January 2018

Posted by Ellen

Pushing a baby stroller at sunset, across a frozen lake near Lahti, Finland.

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Fog swallows the tips of new skyscrapers around an old tree in the Pudong Financial District of Shanghai.

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Posing for an action shot in a softball game at a Y camp in Plano, Illinois, 1930.

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Money laundering is one of those things, we're told, that's happening all over and all the time. Some countries make it easy for, say, drug traffickers to disguise the source of their riches, either through an opaque banking system, as in Switzerland, a financial sector rotten with greasy palms, as in the Cayman Islands, or an overheated real estate market, as in the business model associated with Donald Trump. Or so we're told.

Latin American gangsters, Russian mobsters, all sorts of bad guys from all over can create shell corporations in Delaware that invest in, say, condos in Trump properties, in Manhattan, Panama, Azerbaijan, wherever. If a real estate developer undertakes careful investigation ((extreme vetting?), then fake corporations associated with ill-gotten gains may be blocked from such purchases. But the kind of developer that doesn't really care . . . 

"It's possible," said Trump last summer, in a conversation about how he really, really didn't want Mueller to look into his finances. "I mean, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows?"

Posted by Ellen

Our granddaughter Robin is in preschool now, one morning a week. This week, she learned how to bake a ball in the oven.

Posted by Ellen

In 1907, Ernest Shackleton led his first expedition aimed at reaching the South Pole. He'd already spent years in Antarctica, serving under Robert Scott, failing to reach the Pole but learning much about survival and leadership. Shackleton's 1907 trip would make it closer to the Pole by far than earlier explorers, though he and his men still fell short by 87 miles. 

They first landed in Antarctica at a place called Cape Royd on McMurdo Sound, where Shackleton oversaw the building of his hut for wintering over in Antarctica. He and his men huddled there through the winter of 1908, and when they left that spring to attempt their sprint to the Pole, the hut was equipped with food and fuel to last 15 men for one year.

They left a note with details about provisions and the coal store and then locked the door and nailed the key to the door.

They never returned to the hut, though they did make it back safely to England in 1909, where Shackleton immediately began planning his next trip to the South Pole.

Almost a century later, in 2006, the hut was dug out of the ice and snow and reopened. Much of the food was described as "perfectly preserved," though some meat was said to be quite rancid. Several cases of McKinlay & Co. scotch whisky were retrieved from the cellar and found to be delicious; based on a chemical analysis of this whisky, the distillery is again producing the old single-malt scotch.

The hut has now been restored through the World Monuments Fund, and the land surrounding it has been designated an Antarctic Specially Protected Area.

Shackleton did succeed in raising money for another expedition, which set sail on the Endurance in 1914 but never reached the Antarctic mainland; he Endurance was crushed by ice near the coast, initiating years of fear and suffering, out on the sea ice. Shackleton's renown as a leader dates from this disastrous voyage, when he was able to sustain morale and eventually get the men to safety 700 miles away at a whaling station in the South Georgia Islands. They made it back to England in 1917.

His fully provisioned little hut, meanwhile, complete with a coal-burning stove and crates of scotch, sat on the opposite edge of the Antarctic continent, closer to New Zealand than to South America. It might as well have been on the moon.

Posted by Ellen

It's dark, chilly midwinter here in the Pacific Northwest, but the supermarket shelves are piled high with sweet summer raspberries and blueberries and blackberries. All those berries can't be coming from around here–blackberries are notorious weeds hereabouts and other berries grow readily, but the plants are dormant in the winter and yield fruit only in the summer.

Parts of Chile are climatically similar, though of course with the seasons reversed, and so Chilean berry-growers started loading their fruit on big cargo planes and flying it all the way up here in the wintertime, to be sold at very high prices reflecting the cost of air transport.

Nowadays, however, Chilean berries are all used for juice; the air-shipping premium was just too costly to make them competitive in the fresh-berry market. The huge North American market for fresh berries–which is booming at the moment, thanks to crazes for antioxidants and smoothies–depends on locally grown fruit in the summertime and then, for literally every other month of the year, on berries grown in greenhouse-like plastic tunnels high in the mountains of the Mexican state of Jalisco.

If chilled immediately, fresh berries can have a shelf life of more than a month, which is plenty of time for refrigerated trucks to carry them from their greenhouse tunnels–tuneles–in central Mexico to virtually any grocery store in the U.S.

The high-altitude berry farms, a mile or more above sea level and cooled a bit by Pacific breezes, don't get as searingly hot in the summertime as the rest of Mexico. The semi-shade in the plastic tunnels further blunts the subtropical sun and also slows evaporation, saving water.

But even with all these adaptations, berry bushes and canes in Mexico don't behave the same way they do in, say, Oregon or New Jersey. In Jalisco, the plants rest in the summertime and produce fruit in cooler months–which is just when the North American market has particular call for them.

The tunnels do yield less fruit per acre, but Mexican growers are okay with that; their overall costs are still low. In fact, in the last ten years they have converted so much land to blueberries and raspberries and blackberries that Mexican fresh-berry-production has become a billion-dollar industry.

Mexicans, however, still don't really care for the taste.

Posted by Ellen

The Bainbridge Island ferry and the Olympic Mountains at sunset, as seen across Elliott Bay from the bar at Pier 67 near downtown Seattle.

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Skiing behind a horse–the ancient Norwegian art of skijoring–in Northampton, England, 1908.

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Near the southern extreme of Puget Sound, around Olympia, Washington, are hundreds of acres of bumpy grassland, the Mima Mounds. The picture above–aerial imagery produced by a radar-sensitive LIDAR camera–shows what the Mima landscape looks like without all the grass and shrubs that soften the lumpy appearance. the picture below shows what it looks like to the human eye.

LIDAR is a radar technology used to determine elevation, and it works even when the actual ground level is hidden underneath vegetation or buildings; when a plane flies over an area of interest and sends radar signals straight down to earth, the signals will bounce back differently depending on what they hit. Of course you need a computer to sort it all out, but they've got computers.

What the computers haven't been able to figure out is what caused these mounds, which are pretty much all very round and low and flat; in the Mima prairie, most of the mounds are about 3 feet high and 30 feet across. They are gravelly dirt, just like the spaces between them.

Similar-looking mounds are found in dozens of other places, and no single mechanism has been identified that might account for them everywhere. Among the possible processes that have been researched in the Mina region: earthquakes shaking the soil, clay minerals shrinking and swelling in the soil, windblown dunes forming around vegetation, and–our favorite–burrowing by pocket grophers, perhaps with help from termites and ants.

Scientific consensus on this matter has yet to emerge.