Monday, April 30, 2012

Two Aprils Colder Than March

My old colleague Peter -- back from when we worked for the same publishing company that produced paper-based products -- e-mailed me and the rest of his family and friends today to tell us that he'd had a question published in Ask Tom Why. That's a daily column in the paper and electronic versions of the Chicago Tribune in which Tom Skilling, the local Duns Scotus of weather, fields weather-related questions. That is, he deals in catnip for weather nerds, and boy did he deliver today, discussing the odd cool April we've had this year, following the warm March.

 Peter wrote: "First, here is the question I asked Mr. Skilling: 

"Dear Tom, 'Could you elaborate on the spring of 1907? As you say, it was the other time April ended up colder than March. But in that case it was a slightly mild March followed by a brutally cold April. And if that wasn't enough, that May was also among the coldest ever. We might be farther ahead with spring foliage now, than the end of May/start of June that year.' 

"He cut short the question, but answered it well enough: 

"Dear Tom, 'Could you elaborate on the spring of 1907, when the only April other than the current one ended up colder than the preceding March?' 

"Dear Pete, 'March 1907, averaging 42.6 degrees, was nothing like our historically warm March 2012, which averaged 53.5 degrees. March 1907 was cool through the 20th, with the highest reading only reaching 63 degrees. The end of the month turned considerably warmer, with five days in the 70s and the month's high of 80 on March 23. April (average temperature 39.8 degrees) and May (51.6 degrees) were both very chilly and well below normal. April's highest temperature was just 70, and May -- which notched a lone 80 -- even logged a 1.3-inch snowfall on the 3rd. The summer that followed was cool with all three months averaging below normal. There were only four 90-degree days and the season's highest reading was just 92, recorded on Aug. 11 and Sept. 1.'

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Sunday, April 29, 2012

Item From the Past: Bandelier National Monument

In late April 2000, we dropped by Bandelier National Monument during our visit to Santa Fe. As we entered the monument, I noticed black plumes of smoke off in the distance. "What's the smoke?" I asked the ranger at the entrance checkpoint. "Controlled burn," he told me.

Not too much later, another controlled burn in the area got out of hand and became the Cerro Grande Fire, which torched 48,000 acres and a good bit of Los Alamos (which we drove through on the same day as visiting Bandelier). But when we were at Bandelier, it was simply dry and very warm, so we were able to take a look around some of the Ancestral Pueblo ruins. Peoples related, as much as my limited understanding goes, to those who inhabited Mesa Verde and Canyon de Chelly. At some point before the Spanish arrived, they'd already skedaddled.

Somewhere I have a picture of Lilly and me climbing up into one of the dwellings in the cliffside, probably the only one accessible to casual visitors, but I couldn't locate that image. I did find some of the non-cliff structures, which I thought were just as interesting. Especially this circular pit. Can't remember what it was supposed to be.

Glad we made it before the fire that year. There have been more recent fires as well, namely the Las Conchas Fire last June, which the Park Service called the "largest wildfire in New Mexico history." About 60 percent of the park's land burned, and then later in the year, floods came in the wake of the area's deforestation. Last year wasn't a good year for Bandelier, it seems.

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Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Ultimate Cheddar Cheese Curls

Not long ago, a bag of the Michael Season's the Ultimate Cheddar Cheese Curls came into the house. In appearance at least, they're a Cheetos-class snack food, made by Seasons' Enterprises of Addison, Ill. (the varied apostrophe usage is theirs).

The blarney on the bag is fairly thick: "Our crunchy curl is made with organic corn and then, while it's still hot, we let loose an avalanche of real cheese! Glorious, creamy, tangy, incredible cheddar cheese — and that's what make this the finest cheese curl you've ever tasted." But come to think of it, I wouldn't mind witnessing a cheese avalanche (from a distance).

Because of their passing similarity to the famed orange snack food, my expectations were low for Michael Season's. I've eaten enough Cheetos in my life, but not all that many in recent years. It's one of those things I've mostly lost my taste for. As you probably should. So I was pleasantly surprised when I tried them. They're a lot better than Cheetos.

A site called puts it well: "The cheesiness is far more genuine than I remember Cheetos being, and far better. The texture was crunchy, with a satisfying snap. The curls are surprisingly dense, lacking the dissolution factor I remember from my experiences with Cheetos."

Today I discovered that neither Lilly nor Ann likes them. "Why not?" I asked. "These taste more like actual cheese." My observation was dismissed. "They aren't Cheetos, Daddy!"


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Missing Haiku

"Judges Hiroaki Sato and John Stevenson have completed their work," a letter we received today said. "We now know the names of the finalists in the 2012 Student Haiku Contest. Entries were up nearly 50% from last year... From among these English-language entries, the judge selected 45 finalists in the four divisions."

The divisions were by grade. Annoyingly, the letter doesn't say the number of English-language entries, but it does say that 102 finalists were selected from those who wrote 800 Japanese-language entries. But anyway, "the poems will go on exhibition at the United Nations International School later in the school year.

"The following are the finalists selected from your school... Ann Stribling, Grade 3, Tyler Jovanovich, Grade 1."

The kicker is that, in an unusual lapse, we didn't keep a copy of Ann's English-language entry, and she can't remember how it goes, or I'd put it here. Ah, well. As far as I can tell, the prizes for winning, and for being a finalist for that matter, include only honor and glory, or, as the letter puts it: "special recognition during [an] Awards Assembly to be held at UNIS starting at 10 a.m., June 9, 2012."

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Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Big Red Grill

Late last week I had lunch at a Weber Grill here in the greater northwestern suburbs. Instead of a bovine-based meal, I picked the crabcake sandwich and was well rewarded for my choice. I also went back to my car and fetched the camera, just so I could have a picture of the big red grill outside the restaurant.

There aren't quite as many Weber Grill locations as I'd thought. In fact, there's only four: the one in Schaumburg, another in Chicago that I visited some years ago, one in west suburban Lombard, and one in Indianapolis. The one Chicago has a large grill hanging over the entrance and a bronze statue of a griller and his Weber just inside the door. I didn't notice any art of that kind at the Schaumburg location.

"Watch our chefs masterfully prepare steaks, burgers, chops and chicken to your desired level of doneness on real Weber kettles grills," the restaurant web site says. "The grills are very similar to the Weber Ranch Kettle, but modified slightly for indoor restaurant use. (Notice they are not porcelain coated since it doesn’t rain indoors.)... that’s real charcoal they’re piling into those grills, heating them up to about 1500° F. Our chefs heat up about 2000 pounds of coal per day, using a genuine Weber Chimney Starter just like you would at home."

Not just like me. I don't have a real Weber, just a generic ovoid grill, and I haven't gotten around to getting a chimney starter, though I've seen them at work.

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Monday, April 23, 2012

The Gabuttø Burger

The Gabuttø Burger, according to the place that serves Gabuttø Burgers, is a "special blend of ground beef and ground pork. By adding pork we have achieved a juicier meat patty than traditional all-beef patties." Could be. The patty was tender and flavorful, especially with the addition of the demi-glace sauce that comes with a regular Gabuttø, making it something like the teriyaki burger that Mos Burger serves, but not quite the same. I see that Gabuttø also offers something it calls a teriyaki burger, which may be much closer to that much-liked Mos creation. (Much liked by me.)

I noticed the Gabuttø stand at the Mitsuwa food court in Arlington Heights some time ago, but never got around to trying it until Saturday when Ann and I were there. It's a brightly colored stand, mostly red and yellow, located between a coffee-and-tea shop and a stand that serves tonkatsu and the like. Gabuttø has about a dozen varieties of burger, and offers "flavored fries," which are much like you'd get in a lot of places, with one difference.

The novelty of the fries is that you add the flavoring yourself, not in the form of sauces, but from individually labeled shakers the shop provides -- shake one and out comes a flavored seasoning: original, wasabi, garlic and butter, corn soup flavor, ranch, sour cream and onion, nacho or curry. I tried the original. The concept was a little more interesting in conception than execution, since it took a lot of shaking to make the fries only a little more flavorful, but the seasoning was good, once I figured that out.

I checked later to see whether this is a chain I've never heard of. The one in Arlington Heights seems to be the only one, but maybe they dream of franchising.

What's with the ø? I don't believe the proprietors are Danish or Norwegian -- it seems they're Japanese, or perhaps Japanese-Americans -- and at their web site they use the phrase "støre infø," and "flavøred fries," so my guess would be that it's just a way to distinguish the name. I didn't ask. Maybe the next time I go, very likely for the teriyaki burger and a different seasoning on my fries, I'll ask.

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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Lost Mail

This weekend, Friday especially, was cold payback for the temporary summer we experienced last month. Even sunny skies today didn't make the air that warm. But it will warm up again soon, so essentially what we're feeling is a normal April. Except we're seeing May in terms of greenery.

On Saturday I received Ed's postcard from Kenya (see last Wednesday), which arrived after the one from Uganda, even though he says it was mailed earlier. Odd time we live in, when you can communicate electronically to tell someone the specifics of a paper communication that's still en route.

But at least Ed's Kenya card did not disappear down the international mail memory hole. When I was in college, a friend of mine took an early summer trip to the Soviet Union. Thirty years later I'm still waiting for the postcard she said she sent me from there. Afterwards she told me that about half of them got through. I thought of her in Russia a decade later when mailing cards in St. Petersburg, but as far as I know, all of those made their trips successfully (unfortunately I didn't have her address at that point, or I would have sent her a card).

While mulling on the subject of missing mail, I followed a whim and Googled "Titanic mail," and sure enough an article published 20 years ago by the National Postal Museum came up: "Titanic's Mail," it's called. Oddly enough. From it I learned that 7 million pieces of mail, including about $150,000 in postal money orders (in fat, 1912 dollars), went down with the ship, along with five postal clerks, who apparently spent their last hours trying to bring mail sacks out the bowels of the ship. Now there's a story that no big-budget boy-meets-girl-boy-freezes-in-the-north-Altantic movie is going to tell.

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Thursday, April 19, 2012

Dick Clark's Pyramid

American Bandstand and his New Year's Eve show might be getting most of the mentions with the passing of Dick Clark, but I liked him best as host of The $10,000 Pyramid, my favorite game show. I remember it as far back as the summer of 1973, the first year it was on, and remember its transformation into The $20,000 Pyramid later in the decade (indeed, those were inflationary times). After I quit watching much TV in the early '80s, I seldom saw its later iterations.

Other people, of course, kept up with it. Such as whoever compiled this detailed page on TV Tropes.

But I don't need to know that much to appreciate the show, which contestants won infrequently but just often enough to be interesting, and which combined its visual and auditory elements so well -- the contestants facing each other, the quick flip of the pyramid boards, the lights on the edge of the pyramid, and especially the mechanical drip of the 60-second clock: plonk, plonk, plonk. As if to say, Time is Your Enemy.

Clark added his own touches to the proceedings as well. These are two Winner's Circle clips from 1973 and 1987, well over a decade apart. And what did Clark always say to kick things off in the Winner's Circle? "Here's your first subject. Go!"


Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Word From Uganda

This week I got more mail from Uganda than I've ever gotten during the rest of my life so far. Both pieces were from Ed, of course.

Ed actually mailed the letter from his home base in Washington state, but he'd acquired the envelope at the Paraa Safari Lodge at Murchison Falls. The postcard, on the other hand, was mailed in Uganda. It pictures Murchison Falls.

"The River Nile, on its journey from its source at Lake Victoria to join Lake Albert -- here it is suddenly channeled into a gorge only six meters wide, and cascades 43 meters below," explains the Paraa Lodge web site. Cool.

The stamps on the card inspired me to check up on Ugandan currency, since I couldn't remember what they use. Shillings (Ush). Good for them. One stamp is Ush 1,200, the other Ush 700, for a total of 1,900 shillings postage. According to, it's very nearly 2,500 shillings to the U.S. dollar, so that's not so bad to mail a card from the Pearl of Africa to the heart of darkest North America.

One stamp depicts the Bell's Hinged Tortoise, the other the Rastrinebola agentea fish, no common name given. But Wiki tells me that, as a denizen of Lake Victoria, it's "local names are omena (Kenya), dagaa (Tanzania) and mukene (Uganda)," and I'll go along with that.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A Shot of That Mayberry Appeal

Recently I happened across an article called "Country Roads," which is about travel in West Virginia. It wasn't published in a travel magazine, but instead one whose ancillary interests lie in that direction -- and it isn't supposed to be an advertorial or ad supplement or the like. It's supposed to be editorial, and I guess it is, but the article is so awful I have to record some of it here. I haven't read a travel article this bad in quite a while, and that one was an advertising supplement.

Some choice lines, all verbatim: "Where there is water, there are fish and fishing. Central West Virginia is no exception to this rule; in fact it exemplifies this old adage."

"Want a shot of that Mayberry appeal? Spend some time in Fayetteville."

"From Cajun food to coffee shops, the town can satisfy nearly any palate with its surprisingly wide array of dining establishments."

"With all the adrenaline-pumping adventure, small town charm, man-made miracles, and natural beauty, there is of course, plenty of camping."

Why read such an article? Usually, I would have skipped it after reading a few graphs, but something about its awfulness compelled me to go on, thinking, Can this get any worse? It did. On the other hand, the article did make me want to read more about Fayetteville by a competent writer, so it was successful in that way.

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Monday, April 16, 2012

21st-Century Stooges

I promised Ann a while ago I would take her to a movie -- it's been a while for both of us -- and she picked The Three Stooges. I went with some trepidation yesterday. A movie like that can be awful in so many ways, even (especially) for those of us who enjoyed the originals long ago, or not so long ago.

But I'm happy to report that the movie was better than I thought it would be. Much (but not all) of it was true to the spirit of the originals, and the three actors who recreated the Stooges had clearly studied very carefully for their parts, since many (but not all) of their re-creations were spot-on. A lot of the time they had the hits, slaps, pokes, pummeling and other Stooge-abuse down pat, but also the patter: Moe's violent insults, Larry's whining, Curly's moron schtick.

Like in the originals, the story was not remotely important, nor very interesting. The main thing was to get the boys into situations in which they can ply their trademark chaos to anything and everything around them, including each other, and the movie delivered that with some regularity. Also true to the spirit of the originals, the rest of the cast was one-dimensional, especially the villains.

The only other cast member who stood any chance of upstaging the Stooges was a sour, sadistic Larry David in drag, dressed as stereotypical nun. In fact there were a lot of stereotypical nuns in this movie, including a nearly naked Kate Upton for all of about three seconds -- which I understand annoyed the easily annoyed Bill Donohue. But mainly the other characters were gag-fodder. Expecting anything more is a serious misunderstanding of the Stooge universe.

There were some missed opportunities. At one point, the Stooges crash a swank party, just the kind of set-up the boys of old needed to destroy the joint. Or at least get into a pie fight at the expense of the swells. They caused some damage, but not up to Stooge standards. Also, when the villains threatened to bump the Stooges off, there could have been a more extended, Stooge-type chase, which would be true to the originals.

One thing the movie did not need were any appearances by the cast of Jersey Shore. Maybe someone in the studio decided that the movie had to have something to attract the MTV demographic, but Jersey Shore features the wrong kind of morons, who don't mesh well Stooge dimwittedness. Fortunately their appearances were short.

The main thing, though, was that I laughed sometimes. So did Ann and the rest of the audience. That's more than I get from a lot of comedy, low or otherwise.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

The "Zou Bisou Bisou" Tangent

I'm surprised that Lionsgate or AMC, in a fit of copyrighteousness, hasn't quashed this high-quality clip of Megan Draper (Jessica Paré) dancing to "Zou Bisou Bisou," which was a high point of Mad Men's season premiere in late March. Who knows, maybe they've figured out that clips like this will inspire people to seek out the entire episode. You know, as a kind of marketing.

Like most of the audience, I'd never heard of "Zou Bisou Bisou" before seeing the episode, not being as interested in mid-century French pop culture as Matthew Weiner seems to be. But it's a charming song, light and sweet as meringue. Also, it took me on a tangent. I'm often willing to be taken on tangents, which can be little trips from the routine of settled life. First, I went to the Gillian Hills version of the song, the video of which must have been made for the French Scopitones.

Proceeding from that, I learned that nearly 10 years later Gillian Hills was one of the girls with the ice lollies in A Clockwork Orange, and that her father was Denis Hills. They don't make 'em like him any more. Once I started reading about the elder Hills, I remembered where I'd heard of him before.

In 1975, he ran afoul of Idi Amin, who threatened to execute Hills for writing disparaging things about the Conqueror of the British Empire -- foolishly writing them, as Hills was still in Uganda at the time. A wrangle between the UK and Uganda followed, and eventually a message from Queen Elizabeth herself, which presumably stoked the dictator's vanity, persuaded Amin to spring Hills. All of this played out in news reports that year, which I remember hearing (that was also the year Franco died so slowly).

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Thursday, April 12, 2012

Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball Near Block 37?

One more curiosity from my downtown wanderings this week. I saw this on State Street, just outside the entrance to the Block 37 retail shops.

Or rather, I saw and heard this array of (I assume) little lamps on small poles, because a speaker in the flowerbed played a song, namely, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?"

A nearby sign explained:


From all-American hits to the roar of the crowd, baseball season has come to Lightscape: A Multisensory Experience on State Street.

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Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The Tamale Spaceship Truck

During my recent visit downtown, I also caught sight of the Tamale Spaceship truck.

On the side of the silvery vehicle is this figure.

According to the Tamale Spaceship's web site, "We are a catering-food truck company based in Chicago area featuring the authenticity of Mexican cuisine. We are inspired by Luchadores (Mexican Wrestlers) with a mission to bring to the streets homemade tamales with authentic regional dishes and classic moles from all over Mexico."

Still, I wonder. Does that creature help sell tamales? Maybe it does. I might have bought one myself, if I hadn't had lunch already, and if the driver had been around.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lower Wacker Drive, Spring '12

I was downtown today, and my route took me past this view of Lower Wacker Drive, which is under reconstruction. It's unusual because the fence around the work is usually hard to see through.

I stood just outside the entrance to the Sears Tower and watched the excavator in the lower right do some excavating. As far as I know, it didn't uncover anything as interesting as a forgotten bomb shelter.


Monday, April 09, 2012

The Schaumburg Municipal Helistop

On Friday I chanced on the Schaumburg Municipal Helistop -- a helicopter landing site, that is, complete with a large H painted on the concrete. I don't think I've ever seen one except at hospital complexes, but then again I never travel in helicopters (and when it comes to hospitals, never hope to).

The sign at the helistop says Elevation 729 feet, and there's a red windsock. There wasn't much wind on Friday, so it was flaccid. Nearby was a large parking lot, a vacant lot, and the backs of retailers on Golf Road. I've been driving by an intersection about a half-block from the Schaumburg Municipal Helistop for years now and had no inkling it was there. That just goes to show -- something, maybe just that I'm unobservant.

Now that I know about it, I have half a mind to show it to the kids, and tell them it's the final resting place of Hubert, the famous circus elephant. Ann might believe it for a while, but Lilly will probably be skeptical.

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Friday, April 06, 2012

An Unusual March at the Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve

Happy Easter to all. Back on Monday.

Till then, an image from almost two weeks ago: crazy green for March.

Taken at the Buffalo Creek Forest Preserve in Lake County, Illinois. But just barely in Lake County, since just beyond the horizon is the aptly named Lake-Cook Road, more-or-less the border between the counties.

"Most of this property was previously owned by the Popp family, who since early settlement times had farmed the rich land," says Lake County Forest Preserves. "The Popps initially had a dairy farm, and then converted to grain crops such as soybeans, wheat and corn. Acquisition of this land by the Lake County Forest Preserves took place in several purchases between 1978 and 1987...

"Prior to European settlement, this land supported a tallgrass prairie dotted with a few small wetlands. Restoration of that prairie has been underway since the 1980s. Though the land has been drastically altered, first by farming and later during reservoir construction, a surprising diversity of grassland birds uses the preserve, including bobolinks and eastern meadowlarks."

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Thursday, April 05, 2012

Austin Gardens Park, Oak Park

Austin Gardens Park in west suburban Oak Park is a pleasant green interlude. This was one of the entrances to the park's wildflower area late last month, when it shouldn't have been so green.

The park also includes, per square foot, the most memorial plaques I've seen in any non-cemetery green space: plaques near trees, on benches, on stones here and there. Mostly, as you'd expect, they're remembrances to individuals who have preceded the rest of us into the great beyond. Such as:

Dedicated on May 17, 2009
In Memory of a Wonderful
Friend and Fellow Artist
By the
West Suburban Artists Guild

In Loving Memory of
Susan L. Walsh, RN
She Loved the Outdoors

1st Sgt. JAMES
Korea 1952 – 1954
1928 – 2001

There are many others. One large item standing in the park, a work of sculpture, did not have an informational plaque nearby that I could see.

Interesting piece, but it would be nice to know who the artist is. I see that I'm not the only person to notice the essential anonymousness of the sculpture. Someone at the Oak Park Park District knows, probably. But no one's paying me to find out, so I'll let it lie. Besides, it's not a terrible thing to run across mysterious public art now and then.

This piece of sculpture, just outside the park's fence, is not so mysterious. It's Oak Park's favorite local man made good in architecture after he ran off with a client's wife, Frank Lloyd Wright. It's in the head-stuck-on-rock style of memorial.

A plaque says that it's the work of Egon Weiner, who also did "Pillar of Fire," the piece on the spot that the Chicago Fire started (I'm going to have to go see that one of these days). I've absorbed too much bad science fiction in my life, so I can't help thinking that FLW's going to shoot some kind of rays out of those sinister eye sockets, maybe mind-control beams that will change people's taste in design to match the Master's own.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Fermilab Sights

We didn't get to go inside the Lederman Science Center at Fermilab a week and a half ago, but we did spend some time on the grounds outside. Clearly the architect was influenced by the Prairie School.

Much of Fermilab is undeveloped and -- I read, since we didn't see them -- there's a small herd of buffalo residing on the grounds. We took a short walk that took us past scenes such as these, taken from a small pedestrian bridge over a creek.

The rush to spring is all of a month early this year, including the throaty sounds of frogs looking for mates.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Fermilab's Analemmatic Sundial

There's a sundial on the grounds of the Lederman Science Center at Fermilab. Not a (literal) garden-variety sundial, but an analemmatic sundial, which in this case is a horseshoe-shaped structure large enough to stand on. When the sun is out, you stand in the right place on the structure and your shadow will point to one of a semicircle of stones in the ground, telling you (roughly) the non-daylight savings time hour.

The following is my shadow, pointing to the 3 pm stone -- the third stone to the right of a stone marked "12." I was there with Ann on the afternoon of March 24, 2012. According to the clock in my cell phone, the only timepiece I carry around, the time was 4 pm, but of course that was a daylight savings time reading. I was glad to see that the shadow of my head exactly touched the stone.

Ann is pictured here standing on one of the squares on top of the structure: same one that I did, MARCH. There are 12 squares. Each has the name of one of the months carved on it. Stand on the correct month and you'll get the correct hour, provided the sun in shinning and you account for the change in the clocks.

Waymarking tells me that the sundial is at N 41° 50.363 W 088° 16.013. The formal name of Fermilab is the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, which is easy to visit if you happen to be in Batavia, Illinois. We didn't arrive in time to go inside the Lederman Science Center, but we did manage to see the sundial and a few other things, more about which tomorrow.

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Monday, April 02, 2012

Yerkes Observatory

We went to southern Wisconsin on Saturday not to discover monuments to long-forgotten fictional characters (see yesterday) -- though that's always a bonus in traveling -- but to get a look at the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory, which is in the town of Williams Bay, Wisconsin. We'd visited and taken the tour before, almost 10 years ago, but I was sure Lilly didn't remember and even more sure about Ann, who was in utero at the time.

I didn't mind going again. Once in a lifetime's not quite enough when it comes to seeing the world's largest refracting telescope, a 40-inch marvel. I learned this time around, or maybe relearned, that every part of the telescope except its lens had been displayed in the Manufacturers Building at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 before it was installed at the new Yerkes Observatory. So not only can you stand under an important telescope in the history of astronomy, it's an artifact of the Chicago world's fair. No doubt fairgoers appreciated it as a marvel of the age.

The guided tour was fairly short. The guide first talked about the design of the observatory, which was the work of Henry Ives Cobb. According to the University of Chicago, Cobb "was fond of ornamentation rooted in classic mythology. At Yerkes, he let his imagination roam: everywhere in the structure, both inside and out, the viewer finds hundreds of ornate, often playful representations of animals real and fanciful, signs of the Zodiac, phases of the Moon, and many other embellishments."

Such embellishments included swastikas, which the guide commented on. "We had them before the Nazis," he said, pointing them out with his laser pointer. The ones at Yerkes were non-Nazi anyway, pointing the other direction and featuring a square at the center, which is a variation I'd never seen before.

Later, I wandered around the grounds for a few minutes, and managed to take some shots of Yerkes' penile main dome in its park-like setting.

Under the big unheated dome -- Saturday was in the 50s, so it was cool in there -- is the 40-inch telescope, one of six at the observatory, and the only one seen on the Saturday tours. The guide told us a little more about the instrument, and moved it a little. He also raised the floor a few feet, and told us of the time Albert Einstein visited the observatory in 1921, passing around a photo that commemorated the visit.

The photo of Dr. Einstein and the Yerkes staff is at the bottom of this National Park Service page; the one looking Einsteinian is, in fact, the great physicist. I didn't think to ask the guide what Einstein was doing there, but from what I read later, the observatory was doing followups to Sir Arthur Eddington's observations of starlight bending around the Sun during the May 29, 1919, eclipse that confirmed general relativity, though the details of what Yerkes would do as a followup are beyond me.

Einstein is one thing, but he was only passing through. E.E. Barnard, an astronomer who worked at Yerkes, ought to be better known. I've known about him since I read about Barnard's Star in junior high (in one of the 8mm movies I made with some other junior high friends, we imagined a spaceship journeying to Barnard's Star, I think).

Besides Barnard's study of the red dwarf that now has his name, he discovered the fifth moon of Jupiter and a lot of comets, determined that certain dark regions of the Milky Way were actually vast clouds of dust and gas, was a pioneering astrophotographer and -- I didn't know this until this weekend -- was from Nashville and attended Vanderbilt, later receiving the institution's one and only honorary degree. His name remains as Barnand Hall, one of the dorms off Alumni Lawn.

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Sunday, April 01, 2012

Andy Gump in Bronze

We were about to leave the town of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, yesterday for a drive around the body of water known as Geneva Lake when I noticed a statute near one edge of the triangular Flatiron Park (and it just occurred to me why the park might be called that). Everyone else was tired from walking around the streets of Lake Geneva, so they waited in the car while I investigated. From the back and a hundred feet away, the thing looked odd, the figure too slender and marked by too many mild protuberances to be a conventional statue of a war hero or politico of old or the like.

The statue faces Geneva Lake (the body of water). It was cloudy yesterday, so the light wasn't that good, especially up toward his head. But I took the picture anyway.

I'd come across the only -- and I'm pretty sure about that -- public statue of the comic strip character Andy Gump. He looked vaguely familiar. I had to read the plaque to remind myself who Andy Gump was. I'm sure I've seen a few examples of the strip he was in, The Gumps, but on the whole the character had made a light impression on me. Until now: I'll remember the statue.

It would have been better if Andy had been placed a little lower, since it loses some of the impact if you can't see his odd, chinless face easily. Oh, well.

Apparently the creator of the strip, one Sidney Smith, lived in the town of Lake Geneva, and at one point the Chicago Tribune had a statute of Andy Gump made for Smith, such was the enormous popularity of the comic. Discontinued in 1959, now it's completely obscure. I doubt that even in the most perverse reaches of Hollywood is anyone dreaming of a modern version of The Gumps, any more than Barney Google and Snuffy Smith are poised for a come back, even though Barney now shares a name with the backbone of the digital age.

But I checked: Barney Google and Snuffy Smith is still being drawn. I guess I don't follow newspaper comics very closely, since I don't think I've seen it in 20+ years. According to King Features (the same comic plantation on which Popeye still toils), the strip is only on its third artist since its creation in 1919, and "this tremendously popular feature boasts clients in 21 countries and 11 languages." Greater longevity than Andy Gump, and of course Barney figured in an immortal pop hit once upon a time, too.

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