Fire and ice

April 19, 2010

My younger son wasn’t too impressed with this photo, but I think it’s pretty cool. Jagged forks of lightning on the left side, huge puffy columns of ash in the middle, and a few glimpses of fire poking out of the darkness on the right. It takes a while to even notice the layer of cloud over ice-covered rock down below. What an inhospitable place to be – yet what a stark beauty in the sight.

I always wonder, seeing photos like that, how the photographer managed to capture it. Was he in a plane, flying through clouds of ash? And how do photographers always manage to catch the lightning right as it flashes? I suppose they must take a lot of pictures in rapid succession, then keep only the frames that came out well. I have had cameras that let me do that, but I still don’t come out with spectacular pictures. I guess that’s why I’m not a professional photographer.

Losing our marble

March 3, 2010

Two days ago, I parked in front of the county courthouse so I could renew my vehicle registration. (It was due back in January, which is when my birthday is, but they give a month’s grace period. I really hadn’t meant to wait until the very last day of the grace period, but then I forgot about it.) At the other end of the lawn in front of the courthouse, there were a bunch of people gathered around a statue, which appeared to be wrapped in a harness and suspended from a crane.

I couldn’t tell if they were putting the statue up, or taking it down. I tried to remember whether I had seen the statue before, but my attention is more commonly drawn to the nearby cannon and pile of cannonballs. I remember how eagerly I used to get in line to climb onto the cannons on the grounds of Trinity College in Hartford, CT. (They had weekly carillon recitals in the summer, and while the grownups relaxed on picnic blankets or in lawn chairs, the children had fun rolling down the grassy slope or sitting on the cannons.) I wondered if children ever played on this one.

Yesterday I read in the local paper about the removal of the 135-year-old statue. A close-up photo shows a face so eroded that a mustache is the only easily identifiable feature. (As I glanced at it Monday, the mustache made me wonder if it was Mark Twain, who at one time worked for the newspaper here.) Indentations show the location of the eyes and mouth, but just barely. I was amazed to learn that this statue is made of marble.

I always thought marble was so durable. Apparently the people who first put up the statue thought so too. “Back then, they thought marble would last forever,” according to the commander of the local VFW, who is also on the Civil War Memorial Committee (which hopes to get a new soldier for the memorial).

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The acoustics of snow

February 12, 2010

As I headed back up the walk this morning, after dropping my older son off at school, I listened to the crunch of the snow under my shoes. I don’t generally associate snow with crunchiness – except when it has developed a crust on the top. The other day, I dropped something in the snow and it made no sound. Then when I reached over to retrieve it, I fell in the snow also. I wasn’t really paying attention to the sound of the impact, as I was more concerned with how cold and wet it felt. But the snow seemed to swallow any sound that was made.

That’s usually how it is when there’s a blanket of snow on the ground. Not only do the snowflakes themselves fall silently, they seem to absorb whatever other sounds might be made nearby. I wondered if it was my imagination, or if it’s just that lots of the usual sources of noise stay inside when it’s snowy (other than children). But I found a website devoted to snow research that confirms what I thought.

The pores in the snow cover are responsible for the quiet conditions. When acoustic waves travel horizontally above the snow, the increased pressure of the wave momentarily pushes some air into the pores. This air returns to the atmosphere after the wave passes, but some energy has been lost from friction and thermal effects. Over a short distance, this mechanism can significantly reduce the sound energy in the acoustic wave.

So if snow tends to dampen ambient sound, why does it make so much noise when I walk on it? It doesn’t always do that, of course. I noticed that the noisy snow this morning was a pretty thin layer, and that there was ice underneath in at least some spots. Was it the snow being pressed against the ice that made the scrunchy sounds? I know I’ve heard snow crunch in some conditions, and not in others, but had really never paid close attention to what factors affected the sound. Today I decided it would be a good subject for a blog post.

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Defrosty the Snowman

January 9, 2010

This morning Al and I were scheduled to participate in the Klondike Derby, a Boy Scout event that emphasizes teamwork and outdoor skills. Webelos Scouts get to go along to see what it’s like to be a Boy Scout. Webelos parents get to go along because the younger boys still need more adult supervision. But no one got to go this morning because at 9 o’clock, the temperature was still six degrees below zero, and Scout leaders decided it would be better to wait till next weekend and hope for slightly warmer weather.

This parent was not at all disappointed. But my son was, so I suggested we go outside and make a snowman. I looked for creative snowman ideas on the internet, while my son came up with his own idea, which involved lots of baseball caps. I’m not sure we could have managed to make a snowman big enough to use baseball caps for buttons, but it quickly became obvious once I got outside that we weren’t going to make a traditional three-ball snowman at all. This powdery stuff just doesn’t pack.

I had seen one snowman on the internet that gave me an idea, however. It’s a candy snowman, made to look like a mostly melted snowman. The snow we have outside isn’t melting anytime soon, but the closest we could come to a snowman was a shapeless mass that might look like it was melting. Having no better ideas, my son agreed, and we set about making Defrosty. I don’t think he’ll win the local snowman building contest, but he has a certain charm.

If you’d like to check out some other unusual snowmen, here is the world’s smallest “snowman.” He’s actually made of tin and platinum, not snow, but at 1/5 the width of a human hair, I guess he’s impressive just for his diminutive size. Probably snow doesn’t come that small.

At the other end of the size scale, the town of Bethel, Maine, holds the world’s record for the biggest snowman. In 1999, they made Angus, 113 feet tall. In 2008, since no one else had surpassed their record, they decided to do it themselves. This time they made a snowwoman, Olympia, who was 122 feet tall. You may get an idea of her size when you realize that her eyelashes are skis. She weighed 13 million pounds, and took until July of that year to melt. (Back in 1999, Angus had melted in June.)

Games: Snowball Fight

December 8, 2009

Tomorrow will be a snow day. (I’m not being psychic; I’m just stating a fact. I get emails from an automated system Iowa uses to let people know when school districts announce closings, and our district just announced they’ll be closed tomorrow.) So it seemed appropriate enough, when Al wanted to play a game before bedtime, to have a Snowball Fight.

The nice thing is that it’s played with virtual snowballs, in the form of cards (appropriately round, though I’ve discovered it’s quite difficult to shuffle round cards). One player “throws” a snowball, using an attack card, while the other player plays a defense card to try to block or at least lower the snowball’s impact. There are a variety of attacks, including a sneak attack, a “charge,” a “dipsy doodle” (two snowballs in rapid succession), and of course an ordinary snowball. And there are likewise a variety of defenses, including partial cover (hiding behind a skinny tree) and full cover, catching the snowball and throwing it back, or somehow spoiling the attacker’s aim or making his snowball stick to his glove.

There’s a bit of strategy involved, as you have to decide whether to use a more potent card or save it for later, and deciding what defense is likely to be most effective against a particular attack. But a lot of it is luck, as the actual success or failure of the attack depends largely on the roll of the die. Some attacks work on any number from 1 to 6, while others require higher numbers. Some defenses subtract only 1  or 2 points from the attacker’s roll, while at least one  subtracts 6 and makes it impossible to be hit. Plus some defenses let you catch the snowball and throw it back!

One nice thing about the game – from my point of view – is that it doesn’t take very long. Even if you only get hit for a couple points each turn (once in a while you don’t get hit at all, but that’s less common), the points add up. The first player to reach 30 points is considered to be too cold and wet to go on playing, which means the game is over and the other person wins. And then it’s time to go in and get warm.

Ahh, nothing like a cup of hot chocolate after a snowball fight. (OK, so the hot chocolate is no more real than the snowballs. But with a snow day tomorrow, I may just have to make some real hot chocolate.)

A good end to a rough week

June 25, 2009

My vacation week is 80% over, and I’m happy about that. The first four days were the hard part, spending seven hours in the hot sun (temperatures have been in the 90’s, with humidity around 70%, for a heat index up to 105, so even in the shade it feels miserably hot) watching other people’s children. Tomorrow I get to myself (well, mostly – I have promised to play the Ungame with my younger son), in the air-conditioned house.

This was another required week off from work (cost-savings measure), and I originally planned on spending it with my younger son at Cub Scout Day Camp. That was before I found out that snow days had pushed the school district’s annual “College for Kids” a week later than expected, so that it conflicted with day camp. Unlike many boys his age, my son would rather be in a classroom doing math, art, and science than running around outdoors.

Of course, given the weather this week, some of the Scouts at camp may have wished they were indoors too. One mother expressed surprise camp hadn’t been cancelled, and more than one child went home with heat exhaustion before all of us adult volunteers became sufficiently aware of the symptoms to watch for (lethargy, headaches) and in the habit of demanding the children drink even when they didn’t feel thirsty.

I probably suffered from a bit of it myself. I felt lousy the past couple days, too tired to do anything more than I had to, or even to want to do anything. I promised myself I would not let the camp director talk me into being Tot Lot Director again next year. Supposedly I was a “figurehead,” the over-21 adult required by the rules, while teenagers would do most of the work with the kids. But much of the time I found myself alone with five or six kids aged 4 to 7.

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Up, down, and round and round

March 23, 2009


Last year’s cheap kites from the dollar store didn’t hold up very well, so I bought a better kite to fly this year. At least I thought it was better. (I purchased it last August at the Children’s Museum in Indianapolis, which – being all about hands-on fun learning opportunities – seemed like a good place to buy such a thing.) But there’s a problem either with the kite or with the person flying it.

I’ll readily admit it could well be the latter. I spent half an hour trying to get this kite flying well enough to hand the spool of string over to my son so I could take a picture. But when it wasn’t slamming its nose into the ground, it was flying around and around in tight circles that just a few feet off the ground. A few times it got up about twenty feet or so, but never for as long as even half a minute before it was back to its kamikaze dives. Twice it slammed into my son – not nearly as painful as being attacked by a live shark, but he wasn’t too happy about it.

I’m pretty sure I assembled the kite properly, but I suppose there could be a problem with its construction that has it slightly off-balance. It was so windy that I could barely hold onto it, let alone survey it for balance and symmetry. Perhaps it was just too windy. After a week’s vacation with barely enough breeze to notice, I welcomed the brisk winds this afternoon and announced we were heading to the park.

The kite says it is rated for 5-20 mph. Wind speed at 6 PM when we headed out was about 18 mph, which should have been just fine. But looking back at the day’s weather statistics at, I see that we were having gusts of nearly 30 mph. Still, I’m pretty sure that the gusts weren’t blowing in circles, so I don’t see what they would have made the kite go consistently in counterclockwise circles.

Those of you who know how to get a kite in the air and keep it up there, what is the mostly likely cause of my difficulties?