Hole in the Clouds

March 2018

Not Quite in Bed Yet

Mar 9, 2018

Louis and Robin enjoy a bit of screen time together during a recent reunion weekend in Nashville. The people reunioning were five friends from Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, class of 1996 and 1997, who came in from Taiwan, Seattle, Indiana, Tuscaloosa, and Nashville, with spouses and kids. Louis's father and Robin's father have known each other since about the first or second grade.

children   Nashville   babies   pajamas   Robin   Louis   screen time   (Image credit: JJ Stein)  


Mar 10, 2018

Hundreds of women and children fled their homes in South Sudan in 2016 and hid in this cave for safety from bombs being dropped by warplanes of their own government. Civil war consumed the young country, founded in 2011, reducing almost all of it to rubble and ashes.

Recently, the fighting has mostly abated, but the government is still blocking delivery of food and medical supplies in regions destroyed by war. Famine and massive migrations have resulted.

More than four million refugees have left South Sudan; about 100,000 of them have resettled in the United States, including 3,000 in Portland and Lewiston, Maine.

war   refugees   South Sudan   cave   (Image credit: Adriane Ohanesian)  


Mar 11, 2018

The night owls who officially discovered–and named–Steve are the members of a Facebook group called Alberta Aurora Chasers. They are folks who like to stay up late and drive out to remote pastures and mountain valleys, even when the winter nights are insanely cold, which they often are in the prairies and Rockies of western Canada–all in hopes of a chance to enjoy big, unpolluted views of shimmery aurora borealis lights in the northern sky.

Steve is the name the aurora chasers borrowed from the children's movie Over the Hedge and applied to a particular, somewhat unusual aurora-like phenomenon, streaks of purple light that ripple vertically from the horizon instead of dancing horizontally along it like a normal, well-behaved, aurora. Normal auroras are produced when electrons thrown off by the sun approach earth, where they are pulled by our magnetic field toward the north and south poles. As they collide with gas molecules in the upper atmosphere, they can put on a bright light show.

Steve, scientists thought at first, could be generated by protons instead of electrons crashing into our atmosphere. But a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Calgary, Eric Donovan, suspected otherwise; proton collisions, he thought, wouldn't give off much visible light for aurora chasers to photograph and enjoy.

In 2016, Donovan was able to track down something he thought might be an instance of Steve that was picked up by a satellite flying right overhead in Alberta. So he went on Facebook and asked the Alberta Aurora Chasers if they'd seen anything that night, at that location.

They had noticed it and photographed it. Donovan correlated their photos with the satellite data and concluded that Steve wasn't technically an aurora at all; it was a ribbon of extremely hot gas flying through space, more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than its surroundings.

Donovan believes the Steve discovery demonstrates the potential of "citizen scientists" to leverage data from satellites and other instruments in our brave new world. Of course, it also demonstrates what happens, à la Boaty McBoatface, when digital anybodies are charged with coming up with names for stuff.

landscape   Canada   Calgary   night   astronomy   physics   Alberta   Eric Donovan   protons   electrons   aurora borealis   (Image credit: Dave Markel)  

The Cuban Game, #1

Mar 13, 2018

Some would say the archetypal Cuban pastime is baseball, and they wouldn't be far wrong. In this space in the days to come, we'll take a look at baseball and other passions, but the everyday-everywhere-everybody hands-down #1 most popular game in Cuba is dominoes.

It might be the most popular outdoor entertainment of any kind, unless it's been nudged out of the lead by the new fun of texting and surfing in the Internet parks. People play dominoes on sidewalks and porches and streetcorners and balconies, in yards and plazas and parks and doorways, all afternoon and long into the night.


Havana   Cuba   game   dominoes   pastime   (Image credits:   lahabana.org; middle   painting in Fusterlandia; bottom   C. Fuchs  

The Cuban Game, #2

Mar 14, 2018

There are chess players on the streets of Havana, and Cubans have won the World Chess Championship multiple times, notably in 1921 when José Raúl Capablanca beat the longtime German champion Emanuel Lasker.

Ché Guevara was a chess player who started an annual international chess tournament in Havana in 1962, when he was serving as post-revolutionary head of the Cuban National Bank. Here, Ché watches the tournament play of a Yugoslavian revolutionary he had befriended:

In 1965, the U.S. government would not allow Bobby Fischer to travel to Cuba to participate in the tournament, so he played via telex from New York.

Today, Cuban children learn to play chess at school, and last fall they participated in a national tournament commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Ché's death.

children   Havana   Cuba   chess   revolution   game   tiles   (Image credits:, top, C. Fuchs; next, Atlas Obscura; bottom, my phone)   Che Guevara  

The Cuban Game, #3

Mar 15, 2018

This is the only baseball we saw in Havana, in a dead end cul de sac with boarded-up windows and no cars parked or passing through. Everywhere else we went in this big, densely populated city, airborne baseballs would not have been appreciated.

At least in part for this reason, soccer is more popular than baseball among children playing in city streets and sidewalks, and European and Latin American soccer is widely followed. But baseball has been played professionally in Cuba since the 1870s, long before the United States was ever involved in the country. Even back then, we're told, baseball had an anticolonial significance, played in lieu of sports such as bullfighting imported from Spain.

Castro famously encouraged baseball as a source of revolutionary and nationalistic pride. In recent years, Cuban baseball teams have played exhibition games against U.S. major league teams, and the Cubans win about half the time. 

baseball   children   streetscape   Havana   Cuba   (Image credit: my phone)  

The Cuban Game, #4 and final

Mar 16, 2018

During a slow afternoon at a bar in Havana Vieja, one of the bartenders watches a Cuban national team wrestling match on tv. The Cubans are traditional powers in wrestling, boxing, judo, and other martial arts, often taking home dozens of Olympic medals.

Below are scenes of training and competition at a youth wrestling program in downtown Havana, housed in an old Basque gymnasium. Photos by Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters.

sports   wrestling   children   Havana   Cuba   competition   coaching   practice   cheering   training   (Image credits: top, my phone; others by Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters)  

A Desert River

Mar 20, 2018

The Kuiseb River flows–when it flows–down from the highlands of eastern Namibia and across the Namib Desert toward the Atlantic Ocean.

South of the river, some of the highest sand dunes on earth are blown ever northward by the prevailing winds, but the sand can't cross the river. North of the river is a vast plain of bare rock, much of it billions of years old, Precambrian, predating the emergence of life.

The river itself, like many desert rivers, is ephemeral, flowing briefly after rains. The rains come–if they come–in January, February, or March. By April, the riverbed is dry. Even so, scrubby vegetation has taken hold along its banks.

Sand from the dunes is literally choking off the river. The river water, which often is not much more than a trickle, has to carry heavy loads of sand from upstream, traveling in a riverbed already piled high with sand blown in during the dry season, on top of sand left behind in previous years by the slow, struggling current.

There is so much sand now in the Kuiseb River that most years the water can no longer reach the sea. Only extreme flooding can push river water all the way to the river's mouth at Walvis Bay on Namibia's Atlantic Coast; the last time this happened was in 1963, though the river came within a few kilometers of the sea in 1997 and might have made it all the way but for a hastily bulldozed artifical sand dune blocking its path to protect the salt works at Walvis Bay.

Namibia   Precambrian gneiss and schist   Kuiseb River   ephemeral river   sand dunes   Namib Desert   (Image credit: GeoEye 1 satellite)  

Spring Comes to Cornwall

Mar 22, 2018

The Cornish daffodil fields produce 90 percent of England's commercial daffodil crop. In my neck of the woods, almost 5,000 miles from Cornwall, daffodils are blooming noncommercially even as we speak.

Perhaps in your neighborhood they're already fading, or maybe the new tips of their leaves are still hidden in the snow–no matter; spring is trundling on in these days, and if it's early spring, There Will Be Daffodils.

landscape   flowers   England   spring   coast   daffodils   castle   fields   farmland   hills   Cornwall   (Image credits: top, Image1.me; middle, cornwalls.co.uk; bottom, Jim Peters)  

Longing for Desire

Mar 24, 2018

By 1957, when this picture was taken, New Orleans was no longer running streetcars out to Desire. If Desire was where you wanted to go, you'd have to take a bus, and that's how things had been for almost a decade.

But in mid-June of 1957, a college student named William D. Volkmer found himself in New Orleans for a brief stopover en route to ROTC summer camp. His goal for the visit: to find a streetcar named Desire:

I approached the operators on their break at the foot of the Canal Ferry loop and asked them if they could roll the destination sign to "Desire" to allow me a photo shoot. The first three or four cars only contained signs for the two remaining streetcar lines, Canal and St. Charles. Then on about the fifth try, bingo. Car 910's signs still had the full complement of abandoned streetcar lines, so the kindly motorman set it for Desire and continued on his rest break until I had completed my photographic endeavor.

streetscape   New Orleans   Louisiana   theater   streetcar   Tennesee Williams   1957   (Image credit: William D. Volkmer via Shorpy)  

Great Grandparents Take to the Streets

Mar 25, 2018

Our friends and neighbors who live in University House Wallingford joined the nationwide anti-gun/anti-Trump protest Saturday, braving the cold and the traffic to make sure their voices were heard.

Most University House residents are in their eighties or nineties. At least one of the protesters is a centenarian. Some of them rarely leave home on foot, wary of the neighborhood's uneven sidewalks. But this was important. 

They held up handmade posters calling for gun control and school safety, taking up positions at a major intersection where Saturday shoppers would have to take notice.

Cars honked in their honor. Pedestrians thanked them. One storekeeper distributed gifts–well, gag gifts, since that was the store's specialty: little plastic fingers they could use for pointing at their signs.

Another neighbor, who'd ventured out to the grocery store for a gallon of milk, bought candy bars for all the protesters.

Time will tell how the politicians will respond. 

politics   street scene   Seattle   demonstration   University House   Wallingford   (Image credits: Fuji T)  

Spring Comes to the Yoopers

Mar 28, 2018

Ticket sales stopped about a week ago, but we're still looking forward to the main event: the Iron Mountain Car Plunge, when the ice on the water in the East Chapin mine pit finally gives way and the orange car sinks into the depths. At that moment, it can truly be said: spring has begun on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Tickets were three for $10–three chances to guess the day, hour, and minute of the ice-out; whoever guesses closest to the actual sinking of the car, as determined by video evidence from a webcam trained on the car on the ice, wins $1,500. The local Rotary club uses the rest of the money from ticket sales to support local organizations and events.

Ice-out raffles like this one are an old Upper Peninsula tradition, popular into the 1950s. The Iron Mountain Car Plunge was revived four years ago, using a donated 1998 Saturn stripped of its engine, battery, fluids, and anything else that might be environmentally hazardous. Students at the local technical school scrubbed the car inside and out to remove all traces of road salt and grime, and then painted it orange to attract attention. A chain on its rear axle allows it to eventually be hauled up out of the water and stored till the ice comes back next year.

The East Chapin pit looks like a good-sized lake but is actually an abandoned underground mine that collapsed in on itself and flooded.

As of this writing, the ice is still looking solid. Last year, the car did its plunge thing at 4:07 PM on April 2, 2017; in 2016, it sank in mid-April, and in 2015 in late March. For those who may be thinking about buying some chances on next year's plunge: data clearly show that the car always goes down in the late afternoon.

Below is a webcam image from right around the moment of last year's plunge.

Michigan   winter   spring   mine   breakup   Upper Peninsula   East Chapin Pit   Iron Mountain   ice-out   (Image credits: Iron Mountain–Kingston Rotary)