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Friday, October 21, 2011

Repost: Photography and the History of Places

This was originally posted 2/18/11...

Paris 1940 and 2010:  German cavalry on the Avenue Foch by Sergey Larenkov.

Rephotography is an attempt by a photographer to retake a photo at a different time but from the same viewpoint.  The comparison of resulting photographs can be noteworthy, often jolting.  This isn't an easy endeavor.  Achieving the same viewpoint can be difficult, but computer software is being developed to help. Using such software is called computational rephotography.

Defenders of the city at the Hotel Astoria by Sergey Larenkov.

Researchers at MIT are currently using a laptop to automate the process.  The plan is to create software that will fit inside a digital camera.  This software system would compare what's seen in the viewer with a historical photo, determine the alignment, then issue instructions to the photographer.  This is called visual homing.

Paris 1940 and 2010:  Rue de Rivoli by Sergey Larenkov.

Superimposing an old photo over a modern one can produce a striking experience. There is a website called historypin that is a global project launched in London last June.  It is a project of the "We Are What We Do" organization as part of their campaign to get people of different generations talking to one another.  By sharing old photos with new ones, they hope to create a "digital time machine".  Working with Google, they used Google maps and Street View functions to build the site. Photos are "pinned" to their geographical locale, and everyone is encouraged to post a piece of their own history.

Sergey Larenkov is a Russian photographer and photoshop artist who uses images of WWII for his work.  His photos are often haunting; superimposing bleak and disturbing images of war over modern ones in times of peace can produce discordant and perturbing reactions.  He has been criticized for not creating smoother, more integrated works, but I think that it may be his intention to keep the jagged, often disruptive look - like memories that come bursting into the frame.


By his own admission the siege of Leningrad, his hometown, made an impression on him.  His work includes images of the defense of Moscow, the liberation of Vienna and Prague, the storming of Berlin, and the occupation of Paris.  The sometimes rather brutal images of an era that most young people don't really know about and most of the rest would like to ignore directly confront one and remind one how easy it is to bury and forget the past.


The Siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, was an unsuccessful military attempt by the Axis powers to capture the city; it was also known as the Leningrad Blockade.  This siege, lasting from September 9, 1941, to January 27, 1944, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges of any major city in modern history. Many thousands of people died, having been deprived of food and fuel for heating.  People took to eating anything they could get their hands on, even in extreme cases each other.

Supply problems also affected the citizens of occupied Paris.  However the French were slightly better off than the citizens of Leningrad.  Tickets were given out to be exchanged for food supplies.  There was also a black market.  People tried buying directly from farmers, but this was at high risk.  In general, things were worse in the city, as in the countryside there were some vegetable gardens and dairy products were more easily available.  It was a difficult and oppressive time for many European nations.

Larenkov's works are a startling evocation of those times, and the juxtaposition of the war-time images with modern ones are dissonant and strident reminders of a horrible past.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, what better way to communicate the difference between war and peace?

All images courtesy of Sergey Larenkov.
Please visit his journal and/or website to see all his images.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What the Heck Is It?

Image courtesy of www.ryanphotographic.com.

The first scientists to examine one thought it was a hoax.  Comedian Robin Williams said he thought God was stoned and designed it to mess with people's minds.  It's part duck, part beaver, part otter, and part reptilian and even walks with a reptilian gait since its legs are on its side and not under its body.  Even its name is weird - platypus.

Magenta area to right of map shows where platypuses live.
Map courtesy of Wikipedia.

Found only in eastern Australia, the platypus was originally called a duckbill, watermole, or duckmole - all reflecting its strange architecture.  Actually platypus is the common name, and a latinization of the Greek word "platupous", meaning flat foot.  It was officially named the ornithorhynchus anatinus, meaning "bird-like snout, duck-like".  Clearly, scientists were impressed with its physical appearance.

John Gould print of 1863 from Mammals of Australia.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Platypuses (platypi is incorrect, considered pseudo-Latin) are of the order monotremata, named for the fact that the same body opening is used for reproduction and the elimination of water materials, same as reptiles.  The only other monotreme is the echidna.  They are considered mammals but are the exception to the rule that mammals give live birth.

Image courtesy of www.sciencedaily.com.

Platypuses lay eggs, which they incubate by clutching them by their tails, holding them close to their abdomens for about two weeks.  The "puggles" (another suggested name for the young is "platypups") hatch in roughly ten days but are the size of lima beans and are furless and completely helpless.  Females have no teats, but produce milk in large glands beneath their abdominal skin.  The milk accumulates on their fur where the puggles can lap it up.  They nurse this way for about 3-4 months, until they can swim on their own.  Normally females produce two eggs, but sometimes up to four.  Platypuses do not mate every year, and not until they are about two years old.

Image courtesy www.cutepics.org.

Excellent swimmers and divers, they have no external earlobes.  Underwater they close both ears and eyes.  Their eyesight is acute over distance, but because of their placement they are unable to see anything that is literally "under their nose". They have very sensitive bills which allows them to navigate and find food underwater.  Electroreceptors are located in the skin of their bills, along with mechanoreceptors (which detect by touch), which locate prey by detecting electric fields generated by muscle contractions.  They use signal strength to find the direction of their source.

Image courtesy of www.ryanphotographic.com.

They dine on aquatic fare - shrimps, worms, insect larvae, small fish, roe, tadpoles, and frogs - which they collect by scrounging in the mud with their sensitive bills. They store their catch in their cheek pouches to be consumed later when they surface.  Since they have no teeth, they need gravel to help them "chew".

Image courtesy of www.platypus.org.uk.

They are so buoyant that they must continually swim downward to remain submerged.  Their front feet have webs that extend past their claws forming large paddles for swimming.  Their hind feet are also webbed, but are used to steer and brake.  They can swim underwater for about two minutes, but can rest submerged for up to ten minutes.  Their fur is dense and the first layer traps air next to the skin, providing insulation.  A middle layer works like a wetsuit, and the outer layer can feel the closeness of objects.

Image courtesy of www.platypus.org.uk.

Platypuses are 12-18" long and can weigh from 2.2 - 5.3 pounds, females being considerably smaller.  They are known to live in captivity for twelve years.  Their tails flatten to 4-6" long and are composed of fatty tissue that stores energy for use during a food shortage.  Unlike a beaver's tail, it is not flat, is much narrower, and has no scales.  While beavers use their to propel in water, platypuses use theirs for steering.

Image courtesy of this site.

Males have a sharp hollow spur, like a horn, on the inside of both hind ankles. This is connected to a venom gland that produces a strong toxin.  Females are born with them as well, but lose them within their first year.  Because only males have them, it is thought they are meant to be used during mating season to fight off other males.  Although not lethal to humans, the venom can cause excruciating pain, and will kill a dog or other animal.

Image courtesy of www. platypus.org.uk.

They are mainly nocturnal animals, and are most active in the hours just before dawn and dusk.  They sleep up to fourteen hours a day, and in burrows that are built on the edges of rivers and freshwater lakes, preferably where there is an overhang.  Females dig special burrows to incubate their eggs in.

Image courtesy of www.sciencedaily.com.

Their natural enemies are snakes, water rats, goannas, crocodiles, and foxes, but the biggest threat to their existence is the loss of habitat and pollution.  They are currently being studied and measures are being taken for their protection.  They are very important to science because their DNA can help piece together a more complete picture of the evolution of all mammals, especially since they possess features from reptiles and birds as well as mammals.

Image courtesy of Jean-Paul Ferrero/Nature Magazine.

The platypus represents the earliest offshoot of mammals from an ancestor with features of both mammals and reptiles from 166,000,000 years ago.  Somehow it retained an overlap of features, while later mammals lost their reptilian features. Comparing the platypus genome with the DNA of other mammals, including humans who came along much later, and the genomes of birds, who branched off about 315,000,000 years ago, helps define evolution.

Image courtesy of Nicole Duplaix/NatGeo.

Researchers have compared the platypus genome with genomes of humans, mice, dogs, opossums, and chickens, and platypuses share 82% of their genes with them. The genetic sequence for venom production they found had evolved from ancestor reptiles, but curiously this developed independently in venomous reptiles. They also found genes for odor receptors such as the ones in dogs, which has led scientists to suspect that platypuses can detect odors while underwater, which may heighten their ability to find food sources.  What a complex and unusual creature!

For science geeks who want to see the platypus genome, click here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Repost: A Thousand Cranes

Originally posted 1/6/11:

There is a legend in Japan that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by a crane.  A young girl decided to try this in her efforts to save herself.  She was in the Hiroshima Red Cross Hospital dying from the effects of the atomic bomb that was dropped by the U.S. on August 6, 1945 by the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay.  The bomb was called "Little Boy".  Ironically it killed this "little girl", among many, many others.

First photo of "Little Boy" to be released by the U.S. Government.

The weapon was developed by the Manhattan Project during WWII.  The U.S., the U.K., and the Republic of China had called for the surrender of Japan in the Potsdam Declaration, which was ignored by the Japanese.  President Harry S. Truman ordered the "Little Boy" dropped on Hiroshima, then three days later "Fat Man", a second nuclear weapon, dropped on Nagasaki.  Hiroshima was never bombed prior to this in order to serve as a "pristine" target.  The damage was to be studied later, but the energy yield could only be studied at the moment of dentonation, so instruments were dropped by parachute from a plane flying in formation with the Enola Gay.

Atomic Cloud over Hiroshima after "Little Boy" was dropped.

Because "Little Boy" detonated 5 miles aboveground, there was no crater and no local radioactive fallout.  People close enough to receive lethal doses of direct radiation died immediately.  Others on the edge of the lethal area and beyond it suffered from radiation, some dying soon afterward.  The body count will never be accurate.  The number of those who died from the fire will never be known, and all incidents of illnesses cannot be precisely attributed to the fallout.  However, there were increases in the number of people exposed who suffered from cancer, leukemia, and other diseases, including children exposed in utero.  So far, there is no evidence of inherited disease.

U.S. Army official poster, 1944, U.S. Government Printing Office.

Hiroshima was an area of military and industrial significance.  The Japanese government had evacuated about 40,000-50,000 people prior to the bombing, but population figures are indeterminate.  The casualties included unintended victims - 3,200 Japanese-American citizens, Allied POWS, scholarship students from Malaya, and Korean and Chinese laborers, to name some.  There are those who claim that medical treatment for survivors was refused in some cases in order to get better research results.  Although unconfirmed, it is entirely plausible since planning for the bomb drop and recording everything about it was done in such a calculated manner.

Statue of Sadako Sasaki
Hiroshima Peace Memorial

Sadako Sasaki (January 7, 1943 - October 25, 1955) was a mile away on August 6, 1945.  By November of 1954, she developed chicken pox on her neck and ears, and two months later purple spots appeared on her legs.  Almost ten years after the atomic bomb was dropped, on February 18, 1955, she was diagnosed with leukemia, and told she had a year to live.  The people of Nagoya send a gift of a thousand origami cranes to the hospital.  She, along with many of the patients in the hospital, were inspired to create their own.  Because of a shortage of paper, they used anything they could find to make the cranes.  She was twelve when she finally succumbed.

Children's Memorial with structures to protect cranes.

Her friends and schoolmates began to raise funds to build a memorial to her and all the other children who died from effects of the atomic bomb.  In 1958, a statue of her holding a crane was unveiled in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial.  There is a plaque at the foot of the monument inscribed in Japanese:

This is our cry.  This is our prayer.  Peace on Earth.

Sadako has become a symbol of the consequences of nuclear war.  Her story is told to school children in Japan, and she is a heroine of Japanese girls.  Over 9 metric tons of origami cranes are sent to Hiroshima each year from locations worldwide.  August 6 is celebrated in Japan as annual peace day.  Her story is now familiar to children all over, thanks to the numerous books, songs, and films produced.

Some of the cranes dedicated to Sadako's memory by
Japanese school children at the Memorial at Hiroshima.

Sister memorial sites have sprung up, most notably in the Seattle Peace Park.  A sister statue in Santa Fe, New Mexico was erected, dedicated in 1995, the 50th anniversary of the bombings.  Santa Fe is where "Little Boy" was built.  The monument was funded by youths.

Statue of Sadako in Seattle Peace Park, Washington.
Photo by Lisa Norwood

Sadako was not of the military.  She had no power, and probably no knowledge of what was demanded of Japan.  She paid the price of the decision of men.  May she rest in peace.  And in her name may future young girls, among others, experience peace.

How to make an origami crane, browse here for more instructions,
including a video.
Unless otherwise noted, images from Wikipedia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

"By All Means, Save the Beans"

A very controversial act was passed in 1917.  It was called the Lever Act, named after the man who sponsored it, Rep. Asbury F. Lever of South Carolina.  President Woodrow Wilson urged its passing stating it was necessary as a wartime emergency measure.  It was officially called "An Act to Provide Further for the National Security and Defense by Encouraging the Production, Conserving the Supply, and Controlling the Distribution of Food Products and Fuel", and it became law on August 10, 1917.

One of the major complaints about the Act as that it empowered the President to limit or even prohibit the use of crops in the production of alcoholic beverages. When passed it did, in fact, prohibit the production of "distilled spirits" from produce that could be used as food.

The Act had to be implemented as it did not impact the American public in itself. The United States Food Administration was created, which replaced the existing volunteer organization.  Each state was responsible for assuring that the supplies of food during the war were distributed and that conservation measures were taken. Voluntary agreements were sought.  The Administration had two subsidiaries:  the U.S. Grain Corporation, and the U.S. Sugar Equalization Board.

Another issue was to prevent monopolies and hoarding.  In August of 1919, the President asked Congress to extend the act so that increases in the prices of commodities could be addressed, and also he asked for amendments that would include clothing and set penalties for any profiteering.  In October of that year the extension was granted, and the next two months saw the DOJ launching 179 prosecutions.

The good old days, before GMO corn and other crops.

Herbert Hoover lobbied for the job of administrator, convincing President Wilson that an individual should run it and not a board.  He accepted the position and refused any salary, feeling it would make his moral conviction stronger when asking the public to sacrifice to support the war effort.  His goal was to lead people back to a simpler life, especially simpler food.

Homeowners were urged to sign pledge cards that testified to their efforts.  The government boards, which included the Fuel Administration and the War Industries Board, began promoting wheatless Mondays and Wednesdays, meatless Tuesdays, porkless Tuesdays and Saturdays, and sweetless Saturdays.  Victory gardens were encouraged and planted with slogans like "By all means, save the beans".  Children were organized into the U.S. School Garden Army.

Compliance in all programs was voluntary.  However, the baking industry, which included restaurants and hotels, were limited to producing "Victory Bread" which was originally made with 5% grains other than wheat.  This was eventually raised to 20%.

The Fuel Administration was led by Harry Garfield and its goal was to save coal. The federal government had complete control over the coal industry, but had much less authority over oil and natural gas.  It had no authority to control the prices of oil and natural gas.  The public was encouraged to save fuel with gasless Sundays, heatless Mondays, and lightless nights.

The Fuel Administration was ended in May of 1919.  The Food Administration declined after the armistice, but had effectively disappeared by July of 1920.  The amended Act was officially repealed on March 3, 1921.

A lot of these measures seem like they should be repeated in light of living a cleaner, simpler, and much healthier life.  We could certainly use less monopolies, but having today's Congress set penalties for monopolies and profiteering?  Hardly possible, but we can always dream.  After all, there is a precedent for it, and it worked...

Images from Wikimedia Commons.
To see about a current exhibition on the government's
effects on the American diet, click here.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Watts Up

Sabato "Simon" Rodia.  Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend (see link below).

He wanted to build something really big.  So Sabato "Simon" Rodia did.  The former construction worker used scraps and a few tools to build the structures that are known as the Watts Towers, one of the most famous landmarks in Los Angeles.

His background is sketchy, but he was born in Serino, Italy in 1875.  He came to the U.S. with his brother when he was 15.  His brother was killed in a mining accident, and Rodia moved to Seattle, then Oakland, Long Beach, and finally Watts in 1920, where he purchased an odd-shaped property.  He began his work on the towers in 1921, and finished in 1954.  The Watts Towers are a collection of 17 inter-connected structures and were built in his spare time; he worked construction jobs during the day.

All three images above courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

Rodia called it "Nuestro Pueblo" (Our Town), and built it without scaffolding, bolts, rivets, welds, or by a planned and written design.  His tools were a pipefitter's pliers and a window-washer's belt and buckle.  The structures are made of steel pipes and rods, wrapped with wire mesh and coated with mortar.  The main supports have pieces of glass, tile, and porcelain embedded in them, as well as found objects such as bottles and shells.  Some of the identifiable soda bottles still bear the logos.  The property is near some railroad tracks, which he used as a vise.

This is known as the "ship's wheel", and you can see the soda bottle labels.
Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets (see link below).

He worked without drawings, and designed the structures as he built them.  Some liken them to an ark, saying the tall towers form masts.  Certainly there are ship elements throughout.  Within there is also a gazebo with bird baths and a circular bench.

This resembles a prow.  Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets.
The "gazebo".  Image courtesy of Victoriansecrets.

Unfortunately, these were paranoid times, and Rodio did not get along well with his neighbors, so his place was frequently vandalized.  Rumors spread that he was building antennae for transmitting secrets to the commies or the Japanese (you pick 'em), and he finally gave up and moved.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

He gave the property to a neighbor.  It was then bought by a man who hoped to put a Mexican fast food restaurant on the lot.  It changed hands again, and the bungalow was torched, most likely by vandals.  The City of L.A. condemned it and ordered it razed.  An actor and an editor visited the site in 1959, saw how neglected it was, and purchased it for $3,000 with the goal of preserving it.  When the City found out, they planned to raze it before the property was transferred, but the Towers were already world-renowned and there was international opposition to their destruction.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts was formed, consisting of the two owners, the curator of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and local architects and community activists.  The Committee negotiated to have the Towers tested for safety.  The crane used to attempt to topple or shift the Towers was unable to make them budge.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Towers were deeded to the City in 1975, and then deeded to the State in 1978.  It was designated as the Watts Towers of Simon Rodia State Historic Park, and is operated by the City of Los Angeles Cultural Affairs Department in a partnership with LACMA.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Towers suffered structural damage in 1994 from the Northridge earthquake. After repairs were made, it was reopened in 2001.  It was further damaged in a windstorm, and was reopened this year.  A lot of vandalism still occurs.  Earlier this year LACMA announced that a $500,000 grant was received from the James Irvine Foundation for preservation and to promote the site.

Image courtesy of Lucien den Arend.

The Watts Towers have been hailed as a prime example of American Naïve art. There are annual festivals held there which include the Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival, and the Day of the Drum Festival.  For more information on events and visiting the site, check here.

He may have been deterred by fear and hate and chased away, but he will be immortalized always by the Beatles - and how many can claim that?  He is on the cover of the Sgt. Pepper's album, top row and second from the right (behind Bob Dylan), peering over the heads of Karl Marx and H.G. Wells.  Not bad for someone just following his artistic impulses.

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.
Website maintained by Lucien den Arend is here.
Website for Victoriansecrets is here.