Category Archives: Natural wonders

Lo, The Squirrels Are Ravenous

As if the East Coast needs a further harbinger of bad weather . . . I’ve captured on film an indication of just how severe this coming winter will likely be:  never-before-seen-animal-behavior.  Saving up for winter, certainly Not Quite Right, I give you . . .




On our Jack-O-Lanterns!

Caught, red-pawed.

Mugshot of the offender.

Close-up of the damage.




Improbable Research – Kansas vs. Pancake

Reblogged from:


Kansas Is Flatter Than a Pancake

by Mark Fonstad 1, William Pugatch 1, and Brandon Vogt 2

1. Department of Geography, Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas
2. Department of Geography, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

In this report, we apply basic scientific techniques to answer the question “Is Kansas as flat as a pancake?”

Figure 1. (a) A well-cooked pancake; and (b) Kansas. 1

While driving across the American Midwest, it is common to hear travelers remark, “This state is as flat as a pancake.” To the authors, this adage seems to qualitatively capture some characteristic of a topographic geodetic survey 2. This obvious question “how flat is a pancake” spurned our analytical interest, and we set out to find the ‘flatness’ of both a pancake and one particular state: Kansas.


A Technical Approach to Pancakes and Kansas

Barring the acquisition of either a Kansas-sized pancake or a pancake-sized Kansas, mathematical techniques are needed to do a proper comparison. Some readers may find the comparing of a pancake and Kansas to be analogous to the comparing of apples and oranges; we refer those readers to a 1995 publication by NASA’s Scott Sandford 3, who used spectrographic techniques to do a comparison of apples and oranges.

One common method of quantifying ‘flatness’ in geodesy is the ‘flattening’ ratio. The length of an ellipse’s (or arc’s) semi-major axis a is compared with its measured semi-minor axis b using the formula for flattening, f = (a – b) / a. A perfectly flat surface will have a flattening f of one, whereas an ellipsoid with equal axis lengths will have no flattening, and f will equal zero.

For example, the earth is slightly flattened at the poles due to the earth’s rotation, making its semi-major axis slightly longer than its semi-minor axis, giving a global f of 0.00335. For both Kansas and the pancake, we approximated the local ellipsoid with a second-order polynomial line fit to the cross-sections. These polynomial equations allowed us to estimate the local ellipsoid’s semi-major and semi-minor axes and thus we can calculate the flattening measure f.

Materials and Methods

We purchased a well-cooked pancake from a local restaurant, the International House of Pancakes, and prepared it for analysis by separating a 2-cm wide sample strip that had not had time to desiccate. We collected macro-pancake topography through digital image processing of a pancake image and ruler for scale calibration (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Pancake cross-sectional surface being digitized.

We made another topographic profile from the sample, using a confocal laser microscope. The importance of this research dictated that we not be daunted by the “No Food or Drink” sign posted in the microscopy room. The microscope collects one elevation point every 10 mm and has a maximum surface diameter of 2 cm (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. When viewed at a scale of 50 mm, a pancake appears more rugged than the Grand Canyon.

We measured a west-east profile across Kansas taken from merged 1:250,000 scale digital elevation model (DEM) data from the United States Geological Survey. In general, the spacing between adjacent elevation points on the landscape transects was approximately 90 meters. We extracted surface transects and flatness estimates from the Kansas and pancake DEM data using a geographic information system.


The topographic transects of both Kansas and a pancake at millimeter scale are both quite flat, but this first analysis showed that Kansas is clearly flatter (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. Surface topography of Kansas and of a pancake.

Mathematically, a value of 1.000 would indicate perfect, platonic flatness. The calculated flatness of the pancake transect from the digital image is approximately 0.957, which is pretty flat, but far from perfectly flat. The confocal laser scan showed the pancake surface to be slightly rougher, still.

Measuring the flatness of Kansas presented us with a greater challenge than measuring the flatness of the pancake. The state is so flat that the off-the-shelf software produced a flatness value for it of 1. This value was, as they say, too good to be true, so we did a more complex analysis, and after many hours of programming work, we were able to estimate that Kansas’s flatness is approximately 0.9997. That degree of flatness might be described, mathematically, as “damn flat.”


Simply put, our results show that Kansas is considerably flatter than a pancake.


1. The photograph of Kansas is of an area near Wichita, Kansas. It may be of significance that the town of Liberal, Kansas hosts the annual ‘International Pancake Day’ festival.

2. To pump up our cross-disciplinary name-dropping, we should also mention that recently some quick-thinking cosmologists also described the universe as being “flatter than a pancake” after making detailed measurements of the cosmic background radiation.

3. “Comparing Apples and Oranges,” S.A. Sandford, Annals of Improbable Research, vol. 1, no. 3, May/June 1995.


© Copyright 2003 Annals of Improbable Research (AIR)

Sleep Fishing

This image qualifies as the opposite of “Not Quite Right.”  It’s 100% right, what life should be like everyday.

Taken in the Boundary Waters, a canoe-only wilderness on the border of Minnesota and Canada.  My 12-year old had paddled 13 miles and then fished, almost non-stop, for the rest of the day.  Late afternoon, beautifully calm skies and waters, the fishing ‘action’ had drifted off and so, too, had he.  He’s completely asleep in this photo, though he’s holding his fishing pole cupped in both hands and though the bobber drifts on the mirror-flat surface of the lake.  A fish even bit at one point, pulling and jiggling the bobber beneath the surface.  He continued to sleep and then, at last, after about 20 minutes, startled awake, completely unaware of where he was!  How strange it must have been for him to wake from a dream into the very place of his dreams.

My 12-year old, in paradise.

Detail in a Photo – Mutrah Harbor


Map of the hike, meandering up-and-down trail in light blue. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The capital area of Muscat, Oman, stretches lengthwise along the sea for several tens of kilometers in either direction but only extends into the interior of the country a kilometer at the deepest.  This is mostly because a range of bare, jagged mountains looms between the narrow coastal plain and the wetter (mountain watered) interior regions that surround Nizwa, Rustaq, etc.  A corollaries to this close-at-hand range of mountains is the presence, very near the urbanized areas, of great hiking and astonishingly isolated wilderness.

One instance of this hiking is Trail C38, which begins in the village of Riyam at the backside of the Incense Burner Park (on the corniche between Mutrah and Old Muscat) and delivers a hiker, after some fairly difficult climbing, into the alleys behind the old souq in Mutrah.

When we think of hiking in the US, images of lush green forests, maybe a few meandering hills, perhaps even the Appalachian Trail come to mind.  But this, on the other hand, especially if attempted anytime between April and November, is a different sort of hike altogether:  hot, dusty, with rocks sharp enough to accidentally cut a palm or forearm placed by the hiker for stability on the ledges or cliffs.  Hikers should be wary to bring water, sunscreen, and a realistic estimate of how far they will make it along the trail during the heat of the day.

This description, though, doesn’t do the hike complete justice.  Admittedly it is not as satisfying as a hike up one of Oman’s wadis where a clear pool or even a waterfall might serve as a reward, but the views from the summit of the trail and the delivery, at the end, into the secret lanes behind the souq is certainly worthwhile.  Where else, for instance, can someone look over Mutrah Harbor with such calm?  Where else can someone see both sides of Oman with such clarity:  the new/urban and the ancient/traditional?  That these two elements coexist so well in Oman is truly a significant feature of the country, one that should be noted as Quite Right and compared to other places, like Dubai, where the new overshadows everything and the heart of the country is no longer its own; or, like Riyadh, where the tension and resistance against modernity is a much more palpable current.

Mutrah Harbor, as seen from Trail C38.

Here, in this photo, one can see quite a lot of Oman: starting in the background, above the mountainous horizon, a glimpse of the Gulf of Oman, which connects the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean; cut into that far hillside, a new project expanding the port facilities leaves a scar of ashen land; below it the white-washed stucco buildings, some of them centuries old, gild the corniche boulevard along Mutrah Harbor; there, behind a layer or two of security and with guard boats around it, Sultan Qaboos’ yacht is often moored (the small cruise-ship on the right-hand side of the bay); even closer, two traditional Omani Dhows, transport and fishing vessels, recall the heydey of Oman’s Indian Ocean trading Empire, which included parts of the African and Iranian and Afghan coasts as well as strong links to India;  then, on the hill in the foreground of the harbor, below the level of the camera, a 16th Century relic of Portugeuse occupation nests above the corniche, medieval and lordly, although again testifying to Oman’s former glory as the Omanis were one of very few examples of successful indigenous resistance to colonialism; then, in the very foreground, the jagged cliffs themselves, empty, barren, dusty and forelorn except where a view like this breaks upon the intrepid hiker!

Middle East Water Issue

I think I’ll tell this Not Quite Right story through pictures, rather than words.  Just a few clarifying details upfront:

1.  This is not your standard Middle East water problem.

2.  No children were harmed in the process of taking these photographs.

3.  Mughsayl Beach is located about 40km southwest of Salalah, Oman, about as near to Yemen as a person can safely venture now days.


My son, Wesley, checking out one of many 'attractions' at the Mughsayl Beach


I join Wesley. We can see down into the hole to a rather frightening depth and can feel a breath of air on our hands.


Ya, Allah! -- a better scare than any ride at Great America!