Hole in the Clouds

January 2010

Cherchez les mains

Jan 1, 2010

Paris in the wintertime can be chilly, especially if, like Addie Coslett, you've spent the past year in the tropics. Big mittens can help a lot.

Addie has been working for a bank in Bangalore that finances microloans in impoverished Indian villages. She bought the mittens while hiking in Kashmir. They made a big hit in Paris, where she stopped off on her way to the states for a holiday visit; strangers stopped her and asked if they could take a picture.

winter   Addie Coslett   Paris   (Image credit: Janet Goldwater)  

Plate for sale

Jan 2, 2010

This plate was spotted at the antiques market alongside the Navigli canal in Milan. I'd like for somebody to buy it and take it to Antiques Roadshow so we can find out if the asking price was ridiiculously low or obscenely high or just right. Till then, we just don't know, do we?

Milan   Italy   (Image credit: Katrin Maldre)  

Butterfly in Scorpius

Jan 6, 2010

A few thousand years ago, a star in the constellation Scorpius ran out of gas. "Ran out of gas" is technically not quite correct--the star still has plenty of gas in its core that is burning hotter and brighter than ever--at an estimated temperature of 250,000 degrees Centigrade. But the star is dying; away from its core, its  layers of gases have been torn loose and are now floating away, flung out into space. When some stars die, the fleeing gases expand spherically but oftentimes, as here, the gases are flung out asymmetrically, giving the impression of butterfly wings. In ultraviolet light, the core of the dying star would show up as a white-hot disc in the center of this nebula, but here in an image from the newly upgraded Hubble Space Telescope, the central star cannot be seen at all; it is shrouded by a dense cloud of cosmic dust.

The gases in the butterfly wings are escaping the old star at the rate of 400 kilometers per second--almost 900,000 miles per hour. They will eventually be lost in space. The core will flame out and perhaps collapse in on itself, creating an extremely dense object that is incomprehensible to me and my non-physicist friends.

When our own sun starts behaving this way and flinging out dust and hot gases in our direction, we'll have perhaps a week or two before we're swallowed up in the wings of a butterfly. But our sun is believed to be a middle-aged star, so we've still got plenty of time to think of nebulae as awesome instead of dangerous.

Butterfly nebula   (Image credit: NASA Hubble Space Telescope)  

An extravagant moment

Jan 8, 2010

Alabama punt returner and cornerback Javier Arenas made a prediction in early December, about a month before the Tide defeated Texas in the Rose Bowl to claim its first national championship since 1992. "It will be," he said, "an extravagant moment."

Only he wasn't talking about taking a shot at the national title. He was referring to the commencement ceremony scheduled for Dec 12, when he would receive his college degree with a major in public relations, after just three and a half years at Alabama. In addition to completing heavy courseloads and winning national recognition on the football field, Arenas won awards for public service in Tuscaloosa, working with children in local schools and hospitals.

The only competition he lost was his race with his brother, who played football at Nebraska, to become the first college graduate in the family. His brother graduated last spring. "I'm second, but it's still a great honor," Arenas said. "From no one in our family graduating from college to now two college graduates--I'll take that any year."

Despite being one of the smallest players in Division I college football, at just 5-9, Arenas's football statistics ranked him high on the top-ranked team in the nation. Before the championship game, his total punt-return yardage was just a few yards shy of the national NCAA career record; with just one or two half-decent returns at the Rose Bowl, he would be able to set a new all-time record. But Texas wasn't taking any chances; every kick was directed to the part of the field farthest away from Arenas, even if it meant kicking out of bounds. He will leave Alabama still ranked as only the second-best punt returner in history.

Now, after last night's game, Alabama has the championship, its 13th in school history, and Arenas's teammate Mark Ingram has the Tide's first Heisman Trophy. Meanwhile, Javier Arenas, an all-American who almost certainly will be drafted early by the pros, has his degree. "If football doesn't work out," he said, "I'll be fine working in my field."

That's the way all college sports stories (and all cowboy movies) are supposed to go. Sometimes life imitates mythology.

University of Alabama   sports   football   Crimson Tide   Javier Arenas   Mark Ingram  

Grand Trunk Railroad #1

Jan 9, 2010

The first big railroad operation in the world was the Grand Trunk, a Canadian company that started up in 1852 with a line from Portland, Maine, to Montreal, Quebec. It is hard to fathom today why anybody would invest money in rail transportation between Portland and Montreal--the two cities nowadays have little to do with one another, and there is little travel or freight transport between them.

Back in 1852, however, both cities were important ports. Montreal, which sits closer to Europe than any U.S. port,  was a major terminal for trans-Atlantic shipping. Portland supplied lumber to the world and was the northern terminus of coastal U.S. shipping routes.

And back when railroad technology was a newfangled thing of uncertain commercial value, trains were initially imagined as a means of extending sea transport. A train could load up in the port of Montreal with European goods and deliver them to the port in Portland, from which they could be sent by ship to any of the fast-growing markets in cities along the eastern seaboard of the United States.

The Canadians who thought up this scheme became wealthy men. They eventually expanded the Grand Trunk to Toronto, Chicago, and points west, and they added a second New England line down through Vermont. Within a couple of decades, imitations of the Grand Trunk Line had been built all over North America, stitching the continent together with railroads.

This picture shows the port of Montreal around the time the railroads were starting up. Today, Montreal is the busiest container port in the world and also handles grain and other products from central Canada and the midwestern United States. Most of the grain still gets to the port by train.

Portland's port handles more tourists than anything else these days, though South Portland remains active as a terminal for Mideast oil shipped to the United States. The oil is pumped from tankers into a pipeline that closely follows the old Grand Trunk route up to Montreal, where it is refined to make gasoline and other petroleum products.

vintage   Montreal   port  

Grand Trunk Railroad #2

Jan 10, 2010

The Grand Trunk Line went bankrupt in 1920. Cost overruns on its expansion to the West Coast stressed the company, and its route planning out west proved unfortunate, too far north to compete with the fledgling Canadian National Railroad, which eventually absorbed it. The Grand Trunk's U.S. lines were assigned to a holding company that used the Grand Trunk name, but they too declined and faded in the mid-twentieth century along with the railroad industry in general.

The Grand Trunk station in Portland, on India Street near the waterfront, was demolished in 1948.  These pictures actually show a different Portland train station, Union Station on Congress Street near St. John Street, which handled southbound passengers and freight. Union Station opened in 1911 and was demolished in the1960s to make way for the I-295 highway.

Portland lost an elegant building that day--the current Amtrak station is basically just a corner of the bus station lobby--but by all accounts, the destruction awakened people to the importance of historic preservation. And though it couldn't have been foreseen in the 1960s, when urban renewal was thought to lead to future glory for America's cities, Portland's old buildings and cobblestone streets have turned out to be what saved this town--people have learned to make money off of "quaint."


Portland   vintage   Maine   railroad   demolition   Union Station   train  

Grand Trunk Railroad #3

Jan 11, 2010

 When they built the Grand Trunk line from Portland to Montreal in the early 1850s, they had to figure out a way over or around the White Mountains in New Hampshire. They ran the tracks up the Androscoggin River valley past the tiny village of Gorham, just eight miles north of 6,200-foot Mount Washington. Gorham became the railroad maintenance and service center, and this late-nineteenth-century birdseye view of Gorham shows the extensive railroad yards developed there.

Anyone who has been to Gorham, however, will notice something a little odd about this image of the place. The mountains in the background look low and unprepossessing, just some handsome, rolling topography off in the distance. Actually, they loom crazy big over the town, with Mount Washington in particular filling the sky and dominating the view almost like an Alp. Gorham is less than 800 feet above sea level; the peak of Mount Washington is more than a mile higher. Perhaps the artist (and/or his patrons in town) feared that big mountains might scare people away from Gorham. Gentle country would look more hospitable.

But the railroad that created Gorham eventually brought tourists to the hills, and today the town survives as a jumping-off point for vacationers in the White Mountains. An artist publishing a twenty-first-century birdseye view of the town would probably want to emphasize the mountains, maybe even drawing them bigger and steeper and closer than they really are. Wild, dramatic country is what the people want nowadays.

Trains don't stop here any more, but there is a railroad museum.

Mt. Washington   vintage   New Hampshire   birdseye view   railroad   Gorham   White Mountains  

Attention, Wal-Mart shoppers

Jan 12, 2010

The Waterford crystal over in aisle 12 is going for $30,000. Well, truth is, it's not for sale, but as a piece of crystal it's worth $30,000, and last Saturday, you could get your picture taken with it in front of the Dr. Pepper display as part of a sponsorship deal. The University of Alabama won the crystal football championship trophy last week by beating Texas in the Rose Bowl, and first thing they did was put the trophy on display over at the Wal-Mart SuperCenter on Skyland Boulevard in Tuscaloosa.

Here are some of the thousands of fans who stood in line to pose with it.

When I first heard that the University of Alabama would be displaying the crystal football in . . . Wal-Mart . . . I was certain my proverbial leg was being proverbially pulled. But google it yourself; it really happened, though spokespeople for the University claim that the Wal-Mart tour was not their idea. I guess I've just been gone from Tuscaloosa for way too long.

University of Alabama   Tuscaloosa   football   Wal-Mart   (Image credit: Birmingham News)  

Picture in words

Jan 13, 2010

Shoveling snow with Buddha
by Billy Collins

In the usual iconography of the temple or the local Wok
you would never see him doing such a thing,
tossing the dry snow over the mountain
of his bare, round shoulder,
his hair tied in a knot,
a model of concentration.

Sitting is more his speed, if that is the word
for what he does, or does not do.

Even the season is wrong for him.
In all his manifestations, is it not warm and slightly humid?
Is this not implied by his serene expression,
that smile so wide it wraps itself around the waist of the universe?

But here we are, working our way down the driveway,
one shovelful at a time.
We toss the light powder into the clear air.
We feel the cold mist on our faces.
And with every heave we disappear
and become lost to each other
in these sudden clouds of our own making,
these fountain-bursts of snow.

This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling,
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

All morning long we work side by side,
me with my commentary
and he inside the generous pocket of his silence,
until the hour is nearly noon
and the snow is piled high all around us;
then, I hear him speak.

After this, he asks,
can we go inside and play cards?

Certainly, I reply, and I will heat some milk
and bring cups of hot chocolate to the table
while you shuffle the deck,
and our boots stand dripping by the door.

Aaah, says the Buddha, lifting his eyes
and leaning for a moment on his shovel
before he drives the thin blade again
deep into the glittering white snow.

winter   Buddha   Billy Collins   snow   cards   hot chocolate   wet boots   driveway  

Many-dog night

Jan 14, 2010

Carol and Sandy Fuchs spent a week in  northern Sweden recently, including New Year's at the Ice Hotel near Kiruna, about 100 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The sun never rose above the horizon the whole time they were up there, though the dark of night faded into a sort of twilight for a few hours in the middle of each day.

They tried dogsledding and snowmobiling and visited with reindeer herders. The town of Kiruna is a thriving iron-mining center, where the hundred-year-old mine is nowhere near played out; it is currently expanding closer and closer to the town, which is gradually being relocated to escape the blasting and other mine activity.

The basic structure of the Ice Hotel is made of snow; in November each year, snowguns spray artifical snow over arched metal forms, which are removed after a couple of days, leaving igloo-like tunnels. Interior walls are made of two-ton ice blocks cut from the Torne River and returned to the river when the place starts to melt in April or May. The ice is cut in March and stored for the next winter's construction.

Beds are platforms of ice and snow covered with reindeer hides. Guests sleep in sleeping bags. There are ice sculptures and specially carved ice chairs and tables in the rooms, but according to Carol guests don't usually spend much time lolling about in chairs made of ice. Although she slept well, she reports that Sandy hardly slept at all; he was worried that if he relaxed and closed his eyes, he'd freeze to death and never wake up. The room temperature was about minus 5 Celsius, or 23 degrees Fahrenheit.

The hotel has an ice bar, where drinks are served in glasses made of ice. There's also a restaurant, which serves hot food on regular dishes, in front of a blazing fire.

I'm thinking that part of the rationale for a winter vacation in Arctic Sweden is that it must feel pretty good when you leave; wherever you spend the rest of your winter, even if it's in what you normally consider a fairly wintry sort of place, must seem bright and sunny and maybe even toasty by comparison.

night   Sweden   winter   snow   Sandy Fuchs   Kiruna   ice   Arctic Circle   (Image credit: Carol Fuchs)  

Courtroom drama

Jan 16, 2010

In April 1947, this photo led off a Coronet magazine spread on taces of people accused of murder and other crimes.. "For men who break or ignore the law, there is no hiding place, no turning back," according to the caption. "His hands eloquently expressing self-pity, this man confessed to killing two people. 'I wish I'd kept still,' he said."

Other photos and captions from the piece are posted here. H/t to John Stein.

vintage   Coronet magazine   crime   portrait   1947   courtroom  

Mr. Heathcliffe

Jan 19, 2010

This photo has been used on the cover of paperback editions of Wuthering Heights, but it's really a self-portrait of a Philadelphia lampmaker named Robert Cornelius. Cornelius apparently didn't comb his hair for the camera, but he can be forgiven because he probably thought the picture wouldn't really come out anyway. He made the daguerrotype in November 1839 out in the yard behind his family's lampworks, on Chestnut Street in Philly, and it is believed to be the first ever photographic image of a human face.. On the back of the picture, Cornelius wrote "The first light picture ever taken, 1839."  Three months later, he opened the first ever photographic portrait studio, but later census reports suggest that he eventually went back into the family lamp business.

A competing claim for portrait primacy has been put forth for a French daguerrotype made by Daguerre himsel, perhaps in 1837, which would be two years before he announced his process for making "light pictures." In 1838, Daguerre claimed in a letter that after several attempts at portraiture, he'd had one success, and some experts believe that one early success is a recently discovered portrait of the painter Nicolas Juet. Early photographic portraiture was difficult because Daguerre's technique required extremely long exposure times, so long that in order to stay perfectly still people had to adopt rigid, artificial, inelegant poses.

Cornelius, who had specialized in silver-plating lamps for the family business, worked on the chemistry of Daguerre's silver-based process and may have achieved some refinements before he made his self-portrait. He is known to have added bromine to the formula. His pose here looks strikingly casual compared to most nineteenth-century portraits, though the arms crossed over his chest may have helped him remain motionless, probably for at least two minutes and perhaps for as long as five minutes.

He does appear to have just stepped out of Wuthering Heights.


vintage   Robert Cornelius   Philadelphia   daguerrotype   Daguerre   (Image credit:Robert Cornelius, via Shorpy)  

They all bat lefty

Jan 21, 2010

In the summer of 1938, these children escaped the sweltering streets of New York City by attending Camp Kinderland, an oasis in the green hills of western Massachusetts founded by The Workmen's Circle, a Jewish organization affiliated with the Wobblies and eventually with the U.S. Communist Party. The inscription on the photo is in Yiddish (I'm told), which was almost certainly the first language of the Kinderland campers, children whose immigrant parents could not afford other summer camps. At Kinderland, which was free, children swam and played ball and put on plays and sang songs about the class struggle.

In 1954, Kinderland was confiscated by the government as property of a Communist organization. It was reorganized as a strictly capitalist venture, a for-profit summer camp serving the children of former campers, many of whom could now afford to pay hefty camp fees. The camp still exists, promoting itself as a place where children participate in all the usual camp activities but also "don't hesitate to sing a Yiddish labor song, paint a mural of Harriet Tubman, or write a skit about putting an end to war."

Actress Marisa Tomei is an alumna of Camp Kinderland.

The inscription apparently just identifies Camp Kinderland and the particular session in 1938.

Camp Kinderland   Communist Party   Workmen's Circle  

You don't even need the cardboard glasses

Jan 26, 2010

The first commercial use of Colin Doody's software might be medical; doctors could use it to visualize C-T scans and ultrasounds in lifelike 3-D. But it could be that the first commercial applications will come in the defense or geospatial industries; 3-D renderings from photos or satellite images would permit the interactive, virtual-reality sort of understanding of buildings and terrain that has been heretofore limited to video games. For that matter, video-game makers might be the first to use this software on a large scale; to them, the benefits of quick-and-easy generation of 3-D imagery are pretty obvious.

And then there are all the e-commerce folks who could use the software, which is called Luster, to help customers see contemplate all the angles on products in a catalog.

A final group of potential Luster-users is . . . all of us. Much of the stuff on our computer screens could come to life, so to speak, in 3-D. We could download a free little Luster player, much like a Flash player, that would unlock the special effects in all sorts of software created with Luster.

Somewhere in all this, there's got to be some money, figure Colin and a handful of his college friends from Rochester Institute of Technology, the principals of Darkwind Media Company. Already, they're bringing in enough income to support themselves while they work fulltime polishing their product and growing their business.

It's a lot of work.  "Starting a business has meant doing everything," one of the Darkwind guys recently told a reporter for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. "Marketing, financial books, keeping current clients happy, all while sitting in front of a computer eight hours a day programming."

The rib cage shown here was created using Luster, from two-dimensional "slices" of a C-T scan.

tech   Colin Doody   3-D   luster   Darkwind Media  

Young milkman

Jan 27, 2010

He's delivering milk to the Restaurant Louisiane on Iberville Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans, circa 1903.

Just behind the milk wagon--look through the wheels--is a jumble of something spilled on the sidewalk at the curb. Another wagon must have recently stopped by there, delivering coal. Somebody from the restaurant will have to come out and scoop it up.

vintage   streetscape   New Orleans   Louisiana   (Image credit: Detroit Publishing Company   via Shorpy)  

Morning in Kiwiland

Jan 28, 2010

A few months ago, the New Zealanders among us were out touring their island--New Zealand's North Island--when they stopped for the night at the Okopako Farm Lodge in Opononi, Northland, a backpackers' hostel at the end of a primitive gravel road--a road so narrow and winding and twisty, we're told, that it can't be driven after dark. The people who run the lodge, which is off the electrical grid, offer "fresh organic produce, homemade bread & farmhouse meals," and they also promise a nice view.

This is what dawn looks like from the deck of the lodge.

"I shot photo after photo," recalls A., "as the sun rose. Unfortunately, I was so engrossed in the scenery I left bread on a burner on one of those camp toasters until it thoroughly burned, and its blackened remains released a massive amount of smoke that set off the fire alarm. The fire alarm rang for about 20 minutes, which did not thrill the few other inhabitants of that place.

"The upside was that they were awakened in time to enjoy the sunrise, too."

landscape   New Zealand   mountains   birdseye view   Opononi   Northland   dawn   (Image credit: A   at happy to be here)  

Celebrating with Eli

Jan 30, 2010

In 1935, when my father's parents Rose and Charles Horowitz celebrated their thirtieth anniversary, the basic fact of life in America was the Great Depression. Still, to mark the occasion properly, you had to dress up and sit for a formal portrait.

That's Rose and Charles in the middle, of course, with my father, Bobby, the baby of the family, on their laps. He is 85 now and may be the only person in the picture who's still alive. Fortunately, he noted who's who and described everybody for posterity--the woman at the far right, for example, is "cousin Hattie, who became the first radio cab dispatcher in Baltimore."

Three of my father's four siblings are shown here, with their spouses, along with assorted relatives and friends.

Sitting next to my grandmother is her sister Bessie, and standing behind Bessie is Uncle Eli, the subject of today's post. Back in eastern Europe before the turn of the century, Eli had been conscripted into the czar's army and ordered to Siberia;  he deserted and somehow found his way to Philadelphia instead, There, he got a job as a furrier, married Bessie, and raised five children. They were poor; my father recalled that in Eli and Bessie's house, he had to be very careful not to use too much soap when he washed his hands.

Some years after this picture was taken, when Eli and Bessie were celebrating their own fiftieth anniversary, Eli went out on the floor with all the young guys and danced the Kazachok, the Russian squatting-and-kicking dance. The family story is that he kicked as hard and danced as fast and lasted as long as anybody half his age. He had a talent for enjoying life, including his schnapps. One of his sons became a doctor, who warned his father not to drink too much; the  story is that when the son ordered him to cut back to one glass a day, Eli said fine, but he made sure that his one daily glass was a huge water-tumbler-sized drink. Whatever, he outlived his son the doctor.

Eli had a one-word retirement plan: fishing. And that's exactly what he did; when he was finally too old to stay at work sewing furs, he and Bessie moved to Atlantic City, where every morning he woke up, walked down to the beach, and went fishing. He was in his nineties when I first met him, still the life of the party, and still fishing.

vintage   anniversary   Horowitz family   Uncle Eli   Baltimore   1935