No bread, no milk – for real

Visible light satellite photo taken on day two of the Northeast Blizzard of 1978

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the worst snowstorm I’ve ever experienced, the Great Northeast Blizzard of 1978, which is the likely origin of those odd runs on bread and milk that now occur in so many places – most prominently east of the Mississippi – before snowstorms. After this storm, many people in the worst affected areas couldn’t go out for days and genuinely did run out of such things. Where I lived, not far north of Boston, we got 30″ of snow, with eight- and nine-foot drifts due to the near-hurricane force winds that raged during the thirty-two hour storm. Those winds were hurricane force twenty miles away at the coast. My chief memory of the storm as it was happening is those fiercely howling winds driving the heavy snow mostly sideways for hours and hours on end. There was no thought of going outside – it was just too dangerous.

The storm happened on Monday and Tuesday of that week, and it was Friday before we could get to a grocery store. Quite different from the similar snow depth storm here in 2015.

February 1978: Southwest of Boston, Massachusetts, abandoned vehicles litter Route 128, the Boston inner ring highway, near Dedham. It was a week before all 3,500 vehicles there were cleared by the National Guard and U.S. Army.

February 1978: Abandoned vehicles on Route 9 west of Boston – just a mile or so from my current office

To guarantee unimpeded rescues and cleanup, then-Governor Michael Dukakis declared a travel ban in Massachusetts after the storm that extended to three days, so there was no point struggling to get to the nearest grocery a mile away because they’d have nothing in stock – nothing of use, anyway. Once the ban was lifted, our relatively minor street was still largely impassable, so I walked to the store to get some staples – with my sled as carry-all as I recall – and I think we had indeed run out of bread and milk, but still had some eggs.

I think it’s memories of this storm or stories from older relatives that still fuel the “must get French toast ingredients” urge that hits a lot of people before any middling to major snowstorm ’round these parts – and, strangely I think, many other places that have never experienced a regional shutdown lasting several days and almost certainly never will.

Here’s the best overview of the storm and its aftermath I found online, from WGBH Boston:

WBZ-TV aired a special last week, shown below. It was all right, but they buried the lede entirely – suffocated it, really. As the WGBH report mentions quite early on, most forecasts the morning the blizzard started called for about 6″ of snow total. While that sort of forecast would preemptively shut down a place like Washington DC, most people in New England would still go to work, and so they did. No one was prepared for what happened. By the time the monstrosity started showing its true self, snowplows couldn’t keep up with the stupendous rate of snowfall and it was too late for many to try to get home. A lot of those who attempted it were stranded and had to await rescue or abandon their cars and seek shelter.

At the time, there was basically one computer model available, but most meteorologists viewed it askance because it was new and its prediction seemed over the top. Not all of them thought it was dubious, though:

“Back in 1978, we did not have the accuracy of the computer models that we have today. And in 1978 there was a brand new computer model that came out and it was predicting the storm to be pretty much the magnitude it turned out to be. But because the computer model was brand new, people did not have confidence in it. And so there was some question whether or not people wanted to buy into the kind of product that it was delivering. To me it looked very reasonable. I took my little bag of clothes and I moved into Western Connecticut State College weather lab and I said, ‘I’m going to be here for a few days and there’s no question about that. It’s in the logbook on that day: ‘a granddaddy of a snowstorm is coming our way.’”
– Dr. Mel Goldstein

Houses tossed onto the beach like shoe boxes in Scituate, Massachusetts

The National Weather Service office at Taunton, Massachusetts prepared a slideshow some years ago with lots of good photos and graphics explaining how the storm evolved. Click on the image to view the PDF:

NOAA’s report on the blizzard (click to download or open the PDF):

This edition of The Boston Globe never reached its readers – they literally stopped the presses and abandoned the print run. There was no way to distribute it.

I had been scheduled to fly out to Kansas City, Missouri on 7 February to begin my first full-time job, but the snow was still coming down hard at that point and my move was delayed by two weeks. A few months after I moved into the Walnut Tower apartments in downtown Kansas City, wild weather of a different kind: Late afternoon on a Saturday or Sunday, I heard loud sirens that sounded like air raid sirens, but, being 18 years old and a Midwest newcomer, I didn’t know until the next day that what I heard was a tornado warning for the downtown area. I had an inkling, though, because I watched out my 11th floor window for about 90 minutes as, in ones and twos, ten or twelve funnels serpentined off the bottom of the filthy yellow mammatus cloud deck and twisted back up, never getting closer than about 1,500 feet off the ground.

“It was kind of nice to rule by decree because the legislature couldn’t get into the State House. So it was just me, you know.”
– Massachusetts Governor Dukakis

More groundhog news

From Bob & Ray:

Here is a supplementary bulletin from the Office of Fluctuation Control, Bureau of Edible Condiments, Soluble and Indigestible Fats and Glutinous Derivatives, Washington, D.C.:

Correction of Directive #943456201, issued a while back concerning the fixed price of groundhog meat. In the directive above named, the quotation on groundhog meat should read “ground hogmeat.”

Minor annoyances

After hearing of Punxsutawney all my life, I’m at a point where I find Chamber of Commerce-invented groundhog prognostication about as annoying as astrologist-invented 7% larger than average supermoons (sic, I say…sic), but quite a lot less annoying than the phrase “super blue blood moon”, so obnoxious it might set my hair alight if I thought about it overlong.

A lot of people like snow. I find it to be an unnecessary freezing of water.

Carl Reiner

Blackberry hand pies

Click for 1920×1080

Back in July, I noted King Arthur Flour’s blog entry for blueberry hand pies, and finally got around to making a blackberry version this past weekend. Then I made a bunch more Monday night to bring in to work – the results pictured above – with some adjustments that made them noticeably better. Foremost, I did four turns of the rough puff pastry instead of just the two called for in the recipe. That added only an extra half-hour of chilling and five or six more minutes of pounding/rolling/folding, and it was worth every minute.

A friend I shared them with on Sunday had been looking for a fairly simple puff pastry recipe and asked for this one, so I sent her the link and my notes, that email pasted under the line here. I did all the “next time, I’m going to” things mentioned below for version 2 on Monday night and each of them paid off handsomely.

If puff pastry – even this simpler rough puff recipe – seems daunting to you, it isn’t. Scroll through their pictorial blog entry and you’ll see it’s pretty straightforward. I’ve wanted to try my hand at it ever since, some years ago, I saw the price on frozen puff pastry that’s made with actual butter – and quickly moved along, defensively clutching my money clip. Oooowee, that’s some profit! I should add that it wasn’t Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry Sheets because theirs haven’t been within a country mile of even two molecules of butter. Strictly oils and high-fructose corn syrup in there, friends – not what you would call traditional.

There were more pies than people on Tuesday; inside an hour, only five or six crumbs were left on the platter. This recipe is going onto my frequently-made list.


Step-by-step on the King Arthur Flour Baking Blog:

Blueberry Hand Pies Bakealong

The changes I made were to 1) switch to blackberries, cutting them in half cross-wise because they were big (though they’re more tart than blueberries, I specifically did not increase the sugar in the filling because I prefer lightly sweet desserts where the fruit has the leading role), 2) add a half-teaspoon of cinnamon to the berry mixture, 3) use Sugar in the Raw to sprinkle on top instead of sparkling sugar because that’s what I have, and 4) use Julia Child’s method for the egg wash: Add a half-teaspoon of water to the egg, mix with a fork, then strain into a small bowl using the fork to further mix in the strainer and get the liquid through. Slackening the liquid and straining out the chalazae – those protein strands that anchor the yolk to the top and bottom of the shell – makes it easier to apply the wash well; coverage can be a bit spotty otherwise. This is especially true of very fresh eggs, where the chalazae are larger and thicker.

Note that you can use salted butter. There’s about an eighth teaspoon of salt in one stick of salted, so just reduce the ¾ teaspoon salt in the dough to ½ teaspoon and you’re all set. You can also sprinkle the pies with regular granulated sugar instead of larger crystals after the final egg wash. I think it does need that little bit of sweetness on top.

Flour your work surface well but not excessively throughout and brush excess off the dough before folding each time. Based on how quickly the dough softened as I worked with it, next time I make them, at the last rollout, I’m going to shape into the final 14×14″ sheet, cut the 3½” squares, arrange them on parchment on a baking sheet, and put them back in the fridge for 20 minutes. Then I’ll take them out and assemble the pies while the dough is nice and firm and get them in the oven. In assembling, I’m going to use a lighter touch with the fork crimping of the edges to allow the sides to rise more. The filling is thick enough that it’s not really trying to escape, so that won’t result in breaches.

Based on some other rough puff pastry recipes that do more than the two turns this one features, next time I’m also going to add the step of two more turns, for a total of four, after the initial 30-minute chilling, then chill the dough a further 30 minutes before the final 14×14″ rolling. This will produce 81 layers instead of just 9 from two turns. Traditional puff pastry dough gets five or six turns, producing 243 or 729 layers, respectively.

Sour cream is used here as the liquid instead of the water used in traditional puff pastry for four reasons: 1) adds liquid with additional fat to the recipe (like butter & shortening or butter & lard), 2), adds acidity that reacts with the baking powder (which reacts to both heat and acid), 3) tenderizes the gluten in the flour for a more delicate texture, and 4) helps baked goods in general retain moisture so they’re not dry husks after a day. Not that there are going to be any of these left in 24 hours, mind you.

Fireball!

After writing of my fireball meteor experience as a kid below, I did a little digging and found out I was wrong about two things: First, I was actually a few months shy of my seventh birthday when it happened, which, thanks to the fairly amazing web, I discovered was 7:14pm Eastern Time on Sunday, 25 April 1966. Second, the fireball lasted almost 30 seconds, not 8. I knew it was visible for a long time, and my friend and I saw it from the start, but I was being conservative with my recall. Because I remember us shouting – likely pretty tame stuff like “Holy crap!” – and, I think, leaping up and down for quite a while, my recollection was 20 seconds or more, but I doubted that as I wrote the post because even 10 seconds is a long time for any meteor to be visible. I shall trust my memory more in future.

It was called the “Great Fireball of 1966” and was widely seen on the East Coast of the US and in Canada. It was a bolide – meaning it broke up as it sped in – estimated to be 5-10 feet across, and since it wasn’t part of any expected meteor shower, it might have been a small asteroid. It was written up in Life magazine and Sky & Telescope at the time – pictures from those issues below.

When we saw it, it seemed to be only several miles above us, maybe forty or fifty thousand feet, but the show actually began near the Kármán line, commonly accepted as the point space begins, 62 miles/100 km up. Its initial altitude of 327,000 feet explains why it seemed to move fairly slowly.

A research paper dissecting the meteor was published in the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada and is available here.

I said in yesterday’s post that I could show where we were and the path of the meteor, and so I can with Google Street View. My house was just to the left of frame here, and we were next door, sitting on the steps at street level at the green X. I’ve darkened the sky in this image to approximate the light at the time, and the color of the line in the sky is just about the color of the meteor we saw, except it was matchhead-bright, of course. I can’t recall precisely if it went below the horizon, but I believe we did see it breaking up toward the end.

You can click either of these two images for a larger version:

Our view was most like the two photos taken from Springfield, Massachusetts

This was a heady time for me. I was already heavily into the space programme, with Gemini in full swing and Apollo about to start. The next milestone for me was this oblique view of the Copernicus crater on the Ocean of Storms, sent back by Lunar Orbiter 2 seven months later, in November 1966:

This photograph, iconic at the time, came to be known as “the picture of the century” and it’s hard for me to disagree. It was taken from an altitude of 27 miles/45 km and 200 km/125 miles away from the centre of the crater. No one had seen such a spectacular view of the moon before. The funny thing is, the photo was entirely unintentional. They simply needed to advance the film in the onboard camera, so they fired a couple of “housekeeping” exposures – random ones as far as they were concerned, but just look at what they got.

Lunar Orbiter

That photo was mind-bending for me and made more concrete the prospect of people being there, which would happen in just a couple more years. Before that happened, 2001: A Space Odyssey was released in April 1968 and I saw it at its Boston premiere on a huge, curved Cinerama screen perhaps seventy feet wide. Eight months after that, Apollo 8 carried the first men to leave the Earth and orbit the moon. And then it just got better and better from there. It was one helluva time to be alive.

Yeah…and?

Headline seen: 71.2 million people are under winter weather alerts

By now, especially in light of that decimal point, I think they must have automated this sort of tally for forecast teasers and online clickbait, but even to the nearest hundred thousand, it still means less than nothing. My reaction is a sarcastic “Oh, thank goodness it’s not 74.5 million, but I do wish it were more like 60.8 million.” Even if it were a useful number compared against the population of the US, for example – that still isn’t useful, by the way – do they really think a large percentage of said population knows how many million people live in the US? I doubt even 71.2 million of them could, without Googling, answer that question within 50 million of the number.

Breathless reports of meteor sightings also puzzle me. Thinking back, every time I’ve driven a long distance on a clear night – say, more than a few hours – I’ve seen at least one, and not at the time of meteor showers, either. Like snow in winter, meteors are not uncommon. Online shouts of “INCREDIBLE” and “AMAZING” make me scratch my head and think that some people are mighty easily amazed. I think, “Huh…neat!” when I happen to see one, but that’s the extent of it. When I was seven or eight years old, though, a friend and I witnessed not your piddly little two-second thin streak in the sky, but an extremely large green fireball-type meteor just after dusk that lasted about eight seconds. Now that was amazing, so impressive that you could put me on that street today and I could show you exactly where we stood and point out in the sky just where it started and ended.

Also, for the last time, stop trying to name winter storms, Weather Channel. After some years now of your attempts at social network engineering, you and your sister companies under parent NBC/Universal are the only ones who do it – a few other media organisations tagged along at first, but I think they were shamed back out of the practice, and rightfully so. Is that why you keep buying other weather companies – just to make more people in the industry do it?

This one’s getting a case

After watching eBay for a couple of years, I finally found a Buy It Now listing with a decent price for this long-discontinued Corgi Sikorsky Sea King model – specifically, the chopper from the USS Hornet that picked up the Apollo 11 crewmen, and those from Apollo 8, 10, 12, and 13 as well. I happened to be at my computer at o’dark thirty when the new listing notification email came in from eBay, so I snapped it up within a few minutes of the listing being posted, thus avoiding any bidding starting, which for this model often results in a price inflated by 75% over the maximum that I was willing to pay. The Buy It Now price in this case happened to be exactly my maximum.

The diecast metal Sea King is well done, and more impressive in person than in photos I’ve seen. The only detail I see missing is the two capsule silhouettes behind the knight shield at the nose that represent its previous recoveries of Apollo 8 and Apollo 10 (see the Apollo 12 photo below, where it has silhouettes representing 8, 10, and 11), so I may paint those myself. This will most likely go in my office, so I’ve ordered a 15x12x9″ acrylic case for it. I’ve read in multiple places that the base has a tendency to warp over time due to the weight of the helicopter, so on advice of the customer support folks at Hornby/Corgi, who had a chat in their office about that problem yesterday and sent me a few possible solutions, I’m going to superglue the entire base to the floor of the display case.

Apollo 12’s recovery was also by the USS Hornet and the same helicopter

When a debris basin overflows

From Burbank Firefighters Local 778, a group of whom were trapped in the Deer Canyon area until the landslide subsided:

Two people were in the car and survived. They made a beeline out of there after an evacuation order said the basin above them might be overtopped. It was, and they hydroplaned with the debris flow down the hill, then regained control and went up another road to escape the flow.

The debris basin that was inundated, Upper Sunset, is at the upper right. The car came down Country Club Drive, which emanates from the Sunset Debris Basin access road.

The debris basin after the landslide is below. The wall appears to have been breached but was not. There’s ongoing construction to raise the rim five feet to increase the capacity of the basin by 8,000 cubic yards – see the scaffolding – and that middle portion is not yet started.

The wrong word

The prevailing term in government warnings and the news reports out of Santa Barbara County is mudslide, not landslide. Yes, it is primarily mud by volume, but mudslide seems far too mild a term to me when I look at these pictures from today in the northern part of Montecito, just south of the Santa Ynez range that’s northeast of Santa Barbara.

This sort of confluence of events occurs just once or twice a decade at this scale, with multiple fatality landslides occurring every second or third decade. Wouldn’t some people – specifically those who haven’t seen this before – think of mudslide warnings, “Oh, some mud? Whatever”? I doubt anyone would think that if the more apt “landslide” was used instead. A reaction of “Let’s get the hell out of here” would be a little more likely, I think – and a lot more sensible.

When I wonder how mudslide overtook landslide in Southern California, the cynical me answers immediately: decades of real estate agent subtlety, probably.

Click any image for a larger version

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Rescue of 14-year-old girl at right. Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Mike Eliason, PIO, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Photo: Ventura County Sheriff Air Unit

Now there are five

John Young, the Commander of Apollo 16 pictured loading the Lunar Roving Vehicle in the FQN banner above, died on Friday. He also flew on Gemini 3, Gemini 10, Apollo 10, and was the Commander of STS-1, the first orbital Space Shuttle flight, as well as STS-9.

Just five humans remain who have walked on the surface of another planetary body: Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11), Al Bean (12), Dave Scott (15), Jack Schmitt (17), and Charlie Duke, who also landed in Orion on Apollo 16 and spent twenty hours over three EVAs walking and driving around on the moon with Young – with a leap or two thrown in:

John Young on the Descartes Highlands, 21 April 1972; click for a larger version

“Anyone who sits on top of the largest hydrogen-oxygen fueled system in the world, knowing they’re going to light the bottom, and doesn’t get a little worried…does not fully understand the situation.”