January 2018

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.

Posted by Ellen

Our son Joe and his Cuban sweetheart Yusleidy Perez Zanetti are getting married next month. They are planning a wedding in Havana, but meanwhile, they've got clothes to dry out on the balcony. 

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It was a thousand and one years ago yesterday that the Viking Cnut (aka Knut, Knud, or Canute) was crowned King of All England. 

Cnut was a wise and good king, or so they say, but he is best remembered for something he didn't do. Briefly: it was told of him that he had his throne placed in the surf at the seaside, where he held court in his robes and crown with full royal regalia. He ordered the tide to go back out, but the tide didn't obey. "See that?" said Cnut, more or less. "I'm not the one who really runs things around here."

It never happened; the story is a bit like the legend of George Washington chopping down that cherry tree, in that it first appeared long after Cnut's death in the moralistic writings of a clergyman.

But what's the moral of the non-event? The usual interpretation, even to this day, is that Cnut was an idiot with delusions of grandeur, who badly needed a reality check with respect to the powers that be.

But the intended lesson, according to Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, who first wrote the apocryphal story as a poem in the twelfth century, was that King Cnut knew from the start that no edict of his could turn back the tide. He was a wise and good king. His courtiers, on the other hand, were brown-nosing fools who expected way too much from him–in other words, they were getting on his nerves. He staged a little demonstration to remind them that even the King of All England was a mere mortal who had his limits.

Which brings us to tomorrow, January 8, when a pack of hounds from the realm of Georgia will attempt to turn back the Crimson Tide of Alabama in a sporting contest established to determine the collegiate football champion of all America.

Cnut couldn't do it. Can the Dawgs of Georgia? We'll find out, won't we. Roll Tide.

Posted by Ellen

In the wintry weather currently gripping eastern North America, icy mounds of frozen spray, known as sugarloaves, are growing huge atop frozen rivers below not-quite-fully-frozen waterfalls. There's a sugarloaf at the base of Niagara Falls this year, and also one at Montmorency Falls near Québec City; the falls at Montmorency are some 98 feet higher than Niagara and are located almost a thousand kilometers to the northeast, in a climate zone where every winter is plenty cold enough to make a sugarloaf.

The painting shown above, The Ice Cone, by Robert Clow Todd, shows Montmorency Falls and its sugarloaf in the winter of 1845. The place looked pretty much the same when we visited, in the winter of 2004, minus the horses, of course.

Tall, cone-shaped things with slightly blunted tips are often called sugarloaves, especially if they are ski resorts or a mountain in Rio de Janeiro with a statue on top. That's because real, old-school sugarloaves–actual hard, solid loaves of refined sugar–were produced in molds shaped like that. Up until the end of the nineteenth century, when manufacturing processes emerged to refine sugar into a granulated product, people who could afford to buy white sugar–meaning rich people–bought it by the loaf, which might weigh as much as 30 or 35 pounds. They chipped off pieces as needed, using heavy, sharp-edged pliers known as sugar nips.

The sugarloaves pictured below are on display in the Sugar Museum in Berlin.

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Mabel sits and yawns on a sunny ridge near Mount Rainier last week, showing off her Happy New Year hat.

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The woman in black is standing at the Summit Avenue streetcar stop, looking back across Brighton Street in Boston in 1938.

The streetcar platform was taken down in 2004, but all the buildings in this scene, and even the billboard around the bend, are still there today. 

What was she doing there? What was she thinking? Did she know somebody was taking her picture?

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View from above of the container port at Portsmouth, Virginia.

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"Bourgeois Dining" (1982), by Haitian painter Max Gerbier.