Hole in the Clouds

February 2010

Farmland from on high

Feb 1, 2010

Every summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts with pilots around the country to fly over every square inch of American farmland taking pictures. They use the imagery to figure out how well crops are growing, and exactly how much land is being used for various kinds of crops. But more importantly, they turn the imagery over to state government GIS departments, which have come up with thousands of uses for seamlessly mosaicked pictures of almost all the land in the United States.

The pictures show roads and cities and lakes and rivers, of course, as well as farm fields, so they make good base data for maps. They show changes in the landscape--e.g., new subdivisions and drained wetlands. Infrared bands in the imagery can show all sorts of details, including how much sediment there is in a river and how quickly a forest is coming back after a fire.

This picture started out as hazy USDA imagery from Orange County, North Carolina. I turned it upside down--south is now at the top--to make the shadows look "normal"--flip it back 180 degrees and see for yourself how strange it looks; the wooded areas, with all their shadows, look like sunken green and brown depressions amid smooth, raised crop fields. That's because our eyes have been "trained" by centuries of hand-shaded maps to expect the source of "light" to be in the upper-left corner, even though in real life the sun is never in the northwest quadrant of the sky (except down under, in the southern hemisphere). This is one of many reasons why satellite and aerial images, while fascinating to look at and extremely helpful in mapmaking, do not themselves make attractive backgrounds for maps. Unless we can accustom ourselves to putting south at the top.....

birdseye   North Carolina   Orange County   aerial   (Image credit: USDA NAIP)  

The little reading room

Feb 4, 2010

William Randolph Heart's San Simeon palace in California included two private libraries for the newspaper tycoon and his guests. Accounts of life at San Simeon suggest that the amount of time set aside for reading was not always substantial. But this is the smaller of the two reading rooms.

The craftsmanship of the room, including the ceiling, is phenomenal; click on the photo to see it in detail.

high dynamic range   William Randolph Hearst   library   (Image credit: Trey Ratcliffe)  

Cleaning coal?

Feb 5, 2010

Why do people keep dumping noxious, toxic, no-good very bad stuff in west Alabama? Which do you want first, the geologic reason or the political reason?

The geologic reason is a thick, 100-million-year-old layer of chalk that sits not far below the surface in Sumter County, Alabama, and thereabouts. You can make compelling arguments that this chalk is pretty much impermeable, sealing off any pollutants that might be deposited in a hazardous-waste landfill, such as the Arrowhead facility pictured here. (The only problem with those arguments is that unmapped faults deep in the chalk seem eventually to compromise these landfills; over time, they all spring leaks.)

The political reason is that west Alabama is desperately poor and majority African American. Local governments in less desperate parts of the country would not allow projects like Arrowhead, which clearly put citizens' health at risk and drive away more reputable industrial development. But where there are no jobs and no tax base, an opportunity to store other people's dangerous filth can seem better than no opportunity at all.

And so it came to pass that companies operating the Arrowhead landfill won a supposedly lucrative contract to "dispose of" a billion gallons of waterlogged coal ash that had spilled near Kingston, Tennessee, last year when a retention pond failed outside a power plant. 

Arrowhead's neighbors soon complained of horrible odors and other concerns. They threatened to sue. Arrowhead immediately declared bankruptcy, claiming that people from New Jersey had run off with all the money from the cleanup contract. They are now un-sueable, but at last word, trucks were still pulling up to the landfill day and night with loads of coal ash to dump.

Alabama   landfill   hazardous waste   coal ash   Sumter County   (Image credit: John Wathen)  

Cross-dressers with guns

Feb 6, 2010


This is almost certainly a very old photo, printed recently from a glass negative found in a box of jumbled glass negatives at a flea market.

The photographic subject is perhaps not completely clear. The people in front, smiling but posing with fisticuffs, are women dressed as men. Behind them, with shovels, are men dressed as women. I'm guessing it was a fun day.

Play snowballs voluntarily

Feb 7, 2010


Only in Washington, D.C., in the year 2010, does a snowball fight feature lawyerly liability disclaimers, new-media marketing, and streaming traffic reports.

A heavily promoted snowball fight at Dupont Circle on Saturday attracted about two thousand participants, most of them adults, even though the snow was said to be too fluffy for decent snowballs. For every actual snowball thrower there appear to have been several would-be cell phone videographers, whose work may be assessed on YouTube. Six police cars waited nearby, but nothing happened. Some people attacked the fountain in the center of the circle by throwing snow at the people defending the fountain; the fountain is still there, so perhaps the defenders "won."

Facebook pages and Twitterings promoted the event. Lawyers were involved; a disclaimer on Facebook warned: "You are coming to Dupont Circle Park on Saturday, Feb 6, 2010, to play snowballs voluntarily. The people spreading the word about the happening are not preparing any special equipment or conditions and may not be held responsible for your decisions and/or actions."

Radio station WTOP broadcast warnings to motorists, urging them to avoid Dupont Circle and other snowball-fight locales. Although the Dupont Circle "fight" attracted the most attention, Washingtonians apparently were out pelting one another with snow all over town. This picture came from some allegedly voluntary snow play in Meridian Hill Park, where an artist was using an old piece of artwork as a shield.

Washington   winter   snow   Meridian Hill Park   Dupont Circle   D.C.  

Where Mars isn't red

Feb 8, 2010


In an impact crater inside a volcanic crater high on a Martian mountaintop, ancient bedrock is exposed. The high elevation and crater ramparts keep out the red dust that swirls over most of the planet. This picture of the rocks there was captured by infrared sensors in an orbiting telescope, part of a NASA probe known as HiRISE.

The rocks are more than 3 billion years old, among the oldest known on the planet. The infrared sensors detected a variety of hydrated minerals, evidence that this place was once under water, for a long time. Some of the minerals detected contain chloride, as in table salt.

There is still H2O on Mars--pictures taken early in the morning often show frost--but the Martian atmosphere is so thin nowadays that water is unstable in its liquid form. 

bedrock   space   Mars   (Image credit: NASA HiRISE)  

Rainy day in paradise

Feb 9, 2010

Yesterday was sunny on the eastern Caribbean island of Saint Vincent. The temperature reached a high of 73 degrees Fahrenheit, dropping to 68 degrees at night. No rain, not even a cloud. Paradise.

But sometimes the sky gets a little gray and the tropical flowers soak up a little shower. Hard to imagine why people would want to vacation there.

Saint Vincent and the Grenadines   (Image credit: Woody Campbell)  

The Joneses

Feb 11, 2010


Twenty or so years ago, when our son Joe was in the first grade, he came home from school one day and announced that there was a boy in his class named Joshua who was his new best friend; Joe and Josh have been close friends ever since.

Josh met Keiko when she came to Tuscaloosa from Japan to go to school at the University of Alabama. They have been living in Japan for the past few years but may return to the United States next year; Josh hopes to start an MBA program.

children   portrait   Josh Jones   Keiko Jones  

Not a Maine dog

Feb 12, 2010

 It's been a while since a puppy picture, so: this dog was caught on camera somewhere in one of those mid-Atlantic states.

The Washington Post today pointed out that now that the city had broken the old season-total snowfall record, this winter's snowfall was approaching the average for . . . Anchorage, Alaska, and Portland, Maine. I don't know about Anchorage, but in Portland our snowfall this year is way below average. And even when it's average, we don't get the whole winter's worth all in a couple of blizzards; I'm sure that would slow things down even up here.

Those of you outside the usual snowbelt have been asked, I'm sure, to find the fire hydrants in your neighborhood and dig them out. The fire fighters need the help, and I'm sure the dogs will be grateful also.

dog   winter   snow  

Fly away

Feb 13, 2010

Monarch butterflies know how to enjoy winter; they fly south, leaving the eastern United States and heading for the mountains around Tlalpujahua, in the state of Michoacan, Mexico. Winter nights can get chilly up there in the mountains, and the butterflies huddle together in the trees. But the days are warm and sunny, and every morning as the temperature approaches 70 degrees, the Monarchs take to the air, flocking skyward all at once.

No single Monarch lives long enough to migrate to Mexico in the fall and back to the States in the spring. But somehow, the young butterflies born in Mexico each winter know to start flying north in March, and even know to head for particular ancestral summer homes, which they've never seen before. There, they mate and produce a new generation, which is born not only with the magic power to change from caterpillars into pupae into butterflies but also with the knowledge of when to head south in the fall and how to find the Mexican mountaintop where their ancestors always liked to spend the winter.


animals   butterflies   sky   (Image credit: Woody Campbell)  


Feb 14, 2010


In the late 1940s, a photographer visited a school in the village of Paro, a day's walk up into the mountains from Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan. One of the students in this picture recorded the occasion in his journal: "All we heard was a click, and then the next day we were amazed to see our images had materialised on paper."

Bhutan remained one of the world's most isolated countries until the 1990s, when its king announced a new economic policy, which he called GNH: Gross National Happiness. Some Western developments, including television, would be allowed in, even encouraged, but others, such as smokestack industries, would be kept out. Bhutanese life would be integrated with the rest of the world only insofar as the changes increased people's happiness in Bhutan. A new government ministry was created to measure GNH.

And so it came to pass that in 2008, upon recommendation of the ministry of happiness, the kingdom of Bhutan became a democracy, with its leaders chosen by popular election. The American experience evidently was not cautionary enough. Or something.

So far, Bhutan still ranks at the top worldwide in indices of national happiness, according to people who try to measure this sort of thing. The Bhutanese people are said to be as happy as anyone anywhere--and far happier than people in other parts of the world where per capita income is as low as it is in Bhutan. The average Bhutanese person gets by on about $l,000 a year.

The village of Paro now hosts an annual international cricket tournament. If cricket is required for high GNH, we Americans are surely doomed.

vintage   Paro   Bhutan   (h/t: Katrin Maldre)  

Leaving it all behind

Feb 15, 2010


Saturday marked the end of the Maine high school wrestling season; it was also the end of Hank Stein's high school wrestling career. His senior season peaked at just the right time, leading up to a fourth-place finish in the state Class A tournament.

He celebrated Sunday morning by eating all the pancakes he could eat.

In this picture, from a December match against Sanford High School, Hank prepares to finish off his opponent.

sports   wrestling   Hank Stein   Deering High School  

Bring on the snow

Feb 16, 2010


School's out this week for February break, but there's basically no snow hereabouts for the kids to play in. For Joshua, Emily, and Andrew, a trip to the artificial snow at Seacoast Park in Windham, Maine, solved the problem neatly. The kids went tubing all day Monday, and came home to . . . a forecast for plenty of snow on Tuesday. Winter's coming back to northern New England; the rest of the country can relax now. 

Emily   Maine   children   winter   Joshua   Andrew   Windham   tubing   (Image credit: Susan Wiggin)  

Little Italy

Feb 17, 2010


In 1900, Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan was the heart of Little Italy, where life was apparently lived out in the open, right in the street. Nowadays, cars instead of people dominate the street, and the people have retreated indoors, where apartments are much less crowded and much more likely to have indoor plumbing.

Click on this picture to see a much larger version, which you can mouse around in to appreciate the details of life in New York a century ago: the vegetable carts, the guy with a glass of beer in the middle of the street, the boy with his schoolbooks, the Banca Malzone, the aprons and wagons and fire escapes and . . .



New York   vintage   Manhattan   streetscape   Little Italy   (Image credit: Detroit Publishing Co., via Shorpy)  


Feb 18, 2010


Fitzrovia is the London neighborhood that once surrounded the Fitzroy tavern, a long-gone, between-the-wars watering hole. Plenty of pubs remain, however, and for generations now, Fitzrovia might be best characterized as the part of town where famous writers and musicians go to drink: the long list is known to include George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Dylan Thomas, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and more recently, Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, and the fictional heroes of Saul Bellow.


cityscape   birdseye view   London   England  

Road to nowhere

Feb 19, 2010


A blogger from Oporto, Portugal, who logs on as JC, posted this picture on (his or her) photoblog, above English-language lyrics to the 1985 Talking Heads song "Road to Nowhere." Below the lyrics, JC added parenthetical "Advice of the Day" in Portuguese, which thanks to the miracle of instant Internet translation I can paraphrase here for y'all: "When you see two Mormons walking into the sea, don't follow them."

Mormons   seascape   Portugal   Porto   (Image credit: JC)  

Game face

Feb 20, 2010


Ruben used to smile for the camera, but that was back when he was little and didn't know any better. Now that he's a big boy, he's studied his face in the mirror from a metaphysical perspective and divined the essence of his nature--to wit, the real Ruben, the Ruben reflected in the mirror, does not go through life wearing a smiley face. The real Ruben is a serious young man, and if you're pointing a camera in his direction, you'd best be prepared to capture the essence of Ruben, as we see here.

At least, this is how he explains it. It seems that the universe of three-year-olds is divided into two categories: clowns, and philosopher-princes. Ruben has taken his stand.

Germany   children   portrait   Ruben   (Image credit: via Tanja R. Baker)  

Springtime: the trailer

Feb 22, 2010

Winter is still with us, or at least with many of us, and there will soon be at least one more quick glance at icy cold stuff through that hole in the clouds. But let's hear it for daffodils in February.

This photo was taken yesterday in Tuscaloosa. The thing about spring in Alabama is that it starts right about now and goes on and on and on, growing flowerier and flowerier, month after month, till finally, some time in May, the air disappears and it's just too hot.

The daffodils are nothing but a tease, along with the quince blossoms and the Japanese magnolias. Then the wisteria and the redbuds. Until finally, around the beginning of April, it's seriously spring, with dogwood above and azalea all over. (The big Southern magnolias don't bloom till June, when it's hot, so I count them as summer flowers.) 

They had hard freezes this winter in Alabama and even a little snow. But by yesterday, according to our Tuscaloosa correspondent, it was 70 and sunny.



Alabama   flowers   spring   (Image credit: Anna Singer)  

Working vacation

Feb 23, 2010


For the past four years,  February vacation for about forty New Yorkers--volunteers from Woodlands Community Temple and Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Church--has meant a thousand-mile trip down to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, and then a week of hard work amidst the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Josh Berlowitz, shown here working the ropes last week to pull down the roof truss from a house that couldn't be salvaged, has joined the group every February, clearing debris and helping to build new houses in a coastal community that lost everything in 2005. Katrina hit Bay St. Louis dead on. The day after the storm, levees failed in New Orleans, ruining the city, but Bay St. Louis was already beyond ruination by then, virtually obliterated by wind that tore off almost every roof and a storm surge that flooded every home. 

In 2010, life is nowhere near back to normal. New homes are being built--high on stilts this time--but many people still have no permanent place to live, and not all the ruined buildings have yet been torn down. The obvious question is why the biggest, wealthiest country on earth cannot restore these communities. Josh and the other volunteers of Mississippi Mitzvot, some as young as thirteen, some close to seventy in age, are tackling the problems as best they can, year after year.

And this year, February vacation coincided with Mardi Gras. And the Saints won the Super Bowl. Who dat?

Josh Berlowitz   Woodlands Community Temple   Dobbs Ferry Lutheran Church   Bay St. Louis   Mississippi   Katrina  

From the Alborz

Feb 24, 2010


The capital city of Iran sprawls up against the Alborz Mountains, which separate the Iranian plateau from the Caspian basin. Tehran has grown so huge--population 13 million--that smog usually hides the city from the mountains and vice versa. But every now and then, a snowstorm comes along and cleans the air.

Tehran   Iran   winter   Alborz Mountains  


Feb 26, 2010


According to the photographer, Michael Dauzvardis, this little weed in Channohon, Illinois, near Chicago, was hit hard by gusty winds blowing from all directions on January 19, 2010. The weed was bent almost double and scraped round and round, leaving perfect circular tracks in the snow.

Illinois   winter   snow   Channohon   (Image credit: Michael Dauzvardis)