Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Moving into the future can mean a bumpy ride

Muskingum River Power Plant

Some days are bummer days.

I just read a news story on the Marietta Times website that says American Electric Power’s Muskingum River power plant’s Unit 5 in Southern Ohio will shut down by 2015.

That means the loss of more than 100 jobs at the plant located a couple of miles north of Beverly. I went to Fort Frye High School in Beverly and know many people who did or are working at the AEP coal-burning plant that straddles the Muskingum River.

Yes, I know the nation is transitioning to cleaner fuel sources, but this news still leaves me in a melancholy mood.

View from Muskingum River

I’ve had jobs vanish in this struggling economy and know it’s hard to get work that pays a comparable salary.

I first saw the plant’s smokestack towering above the hills as the family car traveled along curvy Ohio 339 toward the back entrance into Beverly. That was 1968. Dad had a new job at the B.F. Goodrich plant in Marietta, and we were moving from Wadsworth, Ohio, near Akron down to Beverly.

Through the years the tall stack has been a welcome sight as I traveled not only on Ohio 339 but Ohio 60 down from McConnelsville.

The summer after high school graduation I played softball on a baseball field owned by AEP’s subsidiary, Ohio Power. The field lay beside the bank of the Muskingum River under the shadows of the plant.
If you didn’t park your car in the garage in the late ‘60s, you’d find a coating of coal ash on it when you went out to start it in the morning. We were breathing that into our lungs.

On some Saturdays in the mid ‘70s, I’d drive from Lancaster where I was a newspaper reporter to Beverly to visit family. The 1.5-hour trip took me past New Lexington and a nearby strip-mining operation, one of the feeder systems for the Muskingum River plant and others that depend on coal to generate electricity.

Unit 5 is shutting down by mid-2015 because AEP just inked a legal settlement with the U.S. EPA, eight states and 13 citizen environmental groups to end operation of some its oldest, dirtiest coal-burning plants. The Muskingum River plant is one of them.

Beverly, Ohio

The news isn’t unexpected in the Muskingum River Valley. Back in June 2011 the company first announced that the plant was on a list of units to be retired by 2015. It didn’t go over well with Beverly friends I’ve friended on Facebook, and many lambasted the EPA, the Obama Administration and Democrats in the Congress. They took it personally. Through the decades the power plant and a steel plant on the river were important income generators for Beverly and the sister town on the western bank of the Muskingum, Waterford.

But technological change stops for no one. The U.S. is moving toward natural gas and alternative energy like solar farms for electric generation. As part of the legal settlement, AEP has made a commitment to develop 50 megawatts of wind or solar power this year, and additional 150 megawatts by 2015.

The first four of the plant’s units were commissioned between 1953 and 1958, and are scheduled for closure by 2014. Unit 5 was built in 1968, and could be converted to natural gas, but that would probably not be economical for AEP.

As a reporter for the Duplin Times in North Carolina, I cover the Duplin County towns of Wallace and Rose Hill where I am witnessing the transition to alternate energy sources. Both towns are in the process of approving solar farms. Earlier this month the developers of the solar farm on the edge of Wallace came back with a revised conditional use permit. They had to change the footprint of their farm to move solar panels away from wetlands.

Solar farm in North Carolina

Photovoltaic power (PV) solar panels convert sunlight into electricity that can be sold to utility or private companies. A smaller number of solar farms use CSP technology that captures and concentrates the sun’s heat to create electricity. CSP systems direct solar thermal or heat energy from mirrors and lenses to a steam turbine that drives an electric turbine generator.

A solar farm is considered a utility-scale solar power plant if it is selling power to a utility, is ground-mounted and larger than 2 MW (megawatts), meaning it’s capable of powering more than 300 average homes.

Growth in North Carolina has been driven by state policy that encourages deployment along with federal incentives. Solar farm owners can receive a federal tax credit for 30 percent of the cost of the system.

Sunlight or coal? What choice would you make?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

When actresses first ruled the Social Scene …

“Abandoned pregnant and penniless on the teeming streets of London, 16-year-old Amber St. Clare relies on her wits, beauty and courage to climb to the highest position a woman could achieve in Restoration England – that of favorite mistress of Merry Monarch Charles II.”

Anyone here in the second decade of the 21st century know who teenage Amber St. Clare is?
Amber is author Kathleen Winsor’s heroine in “Forever Amber,” the bestselling U.S. novel of the 1940s. It sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week of release in 1944 and went on to sell more than 3 million copies. More than a few girls born in the mid to late 1940s are named Amber.

I don’t read many romance books, but I did read “Forever Amber” in my early 20s after I saw the movie that starred Linda Darnell as the bed-hopping beauty.

English Stage
What I especially liked was Winsor’s portrayal of the 17th-century English stage. Nell Gwynne, the actress who became a real mistress of Charles II, even makes an appearance in the novel. Called “pretty, witty Nell” by Samuel Pepys, she has come to be regarded as the embodiment of the spirit of Restoration England. Considered an extraordinary comic talent, Nell’s rags-to-royalty tale echoes another story made famous by Disney … “Cinderella.”

Nell set the stage for the celebrated actresses of the 18th-century English stage, the women who helped establish the 18th century as the Age of the Actress. These actresses achieved star status in that bygone time, much like today’s actresses like Angelina Jolie and Hallie Berry are trend-setters.

Anne Oldfield, Frances Abington and Susannah Cibber have been mostly forgotten, but in another time and place were major players at the dawn of what we know today as Celebrity Worship. They became beacons of style and taste. These actresses had money of their own and exerted political and cultural influence far beyond the stage.

During the 1757-58 season, Susannah Cibber ranked a close second in popularity to David Garrick. This helps explain the jealousy Garrick harbored against his female colleagues throughout his long career.

The Broadsheet Tatler
Both the highborn and the lower classes loved the London stage. The broadsheets of the era loved publicizing the gossip and scandal surrounding the stage. And at the center were the actresses.

No doubt many today think the actresses were like Amber, prepared to offer a special performance in the bed of a wealthy nobleman. That was sometimes true, but the actresses also formed friendships with ladies of quality and were in demand at parties and social events. As one observer said of Abington, “A great number of people of fashion treat her in the most familiar manner, as if she were their equal.” In turn, the ladies of quality shared in the spotlight and cultivated their own spheres of cultural influence.

While these superstar actresses were able to hobnob with noblewomen, they came from lower-class women employed in the trades as milliners, seamstresses, servants and orange girls. Frances Abington was a servant to a French milliner early in her life. Yet she was able to mesh her acting talent with shrewd business acumen to become an 18th century celebrity.

These stars of the stage refused to classify themselves as immoral or whores. In their autobiographies and memoirs, the actresses used their popularity to depict their sometimes scandalous behavior as socially acceptable. People overlooked Gwynn’s scandalous behavior because of her philanthropy and benevolence. A generation later the fans of the London stage overlooked Oldfield’s wild ways because of her skill and talent on the stage.
See … some things never change. 18th century folks were willing to overlook misdeeds and hanky-panky just like we are.

Friday, February 8, 2013

The online future has a name and it’s called Graph Search…

He’s been making a list, and checking it twice, gonna to find out who’s been naughty or nice.

No, not Santa Claus, but the Wizard of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg.

Facebook’s algorithms have been collecting, cataloguing and storing an immense storehouse of data made possible by a billion people who share their personal lives online on the social network.

They post status updates complete with photos and charts, everything from their latest recipe creations to their day-to-day struggles taking care of a parent suffering from Alzheimer’s.

 Right now folks in the U.S. Northeast are posting photos and comments about Nemo, the latest blizzard now blanketing the region.

I’ve collected 576 friends since I first joined Facebook back in September 2009. On October 4, 2011, I established an author’s page to try to generate some sales of my novels. The page has 716 likes.

I’ve posted hundreds of jpgs over the years – everything from my nieces’ weddings and a new-born great-nephew to some related to my writing, paintings of warrior women that once graced fantasy novels.

The Grand Annoucement
If asked in my more innocent days what I thought happened to all the postings made by people back at the dawn of the Facebook Age, I would have unveiled this scenario.

Zuckerberg frowns, crosses his arms and narrowly eyes one of his server gurus. “We’re out of storage space and the storage tapes just went up in price. Delete January through June 2005.”

I doubt anything like this ever happened. I expect everything you, me and the other billion users posted through the years still exists in the nether regions between the symbols of computer code.

That’s why I’m not the least bit surprised that Facebook is taking on its archrival Google, announcing a search tool – Graph Search – designed to mine all that personal information collected over the years.

I’ve noticed just one person on Facebook, a fellow author, posting worries about Graph Search. That surprises me. I would have thought I’d be seeing a deluge of graphic posts warning about Facebook’s newest assault on privacy.

Maybe people don’t know about Graph Search, even though the search engine was announced with much fanfare. Or maybe people think the privacy controls they’re using will keep Graph Search from turning up more intimate information. What’s a given is that people are more cautious about what they share on Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites.

If you take Facebook at its word, it intends to respect users’ privacy in the brave new world of Graph Search. For example, if a job seeker doesn’t want a risqué photo to be ferreted out by a potential employer, he or she can make it visible only to those who have been winnowed down as “close friends.” Face is advising users to check their privacy settings in order to fine-tune whom they wish to share posts with online.

But even if I’m careful about what photos I post on Facebook and with whom I share the photos with, I can’t control what my Facebook friends post. Let’s say I partied hard in my youth and a friend took some revealing shots of me camped out on a couch groping a female acquaintance now happily married with three children. I’m not friends on FB with this ancient friend, so I don’t know he has posted some “party” shots from olden times including the one of me. Worst yet, he has tagged me. So that photo could very well be ferreted out by Graph Search.

Graph Search is now in beta testing. When it’s fully up and running, it will be the most powerful search engine in existence, dwarfing Google Search. Every time you go to another site and read a news story, for example, then press the site’s Facebook icon, the fact that you “like” the news story is going into Facebook’s immense data that is searchable by Graph Search.

Friends Liking Friends
Facebook graph system has been accumulating information since the day Facebook opened and the first connections were made in the software graph structure. A columnist for Slapdot writes, “I did a search of people who like running and have visited my hometown, and the system produced several dozen people. The information is already there. And these people weren’t on my Friends list, and the few I checked didn’t have any mutual friends with me.”

The Slapdot columnist adds, “For users of Facebook looking to meet more friends, Graph Search might prove interesting and useful. And for law enforcement and other ‘Big Brother’ analyses, it could be a gold mine. People were nervous about Google storing their history, but it pales in comparison to the information Facebook already has on you, me and roughly a billion other people.”

Facebook is hoping Graph Search will make it a whole lot of money. But that will depend on Facebook’s users continuing to share all kinds of stuff with their FB friends – their interests, photos and likes. The beta version doesn’t include status updates, but that will apparently change later on.

On the other hand, Graph Search holds unbridled promise for marketers and advertisers seeking to target more precise audiences. Let’s say I’m the CEO of a corporation that owns two companies; one sells dance outfits for little girls and the other, a company that sells clogging music. I could use Graph Search to find mothers in their 30s who have daughters taking dance lessons.

I could see where Graph Search could be very useful for indie authors and authors under contract to ebook publishers. I could use it to find FB users who are major fans of the fantasy genre, specifically novels with elves and dwarves. Can you spell “future sales?”

These same fantasy genre fans could use Graph Search to find authors like me who are not in the stables of major publishing houses. Can you spell “more future sales?”

So while Graph Search has me nervous, I do see the benefits. And I will keep my posts “public.”