Saturday, November 29, 2008

Flandrau Planet Viewing

Tonight I joined other amateur astronomers in setting up telescopes outside the Flandrau Science Center for the Venus-Jupiter conjunction. Setting up on the mall in front of Flandrau is always fun because the high volume of foot traffic near the center of campus always draws an interested crowd. Tonight especially there seemed to be lots of kids, and not all were there for the featured speaker - Patrick Woida, scientist from the Phoenix Mars mission was to speak at the Center after some planet viewing. There were easily over a dozen scopes there, including Tucson Amateur Astronomy stalwart John Kalas.

I set up the 7" apochromatic refractor that my friend Roger built a few years back - it is easier to setup than the 14" and gives fine, color-free images. It also has an unusual optical layout (uses 2 mirrors to fold the beam) so it makes people ask about the unusual eyepiece position. Setup before sunset, I had a crowd early on, first looking at easy-to-find Venus, then the Moon before it set, then my favorite, Jupiter. Channel 13 was there doing a live broadcast, but they didn't get down to my edge of the telescope line... We had good crowds, though a brisk breeze made it feel a lot colder than it actually was. Seeing was pretty bad too, though Jupiter's moons, cloudbands, and the partially illuminated disk of Venus was easy for all to see.

Even Melinda made it down for a short time before her shift started at UMC tonight. Here she is shown with Chuck and his ultra portable Pronto. Finally, after a few hours of observing the planets down into the murk, I was able to get people away from the eyepiece long enough to shut down and put away equipment. Chuck, his friend Chunmei and I went out for a beer and sandwich at Barrio Brewery before getting home about 9:30. A nice early end to a pleasant evening of observing.

Be sure to watch the conjunction Sunday and Monday night as the moon moves past Venus and Jupiter!

Best Buy Incident

Ever have a store do the right thing, but leave you feeling guilty? With Electronic City filing for bankruptcy, the local choices for electronics gear is getting thinner. So much so that I braved "Black Friday" crowds at Best Buy yesterday to get a spare battery for my Canon XSi. I knew they sold the camera and unlike department stores, would likely sell batteries and a few accessories too.

Though crowded, there was a young staff person there who quickly ran off to fetch a battery for me (an aisle away from the cameras). I thanked her and asked her how much it was and she responded thirty-something dollars (all I remembered was the "3" in front, which was fine). Then we got in the long line for checkout, which moved quite rapidly, actually. However, after scanning the item 4 times, it evidently was not a recognizable inventory item, and we waited while a manager ran off for a new barcode. When she returned, the register said $54 for the battery. I mentioned to the manager that the staff person said it was less than that so we went on a hunt for that nice young lady who again, repeated for the manager that she had said $39. She was rewarded with a glare from her boss and I was only charged the $39, but hated to think I got someone in trouble. I offered to pay the correct price but was declined.

While I admire the store for only charging me the price I was quoted, I still feel bad that the young lady got "dressed down" for quoting an incorrect price on an obscure inventory item. Since the store is only a mile or so from the house, I'll definitely be spending more there...

Friday, November 28, 2008

Keep Watching The Skies!

Besides the last line from the classic science fiction movie "The Thing" starring James Arness (Yes, the future Matt Dillon of Gunsmoke!) as an intelligent carrot, it is good advice the next couple evenings. As I posted earlier in the month (click here), Jupiter and Venus are in conjunction this weekend and will be joined by the moon on Sunday and Monday evenings.

After our winter storm yesterday, we saw lots of sun today, but as is typical of a passing low pressure area, we also had increased humidity and some intermittent heavy clouds. Being the optimist, I headed west towards Kitt Peak to get in some more observing, but once out there it pretty much socked in with clouds and in fact, the mountaintop sported a cloud cap. Compare tonight's view with the same shot from May, how it is supposed to look! I actually drove through some showers returning to Tucson...

It did clear enough to get a shot of the planet pair before they set into the western slopes of the mountain. Venus, the lower brighter one will pass the upper Jupiter this weekend. With a good pair of binoculars you might spot some of Jupiter's moons nearby it, but it takes a small telescope to show the disk of Venus just over half illuminated. But even the naked eye view is worth a trip out of the house!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Giving Thanks

I've done my share of cooking for the Thanksgiving Holiday and as any of my former guests will tell you, I'm a meat and potatoes sort of guy - no frou-frou recipes for me! I don't even do gravy for goodness sake, so turkey, mashed potatoes, corn, dressing, heated-up buns and you've got yourself a feast. Now dessert you can get a little fancy... It was after Vicki died 5 years ago that I made a cheesecake (from scratch) for friend Nancy's birthday or something. As a result of that "the girls" (Vicki's girlfriends) got me a hand mixer to facilitate more, so now I'm the cheesecake guy. The basic double chocolate cheesecake I can do in my sleep!

So this year buddy (and former cat-sitter) Erica invited us to Thanksgiving to meet family and friends, asking us to bring the chocolate cheesecake (Meredith's from "Joy of Cooking"). I whipped it up Tuesday night so we were able to relax right up till it was time to head to Erica's new house, which we hadn't seen. It is on Tucson's NW side in a quiet neighborhood, which all neighborhoods are on a midweek holiday, for that matter. A beautiful little casita with a big back yard - perfect for her. Got to meet new boyfriend Bill, and re-meet her dad, brother and other friends. Bill got put to work carving the 2 turkeys - I mostly helped by staying out of the way of the bustle of food prep. It was a beautiful feast, lots of the basics I like. I hear the gravy and brandied cranberry was great - but I wouldn't know - frou-frou... While the weather was mostly cloudy, it started raining (most of us were eating outside - Arizona, you know) with a little hail, and most ran for some long sleeves at least as it cooled rapidly. I toughed it out through two servings, then moved into the football room for desert. I had a piece of my cheesecake and a sliver of pumpkin pie, then just about fell asleep while Dallas pummeled Seattle. We finally headed out about 5pm with 2 pieces of cheesecake left and some leftovers for the weekend. Thanks Erica for a job well done!

I rejoice in the fact I have a supportive circle of friends and family that have upheld me through 3 cycles of surgery, the illness and death of a spouse, and the joy of a new love and marriage. I hope you all are equally surrounded by the love of family and friends and that you all realize your blessings on this Thanksgiving Holiday.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A less than sunny start...

Just to prove to the family and friends back in the Midwest that we aren't having perfectly sunny days every day - this is the view as I was coming home from work this morning! Actually, I could see the tops of the mountains, but it was cloudy and spitting some rain while I was driving. In fact, it is chilly this morning! The white topped, tan buildings in the far right background is UMC - where I work. This picture is from the UofA web cam, of course. Just before the cloud dropped in front of the mountains there were bits of sun hitting the top ridges and it was beautiful!

So, when Dean got home last evening he came walking toward the door saying "You've got a problem..." He noticed that the right front tire of my Jeep was flat! It was easy (relatively) to get it off the car and to his "tire guy" to have it repaired - though it was a bit like playing "Beat the Clock". He got home at 4:40pm and the tire place closes at 5pm! That was challenge enough, but there was the little detail of some 100lbs of oak table in the back of the Jeep - over the location of the jack! We pulled the table out of the Jeep so fast, got the tire off, and he made it to the tire place before they closed! He called shortly after that and said, "Did you know that these are the original tires?????" Well, yes, of course I knew that. The tire guy is recommending that I get new tires - and after 75,000 miles I guess I can see his point. I've never had a flat on this car - and in fact it's been years since I've had a flat tire on any car! I guess St. Goodyear has been watching over me all this time. While they couldn't find a cause, it was likely a nail hole - or perhaps a mesquite thorn that was the offending instrument. Fortunately, Dean saw it when he got home - and was (as always) - "My hero!"

We got the table set up last night. It's a little bigger than the old one, and takes up a bit more room. We may opt to keep it without the leaf in it, unless we have company for dinner and need the extra space. We can easily fit 6 people around it with the leaf in. I'm leaving it in for now, until I have a chance to get the top reconditioned. It's easier to get the table top and the leaf the same color and finish if they are lined up when I'm working on them. That's the project for the next couple of days!

I hope everyone reading this today has a wonderful Thanksgiving! Even in these very troubled economic times, we have so much to be thankful for. If you are reading this on a computer (duh), then you either have a job or the means to have access to said computer. That's more than the majority of the population of the world. If you have food on your table, and a roof over your head - again, you have more than the majority of the world. Not to be on a 'soap box' or anything, but if we take 5 minutes to watch the world news - and then look around us - we can see first hand what we have to be thankful for this year. So, I bid you all a very blessed Thanksgiving - and in your Thanksgiving prayer, as your family is gathered for 'the feast' - remember those who are far less fortunate.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

No Pic Tuesday...

Dean is off at work, again, today...and I'm left to 'get into trouble'! Actually, I'm not getting into trouble - just setting up for some work to be done. Yesterday (during my errands) I decided to stop into one of the antique shops that I passed along the way. Dean and I have talked about the need to replace the table in the dining area (the current one is quite old and dated - and not necessarily in a good way). I described to him what I had in mind for the 'new' table, knowing it would take some shopping/browsing/nosing around to find "the one". I found it in the third antique shop that I hit yesterday! Think back and remember the old, round, oak pedestal table that your grandmother, or great aunt had in their dining room or kitchen. My family will immediately think of either Aunt Bert's house, or maybe Aunt Alta's house - and sister Maj has one in her kitchen as I write! I wanted one of those - not perfect, lots of character, but with leaves to accomodate more people when needed. Bingo! I found a great old table, solid oak, with the biggest (widest) leaf I had ever seen (it's a double leaf) - and the price was right where I wanted it to be. I wasn't sure if it would fit in the Jeep so I told them I would pick it up sometime in the next 5 days (when Dean and the van would be available). This morning I decided that it may just fit, if taken apart... And it does! I picked the table up, talked to the people at the shop about the best products to restore the finish (it could used some love), stopped at Ace Hardware to pick up those products, and now need to wait until Dean comes home to help me unload it from the Jeep. We currently only have two chairs that will work well with it, and I'm not opposed to mismatched chairs. That will be another day of searching (I refuse to pay big money, and enjoy going through resale and junque shops to find a treasure). Once we have the table in the house I'll have Dean take a picture to do a before and after shot. I'm hoping to have it in use by the weekend. In the mean time, I've developed a nice rapport with the people at the shop where I bought the table - good to have when looking for other pieces!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Hi Ho..Hi Ho...It's off to work....

For the first time in a while, I saw Dean off to work this morning and I am left at home! He wasn't sure, last evening, if he was working today but they called him this morning. After the past 5 months of him waving me off to work - it seems strange for him to be going!

I have been working the past few nights and haven't been contributing to the blog - other than the Pluto debate from the other day. Work is improving steadily. I am learning lots of new things, and refreshing memories of things I've maybe done once before and now need to do them almost daily! Everyone I've met has been very supportive and encouraging, and that helps a lot. I finally had the opportunity to tour the Labor & Delivery area, as well as the Normal Newborn nursery. So, after a rocky first week of orientation - the second week was improved (additionally, it was pay week so now I have real incentive to work!). I'm still not wild about the concept of 12 hour shifts, but it's nice to get my hours done in three nights so that I have the rest of the week to do what I want. It just takes some getting used to. Fortunately, Dean packs me a sandwich to take with me to work. Yes, I could do it myself but he makes better sandwiches than I do! When I did 8 hour shifts I would snack a lot during the night, but not sit down and eat a sandwich (or meal). I find that with the 12 hour shift I don't snack, but really rely on that break and lunch about 2am. This is all pretty dull stuff to tell about!

Our friend, and matchmaker (she introduced Dean and I), Jane came over for dinner last night! We cooked burgers on the grill, had homemade potato salad, and grilled white asparagus. All was nummy and we had fun visiting! Tonight we are meeting our buddy, Chuck, at one of the new microbrewery's - just south of campus. As luck has it, Jane and friends will be there too! I think we'll be taking over the place! We haven't seen Chuck since the Grand Canyon, in June. It will be good to catch up with him.

Time for me to get busy and do some errands (bank, etc.). Since I don't make coffee here at home, I think that first errand stop will be at the local 'Bux or equivalent!

Sunday, November 23, 2008

State Of The Art - From 1998!

I've been going through some of the photo equipment of David Levine, who's widow Elinor asked me to find a home. One of the interesting pieces was "David's first digital camera", a 10-year-old Sony Mavica MVC-FD91. I haven't a clue when it was last used, but David, ever the organized one, had charger and manual with the camera so I charged up the battery and it works fine!

The camera seems big and clunky, but has a 14X optical zoom, quite a long variation, and it also has what must have been one of the first image stabilization systems. The size of the camera is determined by the media size used, which is a 3.5" floppy. Those in the know realize that they only hold 1.4MB, but the sensor size is a whopping .8MB so with JPEG compression you can get up to 8 "high res" images per disk, and up to 40 for "standard" resolution. David evidently moved on to something else pretty quickly (cameras were evolving rapidly, as now), because the first test exposure I took was #197 (files have an internal number system). Compare that to the 3200 photos I've taken with my XSi since June, and the 9100 with my 20Da in 3 years... The camera also has a reasonable 2.5" screen, though no optical viewfinder - it has a smaller digital display when looking through the eyepiece viewfinder. Though physically larger, it weighs very slightly less than the XSi with a 5X zoom.

So how does it's performance compare to this year's model (the Canon XSi). In 10 years the Sony's .8 megapixels (1024X768 pixels) moved up to the Canon's 12.2 (4272X2848). I would expect a much better image, but where would the separation occur? I took a test image from the same location for both cameras, in the center of the zoom range of each, in program mode (auto exposure), in the finest JPEG setting on each. The results were quite comparable - though the Mavica shot (right)has a little lens flare from shooting up sun, the background is sharper because of the shorter focal length lens' (for the smaller sensor) greater depth of focus. Also, any differences would be impossible to see at this scale, because as a matter of course, I reduce the images on this blog to 1000 pixels wide, effectively reducing the resolution of the full Canon image by about 16 while keeping the full resolution of the Sony Mavica.

So it is not until you zoom in onto a small section of the image that the differences appear. Now you still see down to the limit of the pixels with the Canon (left photo) while you can clearly see fuzziness from lack of pixels of the Mavica sensor. Still, limiting yourself to hand prints, the Mavica would still be a perfectly functional camera, if restricting yourself to daytime shots (longest exposure is 1/60 second). Checking around they are still available for $35-$100. Would I advise getting one - likely not, as the 3.5" floppy readers are not generally available. I had to turn on my desktop for the first time in 6 months to read the images off the camera and the situation will not improve in a few more years! Still, it is fun to use somewhat dated equipment - when was the last time you shot film?!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Clarification in order...

Please be advised. The opinions expressed in the previous post are solely those of that author, and not a reflection of opinions of the blog in general. While it is respected that there are those who mistakenly 'believe' that "Pluto is not a planet"; we respectfully say: "It is SO!!!"

Friday, November 21, 2008

Planet Pluto, Rest In Peace...

Tonight I attended a public lecture - the Marc Aaronson Memorial Lecture given this year by Michael Brown of Cal Tech. The title was a provocative "How I Killed Pluto And Why It Had It Coming".

Marc Aaronson was an astronomer at the University of Arizona who died in 1987 while observing at Kitt Peak National Observatory. While on the staff there, I worked with Marc many times, so it is always poignant to attend the lectures named for him.

Dr. Brown gave a great, entertaining talk. Unfortunately, Melinda was unable to attend as she was working tonight, but she would have enjoyed it. She was strongly in the camp of keeping Pluto a planet, so she pretty much wanted me to make a sign and picket the talk. I suspect she would have been swayed by his arguments...

The gist of the controversy is that Pluto is small, smaller, in fact, than our moon. Unlike the other, much larger planets, it also has an eccentric, inclined orbit, and due to the semi-automated search Michael is conducting, there are now over 1200 "dwarf planets" out in what is known as the "Kuiper Belt" outside Neptune's orbit (Pluto is arrowed in the photo, with it's orbit in blue). It was thought that Pluto was merely the largest of this class of object, but a few years ago, Eris was discovered, which is about 25% larger. There are many others nearly as large as Pluto, so it is obvious that it was only the first discovered Kuiper Belt Object (KPO).

He points out that if all the solar system objects are examined carefully, they can be categorized into 4 groups. They consist of the inner 4 rocky planets (which includes Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars - the upper 4 circles in the photo), the outer gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune - the large 4 circles), the asteroids, mostly falling between Mars and Jupiter (those bigger than 1 pixel at this scale representation are drawn below the red disk of Mars), and the Kuiper Belt Objects outside Neptune (also drawn to scale below the blue disk of Neptune if larger than 1 pixel). Eris and Pluto are so small as to be insignificant in comparison to the 8 major planets. Dr. Brown did a lot better job than my feeble attempt - you should have been there! It was also like a homecoming with all the Tucson Amateur Astronomers there - many whom I had not seen in years. It was a great evening!

Last One!

Just one more picture to show from Tuesday. It needs more work (read: needs more exposure!), but thought I would show it anyway. A couple weeks ago someone on an astrophoto list showed an incredible shot of Taurus near the Pleiades (will show it if I can get close to his effort). What is interesting to me is that, for an area far from the Milky Way center, there is an abundance of dark clouds. To me, these clouds of dust and unilluminated gas are fun to hunt down, visible only because they block the light of more distant clouds of stars. Some of them are readily visible through a telescope when they lie in front of bright Milky Way star clouds. The dark clouds in this exposure (over-stretched a bit to show them better) I was not aware of... This effort is a stack of 18 minutes total exposure with an 85mm lens stopped down to F/4. I need to go a little wider to still keep the Pleiades in the shot, and I'd also catch the California Nebula just off the field to the north. So will likely drop the focal length to 50mm next time with a couple HOURS of exposure!

What is also interesting, while shooting this one stopped down a little, is that the 6-bladed iris gives a pretty diffraction effect around the brighter stars of the cluster. Sometimes called the 7 Sisters, the Pleiades (known in Japan as Subaru!) has hundreds of stars, but with good vision and a reasonable sky, you can see about 7 of them, rising as a small cloud in the east in the early evening this time of year. More later as I collect more photons!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Lens Test From Tuesday Night

I finally had a chance to look at some images from Tuesday. We got out to the base of Kitt Peak late, so rather than set up a telescope in the dark, I took some images with a "new" lens - actually a 24mm F/2.8 from David Levine's estate for which his wife Elinor wanted me to find a good home. Interestingly, we had duplicates of several of the Nikon lenses (fits on new Canon digital cameras with an adaptor), but I'm still looking for a fast wide angle lens, the 24mm having a moderately wide field.

With a pretty significant glow to the east (Tucson and the new Border Patrol stop a few miles away), I shot west, of which most interesting was the constellation Cygnus the swan. Cygnus carries a bright section of the Summer Milky Way galaxy and contains a multitude of telescopic objects, but the wide field view is striking too. Of course, with a wide field, you can't enlarge it a huge amount to show telescopic objects. Realize that even with the lens wide open at F/2.8, the effective aperture of the 24mm focal length lens is only about 1/3 of an inch diameter or 8mm, so it is a pretty small telescope - only slightly larger than a fully dilated naked eye. This image is a stack of 10 exposures, about 45 minutes total exposure which were added together.

But even with the lack of detail in the full image, it is fun to scroll thru the image and look for things that stand out. Seen immediately as I was "stacking" the exposures in the software, there was a extremely red star (near the top center edge) a few degrees north of Deneb(near the center of this exposure), the brightest star in the constellation. I was unaware of the "new" star, but when I pulled out my star maps, it was a well-known red carbon star called V Cygni (red star colors generally indicate very cool temperatures for stars, about 3,000F for carbon stars, the sun being about 5,800F). Also in this exposure is a very photogenic nebula called the North American Nebula because of it's familiar shape. It is a cloud of flourescing gas, mostly hydrogen, whose shape is also partially defined by dark clouds as well.

This other exposure is from near the very bottom of the full frame - is shows the bloating of the stars from optical defects at the edge of the wide field. Even so, at the left center edge, you can see the bluish green glow of the Dumbell Nebula (named for it's shape in a telescope, not it's discoverer!), and at the lower right, you can see the upside-down asterism of "the Coathanger" (Brocchi's Cluster).

I don't know if I'll keep the lens - many of these older lenses were designed for film and was likely considered a good performer, but the new digital sensors have stricter resolution requirements, so these errors start to show up. I've got a great performer in the Canon 10-22 zoom, but is pretty slow for astronomy at F/4.5 wide open, so more tests are needed. Gimme some more dark sky!

End of an Era!

Last night was the last meeting of the Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association (TAAA) volunteers who help collate, fold and label the monthly newsletter. This started something like 18 years ago just before I became TAAA president. At that time we had about 150 members, but were growing fast and with newsletter exchanges with other clubs and complementary issues to others, were printing about 300. Lately that number has grown to over 500 (more members!), though in recent years the printers collate the issues for us - we just fold and label, a task that still takes about 90 minutes for a crew of 8 or so.

So this is the last paper issue for mass mailing - we are going electronic! Members will be able to get the newsletter on line at the TAAA website and save mailing costs for the club. If they want to read it off paper they can print out their own and in color too!

We had a great set of volunteers too - a facet of the club that not many know about. Back in the early days, David and Elinor Levine would make the round trip from Green Valley to help out every month. It takes some special people to be there to help month after month, and thankfully we've had a good set of friends to make the task easier. Of course, there was a little reward - afterwards we would almost always go to a local eating establishment for socializing over dinner and adult beverages. Last night we celebrated the end of an era at Old Chicago on the way home. Melinda got to enjoy her first and last newsletter folding - she moved to Tucson just in time! Present in these pictures are Terresa Lappin, Gary Rosenbaum, John and Liz Kalas, Ellen Finney, Thom and Twila Peck and Dean and Melinda Ketelsen. Thanks all - past and present!

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

I Thought Space Was Supposed To Be Empty!

We finally got out of town to see some real stars last night, but for various reasons we didn't get out of Tucson until nearly sunset (afternoon doctor's appt, massive rush hour traffic with massive interstate construction, inability to buy gas from Circle K at the pump). So we missed the pretty good pass of the space station nearly overhead, and instead of getting to a higher elevation, we set up at the base of Kitt Peak National Observatory, just off the main road. I took a number of images comparing my "new" (from June, but first time under a dark sky) Canon XSi to the now 3 year old Canon 20Da. One thing I'll tell you - using the 3" screen of the former compared to the 1.6" screen of the later just about brings tears to your eyes! Four times the area makes like a picture window in comparison!

Anyway, I am just getting those images downloaded, but one interesting sequence I took as we were shutting down was almost a "throwaway" shot. As we disassembled gear, I put the XSi on a tripod and shot at about 55 degrees off the southern horizon. From our latitude that is where the geosynchronous satellites hang out and sure enough, they were easily visible. No tracking to follow the stars, so the stars are horizontal streaks in these shots.

Arthur C. Clarke came up with the idea back in the '40s to have a satellite with an orbital period of 24 hours. As seen from the earth, the point of light (when visible) would not appear to move, but be stationary in the sky. This point is about 22,000 miles off the earths surface, and that orbit is now FULL of communications, weather, and TV satellites. Although I couldn't see any last night (they sometimes can be visible to the naked eye), they show up easily with these 4 minute exposures (with 85mm lens at F/4, so about 20 degree field). The geostationary satellites show up as points of light - they truly are fixed with respect to my tripod firmly on the ground. What might be even more interesting is that there is other detritus consisting of rocket boosters and non-operational satellites that are moved out of this magic orbit, but they are still geosynchronous, but have up-down movement through this orbital plane. These objects show up as up-down trails in the images. I counted 19 geostationaries and 14 geosynchronous in the full image - so a lot of hardware out there. Of course, the modern world would be a different place without these, from our phone calls to Internet to cable and broadcast TV all use them.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

At long last.....

Tonight's the night! Dean and I are planning on going observing (I think at Kitt Peak) tonight! This will be the first time out since we've been back - the first time we've gone observing in a very long time! I bought my telescope (my very first one - similar to the one in the picture) a couple of years ago in Cottonwood, Arizona. Since that time I've only gotten to use it a few times. The weather in Illinois isn't always very cooperative, and combine that with my work schedule - maybe I've gotten to use it a half dozen times. I'm looking forward to the opportunity to really get to use it - looking at a winter sky (without freezing to death) - under the best conditions available! There is the vague threat of some clouds tonight, hopefully they will dissipate with the dry air and not be a real threat. Living in Illinois most of my life I've never gotten to see the Orion Nebula through a telescope - as well as many of the other 'usual' winter objects. The hospital gave us a star "named after us" as a going away gift - and we may even be able to find that, as it appears to be of a great enough magnitude to be able to find it! Maybe we'll have some pretty pictures to post tomorrow, from tonight's efforts!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Shout out to Aunt Maj!

Since Dean mentioned my two cats yesterday (and the keeping them in the yard issue) I spoke to my sister, Maj, last night. She is very partial to Annie and Atticus (maybe Annie a little more than Atty?). She was very concerned about them getting out, and even offered that if it was a problem that maybe they should come live with her in Illinois! A very generous offer, to say the least! She and her husband have two cats - Nicky and Bart (aka: the aircraft carrier, he's so huge!) and a Golden puppy, Jack. Two more cats in the mix would really round out the daily excitement there! So, to reassure Aunt Maj that her sweet little Annie and Atticus are healthy and having a great time, here are two pictures I took in the past few days! Atticus will follow Annie around and do anything she does, so if she's enjoying being outside - then he's happy to be out. Annie does watch out for Atty, to an extent. When he was outside the fence she hovered near the area where he was until he came in. They both seemed a little vexed by having the cat proof fence up last night - but they're happy and fine in the yard! So, Aunt Maj, this one's for you! Annie and Atty both send their love!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Herding Cats

We've been back in Tucson for 2 weeks tomorrow and our kids (the 7 kitties) have been doing extremely well in fitting in. We had Melinda's two (Atticus and Annie) in solitary for about 2 days before mixing them with the home team. There was a little hissing, but mostly defensive hissing from the new cats. Mostly the Tucson cats treat them with detached indifference...

More interesting to me was how the 2 Tucson cats we brought to Illinois (Marley and Sugarpants) fit back into the hierarchy. After being gone for 4 months, it was as if they had never left! They ate at their same favorite spots, they still hung out with the cats they used to - I was really surprised. So much for cats only having short-term memory!

While we agree with the principles of keeping cats indoors, we allow them into the back yard. Years ago, Vicki and I lost 2 of our beloved cats to a roaming chow mix that was allowed to roam the neighborhood unchained. As a result of that, we built a "cat-proof" fence. Only one of our athletes was able to escape, and she stayed close to the house, so we didn't worry too much. But last spring my neighbor and I replaced the rickety wooden fence along our property line with a cinder block wall, and several of the cats were able to get out. The last straw was when Melinda's cats, who had never been outside before, were seen in the front yard.

So today after a Sunday movie (Rachel Getting Married), we made a Home Depot run and got supplies to refurbish the cat penitentiary. We made brackets that held small fence posts, angled in holding chicken wire. The theory is that a jumping cat would grab the fence, it would sag under their weight, and they would drop back to the ground. I still have a cat, that in his younger days would jump up and grab the fence and climb hand over hand (paw over paw?) to the edge where he would lift himself over the chicken wire to freedom (until I put up an electrified wire just for him). So for the moment, until they find the weak spots, they are all in and safe.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Enjoying the Sunset

Yet another beautiful day here in Tucson, high in the low 80s again. But it was chilly enough after sunset that we built a little fire in the patio chiminea ( a vertical clay fireplace). We have a small supply of dead mesquite branches and sticks that keep us stocked for the occasional fire. In the deepening twilight Venus and Jupiter popped out early, and as it got dark, the asterism of the Teapot was obvious near the horizon. Part of the constellation Sagittarius, the Teapot's 8 stars form a near perfect outline.

From tonight's photo (click to enlarge - a 15 second exposure, F/5 @about 25mm focal length), Venus is the bright object to the right, Jupiter the brightest object near the top. The brightest star upper left of Venus is the top of the teapot lid, the 4 stars just above the photo center the handle. The 3 stars near the bottom form the spout. Put them all together and you have a Teapot! The shape, or even the stars may not be so easy to spot from more northerly latitudes, but if you get a clear night, you should go out and keep an eye out on Jupiter and Venus in the southwest. They will continue to get closer day by day and will be in conjunction (closest together) in about 2 weeks. Of course, they are not really close together in the solar system, only from the Earth's point of view. Venus is somewhat less than 100 million miles from us and Jupiter is near the far point of it's orbit over 500 million miles away. Keep an eye out!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

She's working him to death....!

I think Dean is glad to see me going off to work for a couple of nights! Since we took Tuesday to go for a relaxing drive in the country, that meant we had to work around the house on Wednesday and Thursday.

Yesterday we tackled the entertainment center! It was badly in need of dusting, and 'weeding' things out. We spent 4 or 5 hours on that - removing each thing (CD, DVD, VHS tape, book, knick-knack) and wiping it down before deciding where to put it. My sister, Maj, would be proud! All in all, it's more organized now and Dean was able to part with things that needed to be parted with.

Today I started with cleaning in one area of the kitchen, to move the cabinet that holds the microwave. We did get that done, as well as cleaning out some of the cupboards and again,
'weeding out' things that he no longer uses, had duplicates of, or just didn't want anymore.

I know that Dean would have rather been doing something fun, and I'm proud of him for sticking with it today! We've made a big dent in what needs to be done here! Sorry, no pictures to go with these posts - we were just too busy to do pictures of the jobs!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Day Trip Past The Center Of The Universe!

With today's Veteran's Day holiday, Melinda and I put off any more cleaning and organizing around the house and decided to do a road trip. She has made so many trips to the area, it is getting hard to take her someplace new, so I took her on a loop towards the SW from Tucson, south of Three Points past the Baboquivari Mountains, east past Arivaca, then back north to Tucson. This is a really nice trip, only about 125 miles long through some really nice, scenic countryside.

We paused at the convenience store in Three Points and got some sandwiches and snacks for lunch. We also stopped at a few of my favorite observing sites, as well as some spots the astronomy club had considered acquiring over the last couple decades. Before we lost sight of it, we paused to shoot a picture of Kitt Peak National Observatory. Usually seen from Tucson, this viewpoint from the SSE shows the Solar Telescope Complex near the large 4-meter, considerably different that the view from the NE.

Baboquivari is one of the more unique mountains in the Southwest. Geologically, my understanding is that it is the remnant lava plug from an ancient eroded volcano. Culturally, it is considered the center of the universe by the local Native Americans, the Tohono O'odham, and the home of their creator I'itoi. Back a couple decades ago when I was working on Kitt Peak, 15 miles to the north, it was a constant siren call to visit, and back in those studlier days, I made it to the summit 3 or 4 times, and hiked on it's flanks a half dozen times more. While not particularly tall (a little under 8,000 feet) it's unique profile makes quite the landmark from nearly 100 miles distance. No wonder the O'odham consider it the center of their world.

I thought we would explore up the access road some - a 4 wheel drive is not necessarily needed for the first half dozen miles, and Melinda's Jeep had never been off-road, so it was time to show it a little off-pavement touring. I told her that we would turn around before the road got narrow enough that the tree branches would scratch the paint, but by the time we got to the second gate, I could tell Melinda was ready to turn 'round, even if the Jeep wasn't. So we stopped for our lunch as a Pinacate Beetle made Melinda nervous...

The trip back to civilization was uneventful. There wasn't much open in Arivaca, though we stopped at one point to shoot another observatory - the Multiple Mirror Telescope on Mount Hopkins silhouetted against the higher peak of Mount Wrightson. At Arivaca Junction near the I-19 return to Tucson, we considered an early dinner stop at the Cow Palace or the Longhorn Grill (across the street from each other), but decided to push on for home and save the local cuisine for another time. It was a fun trip though, it had been too long for me since visiting that area!

Veteran's Day

Happy Veteran's Day to all of the Vet's out there!

Well, yesterday was my first day at UMC. I got lost every where I went, the computer classes were endless, and I'm not sure they knew what to do with me (or the other person on orientation with me) for sure. I did get my orientation schedule, which is less than ideal (the next 4 weekends, 12 hour shifts, 3 nights in a row) - and all in all, I resisted the urge to quit. I've never been a quitter, and I'm not starting now! They have a lot of new equipment (though a lot I'm familiar with), but that doesn't scare me. I did get to snoop through cupboards and see where they keep their supplies, etc. Always good to know when looking for a pacifier or more diapers. The differences between my old department and my new one are interesting. Things that they allow (which weren't allowed in Illinois), and things that they don't allow. In some ways they are 'strict' about some things - and very lax about others - the same as very up to date about some things, but behind the curve on others. I got to peek in on all of the babies, though. Such sweet little souls! So, while I was somewhat discouraged (and very vocal about it, as Dean will attest) when I got home yesterday - I know it will get better. I will be on night shift for the rest of my orientation. Fire up the coffee pot!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Last Day of Freedom!

Both Melinda and I return to work tomorrow (Monday), though the Mirror Lab has yet to finish the paperwork for my return. But there is an opportunity to do an inspection of an issue with a mirror there, so I'll at least make an appearance.

After some chores around the house this morning, we did a movie with our Sunday movie buddies Nancy and Kris. We saw Clint Eastwood's latest directorial effort "The Changeling". We both liked it, but weren't excessively moved... Afterwards we went shopping for Melinda's work scrubs and found one place on the NW side to pick out a few changes of clothes.

Then we met Tom and Jennifer Polakis who brought fellow astronomer Chris Hanrahan down for his first Tucson visit. They were in town for an open house at Lunt Solar Systems, a telescope manufacturer here in Tucson for observing the sun. I've known the Polakis' for well over a decade and a Mirror Lab tour is standard procedure.We met them late in the afternoon - my ID card still got into the lab, so told them what I knew of the goings on there. And of course, it is also a tradition to include a trip to Zachary's pizza! Tom has an 8mm fisheye for the Canon cameras, and it was fun to try a couple shots. Jennifer and Tom gave us the greatest wedding gift - they made a donation to the church camp (whose grounds we live on) to sponsor a kid to attend for a week - so thoughtfull!

Saturday, November 8, 2008

No pics today!

Whew! We had a busy day today! We were up fairly early, for us, and I got busy cleaning stuff (kitty fountain was the first on the list). Yesterday we had gotten some new things for our bathroom (shower curtain, rugs, towels, etc.). While we had put up the new shower curtain, etc., we really needed to get in there and do a thorough cleaning - which was my second project for today. Included in that task was removing the old caulk and putting in new. I love caulk, but I hate messing with it. Since some of the cleaning was done while I had the caulk removed, once the new stuff is dried I will spend some time doing another (but less intense) cleaning of the tile. Like the Fox Valley area, Tucson water is full of minerals. CLR is my chemical of choice, and it never fails to work!

Dean helped with the cleaning, of course, as well as hanging a new towel rack in the bathroom and cleaning out the medicine cabinets. I should have been so industrious in St. Charles! He also made a batch of his "kick butt chili" today! It's great!!! We had some for dinner, before going to watch the U of A women's volleyball team play Stanford. The chili was great, the volleyball game was fun in spite of the Wildcats loss. After the game we both had a taste for ice cream and headed for "Cold Stone Creamery" before coming home.

It's been a full day! Tomorrow we will go shopping to get scrubs for me, for work. We also have made plans to go to the movies with our friends Nancy and Chris. We haven't gotten to see them since we've returned to Tucson, so it will be fun to meet up with them!

Friday, November 7, 2008

Tucson Vistas

For the benefit of our followers that have not spent time in the Tucson area, I'll show a few of the items Melinda and I saw today. While driving around on some errands, I took her the "long way" to show her a few vistas and better acquaint her with some of the roads around here.

According to the evening weather, today was exactly average - a beauty of a day, not a cloud in the sky, high temperature of 75 degrees. Many have asked why the evening news wastes 5 minutes on the weather when it is pretty much the same every day. In the desert southwest we really are cut off from the weather systems that effect most of the rest of the country, resulting in dry, clear weather most of the time. But at various times of the year, we can get weather disruptions from 3 different directions - warm wet weather from the SW through the fall and winter, cold winter storms from the NW and the bulk of our wetness from our monsoonal flow from the SE in summer. Our weather can be boring for weeks at a time, but it can get exciting too!

Anyway, I'm getting distracted here - we were driving up in the foothills of the Catalina mountains on the north side of Tucson. The image here is looking up Pima Canyon, a popular hiking area, the first part of which goes through private land because of development. Easily seen is how numerous the saguaro cacti are in the area. While they survive nearly throughout the SW half of the state, they thrive in the Tucson area. Two expanses of land on the eastern and western edges of Tucson define Saguaro National Park.

The cacti are amazing creations, yet it is a wonder they exist at all. If the temperature stays below freezing too long, they die. If it rains too much, they die. Hundreds per year are killed by lightning strikes. These simple variables defines where they can survive. The vertical accordion-type grooves expand and contract with wet or dry spells of weather, and while they do not store water like a tank, a reasonably sized saguaro 30 feet high can weigh several tons. And while the plants are well protected by spines, several species of birds nest in the interiors and many animals depend on the plants for nectar and feed on the fruit, including Native Americans. I'm sure we'll return to post on these again.