June 2011

Posted by Ellen

On April 28, 2011, the visible-light and infrared sensors of NASA's ASTER satellite captured this image of Tuscaloosa County, Alabama, which had been raked by an especially large and powerful tornado just the day before.

Infrared sensors are useful for distinguishing between vegetated and non-vegetated land cover. The pink areas in the photo represent vegetation–forests, pastures, cropland, golf courses. Areas that show up as aqua are non-vegetated or very lightly vegetated–cities, highways, rivers, strip mines, recent clearcuts.

The tornado track is obvious here: a straight aqua-colored streak running from the southwest to the northeast. Vegetation in this streak that was not directly destroyed by the storm was so littered with pieces of buildings and household objects that satellite sensors could barely detect it.

Just north of the storm track is the twisting course of the Black Warrior River, which shows up in aqua. The city of Tuscaloosa is mostly south of the river, at the left edge of the picture.  In the upper left corner of the picture is Lake Tuscaloosa, a dammed-up tributary to the Black Warrior that provides the city's drinking water.

NASA's spokespeople assert that images such as this one can be useful in the aftermath of storms. They may help identify storm-damaged places outside of populated areas, where tornadoes might escape public awareness. And by proving the time and location of tornado paths, they could help homeowners support their insurance claims for storm damages.

If you click on the picture to see the larger version, you can follow numerous roads out into the countryside and observe that many of them seem to end with a little dot of aqua, indicating a non-vegetated spot. These are well pads for methane rigs. About fifteen years ago, the Black Warrior basin was the scene of one of the nation's first methane gas drilling booms. Coalfields underlie much of west Alabama, including almost all of Tuscaloosa County, but until recently the methane gas associated with coal deposits was considered a danger rather than an economically valuable fuel. "Fracking" technology, in which high-pressure liquids are injected deep into the earth to crack open the rocks hosting methane, was developed and refined in Alabama; drilling for methane is now under way all over the world. Unlike oil or traditional natural gas, methane is best extracted by small wells located within a few hundred feet of numerous other small wells; thus, the countryside is speckled with hundreds or thousands of separate well pads.

Posted by Ellen

At the University of Montana, students can earn academic credit for assignments like this. Hank got an A last semester in Intermediate Rock Climbing.

Posted by Ellen

Cap'n Norman takes the helm of the schooner Woodwind last week in the Chesapeake Bay near Annapolis.

As sunset approached, the breeze was perfect for sailboat racing in the Severn River, just off the bay. Woodwind raced her sister ship, Woodwind II, and whupped her.

Posted by Ellen

Like most American local governments, the city of Philadelphia is pretty much broke and can't afford to operate its public swimming pools.

Two summers ago, the pools never did open. Last summer, neighborhood fundraising financed a few weeks of swimtime in July and August. This summer, we're told, fundraising has been successful enough to open the pool in our neighborhood for a few extra weeks, beginning in mid-June when school lets out.

Rumor has it that one Philadelphia neighborhood is financing its pool operation with a high-stakes Cowpie Bingo game. If you're not familiar with Cowpie Bingo, it's really one of the best games you can play with a rented cow. You mark a grid on a small field of grass and sell chances on squares in the grid; half the take goes to the cause–in this case, lifeguard salaries and tanks of chlorine–and the other half goes to the lucky person who bought the square where the cow deposits whatever she deposits.

The Philadelphia swimming pool cowpie bingo game is said to offer $10,000 to the winner, if the cow cooperates by depositing her pie neatly within a single square of the grid.

This may or may not prove a good financial model for twenty-first-century urban government. Until we know for sure, that No Diving thing is probably a really good idea.

Posted by Ellen

A few minutes after commencement and commissioning last Friday, in the parking lot outside the Naval Academy's football stadium in Annapolis, Maryland, the new ensign in his choker whites and shades got his first salute, from midshipman Aaron Kalil, who still has a year to go until his own graduation and commissioning.

Per tradition, the new ensign bought this first salute, handing Aaron a silver dollar.

Ensign Stein now begins five years of active duty in the navy. Midshipman Kalil begins a year as captain of the U.S. Naval Academy wrestling team. There was champagne all around.

Posted by Ellen

Recently, Newsweek magazine singled out the three rustiest, dying-est dying rust belt cities in America; coming in at number three, behind Detroit and Flint, Michigan, was Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Grand Rapids–hometown of President Gerald Ford, corporate headquarters of Amway, hub of western Michigan's peach orchards and blueberry farms–didn't take that kind of ranking sitting down. Thousands of city residents stood up and took to the streets, lip-synching Don McLean's anthem all over town, producing the anti–rusty-dying video shown below.

Roger Ebert dubbed it the greatest music video ever. And Newsweek apologized, even going so far as to declare the published rustiness ranking to be methodologically flawed.

The picture above is Tranquilitea, a mosaic by Grand Rapids artist Peggy Kerwan made from thousands of tea bags. The bright colors are from tags and paper wrappers on the tea bags; the subtler shadings are from the translucent tea bags themselves.