Hole in the Clouds

June 2012

Meanwhile, Back on the Block

Jun 2, 2012

I don't know how the story began, but this young robin wound up on a neighbor's doorstep the other day. People put out a bowl of birdseed, which didn't seem to interest the bird; it just sat there all huddled on the steoop, occasionally squawking for its mother.

Mama robin was in fact close by, keeping a watch from a nearby tree. Baby and mother chattered frequently, and occasionally mom flew down with some food for the baby.

A second young robin about the same size as this one was also in the area, hopping about and flying at least a little. Perhaps this bird on the stoop had lost its mobility after a flying lesson gone awry or some other accident.

Even though mama bird had not abandoned her stricken young, the situation was dire. Alone on a city stoop, the baby was at the mercy of neighborhood dogs, cats, chilly night winds, and thunderstorms. And if it couldn't fly, it would never be able to take proper care of itself.

I don't know how the story ended, but the next day the stoop was empty.

streetscape   Philadelphia   Kater Street   bird   baby animals   stoop  

Tree Quizzo

Jun 8, 2012

Curly needles? What's that about?

This is the only tree of its kind in the horticultural specimens area of Fairmount Park, and to the best of my recollection, it's the only one of its ilk I've ever noticed anywhere. The needles are long, curly, and soft. The tree is large, with an undistinguished, slightly disheveled, coniferous sort of habit.

The tree identification guides on the internet didn't work for me, so I'm turning to y'all: for all the tea in China, can you help me out on this?

tree   Fairmount Park   conifer   Horticultural Center   Philly  

We Are the World

Jun 9, 2012

In this map, each of the fifty states has been renamed for the country that matches it most closely in terms of overall economic activity; in other words, the country's gross national product is similar in size to the state's gross domestic product.

For example, if California were its own country, it would have the eighth largest economy in the world, comparable to that of Italy. And if Illinois were its own country--big, bustling, wealthy Illinois--its economy would be comparable in size to that of . . . Turkey? When did Turkey crash this party?

I'm pretty certain that the data shouldn't be used like this; there must be good econometric reasons why countries and states can't be compared so easily, on the basis of a single number. But hey. In 2007, a Norwegian software consultant named Carl Størmer posted a version of this map using older data, and I decided to update it--partly to see if the country-state similarities have changed (they really haven't), but mostly as an excuse to play with a really cool map.

I love seeing all those foreign countries mapped in all the wrong places, and all those American states mislabeled so ridiculously. I like seeing that I grew up in Denmark and recently moved from Ecuador to Indonesia. Who wouldn't like that?

map   economics   countries   United States   gross domestic product   gross national product  

Pulling Bull

Jun 11, 2012

Ramon Toye, a 250-pound guard for the Southern Maine Raging Bulls football team, was out on the tarmac at the Portland airport this past weekend pulling really, really hard for about five or six seconds. Apparently, that's how long it takes a typical team of twenty-five determined individuals to pull a 127,520-pound cargo plane a distance of 12 feet, which is the timed challenge for this annual competition.

The Raging Bulls and a couple of dozen other teams--entrants included a bank, a church, a gym, the Scarborough Police Department, the Shipyard Brew Crew, and of course a chiropractic office--pull the plane as a fundraiser for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

In the fall, the Bulls play football in the AAA New England conference; last season they went 7-3, placing second behind Lowell in the Northern Division. The rest of the year they pull airplanes and participate in other community service activities.

Portland   Maine   Ramon Toye   National MS Society   FedEx   Raging Bulls Football  

Beach Science

Jun 14, 2012

"I send you two pictures of Tahiti," writes my brother, Chuck-the-nuclear-astrophysicist. "Captain Cook was sent to Tahiti to observe the 1769 transit of Venus (Venus passing in front of the sun). He then had secret orders to search for Australia, which he found.  I saw the 2012 transit from Point Venus, a beautiful sandy beach on the northwest corner of the Island, where Captain Cook observed the 1769 transit.  It was a magical festival with lots of natives.  

"The surfing scene is from the north side of the island not far from Point Venus, while the other picture is from the opposite side of the island, on the south side of the Tahiti Iti peninsula, where the road ends."

Chuck spent a week in Tahiti, doing his scientific thing, and then he had to fly back home so he could get ready for a conference in Italy. It's a tough life, nuclear astrophysics, but somebody's got to do it.

landscape   beach   ocean   Tahiti   Transit of Venus   (Image credit: Charles Horowitz)  

Dollar Dresses

Jun 15, 2012

Back in 1909, high school graduation day was something like prom night nowadays; it had become so expensive and extravagant that the editors of the New York Times were fussing about it.

A girl's graduation dress might cost $10--$280 today--or even more. At the city's Washington Irving High School, the dressmaking department came up with the idea of dollar dresses--fabric, trimming, thread, buttons, etc., all purchased for less than one dollar total--to be sewn by the graduate herself. Twenty-seven girls in the class of 1909 took up the challenge, and according to the New York Times, all twenty-seven dresses were indistinguishable from the expensive ones worn by their classmates on commencement day.

In 1905 my grandmother sewed herself a wedding dress that looked much like these dresses. Assuming that the fabric and notions must have cost her about dollar, she would have earned the money by selling a hundred glasses of seltzer at a penny apiece, and then washing all hundred glasses.

New York City   (h/t: Shorpy)   Washington Irving High School   senior   dresses   sewing  

Heat Wave

Jun 20, 2012

They say we could hit 100 today, or if not today then tomorrow. Which of course brings to mind the proverbial cold day in . . . Alabama, back in approximately 1989, when Forest Lake froze over solid and young Ted put on a scarf and a red hat and went out for an adventure on ice.  You may be able to make out a dark blob just behind his left shoulder; that was a log we put out to set a limit on the adventure; beyond that point, we weren't sure how thin the ice might be, and Alabama kids didn't know from thin ice.

The thing about a cold day in Alabama is: if it's cold enough to freeze a lake, it's certainly cold enough to freeze everybody's plumbing, which is not insulated well enough to function in serious winter. We had an ax that we used to chop holes in that ice so we could get buckets of water to keep the toilet flushing.

Tuscaloosa   Alabama   kids   Forest Lake   winter   Ted   ice  


Jun 22, 2012

In the winter of 1957, my little sister Carol and I posed for a picture on the hood of my grandfather's Chevy, in the driveway next to our house in Silver Spring, Maryland. The house in the background across the street was identical to ours and to all the others in the neighborhood.

Neighborhoods like ours were called GI tracts back then, new subdivisions built for the baby-booming families of World War II veterans, who bought the houses with no down payment and bargain-rate VA mortgages. Every house was soon overflowing with kids; seven children grew up in that house across the street, and the houses on either side of ours both held six children. We never ran out of kids to play with.

A brand new school was built for us; it opened the year before I started kindergarten and was overcrowded from day one. But it was only a few short years, maybe fifteen or twenty, before the demographic bulge had moved on and MacDonald Knolls Elementary School actually closed down for lack of kids. The school building is now privately owned, used for office space with a small daycare center in one former classroom.

The neighborhood in general has morphed from GI tract to what I guess would be designated an ethnic community; most of the families living there now are Vietnamese, as are the businesses in nearby shopping centers.

I took the picture below of our old house about five years ago. It's a leafy, tree-shaded kind of place now, which was definitely not the case back in the day, though neighbors had put out small trees, supported by guy wires that we used to trip over. The house itself looks well-kept and largely unchanged, except for new windows and siding and a fancy new storm door.

Perhaps the most significant change is in the driveway: there are two cars there now, which is perfectly normal in 21st-century America, but back in the 1950s each family had only a single car. On Monday mornings, after the fathers drove off to work, the neighborhood was pretty much empty of cars and we kids had the streets to ourselves.

The second car is necessary because middle-class life now requires a second wage-earner. I read recently that since the Great Recession more and more households are needing a third wage-earner to make ends meet; new household formation in this country is almost at a standstill.

kids   cars   Maryland   streetscape   1950s   winter   Ellen   Carol   houses   Benson Terrace   Silver Spring   boots  

Bad Photo of a Good Cabbage

Jun 23, 2012

This picture needs something to suggest the scale of what we're looking at in the University of Alaska botanical garden in Fairbanks. The person in the background isn't really close enough to the cabbage that's the center of attention here. But perhaps, if you know about those Alaska cabbages that top out at 50 or 100 pounds or suchlike, inspired by sunshine 24 hours a day, then you can freely imagine the scale and be appropriately impressed. (Hint: Think Little Shop of Horrors.)

landscape   garden   summer   Alaska   Fairbanks  

Omar Little

Jun 24, 2012

John and Bonnie in Seattle have a new dog, a year-old Boston terrier they call Omar Little, in memory of the best of the bad guys on The Wire. If the dog is really like the character, then he'll only rob or kill other bad guys, and once a month he'll take his mother to church.

dog   Bonnie   Seattle   JJ   The Wire  

Fortified for the Flogging

Jun 27, 2012

This 1796 engraving, "A Surinam Planter in his Morning Dress," is from an etching by William Blake, based on a sketch by John Gabriel Stedman. Stedman spent five years in Surinam in the 1770s as an officer in a troop of 800 European mercenaries hired by the Dutch to suppress marauding bands of escaped slaves, who were hiding in the swamps and rainforest at the periphery of plantation lands and raiding the plantations in search of provisions, weapons, and new escapees.

The military mission was a failure; more and more slaves fled the plantations, casting their fate with the maroons, as the escaped slaves were called. In response, the planters of Surinam attempted to impose more and more draconian discipline--though obviously, as this picture suggests, they exempted themselves entirely from any discipline whatsoever.

The planter's "morning dress" consists of his nightclothes, robe, and slippers, plus a ridiculous sunhat. He had to get up early and go out for a stroll across the grounds of his plantation in order to supervise the flogging of his slaves, a daily routine considered critical to plantation life. Stedman believed that the beatings were particularly brutal in Surinam, partly because many slaves were believed to be aiding and abetting the maroons and partly because a lively slave trade from Africa provided ready replacements for anyone crippled or killed by the overseer's lash.

To fortify the planter for his morning ritual, a slave hovers nearby with a carafe of wine. Alcohol and tobacco would presumably get him through this rough assignment, until he can go back to the house and change out of these workclothes to prepare for the social rounds that would occupy the remainder of his day.

During John Stedman's years in Surinam he became increasingly critical of the social structure his soldiers were fighting to uphold; the slaves were severely mistreated, and the planters were dissolute and worthless. Stedman recounts that he fell in love with a beautiful woman in Surinam, a slave named Joanna; he arranged for her emancipation, and they married and had a son, Johnny Stedman. But John Stedman Sr. eventually returned to Europe without Joanna or Johnny, claiming that Joanna refused to go to a land where she knew she would not be welcomed. She died a few years later, and Johnny was sent to England to live with his father, who had already remarried and begun a second family.

By all accounts, John Stedman favored Johnny over the children he had with his new wife, who refused to accept Johnny into the household. The boy was sent to boarding school and eventually joined the British navy as a midshipman. He was still a teenager when he died at sea.

His father, meanwhile, wrote up his recollections of Surinam and submitted them for publication, along with sketches that were parceled out among professional engravers, including William Blake. The book was an international bestseller, translated into five languages. Blake and Stedman became good friends, though philosophically they had almost nothing in common.

As much as Stedman despised the life he saw in Surinam, he clung to a belief that some form of slavery could be not only moral but necessary. Only after his death was a chapter about Joanna excerpted from his book and published as an abolitionist pamphlet.

racism   slavery   Surinam   John Gabriel Stedman   Johnny Stedman   white men can't jump   1796   colony   plantations   (Image credit: William Blake)  

Master Matt

Jun 29, 2012

Matt Salomon models the gown he wore at commencement a couple of weeks ago, when the business school at Drexel conferred an MBA upon him. The sleeves of the gown end in batwing sort of flaps at the wrists, a feature not found in most academic regalia.

Matt   commencement   MBA   graduation   Drexel   Melissa