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. 

Posted by Ellen

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.

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New year or no new year, new Mondays are always in our face.

From 1995 to 2002, Finnish photographer Tiina Itkonen chronicled life in an Inughuit village in the highlands of extreme northern Greenland. The Inughuit are our planet's northernmost residents.

Another photo from Itkonen's Inughuit Portraits series shows a smaller pair of those polar bear trousers on the legs of a young boy named Masaitsiaq. Low on the wall behind Masaitsiaq are six sharp knives mounted on a magnet. Inughuit babies and toddlers must develop caution and common sense at a much earlier age than the children we know.

Posted by Ellen

These sandhill cranes have it easy; they were spotted in their Florida marsh last week, long past spring migration time, so they're not migratory snowbirds; they live in Florida year-round.

Some of their migratory cousins may winter with them in Florida, but if a sandhill crane expects to fly all the way back to summer nesting grounds in the marshy tundra of northern Canada, Alaska, and Siberia–which is the way most of these birds like to live their lives–then it's going to have to get out of Florida by the end of February, early March at the very latest. A rest stop each March for more than 600,000 migrating sandhill cranes is the Platte River near Fort Kearny, Nebraska, where skies darken with what is said to be one of the great natural spectacles on earth.

Sandhill cranes dance, and they have a call that's sort of in between a dove and a turkey.

Posted by Ellen

Across from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is what we're told is a typical Dutch traffic light, with separate signals for cars and bicycles.

In central Amsterdam, more than 60 percent of all trips are by bike instead of car; in the outer part of the metro area, where road conditions and population density are more like those in the United States, bicycles still account for 40 percent of trips.

This is a new version of an old phenomenon.  Before World War II, bicycle travel was commonplace all over the Netherlands, but in the years after the war, transportation planning and road building practices were completely car-oriented, with the result that bike-riding had nearly disappeared by about 1970. Since then, however, heavy investment in bicycle infrastructure, such as protected lanes, as well as policy changes that disfavor automobiles, such as expensive parking, have brought bikes back pretty much everywhere.

In fact, the newest round of transportation infrastructure projects involve structures to handle the crush of bicycles that need parking space.