Hole in the Clouds

June 2010


Jun 7, 2010


As the latest entry in an irregular series on places I've never been and know next to nothing about, consider this image of Moroni, capital of Comoros, an island nation in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mozambique.

About 60,000 people live on the volcanic islands of the Comoro archipelago. Although the country is among the poorest on earth, armies have fought ferociously to control it, leading to twenty coups or attempted coups since the end of French colonial rule in the 1970s. Beginning in 2002, however, elections have produced governments that are said to be "more or less" stable.
Comoros is characterized by stunning volcanic scenery and spectacular, uncrowded beaches. But outside of Moroni there are no roads or tourist facilities. Government promotional literature recommends a visit only for visitors with "independent means."


landscape   cityscape   Indian Ocean   Moroni   Comoros   Africa  

The Yankees must have been ahead

Jun 11, 2010


In this picture from a couple of years ago, my cousin David Peltz (actually my mother's first cousin) snuggled down into an armchair with Toby, his wife of almost sixty years. He died last week, at the age of 83.

It may have been on the same day as this photo that David looked around at the family gathering, the good food, the comfortable surroundings, and leaned over to tell me something. "Look at all this," is what he said. "You know what? I did all right, didn't I?"

I'm guessing that the tone for this observation may have been set by David's beloved New York Yankees--they too must have done all right that evening.

But even when the Red Sox were making trouble for his boys, David did all right. He worked hard and made a good life for his family. Best of all, perhaps, he had the rare gift of seeing with his own eyes what so many people miss: he understood that he'd done all right. He could see it, and he knew to appreciate it and enjoy it. That's going to be the challenge for the rest of us now without him.


David Peltz   Donna   Yankees   Chuck   Sherry   Richie   Michele   Toby Peltz   Alexander   Myrna  

World of the World Cup

Jun 11, 2010


Last week, a NASA satellite flew over South Africa so its sensors could snap this picture of the soccer stadium, known as Soccer City, where World Cup action begins today.

The stadium itself is the white rounded rectangle in the upper right corner of the image. The three big grayish things in the middle are slag heaps, the rocky refuse of more than a century of gold-mining activity in the Johannesburg district. 

At the bottom edge of the picture is part of Diepkloof, one of the neighborhoods of Soweto. When Nelson Mandela was let out of prison in 1990, he made his first public appearance in the Soccer City stadium. In this same stadium today, the South African national team challenges Mexico in the opening game of the FIFA World Cup; sadly, Mandela, once a soccer player himself and a lifelong sportsman, is said to be too frail to attend. He is 91 years old.

As this posting goes to, um, press, Mexico has just tied South Africa, 1-1, in the opening game.

birdseye view   satellite imagery   remote sensing   Johannesburg   South Africa   Soweto   Soccer City   mining   (Image credit: NASA Advanced Land Imager)  

History in the un-making

Jun 13, 2010


What used to be the USS Barney, a guided-missile destroyer, is dismantled in drydock in what used to be the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

The Barney was commissioned in 1962 at what was then a big, bustling naval shipyard on the Delaware River in Philadelphia. For the next thirty years or so, both the ship and the shipyard were busy protecting democracy from communism and stuff. By 1995, however, the ship was decommissioned and the navy yard was partly closed, partly turned over to a private shipbuilding company, and mostly set aside as a Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility, a boneyard for old boats. 

The Barney was sold for scrap in 1995 and then again in 1999; the first contract had to be cancelled after some kind of scrapyard shenanigans. After the ship was torn to pieces in the NISMF drydock, the pieces were floated across the river on a barge, for crushing and recycling at a scrapyard in Camden, New Jersey. 

There's actually a backlog of tired, old ships in Philadelphia waiting for that final berth in drydock. Next in line for deconstruction at the moment is the USS Shreveport, which ran aground in the Suez Canal on its way home from Mogadishu, following service in the Somali conflict. The Shreveport's captain was removed from command, but a million dollars' worth of duct tape and other repairs patched up the ship well enough so it could limp through another couple of tours of duty. Nowadays, it is resting in the river at the edge of a parking lot, waiting for its turn in the drydock of doom.

Philadelphia Navy Yard   U.S.S. Barney  

Voted "Best murals that nobody notices"

Jun 19, 2010


Two subtle murals on rowhouse endwalls at 22nd and Walnut streets in Philadelphia recover in shadow and reflection a long-gone church that once occupied the site that is now is a gas station.

Artist Michael Webb painted every brick on the two murals, which adorn plain stucco walls that had long been covered with graffiti. St. James Church dated back to 1870, which is the era rendered in the murals' architectural details.

Sunoco commissioned the murals in 1999, hoping to put an end to the gas station's graffiti problems. The plan worked.

cityscape   Philadelphia   Michael Webb   trompe l'oeil   mural  


Jun 20, 2010


Highbush blueberries in New Jersey are getting riper and riper these days. If you're a commercial-type blueberry and you want to grow bigger and sweeter, the rain and the muggy heat are all good.

plants   fruit  

Insignificant century

Jun 21, 2010


It would be understandable error if, assuming you had nothing to go on but this one pair of pictures, you came to the conclusion that not much of anything really happened in Europe during the twentieth century.

The top picture shows the marketplace in Ghent, Belgium, in 1900; the lower photo was taken from the same vantage point in 2010. Of course everything in this part of town--the Korenmarkt--had already survived very nearly intact from about the 11th century until photography was invented and the streetscape could be snapped at the start of the 20th century. Presumably, nothing much was happening back then in that neck of the woods.

Except for Paris, Ghent was the largest and wealthiest city in Europe until the late Middle Ages. In the United States, old parts of cities tend to survive intact if the city experiences prolonged poverty, during which time redevelopment is economically unattractive. I don't know if the same dynamic accounts for neighborhoods that last a thousand years in Flanders and the rest of Europe.

vintage   streetscape   Ghent   Belgium  

Above the weather

Jun 23, 2010


Members of Deering High School's Outdoors Club head back down the hill and into the weather after summiting mile-high Mt. Katahdin recently, the highest peak in Maine and northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail.

As they followed the trail on down into the clouds, they got rained on but good. Fortunately, their youthful high spirits proved to be waterproof.

landscape   Maine   mountains   Mt. Katahdin   (Image credit: Hank Stein)  

Sunshine in

Jun 25, 2010


The ninth annual Solar Decathlon International is under way in Madrid; teams from seventeen universities in Europe, Asia, and the Americas have built solar-powered houses for the competition.

Almost all the entries are box-shaped houses topped by complicated solar panels. This one is different; can you guess where it's from? The Institute of Advanced Architecture in Barcelona, where it was designed for a climate in which cooling as opposed to heating is a major challenge. 

"The twentieth century was the architectural age of form follows function," notes the statement accompanying this entry. "The twenty-first century is the age of form follows energy."

The winning house will be named next week. I'll try to keep you posed.

Spain   Barcelona   house   Institute of Advanced Architecture   solar energy  


Jun 26, 2010

 We have all seen pictures of the oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico; this is the one that put a catch in my breath today.

Nicole Kesterson of Gulf Shores, Alabama, is snapping a picture at the public beach near Gulf Shores State Park, while blackened surf splashes down onto the sand. Used to be, Gulf Shores and nearby beaches were characterized by what people called "sugar sand"--fine, white, perfect, clean quartz crystalline sand. I've seen tarballs there before--Gulf oil platforms are visible from many parts of the beach--but black waves of crude are something else again.

Picture these gentle little waves roughed up and built into mountains by a hurricane--Atlantic and Gulf waters are warmer this summer than ever before in human history, and hurricanes are the earth's major mechanism for dealing with hot spots of subtropical water. The oil will come crashing inland, obviously, surging for miles to flood uncleanable marshes and swamps. And evidence is accumulating that thanks to BP's massive use of dispersants, oil will also likely be sucked up into the sky; oil vapor will gather in the clouds along with water vapor to rain poison down on us all.

For what it's worth, the good news is that mosquitoes don't do well in oily environments. 

I have spent enough time among geologists to accept that all substantial reservoirs of oil on the planet will eventually be tapped for human use. But what I hear about energy policy in America these days seems completely backwards to me: why aren't we letting the Saudis and the Russians let their wells run dry before we tap into our own precious reserves? Countries with no other source of income or with desperate economic problems have no choice but to sell off all their oil as quickly as possible. We're rich enough to wait for a while, and as the rest of the world's oil disappears, ours becomes more and more valuable. Perhaps eventually it will be worth so much that oil companies will be cautious not to risk spilling a drop.

Or whatever.

Alabama   beach   Nicole Kesterson   BP   oil   Gulf Shores   (Image credit: John David Mercer of the Mobile Press-Register)  


Jun 29, 2010


Some days, seems like nothing in the world will make life worth living other than a picture of cute babies or puppies. This one popped up when I asked the Flickr photo site to show a dozen photos chosen at random.

children   (Image credit: unknown)