Hole in the Clouds

April 2012

What the Girls Have Been Up To

Apr 3, 2012

Last week, in Portland, Maine, in the combined first- and second-grade class at Longfellow School, Emily Wiggin and her classmates made a mosaic table for a silent auction fundraiser. The winning bid on Saturday night was $200, and somehow, on Sunday morning, there was the table in the Wiggin living room.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, kindergartner Lily Sklaver spent the week learning to ride her bike without training wheels or pedals; by last night, when she had that balancing thing under control, the pedals went back on and she took off flying down the street.

Emily   Maine   children   art   streetscape   Philadelphia   Lily   mosaic  


Apr 4, 2012

This rufous-sided towhee–aka Eastern towhee–is bathing in a creek in Randolph County, North Carolina. Red eyes are natural with towhees.

In case you were thinking that these Eastern towhees are really living the life, you should be aware that they commonly suffer severe bullying by mean girls of the somewhat larger Brownheaded Cowbird species. Cowbirds lay eggs almost constantly, like chickens, up to 40 a year, far more than they could ever raise themselves in nests of their own. So they lay their eggs in other birds' nests; they'll take advantage of any convenient nest regardless of the type of bird that built it, but towhees, who nest on the ground, are among their favorite surrogate brooders and baby-raisers.

In some parts of the country, more than 50% of towhee nests contain cowbird eggs in addition to towhee eggs. Some species of birds can tell the difference and will actually push the cowbird eggs right out of the nest, but towhees aren't that smart. Cowbirds, on the other hand, are very smart; to give their own eggs a better chance of survival, and to prevent discovery of what they've deposited in the nest by nest-owners who might know how to count, cowbirds often push some of the towhee eggs out of the nest when they lay their own.

Even worse, the cowbird babies grow faster and bigger than the towhee babies and soon muscle the towhees aside to claim all the food. They sometimes even knock the baby towhees right out of their own nest.

And even worse than that, because towhee nests are on the ground, under bushes, baby towhees may also be victimized by . . . our own sweet little Dobby the Miniature Dog. I believe that Dobby–who is terrified of cats and won't bark at the mailman until he's safely upstairs and under the covers–got himself a towhee last summer while I had him on a leash, waiting for a light to change at a busy intersection right in Center City, Philadelphia. Dobby suddenly dived into a brushy patch, and it was bye-bye, birdie.

Personally, I can't tell one species of cute, innocent, harmless baby bird from another. Maybe it wasn't a towhee, just some other kind of ground-nesting bird living under the bushes of Philadelphia. But thanks to the google, I found a website called ebird, on which I could locate 6 different lists of birds sighted by 3 different bird-watchers within a quarter-mile or so of where Dobby did the deed. Every single list included towhees.

I want to believe, however, that the baby that Dobby dispatched was not a towhee but . . . maybe a cowbird?

North Carolina   bird   creek   Randolph County   (Image credit: Floyd Austin)  

Woman with a Drill

Apr 5, 2012

In February 1943, this unnamed woman was at work in the Vultree aircraft plant in Nashville, Tennessee, building a Vengeance Dive-Bomber.

Among the hundreds of thousands of photos commissioned by the government in the 1930s and early 1940s to document economic-recovery programs and the war effort, only a handful, including this one, were in color. After three-quarters of a century, the color images seem to suggest a world that is much more familiar to us today, much less shadowy and distant than the  shades-of-gray America that is portrayed so dramatically in the more famous black and white works of the era.

Aircraft parts–fuselage panels, wings, and doors–are still manufactured today at the Vultree site in Nashville, which is now operated as part of the Vought subdivision of Triumph Aerostructures.

Nashville   Tennessee   work   World War II   aircraft   (Image credit: Alfred T. Palmer)  

Spill the Wine

Apr 6, 2012

When Jewish families gather round the dinner table tonight for seders commemorating the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, they will read from books called haggadahs: collections of biblical passages, prayers, hymns, rabbinic discourse, and social commentary. The page above is from an eight-hundred-year-old haggadah from Catalonia, illuminated very much like Christian texts of its era. In the picture, as in the bible, Israelites are crossing the Red Sea via miraculous passageways of dry land, while all around them the Egyptian army is drowning in the waves.

The bearded man near the upper left, holding a shepherd's crook, is Moses. Some of the other Israelites are carrying sacks and baskets and jugs and candlesticks and other household items, but many more bear swords and shields. They are an army, fighting their way out of Egypt.

Modern hagaddahs tell the story with less of a military emphasis. The people were all slaves; then God and Moses helped them escape. During Passover, Jews are asked to remember that even today there are people on earth who suffer in slavery and ache for freedom.

The story has it that God made the Egyptian people suffer dreadful plagues; Pharoah's soldiers, as seen here, were all drowned. Freedom from bondage is something to celebrate, but plagues and drowning, even of the enemy, are not. To prevent excessive, inappropriate celebration, the passover seder requires reducing the amount of wine in each cup–only by a few drops, but still.

Raise a glass, drink to freedom. But drink a little less.


medieval   Hagaddah   13th century   Jews   Exodus   illuminated manuscript   (Image credit: Rylands Library via bibliodyssey2lj)  


Apr 8, 2012

As peeps season approaches its annual crescendo, the Washington Post solicits entries for its Peeps Diorama competition. The winning diorama, not pictured here, was one of the numerous efforts portraying the OccuPeep movement. Other themes drawing multiple entries: Newt Gingrich's plan for a moon colony, Downton Abbey on TV, the raid on Osama Bin Laden, Madonna at the Super Bowl, and an old standby: peep holes.

Among my favorites: "Chicks are Peep-le too" (a reenactment of a 1917 suffragist demonstration in front of the White House);  and a send-up of Steven Colbert's Super PAC and Mitt Romney's most memorable contribution to the political lexicon: "Corporations are peep-le, too."

Above is an example of another frequent meme: Steve Jobs in the afterlife. This one is titled "iHeaven: The New Project."

Only a couple of entries tackled difficult scientific issues, such as the neutrino controversy, "Faster than the Peep of Light," and Father Time's struggle to assemble February 29, 2012 from leftover quarter-peeps.

Below is one of the largest and most spectacular of the dioramas, "Peep-ius Maximus":


Mars   Washington Post   peeps   diorama   Steve Jobs   Romney   Steven Colbert   Newt Gingrich   Apple  


Apr 10, 2012

Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Alabama Shakes, released her first CD today and played to a sold-out house last night at World Cafe in Philadelphia. I'm not a music reviewer; I won't try to describe or evaluate the performance, but I sure wouldn't quibble with the critics who have been comparing Howard to Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, James Brown, and just about every other legendary rock-soul-blues singer. She's got Brown's energy and Joplin's wail and Redding's sweetness and even a little of Hank Williams's falsetto--plus the whole history of rock and roll in the songs she writes and the licks she picks.

The rest of the band is tight and fine, but they're just along for the ride.

What do you think?

music   rock   Brittany Howard   Janis Joplin   Muscle Shoals   soul   blues   Athens, Alabama   Alabama Shakes  


Apr 17, 2012

Another sample from the Library of Congress's small collection of color photos from the 1930s and 1940s, this one shows a woman working with aerial photos to develop camouflaging for airfields and critical factories during World War II.

Camouflage experts at New York University would use the aerial photos to build a model of an area that included the facility to be camouflaged. Then they would paint over the facility on the model until it blended in with its surroundings. Aircraft plants on the West Coast were covered with acres of canvas and plywood painted and sculpted to resemble suburban subdivisions. Airstrips were painted to look like small-town streets and farmland from the air.

Not everything was so easy to camouflage; ships at sea, for example, proved impossible to hide no matter how they were painted. A completely different approach, known as dazzle camouflage, was devised for ships; they were painted with crazy stripes at jagged angles, visible from afar but very different to interpret as to size, direction, and speed of movement.

Some fighter planes were painted pale pink, a color that was thought to show up as white or grayish, like clouds, at high angles of intense sunlight.

This photo looks posed, and the woman may be a model rather than a serious camouflage authority; she is holding the aerial photo more or less upside down with respect to the model she's supposedly painting.

art   World War II   1942   camouflage   New York University   (Image credit: Office of War Information)  

Church and Comcast

Apr 19, 2012

The 199-year-old dome of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church is reflected at the base of the four-year-old Comcast Center office tower, tallest building in Philadelphia and fifteenth-tallest in the United States.

The black cube-like structure at the top of the blue-glass tower is said to be a water tank containing 300,000 gallons of water. The weight of the water–thirteen hundred tons–helps keep the building from swaying in high winds. The Comcast Center's Tuned Liquid Column Damper is touted as the largest watery building-stabilization system in the world.

The 58-story tower is 974 feet high. The cable company uses about 90 percent of the building's one million square feet of office space and leases out the rest.

Comcast touts numerous energy-saving features of the tower, notably including waterless urinals, which were opposed by the plumbers' union. The dispute was resolved by an agreement that included installation of plumbing to all the waterless urinals in case they didn't work out and had to be replaced by conventional urinals.

cityscape   Philadelphia   skyline   Center City   Comcast Center   Arch Street Presbyterian Church  


Apr 20, 2012

The entire 3800 block of Melon Street, in the Mantua neighborhood of West Philly, got a new coat of paint last summer, thanks to the city's Mural Arts Program and a couple of dozen kids in the neighborhood who apparently are not-so-distant relatives of Tom Sawyer.

A new mural isn't going to transform a block, much less a neighborhood. A new coat of paint, even all at once on every house on the block, is unlikely to catalyze dramatic transformation. By all accounts, this was a block and neighborhood that needed a whole lot more than fresh paint. This particular paint job was part of a complex mural-arts project intended to focus attention on the problem of youth homelessness, but that problem, along with Mantua's many other social and economic afflictions, is still very much with us.

Even so, people in fancy neighborhoods aren't the only ones who deserve pleasant surroundings, handsome streetscapes. Melon Street may still be Melon Street, but there's no way this paint job made life there any worse.

streetscape   Philadelphia   mural   West Philly   Melon Street   Mantua   (Image credit: Steve Weinik)  

999,999 to go

Apr 22, 2012

This tree was the very first one that got itself planted Saturday morning by these tree-planting students; immediately after posing for this tree-planting graduation photo, the class split up into crews and planted about fifteen more trees around the neighborhood, as part of Philadelphia's Million Trees Project.

This is a gingko tree, apparently the Fairmount Park gingko variety developed in Philadelphia specifically for urban settings. It has a more columnar growth habit than other gingkos, making it useful on narrow sidewalks or in other locations where there's little room for trees with spreading canopies. Frank Lloyd Wright was said to particularly admire the Fairmount Park gingkos, which he often utilized in landscaping around houses he designed in the Chicago area.

streetscape   tree   Philadelphia   neighborhood   Lombard Street   Derrick   Friends of Schuylkill River Park   Fairmount Park Gingko  


Apr 24, 2012

Today's news brought to our attention yet another new crime: CTLOYOHWB, changing the locks on your own house while black. When 61-year-old Jean-Joseph Kalonji and his 57-year-old wife Angelica were caught doing just that the other day in Porterdale, Georgia, they were held at gunpoint by neighbors and then jailed overnight by police.

Fortunately, this time, nobody got shot, but the terror of having strangers hold him prisoner with semi-automatic rifles pointed at his back reminded Kalonji of the violence he had fled when he came to America in the late 1990s as a refugee from Mugabe's Zaire, now Congo. Angelica Kalonji is also an immigrant, from Romania.

The couple was hoping to build a soccer field on the 11-acre property; their son Bruno is a coach in Atlanta.

Among Bruno Kalonji's young soccer players were the children of a high-powered Atlanta attorney, Don Samuel. Samuel took on the case for free, and when he showed up in town, the Kalonjis were released from jail and all charges against them (loitering and prowling) were dropped.

It's been reported that charges may be filed against the gun-toting neighbors, no doubt to take the heat off the idiots in the police department. The Kalonjis have postponed their move into their new home.

These pictures are from Angelica Kalonji's Facebook page; they show the couple's daughter with her cousins during visits to Congo (above) and Romania (below).

Romania   Georgia   Kalonji   Atlanta   Porterdale   Don Samuel   Congo  

The Devil's Pocket

Apr 25, 2012

Where this building now almost stands and in the streets around it, back in the day, the neighborhood kids used to be so bold and bad that the parish priest described them as children who'd steal a chain from right out of the devil's pocket. And so this part of the neighborhood got its name, Devil's Pocket, which was home to poor people, of course, mostly Irish immigrants.

A generation or two later, a bunch of the little old houses in Devil's Pocket were torn down to build a parking garage, apparently intended for employees of the old Graduate Hospital. Most of that hospital is long gone, and now, in the spring of 2012, the wrecking ball has come for the derilict parking garage.

It sounds a little cheeky, but by this time next year, there will be fancy new condos right here in the Devil's Pocket. And the wrecking ball will toll for some other something.

cityscape   streetscape   demolition   Philadelphia   construction   neighborhood   Graduate Hospital   urban decay  

What Mr. D Can See

Apr 27, 2012

"Video pipe specialist," says the sign on the side of Mr. D's plumbing truck. "We can see underground."

The truck and a backhoe blocked Kater Street for most of the day yesterday, but the job didn't look too video-intensive. According to the man with the shovel, who ought to know, "a couple of feet" of sewer line needed replacing under the sidewalk in front of a house. According to the new owner of the house, the problem had been picked up during a pre-sale inspection, forcing the old owner to foot the bill. "Up to a limit," said the new owner. "This just better not go over the limit."

By late afternoon, the backhoe had filled the hole, and the new owner was standing in his new doorway, roller and empty paint tray in one hand, phone in the other. "It went great," he said, while he texted one-handed. "Soon as I finish the painting we can move in."

streetscape   Philadelphia   Kater Street   work   construction   plumbing   digging  

Mary Mary

Apr 29, 2012

I wasn't brought up around a lot of nuns, to put it mildly, so I'm sure I don't appreciate all the levels of meaning of costume nunnery, or whatever you want to call it–the, um, habit of showing up at a party dressed up as a nun.

I sure do like it, though.

This is Sister Mary Mary, as she introduced herself, a member of an occasional order of bowling nuns. She and her sisters made an appearance the other night at North Lanes in Philadelphia for a fundraiser benefiting the Women's Medical Fund, which provides emergency financial help for medical procedures that may not be  officially sanctioned by the bosses of real nuns.

Philadelphia   Women's Medical Fund   bowling   nuns