Hole in the Clouds


Dec 19, 2009

Some people think it's been way too long since the last cute puppy picture, so . . . here's Stella, looking up at us from Michele Manno's lap. Clearly, the leopard-print fabric doesn't fool her for a minute.

Michele Manno   animal   dog  

Not a wombat

Dec 18, 2009

This is an ibex, photographed by Ruggero Barsacchi on safari in . . . Italy.

I guess I didn't know my ibex from my keister. To me, this guy looks like African big game, maybe an antelope sort of creature that might even give a lion a hard time. Nope. You're looking at lo stambecco, the mountain goat of the Italian Alps.

Ibexes are not really big enough to take on lions, but at 100 kilograms or more, with horns up to a meter in length, a full-grown male ibex can do a number on a wolf. Prized medicinally--almost all its body parts and also its excrement were said to cure whatever ails you--by the early nineteenth century it had been hunted almost to extinction. Ibex herds are now protected and have grown dramatically; the species is no longer considered particularly endangered.

animal   landscape   Alps   ibex   (Image credit: Ruggero Bersacchi)  

Rock video

Dec 17, 2009


C-T scans have been in the news recently; evidently, they can sometimes be dangerous, zapping people with risky levels of radiation. My master's thesis involved a C-T scan, but fortunately a very safe one, of a rock instead of a human being. Rocks can sit there and take huge doses of X-rays without injury or complaint, making them ideal targets for this sort of procedure. Because there's no need for radiological restraint, scanning a rock can yield much clearer, more detailed results than scanning a live person. It's also a lot cheaper.

The rock I sent to Texas for a C-T scan was a metamorphic chunk of the North Cascades mountains in the state of Washington. It had garnets in it. Each garnet was surrounded by a shell of pure-white minerals: quartz and plagioclase. The rest of the rock--what we termed the matrix-- looked dark gray in color; it actually consisted of the same white minerals as in the shells, flecked with tiny black grains of a kind of mica called biotite.

We were trying to figure out why the garnets were set off from the rock matrix by the white shells, which we called coronas. Our hypothesis was that unusual conditions during the rock's metamorphism had permitted garnet growth but had simultaneously limited diffusion of elements that the garnets would consume during their growth. We wanted to know more about the geometry of the coronas, and about the separation between garnets and matrix. So we shipped a core of rock about an inch in diameter to a C-T lab at the University of Texas, where it was zapped with X-rays;  the results were reconstructed by a computer, rendered in 3-D, colorized, and made into a little animated movie.

I've posted the movie on YouTube. I recommend watching it--even if it's not your kind of movie, it only lasts 12 seconds. The garnets in the rock are rendered red, the corona shells green, and the matrix rendered as transparent, with a slight reddish speckling of biotite grains. When I first saw this movie, I'd spent months working with the rock sample, but I was surprised by how long and snake-like the coronas are, and how many clumps of garnets each corona engulfs. How did this happen? The short answer is that the rock got squished squished and heated and stretched and squished and heated again during its mountain-building experience, which coincided roughly with the era of the extinction of the dinosaurs. The long answer is published in a journal called Canadian Mineralogy.

And now, the rock is doing a star turn on the internet, in what I honestly believe to be the first true hard-rock video on YouTube.

geology   North Cascades   garnet coronas  


Dec 16, 2009

This image is from a computer model of a sunspot. Notice the scale bar at the bottom--that's not millimeters but Megameters: 1 Megameter = 1,000 kilometers.

Sunspots are occasionally visible to the naked eye near sunrise or sunset, if they are particularly large and if there's haze or thin clouds to partially dim the sunlight. Since the middle of the nineteenth century, it's been known that they have something to do with the sun's magnetic field, and that they may have consequences for electrical activity here on earth. We know that sunspots come and go in cycles lasting about eleven years and that years of high sunspot activity are often characterized by relatively cold weather. But even today, people who know a whole lot about sunspots say they don't understand them all that well.

The complex interaction of magnetic forces, superheated gases, the sun's huge gravitational field, and the nuclear reactions that keep stars glowing can't all be modeled in detail on a Macbook. In fact, supercomputing power has only recently become available in support of such a project, and this simulation of sunspot activity--published last June by researchers from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Max Planck Institute in Germany--is said to be the first comprehensive model. The sunspot itself is represented by the dark spot in the middle; it's a sort of blob of solar gas that no longer glows white-hot like the rest of the sun because it's been ejected from the main solar body by a fierce magnetic storm. Once it's ejected, the gas is not part of the ongoing nuclear reaction heating the sun.The blob cools down a bit and shows up dark compared to the glowing disk of the sun, though it's still plenty hot. It doesn't  fly off into space because the sun's gravity keeps it trapped, but it can't reconsolidate into the main solar body because of magnetic forces. All these processes and more are computer-modeled to produce a sort of movie in which a sunspot is born, grows, and eventually dies. The colors of the imagery reflect the relative heat of the gases.

The authors of this model admit it is flawed; the gas flares near the edges of the penumbra are sized incorrectly. They say they know how to fix this issue but do not yet have the super-supercomputing power they would need to do the job right.

Sunspot activity is correlated with cold weather on earth because the blobs of dark, relatively cool gases block a bit of the sun's heat from radiating out to the earth. The years 2009 and 2010 are fairly high sunspot years in the eleven-year cycle, so we shouldn't be surprised if this winter winds up relatively cold--not abnormally crazy cold, but perhaps on the cold side of average. The sunspot effect may become less noticeable, however, as global warming progresses;  even if we collect a little less heat than average from the sun this year, relatively more of that heat will be trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases, and relatively more of this year's heat will still be trapped in our atmosphere next year and the year after that. Each year, the trapped heat is becoming relatively more important in controlling our weather, and small fluctuations in heat input caused by sunspots are becoming relatively less important.

The magnetic storms associated with sunspot activity, however, remain extremely important. Disruptions in the sun's magnetic field can wreak havoc with sensitive electrical equipment here on earth, even causing major blackouts in the electrical grid. It has been suggested that if we understood sunspots better we might eventually learn to predict them.


weather   climate   astronomy   physics   computer model   Max Planck Institute   (Image credit: National Center for Atmospheric Research)  

The forerunner

Dec 13, 2009

In 1979, the developers of Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois, near Chicago, went bankrupt. More than a hundred merchants abandoned the mall overnight, including the big three anchor tenants, Sears, Penney's, and Montgomery Ward. The trees and ivy in the planters in center court were left to overgrow. The parking lot was left to . . . things went so far south in the parking lot that the town of Harvey built a police substation in the middle of it. You can still go inside the mall, if the spirit moves you--ever since people busted the doors and broke the plywood that was supposed to board things up, the place has been wide open for decades. It has been reported that the food court and much of the rest of the territory is controlled by packs of dogs. When cinematographers need a location for the next dystopic blockbuster, they can check out Dixie Square Mall.

And we're going to have to get used to this, because as the housing bust now spreads to commercial properties in suburbs all over America, Dixie Square Mall is a harbinger. Welcome to the twenty-first century. Already, the phenomenon has atrracted its own historical website--deadmallsdotcom--and a small army of documentary photographers. This photo is by Brian Ulrich.

cityscape   Illinois   Dixie Square Mall   Harvey   abandoned   dystopia   Brian Ulrich  


Dec 12, 2009

This building is headquarters for the NXP corporation in Eindhoven, Netherlands.

I like the looks of the building a lot, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't like working in it. NXP makes semiconductors and suchlike, including chips for car radio tuners, cable-TV boxes, and keyless entry systems. Half the laptop computers in the world use NXP chips in their power supplies. Although these products seem socially useful, and I'm sure they are challenging to make, there's something scary about the corporate culture.

This is the first sentence of NXP's press release from yesterday: "NXP now offers the industry-leading TJA1021TK, the first LIN 2.1-certified transceiver, in a space-saving HVSON8 package."

And this is the first sentence of the press release from the day before yesterday: "With TDA18272, NXP introduces a unique Master/Slave architecture for optimizing the design of multi-tuner applications."

It's like they're trying to make me feel stupid.  Even so, I think they've got a pretty building.

Eindhoven   architecture   tech   semiconductors   Netherlands  

The professor and the monk

Dec 11, 2009

Geology professor Harold Stowell from the University of Alabama recently taught a workshop in Beijing and then caught a train on the new railroad connecting China and Tibet. After a ride lasting forty-eight hours along the highest train tracks in the world, he got off near this monastery, where he says a monk approached him and asked to have this picture taken.

Dr. Stowell , who was my master's adviser at Alabama, started out in geology the old-fashioned way, prospecting for gold and uranium in Alaska. One summer, he found a nice gold mine in a spectacularly beautiful setting at the mouth of a fjord in southeast Alaska. He showed the mining company just where they should come in and tear up the mountain, scarring a pristine landscape and leaching poisons into the fjord. They would have to start by building a road two thousand feet up the mountain to access the best approach to the gold. But in that part of Alaska, land at two thousand feet above sea level is buried in snow and ice almost the entire year. The company decided that a mine so high up would be uneconomical, and Dr. Stowell recalls that he expected to feel disappointed but actually felt tremendously relieved. The place wouldn't be ruined after all.

His latest research projects involve fieldwork in Doubtful Sound and Secretary Island, New Zealand, where he is trying to figure out "the relationship between partial melting, garnet growth, and strain during late stage extension of the lower crust." I would have to agree with him that not enough is known about that stuff, even though it won't help anyone find more gold or platinum or oil or anything else useful.

Harold Stowell   Alaska   Tibet  

Middle school

Dec 10, 2009

Two girls who have recently immigrated to the United States, one from China and the other from Pakistan, have learned enough English and reading in Michele Manno's sixth-grade class to enjoy storybooks. Ms. Manno observes that both girls are good kids, eager to learn and interested in school, but one of them studies hard and the other "wants it spoon fed." They live and attend school in Queens, New York.

Queens   Pakistan   New York   sixth grade   Michele Manno   middle school   China   (Image credit: Michele Manno)  


Dec 9, 2009

Unless you've been in France this week, you've missed the tenth annual Fete des Lumieres in Lyon. Actually, folks in Lyon have been lighting up the town on December 8 every year since 1852, but it's only since 1999 that the festival of lights has been cranked up into a multi-day techno-extravaganza. City squares, walls of buildings, even bushes in the parks are not just brightly lit but orchestrated into animated light-show productions.

A city park, for example, goes through all the seasons of the year in ten minutes: snow falls and melts, trees burst into bloom, the grass turns green, flowers beds sprout and bloom and fade, leaves turn red and gold and fall swirling to the earth. Since you and I weren't there, we're probably limited to a virtual experience of the spectacle; try Youtubing it.

The fountain in Lyon's downtown city plaza has been lit up like the Trevi in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita." Characters from 1960s Italian cinema stroll the square. Meanwhile, at the city cathedral, beams of light recapitulate in a few minutes the three centuries of contruction that created the Gothic structure; the effect is of empty space yielding to posts and beams and then courses of stone and arches and statuary and gold leaf.

The church in this photo, Saint Nizier, is lit for a quieter, subtler theme. It's been given two eyes, one brown and one blue, and they move. The whole building seems to move--it breathes in and out, in and out.

Too bad we missed it. Four million people were there.

Eglise Saint Nizier   La Dolce Vita   Lyon Fete des Lumieres  

Statuary, #1

Dec 7, 2009

In 1958, road construction along this hillside in Bistoun, Iran uncovered a two-thousand-year-old carving of a a recumbent Hercules, in the nude. The Greek inscription on the tablet behind Hercules's shoulder helped date the sculpture to approximately 150 B.C.

There is a lion lying here alongside the hero, difficult to make out in this photo, except for the tail at upper left. Hercules is actually resting one arm on the lion's head. His weaponry--club and quiver--are leaned against the lion's rump. Hard to say what the man is drinking, but he's clearly been eating well.

Iran   Hercules   sculpture  

Computer games: Part 2

Dec 5, 2009

The boy in this picture, who must be in his forties now, was about as lucky as a kid could get on Christmas Day back in 1976. He got THE gift, the very first home video game system. Notice the graphics on the TV--that was Pong.

My father-in-law also was an early adopter of video games, and I remember playing Pong over at his house. It was a nice game. You hit a little white ball with a paddle that slid up and down the right side of the screen; the ball traveled at an angle and "bounced" off the top or bottom of the screen, then off a "wall" on the left side and back to the top or bottom and then back over to the right again, for you to hit it back. As the game progressed, the ball went faster and faster till you missed.

My father-in-law would have wanted the game no matter what, but he had a special interest in it because Ron Bradford, a friend of the family's, had a graphic design contract to do packaging and promotional materials for Pong. Since it was the first home video game, Ron had to invent a "look" for the packaging that screamed "Video games are fun and exciting!!!!!" About ten years ago, he wrote his recollections of the project for a website devoted to the history of classic video games. He said they decided to go with "Explosive!!" as the design theme--the colors and typography of the packaging, the pictures and text in the ads, even the look and feel of the instruction manual--everything was geared toward giving an Explosive!!! impression to new customers.

Pong was a commercial sensation and launched a huge new industry. But the company that made it--Atari--soon went broke, after losing an intellectual property lawsuit. And the store that sold Pong hasn't been doing all that well either; believe it or not, the only place that carried the world's first home video game system in 1976 was Sears.


Joseph Stein   Ron Bradford   Pong   video game   Sears   Atari   (image credit: tterrace)  

Computer games: Part 1

Dec 4, 2009

Helen, according to photographer Sam Javanrouh, is highly skilled and "very focused" at her work as a 3-D modeler/animator/compositor. But for the past few weeks, she's been working 14- to 18-hour shifts, seven days a week--and in this picture, finally, she's not working. She's on her break at the office, relaxing with a little session of Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2.

Call of Duty   computer   (Image credit: Sam Javanrouh)  

Little red house in a great big marsh

Dec 2, 2009

This salt marsh at Seabrook, New Hampshire, is now the backyard of a nuclear power plant.  When this area was first settled, the marsh was the town hayfield, cut over every August or September for animal bedding, mulch, banks of insulation against the sides of houses, and packing material for shipping fruit, pottery, and other fragile items, back before foam peanuts and poppable plastic. After cutting, the grass was left in the marsh till wintertime, when the frozen mud would support the weight of horses to haul it out. If hay was needed before winter, horses could be driven in on unfrozen marshland by equipping them with huge wooden shoes that spread their weight.

But in the twentieth century, when marsh grass began to lose its value as a cash crop, the marsh was regarded as a nuisance. Drainage projects were expensive, but they were often justified on public health grounds, as mosquito-control measures. The Seabrook marsh, like many, was "ditched" with narrow little canals to dry up mosquito habitat. The project failed because the ditching destroyed habitat for important species of mosquito-larvae-eating fish.

Nowadays, we are beginning to understand the critical importance of marshes and other wetlands, for wildlife, storm-buffering, and many other functions. A handful ofl New England marshes have been restored to something approaching their pristine condition. And many others, including Seabrook, are slowly recovering thanks to protective legislation.

The mosquitoes are not an endangered species.

landscape   New Hampshire   birdseye view   salt marsh   Seabrook   (Image credit: Massachusetts Commonwealth GIS)  


Nov 29, 2009

Bring Your Own Water.

The sun in Namibia is so harsh, according to photographer Vincent Mounier, that picture-taking during the day yields nothing but bleached, blasted-to-white landscapes. At dusk and dawn, however, the earth reclaims its colors, and the eyes can open wide for a long, calm look.


landscape   Namibia   desert   (Image credit: Vincent Mounier)  

Not Mister Rogers' neighborhood

Nov 29, 2009

Jack Delano's 1940 photo of Pittsburgh has a cinematic feel to it, as the lady on the staircase descends into a dark and cold and spectacular kind of hell. That particular hell--with sulfurous fumes belching from roaring steel mills--went south a generation ago, abandoning western Pennsylvania to rust and poverty. Somewhat remarkably, the city has stirred from its decline and reinvented itself as a clean and shiny, almost high-tech sort of place. But all along, the sons and daughters of Pittsburgh have been growing up into American image-makers, people who have shown us what we look like, or would like to look like, or hope to God we never ever look like. Fred Rogers, with his sweater and sneakers and perfectly detailed little world of children's TV--wasn't Pittsburgh's first or last cultural chronicler.

Early on, there was Stephen Foster, of Swannee River and Camptown Races fame, and then the painter Mary Cassatt, the modernist Gertrude Stein, and the Tarzan, Johnny Weissmuller. Some of the Pittsburghers have worked right up to the cultural edge--Andy Warhol--and some have walked us up to the brink, where we could glimpse a frightening future--Rachel Carson.

Most notable, perhaps, were all the guys who played football, generation upon generation of Pittsburghers who were big and tough and fast and focused: Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, Mike Ditka, Larry Brown, Nick Saban, and way too many others

Then there were those who worked the cultural currents of the times: e.g., Bobby Vinton, Lou Christie, Charles Bronson. And the ones who have risen above their times, soaring elegantly: Gene Kelly.

But who took the neighborhood in this picture and warped it into a dark corner of the American consciousness? Back in the early days of television, Fred Rogers hired an imaginative young assistant who moved on to Hollywood and directorial fame and fortune--guy by the name of George Romero--whose first big hit opened a seam of movie-dom that has been dug ever deeper to this day: Night of the Living Dead.

And for what it's worth, Pittsburgh still has more than 700 staircases officially registered as city streets.

vintage   Pennsylvania   winter   Fred Rogers   1940s   Pittsburgh   George Romero   (Image credit: Jack Delano)  

Over the river and through the woods

Nov 25, 2009

Last winter, up in Ottawa County, Michigan, John Dykstra saw dozens and dozens of wild turkeys--he estimates 50 or 60 on most days--flocking in a field at the back of his woods. He couldn't get close enough to them to take good pictures, so he moved an old metal shed building out there, cut a hole in the wall facing the field frequented by the birds, and sat and waited with his camera. The turkeys came back.

But Dykstra's wild turkeys don't look at all like the wild turkeys I've seen in Alabama and New England, which are much leaner-looking and not so fluffy. These have a thick body type similar to the huge-breasted domesticated birds. When I tried to do a little wild turkey research, however, I learned that there are several varieties, and that the ones I have seen before, even in Vermont and Maine, most closely resemble a variety said to be native to the Rio Grande region of west Texas and New Mexico. Go figure. Apparently, my understanding of all things wild turkey is all full of holes.

They say wild turkeys are making a comeback these days in many parts of the country, including Plymouth, Massachusetts, where they first pricked our cultural consciousness. Ben Franklin thought this bird ought to be recognized as our national animal, and he was onto something.

Drive carefully, y'all.

animals   Thanksgiving   winter   turkeys   (Image credit: John Dykstra)