Hole in the Clouds

January 2017

Keep Warm and Carry On

Jan 1, 2017

Great-Grandma Helen settles down with a cup of tea in Ted's little house in the woods on the mountain above Great Cacapon, West Virginia.

Earlier on that October day, she and Ted had split the stovewood to light up the night with a bright, crackly glow. The work warmed everybody twice, just as they say, but looking back from our current outpost on the frontier of the new year, we can actually feel that warmth a third time now, in our recollection of quiet fireside sorts of moments in which we rested, enjoyed good company, and eased the furrows of our brows.

Okay, so right now, it looks like we're all deep and soggy in an octopus's garden in the shade? Well, that would be a huge problem if we didn't have each other, so . . . .  Hugs.

West Virginia   Ted   fire   Helen B   tea   Tedland   wood   (Image credit: Fuji T)  

Little Bird

Jan 2, 2017

Baby Robin, almost five months old now, is our most adorable grandbaby by far. Also our only one, though this year and next are bringing many, many new babies to the wider family, each of them at least as adorable as the next.

Baby pix are sure to show up here, but in an effort to distinguish these pages from the pages of Facebook, at least some of the time we'll try to pretend that there are other subjects worth looking at ....

baby   R   grandchild   (Image credit: Bonnie Strelitz)  

Spikes on Their Toes

Jan 3, 2017

In the wintertime, Franklin Falls, in the Cascade Mountains about 60 miles east of Seattle, takes on a dual personality.

The main cataract at the center of the waterfall flows too fast and furious to freeze up tight; it roars and splashes and spits spray all winter long.

But closer to the edge, the waterfall's trickles and drips crystallize as icicles, which pile up through the winter months into layercakes of glittery, frothy ice. And this year, by mid-December, the ice at Franklin Falls was ready to be climbed.

Our man of the mountains, Hank, showed up there then with his buddies and their gear: ropes, crampons, ice axes, and optimism. They were climbers who knew their way around in the mountains, who'd put in their time conquering knife-edged ridges and post-vertical cliffs and glaciers and whiteouts and whatnot. 

None of them, as it turns out, had actually climbed a frozen waterfall before. But they must have seen it done on YouTube. They were pretty sure they would be able to figure it out.

And they did. We heard that it was a little bit scary but pretty fun, actually.

winter   waterfall   Cascades   Franklin Falls   ice climbing   Washington state   (Image credit: Hank Stein)  

The Sharing Economy

Jan 4, 2017

Some of the trolls in the 1972 masterwork d'Aulaires' Book of Trolls had a dozen heads, each one demanding to be fed first. Other trolls had a single head on their shoulders, just like humans, but perhaps with only a single eye, or else with three eyes. And then there were the trolls pictured here who had to share an eye with their troll associates, taking turns to look through it.

But there's a thing about troll eyes. They've all been pierced by a troll splinter, which skews their vision. What's good looks bad to trolls, and what's right looks wrong.

Whenever a troll explodes, which happens more often than you might think, the splinter in its eye shatters into millions of tiny needles, which are liable to pierce the eyes of people in the vicinity. And that explains why so many of us nowadays see the world all askew, prone to trollish errors of perception and judgment. 

lithograph   Ingri Mortenson d'Aulaire   children's picture book   Norse folk tales   illustration   Edgar Parin d'Aulaire   trolls  

Drumroll for the Tide

Jan 5, 2017

After Alabama won the Peach Bowl last Saturday, Ringo Starr apparently tweeted this picture of himself, along with the text "Roll Tide peace and love."

Ringo has been a Bama fan for thirty years now, thanks to his friendship with Fred Nall Hollis, a multimedia artist from south Alabama who uses the single name Nall professionally. The two met in 1986, when Nall rented a house he owned in the south of France to Ringo and his wife, Barbara Bach. They got to talking about the artwork hanging in the house, and then Ringo asked Nall if he would teach him how to draw and paint.

The art lessons continued off and on through the 1980s and '90s, and in recent years Ringo has launched an art career of his own, working in digital media.

Nall has painted two portraits of Ringo, who has become active in the work of Nall's foundation. The foundation focuses on helping artists and art students recover from addiction and create new sober, artistically vital lives for themselves.

One of Ringo's drumsticks sits among the paintbrushes in Nall's Fairhope studio.

The picture below, "Inside the Barn," is a recent creation by Nall.

For those among us who haven't been paying attention, the Crimson Tide face off against Clemson next Monday for the national championship.  Peace and Love!

football   Alabama   painting   art   Crimson Tide   Ringo Starr   Fred Nall Hollis  

Bouncing Water

Jan 7, 2017

Among the shining lights lost to the world in 2016 was Irving Olson, a Toledo, Ohio, man who died in his sleep just shy of his 103rd birthday.

He grew up hating school, though in about 1930 he did manage to stick out one semester at the University of Toledo, where he said he learned nothing interesting or useful. Over the succeeding 80 or so years, he taught himself whatever he felt like learning, whenever he felt like learning it.

He especially liked new technology, the latest thing. When he was a little boy, the latest thing was a Kodak Brownie camera, which cost one dollar; Olson taught himself to shoot pictures, and he set up a darkroom to develop and print them.

By 1930, the new thing was radio. Olson taught himself to fix radios, to build them, to build better ones. He started a one-man repair shop. By 1963, when he retired on his fiftieth birthday, his little shop had become Olson Electronics, a nationwide chain of 95 stores plus a mail order business, selling parts for radios and every other kind of electronic gizmo. Olson sold his company to a corporation that turned it into Radio Shack.

Long after he retired, he continued fiddling with and teaching himself all about new technological developments. He'd been a photographer all along, publishing travel photos and many others, but at the age of 79 he decided he had to make the switch to digital cameras and computerized photo processing. He taught himself Photoshop when he was in his nineties.

Everything came together for Olson at the age of 97. By then, he'd been retired for almost half a lifetime. He'd outlived his wife of 71 years and settled into an apartment in a senior-living community in Arizona. He'd finally stopped traveling, after visiting 135 different countries; airports were just too unpleasant, he said.

But he was still up for a challenge. And that was when he spotted an article in a technical photography journal about shooting photos of the collision of two drops of water. "I could do that," Olson thought to himself. "In fact, if I color the water, I can make it really interesting."

He turned his kitchen into a lab and got to work. After two years of experimentation, he finally had a setup that reliably produced nice pictures of drops of water banging into each other, some of them really interesting. In this context, "some of them" means that he considered about 1 picture in 500 worth keeping.

When a drop of water falls into a pan of water, it actually bounces a little, about two inches. If a second drop is released so it falls onto the first drop just at the top of the bounce, you might have a good picture. Olson experimented with timing, with lighting, with the size of the drops, with colors, with milk and other additives to change viscosity. 

"If you think this is complex, it is," he told the editors at Smithsonian magazine. "If it is almost impossible, I like it a lot."

His photos have been exhibited all over the world, including a one-man show in New York's Grand Central Station. When he turned 100, the University of Akron awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Basically, Olson spent the final years of his life in a darkened kitchen–not all that different from the photographic darkrooms of his early years–fiddling with a drippy faucet kind of thing. By all accounts, it made him really, really happy.

photography   water   Irving Olson   experimentation   Radio Shack   centenarian   Olson Electronics   (Image credits: Irving Olson)  

Snow Fell on Alabama

Jan 8, 2017

Snow fell on Alabama the other day, and bitter cold settled in. Same thing happened there back in about 1989, when Forest Lake in Tuscaloosa froze up thick enough to run around and slide on, and our three eldest posed for a picture on the ice.

From the bottom: Ted, John, Joe. Note the complete absence of gloves or mittens, and the general inadequacy of winter apparel. In his hat and jacket, Ted appeared to have a chance of staying warm, but the other two just had to tough it out. There is no evidence in this picture of the socks-on-the-hands and/or plastic-bags-in-the-shoes that we recall improvising for wintry moments in Alabama; nonetheless, they all somehow survived.

Tuscaloosa   Alabama   Forest Lake   brothers   winter   John   Joe   Ted   ice   (Image credit: old family snap)  

Thirty Long Minutes to Go

Jan 9, 2017

It was halftime on a cold November day in 1950, and things just didn't look good for this high school football team in the locker room at Freeport Municipal Stadium in New York.

Tonight, at halftime of the college football national championship game being played on national tv, will one of the locker rooms feel like this? Probably not; tonight's game–a rematch of last year's championship final between Alabama and Clemson–is expected to be close.

Alabama won last year, but barely. Our hearts are with them again this year, though we wouldn't bet the rent on it. Rammer Jammer.

sports   football   Long Island   high school   locker room   Freeport, NY   halftime   (Image credit: Walter Albertin for the New York World Telegram and Sun, via Shorpy)  

American Multiple Highway

Jan 12, 2017

When Italian architect Renzo Picasso visited New York City in the 1920s, he correctly identified traffic and parking as bad problems that would become much worse over time.

There was no more land in Manhattan to pave over, so Picasso (no relation to that Spanish guy) took his cue from the skyscrapers and proposed to build the streets up vertically. He envisioned at least four transportation levels: trains up on top, express automobile traffic on the layer second to top, parking on the level below that, and local traffic on the bottom.

Picasso's vision for this American Multiple Highway, which he presented in 1929, was one of many utopian projects he sketched out for cities in the United States and Europe. None of them was ever built. 

Manhattan   New York City   map   1929   Renzo Picasso   transportation   (Image credit: renzopicasso.com)  

Caped Crusader

Jan 14, 2017

Norman hit the bigtime back in October of this past year, at the 40th anniversary gala of the Pension Rights Center, when he was honored as a Retirement Security Superhero. You just never know where life will take you: one day, you're catching a ride to Woodstock with your high school biology teacher, and next thing you know, you're a retirement security superhero.

Norman was selected for the award, according to Dan, the very nice man who introduced him at the gala, because he has the superpower of accomplishing work while he sleeps. That's not what Dan said in public, which is a good thing since it's not true, but it really is what he said to us after the event, when nobody was around.  What he said out loud was that Norman has devoted and is still devoting millions and bajillions of hours to Pension Rights Center projects, writing and testifying and helping to change the rules so that fewer Americans will get screwed out of their pensions and retirement savings.

Why does he do all this, on top of working his day job as a bearded professor? What motivates a person to become a retirement security superhero?

At the gala, Norman explained the roots of his "career path." Forty or so years ago, back when he was in law school, he was offered a summer job in Beckley, West Virginia, working with retired coal miners whose pension claims had been turned down. He asked his father if he should take the job.

"Definitely," his father said. "It sounds like a lot of fun."

There are people all over America now who know Norman as the guy who helped them get their pension. A lot of other people work with him as he does this stuff, especially the Karens–pretty much all the staffers at the Pension Rights Center are named Karen, and they too put in millions upon millions of hours struggling to fix our retirement system.

Norman would agree with his dad that it's fun work. Also, the Pension Rights Center party was a lot of fun, especially the part where we got to hear a superhero identify us to the world as "the owner of the spousal survivor annuity of my defined benefit plan." Aw, the way these superheroes talk.

See also.

Norman   ERISA   award   Pension Rights Center  

Prairie Style Pumps

Jan 15, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright designed a gas station in 1927 for his city of the future, to be built in the Buffalo, New York, area.  The city never did get built, but the gas station became a reality in 1958, in Cloquet, Minnesota, near Duluth.

It is believed to be the only Frank Lloyd Wright–designed gas station in the world. It's still in operation today, though it was recently put up for sale.

Minnesota   architecture   1958   Frank Lloyd Wright   modernism   gas station  

The King

Jan 16, 2017

Seems like a good day for this picture, painted by Nathaniel Robers in 2009 as a pre-inaugural gift for the president. 

Thirty or so years ago today, over at my children's school in Tuscaloosa, the students were putting on a special program in the lunchroom. There were songs and a skit and one small boy who gave a speech about Dr. Martin Who's the King.

Obama won't always be president, but Dr. Martin will always, always be the king.

Barack Obama   Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Day   presidency   Oval Office   Malia   Martin Luther King, Jr.   Sasha   (Art by Nathaniel Rogers)  


Jan 17, 2017

Students spotted it first, early on the morning of December 2: a little ball of fur near the door outside a high school in Boca Raton, Florida.

A ball of kittens, of course, two of them, tangled together in a tabby clump and much too tiny to be out on their own. They were lucky little kittens, however; each was rescued and ultimately adopted by an English teacher at the school, and one of those English teachers just happened to be our own Officer Al of the grammar patrol (the alt-write, he tells us). Both little kitties have thrived.

But like all cats, they showed up without names. And like all cats adopted by English teachers, they needed literary names, not to mention all the other fraught sorts of names catalogued by T.S. Eliot.

Allen named his cat Scout, as in To Kill a Mockingbird. But a couple of days later, when he finally got little teeny tiny Scout to the vet for a checkup, there was a surprise: Scout was a male kitty. He would need a different name. Why? We can't know these things, but Allen was very sure of it.

He considered Travis, as in Travis McGee. He considered McGee, as in Travis McGee. But those names weren't right.

He considered Sue, as in Johnny Cash. Nope.

So he settled on Phineas, from A Separate Peace, Phinny for short. And Phinny he was, until within a couple of weeks he wasn't Phinny any longer but Phinn. No, not Phinn: he was Finn. Maybe as in Huckleberry. Or maybe as in Phineas. The ambiguity was delicious.

Meanwhile, the other kitten from the clump outside the school, also a male, was named Dante. In the photo above, Finn at left and Dante on the right are back together again for a recent brotherly meetup and play date.

We might think this name thing is all settled now, but like the poet says, we think that because we're stupid:

When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name

Allen   Florida   pets   cats   T.S. Eliot   Olympic Heights High School   Dante   literary references   Finn or Phinny  

The Good Winter

Jan 18, 2017

There was a leetle, teeny bit of snow in Seattle, and then a taste of sun. Fine winter days.

But that was then; now, the snow has melted and it's raining hard, and predictions are that it will rain forever. It's easy to see why Lewis and Clark, after they spent a long, wet winter in the Pacific Northwest, judged their entire expedition a failure; this part of the world that they'd struggled so hard to "discover" was chilly and gray and mildewy and just plain unliveable.

cityscape   winter   Seattle   wires   Maple Leaf   across the street   (Image credit: the phone)  

No Caddy

Jan 22, 2017

Last spring, when we first came across this scene on a block of Hicks Street in deep South Philly, we just naturally assumed that the white car was a Cadillac. Took us till now to realize that no, maybe it should be a Cadillac, but in real life it's a Lincoln Continental. Some of us are just not as observant as we need to be.

What we can say, however, based on observations of our own lyin eyes as well as gossip, is that this Lincoln is regularly washed but never driven. 

cars   streetscape   South Philly   parking   (h/t: C Duffy)   Hicks Street   Lincoln   (Image credit: Fuji T)  


Jan 23, 2017

Minna Canth, a popular Finnish playwright and unpopular radical activist, took up the pen in 1879, after her husband died, leaving her with seven children to support and raise.

She took over her father's fabric shop in Kuopio, about 250 miles north of Helsinki, and somehow found the time to write a play about a woman whose alcholic husband ran through all her money, leaving the family destitute. Laws needed changing, the drama clearly suggested, to give wives some control over family finances. The play was performed only once, after which the theater company was warned that it was about to lose its state grant of support.

Canth's next play, "Lopo the Peddler," was about an impoverished woman who tended toward petty thievery and alcoholism but who nonetheless had a heart of gold.

Over the years, she wrote about working-class suffering, unwed pregnancy and infanticide, religious hypocrisy, and many other social-realist themes. Her home became something of a salon for visiting intellectuals from Finland and beyond. She was among the first Finnish authors to publish her work in Finnish instead of Swedish, the traditional literary language.

Finnish students today read her work in school, and her plays are still performed in Finnish theaters. 

And she did get the laws changed so that married women could have money of their own.

nineteenth century   Finland   Minna Canth   author   widow with seven children   feminist   playwright   (Painting by Kaarlo Vuori)  

Are You a Mouse, or Are You a Neutron Star?

Jan 24, 2017

In the cells of a salivary gland of a mouse, pictured above at left, and deep within the crust of a neutron star, shown at right, are multilevel structures connected by spiraling ramps, an architecture familiar to us all as the parking garage.

In fact, each of the levels in both these structures is connected to the levels above and below by two mirror-image ramps, one spiraling left, the other right, pretty much like separate up and down ramps in a real parking garage.

The parking garages inside living cells–your cells, my cells, even those nasty cells living underneath a rock–consist of flat membranes visible with a scanning electron microscope. These membranes surround the cell nucleus, where biophysicists say they function as the "shop floor of protein synthesis." Knobby little protein-making thingamabobs called ribosomes dot the membranes "like cars populating a densely packed parking structure."

Best of all, if the cell is called on to make more proteins and thus has a need for more spaces in which to park ribosomes, the garage "can add more levels as it gets full."

The parking garages in neutron stars are not directly observable, of course, since the stars are far, far away and millions of degrees hot and very nearly as punishing, gravitywise, as a black hole. Physicists "see" the garage structures when they run computer simulations that mathematically impose on tens of thousands of hypothetical atoms the various forces associated with neutron-star development.

The forces involved are pretty crazy. Neutron stars appear when very large stars–several times as big as our sun–grow old and run out of the nuclear fuel that gives them their twinkle. They explode as supernovae and then collapse into tiny little astronomical bodies, only 10 or so km in diameter, that are so dense that a teaspoonful of neutron-star stuff would weigh about ten billion tons.

The way they get that dense is by smushing atomic particles together till normal atomic structure is obliterated. A proton and an electron mashed together make a neutron, and gazillions of neutrons mashed together make a neutron star. There are believed to be at least 100 million neutron stars in the Milky Way.

The parking garages postulated in neutron-star crust are not well understood, to put it mildly. Perhaps their geometry plays a role in the way the stars cool off or lose magnetic energy over time. Perhaps the sheets and ramps transport protons, making them into superconductors.

Scientists want to know. One of the scientists who wants to know very badly, and who has been modeling neutron-star architecture for many years now, is my own little brother, Charles Horowitz at Indiana University.

 One of the scientists investigating parking garages in cell biology, and the one who stumbled on the parallels between the architecture of living cells and that of neutron stars is Greg Huber at the University of California Santa Barbara. Huber was once a student of my brother's.

Maybe Huber and Horowitz, working together, will finally establish that the parking garage is the fundamental architecture of the universe. Some of us would prefer the tree house or at least the flying buttress, but we only live in this world.

astrophysics   Greg Huber   Indiana University   helical ramps   neutron stars   biophysics   geometry   living cells   parking garage structures   UCSB   (h/t: Charles J Horowitz)  

Daddy Folds

Jan 25, 2017

Notes from the Office of War Information, December 1943: "In the evening, Hugh Massman and his wife fold diapers. Joey's bureau drawer crib is moved to the side of their bed for the night."

The Massman family lived in Washington in 1943 while Hugh, a petty officer in the navy, attended a specialized training program. Photographer Esther Bubley spent a few days with them for a feature story about military family life.

After the war, the family returned home to Montana, where they had seven more children.

Washington, DC   baby   World War II   1943   Hugh, Lynn, and Joey Massman   home front   (Image credit: Esther Bubley, via Shorpy)  

Mama Bess

Jan 27, 2017

Laura Ingalls Wilder, who was said to be a tiny woman, less than five feet tall, tends her vegetable garden at Rocky Ridge farm in the southern Missouri Ozarks.

The photo is probably from the late 1920s or early 1930s, when Laura was in her sixties and working on her "Little House" series of books about her childhood in cabins and shanties and covered wagons on the midwestern frontier.

Her daughter Rose Wilder Lane–who referred to her as Mama Bess–conceived the literary project and worked for years behind the scenes to prepare Laura's stories for publication. Rose was a widely known writer at the time who kept her role in the "Little House" books a secret.

By the time mother and daughter were working on Laura's stories, they were not getting along well, and Rose was developing an obsession with extreme libertarian politics. They quarreled over what to put in and what to leave out and what to emphasize and how to describe things; it seems that Laura usually but by no means always had the last word.

In the middle of the work, which took more than ten years, Rose picked up and moved to Connecticut; they completed the collaboration by mail and long distance phone calls. They rarely saw each other again.

Rose's political extremism eventually ruined the writing she did in her own name; she became a ridiculous crank. Even a book she wrote for Woman's Day about needlework became an anti-communist screed. But while she was able to sneak some of her libertarian ideology into the Little House stories, Laura's no-nonsense approach apparently kept the focus on the adventures of Ma and Pa and the girls and Jack the brindle bulldog.

Rose's political writing celebrated the subsistence farmer as the only real American, free and self-reliant. She interpreted her mother's pioneering background as the classic American experience, even though the family's wanderings on the frontier had quickly forced them out of subsistence farming and eventually out of farming altogether. 

To Rose, the hardships of pioneering were ennobling challenges. To Laura, they had been hardships, suffering, tough times in life. To several generations now of American children, they were awesome adventures.

garden   Laura Ingalls Wilder   1920s–1930s   vegetable garden   pioneer   Little House books   (Image credit: Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum)