Posted by Ellen

The supermarket at 1015 Yuyuan Road in Shanghai is said to look like any ordinary Chinese convenience store, its shelves stocked with colorful bottles and boxes of foodstuffs and other items from all over the world.

There's the usual convex mirror in the corner to watch for shoplifters. There's a cash register and a cashier, and lots and lots of customers.  The prices they pay are exactly what people in Shanghai would expect to pay.

The only thing at all unusual is that the packages are all empty. Every last one of them. Artist Xu Zhen and his conceptual-art corporation, MadeIn Company, bought all the thousands and thousands of items found in a convenience store, patiently pricked or otherwise opened each one to remove the contents, and then carefully resealed them.
 
"Store" visitors, perhaps surprised at first by the lightness of a secretly emptied soft drink can or candy bar wrapper, nonetheless walk up and down the aisles, studying and touching the merchandise. They make their selections. As often as not, they decide to buy something, even though it's only a package of nothing.
 
They pay full price. Maybe they feel that they're actually buying art, and for art, the price looks good.
Posted by Ellen

A Giant Pacific Octopus at the Seattle Aquarium posed recently for my mother to take a picture with her phone.

These varmints can weigh up to 150 pounds and spread their arms to wrap up a house. The 200 suckers on each arm are used to trap and hold prey, especially crabs and other crustaceans, which the octopus may paralyze with toxic saliva before tearing apart with its parrot-like beak.

To ambush its prey, the octopus hides amongst the rocks and seaweed, blending in with its surroundings by changing color at will. It can even change its texture, mimicking its surroundings by raising lumps or knobs of muscle.

The entire animal is so squishy and transformable that only its beaklike mouth sets a limit to its shape-shifting. If it wants to, a Giant Pacific Octopus can squeeze itself through a hole the size of a lemon.

Posted by Ellen

Let's just not go there with the hypertension thing, though it's a real deal, all properly proclaimed. But today is way too remarkable for other reasons.

To start with, very close to home, we celebrate May 17 as the birthday of our little sister Carol, as well as the birthday, on the Stein side of the family, of our brother-in-law Bob, as well as the wedding anniversary of Richard and Arleigh Stein, as well as the 480th anniversary of the annulment of the marriage of Anne Boleyn and King Henry VIII of England.

Not only, not only. The very day of little sister's birth in 1954 is also known to history as the day the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, knocking the legalistic props out from under racial segregation in public schools, though of course failing to end racial segregation in public schools. And there's more, at least on a technicality: the Brown decision applied only to public schools run by the various state governments, not to schools in the District of Columbia, where everything was run by the federal government and also where, it so happened, our little sister was born. The Supreme Court needed to decide a separate case, Bolling v. Sharpe, to order desegregation of schools in Washington, D.C., but it efficiently took care of that detail on the very same day as little sister's birth. Eight days later, the D.C. School Board announced a desegregation plan, and thus, had little sister been smart enough to start school as a newborn infant, which she very nearly was, she might have enrolled in a newly desegregated classroom.

The photo above shows a bit of what Sis is up to these days: mosaicking the side of her garage to suggest a door and some pretty awesome windows.

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15 May 2016
Posted by Ellen

Posted by Ellen

In the middle of Fairy Lake, near the remote town of Port Renfew on the west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island, sits an old Douglas fir log, partly rotting where it's exposed to the air but mostly submerged in the still waters of the lake.

On the rotten tip of the log is another Douglas fir tree, alive and growing but not exactly flourishing; its roots struggle to maintain purchase on the log and to pull nutrients from the rotting wood. Without soil to grow in, it is stunted, a natural bonsai tree, starved but somehow much more interesting and impressive than all the millions of ordinary fir trees growing fat and happy where trees are meant to grow.

Posted by Ellen

This tulip, with its "broken" coloration of creamy white petals edged in deep crimson, attracted the highest price ever bid for a tulip bulb during Holland's seventeenth-century frenzy of speculation in tulips.

In a January 1637 auction, an anonymous bidder was willing to spend 5,500 florins for a single Semper Augustus bulb, enough money to buy a large house on a fashionable canal in Amsterdam and more than five times the amount of Rembrandt's commission for his masterpiece The Night Watch. The Semper Augustus tulips, widely illustrated at the time as exemplars of the pinnacle of floral beauty, were maddeningly rare because a mysterious collector was thought to be hoarding the bulbs.

The collector rejected the high bid at this auction, and within a month, the tulip bubble had collapsed. It is not known what happened to the Semper Augustus, which vanished long ago from the tulip world. Quite possibly, the variety died out because of infection with a virus spread by aphids, which we now know accounts for broken color patterns in tulips but also tends to weaken their growth over multiple generations.

Like so much else in life, whether associated with flowers or with finance, it was nice while it lasted.

Posted by Ellen

Philadelphians voted today, here at Derkas Auto Body on Aramingo Avenue in the Fishtown neighborhood. Other voting sites around town included a beauty parlor, a Vietnamese restaurant, a coffee shop, and a tire store, in addition to all the usual schools and firehouses and other community spaces.

Norman and I did our voting at two different places, because he had responsibly updated his address last summer when we moved a few blocks from our old house, while I irresponsibly failed to report the change. So Norm reported for duty at his newly assigned voting booth in the after-school daycare building at Markward Playground, and I just went back to our old polling place in the basement of a medical center, where the people working the election were neighbors who treated me all neighborly.

At this writing, election results are still trickling in. But I cast my vote, so nothing is my fault.

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Posted by Ellen

In the mid-nineteenth century, the area around the northern Japanese city of Towada was designated as imperial ranchland, devoted to raising horses for the samurai cavalry.

The most famous of these horses was probably First Frost, which Emperor Hirohito rode for propaganda purposes during World War II. The U.S. Navy claimed to confiscate First Frost but actually left it with Hirorhito's personal property. Admiral "Bull" Halsey had promised to ride Hirorhito's horse when the Americans arrived in Tokyo, so another all-white horse was substituted for a ceremonial ride through town, for propaganda purposes.

Towada recalls its heritage with bronze horses spilling out onto a main street designated officially as Government Administration Road, nicknamed Horse Road. There are also 151 cherry trees along the road.

Posted by Ellen

With this picture we begin a very occasional series exploring the latter-day habitats of the five Stein boys, who all long ago sheltered under one roof in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, but who have now scattered to the far corners of the realm. 

Ted has built himself a homeplace high on a hill above Great Cacapon, West Virginia. About a year ago, a friend from Alabama, Tommy Roberts, drove up to Ted's land hauling his tools and a trailer full of old shipping pallets. Pieces of pallets eventually became siding shingles to sheath the house and outbuildings–but first, Tommy and Ted had to build the house, drill the well, install the woodstove for heat and the gas stove for cooking, run electricity in from the pole by the road, and etc. and etc.

The stone wall and outdoor fireplace were built with rocks from around Ted's land; the presence of all the loose rocks was a good sign, according to the neighbors, proving that his property included a goodly amount of flat land for loose rocks to settle on. Ted recently expanded his place by buying more acreage across the road, so he's now got a little guesthouse, and of course if he happens to ever need even more rocks . . . .

Ted builds software for a living, and the wireless in the woods above Great Cacapon is slow. Even so, it's fast enough for government work, as the saying goes, and lately, most of Ted's work has been government work. He can write code in Tedland or discuss work with colleagues or clients, in the house or on the deck or in a hammock under the trees. But every now and then he has to leave his mountainside and drive to Washington to make sure all is well with NASA or the State Department or USGS or whomever; for such occasions, he has rented a room in town.

When he's off the mountain, he probably has to make arrangements for somebody to look after his chickens.