April 2012

Posted by Ellen

Another sample from the Library of Congress's small collection of color photos from the 1930s and 1940s, this one shows a woman working with aerial photos to develop camouflaging for airfields and critical factories during World War II.

Camouflage experts at New York University would use the aerial photos to build a model of an area that included the facility to be camouflaged. Then they would paint over the facility on the model until it blended in with its surroundings. Aircraft plants on the West Coast were covered with acres of canvas and plywood painted and sculpted to resemble suburban subdivisions. Airstrips were painted to look like small-town streets and farmland from the air.

Not everything was so easy to camouflage; ships at sea, for example, proved impossible to hide no matter how they were painted. A completely different approach, known as dazzle camouflage, was devised for ships; they were painted with crazy stripes at jagged angles, visible from afar but very different to interpret as to size, direction, and speed of movement.

Some fighter planes were painted pale pink, a color that was thought to show up as white or grayish, like clouds, at high angles of intense sunlight.

This photo looks posed, and the woman may be a model rather than a serious camouflage authority; she is holding the aerial photo more or less upside down with respect to the model she's supposedly painting.

Posted by Ellen

Above the ships at sea and Lisbon's red tile roofs and satellite dishes.

Posted by Ellen

Brittany Howard, lead singer of the Alabama Shakes, released her first CD today and played to a sold-out house last night at World Cafe in Philadelphia. I'm not a music reviewer; I won't try to describe or evaluate the performance, but I sure wouldn't quibble with the critics who have been comparing Howard to Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, James Brown, and just about every other legendary rock-soul-blues singer. She's got Brown's energy and Joplin's wail and Redding's sweetness and even a little of Hank Williams's falsetto--plus the whole history of rock and roll in the songs she writes and the licks she picks.

The rest of the band is tight and fine, but they're just along for the ride.

What do you think?

Posted by Ellen

Detail from a painting in the offices of the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society; artist and title unknown (to me).

Posted by Ellen

As peeps season approaches its annual crescendo, the Washington Post solicits entries for its Peeps Diorama competition. The winning diorama, not pictured here, was one of the numerous efforts portraying the OccuPeep movement. Other themes drawing multiple entries: Newt Gingrich's plan for a moon colony, Downton Abbey on TV, the raid on Osama Bin Laden, Madonna at the Super Bowl, and an old standby: peep holes.

Among my favorites: "Chicks are Peep-le too" (a reenactment of a 1917 suffragist demonstration in front of the White House);  and a send-up of Steven Colbert's Super PAC and Mitt Romney's most memorable contribution to the political lexicon: "Corporations are peep-le, too."

Above is an example of another frequent meme: Steve Jobs in the afterlife. This one is titled "iHeaven: The New Project."

Only a couple of entries tackled difficult scientific issues, such as the neutrino controversy, "Faster than the Peep of Light," and Father Time's struggle to assemble February 29, 2012 from leftover quarter-peeps.

Below is one of the largest and most spectacular of the dioramas, "Peep-ius Maximus":


Posted by Ellen

Motel room near Rio de Janeiro.

Posted by Ellen

When Jewish families gather round the dinner table tonight for seders commemorating the exodus of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt, they will read from books called haggadahs: collections of biblical passages, prayers, hymns, rabbinic discourse, and social commentary. The page above is from an eight-hundred-year-old haggadah from Catalonia, illuminated very much like Christian texts of its era. In the picture, as in the bible, Israelites are crossing the Red Sea via miraculous passageways of dry land, while all around them the Egyptian army is drowning in the waves.

The bearded man near the upper left, holding a shepherd's crook, is Moses. Some of the other Israelites are carrying sacks and baskets and jugs and candlesticks and other household items, but many more bear swords and shields. They are an army, fighting their way out of Egypt.

Modern hagaddahs tell the story with less of a military emphasis. The people were all slaves; then God and Moses helped them escape. During Passover, Jews are asked to remember that even today there are people on earth who suffer in slavery and ache for freedom.

The story has it that God made the Egyptian people suffer dreadful plagues; Pharoah's soldiers, as seen here, were all drowned. Freedom from bondage is something to celebrate, but plagues and drowning, even of the enemy, are not. To prevent excessive, inappropriate celebration, the passover seder requires reducing the amount of wine in each cup–only by a few drops, but still.

Raise a glass, drink to freedom. But drink a little less.


Posted by Ellen

In February 1943, this unnamed woman was at work in the Vultree aircraft plant in Nashville, Tennessee, building a Vengeance Dive-Bomber.

Among the hundreds of thousands of photos commissioned by the government in the 1930s and early 1940s to document economic-recovery programs and the war effort, only a handful, including this one, were in color. After three-quarters of a century, the color images seem to suggest a world that is much more familiar to us today, much less shadowy and distant than the  shades-of-gray America that is portrayed so dramatically in the more famous black and white works of the era.

Aircraft parts–fuselage panels, wings, and doors–are still manufactured today at the Vultree site in Nashville, which is now operated as part of the Vought subdivision of Triumph Aerostructures.

Posted by Ellen

This rufous-sided towhee–aka Eastern towhee–is bathing in a creek in Randolph County, North Carolina. Red eyes are natural with towhees.

In case you were thinking that these Eastern towhees are really living the life, you should be aware that they commonly suffer severe bullying by mean girls of the somewhat larger Brownheaded Cowbird species. Cowbirds lay eggs almost constantly, like chickens, up to 40 a year, far more than they could ever raise themselves in nests of their own. So they lay their eggs in other birds' nests; they'll take advantage of any convenient nest regardless of the type of bird that built it, but towhees, who nest on the ground, are among their favorite surrogate brooders and baby-raisers.

In some parts of the country, more than 50% of towhee nests contain cowbird eggs in addition to towhee eggs. Some species of birds can tell the difference and will actually push the cowbird eggs right out of the nest, but towhees aren't that smart. Cowbirds, on the other hand, are very smart; to give their own eggs a better chance of survival, and to prevent discovery of what they've deposited in the nest by nest-owners who might know how to count, cowbirds often push some of the towhee eggs out of the nest when they lay their own.

Even worse, the cowbird babies grow faster and bigger than the towhee babies and soon muscle the towhees aside to claim all the food. They sometimes even knock the baby towhees right out of their own nest.

And even worse than that, because towhee nests are on the ground, under bushes, baby towhees may also be victimized by . . . our own sweet little Dobby the Miniature Dog. I believe that Dobby–who is terrified of cats and won't bark at the mailman until he's safely upstairs and under the covers–got himself a towhee last summer while I had him on a leash, waiting for a light to change at a busy intersection right in Center City, Philadelphia. Dobby suddenly dived into a brushy patch, and it was bye-bye, birdie.

Personally, I can't tell one species of cute, innocent, harmless baby bird from another. Maybe it wasn't a towhee, just some other kind of ground-nesting bird living under the bushes of Philadelphia. But thanks to the google, I found a website called ebird, on which I could locate 6 different lists of birds sighted by 3 different bird-watchers within a quarter-mile or so of where Dobby did the deed. Every single list included towhees.

I want to believe, however, that the baby that Dobby dispatched was not a towhee but . . . maybe a cowbird?

Posted by Ellen

Last week, in Portland, Maine, in the combined first- and second-grade class at Longfellow School, Emily Wiggin and her classmates made a mosaic table for a silent auction fundraiser. The winning bid on Saturday night was $200, and somehow, on Sunday morning, there was the table in the Wiggin living room.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, kindergartner Lily Sklaver spent the week learning to ride her bike without training wheels or pedals; by last night, when she had that balancing thing under control, the pedals went back on and she took off flying down the street.