.

As each newly poured floor cures, work surges forward on the floors below. Each floor is divided into distinct areas, and crews rotate through them to do their work in the proper order. A gang comes through to mark the profiles of the non-load-bearing walls and permanent furnishings on the floors. Other gangs rough in the plumbing and electric. Still another gang comes through to install the windows. And all of this work reaches a crescendo after the glass goes in. Once the floor is weather proof, the finishing can begin.

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My latest in Smithsonian Air & Space

TMT: Big Glass and the Changing Focus of Astronomy

http://www.airspacemag.com/space/big-astronomy-how-built-180960364/

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Solar Impulse

See my interview with Solar Impulse pilots Bertrand Piccard and Andre Borschberg in Smithsonian’s Air & Space Magazine.

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The Next Wonder Drug

See story in Hawaii Business Magazine.

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Tasty Mutants: The History of the Triploid Oyster

Check out my latest at The Atlantic: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/09/todays-oysters-are-mutants/380858/

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Remembering Where You Are

om_fullIn a fascinating post on smithsonianmag.com last week, Joseph Stromberg explores a company called what3words and its quixotic attempt to replace the old system of geometric coordinates with simple, three-word phrases. For example, I’m writing this post at my lunch hour, from the outdoor sitting area of an office building in downtown Honolulu. If you type the building’s address, 1000 Bishop Street, into the what3words search box, you’ll find I’m at safe.buck.measures. Actually, since the the what3words system divides the earth up into small, three-by-three-meter squares, my precise location is shiny.martini.posting.

This system, as what3words CEO and founder Chris Sheldrick points out, is more accurate that traditional postal addresses, which, after all, only apply to a relatively small portion of the earth. what3words system is global. It’s also more memorable than the traditional numeric system of latitude and longitude. Later today, for example, I’m headed over to the Hawaii State Capitol at sweeten.caps.tinkle.  That’s a hell of a lot succinct than 21.307598 N, 157.8574443 W.

The what3words system works because it contains a prodigious number of “addresses.” By using a vocabulary of 40,000 English words (according to Stromberg, it’s also been “translated” into Russian, Swedish and Spanish) it encompasses more than 57 million combinations of three-word phrases. The geeks at what3word have created an algorithm that associates each of these unique combinations to a specific three-by-three meter square on the surface of the earth. That allows a mindbogglingly detailed tabulation of global locations.

But does it make sense? In effect, Sheldrick and his cronies have discarded one of the most useful tools ever invented: the base-10 number system. The combination of ten symbols (representing the values 0-9) and a positional system (where the left most digit represents units, the one to its right, 10s, and the one to its right, 100s etc.) we can quickly write any particular value. For example, the number that we write as “245” represents two 100s, four 10s, and five units. We don’t have to learn a special word for 245; it’s implicit in our number system.

what3words replaces the simple base-10 system with a monstrous base-40,000 system. Granted, each word in a what3word “address” is a memorable three-digit number, but each digit could be one of 40,000 values instead of the the ten values (and symbols) used in base-10 counting. A three-digit number in base-10 represents 1,000 possible combinations (ten 100s times ten 10s times 10 units.) Moreover, the positional writing system is a simple cypher, comprehensible to almost anyone. In contrast, the three-digit number of the what3words system represents 64 million combinations (the 57 million figure applies if you don’t use any of the 40,000 digits twice in the same number.) So, the system may be precise, but it’s also more than the normal human brain can absorb. The consequence is that each of those 57 million numbers is a surd. It contains no information at all.

I’m reminded of “Funes the Memorious”, Jorges Borges’ disturbing story about Ireneo Funes, a young boy with a perfect memory. One of the inevitable consequences of a perfect memory, in Borges’ mock essay, is an infallible sense of perception. After all, memory for normal people is as much a matter of subtraction as addition. We reduce our perceptions to generalities to accommodate our limited vocabulary for specifics. Our memories require a noun and a few adjectives; Funes, with a limitless memory, has no use for generalities. Every recollection is infinitely detailed.

Borges writes: “We, at one glance, can perceive three glasses on a table; Funes, all the leaves and tendrils and fruit that make up a grape vine. He knew by heart the forms of the southern clouds at dawn on the 30th of April, 1882, and could compare them in his memory with the mottled streaks on a book in Spanish binding he had only seen once, and with the outlines of the foam raised by an oar in the Rio Negro the night before the Quebracho uprising.”

Out of this inconceivable memory (not unlike the memory of the computer that generates what3words’ random three-word combinations,) Funes invents a new and pointless system of numbering. As Borges explains it, “His first stimulus was, I think, his discomfort at the fact that the famous thirty-three gauchos of Uruguayan history should require two signs and two words, in place of a single word and a single sign. He then applied this absurd principle to the other numbers. In place of seven thousand thirteen, he would say (for example) Maximo Perez; in place of seven thousand fourteen, The Railroad; other numbers were Luis Melian Lanfinur, Olimar, sulphur, the reins, the whale, the gas, the caldron, Napoleon, Agustin de Vedia. In place of five hundred he would say nine.”

Funes’ system of numbers is exactly like that of what3words–except there is no one with a perfect memory to contain the what3words numbers. Absent that vessel, these three-word addresses are pointless. Even the eye-blurring eight-digit lat/long of the Hawaii State Capitol has some meaning for those who grasp the principles of the system. It’s 21 degrees and change north of the equator and nearly 158 west of Greenwich, England. In other words, the numbers of the lat/long system convey information. Sheldrick’s words are meaningless, at least for humans.

The irony, of course, is that they’re useful, nonetheless. They really do offer a viable shorthand for the geography of this planet, and could actually serve a real commercial purpose. But there’s something inelegant in such an unwieldy system. I wonder, if it makes no sense, is it a system at all. Borge’s protagonist shares a similar sentiment after hearing Funes describe his monstrous numbering system.  “I tried to explain to him that this rhapsody of incoherent terms was precisely the opposite of a system of numbers. … Funes did not understand me or refused to understand me.”

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Moving Cans

Just about everything in your life—food, cars, building materials—comes to Hawaii via the waterfront. We went inside the world of the longshoremen, who load and unload all that cargo, and found that centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines.

Story by DENNIS HOLLIER
Photos by LUCY PEMONI

Matson's gantry cranes run all night.

Nate Lum and his gang of linemen spread out along the wharf, watching impassively as the Lihue lumbers into dock beneath the gantry cranes at the Matson yard at Honolulu Harbor. The linemen are here to secure the vessel—the first of several gangs of longshoremen who will handle the ship while it’s in port. They’re a motley group, mostly older and thick around the middle; except for their hard hats and orange vests, they’re dressed haphazardly in street clothes.

But linemen are among the most experienced longshoremen; the members of this gang have spent decades in the shadow of ships like this one. And the Lihue is a behemoth: a 787-foot containership, crammed stem to stern with that ubiquitous beast of modern freight, the ocean container. These “cans,” as the longshoremen call them, are stacked as many as 12 abreast and 11 deep and tower more than seven stories over the water. And yet, despite its ungainly load, the Lihue docks gracefully. As the harbor tug slowly nudges the stern the last few feet toward the pier, the crew begins to send the dock lines ashore. The linemen collect them methodically, hitching the hawsers—thick as a man’s thigh—to a forklift and snaking them to bollards down the pier. The whole operation takes place almost wordlessly.

Containerships like the Lihue have come to dominate ocean freight, accounting for more than 80 percent of the household goods coming into Hawaii. Most of the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the furniture in our homes and, indeed, most of the material in the homes themselves, arrive in containers. The Matson yard teems with the massive machinery needed to manage the endless stream of cans: gantry cranes and jack cranes, top-picks and side-picks, bomb carts and forklifts. But these are all just tools. It’s still the longshoremen themselves who make the docks work. The waterfront is a world where centuries of muscle and sweat have given way to skilled labor and powerful machines, and I’ve come down to the Matson yard for a glimpse at how things have changed. Nate Lum, foreman of the lineman gang and chairman of the longshoremen’s union, has agreed to be my guide.

Lum is a second-generation longshoreman. He’s been on the docks for more than 30 years and embodies many of the contradictions in the modern stevedore. He’s a sober, burly man; but he laughs easily and carries himself with a self-assured grace. Like many accustomed to hard, physical work, he’s taciturn; but he’s passionate about the union and articulate in defense of its traditions.

Specialized containers are needed to haul liquids.

Lum’s career has coincided with the great technological changes that have transformed life on the docks—changes about which he’s ambivalent. When he began, much of stevedoring was still backbreaking grunt work. Today, although most of the heavy lifting is done with powerful machinery, old-timers like Lum still remember the personal cost of hard, physical labor. The containerization of modern shipping is a conundrum; although it’s made the life of the longshoreman less backbreaking, it’s also reduced work opportunities. Still, Lum is a realist. “We can’t fight technology,” he says. “We have to embrace it to survive.”

After getting me a hard hat and an orange vest, Lum and I hop into his truck for a tour of the waterfront. As we drive through the shipyards of Honolulu Harbor, he explains the organization of the longshoremen. In the old days, when the workers were predominately Native Hawaiians, the wharves were lined with great warehouses. Some longshoremen worked the wharf, sorting cargo in the warehouses and carting it back and forth to the ships. Others worked aboard the ships, loading and unloading cargo and securing it for passage down in the hold. Although containers have changed much of the work, longshoremen still operate within the old structure.

“Longshoremen are organized into gangs,” Lum explains. “Ship gang. Wharf gang. Machine operators. Crane operators. Linemen.” The modern wharf gang, they move the cans around the yard and man the “puddle”—the loading zone beneath the gantry cranes. The ship gang handles the difficult manual work aboard a ship, locking and unlocking the cans from one another, and lashing and unlashing the stacks. In the early days of container use, workers used chains to lash the stacks against ocean storms. Today, the lashing is done with 20-foot steel rods secured with turnbuckles. The awkward task of scampering between the stacks, balanced on temporary walkways called duckboards, is still considered one of the longshoremen’s most dangerous jobs. “The meat and potatoes of longshore work is this ship gang,” says Lum.

Out on the edge of the apron—the broad tarmac that runs along the pier—several members of the wharf gang sit in the shade of the container yard tower, waiting for the unloading of the Lihue to begin. Lum drops me off there to find out how technology has affected regular stevedores. Even here, though, longshoremen often have years of experience. Some, like machine operator Kahea Sanborn, have been on the docks more than 20 years. But the experience runs deeper than that. Carlton Cortez, the gang foreman, is a third-generation longshoreman.

A basic “can,” or container, is 40 feet long, eight feet wide and eight feet high. Locking mechanisms at the corners allow them to be securely stacked and moved around by the machinery in the yard. There are variations, specialized containers such as refrigerated cans for food, flat racks for lumber and cattle cans with slatted sides—but they still fit together like Tinker Toys. Containers are also standardized across freight platforms, so the cans from the containerships can be loaded onto semitrailers or stacked two deep on railroad cars. Within the past five years, the cans have also become GPS-equipped; their locations are monitored and recorded on computers in a Matson control room in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Machine operators also use increasingly sophisticated machines to move the cans. Little cabs, called UTCs, shuttle the cans between the cranes and the container yard, hauling them around on yellow utility trailers, nicknamed “bomb carts.”

Powerful vehicles, called top-picks and side-picks, lift the containers on and off the bomb carts. Like giant forklifts, they can hoist a 20-ton can onto a stack four stories high. The sheer mass of the loads and the gear makes this an especially dangerous job. Kahea puts the risks in perspective: “You don’t get injured. You die.”

Being a machine operator is considered a talent position, and the first advancement of most basic longshoremen is to get qualified to fill in as a substitute machine operator. “Used to be all labor,” Lum says. “Now it’s all skill jobs.”

The most easily recognized feature of the Matson yard is the rank of huge, yellow gantry cranes along the pier. They tower over the docks like the robots in War of the Worlds, their legs spread far enough apart that four lanes of traffic can pass under them. They load and unload the cans from the containerships. High above even the largest containership, the crane’s boom juts out over the water, cantilevered by the weight of its massive machine house. The cab, instead of being fixed, is attached to a trolley that runs on tracks beneath the boom. Shuttling in and out in his cab, the crane operator is always directly over his load. The entire crane rides on railroad tracks along the dock, so it can be moved fore and aft along the ship. Sometimes as many as four cranes work a single ship. A good crane operator can move more than 30 cans an hour in a precise ballet.

Lum takes me up to the break room in the back of the Matson yard to meet a handful of crane operators waiting for their shifts to begin. Like the linemen, crane operators have decades of experience—and, in the union, where seniority is paramount, they’re at the top pay grade. It’s a position for which longshoremen have to wait years.

“When I got in [to the union], back in 1970,” Lum says, “my goal was to be a crane operator. Took me five years to get there.” Now, it might take twice that long. Richard Rees, a 25-year veteran of the docks, puts the wait in perspective. “I’ve been driving a crane about five years,” he says. “At Matson, we have seven gantry cranes. Crane operators work in pairs; two guys share a 10-hour shift, five [hours] on, five off. There are only 21 crane operators.”

I glance at the other crane operators milling around the break room. None of them look like they’re ready to give up their privileged positions, though it can be a lonesome job. Later, each of them will head out to his crane, climb the 10 flights of stairs inside one of the crane’s legs, then spend five hours in his cab, moving cans. They carry a lunch with them, and an old jug usually serves as the latrine.

Lum takes me up in the control tower to meet Rusty Leonard, Matson’s general manager for stevedore operations. Leonard has been on the docks for 30 years, five of them at Matson. Within the industry, he says, the big changes started in the early 1970s. “Before, there used to be mostly break bulk carriers like the old Maunalani and the Manukai and the Moanalei.”

Before the use of cans, cargo was loaded into the ships piecemeal, and stevedores climbed right down into the hold to do it. Cargo was segregated according to its destination port, and the ship gang had to serve as carpenters, too, building bulkheads and frameworks in the ’tween decks to shore up the cargo. Later, surveyors passed through, checking to make sure the shoring would hold.

Older stevedores talk about those times with dark humor. “The worst was getting on the tuna boats,” said Leon Camara, a winch man. “Got all the frozen tuna piled up inside. Frozen, but still stink though. Used to have to throw away our clothes.”

There were no gantry cranes back then. Instead, shipboard jack-cranes crowded the vessel’s deck—sometimes as many as seven to a ship, one for each hold. Cargo—the small stuff packed in bales and boxes and crates, the large stuff left loose—was hoisted in and out of the hold on pallets. Stevedores loaded and unloaded the pallets one by one, using handcarts to push freight around the enormous dockside warehouses. This called for a lot of labor, and, at its height, the longshoremen’s union had more than 4,000 members in Hawaii.

Modernization took a bite out of the union, and by the late ’50s and early ’60s, more than 2,000 stevedores were laid off. As Lum points out, “When I got hired in 1970, there were only about 400 longshoremen.” As harbor operations have grown, that number has gradually increased, and today there are about 1,000 longshoremen in the local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).

A visit to a monthly meeting at the union hall reveals a surprisingly diverse group. Most of the longshoremen had to wait a long time before they got their opportunity to join, even starting longshore work as a second career. “We’ve got a lot of athletes,” Lum says. “Got Jesus Salude, the former world flyweight champion. Got football players, too: Elvis Satele, Karl Lorch, Levi Stanley.” And it’s not just athletes who gravitate to the docks; there are also former policemen and ex-firefighters.

I look over the meeting hall. It’s a serious day for the union—they’re debating some of the details for their upcoming contract negotiations—and many of the stevedores have crowded their folding chairs toward the front of the room to listen to what the leadership has to say. But there’s also an air of conviviality in the room, and I’m struck by the sense of brotherhood there. During the union meeting, stevedores move in and out of the room, greeting each other with warm embraces. There are still a lot of Native Hawaiians among the longshoremen, and they often pause to honi in the old-fashioned way.

I head downstairs to the parking lot where some of the stevedores are preparing food. I find Ward Mariani there behind a grill, carefully tending the shoyu chicken and teriyaki steak. Mariani spent 34 years as a cop, but he’s been a longshoreman for seven years, three of them as foreman on a wharf gang. He points out that, even with all the machinery, the docks can be hard on a middle-age man. “I wish I was a little bit younger when I got in,” Mariani says. “What helped me was I stayed in shape. Lashing is hard work. It takes a lot out of you.”

When the meeting upstairs finally ends, Lum comes down and introduces me to Karl Lorch, one of the most famous stevedores. He joined the longshoremen after more than a decade as a professional football player with the Miami Dolphins and the Washington Redskins.

Lorch knew people at Hawaii Stevedores Inc., one of the two big stevedore companies, so when his football career ended, becoming a longshoreman seemed like a good option. “It’s a hard job,” Lorch says. “But I went to school just to get by and to play football. This is a good job.” The ILWU is still a powerful union in Hawaii, so the wages and benefits are good for the stevedores. Although it’s dangerous work done in all weather, the basic laborer makes $31 an hour. Longshoremen often endure criticism for being overpaid, but, with the hours they work, they don’t make much more than other skilled blue-collar workers, like electricians and plumbers. Still, the longshoremen are sensitive about the subject.

Lorch also talks about the air of brotherhood I had noticed. “This is my first experience with a union—a real union,” he says. “Everybody’s like cousins, a big family.”

Lorch has been a stevedore for 18 years now. Normally, that would be enough time for a longshoreman to become a machine operator or a winchman, but Lorch remains happy on the wharf gang. “I started here when I was 40 years old,” he says. “I figured by the time I became a crane operator I’d be an old man. So, I just let the young guys go by.”

I ask Lorch what surprised him the most when he became a longshoreman. He thinks for a moment. “The first thing I noticed,” he tells me, “the pier is running 24 hours a day. With the lights on and the whole pier lit up, you’d think it was daylight. At 10 p.m., you’re just as awake as you are at noon.”

Listening to Lorch describe his early days on the docks, I think of something that a foreman on the wharf gang told me: “Just remember, at 2 a.m., when you’re home in bed dreaming, we’re down here. Moving cans.”

Dennis Hollier is a freelance writer with a real fascination for the hubbub of the waterfront. He writes about business, culture, science and the environment, but he can usually be seen staring wistfully out to sea.

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Making Waves

Up Tantalus Drive


Story by Dennis Hollier
Photos by Charles E. Freeman

High up Tantalus Drive, on a ridge overlooking the Honolulu skyline, Don Mussell practices the occult art of radio. As the broadcast engineer for Hawai‘i Public Radio, Mussell installs and maintains all its equipment. Today he’s come up the mountain to check on HPR’s new powerhouse: the KIPO FM 89.3 translator. This station—a radio tower bristling with antennas and a small cinderblock building to house the electronics that go with them—is essentially a powerful booster capturing the KIPO signal from HPR’s Honolulu studio and relaying that signal throughout O‘ahu and far out over the Pacific to translators on Maui and the Big Island.

Hawai‘i, with its mountain ranges and its vast distances between islands, is an inhospitable place for radio. The Tantalus translator, designed and built by Mussell, is the linchpin in HPR’s ambitious scheme to extend its two broadcast streams—KHPR for classical music and KIPO for jazz and public affairs—to every part of the state. In almost every other market of similar size, public radio has forsaken one of these streams; HPR clings to both religiously. And if this is its creed, Don Mussell is its high priest.

Radio, Mussell says, is mysterious. From his point of view, the atmosphere is a pulsing matrix of radio waves both invisible and substantial, vibrating at various frequencies and wavelengths. “Microwaves are about this long,” Mussell says, holding his hands a few inches apart, “but FM is about ten feet, TV is about forty-five feet and AM can be miles long.” He pauses for a moment while I envision all these radio signals vibrating over the ridges and valleys of the Ko‘olau. This tissue of energy is no abstraction for Mussell, and understanding its ebb and flow is the key to figuring out how and where to build facilities like the Tantalus translator.

“That’s the way this magical stuff works,” Mussell says. “The layers of complexity are pretty astounding.”

But if the physics of radio is arcane, its bureaucracy is even more inscrutable. Here, too, HRP depends on Mussell. General manager Michael Titterton explains that for many years the FCC imposed a freeze on new public radio licenses. About six years ago this became a serious, potentially insurmountable impediment to HPR’s ambition to bring public radio to the entire state. “Then, just at the right moment, Don Mussell showed up,” Titterton says. Besides being a technical wiz, Mussell, as it turns out, is also a master navigator of the Byzantine world of FCC regulation. “Don has almost a Renaissance approach to radio,” Titterton says, “in part because he’s good engineer, in part because he’s a good strategist and in part because he has the patience to go through all the FCC hoops.”

At first glance the taciturn Mussell doesn’t seem like a “get it done” kind of guy, let alone the type you’d find shinnying up radio towers in a stiff breeze in the dead of night. He’s a slight man with a delicate build and wry, twinkly eyes. At the station he shuffles around in old, worn slippers, khakis rolled up to his ankles and a faded flannel shirt. He’s contemplative, and like most engineers, his conversation is laconic and laced with jargon. When he speaks he has an ironic, vaguely elfin expression and the kind of composure that makes him seem more like a college professor than a man of action. Even so, if you’re one of HPR’s many devoted fans, you owe a debt of gratitude to Mussell. If you’ve ever tuned in for Morning Edition on your commute from Hale‘iwa, listened to All Things Considered over lunch in Lahaina or sipped a beer in Kealakekua to the syncopated rhythms of Jazz with Don Gordon, it’s largely because of Mussell’s technical skills.

Mussell came to Hawai‘i in 1997 after nearly thirty years as a broadcast engineer on the Mainland to build KKCR, Kaua‘i’s public access station. While he was working on KKCR, he took other assignments on the Mainland. “I was going back and forth, back and forth,” Mussell says. “Then, one day I was sitting there in the KKCR station when Michael Titterton came in. ‘Who are you?’ he said. And I said, ‘I guess I’m the engineer.’ Well, there’s a real shortage of engineers here, so he said, ‘Do you have a card?’” It wasn’t long afterward that Mussell found himself in the vanguard of HPR’s expansion.

That expansion, of course, has depended on the contributions of a lot of people—not least on the vision and commitment of executives like Titterton. But at heart the changes have been technological. As an engineer, Mussell is a jack-of-all-trades. “I think I’ve built about forty radio stations,” he says. “So I do everything.” A quick tour of the studio gives a sense of his eclecticism. The equipment racks, for example, are crammed with gear. Electronic monitors track the power output, the signal and even the temperature of the mountaintop translators. Tuners receive feeds from National Public Radio, untold hours of Fresh Air and Prairie Home Companion. Other devices allow HPR to stream content on the web and monitor how many people are listening. Still another machine allows HPR to talk to other stations around the world. Mussell is responsible for all this equipment. “I selected and installed the wire, I punched it all up, I installed the electronics, made all the connections,” he says. “I even picked the furniture.”

Still, most of Mussell’s work is in the field. FM radio is line-of-sight; mountains and the curvature of the Earth can block its signal. Consequently, HPR relies upon a network of translator stations—boosters, essentially—to ferry its signals around the state. “There are seven in all,” Mussell says. “Three on O‘ahu; on Maui we have one; and on the Big Island we have three.” Much of Mussell’s time is spent visiting and servicing these translators. One of his most important achievements has been the construction of the new KIPO translator up on Tantalus. This location, peeking over the substantial barricades of the Ko‘olau range, gives HPR direct coverage of most of O‘ahu and offers line-of-sight access to the translator on Maui. “On a clear day,” Mussell says, “you can actually see the top of Haleakala.”

This is part of what makes the Tantalus translator the future of HPR. The translator, completed in 2008, seems like a modest structure: a standard tall radio tower for the antenna and a small, windowless building perched on a tiny ridge-top plot of land carved from a bamboo jungle. But there’s more to it than meets the eye. “This tower is designed to withstand 140-mile-per-hour winds,” Mussell points out. “The foundation goes down thirty feet.” And the electronics inside are no less astonishing: The coaxial cable that connects the actual transmitter to the antenna is made of one-inch copper pipe threaded through four-inch copper pipe, a stout configuration that can handle about sixty kilowatts—enough juice to power a whole neighborhood.

Such power, Mussell says, is another part of the mystery of radio. The Tantalus translator operates at twenty-nine kilowatts. But by using the right antenna, Mussell can focus that power to over four hundred kilowatts—or higher. “We could boost that to a thousand kilowatts if we wanted.” Of course, that much energy might raise public concerns about the health effects of high-power electromagnetic fields. The Pu‘u ‘Öhi‘a Trail, a spur trail of the popular Makiki trail system, passes close by the Tantalus translator. “We have to minimize the energy on the ground for hikers,” he says. “Down on the ground, it’s just a small percentage of the federal limit on public exposure.” Up on the tower, though, it’s more intense—up to 340 percent.

All this makes the Tantalus translator HPR’s most sophisticated facility, and it’s the reason even residents of distant Hilo can now tune in to KIPO after suffering decades of public radio silence. While Mussell’s pleased to play a critical if behind-the-scenes role in the thriving world of Hawai‘i community radio, it’s really the magic that’s kept him interested. He’s fond of paraphrasing Einstein: “Wire telegraphy is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York, and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Radio operates exactly the same way: You send the signals here, they receive them there. The only difference,” Mussell says, “is that there is no cat.”

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Hybrid Beauty

An anthurium called "Moana Loa"

story by Dennis Hollier
photo by Linda Ching

“Nasty plant.”

That’s what my mother used to call the anthurium. With its long, jutting spadix, the nickname is probably inevitable. And it’s likely that this jaunty, priapic charm — along with brilliant colors, gorgeous, heart-shaped leaves and exceptional vase life — makes the anthurium the king of Hawai‘i’s cut-flower trade, bringing $5 million to 6 million into the state annually. With that much money at stake, there’s incentive to develop new varieties.

This year, for example, a Hawai‘i anthurium called Mauna Loa earned a red ribbon from the Society of American Florists. An obake—a variety of anthurium with white, green-edged spathes — Mauna Loa is one of several award-winning flowers submitted by Green Point Nurseries, a prominent Big Island grower.

Although most of Hawai‘i’s commercial growers, like Green Point, are on the Big Island, the center of the anthurium world is on O‘ahu, at the Magoon Greenhouse complex of UH Manoa’s College of Tropical Agriculture. Teresita Amore (could an anthurium grower have a better last name?) manages the anthurium program. Strolling through the rows of flowers, she pauses at a table of striking plants—promising crosses between various different anthuriums. “These are potential new varieties,” she says. They’ve been selected for qualities like color, size, yield and vase life. The Mauna Loa turns out to be exceptional in this respect, looking fresh as the day it was cut for forty to sixty days. It’ll also yield six flowers a year—high for an obake—and it’s disease resistant. “We also look at general aesthetics,” Amore says. After all, an award-winning flower should be, above anything else, beautiful.

The work of creating a new flower doesn’t end here. Promising new varieties are cloned and shipped to growers on the Big Island for testing. Growers play a critical role in the process. They and their customers ultimately decide whether a new variety is a winner. That takes a long time—sometimes more than ten years, Amore says.

But it’s time well spent. Since 2004, six UH-created anthurium varieties have earned ribbons. The university has even patented a couple of varieties, including the popular scarlet beauty, Tropic Fire. All this has made Hawai‘i an important player in the anthurium world, challenging the traditional hot spots, Holland and Mauritius. Indeed, the sassy plants born in the Magoon greenhouse are now found in flower arrangements across North America and Japan.

Maybe they’re not so nasty after all.

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