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Thursday, June 29th, 2017 12:04 am

sleep is dumb

There’s really only two safe topics to talk to me about this year. Here’s one.

Thursday, June 29th, 2017 01:49 am

Posted by Dave

Circa 1905-1915. "Unidentified group (children; girls with dolls)." 5x7 glass negative from the C.M. Bell portrait studio in Washington, D.C. View full size.
Thursday, June 29th, 2017 12:13 am

Posted by Alex Kasprak

Their position statement on saturated fat has drawn the ire of people partial to coconut oil, but counterarguments accusing the AHA of cherry-picking data misrepresent the very science they claim to be defending.
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 11:24 pm

Posted by Dan Evon

An unincorporated community in Kentucky has elected a dog as its mayor for the fourth time in a row.
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 11:00 pm

Posted by Samuel Pepys

Up, and this day put on a half shirt first this summer, it being very hot; and yet so ill-tempered I am grown, that I am afeard I shall catch cold, while all the world is ready to melt away.

To the office all the morning, at noon to dinner at home, then to my office till the evening, then out about several businesses and then by appointment to the ‘Change, and thence with my uncle Wight to the Mum house, and there drinking, he do complain of his wife most cruel as the most troublesome woman in the world, and how she will have her will, saying she brought him a portion and God knows what. By which, with many instances more, I perceive they do live a sad life together. Thence to the Mitre and there comes Dr. Burnett to us and Mr. Maes, but the meeting was chiefly to bring the Doctor and me together, and there I began to have his advice about my disease, and then invited him to my house: and I am resolved to put myself into his hands. Here very late, but I drank nothing, nor will, though he do advise me to take care of cold drinks. So home and to bed.

Read the annotations

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 11:10 pm

Posted by Alon Levy

I just published a piece at the Bay City Beacon about Lyft Shuttle, the company’s foray into fixed-route buses. In the piece, I mentioned briefly that adding a competing operator can reduce the average quality of service. The piece, nominally 500 words, really 700, was far too short for me to expound on the model, even though people on social media had asked me about it before. So here it is.

The first assumption is that the routes are identical. This is largely true for some of the more northern Lyft Shuttle routes, duplicating Muni’s 2 and 41 buses (the 41 duplicator skips some inner stops, though).

The second assumption is that the bus has a fixed schedule, but the jitney can schedule itself in response to the bus. This is true of the case studies I know of (and, to make it very clear, “case study” means “I’ve read an article” or “I’ve heard it discussed on social media”): Israel’s Sherut vans, and Hudson County’s private jitneys. Both use dynamic schedules, which in plain English means drivers radioing each other (in Israel) or employing lookouts (in New Jersey); the bus companies have fixed schedules that are slower to change.

The third assumption is that marginal riders take whichever route they see first. This is the case with regular jitneys. Not all riders are marginal: there might be an explicit ethnic dimension, e.g. dollar vans in New York are more popular with unassimilated immigrants, because they provide amenities like use of their own language rather than English. Lyft Shuttle is booked via app, so the situation there is murkier; however, most likely the use case will involve passengers buying a ticket a few minutes in advance, possibly checking against a bus app to see which will come first. Some people will stick with one system over the other (tech boosters seem to hate public services, people without other reasons to download the Lyft app will probably stick to the bus), but some will be flexible.

Let us work this out first assuming perfect scheduling and then introducing schedule irregularities due to bunching.

Now, let’s assume the public bus arrives every 6 minutes. If the transit agency wishes to double service, it will schedule additional service at the midpoint between each pair of successive trips, providing 3-minute frequency. But if additional service comes from a private operator, the incentive is to schedule to compete and not to cooperate. Say the public bus arrives at my station at :00 on a 6-minute takt. The private operator can schedule itself to arrive at :03 on a 6-minute takt and get half of my station’s traffic, or it can schedule itself at :05 and get 5/6 of its traffic. Let’s set the fudge factor at 1 minute for now: if the separation is smaller, for example if the jitney comes at :05:30 and the public bus at :06, then I see both at the same time and am indifferent as to which to ride.

By itself, this still means adding service. However, it’s likely that there is going to be some service diversion – that some public bus riders will switch to the private service (e.g. because it usually comes first). If one quarter of the bus riders switch, then the schedule is cut to a bus every 8 minutes. The jitney still aims to arrive 1 minute before the bus for maximum revenue, perhaps getting bigger vehicles if it needs the capacity, as the New Jersey jitneys did. So now my bus comes at :00, :08, etc., and the jitney comes at :07, :15, etc. Average wait time is 3.125 minutes, whereas before it was 3 minutes.

The formula in general if both vehicles come every x minutes and are separated by 1 minute is \frac{(x-1)^2 + 1}{2x} and this equals 3 at x = 4 \pm \sqrt{14} \approx 7.74, corresponding to about 23.5% reduction in transit use; any higher reduction makes average wait times worse. If the original headway was y, then we have x = 1 + y/2 \pm \sqrt{(1 + y/2)^2 - 2}, or just under 2 extra minutes; the fixed separation, 1 minute, means this calculation is not scale-invariant.

Now, let’s introduce schedule irregularity into this system. As a toy model, let’s look at what happens if the bus can be up to 1 minute behind or ahead. If the route only has public buses, and one bus is off by 1 minute, then instead of two 6-minute gaps there’s a 5-minute gap and a 7-minute gap, for an average wait of 3:05. If the route has public buses and jitneys, scheduled 1 minute apart as above, then a 1-minute error is good for passengers if it evens out the schedules (it converts a 3.125-minute wait to a 2.5-minute wait), but bad for passengers if it makes the bus and the jitney arrive at exactly the same time (the wait rises to 4 minutes).

But really, bus schedules are an unstable equilibrium. (So are train schedules, but the instability is too slow to cause bunching). If a bus is a minute behind, then at the next bus stop it will have an above-average crowd size, since people had more time to show up and wait. Boarding time is a significant fraction of bus travel time, so the bus will go behind even further, until the bus behind it will catch up, at which point the two buses will leapfrog each other. It’s possible to reduce this effect by cutting boarding time, via low-floor buses and off-board fare collection with all-door boarding; Muni has implemented both, but this is still not enough to remove the instability. In practice, this imposes a minimum headway of about 3 minutes – below it, buses bunch so much that adding service doesn’t add any capacity. In theory it’s possible to go lower, but when ridership is high enough to justify 3-minute headways, it’s high enough for dwell times to make lower headways infeasible.

Jitneys do not have a 3-minute minimum headway; they’re more flexible about running express if they’re already full. This, in turn, means that schedules on jitney routes are more irregular than on buses, making wait times less predictable, and ultimately longer (since, at equal service, less even intervals translate to longer average waits). But more to the point, jitneys still aim to schedule themselves to come just before the bus does. This means that jitney arrival irregularity largely tracks bus arrival irregularity. So with this in mind, if the city bus gets delayed by a minute again, and the jitney adjusts, then we have the following service gaps, in minutes: 8, 1, 6, 1. Average wait time is now 3.1875 minutes.

So the question is, what effect does demand diversion from buses to jitneys have on bus irregularity? The answer is, not much. This depends on additional assumptions on dwell times and the initial delay. Delays compound exponentially, but the exponent (“Lyapunov exponent” in dynamics) is low; on a 6-minute bus route, a 1-minute delay means that future dwell times go up by 1/6, and at 2.5 seconds of variable dwell time per boarding or alighting (Muni average with all-door boarding, see PDF-p. 16 here) it takes 60*6/2.5 = 144 boardings and alightings to delay the schedule by another minute. Muni averages 127 boardings and alightings per hour, so it takes more than an hour for the 1 minute of delay to compound by another minute (strictly speaking, by \sqrt[6]{e} \approx 1.18 minutes). The busiest bus in North America, Vancouver’s 99, averages 320, so the compounding takes just 27 minutes (almost a full one-way trip); Vancouver buses with comparable ridership to the routes Lyft is duplicating average maybe half that.

The point of this exercise is that on the timescales relevant to a bus route, schedule irregularity is approximately linear. So demand diversion from buses to jitneys has a linear effect on schedule irregularity: 25% diversion means that instead of a 1-minute delay there’s only a 45-second delay. A 1-minute delay with 6-minute buses is still better than no delay with 8-minute buses an jitney spaced a minute apart, so the jitneys still remove value. At higher delays, this is no longer true (average wait time is quadratic in the delay); the point of equality is about 1.61 minutes of bus delay due to schedule instability (other delays, like traffic, affect all routes equally regardless of frequency). So jitneys can add value on long, busy routes (don’t forget – the lower the headway, the more significant the assumed 1-minute separation is). But the routes the Lyft Shuttle jitney runs are less busy, and more importantly are short, with less opportunity for delay compounding; delays do not compound past the terminus with decent dispatching.

The upshot is that jitneys do not universally remove value from transportation networks. But on short 6-minute routes, they do even under mild assumptions on ridership diversion. There’s more service in operation, but from the riders’ perspective, wait times have increased and regularity has degraded. The logic of competing private companies is not always the logic of better service for passengers. Sometimes, having a government monopoly inherently improves efficiency.


Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 05:55 pm
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Hundreds of years ago, on north Kodiak Island in Alaska, native peoples, like pretty much everyone living near water, liked to fish. Their method, though, didn't involve fishing rods or lures but a large fish trap, made of stone.

The fish trap, which was recently discovered by archaeologists at the Alutiiq Museum, worked pretty simply, and, one presumes, effectively. It consisted of two corrals, each with stone walls that were low enough for salmon to swim over at high tide but high enough to trap them during low tide.

That method of fishing was pretty common across the coast of the North Pacific, Patrick Saltonstall, the archaeologist behind the discovery, said, but before now had not been known to happen as far north as Kodiak, which is 1,000 miles northwest of Seattle and 500 miles west of Juneau.

And while the method is simple, Saltonstall said that operating the fish trap was probably real work.

"I imagine that it was reused year after year and that it was owned by a community or an extended family," Saltonstall said.

How long ago might the trap have been used? Within the last 2,000 years, archaeologists said, meaning that, for all of the water that's flown over it since then, it's aged pretty well.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 05:50 pm
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New York may be a bustling metropolis, but the city also boasts roughly 30,000 acres of parkland full of lush greenery. But these parks have an important rule: Look but don't dine. If a weed, such as mugwort, is edible, it's against park rules to pick and eat it. Local foragers, who comb through foliage for edible and medicinal plants, have fought the rule for decades. Steve Brill has led foraging tours of Central Park since the 1980s, and was even arrested for foraging back in 1986. Despite the legal threat, he and others continue to lead tours, pick plants, and chow down in parks across the city. But now there's a new—legal—source for edible greenery in New York. It also happens to be floating on the East River.

A barge that once carried sand to construction sites now carries Swale, a forest meant for foraging. Started by artist Mary Mattingly in 2016, Swale provides an aboveboard place for foragers—or anyone—to pick everything from onions to plums wherever it's docked. Brooklyn Bridge Park's Pier 6 is Swale's current home, but it will move to the Bronx's Concrete Plant Park on Friday, June 30.

From shore, Swale looks like an unassuming, rusty, industrial barge—with a few trees poking up over the sides. On board, the 40-by-130-foot barge is a lively place. In the corner sit white tanks used to filter and treat water from the East River for use on board. Gravel paths wind through the compact landscape, past a hill and lush planting beds, to a small shed and a patch of green lawn.

Swale isn't a community garden, of the sort scattered all over the city, where locals can plant their own food, but rather a food forest, "specifically using permaculture techniques, not gardening techniques," explains Amanda McDonald Crowley, an art curator and Swale's community outreach specialist. Permaculture techniques, coupled with people harvesting plants that would normally take over, eliminate the need for pesticides or chemical fixes for soil deficiencies. Next to the blueberries, for example, are small conifer saplings that acidify the soil, which makes blueberry bushes happy.

Young fruit trees, including apples and beach plums, are scattered around the barge, while shrubs, greens, and vines make up the understory. The greenery is diverse, but there are some common favorites mixed in. "We've deliberately planted a lot of more conventional herbs and spices that people will recognize more immediately," says Crowley. Familiar plants make Swale more accessible for people who aren't experienced foragers. "Everyone knows basil and tomatoes," notes Mattingly. But plenty of Swale's foliage is only recognizable to the trained eye (and palate). "Different communities of people really know different plants," she adds. Plants such as mint, mugwort, and kale are popular in some neighborhoods but not in others—it all depends on the local mix of cultures and cuisines, of which New York has many.

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Almost everything on the barge is edible or medicinal, but whatever isn't has some other purpose. The bark of the ash tree, for example, can be used to make cordage. Even the edible plants might have a secondary use, like the Hopi Red Dye Amaranth, which can be eaten and used to dye fabrics. "We've always got staff on board to help people think about what they should pick and point them in the right direction," says Crowley, and small signs note the uses for each plant. Workshops are frequently held that give visitors a chance to get hands-on experience.

Guidance is one advantage Swale has over city parks—illicit foragers in parks are on their own when it comes to identifying and preparing plants, which might be contaminated with heavy metals that may lurk in urban park soil. Conditions are a bit more comfortable on the barge, too. "We are shielded a little bit by being on the water because the water's more temperate," says Mattingly. "It's not quite as harsh in the winter on the water, and it's cooler in the summer."

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Being on a barge does present some unique challenges. The Coast Guard's approval process can be strict, and there are plenty of other permits to be secured wherever the barge is docked. It bobs up and down whenever a boat passes by, an effect that is worst at low tide, and the lightweight gangway can seem a little precarious at times. "The liability of having the barge is, at times, unnerving," Mattingly admits.

Despite the risks, Mattingly hopes to find a long-term home, where a community can shape the forest based on its needs. What that looks like is "going to depend on the neighborhood it ends up in," says Mattingly. "We want to care for spaces and be given the opportunity to care for them."

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 05:40 pm
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If you were a thief in 1700s England, and wanted to tell a fellow thief that you had spotted a naive rich man ("rum cully") and you can’t wait to rob his house ("heave the booth"), but you don’t want some do-gooder to overhear and send you to the gallows ("nubbing cheat")—how would you communicate this without tipping off authorities or scaring away your precious mark?

During the 16th through 19th centuries, your answer would be to speak in Thieves’ Cant. This secret language, known as a cant or cryptolect, has long since fallen into disuse. But despite its covert purpose and disputed origins, it has had a surprising impact on contemporary spoken English—in fact, you might even speak a bit like an old-time thief yourself.

Thieves’ Cant, also known as Flash or Peddler’s French, existed in many forms across Europe. The cant flourished in England during a 16th-century population boom, when less work was available amid greater competition and crime appeared to be on the rise, according to Maurizio Gotti in his 1999 book The Language of Thieves and Vagabonds. Many early cant speakers, who often were peasants or newly jobless soldiers, were considered "particularly numerous and dangerous” by more well-off groups.

These thieves and rogues lived free, lawless lives, and met in “flash houses” (public gathering spots) to find camaraderie and share useful intel about the area. King Henry VIII announced in the early 1500s that vagabonds were ransacking the countryside, supporting reports that an estimated 13,000 "rogues and masterless men" were running amok, according to Gotti. While the number of masterless men may have been an exaggeration, their heightened visibility meant there was an increased interest in criminal activity among non-vagabonds. Those excluded from the underworld wanted to learn about it, at least partially in order to safeguard themselves.

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Most Thieves’ Cant dictionaries in England were ostensibly published in order to save people from falling victim to criminals and their sneaky ways. During an uptick in crime in 1561, John Awdeley published one of the earliest English cant dictionaries, The Fraternity of Vagabonds. In a poem to the reader, Awdeley explains that the words he compiled came from interviews he conducted with men, women, and children who were “ruffling and beggarly,” on the condition that they remained anonymous, lest they be killed by their fellow vagabonds for spilling the beans. He includes short definitions and lengthy explanations of various scams to warn the public. A "ring faller," for instance, will drop worthless copper rings in front of naive villagers, and pick their pockets when they bend down.

In 1566, not long after Awdeley’s dictionary went to the press, a man named Thomas Harman published A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, Vulgarly Called Vagabonds. In the forward Harman writes that the dictionary was “for the utility and profit of his natural country,” and rather than publishing the words for mere entertainment, he “thought it good, necessary, and my bounden duty, to acquaint your goodness with the abominable, wicked and detestable behavior of all these rowdy, ragged rabblement of rakehells.” Harman’s book was so popular it was published several more times, including a reprint in the 1800s.

The tradition of printing updated Thieves’ Cant dictionaries spread to other English-speaking countries in the 19th century. In 1859, George W. Matsell, a police chief from New York, published The Rogue’s Lexicon to help people read criminal testimonies in public police reports, but added that many canting words “have come into general use.” Matsell’s dictionary includes words modern English speakers might recognize, such as “brag,” “gab,” “peepers,” “rat” (a cheat, as in, “to smell a rat”), “oaf,” and, the best word for face, “mug.” Even a French-English cant dictionary was published.

Dictionaries themselves were a fairly new phenomenon in the English language during this period, but as they began to be compiled, some included, perhaps in an effort to be more comprehensive, sections devoted to cant. The 1760 New Universal English Dictionary by Nathan Bailey, for example, has one of these sections, which includes linguistic gems such as “badgers,” defined as “a crew of desperate villains” who throw murdered bodies in a lake, and “bear-garden discourse,” defined as “common, dirty, filthy nasty talk.”

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Thieves’ Cant was also popular in fiction, including famous books such as Oliver Twist, in which Oliver’s inherent goodness is apparent when he is unable to speak cant like the criminals around him. Luckily for the reader, Dickens also included a Thieves’ Cant glossary in the back.

While the exact origin of Thieves' Cant is elusive, researchers usually regard it as a mix of English, Latin, French, Russian, Italian, Yiddish, and some versions of Romany. You can see this variety of influences in its vocabulary, which over time included anglicanized slang words such as "lingo" from Portuguese, "spado" (a sword) from Spanish, or "carouse" (to drink freely) from German. It mostly seems that in England, the syntax was based on English, and many existing English words were combined to form different meanings. For example, in some dictionaries eggs are translated into “cackling farts,” Gotti writes, because a chicken is a “cackling cheat” (with “cheat” being the cant word for “thing”), and “farts” denotes anything vulgar related to the body. “Kidnapper” (“kid,” for child and “napper,” stealing) likewise formed in the same way.

According to the literary scholar Linda Woodbridge in her book Vagrancy, Homelessness, and English Renaissance Literature, early “crime pamphlets,” short books about the lives of criminals and the poor, may have popularized the idea that all criminals spoke cant, prompting and possibly contributing to words found in the numerous dictionaries. (Woodbridge also notes that cant dictionaries include language and slang used by the poor, not just criminals.)

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So many Thieves’ Cant dictionaries were published and so many references to the language existed in fiction that historians throughout the years began to wonder whether they were all legitimate. In 1890, a critic named W.W.N. wrote to American Folklore wondering if Matsell just reused English Thieves’ Cant terms, calling the words “exceedingly fishy.” As Julie Coleman, English professor at Leicester University, writes in her book A History of Cant and Slang Volume 2, dictionaries seemed to copy off one another, making word origins harder to track. For example, an entry for the word “nuts” (to be fond of) appears in a few different dictionaries surrounded by the same words and definitions. But, Gotti notes, a few court testimonies exist that “have been found to confirm the validity of the terms mentioned [in the many dictionaries he reviews in his book].” Of course, that tells us little about how frequently or how long these exact words were used.

Thieves’ Cant eventually fell into disuse after the 19th century, but it may have evolved into various other cants and slangs, including children’s songs, Cockney Rhyming Slang, and a secret language for gay men called Polari. It also inspired the creators of the Dungeons and Dragons games, which have faithfully kept (a fictional) criminal cant alive. Even modern spoken English contains echoes of the cryptolect, proving that, even after all these centuries, you can’t keep a good cant down.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 05:30 pm

Some of the slingshots on display

It's hard to say what could be more intriguing than walking down the narrow pathways of Albenga, searching the Italian city for hidden secrets. For many, the beautiful and historic architecture may be excitement enough, but those who are lucky enough to stumble upon the tiny and ramshackle but delightful "Slingshot Museum" know what the others are really missing out on.

The Slingshot Museum, which is really an artist collective, is easy to pass by without noticing, but hard to pass on once one does. A step inside reveals the artist and curator himself, La Cantina Degli Artisti, who, although he speaks no language other than Italian, is able to express the passion he has for his work to anyone who stops by.

The hundreds and hundreds of slingshots on display are not just a wonderfully specific collection, but part of a symbolic prize awarded to "those who in life have pulled metaphorical slings in favor of the weak and marginalized, those who fight against the abuses and hypocrisy."

The first "Slingshot Prize of Wood" was awarded in 2007 to Antonio Ricci, the creator of Striscia la Notizia, a political satire show. Now, la Cantina Degli Artisti" gives out a slingshot from his delightful collection annually.   

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 09:23 pm

Posted by Dan MacGuill

A viral meme describes a promising research project at MIT and Harvard, but so far it has only been tested on the skin of a dead pig.
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 04:25 pm

Cherry blossoms in bloom

Over David Fairchild’s 22 years leading the Forest Service’s foreign seed department in the early 20th century, he introduced 111,857 varieties of plants and seeds to the United States, producing an estimated $110 million in economic activity across the agricultural sector. But Fairchild’s greatest public service might be something more ornamental than functional: He was the driving force behind the introduction of thousands of iconic cherry trees around the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. 

David Fairchild traveled the world over on the quest for seeds that he could bring back and introduce in the United States. A Miami Herald history of Fairchild credits him with “such success stories as the Meyer lemon, soybeans, Calimyrna figs, date palms, durum wheat, navel oranges, and many varieties of mangos and avocados to American farmers.” Though the paper also notes that the plant explorer may have rankled some of his colleagues with his penchant for “frequently setting off on long plant-hunting trips and delegating his administrative duties to someone else.“

When he wasn’t traveling, David and his wife Marian lived in a wooded estate two miles out of Washington that they named “Into the Woods.” The house itself is an elegant architectural mix of Japanese and Mediterranean influences that today could be mistaken for a midcentury California-style residence. Using seeds and clippings from his work trips, Fairchild transformed the grounds into a temple to eastern botany. The clusters of Oshino Cherry Trees and dense plantings of Bamboo must have looked otherworldly to visitors in 1905. David became something of a Cherry Blossom brand ambassador, singing their praises around town and sending the Fairchild children out to spread seeds along Connecticut Avenue.

In 1909, Fairchild had the opportunity to pitch his beloved blossoms to the First Lady of the United States, Helen Taft. According to former Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki“In 1909, neither the Jefferson Memorial nor the Lincoln Memorial had been constructed. Mrs. Taft was hoping to host outdoor concerts and felt that the Tidal Basin area needed some embellishments.” Cherry blossoms were just the thing, Fairchild told her. 

The pair got in contact with Japanese diplomats, who offered to donate 2,000 Cherry Trees “to strengthen the relationship between the two nations." The first batch to arrive were infested with invasive insects and were promptly burned. But by March 1912 a new batch of 3,000 saplings were ready for a dedication ceremony with the First Lady and wife of the Japanese Ambassador.

Fairchild’s beloved cherry trees are still in place to this day, but the botanist decided Washington wasn’t the city to see out his senior years, departing for Maimi in 1935. He sold “Into the Woods” to a neighborhood outdoorsy-focused preschool that still operates out of the house. The small campus lights up every spring as the treasured trees spread their bright pink and white blossoms, to the joy of staff and toddlers alike. 

One important historical coda on Fairchild: The plant man’s record does have one blemish on it—he is also responsible for introducing the dreaded Kudzu superweed to North America.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 07:54 pm

Posted by Dave

San Francisco, 1918. "Federal truck with dump body." Latest entry in the Shorpy Log of Leviathan Lorries. 5x7 glass negative by Christopher Helin. View full size.
Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 03:39 pm

Arco della Costa

Verona, the city of "Romeo and Juliet," is mysteriously home to a centuries-old whale bone. The trouble is, Verona is located about 75 miles (120 km) from the sea, and no one is quite sure how it got there.

The bone, believed to be a rib, hangs in the centre of the medieval Arco della Costa (Arch of the Rib), the entry point between Verona's Piazza Erbe and Piazza dei Signori. It's been hanging there, suspended from an iron chain, since at least the 1700s, though some estimates suggest much longer, possibly since the 15th century.

In the Middle Ages and Renaissance era, the walkway above the arch provided a safe passage for judges and magistrates between the city hall and their living quarters, so that they needn't associate with the common or "corrupt" people bellow. This may be the ironic origin of the myth of the whalebone's magic: It's claimed that it will fall on the first innocent or truthful person to walk under the archway. 

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 03:29 pm

Serbian artist Nikola Čuljić has an incredible talent: he creates sketches that seem to jump off the page. Using only colored pencils, markers, and pastels, he plays with lighting and angles in order to trick viewers into thinking his work is three-dimensional. (His Bored Panda article on the subject is appropriately titled, "3D Drawings That I Create To Confuse People.")

Needless to say, he is succeeding. Even in his only four years of drawing, he has mastered the art of dimension deception.

You can see more of these astounding not-quite-3D images on Čuljić's Instagram feed.

Video Wonders are audiovisual offerings that delight, inspire, and entertain. Have you encountered a video we should feature? Email ella@atlasobscura.com.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 03:23 pm

On Saturday morning, June 25, in Staphorst, Netherlands, a small town around 75 miles west of Amsterdam, a wallaby appeared near some railroad tracks. Trains were briefly halted. People were confused. Eventually, Nederlandse Spoorwegen (NS), the national rail service, offered a picture.

Pretty soon, according to Agence France-Presse, the wallaby—christened "Skippy" by NS—hopped off into the town and disappeared, only to have locals spot it again a few hours later. One of them, Patrick Dunnik, created a lasso and roped one of the wallaby's legs, and two friends then helped him bring Skippy to the ground. Skippy was later taken away in an "animal ambulance" while authorities try to sort out where it came from.

And where might that be? No one seems to have any idea, though it might have been kept as a pet. The marsupial also could have escaped from a zoo, since that's where most of the Netherlands' 500 or so wallabies live. If you have a collection of exotic pets and one is missing, authorities would like to hear from you. If you're a zookeeper, please check your habitats.

Wednesday, June 28th, 2017 06:00 pm

Posted by Jon Steingart (Guest Contributor)

DC’s 2018 budget, passed earlier this month, includes money to study how a gondola that would run between Rosslyn and Georgetown might impact the environment. That's a requirement for getting the gondola built, and the move gives the project more of a foothold with the DC Council.

The idea for the gondola first came up in 2013, when the Georgetown Business Improvement District included it in its 15 year action plan; BID CEO Joe Sternlieb reportedly was inspired by a gondola he saw in Portland.

(Yes, the boats on Venice’s canals are also called gondolas. But those aren’t under consideration in DC, at least not right now. The ones we’re talking about are trams suspended from a cable.) 

The idea is to fill the transportation gap between Georgetown and Rosslyn. Georgetown, of course, lacks a Metro station, and building one in the near future is unlikely.

A gondola in Portland, Oregon. Image by Ian Sane licensed under Creative Commons.

A gondola could be great, but making it happen would be tough

Greater Greater Washington contributor Topher Matthews, a member of the Georgetown 2028 task force, wrote about the ideas backing a gondola, as well as why people are skeptical, in May 2015.

A little over a year later, an earnest feasibility study got underway, with funding from the Georgetown and Rosslyn BIDs, Arlington County, DDOT, and other groups . Results from that came back in November, the gist being that no, the idea to build a gondola isn’t crazy.

It stressed that the number of areas in Northern Virginia that could reach Georgetown in 30 minutes or less would expand considerably with a gondola, including the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor to the west and Pentagon City and Crystal City to the south.

Here, the dark colors represent the places that are currently within a 30-minute transit ride of Rosslyn and Georgetown. The lighter colors show how a gondola would expand those options. Image by Georgetown BID.

It also projected daily ridership to be about 6,500 and noted that a gondola would be far cheaper than putting a Metro stop in Georgetown (while also providing a valuable connection to the Metro). Finally, the study said the Exxon station just north of where the Key Bridge meets M Street is the best place for a station in Georgetown.

In other words, a gondola could do a lot to ease congestion as well as make crossing the Potomac more realistic for people who don’t do it now.

And aside from these practical reasons to support a gondola, you can’t ignore that there’s something attractive about approaching Georgetown in a conveyance that seems to float across the Potomac River, with Georgetown University’s gothic architecture ahead and the classical revival Key Bridge to the side. It has potential to become a destination in its own right.

Of course, making this happen would not be easy. The project would need all kinds of federal approvals to move forward, and getting them would take years. Also, actual construction would cost somewhere around $90 million, and none of the money for that is lined up yet.

But none of that means the project isn’t happening, either

When it passed its new budget, the DC Council allotted $250,000 for what council chair Phil Mendelson has called “next steps.” While it’s obviously not going to put trams in the sky anytime soon, that’s a fairly big step up from what DDOT has previously spent.

The money will pay for an environmental impact study, which is one of the first requirements for the necessary approvals, WAMU’s Martin Di Caro and Martin Austermuhle reported. And while Arlington County said no to a gondola in February, it could re-engage if, down the road, the project starts looking more and more worthwhile.

“We agreed to create a capital project so they have something to work with,” Mendelson said. “It gives them a project they can lobby the council to add money to.”

“It’s a small amount of money, but it’s enough to keep us going,” Sternlieb told WMAL. “We’ve always had very strong support on the DC side of the river for this.”

Will Handsfield, the Georgetown BID's transportation director, noted that even if the gondola doesn't work out, the council's move to fund the study could be an important first step toward using the Exxon station for some other kind of transit project in the future. 

"Even if the site weren't used for gondola," he said, "it would be wise for the District to own it as it would be critical to the construction of the separated blue line from Rosslyn to Union Station, as well as for construction of the Georgetown Metro station"
 

Top image: A rendering of what riding a gondola from Georgetown to Rosslyn might look like.  Image by Georgetown BID.

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