Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday photo

Rain on North University Street, Ann Arbor, Michigan. February 2011.

Rain. We have rain. We've had rain. We've had rain all month. We've had rain all spring. We've had rain since late winter. I think I could use up fingers counting the days without rain and still have enough left over to plink out Chopin's "Raindrop" Prelude.1

So far this month Ann Arbor has received over 6" of rain, which is twice the 3" average for May, and it's expected that we'll add to that throughout the weekend2. For April, it was 5.5" and for both March and February it was somewhere around 4" (including snow). This past Wednesday, it was 2.2" in one day. That's a lot of water, far above the monthly average for at least four straight months now.

Fortunately, Michigan drains to both west and east. That means neither the Grand River draining into Lake Michigan, nor the Huron River flowing through Ann Arbor toward Lake Huron, has to contain the full collection of rainfall in the way that the Mississippi River does. Here's a map of the Mississippi drainage. Just look at that! Half the country's waters drain through New Orleans! No wonder the lower Mississippi is so vulnerable to flooding -- they have to receive everyone else's water, not just their own.

So for all the rain we've had in Michigan, flooding has occurred only sporadically. Michigan sheds its excess water quite easily and has enormous basins on either side to catch the runoff. Lucky us.

So far, I've seen no rainbows in the sky, but I don't worry too much about the entire world flooding.3 For that, I have something better than a rainbow: a basic understanding of how the world works and some basic arithmetic. For example, Michigan averages 35 inches of rain per year. But to flood the earth enough to cover the mountains with just 40 days of rain? Let's use that arithmetic: Mount Everest is 29,035' above sea level and there are 960 hours in 40 days and nights. That requires a rate of flooding of 30 feet per hour! Ten times as much water, in a single hour, as a Midwestern state receives in an entire year! That's ... well, incredible. As in "not credible," not to be believed

Where would so much water come from? The ancients of the Near East seem to have imagined that the sky was a solid shell and that the "waters of the deep" surrounded both earth and sky in all directions; when Genesis 1:6 has God declare, "Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters," that should be understood as a division in three dimensions, not just two. There was water below the earth and above the sky, so in order to flood the earth, "the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened." [Genesis 7:11] For those forty days and nights, the waters were no longer divided from the waters. It wasn't just raining. The earth was simultaneously foundering and receiving an infinite ocean pouring through those windows in the sky. Under that kind of assault, an ark might have to be as watertight as a submarine to avoid flooding itself!

Fortunately, we have a more accurate cosmology today and we know that such quantities of water just don't exist anywhere within reach. The moisture in the ocean, lakes, rivers, and clouds is all there is on earth and if there were enough to cover the entire planet, it would do it every day. That doesn't save us from floods altogether, alas; it just means that floods are very local affairs. Some are big enough to feel like the end of the world, if you were to experience them, such as the Glacial Lake Missoula floods I mentioned last autumn. William Ryan and Walter Pittman have even suggested a breakthrough of the Mediterranean into the Black Sea as the origin of the Flood mythology. But that's a local catastrophe nonetheless; if you have too much water, that just means that somewhere else has less than it did before. Now doesn't that make you feel better?

1. Not Chopin's name for opus 28, no. 15, just so you know.

2. The forecast looks a little better for the race in Indianapolis Sunday, but it's likely to be hot and breezy, which should make life exciting for the engineers. I won't be surprised if some good drivers struggle with unexpectedly slow cars when the race gets under way.

3. We just escaped yet another prediction of the end of the world, so I'm just wallowing in complacency these days.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday photo

Sequoia tree, Giant Forest. Sequoia National Park, June 2005.

Here's a curious arrangement of rock and tree. I can't say much about it, except that it's obvious the rock was there first. What's peculiar to me is that it looks like the tree has gone out of its way to incorporate the boulder. I suppose the circumference of the tree began to butt up against the stone several centuries ago, altering the pattern of growth. Now it just looks like it can't decide if it's a sequoia tree or a python.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Friday photo

Pelicans on Yellowstone River. Yellowstone National Park, June 2005

One of the last photos I took in Yellowstone and one of my favorites (you'll probably need to click and enlarge it). I had just composed this scene of the sunset over the Yellowstone River -- the cheapest and easiest way to engage in nature photography, let's be honest here -- when three pelicans swooped in from the left. I saw them just in time to delay tripping the shutter* and waited until they entered the frame. Ah, and then one of them tired of the others' conversation or something, and decided to land in the river. What a stroke of fortune; the outstretched wings and the ripples from his feet breaking the water are just so much more dynamic than the river and sky, or even than the three birds in flight would have been.

Pelican flight is absolutely gorgeous and stately. They don't do aerobatics like the swallows that nest under the eaves of Lake Hotel. They don't flap frantically. They glide through the air as if on a tram, faster than hawks and eagles normally soar, more immune to buffeting breezes that bounce seagulls about. Once my sister and I were standing on the high bluff on the east side of LeHardy Rapids, looking down on the river, when a similar flight of three pelicans suddenly swooped into view below us. A video could never convey the effect; such serendipitous beauty can only be savored in the moment.

Which is to say, I hope you enjoy the photo. But it's not the same as being there.

* An unfortunate feature of digital cameras is that they take several seconds to save the digital file between each shot, unless you've set the camera to 'burst' mode. Landscapes don't usually move, even in a volcano like Yellowstone, so I didn't typically use burst mode.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Arab spring in Tunisia

Via Global Museum, this article about the cultural benefits of removing ignorant autocrats from power: Tunis museum flourishes after Ben Ali fall

Just as a fresh breeze now blows through the country's politics and press, Tunisia's cultural institutions too have the chance to flourish.

Instead of protecting the nation's treasures from the hands of former ruler Ben Ali and his wife, [Taher] Ghalia is heading up a major renovation project to bring them to the people.

"They weren't interested in culture. There was a trade in antiquities, but fortunately the Bardo wasn't touched," said Ghalia who clashed with the couple earlier in his career.


"It wasn't even about politics," says Ghalia. "It was simply that these people weren't very educated and didn't bother about our heritage.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Friday photo

Dirt road. Jackson County, Michigan, September 2005.

I don't know about you, but this looks nothing like Michigan to me. Even the foliage looks foreign, even though there's nothing in here that you can't see in southeast Michigan. Maybe it's the combination of dirt and hill; in the farm country where I grew up, unpaved roads tend to be gravel and flat, straight, and open to the sky.

For this shot, I timed it so that a car had just disappeared over the hill and its cloud of dust was not quite dispersed, giving the image a lonelier, remote feel .

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Who is Bin Laden?

Years ago I came across a pile of 'ancient' Reader's Digests and found an anecdote from 1944 or 1945, which told of British mother whose young son was puzzled when she referred to an object on the beach as a "shell." He knew nothing of seashells; the only shells he knew were the exploding kind.

That came to mind when I read this post by Jamelle Bouie at the American Prospect blog. The 5th-most-common Yahoo search on Osama Bin Laden this week is the basic question, "Who is Osama Bin Laden?" Mostly, this came from teenagers, the oldest of whom were only 7 or 8 when 9/11 occured. Observes Bouie,

Given the extent to which bin Laden had mostly drifted from our national conversation (especially in light of the Great Recession), it's not a huge surprise to learn that a non-trivial number of teenagers are baffled by his significance. Still, it's sobering; not because it reveals anything profound about our educational system or the attacks on 9/11, but because it points to an absolute truth: for each generation, America is a very different place, and the America we lost on 9/11 -- the America that didn't profile citizens, torture people, or monitor their phone calls -- isn't even a distance memory for the children and teenagers of today's America.