August 2011

Posted by Ellen

"Lee, Brian & Jeff making dinner," notes photographer Rich Durant, who snapped the picture of the men at their campsite along the Lorillard River in Nunavut. The Lorillard flows across tundra and bare rock of the billion-year-old Canadian Shield to enter Hudson Bay near the latitude of the Arctic Circle.

Where was Rich standing when he took this shot? It doesn't really matter; he had flown the camera up into the sky by hanging it from a kite and was using a remote control mechanism to operate the shutter while remaining safely on the ground.

The men were canoeing down the whitewater of the Lorillard; as you can see, they had stowed their gear in drysacks and waterproof boxes. The sacks and boxes don't look particularly bear-proof, however, and it's not clear what kind of arrangements they might be making to keep their food away from bears and other critters.

Whatever they were doing, it apparently didn't work out too well. The pictorial record of the expedition–called "Lorillard River Briefly"–includes photos (taken from the ground) of wolf tracks and big white bears, and then . . . a tent and foodsack trashed by something big and hungry.

Posted by Ellen

I've done my due diligence on this; "Richie's photo is 100% legit," says Michele, the photographer's wife. No Photoshop.

The signs were posted at the corner of Madison Avenue and 81st Street in Manhattan, one block east of the Met. "Only in New York," observes Richie, the photographer–but I beg to differ. Traffic is all screwed up everywhere nowadays, as is politics and the economy, and if you know which way to go, don't even bother trying to tell me because I can't believe anybody any more.

Posted by Ellen

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.

The original building, designed by Toronto architects Frank Darling and John A. Pearson, opened in 1933. The new wing, by American architect Daniel Libeskind, who also designed buildings for the Denver Art Museum and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, opened in 2007 and is referred to as the Crystal.

Posted by Ellen

We saw several of these egg trees in Nepal; the eggshells are emptied out and then stuck on the ends of the tree branches. We never did learn what they are all about.

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Posted by Ellen

Very soon, if you go to Nepal, to the village of Ghandruk, you may be able to arrange to stay in this new inn, the Hotel Magnificent. It was almost complete, as you can see, when we were there this past March.

I have not been inside the Magnificent, but I can tell you what it is like because all the trekking hotels in the Annapurna region of Nepal are very nearly identical.

The rooms are cubicles separated from one another by partitions of particle board, sometimes unpainted, sometimes covered by a single coat of paint that has been so watered down you can read the ISO number stamped on the particle board right through the color. The beds are thin mats laid on wooden shelves--magnificently comfortable after a day on the trail.

There is a single lightbulb in the ceiling, and no other electrical outlets. Western tourists, of course, have brought along various electronic thingamajigs that need to be charged, but there's no way to take care of that in the bedrooms (unless you have invested in a kind of adapter we heard about, which screws into a light socket so your precious whatever could recharge itself while dangling down from the ceiling, and while you sit in the dark waiting to put the lightbulb back in its socket . . . ). Sometimes the people running the hotel will let you charge your stuff in the dining room, for a fee.

Also in your room is a window with a magnificent view.

There is a bathroom with a kind of fixture that is basically a hole in the floor There may be a sink for washing your face, either in the hallway or outside in a courtyard. Out back somewhere may or may not be a shed with a cold water shower. The water tap in the shower is labeled "USELESS;" we eventually figured out that the label was actually a directive to "USE LESS."

There is a restaurant, usually outdoors on a deck. The food is heavy and filling. Nepalis never order anything on the menu; they eat lentils for every meal.

There is no heat in the rooms. This was not a problem, since the porters had brought along our bags containing fleeces and coats and hats and gloves.

Some of the dining rooms are heated by a bucket of coals placed underneath the table. Blankets are pinned around the sides of the table, hanging down to the floor to keep the heat in. Stick your feet under the blanket. Scrunch up that blanket so your knees also are in the warmth. Magnificent.

One restaurant had a big woodstove in the middle, surrounded by a wooden railing. Nepalis pulled up benches so they could sit leaning forward, arms resting on the railing, holding mugs of steaming tea. Westerners wearing heavy coats sat at dining tables far off in the cold reaches of the room, near the windows, drinking lukewarm tea and talking about the magnificent view.

The new Hotel Magnificent is many hours' walk uphill from the nearest road. All the bricks, all the particle board, the tin for the roof, the buckets of blue paint–everything had to be carried uphill–up thousands of rock steps–strapped onto the backs of donkeys or humans.

And they only charge $2 or $3 a night. Pretty magnificent.

Posted by Ellen

In recent years, gentrification in many Philadelphia neighborhoods has been characterized by construction of new rooftop decks on top of old rowhouses. This view is from a rooftop elevated above the elevated train in the Kensington neighborhood; the rooftop has not yet been completely deckified, but the view is as good as it's going to get.

Posted by Ellen

In 1910, most of the excavation work for the new Michigan Central railroad station in Detroit was still being done with the loathesome short-handled shovels. In the background of this photo, however, we can glimpse the excavators of the future: smoke-belching job-killers, aka steam shovels.

The men are wearing hats, but not hard hats.

The Michigan Central Station survives today, I'm told, "if just barely." Short-handled shovels, too, are still around, in real life but more spectacularly in the blues.

Posted by Ellen

A South Phily mural features Francis Lazarro Rizzo Sr., Philadelphia's longtime police commissioner and two-term (1972-1980) mayor.

For those among us who've never heard of this Rizzo person, or who have tried hard to forget him after all these years: he was a bad guy. He emerged on the national scene when his police officers raided a Black Panther house in the middle of the night, dragged the occupants outside onto the sidewalk, and proceeded to strip search them in front of the TV cameras.

When protesters raised the issue of police brutality, he threatened them with police brutality. "When I'm finished with them," he told the press, "I'll make Attila the Hun look like a faggot."

His hatred roiled Philadelphia, and his corruption pretty nearly robbed the city blind. He stripped city utility companies of valuable assets and ran them into the ground for patronage and personal gain. He perfected a notorious means of double-dipping, still with us today, enabling favored city employees to "retire" and start collecting their pensions, even though they actually remained in their old jobs, at full pay.

In the end, he tried to change the city charter so he could remain the mayor forever and ever. But he'd made a fool of himself once too often; the last time involved a corruption probe in which he loudly proclaimed his innocence, called his accuser a liar, and demanded a lie-detector test. Rizzo failed the test, and his accuser passed. He died within a few months of leaving office.

Rizzo's mural visage looms over the Italian Market on 9th Street, in the neighborhood he grew up in, which is now represented on the city council by his son.

Posted by Ellen

North Philly mural.

Posted by Ellen

In hopes of maintaining secure communication with its ships and submarines at sea, no matter what, the U.S. Navy maintains arrays of thousand-foot-high Very Low Frequency transmitter towers at three locations around the world. This is the Navy's Cutler array, the largest and most powerful radio installation in the world, with 26 towers located on a peninsula at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in downeast Maine, near Machias.

Cutler, constructed in 1961, is 100 percent Cold War technology: no GPS, no internet, no cellphone network. The biggest towers in the world were built here because this station services vessels in the Arctic Ocean as well as the Atlantic and Mediterranean, and naturally occuring electromagnetic pulses in the Arctic–the Aurora Borealis–can interfere with all but the most powerful radio signals.

The transmitters here run on power generated on-site and distributed to the towers by underground wiring. Underground wires also extend far offshore under the ocean, to maximize communication with submarines. There are no naval personnel working in Cutler; a civilian crew maintains the site, which sends out encrypted signals generated at a base in Norfolk, Virginia.

Although this shaky picture, which was taken with a handheld camera on a dark and cloudy night, suggests a somewhat haphazard string of towers, they are actually arranged in two identical clusters, which can operate separately or together. Each cluster can be shut down as necessary for maintenance. There's a problem, however, in the part of the installation around the power plant, where the two clusters are so close to one another that the electromagnetic field can be hazardous to humans, even when one of the clusters is shut down.

This area of the installation is called the Bowtie. People doing maintenance try to work as little as possible in the Bowtie, because even if they are working on towers that have been shut down they may still be exposed to dangerous electrical radiation from nearby still-active towers.

Because the Navy requires that at least one of the Cutler clusters must be functioning at all times,  the towers in the Bowtie area of the installation have seen little maintenance over the years. In particular, they have never been painted, and they are now fifty years old. The civilians onsite requested a four-month shutdown of the entire array to complete the painting, but the Navy said no.

I predict one of two probable resolutions: either they'll run out of money for the paint job and just let the salt and snow do their thing on the thousand-foot towers, or else they'll redefine the safety standard for electromagnetic radiation so that working in the Bowtie magically becomes safe.

Can you get cellphone service on submarines?