February 2010

Posted by Ellen


This is almost certainly a very old photo, printed recently from a glass negative found in a box of jumbled glass negatives at a flea market.

The photographic subject is perhaps not completely clear. The people in front, smiling but posing with fisticuffs, are women dressed as men. Behind them, with shovels, are men dressed as women. I'm guessing it was a fun day.

Posted by Ellen

Why do people keep dumping noxious, toxic, no-good very bad stuff in west Alabama? Which do you want first, the geologic reason or the political reason?

The geologic reason is a thick, 100-million-year-old layer of chalk that sits not far below the surface in Sumter County, Alabama, and thereabouts. You can make compelling arguments that this chalk is pretty much impermeable, sealing off any pollutants that might be deposited in a hazardous-waste landfill, such as the Arrowhead facility pictured here. (The only problem with those arguments is that unmapped faults deep in the chalk seem eventually to compromise these landfills; over time, they all spring leaks.)

The political reason is that west Alabama is desperately poor and majority African American. Local governments in less desperate parts of the country would not allow projects like Arrowhead, which clearly put citizens' health at risk and drive away more reputable industrial development. But where there are no jobs and no tax base, an opportunity to store other people's dangerous filth can seem better than no opportunity at all.

And so it came to pass that companies operating the Arrowhead landfill won a supposedly lucrative contract to "dispose of" a billion gallons of waterlogged coal ash that had spilled near Kingston, Tennessee, last year when a retention pond failed outside a power plant. 

Arrowhead's neighbors soon complained of horrible odors and other concerns. They threatened to sue. Arrowhead immediately declared bankruptcy, claiming that people from New Jersey had run off with all the money from the cleanup contract. They are now un-sueable, but at last word, trucks were still pulling up to the landfill day and night with loads of coal ash to dump.

Posted by Ellen

William Randolph Heart's San Simeon palace in California included two private libraries for the newspaper tycoon and his guests. Accounts of life at San Simeon suggest that the amount of time set aside for reading was not always substantial. But this is the smaller of the two reading rooms.

The craftsmanship of the room, including the ceiling, is phenomenal; click on the photo to see it in detail.

Posted by Ellen


Richard and Bob Stein, twenty-six years ago (1984) and a couple of weeks ago (2010). It's a different couch, but what else is new?

Posted by Ellen


I know nothing about this picture, except that it was taken in Berlin. I like the little city in the circle there, but then I would. The gate is nice, too.

Posted by Ellen

Every summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture contracts with pilots around the country to fly over every square inch of American farmland taking pictures. They use the imagery to figure out how well crops are growing, and exactly how much land is being used for various kinds of crops. But more importantly, they turn the imagery over to state government GIS departments, which have come up with thousands of uses for seamlessly mosaicked pictures of almost all the land in the United States.

The pictures show roads and cities and lakes and rivers, of course, as well as farm fields, so they make good base data for maps. They show changes in the landscape--e.g., new subdivisions and drained wetlands. Infrared bands in the imagery can show all sorts of details, including how much sediment there is in a river and how quickly a forest is coming back after a fire.

This picture started out as hazy USDA imagery from Orange County, North Carolina. I turned it upside down--south is now at the top--to make the shadows look "normal"--flip it back 180 degrees and see for yourself how strange it looks; the wooded areas, with all their shadows, look like sunken green and brown depressions amid smooth, raised crop fields. That's because our eyes have been "trained" by centuries of hand-shaded maps to expect the source of "light" to be in the upper-left corner, even though in real life the sun is never in the northwest quadrant of the sky (except down under, in the southern hemisphere). This is one of many reasons why satellite and aerial images, while fascinating to look at and extremely helpful in mapmaking, do not themselves make attractive backgrounds for maps. Unless we can accustom ourselves to putting south at the top.....