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Photo: FNRttC /Night Ride Cycling UK
UK participants in the Friday Night Ride to the Coast enjoy the casual pace. Smaller, more family-oriented night riding can be found in cities like Cleveland.

I’ve been meaning to write on this topic for ages — ever since I started seeing Mary Ann’s joyful Facebook posts on cycling at night with friends, family, and like-minded strangers in Cleveland.

In an article by Sam Walker at the Guardian, we learn that night cycling is a thing in England, too, but for more miles.

Walker writes that the Friday Night Ride to the Coast is a “carefully organised event run by the ‘Fridays,’ a club devoted to the singular cause of safely delivering you at a conversational pace from the Smoke to the sea. They do this every month from spring through autumn, requiring only third party insurance and an annual membership fee of £2.

“The FNRttC, as it’s known to veterans, has been spreading the joy of night riding for almost 15 years, flying quietly under the radar of most cyclists. …

“It was started by Simon Legg, who spent a decade escorting thousands to Brighton, Whitstable and other destinations with decent transport links. When he retired he entrusted his legacy to a group of seasoned ride leaders who take turns as mother hen.

“The distance ranges from 55 to 75 miles, and popular routes can attract more than 100 participants. There are tail-end Charlies and human waymarkers, sometimes recruited on the spot, to ensure nobody is lost or left behind.

“Rides begin at midnight with a chat about safety and etiquette, jokes optional. Mechanical problems along the way are met with expert assistance, though you’re advised to give your bike a thorough checkup beforehand. …

“It’s a great social mixer, but there are also opportunities for solitude as you pull each other along on an invisible stretchy rope. Punctures are a communal affair. ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ one of the minders will more or less transmit to the front, and so all will wait, grateful it wasn’t them. This time. …

“We ride at night because it’s there, conveniently out of the way of the usual routine. Less traffic is a bonus, but magic moments are made of more than this.

“There’s the moon, for a start: those times when it paints the road silver and the mist mysterious, inviting you to dabble in poetry. When not moonstruck, the darkness itself is the draw, a coverlet silencing the day’s concerns, yet granting permission for thoughts to drift forever out into space. …

There are bats and badgers and other nocturnal creatures clocking in, which helps rouse you out of any stupor you may have been falling into. Hills become easier. Shrouded in mystery, their summits mere conjecture, they are far less daunting.

“But possibly the biggest draw is the intimacy of cycling with people all on the same mission, getting a buzz off their energy, their tired happy faces in the morning’s light a mirror of your own.

“ ‘Why are you doing this?’ I’ve asked fellow riders … Answers ranged from: ‘I’m getting miles in to help with Paris-Brest-Paris’ – a 1,200km jolly – to: ‘My friend talked me into it.’ There were plenty of dreamy shrugs: ‘Why not?’ … For some, it’s an answer to a question they may not even have been aware they’d been asking themselves.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: Corinna Kern/Reuters
Girls from Eritrea play in an open area opposite Tel Aviv’s artsy but grimy “new” Central Bus Station.

Things change, and sometimes names don’t fit anymore. When I was a kid, I knew a girl called Bambi. Today she would be in her 70s, and I can’t imagine the cute name still works. How about the war-torn Middle East, once called the “Cradle of Civilization,” where if you are determined, you can visit the dried-up “Fertile Crescent”?

In today’s story, a bus station still called “new” actually opened for business in 1993 and is a derelict mess. Fortunately, there is nothing like a derelict mess to inspire artists to go into creative overdrive.

Ruth Eglash reports a the Washington Post, “It’s impossible to remain apathetic toward Tel Aviv’s ‘new’ Central Bus Station, a grimy, peeling concrete structure that spans five blocks and reaches seven stories in a run-down section of this bustling city.

“No longer new — it opened its doors in 1993 — and certainly not central, the bus station evokes sharp responses from anyone who steps inside. Some are fascinated with the urban eyesore, while for others, it instills fear after years of violent crime marred its reputation.

“Designed by renowned Israeli architect Ram Karmi, the hulking station, said to be the second largest in the world, was envisioned as housing an entire city under one roof. But Karmi’s brutalist style, with coarsely strewn stairwells, mezzanine floors, winding walkways, vast corridors and dark hidden spaces made the station impractical and impossible to navigate almost from the start.

“Twenty-six years later, its legacy is as rough and as unwelcoming as the abandoned stores and deserted floors inside it. Only a small part of the station is used today for daily travel, with most commuters hurrying through, hoping to spend as little time there as possible.

“But the expansive space has given rise to a cast of exotic characters and myriad artistic initiatives that take advantage of the unique charms of this gritty interior.

“The surrounding neighborhood is populated by a mix of African migrants, Filipino care workers and longtime Israeli residents, all of whom mill about the station’s ultracheap clothing stores, bargain electronic outlets, beauty salons and foreign food markets.

“Over the past five years, artists have realized the benefits of this unadorned space, brightening its walls with graffiti on the seventh floor or filling the abandoned stores on the fifth with modern installations. A Yiddish Cultural Center and a bat colony also call the station home. …

“A local theater group has adopted the bus station for its site-specific and immersive performances. In ‘Seven,’ an artistic interpretation of the seven deadly sins, the Mystorin Theatre Ensemble spotlights some of the station’s darkest corners: a former waiting area it has renamed ‘the red square,’ the oddly painted concrete staircase and even the dreaded first floor, with its abandoned movie theater, stores, cafes and ticket booths.

‘It’s an urban playground for artists,’ said actress and theater manager Dana Forer. ‘For us, this is an ideal space. We have seven floors, and the people who come here help turn our performance into a world of fantasy and reality.’

I need to ask my friend Kai what he thinks of this example of Brutalist architecture. He’s the only person I know who has a good word to say for Boston’s unloved Brutalist city hall. Because he’s a guy who has a way of bringing out the good side of almost anyything, I try to understand what he sees in it when I pass by.

I should also mention Kai has a gentle and lovable pitbull for a pet.

For some nice pictures of the art projects in the Tel Aviv bus station, click here.

Global Forest Watch

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Photo: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Cattle graze in pasture formed by cleared rainforest land in Pará, Brazil. A new online tool makes it easier for ethical food companies to detect this kind of land-clearing by their suppliers and stop the practice.

Some big food companies have promised not to be a party to the ongoing destruction of the rainforest, often called the lungs of Planet Earth. But how can they see what their distant suppliers may be up to?

Dan Charles at National Public (NPR) describes a promising approach.

“Brazilian scientists are reporting a sharp increase this year in the clearing of forests in the Amazon. That’s bad news for endangered ecosystems, as well as the world’s climate. Deforestation releases large amounts of heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

“It’s also a setback for big food companies that have pledged to preserve those forests — or at least to boycott suppliers that clear forests in order to raise crops or graze cattle.

” ‘Traders such as Cargill, Bunge, or Louis Dreyfus; consumer good manufacturers such as Mondelēz or Procter & Gamble or Unilever; retailers such as Walmart and McDonald’s — all the major brands have made those commitments,’ says Luiz Amaral, director of global solutions for commodities and finance at the World Resources Institute.

“Most of the companies promised to cut all links to deforestation by 2020, but … turns out, it’s really hard for companies to ensure that none of their raw materials came from recently cleared land.

“So Amaral and his colleagues just created a new online tool for companies to use. They call it Global Forest Watch Pro. …

“Amaral pulls up an image of the globe. This particular image shows which areas are covered by trees. … This map is created from data collected by satellites operated by NASA. One satellite scans the entire planet every week, constantly updating this map. So it’s possible to tell whether trees disappear from one week to the next. Another satellite monitors the entire globe for fires.

“Researchers at the University of Maryland created software to filter this flood of data and detect the signals of deforestation. …

” ‘I uploaded 22 cattle farms in Brazil,’ he says. These farms show up as highlighted areas in one region of Brazil. … With a few mouse clicks, we see how much of each farm is covered with trees and how that area has changed.

“He points out one 40,000-acre-farm. Half of it is covered in forests. But we can also see that, 15 years ago, the whole thing was forest. We zoom in closer. We can see exactly where trees disappeared in this part of Brazil. …

“In a similar way, a food company can enter the locations of farms from which it buys raw materials. Global Forest Watch Pro then will send an alert whenever it detects deforestation within that area.

“The company Mondelēz International, which makes Oreo cookies and Triscuit crackers, already is using it.

” ‘I think it’s actually extremely important,’ says Jonathan Horrell, the company’s director of global sustainability. … ‘Forests [are] being cut down in order to produce raw materials that we use in our products,’ he says. Those raw materials include palm oil from plantations in Indonesia, and cocoa farms in West Africa.

“Companies that want to use Global Forest Watch Pro have to figure out exactly where their suppliers are, and that can be difficult. …

“This is easier to do when companies buy food directly from local producers, as is often the case with cocoa and palm oil. In other cases, though, products move through a long chain of intermediary companies. Farmers who raise cattle may sell them to a local slaughterhouse, not directly to McDonald’s.”

But as NPR’s Charles explains, even local slaughterhouses can use the tool. Already WRI has signed up a slaughterhouse in Paraguay for an account. And I expect more will get on board as corporate commitments to cut carbon footprints exert economic pressure.

More here.

homer

Photo: Greek Ministry of Culture
Recently discovered verses from Homer’s Odyssey are unusual both because they’re old and because they’re on clay. Most versions of the Odyssey perished early on, having been written on papyrus.

You would think that after studying Ancient Greek for five years in school, I would remember a little more of it than I actually do. But I retain an interest in all things Greek, especially literary selections that I once knew how to read in my stumbling way, like Herodotus, the great plays, and the Odyssey.

Recently I saw that a very early copy of 13 verses of the Odyssey had been found.

Jason Daley reports at the Smithsonian, “The epics of the Greek poet Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, have been recited around campfires and scrutinized by students for 2,800 years, if not longer. You might think that ancient copies of these books are dug up in Greece all the time, but that’s not the case. The ancient papyrus these books were written on rarely survives, meaning that ancient copies of Homer from the lands he wrote about simply don’t exist.

“But now, reports the BBC, archeologists in Greece have found 13 verses from The Odyssey chiseled into a clay tablet dating to the third century A.D. or earlier, representing the oldest lines of the poet found in the ancient land.

“The tablet was discovered near the ruins of the Temple of Zeus during three years of excavations in the ruins of the ancient city of Olympia on the Greek peninsula the Peloponnese. The verses are from the epic’s fourteenth book, in which Odysseus speaks to his lifelong friend Eumaeus, the first person he sees on his return from his decade away from home. …

“Any glimpse into Homer before medieval times is rare, and any insight into the composition of the epics is precious. It’s believed that The Odyssey and The Iliad come from an oral storytelling tradition. Whether the stories were composed by a blind poet named Homer is a source of debate. …

“There were many different versions of each work transcribed throughout the ancient world. That’s because, as Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy points out, the oral tradition of these poems was not a matter of rote memorization. Instead, bards would have told slightly different versions of the epics each time they recited them, using a technique known as composition-in-recitation. Scribes transcribing the recitations would have heard different versions depending on the storyteller, so there were likely various versions of the Homer epics works floating around the ancient world.

“The versions we know now come from medieval copies made of the complete works based on ancient sources that are now lost. After those texts were rediscovered during the Rennaissance, they became classics and have been translated endlessly. …

But not all of the earlier versions of Homer are lost. Archaeologists working in Egypt in the late 19th century began collecting scraps of papyrus containing lines, quotations and even complete chapters of the stories.

“Unlike in Greece, the dry conditions in Egypt mean some papyrus documents are preserved, including bits of Homer dating to the third century B.C. These scraps and chapters show that the medieval texts are not the only versions of the epics or even the authoritative versions — it turns out there is no one definitive Homer out there. That’s why the Homer Multitext Project is gathering all of those fragments together so they can be compared and put in sequence to provide a broader view of Homer’s epics.”

More  at the Smithsonian, here.

lowest-vocal-note-header_tcm25-584243Photo: Guinness World Records
Helen Leahey, a Welsh musician living in Germany, recently broke the record for the lowest vocal note (female).

Hello, friends, are you ready for another story on the unusual world records that adventurous humans can’t wait to break? (Remember this one on a poetry recitation in 111 languages and this one on running backwards?)

Well, let me introduce you to Helen Leahey, the “Bass Queen.”

Connie Suggitt writes at the Guinness World Records website that Leahey “sang from a D5 to a D2 note at an incredibly deep 72.5 hertz(es) in her attempt at the Music School Wagner in Koblenz, Germany.

“Helen, originally from St Asaph in Wales but now living in Germany, has recently returned to singing after the birth of her first child. …

” ‘I have been encouraged for some years to pursue a musical career professionally, in part because of my unique voice,’ Helen explained. ‘Everywhere I sing, I hear that nobody has heard a woman who can hit the low notes like me. I guess I wanted to see how unique my voice truly is.’ …

“During her attempt, Helen had eight industry professionals present, including qualified music teachers and sound engineers. Her witnesses were Tatjana Botow, a singing teacher, and Elmar Wald, a sound engineer. …

“After a couple of attempts, sound engineer Tobias Jacobs confirmed Helen had achieved the record-breaking low note. …

“Helen’s naturally deep voice has helped define and shape her music career, as has Celtic roots. In her songs, many instruments can be heard, including the guitar, Irish bouzouki, harmonica and the Irish drum (Bodhrán). …

” ‘When I play music, there is no filter, nothing, nowhere, where I can hide. Singing my own songs in front of an audience is incredibly humbling and intimate,’ Helen says on her website.” More at Guinness, here.

I have known women in a cappella groups who have deep enough voices to sing the bass line, but this takes the cake.

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Photo: Strong Museum, Rochester, New York
Candy Land was created as a distraction for young polio victims. The 1949 game board depicts a boy in a leg brace, like many polio patients had to wear.

When my children were young, I made a game called Vegetable Land because I wasn’t crazy about the enthusiasm for sugar in the Candy Land game. Little Miss Holier-than-Thou.

Come to find out, Candy Land was created 70 years ago to lighten the monotonous days of young polio victims immured in iron lungs.

Alexander B. Joy writes at the Atlantic, “If you were a child at some point in the past 70 years, odds are you played the board game Candy Land. According to the toy historian Tim Walsh, a staggering 94 percent of mothers are aware of Candy Land …

“You know how it goes: Players race down a sinuous but linear track, its spaces tinted one of six colors or marked by a special candy symbol. They draw from a deck of cards corresponding to the board’s colors and symbols. They move their token to the next space that matches the drawn color or teleport to the space matching the symbol. The first to reach the end of the track is the winner.

“Nothing the participants say or do influences the outcome; the winner is decided the second the deck is shuffled, and all that remains is to see it revealed, one draw at a time. It is a game absent strategy, requiring little thought. … Yet for all its simplicity and limitations, children still love Candy Land, and adults still buy it. … It was invented by Eleanor Abbott, a schoolteacher, in a polio ward during the epidemic of the 1940s and ’50s.

“The outbreak had forced children into extremely restrictive environments. Patients were confined by equipment, and parents kept healthy children inside for fear they might catch the disease.

Candy Land offered the kids in Abbott’s ward a welcome distraction — but it also gave immobilized patients a liberating fantasy of movement. That aspect of the game still resonates with children today. …

“The virus targets the nerve cells in the spinal cord, inhibiting the body’s control over its muscles. This leads to muscle weakness, decay, or outright fatality in extreme cases. The leg muscles are the most common sites of polio damage, along with the muscles of the head, neck, and diaphragm. In the last case, a patient would require the aid of an iron lung, a massive, coffinlike enclosure that forces the afflicted body to breathe. For children, whose still-developing bodies are more vulnerable to polio infection, the muscle wastage from polio can result in disfigurement if left untreated. Treatment typically involves physical therapy to stimulate muscle development, followed by braces to ensure that the affected parts of the body retain their shape.

“Vaccines appeared in the 1950s, and the disease was essentially eradicated by the end of the millennium. But in the mid-century, polio was a medical bogeyman, ushering in a climate of hysteria. ‘There was no prevention and no cure,’ the historian David M. Oshinsky writes. ‘Everyone was at risk, especially children. There was nothing a parent could do to protect the family.’ …

“According to Walsh, the toy historian, the [Milton Bradley executive Mel Taft met Abbott when she] brought Milton Bradley a Candy Land prototype sketched on butcher paper. …

“In 1948, when she was in her late 30s, she herself contracted the disease. Abbott recuperated in the polio ward of a San Diego hospital, spending her convalescence primarily among children.

“Imagine what it must have been like to share an entire hospital ward with children struggling against polio, day after day, as an adult. Kids are poorly equipped to cope with boredom and separation from their loved ones under normal circumstances. But it would be even more unbearable for a child confined to a bed or an iron lung. That was the context in which Abbott made her recovery.

“Seeing children suffer around her, Abbott set out to concoct some escapist entertainment for her young wardmates, a game that left behind the strictures of the hospital ward for an adventure that spoke to their wants: the desire to move freely in the pursuit of delights, an easy privilege polio had stolen from them. …

“Every element of Abbott’s game symbolizes shaking off the polio epidemic’s impositions. And this becomes apparent if you consider the game’s board and mechanics relative to what children in polio wards would have seen and felt.

“In 2010, when he was almost 70 years old, the polio survivor Marshall Barr recalled how only brief escapes from the iron lung were possible. The doctors ‘used to come and say, “You can come out for a little while,” and I used to sit up perhaps to have a cup of tea,’ he wrote, ‘but then they would have to keep an eye on me because my fingers would go blue and in about 15 minutes I would have to go back in again.’ Children would have played Abbott’s early version of Candy Land during these breaks, or in their bed. …

“At least part of Candy Land’s appeal is the feeling of independence it provides its young players. In a backstory printed in the game’s instruction manual, the player tokens (in the current edition, four brightly colored plastic gingerbread men) are said to represent the players’ ‘guides.’ They represent the chance to be an active agent, with assistance — an ambulatory adventurer, not a prisoner of the hospital or home.” More here.

I well remember the fear of polio and especially my parents’ anxiety about public swimming places. After all, my father had had polio as a child and knew the scourge for what it was.

I haven’t shared photos for a while. Some of these are from my last sad visit to New York, others are closer to home.

The first one makes me think of how hopeful I was on September 24th, when I arrived in New York and stayed with my sister’s devoted friend. I learned that my sister was doing better than the day before although she was still in the hospital. She was talking again and saying she wanted to carry on with treatment. We allowed ourselves a flutter of hope.

The bed is a Murphy Bed, made famous in old, silent movies, where someone like Charlie Chaplin might accidentally get closed up in it. This one was comfortable and not at all recalcitrant.

My hosts’ balcony had a glorious view. I sat there and had a cup of tea. I also took an early walk around their neighborhood, which features a statue of the Dutch director-general of the colony of New Netherland (now New York), “Peg Leg” Peter Stuyvesant. I couldn’t help wondering what the descendants of the Lenape natives thought of the statue.

Alas, the next day my sister took a dramatic turn for the worse and died the day after that. Miraculously, our brothers arrived in time from Wisconsin and California.

On days that followed, my sister’s husband, her friend, Suzanne, and I wandered around the city trying to enjoy nature and art and focus on good memories.

Then I took a bus back to Rhode Island, where I had left my car in a hurry. The rooster is in Rhode Island.

The concluding set of photos embraces art and nature back home in Massachusetts, where a long-life sympathy plant from my niece and nephew holds pride of place in the living room.

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