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Photo: Calvin Nicholls
Wilson’s Bird of Paradise rendered in paper.

Some people seem to make a beeline straight from childhood to the work that will define them. People like Mozart, for example. Others have a long, circuitous route to greatness. Malvolio weighs in on the puzzle in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

Pat Leonard writes at Living Bird that Calvin Nicholls came to his amazingly great art a bit by accident.

“The daily commute to his attic studio is short and steep. The road to success for Canadian artist Calvin Nicholls has been much longer. He’s spent the last 30 years perfecting an unusual art form that is all about light, shadow, shape—and illusion. Nicholls is a paper sculptor who creates fantastically detailed birds and other animals that seem to leap, lean, or flutter straight out of their frames. His career evolved from drawing, model-making, sculpting, photography, and periodic doses of serendipity.

“ ‘It’s so clear in my mind—it was 1983,’ says Nicholls. ‘I had my own graphic design studio in Toronto. I met a fellow who was manipulating paper to produce areas of highlight and shadow to create the feeling of depth in two dimensions. We worked on a restaurant menu concept together and I could see the potential in this technique. I got playing with paper sculpture myself and it was just so much fun.’

“At first, Nicholls created his sculptures as a method for creating his final product, a photograph that could surprise viewers by seeming three dimensional. The technique turned out to be a hit when Nicholls introduced it to some of his clients. He showed photographic prints of his work in an art show in Ontario in 1990, but he also wound up selling sculptures of a Snowy Owl and Mallard as well.

“ ‘I was focused on the prints and trying to make two dimensions look like three,’ Nicholls says. ‘Then clients would say, so where’s the artwork? And I thought, yikes—I never even thought about displaying the artwork! I still marvel that I didn’t know then that the original artwork could be as interesting as the illusion created in the prints with sophisticated studio lighting.’

“Switching focus to the original artwork meant reducing the depth of his sculptures so they could be framed and so the jumble of foam core supports and toothpicks underneath didn’t show when the piece was viewed from an angle. It took a lot of time and experimentation. But the end result is an uncanny illusion of depth from layers of paper that are only about an inch thick. …

‘What makes the sculptures work is thinking about anatomy and how [feathers] flow a certain way on the musculoskeletal structure,’ says Nicholls. ‘I have to get a sense of the skeleton and the muscles and what they do in certain gestures.’ ”

Read more and see the great pictures at Living Bird, here.

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Photo: Steve Morgan/Alamy Stock Photo
Working on the Pelamis wave power converter in Orkney. The British island is leading the way on renewable energy generation.

This story about Orkney in the British Isles holds lessons for governments everywhere. If you are serious about generating the kind of energy that can save the planet, you have to invest. Orkney did so because energy from the mainland was costly and because the island had a wild amount of wind. But Orkney didn’t stop there, and now it’s leading the way for the rest of the world.

As Robin McKie reports at the Guardian, “It seems the stuff of fantasy. Giant ships sail the seas burning fuel that has been extracted from water using energy provided by the winds, waves and tides. A dramatic but implausible notion, surely. Yet this grand green vision could soon be realised thanks to a remarkable technological transformation that is now under way in Orkney.

“Perched 10 miles beyond the northern edge of the British mainland, this archipelago of around 20 populated islands – as well as a smattering of uninhabited reefs and islets – has become the centre of a revolution in the way electricity is generated. Orkney was once utterly dependent on power that was produced by burning coal and gas on the Scottish mainland and then transmitted through an undersea cable. Today the islands are so festooned with wind turbines, they cannot find enough uses for the emission-free power they create on their own.

“Community-owned wind turbines generate power for local villages; islanders drive nonpolluting cars that run on electricity; devices that can turn the energy of the waves and the tides into electricity are being tested in the islands’ waters and seabed; and – in the near future – car and passenger ferries here will be fuelled not by diesel but by hydrogen, created from water that has been electrolysed using power from Orkney’s wind, wave and tide generators.

“ ‘A low-carbon renewable future, which is much talked about elsewhere, is coming early to Orkney,’ says ethnographer Laura Watts in her book Energy at the End of the World: An Orkney Islands Saga. The book, published by [MIT Press], tells the intriguing tale of how Orcadians have begun to create their own low-carbon future against incredible odds and with only a little help from the mainland. …

“Orkney is leading Britain’s drive toward a carbon-free future. And the critical, vital ingredient in this revolution has been the manner in which islanders have turned the energy of the winds into a reliable source of power. Low-lying and exposed to both the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, Orkney is battered by winds and gales throughout the year. Rainstorms sweep the islands with unbridled savagery, tear down sheds, rip slates from roofs, and can take out metres of coastline in a night. You don’t need an umbrella here, you need a riot shield, one islander told Watts, who has been a regular visitor to Orkney for the past decade. …

“In the early 1980s, Britain began experiments aimed at developing turbines that could turn wind power into electricity – at a test site on Burgar Hill, on Orkney. ‘However, the UK pulled the plug on it and instead the Danes and Germans went ahead and developed wind turbine technology – because their governments invested in it,’ says Watts. ‘They put in millions. The British government did not. We could have had a UK wind energy industry but we just did not invest.’

“The impact of wind turbine technology in Orkney was nevertheless profound and islanders took to its generation in a big way. ‘Orkney used to import its power but now generates, on average over the year, electricity that fulfils 120% of its own needs,’ says Watts. ‘So you have all this energy. The question is: what are you going to do with it?’

“Watts outlines the three options open to islanders: build a new cable so it can export its excess renewable energy to the mainland; use more electricity on the islands; or turn its excess renewable power into another fuel – such as hydrogen – and then store it. Finding the right course is likely to have a profound impact on Britain as the nation looks to the example set by Orkney and embraces its low-carbon future. …

“Energy cannot be simply collected from a wind turbine and exploited later when conditions are calm and windless – because there is as yet no reliable way to store it. It is a basic drawback that Orcadians are now tackling. On the Orkney island of Eday, a device known as an electrolyser – powered by renewable energy sources – splits water into its two elemental components: hydrogen and oxygen. The former can be stored and later burnt to generate electricity when needed. Already a fuel cell – powered by locally derived hydrogen – is being used to generate electricity for berthed vessels on one Orkney pier.”

Pretty exciting stuff, don’t you think? More at the Guardian, here.

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I’m headed off to New York soon to spend some time with my sister. Regular readers know she was diagnosed with a bad cancer last summer, but she is stable with ongoing treatment and living a normal life. I hope to get good pictures on my travels, but in the meantime, here are scenes from my own backyard.

The first is from an art exhibit called “The Moon: Eternal Pearl.”  I particularly liked this Joseph Wheelright sculpture. The gallery itself (once a stop on the underground railroad) is always pleasant to visit, especially right after an opening reception when there are flowers everywhere. I liked how the gold dome of the UU church shows up beyond one flower arrangement.

When the gallery isn’t open, you can still enjoy the curious outdoor sculptures, like this elephant and ostrich.

The blue photo is from a blues concert I attended recently. The musicians are actually just doing a sound check here. The next three pictures are from my walks around town, including my walk on a new piece of the Bruce Freeman bike trail on a former railroad bed, which technically isn’t open yet but is so enticing that lots of people are using it. The trail has been taking decades to complete because of lawsuits by abutters. They will soon find out it is an asset, in my opinion.

I’m not sure if I posted the library’s children’s-book quilt already, but I want to be sure that quilting friends see it.

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Photo: Michael Bradley/AFP/Getty Images
Man Kaur of India celebrates after competing in the 100-meter sprint in the 100+ age category at the World Masters Games in Auckland, New Zealand, in April 2017.

It was Erik who sent the story about a 101-year-old champion runner. He sent it to his mother and my husband, too, in case we want to take up athletic competition at our advanced ages. The woman in the story got a late start on running, and although I am not interested in running, I always like stories about late starts. Especially stories about starting something big after age 90.

As Chhavi Sachdev reported at National Public Radio (NPR) in 2018, “Man Kaur is 101, but her routine could tire most 20-somethings.

“Every day she wakes up at 4 a.m., bathes, washes clothes, makes tea, recites prayers until about 7 a.m. Sometimes she goes to the Gurdwara, the place of worship for Sikhs, other times she prays at home.

“And then she goes to the track for an hour of sprinting practice. And she’s not just doing it for fun. A competitive runner, Kaur is a world record holder in her age group for several categories and is now training for the Asia Pacific Masters Games in Malaysia. …

“She was declared the brand ambassador for a nonprofit organization called Pinkathon, which raises awareness of women’s health issues — and encourages running as a way to improve physical fitness. At the Pinkathon announcement event, Kaur was literally mobbed by gushing women, many of whom started running in their 30s and 40s. …

“The diminutive Kaur hasn’t been a lifetime runner. Far from it. She started running in 2009, when her son, Gurdev Singh, 79, urged her to take up track and field. …

“What made him take his then 93-year-old mother to the track? It was mainly a whim, he explains — but also a desire to keep her fit. ‘She was very well, with no health problems, and she moved fast. So I took her to the university track with me and asked her to run 400 meters. She did it, slowly, and I thought “Yes, She can do it.” ‘

“Kaur enjoyed it enough to want to return. She liked running, she said. And quickly she started to improve. Two years later, given how well she was doing, her son registered her for international events he was participating in. Kaur agreed with no hesitation. And she hasn’t stopped. …

“Since starting her competitive career, Kaur has run in meets in Canada, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Taiwan. And she’s nailed 17 gold medals.

“In Auckland, New Zealand [in April, 2017] she won gold for the 100-meter and 200-meter runs as well as two new sports: javelin and shot put. In those two events, she’s sometimes the only contestant in her age bracket, so winning gold is a sure thing. But she doesn’t just show up. In Auckland, Kaur broke the master category world record in javelin with her 16-foot throw. …

“To improve her speed, Kaur tries to go to the track every day. Three days a week, she does shot put and javelin practice; the rest of the week, Singh puts her through her paces on the track. On sprint days she does runs of 30 meters, 40 meters and 50 meters. These are alternated with days when she does 100-meter and 200-meter runs.

” ‘And if the weather is inclement, I go to the gym and lift weights,’ she says.”

Read about her early life and future plans at NPR, here.

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Photo: Reuters

Did someone read you Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories when you were a child? My father read them to me. My favorite was “The Elephant’s Child.”

“In the High and Far-Off Times the Elephant, O Best Beloved, had no trunk.” I loved hearing about the elephant’s child’s “satiable curiosity.” I loved the way the characters talked. The bi-colored python rock snake on the banks of the grey-green, greasy Limpopo River all set about with fever trees spoke just like my Uncle Jim.

Recently, an article in the Guardian reminded me of Kipling’s fanciful stories about how animals looked before they acquired their characteristic traits. It was an article about the whale.

Riley Black wrote, “Whales used to live on land. This fact never ceases to amaze me. Even though every living species of cetacean – from the immense blue whale to the river dolphins of the Amazon basin – is entirely aquatic, there were times when the word ‘whale’ applied entirely to amphibious, crocodile-like beasts that splashed around at the water’s edge. This week, paleontologists named another.

Peregocetus pacificus – as named by a seven-strong paleontologist team led by Olivier Lambert – is [a mammal] that was excavated from the bed of an ancient ocean now preserved in Peru. … This was a whale that still had arms and legs, the firm attachment of the hips to the spine and flattened toe-tips indicating that Peregocetus was an amphibious creature capable of strutting along the beach. Yet conspicuous expansions to the tailbones of Peregocetus are reminiscent of living mammals, such as otters, that swim with an up-and-down, undulating motion … different from the side-to-side swish of most fish. …

“There are two points that make Peregocetus stand out. The first, Lambert and colleagues point out, is where Peregocetus was found. This early whale wasn’t discovered in ancient Asia, like many others, but in South America. It’s the first of its kind to be found on the continent, and from the Pacific side, at that. This is something of a surprise. Clearly whales were eminently seaworthy long before they became more streamlined and lost their hindlimbs. Finds such as Peregocetus, as well as the related Georgiacetus from North America, indicate that walking whales were capable of crossing entire oceans.

“But, more importantly, Peregocetus is a reminder of what wonders still await us in the fossil record. … Peregocetus [stands] in our fossiliferous imagination with its hind feet on the land and front paws in the water. The whale certainly adds to our understanding of how and when cetaceans took to the seas, but the most powerful fact of all is simply that such an unusual and unexpected creature existed.” More here.

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Photo: Kalume Kazungu / Nation Media Group
The Flipflopi dhow made entirely from recycled marine plastic being prepared on January 24, 2019, to start its inaugural journey from Lamu to Zanzibar.

I like listening to Public Radio International’s The World because it gives me a window on what’s going on in other countries. People living elsewhere on Plant Earth often know what’s going on in the US, but here most of us have blinders on. It’s as if nothing happens anywhere else unless it affects us directly and immediately.

But all people are concerned about the things that concern us, and many are taking action unheralded in America. Some of the most energetic environmentalists are the residents of poor countries who’ve been most hurt by climate change (see Mary Robinson’s eye-opening book Climate Justice) or who have the most plastic clogging their waterways and beaches.

Consider this story about Kenyans trying to raise the consciousness of their own countrymen and others in Africa.

Kalume Kazungu and Eunince Murathe reported in January at Kenya’s Daily Nation, “The dhow made entirely from recycled marine plastic, the world’s first, has set sail from Lamu Old Town and is headed to Stone Town, Zanzibar. … Aboard 16 crew members, all who were involved in the invention of the vessel, will sail south along the coast of Kenya. …

“The Flipflopi’s maiden journey is meant to raise awareness about marine plastic pollution. … It is sailing for approximately 50 to 80 kilometres a day whilst simultaneously broadcasting the #Plasticrevolution message to a global audience. …

“The Flipflopi team will make several stops where they will be visiting schools, communities and government officials as they discuss solutions and changing mind-sets concerning plastic wastes and the importance of maintaining a clean environment free of plastics.

“[Dhow builder Ali] Skanda said he is confident that the Flipflopi will assist in raising awareness on the danger of using plastics and dumping them anyhow along the beaches.

” ‘We are set for our journey to Zanzibar. We will be passing through various towns along the Coast where we will be making some stops to educate the dwellers on how they can maintain clean beaches as well as avoiding plastic disposal on our ocean beaches.

“ ‘Through the Flipflopi invention, we hope people around the world are inspired to find their own ways to repurpose already used plastic so as to maintain clean beaches which are free of plastic wastes,’ said Mr Skanda.

“Mr Shafi Shetai, a Flipflopi crew member, said he believes the dhow will serve to reinforce the need for continued adherence to the already existing plastic ban since it demonstrates how the increasing amounts of plastic garbage can affect not only marine life but also the lives of residents and the economy.

“Mr Shetai said apart from the existing ban on plastic bags, the government should also ban other plastic materials used daily including straws since they are also posing a challenge to the environment. …

“The venture is aptly named the Flipflopi Project as the boat was built by traditional dhow makers led by Mr Skanda using thousands of repurposed flip-flops and ocean plastic collected on beach clean-ups along the Kenyan Coast. Limiting themselves to locally available technology and materials, the builders collected discarded plastics, shredded them into small pieces, then heated them and remolded them. They then carved the plastic parts exactly the same way they would do to wood.”

Read more at the Daily Nation, here. And for additional details, check out the UN Environment press release on the topic, here.

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Photo: Sara Weber
On the scarf that German citizen Claudia Weber knitted to record her train commute, gray represents within five minutes of the timetable, pink within half an hour; red means a severe delay. She sold the scarf on eBay to raise money for a German train charity.

I was a train commuter for many years, and although there were often delays, they weren’t usually as horrendous as those in the winter of 2015, when you could wait two hours on an outdoor platform for a train that was supposed to be close at hand.

Last year’s delays on a train route in Germany led to an enterprise I never would have thought of. It not only gave a commuter an outlet for her frustration, it ended up raising money for a good cause.

Palko Karasz has the story at the New York Times. “Claudia Weber is a seasoned commuter, and she loves to knit. Over the past year, as her train journey from a town in the Bavarian countryside to Munich was replaced with a bus service during track repairs, stretching to two hours or more from a scheduled 40 minutes, she had a novel way of working out her frustrations. …

“When she got home each evening, she simply added two rows of wool to a striped scarf she was knitting: gray for delays under five minutes, pink for up to 30 minutes and red for a delay of more than a half-hour or delays in both directions.

“The resulting four-foot ‘Bahn-Verspätungsschal,’ or ‘rail delay scarf,’ has become something of a social-media sensation. Put on eBay to raise money for a Germany charity that provides free assistance to people at train stations, it sold [in January] for 7,550 euros, or about $8,650, to an undisclosed buyer. …

“Ms. Weber, 55, an office clerk at a travel agency, said in a phone interview, … ‘I understand the problems they’re having. There’s more and more commuters every year, but on the other hand I spend a lot of time waiting.’

“Her daily journeys take her between Munich and her home in Moosburg, northeast of the city, along the Isar River. …

“The scarf resonated with a lot of commuters in Germany and around the world, who live with the frustration of daily delays. After Ms. Weber’s daughter Sara, a journalist in Munich, posted a picture of the scarf on Twitter, it soon drew 23,000 likes and nearly 400 comments, as well as interview requests from local and international news media. …

” ‘It has become somewhat of an urban myth that Germans are always on time and trains in Germany run on time, but it’s not always true,’ [Sara Weber] said, reflecting on why the post resonated with so many people. … Experts have been warning for years about aging infrastructure in Germany, and delays and cost overruns in giant projects have hurt the country’s reputation of efficiency. …

“For her part, Claudia Weber has taken the Munich-Moosburg train for 25 years and has no intention of stopping. She considered driving, she said, but calculated that it would save her neither time nor money.

“ ‘I know I was complaining, but I’m still grateful I have that service,’ she added.”

That’s exactly how I felt about my commuter train. It was invariably better than the alternatives.

More at the New York Times, here.

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