November 2014

Posted by Ellen

Night of the Loy Kratong festival in Thailand.

Posted by Ellen

Picking up the pieces last summer in the plaza at downtown Seattle's Westlake Mall.

Posted by Ellen

On this date in 1962, as the ad below announces, this store in Rockville, Maryland, first opened its doors. It was called a Super Giant; it was the world's first Super Giant, and it was my Super Giant. 

It was a supermarket, of course, and also a department store, selling raincoats and tennis rackets and desk lamps and windshield wiper blades as well as produce and candy and cigarettes. In other words, it was a WalMart before its time, and people came from all over, even from across the river in Virginia, to check it out.

Like any ordinary non-super supermarket in our regional Giant chain, it had those plaid plastic inflatable elephants up near the ceiling. All the fish on ice in the seafood section still had their heads on them and all their bones inside them, and while you waited for the guy to fillet them, you could watch the lobsters swimming in their tank.

In the produce section, somebody would weigh your produce and bag it in a paper bag and write the price on the bag with a grease pencil. At the register, the cashier would key in every single price–no scanning back then–and calculate your change. There were no credit or debit cards and no ATMs; people paid cash or wrote checks. With a local address, you could write a check for $25 over the purchase price.

Just inside the door was a row of gumball machines and usually a mechanical pony you could ride if you could talk your mother into giving you a nickel, which was not likely.

Just outside the door was the corral where you left your grocery cart–we called it a basket–while you found your car in the parking lot and drove back around to pick up what you'd purchased. A store employee loaded your car for you; he identified which groceries were yours by looking at a number on a plastic card you'd been given, which matched the number on your basket. Printed on those plastic cards, in addition to the number, were the words "No Tipping." Every time I looked at one of those numbered cards, I daydreamed a little about tipping over grocery carts.

But the best thing about Giant food shopping, better even than the Frosted Flakes and the Hostess cupcakes, was what came out of the little brown boxes near the end of each checkout lane. In the picture above, a man is writing a check on top of the box in Lane 7.

Those boxes were stamp dispensers. After your order was rung up, yellow Top Value Stamps would automatically start spitting out of the dispenser. If you'd bought a lot of groceries–the average family of four spent $12 a week on food–then you'd get a lot of stamps.

When you got back home, your mother might let you lick the stamps and stick them onto the pages of the stamp books. There were stamp catalogues showing what you could get for your filled-up stamp books: a picnic set with plastic plates and nubbly plastic glasses, a poker caddy full of wooden chips, a striped beach umbrella.

Try talking your mother into buying stuff like that. You'd be wasting your breath. But with enough yellow Top Value Stamps, all that and more could be yours–for free.

I still have a folding card table that my cousin Toby bought with cigarette stamps, found inside the cellophane wrapper on every single pack of cigarettes. And I knew families growing up that saved green stamps. But we were a Top Value Stamps family, loyal, in the marketing sense of the word, to the Giant Foods chain of stores.

We bought groceries from the Giant store closest to our house. The Super Giant was a few miles away, so we went there mostly for non-food shopping. But that was okay; you could get stamps for socks and underwear, too; you didn't have to be buying food.

With all those stamps, all that loyalty, and the great marketing innovation of WalMart-like one-stop shopping with a "spacious 3,000 car parking area"–well, where have all the Super Giants gone?

They came and went in a flash, arriving in 1962 and closing down within a few years, certainly before 1970, despite drawing huge crowds. The picture above was taken in 1964.

Today at this location on Rockville Pike, there's a regular old non-super Giant grocery store occupying a small part of the building. The rest of the shopping center features an Old Navy, a Sports Authority, and suchlike. 

And Top Value Stamps have been replaced by airline miles, credit card points, store cards that give you discounts on gasoline.

Someday, even WalMart will bite the dust. Will that be a good thing? We can't know, I suppose, till we see what takes its place.

Posted by Ellen

'Tis not the season yet for Philly's New Years Day Mummery on parade, but mums of spectacular colors and colorful spectacle are already among us, at the Longwood Gardens Chrysanthemum Festival.

Above, the Longwood horticulturists grafted more than a hundred varieties of mums onto a single stem and somehow got them all blooming at the same time.

Below is a single bloom of the 'Nijin Bigo' cultivar, which we are told translates as 'Irregular incurve' Chrysanthemum morifolium.

And below that is the festival scene, in Longwood's main conservatory in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

Posted by Ellen

Self-portrait of the artist as three young girls, in Athens, Greece.

Posted by Ellen

On August 13, Hank and about a dozen other climbers summited Yanaphaqcha, an 18,000-foot peak in the Cordillera Blanca range of the Peruvian Andes. As they neared the top of the mountain, they were engulfed in thick clouds spitting snow. "What you see around me in the picture," Hank says, "that was the view from the top."

Posted by Ellen

Our last look at Iceland's ongoing volcanism touched on matters of earthquakes, a collapsing caldera, magma, lava, and tectonic rifting. But we failed to discuss the issue that has come to preoccupy Icelanders in recent months: poison gas, which spreads across the island as a blue haze, threatening the health of people, livestock, crops, and vegetation.

The gas belches out of the lava as sulfur dioxide, SO2, which is the odor we sniff in minute amounts when we strike a match. Around the site of the eruption, in barren terrain near central Iceland's Bardarbunga volcanic complex, the sulfur dioxide is so intensely concentrated that a single breath could be fatal. Fortunately, no one lives nearby; researchers approaching the volcanic vent wear elaborate gas masks and stay in the vicinity for only a few minutes at a time.

In addition to being dangerously sulfurous, the air near the eruption is also extremely turbulent. Steam from the vent and heat gusts from the surface of the lava lift and disperse the SO2 quite quickly. Early in the eruption, huge pulses of steam pushed the gas so high into the atmosphere that it was entrained in the jet stream and carried in low but measureable concentrations across the sea to northern and western Europe.

Within a few days, however, as the volcanic vent opened fully, the lava spilled out less forcefully. Sulfur dioxide was no longer blasted into the upper atmosphere; instead, it has settled as a smoggy blue haze, rolling along the surface of Iceland. The haze is steered by winds; an east wind blows it into Reykjavik, as seen above, while winds from other points of the compass blow it to every nook and cranny of the island.

When the haze is bad, Icelanders are told to stay indoors, close their windows, and run their heat full blast. Measured concentrations are well above known hazard levels, and people with weak lungs or compromised immune systems face serious health risks. Even healthy people experience burning eyes and throats, headaches, fatigue, and various degrees of breathing difficulties. Those who have to stay outdoors try to keep nose and mouth covered and are warned to avoid heavy exertion.

But the symptoms are temporary; the wind changes, the blue haze disappears, and everybody feels better. Children are allowed back outside to play.

The haze is not pure sulfur dioxide. It's more insidious than that. The SO2 combines with water vapor in the volcanic steam and the general atmosphere to produce aerosols of sulfurous acid, H2SO3, one of the principal components of acid rain. 

And that's not the worst of it. The H2SO3 reacts with oxygen in the air to create a much more corrosive, extremely dangerous compound: sulfuric acid, H2SO4.

People can protect themselves from the worst of all this, but animals and plants, of course, are entirely exposed. They will suffer long-term effects. Iceland's last high-sulfur volcanic eruption, known as Laki, killed three-quarters of the country's livestock in 1783 and led to massive crop failures. Thousands of people died of starvation.

The volume of lava and sulfur spewed forth by Laki, however, is believed to be about fifteen times the amount currently erupting from Bardarbunga–500,000 metric tons daily from Laki, as opposed to 35,000 tons daily from Bardarbunga.

The current sulfur emissions are roughly comparable to the amount already entering the air every day from all the smokestacks in Europe. Iceland is a tiny place to be dealing with as much poison in the air as the entire continent of Europe.

The eruption is now two and a half months old. There are no signs that it is winding down just yet; it could continue for many more months, or years. 

For what it's worth, sulfur dioxide is not a greenhouse gas; in fact, it blocks sunlight and has an overall cooling effect. As winter darkness envelops Iceland now, there's less and less sunlight to be blocked; if the sulfur is still hanging around next spring, the chill of an Icelandic winter may persist even longer than usual.

Posted by Ellen

All the cool kidz nowadays–all the cool kidz who have a little too much money–or is too much money one of the requirements for cool kidz status?–anyways, what they're playing with these days is the latest and greatest in technology for drone photography.

Little plastic remote-controlled flying saucers carry cameras aloft and point the lenses back down at us. Sometimes the things crash–for example, onto the balcony of an apartment on a high floor of a New York skyscraper–but sometimes they capture astonishing views of life here on the surface of earth.

To get the shot above, Greg McCary flew a drone up over the hills and rivers of Bartow County, Georgia, northwest of Atlanta. Below, Mauricio Lima's venture into drone photography attracted the attention of a wary neighbor.

Posted by Ellen

Two cranes get their act together high in the sky above New York City's High Line promenade.

Many, many cranes are hard at work these days in that neck of the woods; apparently, real estate developers are firmly of the opinion that people will pay even more than the usual Manhattan rates to live in an apartment or condo near the High Line. They may be right; nobody's yet found the ceiling on what New Yorkers will pay for anything.