Posted by Ellen

This tulip, with its "broken" coloration of creamy white petals edged in deep crimson, attracted the highest price ever bid for a tulip bulb during Holland's seventeenth-century frenzy of speculation in tulips.

In a January 1637 auction, an anonymous bidder was willing to spend 5,500 florins for a single Semper Augustus bulb, enough money to buy a large house on a fashionable canal in Amsterdam and more than five times the amount of Rembrandt's commission for his masterpiece The Night Watch. The Semper Augustus tulips, widely illustrated at the time as exemplars of the pinnacle of floral beauty, were maddeningly rare because a mysterious collector was thought to be hoarding the bulbs.

The collector rejected the high bid at this auction, and within a month, the tulip bubble had collapsed. It is not known what happened to the Semper Augustus, which vanished long ago from the tulip world. Quite possibly, the variety died out because of infection with a virus spread by aphids, which we now know accounts for broken color patterns in tulips but also tends to weaken their growth over multiple generations.

Like so much else in life, whether associated with flowers or with finance, it was nice while it lasted.

Posted by Ellen

Philadelphians voted today, here at Derkas Auto Body on Aramingo Avenue in the Fishtown neighborhood. Other voting sites around town included a beauty parlor, a Vietnamese restaurant, a coffee shop, and a tire store, in addition to all the usual schools and firehouses and other community spaces.

Norman and I did our voting at two different places, because he had responsibly updated his address last summer when we moved a few blocks from our old house, while I irresponsibly failed to report the change. So Norm reported for duty at his newly assigned voting booth in the after-school daycare building at Markward Playground, and I just went back to our old polling place in the basement of a medical center, where the people working the election were neighbors who treated me all neighborly.

At this writing, election results are still trickling in. But I cast my vote, so nothing is my fault.

Posted by Ellen

In the mid-nineteenth century, the area around the northern Japanese city of Towada was designated as imperial ranchland, devoted to raising horses for the samurai cavalry.

The most famous of these horses was probably First Frost, which Emperor Hirohito rode for propaganda purposes during World War II. The U.S. Navy claimed to confiscate First Frost but actually left it with Hirorhito's personal property. Admiral "Bull" Halsey had promised to ride Hirorhito's horse when the Americans arrived in Tokyo, so another all-white horse was substituted for a ceremonial ride through town, for propaganda purposes.

Towada recalls its heritage with bronze horses spilling out onto a main street designated officially as Government Administration Road, nicknamed Horse Road. There are also 151 cherry trees along the road.

Posted by Ellen

With this picture we begin a very occasional series exploring the latter-day habitats of the five Stein boys, who all long ago sheltered under one roof in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but who have now scattered to the far corners of the realm. 

Ted has built himself a homeplace high on a hill above Great Cacapon, West Virginia. About a year ago, a friend from Alabama, Tommy Roberts, drove up to Ted's land hauling his tools and a trailer full of old shipping pallets. Pieces of pallets eventually became siding shingles to sheath the house and outbuildings–but first, Tommy and Ted had to build the house, drill the well, install the woodstove for heat and the gas stove for cooking, run electricity in from the pole by the road, and etc. and etc.

The stone wall and outdoor fireplace were built with rocks from around Ted's land; the presence of all the loose rocks was a good sign, according to the neighbors, proving that his property included a goodly amount of flat land for loose rocks to settle on. Ted recently expanded his place by buying more acreage across the road, so he's now got a little guesthouse, and of course if he happens to ever need even more rocks . . . .

Ted builds software for a living, and the wireless in the woods above Great Cacapon is slow. Even so, it's fast enough for government work, as the saying goes, and lately, most of Ted's work has been government work. He can write code in Tedland or discuss work with colleagues or clients, in the house or on the deck or in a hammock under the trees. But every now and then he has to leave his mountainside and drive to Washington to make sure all is well with NASA or the State Department or USGS or whomever; for such occasions, he has rented a room in town.

When he's off the mountain, he probably has to make arrangements for somebody to look after his chickens.

Posted by Ellen

In the fall of 1898, these men were hard at work in a cotton gin in Bolivar County in north Mississippi.

1898 was a depression year; cotton was selling for barely 5 cents a pound. Out in the fields, the wages for cotton pickers had dropped from the going rate in the early 1890s of about 50 cents per  hundred pounds, which was what an average adult could pick in a day, down to 42 cents.

But most cotton in those years was grown not by wage laborers but by tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Tenants paid plantation owners about 2 bales of cotton (1,000 pounds) each year for a 40-acre plot; sharecroppers split the crop with the landowner, 50-50 or 25-75, depending on who provided the mule and who provisioned the family till the crop came in.

This lazy researcher was not readily able to learn how much the gin workers were paid, but we can be sadly certain that it was not much.

Posted by Ellen

Last week saw the finals of the 2016 World Figure Skating championships, and needless to say, Bobbi Cochar was there for every minute of every program. Ever since she sat rinkside at the Canadian national championships in Ottawa in 1984, this Toronto native has never missed a major skating event, no matter where on earth the venue might be.

She cheers on her Canadians, of course, two of whom, Megan Duhamel and Eric Radford, did skate away with the gold medal last week in the pairs category. But Cochar is really there for all the skaters, making sure that every single one of them receives one of her trademark needlepoint skate ornaments as she or he goes out on the ice, along with a personal note of encouragement and thanks.

Skating looms large in Cochar's heart, especially since her diagnosis with multiple sclerosis at the age of 28. She had always been a noncompetitive dancer, and after her diagnosis, she was stunned to realize that she could still skate, even performing complicated moves and routines. "But once I was off the ice," she recalls, "I couldn't walk to save my life."

Multiple sclerosis has since cost her the hearing in one ear and the color vision in one eye, though the doctor who predicted she'd never walk again was incorrect. She skates six days a week now, four days for her work with the CanSkate program and two days on her own, just because she can.

Until recently, Cochar's mother, also a longtime ice dancer, traveled to skating events with her. The two of them collected autographs on their jackets from skaters all over the world, and took personal responsibility to make sure that anybody at all who was brave enough and hard-working enough to go out there and skate their hearts out in front of a crowd would go home with words and tokens of appreciation from skating's unrivaled superfans.

Posted by Ellen

Inside the screened porch in Columbia, Missouri, are tulips, safe from the deer. Outside in the yard is a homemade wood-fired bread oven.

Posted by Ellen

This crane has been caught in the act of growing itself. The object it's lifting into the air is a 20-foot section of crane-tower that it is about to swing into place to lengthen its own neck and make itself taller. The new section will be inserted at the top of the neck, which is currently at a level near the top of the building, where a sort of cage structure surrounds the tower.

This cage is called a climbing frame, and it costs $60,000 to rent for a weekend. For a crane that wants to grow itself, the climbing frame is the secret to the whole pulling-itself-up-by-its-own-bootstraps thing. 

The climbing frame is installed around the top of the crane's neck, just  below the horizontal part of the crane, which does all the heavy lifting. The horizontal arm, with its gears and motor, has to be unbolted from the tower and settled onto the top of the climbing frame. Hydraulic jacks in the frame then boost it up, leaving a gap in the tower. The crane simply picks up a new section of tower and slips it into the gap.

Over the course of a few hours on Monday, this crane grew by six sections, 120 feet. We're told it's now as tall as it needs to be for the project–condos, of course, along the Schuylkill riverfront. In June, the crane guys say they'll be back to dismantle the whole thing and move it to its next job.

How will it ungrow itself? It can't. It's not a cannibal. Sometimes the crane will haul up a second, smaller crane onto the roof of the finished building, and the smaller crane will then lower the pieces of the big crane. To get the second crane down, they sometimes have to use a third, even smaller crane, which can be disassembled into pieces small enough to go down the elevator.

Posted by Ellen

Shortly before March Madness's final dance Monday evening, a young Villanova fan took to the court at Schuylkill River Park.

Even though April 4 is Norman's birthday, the nation watched basketball instead of celebrating with him. He marked the big day–he turned sixty-five–by taking his first free senior-citizen ride on a city bus.

Posted by Ellen

Drawings that can be appreciated only by looking at them in a curved mirror have been around for hundreds of years, but three-dimensional sculpture that reveals itself only in a curved mirror is brand new, perhaps thirty or forty years old. It can't be done without modern computer power, calculating in three dimensions the projection in space of each point on the mirrored surface and generating the "solution" to the digital algorithms via a 3-D printer.

There was often a practical reason for many of the old 2-D mirror drawings; they allowed the artist to ncorporate details into his work that were too racy or politically incorrect for a general audience but of considerable interest to those in the know, who might enjoy them by setting a polished cylinder in front of the painting.

The purpose of 3-D sculpture, on the other hand, such as these works by South African artist and software engineer Jonty Hurwitz, is less utilitarian, more a matter of artistic virtuosity. It's a cool thing that's really, really hard to do, but Hurwitz can pull it off.