(Image credits: Little Fuji)

Posted by Ellen

East of New Zealand's highest mountain ranges are the tussocklands: relatively dry and wide open hills and plains somewhat reminiscent of western North America's sagebrush country. The clumps of vegetation, however, are not sage but tussocky grasses, and the overall landscape, sweeping and dramatic as it appears, is not natural to New Zealand.

People, originally Polynesians and eventually Europeans, created tussocklands by burning off the original vegetation, which included dryland trees and scrub. In recent times, European immigrants created an environment in which tussocklands became more or less permanent features of the New Zealand landscape; this was accomplished by driving to extinction several species of animals, notably giant moa, that would otherwise keep tussock grasses under control and facilitate regrowth of the original forest. 

Tussock grasses don't make good forage for domesticated animals, but they do help shelter tastier, tender imported grasses and legumes that might be planted there for sheep and cows. Thus, well-tended tussockland can become decent rangeland for livestock. And particularly well-tended tussockland, especially in warmer, lowland regions of New Zealand, can be developed into premium pastureland of the sort that generated a worldwide reputation for New Zealand wool and, recently, dairy products.

Posted by Ellen

Among the happy occasions being celebrated recently while we were in New Zealand, in addition to the marriage of our niece, was the one hundredth anniversary of the invention of the zipper, as featured in the World of Wearable Art exhibition at Te Papa museum in Wellington.

Elias Howe, inventor of the sewing machine, patented a zipper-like Automatic Continuous Clothing Closure in 1851 but was too busy selling sewing machines to get it to market.

Another zipper-like thingy, called a clasp locker by its inventor, Whitcomb Judson, was displayed at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It was designed to close boots with long rows of hooks and eyes, and it attracted investors who built a company around the idea but couldn't ever make it work.

Then in the early twentieth century a Swedish-born electrical engineer named Gideon Sundback married the daughter of the company president and was named chief designer. He spent seven years refining a different zipper-like device that by 1913 actually worked. But the company was still stuck in boot-closure mode, and for the next twenty years B.F. Goodrich was the main customer for zippers, which were used on a style of rubber galoshes known as "Zips."

It wasn't till the 1930s that zippers were sewn into ready-made clothing: at first, in children's wear, then for fly closures in men's trousers, and eventually in coats, skirts, dresses, luggage, sports gear, and everything else.

Posted by Ellen

Icelandic sculptor Steinunn Thorarinsdottir  populated this garden just south of the Art Institute with aluminum and cast iron people.

Posted by Ellen
In the 1880s, when he was a little boy, there were so many McCormick relatives also named Robert that they called him Bertie. He inherited a townhouse in Chicago, a suburban house in Lake Forest, and a country estate called Cantigny in Wheaton, Illinois, about twenty miles out of town. The flowers amongst the reeds above were blooming last week in Cantigny, which is now a museum and park.
But Robert McCormick's two most significant inheritances from his wealthy and industrious family were reactionary politics and a newspaper, the Chicago Tribune. Tribune editorials ranted against the New Deal and everything else civilized or modern. But McCormick built the paper up into a huge media empire run out of a downtown office tower that he decorated with chunks of rock from other buildings around the world including, as seen below, Westminster Abbey, the Taj Mahal, Hamlet's castle in Denmark, Byron's Chillon in Switzerland, and the Berlin Wall.
Posted by Ellen

We went to Chicago last weekend for a family wedding, a proverbial happy occasion. The town was bustling with big goings-on; for example, the night before "our" event, there was another wedding at the same downtown hotel, a high-concept sort of wedding in which the bride and everyone else was wearing black. Also at our hotel, an MLS soccer team had taken up residence, visiting from Toronto for a game against the Chicago Fire (the Fire won, 1-0).

And then there was the happy occasion seen here, which included a Saturday morning photo session in front of Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate," aka the bean.

Seven years ago, when this tourist magnet first opened, photographers were required to get $350 permits and schedule their shoots in advance. Annish Kapoor, the artist who designed the bean, controlled his work's copyright and attempted to limit its reproduction. But the bean is nothing if not a photo op, and Kapoor quickly had to back off his restrictions; currently, you don't need a photo permit unless you are part of a film crew of ten or more people. The thousands of visitors every day who pull out their cellphones aren't breaking any laws.

The perfect shine and complex globular shape of the bean were inspired by drops of mercury, according to Kapoor, an Indian-born British sculptor. He thinks the popular name for his work, bean, is idiotic. He named it "Cloud Gate" because most of its polished stainless steel surface reflects, and distorts in odd ripply ways, sky and skyscrapers. Visitors are mostly interested, however, in how it reflects them, especially in the arched middle section, which reflects reflections of reflections in crazy, curvy ways much too complicated to figure out.

The plaza in which the bean sits is actually the roof of a restaurant and parking garage, and it had to be seriously reinforced to support 110 tons of highly polished stainless steel. After the reinforcing, computer-aided robots spent a year bending and welding together 168 steel plates, and after the welding, a crew of humans with sandpaper spent more than a year polishing the plates. After all the polishing, the welding seams became completely invisible, an accomplishment that won the work an Extraordinary Welding Award from the American Welding Society.

The lower part of the bean, where people leave fingerprints, is washed every day with Windex. The upper part, where air pollution and birds jeopardize the polish, is washed twice a year with liquid Tide.

If you want to rent it for a day just for yourself and your friends, the city charges $800,000. Twice so far, since opening day in 2006, people have paid that rent. The rest of the time, everybody's welcome, free of charge.