Aurora Borealis

The Great Sine Wave of Life

Everything goes in cycles. This is one of the great truisms of life. Whether we are in the pits of despair, or the heights of joy, we know that change is inevitable. Life tends to follow a Sine Wave, oscillating up and down from +1 to -1. Like a sine wave, the zenith and the nadir are the moments of stasis, where time seems to sit still, and our mood hangs in the air, before it slowly begins its swing to the other extreme, accelerating through zero, before slowing as it reaches the other extreme. Rinse and repeat.

The sun also follows this cycle. Every 11 years the solar activity on the Sun peaks, and begins to decline. We are at the bottom of a cycle right now, preparing to begin the climb again. You can look it up. Years of peak sun spot activity play havoc with radio communications, as the Earth is bombarded with waves of solar wind, resulting in the creation of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. For those that have ever been lucky enough to see the aurora, the unearthly display of dancing curtains of light in the night sky is something you will never forget.

Aurora Borealis

As I’ve said before, my senior year at Clarkson saw me rooming with 3 friends in an old farmhouse about 5 miles East of Potsdam on route 11B. It was 1989, during one of the peaks on the great sine wave of solar activity when the earth is awash in the great solar wind. In my own life, it was a time of great uncertainty and change. College was ending, and my world hung poised at a moment of lethargy, waiting for gravity to begin pulling me back towards zero. As I arrived in Potsdam in September, and moved into our apartment in the North Country, I had little idea of the great changes that lay ahead. All I knew was that the life I was living was inert, and stagnant, like the August heat. It was the year of the Nynex phone company strike, which only seemed to amplify the solitude of living outside of town.

My North Country Home

The farmhouse was old, and our upstairs apartment was drafty in the winter, and a sweatbox in the summer. With no fans in our possession, we stewed in the late summer heat. Sleeping on the old mattress on the floor, beneath the window in my bedroom, I would awake to the sounds of houseflies buzzing against the window screen, and the snorting of horses below. Rosie and King, the sway backed old workhorses our landlords summered on the property, would stand in the early morning shade beneath my window, swatting flies with their tails.

The first few days were given over to trips into town to buy books, and register for classes, followed by evenings sitting outside on the deck, watching the darkness creep out of the foothills of the Adirondacks. One night after a dinner of fried sausage, and Utica Club, we decided to pile into my roommate’s car and head into the bars in town . Potsdam being a village of 9,000 people, a good half of whom are college students, was well appointed with bars along the length of Market Street.

My roommates and I were contrarians for the most part. As misfits, and avowed anti-Fraternity types, we tended to avoid the dance clubs, and stick to a more sedate place called Maxfield’s, that even back then in Pre-Micro brew America, stocked Bass and Guinness on tap. But it was the first night back in town for all of us, and we deviated from our norm, to bar hop down the street to try to catch up with as many classmates as we might run into. With no phone service, chance encounters were about our only way of catching up with friends.

Despite being vehemently opposed to the Frat boy culture that permeated Potsdam, I still had a fair share of friends that belonged to different fraternities. And it wasn’t long before we ran into some of them at a dive noted for selling the cheapest pitchers of cheap beer in all of the North Country. I hung out in the back of the bar where they were playing pool, before wandering back to the place where my roommates had been standing. It was then that I noticed they were gone. Mildly annoyed that they had left without telling me, I walked outside to the next bar down the street in the hopes of catching up with them. But they were nowhere to be found. I began checking out each and every bar along Market street getting angrier by the minute. Finally, after a half hour of searching I walked back to where we had parked the car only to discover that it was gone.

Now I was pissed. How the hell could they ditch me like that? We didn’t live in walking distance of the bars anymore, and I had no idea how the heck I was going to get home. Rather than go back into one of the bars and hang out with some of my fraternity friends, and spend the night at their place, I decided that I was going to go straight home and confront them. I began walking out Elm Street, planning to hitchhike back to our apartment, despite the fact I had never hitchhiked anywhere in my life.

Now keep in mind it was the tail end of the 1980’s, and the “peace love and understanding” of the 60’s had long since faded. Potsdam isn’t a big town, but it is the biggest town in all of St. Lawrence County, and the nearest village of any size to the East of us was over 30 miles away. A hand full of cars drove right on past me as I made my way out of town. That should have been my first hint that the likelihood of any local stopping to pick up an obviously drunk college student was pretty slim. In my drunken and agitated state it never occurred to me that the only people that probably would stop to pick up a drunk hitchhiker at 2 am in the morning were either cops or serial killers.

I walked, and walked. Out past the airport, past the salvage yard, and into the pitch black countryside. As I walked in my stupor, my anger began to fade, and I began to be aware of the world around me. It was a moonless night, and the darkness was unnerving. Looking to the North I could see the faint glow of lights over the horizon. At first I thought it was the lights of Massena, 20 miles away. But as I walked I slowly became aware that the lights were moving. Now I was really confused. It took me quite a while before I realized that I was seeing the Northern Lights.

My walk home took two hours. It was past 3 am when I climbed the stairs to the apartment, and walked through the door swearing. To my surprise, my roommates, and their girlfriends were still awake. As I let into them for ditching me in the bar, they looked at me like I was crazy. Only when I had completed my profanity laced tirade, did they tell me the real reason that they had left.

While at the bar, a couple of thick necked frat boy bouncers had started giving a hard time to a scrawny little underclassman, that was undoubtedly trying to sneak in with a fake I.D., (along with about half of the kids in the place). My roommate Chris, seeing this, walked up to them and said “Why don’t you pick on someone your own bleeping size”. At that point he was jumped from behind by a couple of frat boys, and pushed out into the street. Falling onto the sidewalk, they started kicking him in the head, as his girlfriend screamed, and my roommates rushed out to his aid. By the time they broke things up, he had been roughed up pretty bad, and they decided to take him home. All of this had happened while I was in the back of the place talking with friends, oblivious to the events.

By now I felt like a first class jerk, and my anger subsided into guilt and embarrassment. They all assumed I would do the rational thing and just crash at a friend’s place. No one expected me to walk home five miles through the dark countryside. That was my first experience with the Northern Lights, but it would not be the last.

Later in the month, I awoke around 2 am to a buzzing sound coming from outside. At first I thought it was a fly against the window screen, until I realized that it was night and not the time for houseflies. Slowly coming to my senses I looked out the window and saw a green glow in the sky. I pulled on a shirt, and walked out onto the deck. There, in the sky above was the most ethereal display of light I had ever seen. It took me a minute to realize that what I was seeing was the Northern Lights, blazing so brightly that they seemed to cast a glow over the earth.

the night sky aflame

I sat down on the deck, and watched the light show for hours. At times the Aurora filled the whole sky, changing from green, to red, and surrounding me like the walls of a giant tee-pee, flapping in the breeze. I didn’t know it then, but my life was to begin picking up speed again on it’s downward trajectory along the sine wave. By spring it would be approaching zero, and unraveling at a speed that I could never have dreamed possible. Sitting there in the dark, as the invisible solar wind blew in from millions of miles away, and lit up the sky in green and red filaments, it seemed as if the whole, dry, world around me was about to burst into flame.

The Russian Empire in Living Color

Continuing on the theme of obscure, internet, ephemera, I present to you a collection of color photographs from the Library of Congress. These photographs have an un-earthly, ethereal quality to them that I cannot describe. The subjects seem to glow, or radiate light. The appearance of a world caught between the medieval and the industrial revolution, is amazing enough. To see that world in such vivid color is astounding. The pictures possess a dreamlike quality that makes them seem at once familiar, and entirely foreign to our eyes.

These photographs were taken between 1909 and 1915 in pre-Soviet Russia. They are the work of Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, a Russian photographer who developed a unique process for creating color photographs. The Prokudin-Gorskii process was an ingenious photographic technique that captured images in black and white on glass plate negatives, using red, green and blue filters. A single, narrow glass plate about 3 inches wide by 9 inches long was placed vertically into the camera by Prokudin-Gorskii. He then photographed the same scene three times in a fairly rapid sequence using a red filter, a green filter and a blue filter. The images were then presented in color in slide lectures using a light-projection system involving the same three filters.

In the early 1900s Prokudin-Gorskii presented an ambitious plan for a photographic survey of the Russian Empire to Tsar Nicholas II. His plan was to use the emerging technological advancements that had been made in color photography to systematically document the Russian Empire. Through such an ambitious project, his ultimate goal was to educate the schoolchildren of Russia with his “optical color projections” of the vast and diverse history, culture, and modernization of the empire. Winning the support of the Tsar, he was provided with a specially equipped railroad car darkroom, and two permits that granted him access to restricted areas and cooperation from the empire’s bureaucracy. Between 1909-1912, and again in 1915, he traveled through eleven different regions of the Russian Empire, recording daily life among the Empire’s diverse ethnic groups, Medieval Orthodox Monasteries, and the railroads and factories of an emerging Industrial society.

Prokudin-Gorski would leave Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and eventually settled in Paris. His work remained with his family until the U.S. Government purchased his slides from his heirs in 1948. The Library of Congress recently undertook a program to digitize these slides and present them in an online exhibition. All of the following photographs are copyright the Library of Congress, and Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii. I hope you find them as fascinating as I do. For more info visit the Library of Congress exhibit here:

This photographic collection preserves a past that no person alive today can recall witnessing with their own eyes. They are snapshots of a colonial Empire stretching from the wild edges of Eastern Europe all the way to the Pacific and the borderlands of China and Mongolia. They are a reminder of the astounding size, and diversity of the Russian, and Soviet Empires, and how pre-modern they truly were at the beginning of the 20th Century.

This amazing monastery looks like an Alien Spacecraft landed in the countryside

Who's afraid of the big bad wolf?

The Emir of Bukhara (present day Kyrgyzstan)

This one gives me goosebumps, and I'm not sure why

If these factories look jarring and out of place to our eyes, imagine how they appeared to the Russian peasants that saw them for the first time

How I would love to know the life stories of these three girls

The shining city on the hill from Revelations

Another haunting photo from the Brothers Grimm

The ferryman at the River Styx

This could have been taken in my backyard, and may be the the most achingly beautiful portrait ever taken of the untamed, wild beauty of lilacs

Secrets of the Laurel Hill Tunnel

In the hills of Western Pennsylvania, high into the ageless Allegheny mountains, lies a workshop as mysterious as Nevada’s Area 51. As you know from previous postings, one of my favorite hobbies is searching the internets to add to my voluminous knowledge of useless information. In my cyber meanderings a few years back I stumbled across a mystery that hits a sweet spot in the interests of 20 Prospect, involving old photos, abandoned places, Western Pennsylvania, and auto racing. The Laurel Hill tunnel. Let me set the stage…

In 1881 the South Pennsylvania Railroad began work on a railroad tunnel underneath Laurel Ridge along the border of Westmoreland and Somerset Counties in Western, PA.  It was one of 6 tunnels being excavated to create the railroad which was known as “Vanderbilt’s Folly”. For reasons lost to history, the work was abandoned in 1885, after 831 feet of excavation. The tunnel lay silent for many years until the construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the 1930’s. The Pennsylvania Turnpike was America’s first Superhighway.

Rays Hill Tunnel under construction - 1880's

20 years before Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway system, the PA Turnpike was envisioned as a high speed route through the Allegheny Mountains to connect the major urban areas of the state. To save on construction costs, the State of Pennsylvania utilized the abandoned railroad grade that had constructed for the defunct South Pennsylvania Railroad. The Laurel Hill tunnel was one of six of the turnpike’s seven original tunnels, which were bored for that railroad. The relatively mild railroad grades, and sweeping curves, along with the tunnels, would allow for a higher speed limited access highway to reduce travel times when compared the first highway across the United States, US 30, the Lincoln Highway.

1942 July, Photo by Arthur Rothstein - Library of Congress

Like the German Autobahn, on which it was loosely modeled, the Turnpike was to be a 4 lane limited access road open to all forms of vehicle traffic, cars and trucks alike, with no enforced speed limits on most of its length. The Turnpike opened in 1940 amid great fanfare. It was known as the “Tunnel Highway”, due to the seven tunnels along its western half. However, the tunnels could only accommodate 2 lanes of traffic. So within 20 years of opening, planning began for widening the road to 4 lanes for its entire length. As part of the modernization during the 1960’s the Laurel Hill, and two other tunnels were abandoned, and bypassed by the highway.

1942, July - Photo by Arthur Rothstein - Library of Congress

So the tunnel sat for 40 years. It served for a while as a location for storing highway salt, used by the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. Like all fascinating abandoned places around the world, it became the focus for urban exploration. No trespassing signs were posted, and the State Police would occasionally patrol the place, but that did not deter the fascination of the Urban Explorer crowd. Until one day in 2003 the tunnel was blocked off on both ends, and mysterious trucks and construction crews showed up and began work inside of the tunnel.

Tunnel beneath Laurel Ridge

What could be going on within the depths of these age old Allegheny Mountains? Was a secret government project at work? Was the NSC or the CIA creating secret underground detention centers for terror suspects? Was the Air Force hard at work on developing new weaponry beyond the prying eyes of Soviet Spy Satellites? Was the government hiding Alien Spacecraft with it? Rumors swirled, and conspiracy types, and urban explorers began monitoring the comings and goings at the tunnel, and posting their reports on the internets.

The 4541 ft. long tunnel was a perfect spot to perform straight line, aerodynamic testing. Out of the wind, in a controlled environment, full scale racecars could be tested in a manner previously impossible. Theoretically, full scale testing of moving vehicles in a controlled environment, would yield results that could be more directly correlated to real world performance at speed, than wind tunnel testing. Add to the mix that several racing series limit wind tunnel testing time of their competitors, and the tunnel may be a way to circumvent the rule book.


IndyCar's Area 51

As an engineer this stuff geeks me out. Eventually the race team performing the testing was identified as the Chip Ganassi  Race Team that competes in both NASCAR and IndyCar. They have admitted as much, but are very cagey when it comes to answering direct questions about how they perform their testing inside of the tunnel. And while race car testing may not be the sexiest of conspiracy theories, the “Secrets of the Laurel Hill Tunnel” remain.

Ganassi Race Team Hard at work

The most recent rumors to swirl around the place center on the development of a new prototype open wheel race car, known only as the Delta Wing. This new car is the source of much speculation right now in the blogosphere, and is supposedly a mind bending radical new design. Of course, few have actually seen it, and those that have are sworn to secrecy. But news has leaked out that “all will be revealed” on Feb 12th at the Chicago Auto show.

Purple Pain

Ouch. That had to hurt. As a Bills fan I can sympathize. In some ways I was hoping the Vikings could win the Superbowl just to prove that an 0-4 Superbowl team can be redeemed. I was 8 when they lost their last Superbowl. Although I have been around to experience their last two painful losses in the NFC Champsionship.

First their was this one…


I will never forget the cocky Denny Green taking a knee, to send the game into overtime, convinced that his team would win. And I can remember the absolute certainty in my mind that Gary Anderson, who had not missed a field goal all year, was going to blow that kick.

I was around in 2001 to witness the Forty One – Donut game in New York. It was one of the more bizzare and surreal games. I don’t think I have ever seen a professional football team with more on the line, roll over and die like that, and I remember some horrible Bills losses.

Forty One - Donut

You can say this about the Vikes. They may choke in the championship game, but they do it in dramatic style. The image seared into the minds of Minnesota this time is going to be this one…

His own worst enemy

As a Packer fan by marriage, this season has been a strange one. Seeing the face of the Packers for 16 seasons, wearing the colors of their hated arch rival was tough. Seeing him lead them to the NFC Championship was painful. Watching him throw an interception with 19 seconds left, and a very makeable field goal within reach, was priceless. Packer fans have lived through that one many times. Most recently, 2 years ago when Favre ended his career in Green Bay in the exact same fashion in OT of the NFC title game against the Giants. It’s enough to make a guy believe in karma.And so ends another bizarre chapter in the Vikings-Packers rivalry.

It’s going to be a long week at work this week, with a lot of crabby, sour, co-workers, and smug and smiling Packer fans.

As for the Saints, it is hard to begrudge them the trip to the Superbowl. Few teams have suffered through more dreadful seasons than they have. They may not win in 2 weeks, but I have a feeling that New Orleans is going to enjoy the party either way

Happy Hockey Day

Tomorrow is Hockey Day Minnesota!

Our newest national state holiday. It is like Easter for the Hockey Cult. We are all expected to put on our Sunday best, and gather at one of the many Cathedrals of Hockey sprinkled throughout the state, and receive the sacrament of ice time.

As recent converts to the Hockey Cult, the 20 Prospect clan will be attending services at the National Sports Center’s “Basilica of the Our Lady of the 5 Minute Major”. I’m told the services there are spectacular.

The Basilica of Our Lady of the 5 Minute Major

20 Prospect Jr.’s hockey club has a an outdoor party on a lake in the morning. Bonfire, grill out, and shinny on the ice. Then a game in the afternoon. If all goes well, we should also find time to either skate beneath the belly of the water tower at our local rink, or battle each other in another epic round of NHL 2K10 on the Wii. The night will end with a vigil in front of the TV watching either the Wild or the Gophers. A veritable Bacchanalia of Hockey.

All work and no Hockey makes Jack a dull boy

Yes, we are no longer acolytes in the hockey cult. I already feel like a seasoned pro, standing in the rink watching the boys practice, discussing the finer points of the game with other Dad’s. Well, not really. That would require me to speak with a stranger, and hockey cult or no hockey cult, that would be a very Un-Minnesota thing to do. Instead we all stand in silence waiting for someone to introduce us to each other.

The boy is still enjoying it. And I have to confess, I am enjoying watching him enjoy it. I guess that’s the definition of the joy of parenting right there. That and yelling profanity at the refs.

Happy Hockey Day Minnesota!

Under the belly of the Water Tower

Lately I been spending my evenings at the rink, skating the oval for exercise. As I’ve said before, in addition to the outdoor hockey rinks our little ‘burb turns the cinder track behind the middle school into a speed skating oval. (Not that anyone actually speed skates on it.) Most nights I have the place to myself. Sitting down in the warming hut, I put on my hockey skates then set off for a three mile skate.




There is something pleasant and re-assuring about the sound of the skates on the ice. A slow steady rythm, leaving behind little white lines etched into the surface of the ice.




There is just the glow from the hockey rinks to light the oval as I make my orbit in and out of the light. Focusing on each stride, leaning forward into the wind, it’s easy to lose count of the laps.




Around and around, the light growing and fading, the ice criscrossed with white scars, until I either come to the end, or surrender to exhaustion.




Buffalo Dreams

Man, what a crazy night. I had the strangest dream. I dreamed that out of the blue the Bills decided to hire a washed up old coach that no one has talked about in ten years. Yeah, that’s kind of crazy isn’t it? But wait, the craziest part was that the coach was Chan Gailey. I mean, c’mon, how obscure is that? I really need to stop eating spicy food and reading horror novels before bedtime.

Huh? What’s that?


Exactly how Bills fans are feeling this morning

CHAN FREAKING GAILEY??? Is that the best they could do?

Wait, don’t answer that. The answer will be more painful than we can bear. Yes folks, that is as good as we can do. Buffalo is such a joke that no decent self respecting coach is willing to come to town and take over the team. The Bills vaunted coaching search, launched back in November, promised the fans a “big name coach”. That only got our hopes up. We should have known all along it would have ended up like this.

Say it ain't so

First, the three big name Superbowl winning coaches that were “on the market” said, “err… thanks, but I um, have a thing. Maybe some other time.”

Then they were rejected by three coordinators that have never been head coaches in the NFL and are salivating at the opportunity to take the next step. How bad is that? It’s like they have said that the Bills job is not even as good as being a coordinator elsewhere.

Finally, they had a wet behind the ears college head coach from a 2nd rate PAC-10 school turn them down.

What else could they do? At that point if it wasn’t Gailey it would have been another failed retread. Take your pick, Mike Martz, Marty Mornhinweg, Herman Edwards, etc… what’s the difference? Why should Bills fans care when the management and ownership so obviously doesn’t?

This week in Minnesota the talk is all Vikings all the time. They are playing in the NFC Championship this weekend, and all of the sports shows, and radio talk shows are spending every waking moment discussing the Vikes. Yet on my drive home last night, even the local Minneapolis KFAN sports talk station paused from their Vikingsfest to take 15 minutes to laugh at Buffalo.

I think that this is the part that hurts Western New Yorkers, and Bills fans the worst. Once again we are the laughing stock of the nation. Like the nerdy kid in school that has his lunch money stolen, and his head flushed in the toilet, we have come to expect this kind of abuse. Eventually, we reach a point where we begin to think we deserve it. Surely, somewhere along the line we must have done something to deserve it, because what just God could punish the innocent by sending us Chan Freaking Gailey?

Please, take our team. Move them to L.A. Let us be the next Brooklyn Dodger fans. Let us sit and wallow in our memories of a sepia toned world that no longer exists. It has to be better than suffering through ten more years of this.