August 2009

Posted by Ellen

Time to catch up with the Mongol Rally folks. After about six weeks on the road now, many of the 200 or so teams have recently reached Ulaan Bataar, where they signed the rally book, did their laundry, and partied. There is no prize for arriving first. Rallyers donate their vehicles to Mongolian NGO's and eventually make their way home somehow.

A team called Rolling Cones, from Richmond, Virginia, spent three days wandering in the Gobi Desert in their pink ice cream truck. They say the rocks in the Gobi are so iron-rich that compasses don't work there. Mongol Rally rules discourage GPS navigation, but the Rolling Cones had secretly stashed a little GPS unit deep in their luggage for just such a contingency--not that they anticipated exactly such a contingency, but contingencies happen. They noticed that a roadwork crew was speaking Mandarin Chinese instead of Mongolian, and it had been three days since they'd last known where they were, so . . . turned out they were in the extreme southeast corner of Mongolia, a few kilometers from the Chinese border, in a spot on the map that was completely empty of roads. But there was a coal mine nearby, which is why the Chinese were building a new road, and at the mine there were two geologists from Virginia Tech. So it goes.

All the blog posts are full of promises to post their Mongolia photos soon. I trust them, of course, so I'll make the same promise. In the meantime, here's a nice one from back in Kazakhstan, near the shriveled shore of the Aral Sea. Photo by Team Mongoliza, who list their hometown as "southeast Asia."

Posted by Ellen

Ever since last week, the Susquehanna River's been missing a big fish. Just kidding--he threw it back. Allen says this small-mouth bass is 19 inches long and weighs about four and a half pounds.

Posted by Ellen

Thirty-seven feet above the main entrance to 30 Rock in Manhattan, which used to be called the RCA building, this guy with a crown and a big beard pushes aside the dark clouds of ignorance to let the sunshine in. His big golden compass promises architecture and all the arts--castles and cathedrals of human achievement. The quotation is biblical, from the book of Isaiah, but the man with the compass is from some other spiritual realm, where civilization included commerce between godlike humans and all-too-human gods.

Who is he? Where did he come from? The short answer is that he was copied from an eighteenth-century painting by William Blake, "The Ancient of Days." Blake presents this Ancient as a false little god, trying to build his own false little world with that big compass. The compass also brings Masonic mysticism into the picture.

What was Rockefeller thinking in 1933, when he adorned the entrance to his crowning public achievement with this strange image? Elsewhere in his new Center, he memorialized Prometheus, who defied the gods by supplying humanity with the fire of science and art, and he commissioned a bronze Atlas, the demigod who carried the world on his back as punishment for warring against the real gods.

Ignorant and learned people both have tussled with this stuff, so I'll stay out of it. I just like the imagery of somebody pushing those clouds apart, making a hole, piercing the gloom with brave new light.

Posted by Ellen

In 2004, Iranian-Canadian photographer Sam Javanrouh went back to Tehran, his hometown, for a photo shoot. Here, he shows us Tehran's Eskan towers framing a glimpse of the Alborz Mountains. "Brings back so many memories," says Javanrouh.

Posted by Ellen

Family life among the animals can get up close and personal with a webcam aimed 24/7 at a mud wallow in the forest claimed by a pack of wild boars, or a nest of sticks atop a telephone pole where a couple of storks have laid their eggs. But that was last summer and the summer before--this year, in Estonia, the webcams are mounted at an ostrich farm. One clutch of baby ostriches has hatched now, and you can watch the fluffy little bird-brained things squirming and snuggling under a heat lamp. Mom and Dad are outside in a paddock, incubating another nestful of eggs--looks like the male and female take turns sitting on the nest.

Go here to get your fill of ostrich video eye candy. The website is in Estonian, but even we Amurricans can figure out how to click on the pictures.

Hey, it's free--watch those ostriches all you want. The heatlamp is left on round the clock, so time zones won't keep you and those babies apart. Outside in the paddock, it gets light in Estonia around 10 or 11 p.m. Eastern daylight time. If you're up late, you can turn on the ostriches and watch them sitting on the nest and bobbing their heads a little, strolling along the fence line, grazing in the grass. Will you get bored? Yes--you're not an ostrich. But technology can hold your interest: instead of watching the ostriches in real time, you can click on another date and hour, and see what they were up to back then. By dragging your mouse across the bottom of the video frame, you can watch everything the ostriches did that hour in just a few seconds, and you can even watch them in reverse. Clouds will race across the sky, the sun will leap up from the horizon, and the ostriches will hop about right smartly.

If you could speed up the entire first year of video of a baby ostrich's life, you'd see it gain 100 pounds and grow as tall as an adult human. By age 3 or 4, mature ostriches can be 9 feet tall and weigh 350 pounds. They have three stomachs but no gall bladder, in case you were wondering.

There would be little point in speeding up video of an ostrich running; they can go from 0 to 27 miles per hour in a couple of seconds. Sometimes people race ostriches, with jockeys on their backs using saddles and bridles. They are said to be much more difficult to control than horses, but also much faster.


 

Posted by Ellen

They wanted a picture of themselves at their lakeside campsite in Banff National Park, so they put the camera on a rock and set the shutter for a delayed snapshot.

The whirring sound made by the camera as it prepared to snap attracted a squirrel, who chattered right back at it and got himself nicely pixellated for his 1/250th of a second of fame.

Or so it said on the National Geographic website. Hat tip to John "J.J." Stein for this fine submission to our irregular summer series of cute animal pictures. (Yes, there are more....)

Posted by Ellen

Even in the leafy dapple of New York's Central Park, these are dog days for horses.. The inscription on the trough reads: "Presented to the S.P.C.A. by Edith D. Bowdoin, 1912."

Posted by Ellen

If you believe what you read in Earth Imaging Journal, which you shouldn't, there's an 86.6% chance that bin Laden has been living here in Parachinar, Pakistan, ever since he was last seen by Western intelligence agents--not seen, actually, but heard from, on VHF radio--in December 2001. The mountain ridge at the top of this picture is the border between Pakistan's Kurram tribal region and Afghanistan's Tora Bora district,

 A couple of UCLA professors wrote recently in Earth Imaging Journal that they had used high-resolution satellite imagery, similar to the imagery we are familiar with in Google Earth, to identify the three buildings in Parachinar most likely to be inhabited  by bin Laden and his close associates. The professors looked for defensible structures of appropriate size that are on the electric grid or served by generators, with trees and shrubbery to complicate surveilance from the air. One of the three likely compounds turns out to be the local prison--and why not? The tradition of fugitives seeking refuge in prisons is long and illustrious.

But the good professors claim to have no actual evidence concerning his whereabouts; it's all an exercise in geospatial modeling, utilizing distance-decay theory and island biogeography. Ivory tower stuff.

The only thing is: I just googled Parachinar, and for the last couple of weeks now, the city has been bombed by the Pakistani Air Force, presumably at our direction. They say they're targeting Taliban, not al-Qaeda--whatever they're doing, please let it not be based on distance-decay theory and calculations at UCLA of an 86.6% slam dunk.

Perhaps you're like me and don't remember exactly what went down back in December 2001, when we invaded Afghanistan and announced that we'd pinned down Osama bin Laden in his cave in Tora Bora. We knew all about the caves there because a generation ago, we'd helped some anti-Soviet Afghan warlords forttify them and build a complex of underground bunkers.

We asked Afghan army troops to go in there and kill all the bad guys, backed up by our air support, Special Forces, and CIA operatives. As soon as the Afghan forces arrived in the area, they announced that the bad guys wanted a temporary cease-fire, so they could gather their weapons and surrender. It is said that our response was "What the hell? Go on in and get 'em." At that point, the Afghan soldiers turned their weapons on the U.S. "advisers," and it took 12 hours before they agreed to resume the mission. Evern after the end of the "cease-fire," it is believed that some of the Afghan soldiers staged a diversionary action to further delay and weaken the attack. Several hundred Taliban were eventually killed or rounded up in the caves of Tora Bora, but no major weapons caches or "training camps" were found.

It is possible that bin Laden escaped into Pakistan during the fake cease-fire, hiking through the December ice and snow, up and over a 14,000-foot mountain pass. It's also possible that he had already escaped by then, or that he'd never been there in the first place.

U.S. General Tommy Franks blamed the Pakistanis for not telling us that their border wasn't very secure near Tora Bora. Where in the world is Tommy Franks these days?

Posted by Ellen

Last weekend, Taiwan was hit hard by Typhoon Morakot.

Tags:
Posted by Ellen

Monday was hot and sunny in Concord, New Hampshire, a good day for a Clean Energy and Green Jobs Now Beach Party in front of the capitol dome. The idea was to encourage New Hampshire's U.S. senators to help pass a clean energy jobs bill when they go back to Washington this fall. Among those beaching it in Concord were  environmental activists from the Sierra Club, 1 Sky, and other organizations, including our friend Cathy Goldwater and these girls with their big bear.