Category Archives: Technology

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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Raising the Reef

story by Dennis Hollier

The Waikiki Aquarium might seem modest compared with some of the super-aquariums that have sprouted around the country. It doesn’t offer the drama of great white sharks, like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, or of whale sharks, like the Georgia Aquarium. But it does offer exhibits of astonishing beauty and naturalism. In one room, swarms of ghostly jellyfish pulse slowly through a spectral realm that recalls the mysterious lakes of Palau. The two giant clams hulking in the heave and surge of the Barrier Reef exhibit are the largest and oldest in captivity—gorgeous, 200-pound, purple-fleshed animals billowing out of boulder-size shells.

Yet these enormous bivalves are overshadowed, even in their own tank, by something even more remarkable: the massive purple, gold and sanguine colonies of live coral, which make the scene so realistic you almost want to snap on your snorkel. What really sets all the aquarium’s exhibits apart is the diversity and abundance of live coral, more than 100 species in all. This dazzling display of bright colors and fanciful shapes is unmatched in any aquarium in the world.

The full story of the aquarium’s coral collection isn’t apparent from the virtuoso displays out front. It’s to be found in the warren of labs and offices behind the tanks and especially in the sheds and holding tanks lining the narrow access road beside the aquarium. Here, in this ramshackle setting, is the world’s most successful coral farm.

The man behind the coral is Charles Delbeek, an aquarium specialist and former hobbyist who’s been raising coral for nearly twenty years. Delbeek is quick to point out that the aquarium’s coral program began long before he got there. “The previous director, Dr. Bruce Carlson, started bringing back corals from his travels in the 1970s,” he says. At that time, the display of live corals was largely the province of hobbyists rather than professional aquarists, especially in Europe. The big public aquariums relied upon rocks, dead coral or man-made substrates for their displays. “Back then,” Delbeek says, “marine scientists would have told you that you couldn’t keep corals alive. Meanwhile, people in Germany were keeping them alive in their living rooms.” Carlson met Delbeek at a conference where Delbeek was giving a talk on raising coral. Some years later, the aquarium offered Delbeek a job presiding over its growing collection. The Waikiki Aquarium became the first public aquarium in North America to display live South Pacific corals, and it still has the largest, most diverse exhibition of live corals in the world. One of its founding colonies, a bristling head of Acropora bruggemanii, is probably the oldest live coral in captivity.

More than two decades ago, the Waikiki Aquarium began systematically raising coral for use in its exhibits. In the early 1990s there was a growing concern about the sources of the coral displayed in public aquariums, which rely upon suppliers in places like Fiji, Indonesia and the Solomon Islands. Although there’s now a trend toward culturing corals and other organisms for the aquarium trade, back then much of the live coral was collected right off the reef. Aquariums had little idea where their coral came from or whether harvesting them harmed the reefs. “We’re probably unique,” Delbeek says, “in that we can say exactly which reefs all our corals come from in the wild. We even have the GPS coordinates for some of the species in our collection.”

Visitors to the aquarium can get a sense of how coral farming works in a special exhibit near the Hawaiian monk seals. Despite the prior reservations of marine biologists, who felt corals were too fickle and sensitive to raise in captivity, coral husbandry turns out to be fairly straightforward.

What we perceive as a single mass of coral is actually a colony of thousands or millions of individual organisms called polyps. In the hard or stony corals, these polyps remove calcium from sea water and secrete the skeleton most of us know as coral. Soft corals don’t grow this hard skeletal structure; instead, their polyp colonies coat rocks or dead coral stone and can resemble a mass of anemones. For both kinds of coral, one form of reproduction is asexual, the simple multiplication of polyps in the colony; thus all you need is one finger-size fragment—a “frag” in the trade—and you can grow a new colony, a genetic clone of the original.

The tanks of the aquarium’s coral farm are fabulously congested with colonies of both stony and soft corals. They grow surprisingly fast. Stony corals can grow as much as 8 inches a year. The impressive samples of purple-tipped staghorn coral that overshadow the giant clams in the Barrier Reef exhibit began as basketball-size chunks only a little more than two years ago. Now they’re shading out other corals, and Delbeek is considering replacing them with smaller pieces. Soft corals are even more prolific. “They grow like weeds,” Delbeek says.

Of course, it’s not as easy as it sounds. It turns out that there are a lot of things to know about growing coral. Lighting, for example, is critical. The Waikiki Aquarium is unusual because its tropical location means that natural light can be used for many of the exhibits. The climate is also a factor. “We can easily do exhibits outside,” Delbeek says. “Other aquariums really can’t. We can just dig a hole in the ground, where other facilities would have to spend millions.”

Delbeek also stresses the importance that water chemistry—calcium levels, alkalinity and pH—has on the health of coral. Part of the aquarium’s unusual success in growing coral might have to do with its extraordinary water, which comes from a saltwater well deep underground. After percolating through 80 feet of calciferous rock, the chemistry of the water is different from normal sea water. Then it’s vigorously aerated to remove excess carbon dioxide. The result is a perfectly clear fluid that one researcher calls “miracle water.” Its superior quality is so sought after that one of the benefits of membership at the Waikiki Aquarium is the privilege of bringing its water home for your private aquarium.

While most public aquariums now have a live coral exhibit, at the Waikiki Aquarium almost every display contains live coral. Except for a small amount of seed stock—frags carefully collected from around the tropical Pacific—all the coral on display at the aquarium was raised on the premises. But one of the principal functions of the aquarium’s coral husbandry program is to supply live coral to other institutions. “I’ve been here since 1995,” Delbeek says. “During that time, we’ve sent out more than 6,000 frags to other aquariums. There’s probably not one aquarium in America that we haven’t sent coral to.” Kathryn Harper, the aquarium’s director of community outreach, highlights the scale of the operation: “We could do this full time if we wanted—there’s enough demand.” The aquarium, which is owned by the University of Hawai‘i, cooperates closely with scientific institutions like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency and the Hawai‘i Institute for Marine Biology. “Right now we’re working with scientists who need samples of genetically identical Hawaiian coral,” says Delbeek. “We also sent about 600 Acropora frags to an environmental consulting company doing research on the effects of crude oil on coral.” Concerns about human effects on coral reefs, like the ship grounding that wiped out nearly 20 acres of reef in ‘Ewa, lend impetus to the coral research at the aquarium.

“Now we’re working with rare Hawaiian corals,” says Delbeek. “That’s the direction we want to move in.” Among the more fascinating corals in his care is a small collection of deep-sea corals recently collected in the ‘Au‘au Channel off Maui. “These are Leptoseris,” Delbeek points out. “They were collected at more than 100 meters—the world’s deepest-occurring photosynthetic coral.” The aquarium is trying to grow this species out so that scientists will have enough material for their research. Another Hawai‘i species in the collection is Montipora dilitata. “This coral is believed to be only found in Kane‘ohe Bay,” Delbeek says. “It’s currently classified as a species of concern by NOAA, but it may soon be listed as endangered.”

Perhaps the greatest threat facing the world’s corals is the worldwide epidemic of coral bleaching thought to be associated with global warming. When exposed for an extended period to higher than normal temperatures, many corals will expel their zooxanthellae—the symbiotic algae that live within the polyps, produce their food and give them their color.

“Hawai‘i’s far enough north that we haven’t really been affected by frequent coral bleaching events yet,” says Delbeek. But eventually, Hawai‘i’s reefs will also face this threat. Hawai‘i’s corals are already under stress from pollution, human damage and invasive algae that choke out the sunlight. Part of the aquarium’s interest in expanding the coral farming project is to be able to restock wild populations of Hawaiian corals after a die-off. The aquarium has more than 100 species of stony coral alone, including several Hawaiian species. Although the current state of the world’s coral reefs is alarming, Delbeek says there’s still some room for optimism. “If the conditions are good, the coral comes back,” he says. “Last October, I was diving in the Solomon Islands and saw a section of reef that just ten years ago was all dead. Now it’s completely covered with living coral.”

That resilience is crucial to the aquarium’s vision to become a kind of seed bank. And maybe one day, in addition to supplying coral to the public aquariums of the world, the pullulating colonies of coral in this improbable farm will help save the fragile reefs of Hawai‘i.

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Mapping the Void

Tracing the arc of the sea turtle.

story by Dennis Hollier
photos, courtesy Shawn K. K. Murakawa
NOAA Fisheries

Far out in the North Pacific, a loggerhead turtle paddles lazily with the current, glutting itself on jellyfish and pelagic snails. The water is tinged green with the plankton and other nutrients that are the basis of life in the ocean. A vast, warm-water eddy concentrates all this bounty into a narrow band along its edge. Eddies like this one are common in this part of the Pacific. Sometimes reaching 200 miles across, they spin like tumbleweeds off the great Kuroshio Current, which passes just to the north. This loggerhead has patiently foraged the edges of this eddy for several months. Four, five, six times, it has spiraled around the broad perimeter, just as loggerheads probably have for millions of years. It has the same sad eyes as all those that came before; the same tufts of red algae grow on its carapace; the same species of pelagic crabs hitchhike in the leathery creases around its tail. But there is one small difference between this turtle and its ancestors: a small, white ARGOS satellite transponder fixed to its shell.

Fifteen hundred miles away, in the Manoa office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the signal from that transponder pings Jeffrey Polovina’s computer. Polovina, an ocea-nographer and Director of the Ecosystems and Oceanography division of NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, has been following Turtle 124 for almost three years. Two or three times a day, the loggerhead’s position is updated on the computer, revealing a breathtaking migration that has crisscrossed 12,000 miles of the Pacific. Together with turtle experts like NOAA’s George Balazs, Polovina has been charting the movement of more than 200 Pacific turtles this way. Some were hatched in a Japanese aquarium and released with satellite tags. Others were by-catch on commercial fishing boats, and NOAA fishery observers aboard the vessels tagged and released them. Using this data, researchers are finally shedding some light on the mysterious and complicated journey of the loggerhead.

Polovina has the dignified, gray-haired eminence and measured cadences of a scientist, but his bright eyes and elfin features belie a youthful enthusiasm for his work. For him, tagging turtles is less about the turtles themselves than the opportunity to study the ocean through their eyes: The ocean is not, it seems, a vast, featureless desert that they drift aimlessly across. It’s a diverse and intricately structured habitat that they exploit meticulously.

Polovina describes the journey of the loggerhead as “one of the world’s great migrations.” All of the loggerheads in the North Pacific were born on beaches in the southern islands of Japan. Genetic studies have shown that these same turtles are often observed along the coasts of California and Mexico as adults. Although there is no practical way to tell the age of wild turtles, juvenile loggerheads can spend as much as thirty years at sea. In fact, even at the leisurely pace of turtles, some of Polovina’s loggerheads travel more than 3,000 miles a year.

No one really knew, though, what happened to the turtles in between. Experts—even scientists like Archie Carr, perhaps the pre-eminent authority on sea turtles—believed that the juvenile loggerheads were passive migrants on the great ocean currents like the Kuroshio. Maybe the most dramatic discovery that Polovina and his colleagues have made has been the clear demonstration that loggerheads are not mere passengers on a transoceanic cruise; they are some of nature’s most accomplished navigators. They do not swim in a straight line from west to east; their erratic paths crisscross thousands of miles of ocean in a way that looks, at first, to be random. But it’s not.

The ocean, as it turns out, is far from homogenous. Satellite imagery has revealed it to be an intricate assemblage of vast and changing features. “There are eddies, meanders, fronts, upwellings, downwellings, convergences and divergences,” Polovina says. For turtles and other marine animals, these features are critical habitat. “To find them and to see how the animals are using them is a real advantage.” To do that, he relies on several different satellites. Some measure the ocean’s temperature, mapping thermoclines—boundaries between cold and warm water. Others exploit tiny variations in sea surface heights to chart currents, which, on a map, look like a paisley of eddies and meanders. Other satellites detect the color of the ocean’s surface, revealing, for example, the dramatic Chlorophyll Front, an oceanwide boundary between the cold, green, plankton-rich water of the Arctic and the warm but much more nutrient- poor blue water of the subtropics.

Combined with the satellite maps of the ocean’s features, the turtles’ route begins to unscramble. It’s clear that the turtles are traveling among the ocean’s varied features, seeking the most productive habitat. Like Turtle 124, they spend months feeding at the edges of warm-water eddies. They nuzzle into the crooks of meanders and into places where converging currents crowd their food sources together. In the winter, they’re especially fond of the waters along the Chlorophyll Front, which continue to bring food to the surface even when the great eddies of the Kuroshio Current have petered out.

Knowing where loggerheads are likely to be found isn’t a purely academic issue. The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources lists them as “endangered,” meaning they face a high risk of extinction in the near future. In the United States, they’re listed as “threatened” and are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Swordfish and tuna longliners sometimes accidentally hook turtles, but NOAA has set strict limits on by-catch. Once the Pacific Island fleet catches eighteen loggerheads or seventeen leatherbacks, the whole fishery is shut down for the season. The fishermen clearly have a real incentive to avoid snagging turtles. In 2006, the first year of the regulations, the eighteenth loggerhead was caught in March, sending the entire fleet back to port after only two months. Now, though, Polovina’s maps are available on the Internet; the longliners can simply avoid areas where there are likely to be loggerheads. The fishery hasn’t shut down since 2006.

One of the more remarkable things about Polovina is that he’s not a turtle biologist. “I’m an ecological nomad,” he says. Scientists typically become specialized over the course of their careers, but Polovina’s career has been characterized by highly productive dabbling. After an undergraduate degree in biology and graduate work in statistics, Polovina has bounced in five-year increments among different specialties. He did work in aquaculture and population dynamics. He studied the efficacy of artificial reefs in Japan and managed commercial fisheries here in Hawai‘i. Among his peers, though, Polovina is probably most closely associated with something called Ecopath modeling. “I’m famous for that,” he says. Employing simple statistical methods, Ecopath allows ecologists to predict the effect small changes will have in a large ecosystem—in essence, Ecopath is the precursor to modern ecosystem management.

It was probably his statistical bent that led Polovina to oceanography and the high tech world of satellite telemetry. The power of statistics to make predictions—their principal value to scientists—depends upon having sufficiently large and stable data sets. Some of the satellites Polovina uses have scanned the surface of the ocean continuously for decades. With these “very large and very unusual data sets,” he can study ocean features spread thousands of miles across the globe—often without leaving his desk. For example, he used a decade of satellite data to prove that the ocean’s desert zones—the vast, almost lifeless blue areas at the centers of the ocean’s equatorial gyres—are growing at a faster pace than would be predicted by current models of global warming. The unexpected growth could just be part of the cycle of El Niño and La Niña events, or it might forebode the continued decline in the world’s fisheries. “We may need another decade of data to know for sure,” Polovina says.

In the absence of this kind of data, the ocean can seem mute and undifferentiated to us. Though satellites can reveal some of its features, they don’t always tell us what those features mean to the animals and plants that live among them. Tracking the turtles allows Polovina to see the ocean through their eyes and to begin to understand the ocean as habitat. In addition to turtles, Polovina has tagged tuna and opah (moonfish) and even whale sharks. In effect, in addition to the satellites, Polovina has hundreds of little remote submersibles constantly scanning the features of the ocean. Polovina’s eyes narrow conspiratorially when he thinks of all these turtles gathering data for him. “Each satellite gives you a different way to find these features and to measure different aspects of them,” he says. “Then you put the animals out there. These turtles are 100 million years old; they’re sensing the ocean in a different way. In a way, we’re using these animals to tell us what part of the ocean is important.”

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