Hole in the Clouds

April 2011

Steel-Toed Birds

Apr 3, 2011

The revolutions of 2011 in the Arab world have been televised all over the planet. Here in Philadelphia, I could sit on my sofa and watch in real time as hundreds of thousands of people assembled in Tahrir Square in Cairo, people who have been shut out of political life for generations, even centuries, yet who somehow knew just where to go to alert the world to their cause, and when to go there, and what to say and how to say it

The choreography behind those demonstrations, it soon became evident, was digital: tweets and texts and emails and Facebook updates.  Is new media creating a new world order? Researchers struggled to collect the tweets and analyze them semantically, in hopes of more closely apprehending the social and intellectual underpinnings of the Arab revolutions. All that was missing was an app.

Tweets, it turns out, aren't all that easy to assemble for analysis. By design, they aren't available after seven days. To do the job properly requires software optimized for twitter mining; it has to scan the twitter universe constantly in search of tweets sent to or from certain users and/or containing certain hashtags or vocabulary; the tweets identified in this way then have to be archived in a searchable database.

Ted at Inner File Software was the twitter miner of the hour. He sat down at his machine and went to work on building the world a better twitter miner. The open-source software he designed, which runs in conjunction with Drupal, a web content management system to which Ted is a contributor, is only a couple of weeks old but has already extracted and stored more than a million tweets.

Best of all, he notes: "No digital canaries were harmed in the making of this twitter mine."

I wouldn't be much of a mother, would I, if I didn't suggest that you go on ahead and check out the company Ted is building around this fantastical new tool for twitter data mining and semantic analysis? Also, the open source twitter miner project.

Ted Stein   data mining   revolution   semantic analysis   tweets   software   twitter   (Image credit: Brian Beun)  

She'll be comin round the mountain

Apr 4, 2011

After walking three days uphill from the nearest road, my sister and me, we reached Ghorepani, which as you can see is just one little valley over from the sacred mountain called Fishtail. We'd started out in subtropical rice-and-banana-growing country and climbed up into just-barely-spring-with-patches-of-snow-and-ice country.

I am blessed with a sister who can make this sort of thing happen, who can move Himalayas if necessary to get stuff done. If the arrangements had been left up to me, I'd probably still be sitting at home fretting over the possible significance of Nepal's time zone (15 minutes ahead of India). I really, really lucked out in my choice of a sister.

landscape   mountains   Nepal   Ghorepani   Ellen   Himalayas   Carol   Fishtail  

The Many Webs of Pakistan

Apr 6, 2011

Last summer, when floodwaters swamped one-fifth of all the land in Pakistan, spiders were among the creatures struggling to escape the rising waters. Spiders moved up into the trees, while the water on the ground stayed high for so long that the new eight-legged tree-dwellers had plenty of time to spin web upon web among the branches.

Today, many of the trees of Pakistan are tangled up in spiderwebs. And it has been reported that many of the mosquitoes of Pakistan have been snagged in the webs, resulting in a much smaller than anticipated post-flood mosquito problem.

Pakistan   animals   (h/t: Cathy Goldwater)   flood   spiders   insects   (Image credit: National Geographic)  

Up to code in Kathmandu, #4

Apr 7, 2011

From my sister's collection of Kathmandu signs and posters:The political poster reflects Nepal's very recent revolution, in which the king was overthrown for a parliamentary democracy. The leading party in parliament is the Maoists, but they didn't quite win a majority of seats; to govern, the Maoists had to form a coalition with the Marxist-Leninists. From what we heard, parliament wasn't doing much of anything and had repeatedly failed to write a constitution.

Nepal's official communism does not seem to stop Nepalis from operating clearly capitalistic businesses, and the country is currently experiencing a heated real estate boom.


streetscape   Nepal   Kathmandu   signs   (Image credit: Carol Fuchs)  


Apr 8, 2011

Norman turned sixty this week, and we celebrated with veggie burgers and cake. I forgot to take pictures, so we'll have to make do with this shot of the children of Sunshine Day Care celebrating the sixtieth birthday of Sparky the Fire Dog.

Sparky the Fire Dog   Sunshine Day Care  

Exotic Animals #1

Apr 10, 2011

Fifteenth-century pilgrims to the Middle East, upon returning to Europe in 1486, published an account of their journey. "These animals were faithfully painted just as we saw them in the Holy Land," they reported. "Giraffe. Crocodile. Indian goat. Unicorn. Camel. Salamander. The name of this one is not known."

animals   medieval   Mideast  

Exotic Animals #2

Apr 11, 2011

A billboard in a Nepali village along a popular trekking route hints at the animal life to be found in that part of the Himalayas. We saw pheasants and lemurs just as illustrated, but no leopards or sloth bears.

Missing from the billboard but definitely present in the underbrush: mongooses.

animals   Nepal   sign  

Cherry Blossoms

Apr 13, 2011

This time of year, in this part of the world, the greening up is happening fast, and the procession of blooms is even faster.

First came the quince, and then before the quince petals could hit the ground, the forsythia was everywhere, schooling us in the meaning of yellow. Meanwhile, up in the sky, the first trees to let loose were Japanese magnolias, with blooms as soft and big as a baby's head and so ridiculously showy that the other trees don't even try to match them. Down on the ground, crocuses went over to daffodils, and in pots and boxes there were suddenly big happy pansies and delicate little violas.

But those were the warm-up acts. Here in the mid-Atlantic states, the star of springtime is the Japanese cherry tree, with branches that arc so heavy with blooms that it's an excuse to declare a festival. Two weeks ago in Washington and last week here in Philadelphia, official festivals drew tens of thousands of cherry-blossom admirers into the parks.

But that was then. Already, the cherry blossoms on my street have mostly drifted on down to the pavement. In the spotlight now are plum trees and redbuds and an old-fashioned kind of ornamental pear tree; its clouds of flowers look just like apple blossoms but smell like . . . like . . . old fish?

And soon enough, or almost soon enough, we'll move on to dogwoods and azaleas and tulips and then my personal favorites, the lilacs. Then it gets hot, and that's it for spring.

My brother-in-law Sandy Fuchs took this picture during a recent walk through the Kenwood neighborhood of Bethesda; I remember riding a school bus through Kenwood on my way to junior high school, tunneling through the flowers.

flowers   spring   Bethesda, MD   (Image credit: Sandy Fuchs)  

Sweet Home Annapurna

Apr 14, 2011

At 26,040 feet (8091 meters), the summit of Annapurna, tenth highest mountain in the world, is more than half a mile lower than the peak of Everest. Even so, Annapurna is the most dangerous mountain in the world to climb; only 153 climbers have ever made it to the top, and 58 have died trying.

Annapurna is a huge massif with five major peaks. Here, at left above the village of Ghandruk and its green fields of millet, is Annapurna South, elevation 23,684 feet (7219 meters). The spur to its right, known as Himchati, just under 23,000 feet high, was first climbed in the 1960s, by a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Nepal.

The name Annapurna is Sanskrit; a literal translation is "full of food," or "well-rounded." It is associated traditionally with the feminine form and with goddesses of the kitchen and the harvest, and more generally with Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth.

The rightmost mountain in the picture above is Machhapuchhare–Fishtail–sacred to the god Shiva and off-limits to climbers. It has never been summitted.

The village Ghandruk is a day's walk uphill from the nearest road, including a climb up a staircase containing–if the trail sign is to be believed–more than 8,000 stone steps. My sister struggled diligently to keep count but could neither confirm nor disprove the official number. I was much too winded to try anything as complicated as counting; all I could do was huff and puff and sweat and whine.

Ghandruk is a village of Ghurkas, the renowned warriors. Military service has entitled some of the Ghurkas to emigrate to Britain or to work in such far-flung places as Singapore, and it is said that the village's main source of income is remittances from abroad. One man told us his son was working as a policeman in Singapore; he also told us that in Ghandruk his son went by the name "Big Sexy."

A day's walk uphill from Ghandruk is a village called Tadapani, where Annapurna seemed much bigger and closer (below). The solar water heater on the roof of our inn was working fine, but there were way too many of us hoping for hot showers. We saw solar heaters and panels all over Nepal, even in places where poles and wires brought in power from the grid.

Also, everywhere we went, even in Kathmandu with its three million inhabitants, the practice of "load sharing" shut down the electricity every few hours. We were told that outages were according to schedule and that a schedule for the coming week could be read in the newspaper, but we never saw a schedule and were always caught by surprise.

landscape   mountains   Nepal   Ghandruk   Himalayas   Tadapani   village  

The Ides of April

Apr 15, 2011

The guy behind the desk with the papers in his hands and the moneybags scattered all about–today is his day, April 15. He's the taxman, and he owns us.

Sometime between 1620 and 1640, the Flemish artist Pieter Breughel the Elder painted this scene, "Paying the Tax." The original painting was lost long ago, but we know it through some forty copies painted by the artist's son, Pieter Breughel the Younger.

Nothing subtle here. The villagers are struggling to settle up with eggs and produce and promises; the clerks are slovenly and unsympathetic, and the head taxman is all decked out in royal purple. Got the picture?

painting   Pieter Breughel the Younger   tax   Flemish art   1620–1640  

Little Brother's Ice Cream Cone

Apr 17, 2011

Leaning against the family's 1955 DeSoto after a summer-vacation day with the leaping dolphins at Marineland, the California boys at right and their cousins from Texas settle back to enjoy an ice cream cone. Except for little brother at far right, who's not enjoying the moment all that much; his ice cream rolled off the cone and plopped down at his feet in the parking lot. . . .

Nothing says the 1950s like jeans rolled up at the bottom and a big DeSoto in a big parking lot.

car   children   brothers   summer   California   1956   cousins   Marineworld   (via Shorpy)  

Down the Up Staircase

Apr 18, 2011

That's my sister's boot toe and walking stick probing for the next step as she prepares to work her way down a mountainside in Nepal.

Nepali trekking trails, at least in the vegetated, more or less inhabited zones of the Himalayas, are mostly paved with stones, and the steep stretches are fashioned into endless rocky staircases. Donkeys can climb the staircases with ease, as can most Nepalis and probably even fit young Americans.

Building the staircases was part of the terracing project that has occupied Nepalese farmers for centuries. Rocks were pried up out of the soil and redeployed into retaining walls for thousands of tiny terraces, holding back the hillsides so that plows pulled by buffalo could work the land. Over the generations, as plows and hoes and hoofs and toes have continued to kick up rocks, farmers have built themselves stone houses and connected the houses to their fields with steep, stone-paved, stone-staircased trails.

Terraces and paved trails minimize soil erosion on steep slopes. Also, if the stones are cobbled together into stairsteps along the steepest stretches, the trails can head straight up and down without switchbacks, thus facilitating travel while minimizing the amount of land removed from cultivation.

On the other hand, straight up and down the stairs is . . . well, one elderly Nepali, who was scampering up the trail as we were struggling down, paused briefly to bless our knees.

One of the staircases we struggled up was said to contain more than 8,000 steps. My sister kept count, but irregularities in the size and shape of the steps led to uncertainty as to the exact number.

Every million billion steps or so there is a rest area, also built of stone, backed up by a stone wall with a low shelf. The shelf isn't actually low enough for sitting on, but it's about the right height for resting a backpack or other burden.

Below are three more pictures of stair-stepping in the Himalayas. The terraced fields look brown and barren, not because they have been abandoned but because we were traveling early in the springtime, before most crops had sprouted.

The last picture shows a rest stop in a village, with a trail that climbs onward and upward via the staircase at the extreme right of the scene.

landscape   Nepal   trekking   Carol F.   terraced fields   steps   woods   trail   Binaye   Sandip  

Five Score and Seven Years Ago

Apr 25, 2011

This was the scene on Fifth Avenue in New York City during the 1904 Easter Parade.

Easter Parades are different from all other parades: no floats, no marching bands. They began spontaneously in the 1870s, according to what I read on the intertubes, as people got dressed up in their finest and went downtown to promenade. Easter parades still existed in Washington when I was a little girl, I believe along Connecticut Avenue. I never actually saw one in person, but I did get new clothes, new white gloves, and sometimes even a new hat with a ribbon.

If you click on this picture and study the enlarged version, there are plenty of details for your delectation: a horseless carriage amidst the horsey kind, a boy delivering flowers, men with tophats amongst the men with bowler hats. . . .

cars   streetscape   spring   New York City   horses   parade   Fifth Avenue   Easter   (Image credit: Detroit Publishing Co., via Shorpy)  

Gentlemen Prefer Peeps

Apr 26, 2011

Hard to believe it's been only six years since the Washington Post sponsored the first of its now notorious annual peeps diorama competitions. This was the winning entry that first year: Marilyn Monroe and the boys, done all in yellow chick peeps.

A quick review of the top-ranked entries over the years reveals that movie-themed dioramas like this one have faded but not disappeared. Recent winners tend to recreate scenes in the news, such as the Chilean mine rescue, in excruciating marshmallow detail.

Easter   Washington Post   peeps   diorama   contest  

Missing Links

Apr 29, 2011

The chain at the bow has been broken, but this ship's not going anywhere. She's sitting high in the water because her engine has been removed, along with every scrap of salvageable anything in her hull. She's even lost her name and her commission.

Ships come here to the Philadelphia Navy Yard to surrender to the entropy at the far side of the military-industrial universe. After months of dismantlement, they're sold as scrap and towed across the river to New Jersey.

Philadelphia Navy Yard   ship   ruins