Braving the Wilds

Field Notes from the Suburban Jungle

Category: Technology

A Step Back in Time

There are only about three and a half miles between Central Montclair and Thomas Edison National Historic Park in West Orange, New Jersey.  It is a place that has recently undergone extensive renovations, yet a visit will leave those touring the premises with the impression that curators turned the key after years of leaving the buildings just as they were when Edison passed, in 1931.  The new-and-improved labs opened to the public in 2009 after a $13 million renovation, but the work reflected more behind the scenes improvements: structural repairs to the roof and foundation, windows, fire detection and suppression systems, an elevator, heating and cooling systems.  Original furnishings were restored to their rightful places and the result is a very convincing impression: time travel is possible.

Stock Room at Thomas Edison National Park, containing every imaginable material necessary for endless tinkering.

Stock Room at Thomas Edison National Park, containing every imaginable material necessary for endless tinkering.

Heavy Machinery Room, which looks identical to historic photographs dated 1919.
Heavy Machinery Room, which looks identical to historic photographs dated 1919.

Derbies and coats hung next to wash sink in Heavy Machinery Room.
Hats and coats hung next to wash sink in Heavy Machinery Room.

Chemistry Lab with original desk.

Chemistry Lab with original desk.

A cot in Edison's private Library, where he would sleep for a few hours at time when necessary.  He rarely slept through the night, and 95 hour work weeks were not unusual for him.

A cot in Edison’s private Library, where he would sleep for a few hours at time when necessary. He rarely slept through the night, and 95 hour work weeks were not unusual for him.Edison's desk in his private library, which was locked on the day he died in 1931, and not reopened until 1947, by his son Charles.

Edison’s desk in his private library, which was locked on the day he died in 1931, and not reopened until 1947, by his son

A Neighbor of Epic Proportions

Paterson, New Jersey is a strangely situated city, nestled in between leafy suburbs of New York City, and is largely unexplored by its neighbors. One might never know its existence if it weren’t for the presence of the award-winning St Joseph’s hospital there, with one of the only true pediatric care units the area. Less than 6 miles north of the Center of Montclair, its a physically close neighbor, yet Montclarions rarely visit. Perhaps they have been guided by their GPS hosts north on McLean Boulevard on their way to a friend in Glen Rock or Ridgewood and were dismayed by the squalor that existed there, boarded-up store fronts of independent junk stores, discount clothiers and bodegas. City busses in this third largest city in New Jersey choke residents that line the streets, leaning up against the walls of an abandoned entrepreneurial waste land, smoking cigarettes and eating their lunches from paper wrappings.

great falls waterfalls of passaic river peaceful tranquil scenery brige over waterfall paterson new jersey

View of the Passaic Falls, Engraved by J. Sands after Artist WH Bartlett

Indelibly placed on the map largely due to the 77-foot Great Falls there, the largest on the East Coast second only to Niagra, Paterson was — and is — a place of beauty. In the 18th century, before America was even established as a country, before Paterson was established a town, George Washington himself came to admire the falls during his extensive travels through New Jersey during the Revolutionary War. It is said that he even carved his initials and date on one of the faces of basalt . He enjoyed picnic lunches here with LaFayette and Hamilton.

The picnickers had greater visions for this powerful force of nature, and as such, Paterson can be construed as the seat of the industrial revolution. Its powerful waters once harnessed for its energy, mills sprung up along the Passaic River thanks to the efforts of our first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, who chose the Great Falls as a natural place in which to turn newborn America’s rich natural resources into goods of their own, forever shifting our economy from agrarian to capitalist. By founding the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, Hamilton permanently removed Mother England’s shackles, and the fledgling United States began to fend for themselves and thrive as an independent economy. Silk, cotton and duck cloth for sails, locomotives, submarines and guns: Paterson provided an array of lucrative products that buoyed our new society, changing the face of a social order. The average American won the ability to earn his fortune with hard work rather than by gentry.

Evenually, Globalization and the shift of American manufacture to foreign locales, and the exodus of more successful retailers to the newly conceptualized shopping mall left Paterson in squalor. Factories were left to decay, smaller businesses moved in as the market price for residences and businesses plummeted. What is left along the falls are eerie but beautiful monuments, roman ruins of a collossal giant of American manufacture. Their gorgeously arched industrial brick facades are ripe for preservation.

Little by little, Paterson has shown signs of renewal thanks to many hard working residents past and present who are breathings new life to its districts. Suburban neighbors who have renovated their kitchens might be surprised to learn that their Parsons cabinetry is crafted in a vintage Paterson mill. Alfaro Furniture is centered in Paterson, linen manufacturers, rental companies, movers and storage companies.

Most notably, however, is the recent recognition of Paterson’s heritage and the desire to preserve it. There are numerous sites in town that have recently been placed on the National Register of historic places, and in the case of the Falls themselves, Paterson is now home to America’s 397th National Park. A development plan has been established and is said will take years to come to completion, The Paterson Museum most ably educates those interested in the history of this unique and historically significant seat of American manufacturing, and the birthplace of American capitalism.

Always home to immigrant populations who found work here, Paterson is also a notable seat to African American history. The black Yankees played baseball at Hinchliffe Stadium here and black pilgrims seeking a congregation in which to worship God without the stigma of segregation set up the First AME Zion Church, where the city’s first Colored School was founded in 1855. The church and school has just been declared an historic site and will be preserved by the town government.

Paterson has also been muse to many novelists, essayists and even poets. Allen Ginsburg famously posed high above the Falls, double entendre well intended, and was even issued an arrest by the mayor of Paterson after a poetry festival in which participants smoked marijuana to enhance their sensory experience of the powerful rush of water. The case was later dismissed due to lack of evidence. Paterson also served as setting for the Pulitzer Prize-winning Juno Diaz novel, The Brief and Wonderoud Life of Oscar Wao. But most eloquently, there exists the epic poem by Rutherford doctor and Pulitzer Prize-winner himself, William Carlos Williams, who penned his epic Paterson as a response to the “anti-epic” Waste Land by ts eliot. James Breslin, who authored a biography of Williams, outlined the contrast between the two great works and serendipitously also describes what many believe to be the future of this great New Jersey city:

The Wasteland is a kind of anti-epic, a poem in which the quest for meaning is entirely thwarted and we are left, at the end, waiting for the collapse of Western Civilization. Paterson is a Pre-epic, showing that the process of disintegration releases forces that can build a new world. It confronts, again and again, the savagery of contemporary society, but still affirms a creative seed. Elliot’s end is William’s beginning.” (source:

The renaissance of Paterson is imminent. This singular city with a rich history is in the early processes of a great renewal, which will forever change the face of it but with a new purpose, a reinvigorated goal.  A visit in the near future is suggested, before the mysterious façades of the old mills are scrubbed clean, and their secrets are washed away.

Second Cup of Saturday Morning Coffee

Right-brained suburbanites in artistic Montclair are fighting to wrap their creative minds around the concept of the Higgs Boson particle discovery in a giant accelerator outside of Geneva.  Knowing the discovery has unlocked key concepts to understanding matter in our universe, they strove for comprehension.

The Higgs Boson Field is an invisible force field, and was likely formed during the Big Bang.  It gave particles mass and significantly slowed them down, as before particles zipped about at the speed of light.  The mass made them more loper like, kind of like your teenaged son, although your teenage son likely has a better understanding of the complex concept.  Physics geek rap attached, which may shed some hip hop light on the subject, more than the front page, above the fold New York Times article could:

Existentialism for the 12 Year-Old

My 12 year-old son has a sign posted on his suburban bedroom door that reads, “Area 51. Restricted Area. No Trespassing Beyond this Point. Photography is Prohibited. Use of Deadly Force Is Authorized.” It’s not exactly a welcome mat, and hopefully no indication of what the approaching teen years will look like. I am certain that the unwelcome sign is more corporeal proof of his fascination of the United States Government allegedly maintaining a facility for the sole purpose of researching extra-terrestrial life, but more: that ET may actually exist. He has seen the movie Contact several times, and screening sessions have always spurred interesting discussion on the nature of life, what role intelligence plays in any organism and what it would mean to us as individuals to encounter a whole new world out there.Area 51 sign

Two years ago, he was riveted by Stephen Hawking’s book, George’s Secret Key to the Universe which fed his hunger for more information about the physical universe, but also left him with an unwavering admiration for Hawking, who in 1963 contracted a neuro-motor disease and given two years to live. He instead “went on to Cambridge to become a brilliant researcher and Professorial Fellow at Goville and Caius College. Since 1979 he has held the post of Lucasian Professor at Cambridge, the chair held by Isaac Newton in 1663. Professor Hawking has over a dozen honorary degrees and was awarded the CBE in 1982. He is a fellow of the Royal Society and a Member of the US National Academy of Science. Stephen Hawking is regarded as one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists since Einstein” according to his website. So much for that death sentence.

Recently, I have found my boy hunched over one of one of Stephen Hawking’s TED Talks posted on You Tube, answering big questions about the universe, including its origins, the existence of other intelligent life forms, and the future of our own human race. The most striking words of the broadcast lecture, for me, were the ones he spoke through his highly sophisticated speech synthesizer about himself: “I have been very lucky that my disability has not been a serious handicap. Indeed it has probably given me more time than most people to pursue the quest for knowledge.” For a man who cannot walk, who cannot speak or write without the use of expensive computer equipment, he has summarized perfectly the real existentialism: that with the Mind and a purpose, no handicap is too great to survive and live our lives with meaning, regardless of inevitable suffering.

I jumped on the teachable moment and introduced my son to the late Viktor Frankl, a psychologist and neurologist who based his practice on logotherapy, or Meaning of Life theory. He has more than twelve million copies of his book Man’s Search for Meaning in print, outlining his anti-hedonist vision of the world, and how he survived four (four!) concentration camps by focusing on his life’s purpose and the love of his wife. Suffering in life is unavoidable; the attitude we take to combat the feelings that follow that suffering is entirely our own decision. Hawking beautifully exemplifies Frankl’s view, and who better to be a role model for our children?

What a beautiful gift technology has been to all of us, so that we may know of his ponderings and benefit from them ourselves. Hawking responded to a question from the audience regarding life on earth and wether or not he thought it possible that another civilization exists in our Milky Way. He said that he thought it unlikely that one does, within a few hundred light years of our own planet, as radio frequencies likely would have reached us by now. There is the possibility that one might have existed in the past and destroyed itself however. Hawking reminds us all that taking a purposeful stance in our own existence for the purposes of survival can be a whole lot more all-encompassing. He very clearly tells us that we are using up renewable resources and will have to look for ways to expand ourselves, by reaching out into space for one.

I expected my son to be disappointed that a brilliant mind discounted the theory that proverbial green men from another unknown planet are likely not to coexist with us. Instead, a hero took an entirely new form in his adolescent mind, and he sits in a wheelchair, has a robotic voice, and the blessed perspective of seeing life for what it truly is: a gift. His Area 51 sign is still posted to his door, and I expect it to stay. I also expect he’ll continue to ponder other life forms in our universe and contemplate what ever happened at the US Air Force installation in in Nevada. Still: Superman most certainly doesn’t wear a cape and a leotard anymore; but he does have some amazingly sophisticated computer equipment.

The New Suburban Frontier: The Moon?

Last evening, Michael Shara, the Curator for the American Museum of Natural History’s current exhibit, Beyond Planet Earth: The Future of Space Exploration, gave a lecture about the very real possibilities of colonization of the moon.  This guy is no Newt Gingrich, but a true astrophysicist who has spent a lifetime studying the possibilities of what lies beyond our atmosphere.  It’ll cost billions to get there and there’s the pesky question of water and oxygen, but certainly these guys will find the answer.  The most immediate one is to launch two ships into space at a mind boggling cost: one for the colonists and another for the gear (including air).  But what to do with future need for food air and water for those who’d like to stay longer than, say, a week?  Simple:  the soil on the moon is 40% oxygen which can be exploited by compression to create all those essential elements we need.  As a matter of fact, Dr Larry Clark of Lockheed Martin has already found a way to turn moon dust to drinking water by separating the elements from within and reorganizing it.

Shara even touched upon the fact that the Chinese are currently developing a cosmic railway system to get us there.  There are also private space exploration companies like Space X and Virgin Galactic, the latter established by Britain’s own Richard Branson who is already taking deposits for trips aboard his Space Ship II.  Rumor has it Katy Perry already spent $200,000 to reserve a space for her now estranged husband, clever girl.   Perhaps the cosmic rail station will serve Starbucks coffee, perhaps there will be an express line for those who need to get there in under 13 months.  Maybe one day lunar property taxes will be less than its earthly Montclair counterpart, and certainly someone will open a decent yoga studio, nail salon, and sushi restaurant there.

I jog by Buzz Aldrin’s boyhood home on Princeton Place right here in Montclair three times per week.  Baffling to think that in his lifetime, landing a man on the moon went from sheer nonsense to reality; and how ludicrous is it to think that he might see the early stages of colonization of the moon?  Perhaps not as crazy as originally thought.

And you thought the commute to Penn Station was tough.

Click here to see Branson christening his Galactic Baby:

World’s First Commercial Space Line

The Most Astounding Fact About the Universe

Little Light Pollution in Suburbia Make For Easy Viewing of Your Atoms’ Ancestors