Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ketelsen West remodel....continued!

Now that we've all recovered from viewing the pictures of my colon (I can't believe I agreed to Dean posting those - the power of sedation, no doubt!)! I'm hoping we didn't lose any of our regular readers, as well as those who stop by to see what we're up to recently!

After many days of prep work, we started the painting portion of the Tucson redo today! I started with a partially peeling popcorn ceiling, that I removed. After letting the ceiling (bare drywall, mostly) dry we were able to startthe repair work. Every little scuff, nail hole, and crack needed to be filled. We had the old thermostat on the wall which I removed, and the subsequent hole to repair. Years of wear and tear can be brutal to drywall. It just takes time and patience to fix those areas and get a nice smooth surface. After sanding all of the spackle and drywall mud the other day, I did more repairs and finished sanding those areas this morning when I got home from work. Before putting finish coats of paint on ceilings or walls that have been patched, it's really necessary to put on a good coat of primer. That's even more true when painting a ceiling that was mostly bare drywall. Without primer the finish coat just soaks in, and you end up using way more paint than you really need to. So, today was "Primer Saturday"! Our housemate, Jason (a student who lives with us and takes care of the house and the cats when we are not available), was ready to start painting at 8:30am! He did the ceiling, Dean did all of the 'cut work' (painting around the edges, painting around the trim, brushing where the rollers weren't going to work), and I started on the walls. With in a couple of hours we had primed the hallways (walls and ceilings)! That was my goal for the day, as I worked last night and knew I would have to get some sleep. It's really exciting to see the transition to smooth white walls! If they had put 1 ounce less of paint in that gallon of primer, we would have run out - as it was, we used one entire gallon and got a great base to now be able to move onto the next phase. While we could have, probably, knocked out the rest of the painting this evening; it can wait another day or so.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Patient Is Resting Comfortably...

There is nothing like a "medical procedure" to dampen your spirits. In fact, if it were not for stand up comics and the "late night" comedians treatments of colonoscopies and root canals, we would likely have fewer cancer deaths and healthier mouths. I've had both procedures and found their reputations a LOT worse than the actual event. But there was little that I could say to Melinda to reassure her when her most recent doctor visit resulted in an order for a colonoscopy. Particularly since her Mom died of colon cancer and as she was on the uphill side of 42 (I'm a good husband), it was time, and I did my best to tell her it was no big thing.

So it was scheduled for this morning... Likely the second hardest thing for her (and for the next time I get one), is that we are on the blood thinner Coumadin, which we cannot have in our systems during the exam in case they need to remove a polyp. So she had to switch to a different, injectable drug to counteract the formation of blood clots, and the abdominal injections are a lot worse than the oral pills we are both used to. And in my opinion, the worse part of the entire procedure is drinking the gallon of "cleanser" to empty you out. Following doctor's suggestions, she added lemonade flavoring and chilled it to make it easier to drink, but with that volume of icy cold beverage (2 half-gallon volumes a few hours apart), she got the shakes from hypothermia!

She didn't have much to say on the drive in this morning, and once hooked up to the IV with the requisite open-in-the-back hospital gown, I asked her if she was going to watch it on the TV, which was my favorite part of my colonoscopy 3 years ago. No, she wanted to be out, out, out and wanted no part of it... The doctor came by about then and assured her she would get the amount of drugs she needed, no more. Finally, it was time - I was told to be back in a half hour, which was barely enough time to walk to the cafeteria, have a bagel and give up on the Thursday crossword puzzle. Sure enough, 40 minutes after they wheeled her out of her cubical, I was back talking to her. Yes, she had seen some of it on TV, and while there was some discomfort, the prep was by far the worst part of the ordeal. The exam went great - only a small polyp where they took a biopsy, I don't believe they even removed it. There was also a spot of diverticulosis that was imaged for future monitoring. After a half hour in recovery, they wheeled her out to the parking lot and we enjoyed a late breakfast at Village Inn (she hadn't eaten solid food in 48 hours). She is now sleeping off the remnant anesthesia, and catching up on the sleep she missed last night.

The funniest part - as we were waiting for transport to push her wheelchair out the door, we examined a closet full of lengths of black tubes, about a centimeter in diameter and .5 to 1.5 meters (20 inches to 60 inches) long. I could see her look at them and she finally asked - "what do you suppose they are?" "How do you think they took those pretty pictures of your insides", was my reply. Her eyes got wide as she realized they were the endoscopes used - "Man, they could take out your tonsils with those!"

So that's today's story - be sure to get your colonoscopy if you are due! It is the easiest cancer to prevent with early detection, so do not put it off!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Wednesday Morning's Comet Lulin

While I'm not a morning person, I do suffer from a bit of insomnia and sometimes have a hard time getting back to sleep after a 4am bathroom visit. But these days it may be a good thing as comet 2007N3 Lulin is in prime observing position then.

Since my only shot of it was with a normal lens last Friday, was time to get it in a darker sky. Interestingly, we've been getting lots of hits as word of Lulin gets out - google has pointed lots of people to the blog wanting to see comet pictures. Unfortunately, this will not be a spectacular apparition, but will be brighter than your average comet, as it should attain naked eye visibility (barely!) in a month or so.

So this morning at 5am, I set up my little tracking mount and shot the comet with a 200mm lens (Canon XSi w/Canon 80-200 zoom at F/3.2 - stack of 10 -30 second exposures). Even with Tucson's sky glow and the high clouds that blew through, I didn't have to use imagination that I saw it in binoculars, it was definitely there, but still small and fuzzy. It was readily apparent in the camera display, but with only the 8" focal length, no details like those showing up at's gallery. With good weather in the forecast, I will need to head out towards the weekend with the 14" Celestron... Fortunately, though currently almost 100 million miles away, in 4 weeks it will be a mere 40 million miles, thus will appear about 2.5 times bigger and at least that much brighter. For those of you who want to try finding it in binoculars to the upper right of Scorpius the next few mornings, check out the Sky and Telescope article. Good hunting!

Monday, January 26, 2009

Pardon our dust....

While Dean has been doing most of the posting lately, I have been "getting ready" for my upcoming entry! Dean alluded to the home improvement project underway here, and that will be further illustrated very soon. To give you an idea of what we're doing it goes something like this:
1. Remove popcorn from ceilings in entry and long hallway.
2. Clean up mess from removing popcorn (why do they put that stuff up???)
3. Wash walls and trim.
4. Spackle, spackle, and then more spackle.
5. Drywall mud - the ceiling where the drywall paper came off, and any cracks and divots in the walls.
6. Sand the ceilings and walls where needed...and clean up the mess after.
7. Fix any spots you find that you didn't fix before.
8. Sand those spots when dry.
9. Put a coat of primer over walls and ceilings.
10. Paint the ceiling white.
11. Paint the walls 'Pale Butter'.
12. Paint the trim 'Ultra White'.
13. Remove old light fixtures and donate to the local thrift store.
14. Install new track lighting to form a gallery appearance.
15. Choose artwork/photographs for the new gallery.
16. Frame and hang artwork.
17. Go out for a beer.

We are currently between step 7 and 8 - so we're just about ready to start with the primer! Yea! Remodeling/redecorating is never easy. It's always more work than you thought it would be, more expensive than you projected it to be, and takes twice as long as any TV show will illustrate. The pay off is still the best part - knowing that you did it yourself, you did it right, and are happy with the results!

So, while there are no pictures for my entry today - there will be pictures coming very soon!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

More Weekend Observing

While Melinda has chosen a home-improvement project that she will post about soon, with the new moon and what seems like a week's worth of rain and clouds, I went out observing last night (Saturday). I didn't really have a program - if I got really ambitious, I was thinking of taking a nap and staying for morning comet Lulin, but it was not to be...

For no particular reason, I went out to where the astronomy club has observed for decades - Empire Ranch. It is about a 50 mile drive SE of Tucson and has a reasonable sky except back to the NW towards Tucson. We set up on an old airstrip, mostly overgrown with weeds now. This weekend, the site was shared with some "dog trials" people - there were about 7 big RVs, a few horses and LOTS of hunting dogs that we could hear yipping a good part of the early evening. No big campfires or other lights, though, so good for that.

I parked next to 2 other cars that were setting up for visual observing, and as the sun set, quickly set up for some flats with the 14" Celestron, Hyperstar and the Canon 20Da. These "twilight sky flats" help correct for uneven illumination in the detector and make the results look better. I merely propped up the scope in the case, and once those reference frames were taken, took a more leisurely approach to setting up the gear. Once set up, I chose my first object - one of my favorite photographic fields north of the center belt star of Orion - Alnilam. The reflection nebula IC 426 and others make an interesting shot, though I've never seen them visually. I quickly framed the field, making sure to keep the bright stars out of the frame, found a guide star and started a series of 2 minute exposures. Nothing unusual as I took about 30 minutes worth of exposure, then moved to the next field. As I climbed to the camera to frame the field, I noticed the corrector was dewing rapidly! With even the small amounts of rain we've had recently, the clear skies dropped the temps below the dew point and I was already done imaging for the night. Dew is so seldom an issue in Arizona that almost no one I know has any anti-dew devices (a lot more common in the Midwest and elsewhere). The shot shows the C-14 with the Hyperstar setup on a different observing trip. The camera sits up in front and makes the telescope an equivalent 660mm lens at F/1.9! At that speed, only short exposures are needed - 2 minutes is my standard at ISO 800.

Before leaving, I visited my neighboring astronomers - Bob and Joe were cruising galaxies in Eridanus, and with their Dobsonians, hadn't been affected by dew. I asked them if they had seen Comet 144P/Kushida, and they hadn't. I looked up the position and we got to see it through Bob's 15" - a really nice view. I took off and was home by 11pm - nearly a record for me!

So I only got one shot, but it came out pretty nice - IC 426 is right in the middle - there is an arc of similar reflection nebulae with small DG71 on the far left, and IC 424 and IC 423 on the right, top to bottom. If you look closely, besides seeing some guiding errors, there are a couple faint galaxies down towards 7 o'clock from IC 426. They are likely very distant, perhaps hundreds of millions of light years distant. In all a nice night, though it would have been nice to get a couple more objects in... I've been waiting for clouds to clear to image Lulin again, and another system is due in a day or two - cross your fingers!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Harvey Milk

When Melinda and I started this blog last summer, I made up a set of personal rules that I try to follow. In an effort not to alienate anyone, a big one for me was not to blog about politics, even through the heart of the election season just past. My friends and relatives likely know I'm liberal, and generally they are all conservative. But we get along fine because I don't argue politics, or for that matter, religion, gun control, abortion rights, or gay rights. I don't preach my opinion because everyone is entitled to their own. I will clarify a misconception someone may have about something I know, and I try to be well-read on current events, but generally, I don't campaign for causes.

Today, with the Oscar buzz surrounding the new movie Milk, we caught a matinee. I've actually tried to see it twice, but for interesting reasons, this was the one that worked out... Anyway, I've been a bit of a Sean Penn fan - I've enjoyed many of his movies since he played Spicoli on "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" way back in '82. Here, he portrays Harvey Milk, America's first openly-gay man elected to public office.

The fact that the movie is about a gay character may keep some of you away but it shouldn't. Likely you know a homosexual. I've got gay friends and an acquaintance of mine died of AIDS in the early '80s. You cannot reject a portion of the population that may include 10% of us or more.

There have been many recent biographic movies that have been lauded with Academy Awards lately - the Ray Charles and Johnny Cash biopics come to mind immediately. But here in Milk is a life to be celebrated! Some of my memories of the '70s are fuzzy, particularly the narrative of current events of that age, and I don't recall ever seeing Harvey Milk on TV, though I do recall the gay rights battle with Anita Bryant and Milk's shooting along with San Fransisco Mayor Moscone in 1978. In this movie Penn portrays him as an ordinary man being at the right place at the right time to step up not only for gay rights, but for Blacks, Latinos, teachers and union workers. The performance is spectacular and as you can see from our movie reviews, it was the only movie that we both gave a "10" (Melinda didn't get to see "Bolt 3D", and I'm a stereo nut). We both agree that if Penn doesn't get the Best Actor Oscar, the AMPAS has lost all credibility! Please see it if you can - you may not be liberal or approve of the gay lifestyle, but if you enjoy movies and are interested in groundbreaking American stories, go see this movie!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

LSST Mirror Move

Yesterday we moved the primary mirror for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)from the casting lab to polishing in preparation of starting optical work. While the total distance moved was less than 200 feet, it was the successful completion of a major milestone in the project, and was a carefully choreographed process than took 10 people the better part of a day!

When last blogging about LSST a week ago, we were just starting plugging the backplate holes to seal out generating coolant and subsequent grinding and polishing slurry. With that process complete, it was time to head over and prepare for diamond generating of the backplate. The photo shows the blue-tinted silicon mold material that seals well enough to keep liquids out of the mirror substrate, but will come out cleanly when it is time to remove the plugs. We need to remove something like .25" of the backplate to get the thickness we need, so there is plenty of bevel on the backplate holes to leave some for grinding and polishing and also in the final surface.

The red handling ring, which is perhaps better illustrated in a previous post, has been holding the support structure (called the spider) whose 54 supports, in turn are fastened to the mirror substrate's faceplate with a silicone bathtub caulk. It held the mirror vertical for the mold washout, and will now hold the mirror for backplate fabrication. When the back of the mirror is complete, the telescope interface loadspreaders will be glued to the backplate and the 54 supports will be removed once the mirror is flipped over and it is installed in the polishing cell.

Today's task was to transfer the mirror and spider to the air cart (used to move mirrors and cells around the lab), and remove them from the handling ring. It seems incongruous to use 45 ton cranes, steel-toed shoes, hardhats and air wrenches around an optics shop, but when handling loads like this (mirror plus spider plus handling ring was just over 42 tons!) you get used to ALL the tools you need to get the job done. The task was mostly uneventful, but there were some hardware changes that required a quick run to the machine shop for some mods (this spider is new and had some slight differences from that used by our other 8.4 meter spider).

So after the mods were done, the spider was centered and set down on the air cart, then the handling ring was detached, lifted and moved away from the now naked-looking LSST substrate. The last image demonstrates that a single person can move 30 ton loads around the lab using the air cart. It's 4 pads can lift incredible loads using air pressure, and the little yellow tractor provides the power and steering for maneuvering around the lab. It is like using a little red wagon to move loads around the back yard!

The next tasks are to install the plumbing troughs, move onto the Large Optical Generator, center and level the substrate to the turntable, and do the thousand little things that need doing before putting diamond wheel to glass. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cute Kitties

We are demonstrating blogging to a friend of ours, so are going to do a short post about our cute kitties. I came home late this afternoon, fortunately with my camera, and caught Sugarpants outside the "cat proof fence"! Even when our cats get out they know better than to stray very far, and the reason we try to keep them in is for their own safety. But anyway, he was looking very serene and regal and relaxed, but definitely outside the zone where he was allowed! It wasn't long and he came in the rear of the house, so he was home in time for dinner...

Today, one of Melinda's accomplishments was to replace the carpet remnant that was in our living room. About the time I got home, she had just rolled it up and placed it out the back door, and it wasn't 5 minutes later when Annie had crawled down the full length of it and appeared with just her head and shoulders sticking out! What a pretty girl! You can tell we dote on our cats, right?

Monday, January 19, 2009

A Busy Weekend!

We had a busy weekend - hardly time to sit down, it seems! It started Friday night when Melinda, our matchmaker friend Jane and I headed out of town for a few hours to get under a dark sky for some observing. We had both Melinda's go-to Celestron 5" and Jane's 6" Dob-Newt that I made for her and her son about 10 years ago. I took a few pictures that mostly ran unattended while tooling around the sky - just used an old (old meaning about 2 decades old) Byers Cam-Trak mount with camera and telephoto lenses - nice and easy to setup and use. We got back early by my book - dropped Jane off at home by about 10:30. The picture here is from 2 nights of exposure - 2 hours total, a record for me. It is of dust clouds in Taurus, just east of the Pleiades star cluster. Taken with a 135mm telephoto lens and 20 6 minute exposures with the 20Da. I really like seeing the combination of dark clouds that are in places faintly illuminated.

On Saturday, we hit an early matinee of "Slumdog Millionaire" again with Jane and movie buddy Kris. It was very good and entirely suitably deserving of the Golden Globe award for Best Picture. After that, as Melinda prepared for getting in a nap before starting her graveyard shift workweek, I collected astro gear and went out observing near Kitt Peak with friends Mike Terenzoni and Laurie Larson. It was the first time I've had out my Celestron 14" and Hyperstar (with Canon 20Da camera) since last May! That kept me busy - Laurie had her Canon XSi and was shooting off a tripod and also took some pics with my Byers mount. Mike brought his 10" Dobsonian and shared some great views of the sky. We packed up about Midnight and were back home by about 1:30. This photo is with Laurie's camera w/a fisheye lens showing most of the sky from our site there.

I was able to sleep in a little Sunday, joined my Melinda when she got home at 8am. I spent the better part of the day working with a new software package (Nebulosity 2.0) in properly processing the astro images. The original one I had must have had some bugs in it as it bombed when doing some operations, and this one, while getting past that, is still giving me some fits getting uniform results. I think this stuff is still more art than science! This is a quickie shot of the leftmost belt star of Orion and associated nebulosity, including the Horsehead Nebula below it. I didn't spend a lot of time on it because for this object, I forgot to turn on the RAW frames, so only have jpegs to average and stack.

I've a lot more to work through and will get to them eventually. Interestingly, the surprise of the night was Comet 144P Kushida - expected to be a faint 10th magnitude, it was readily visible in hand-held binoculars, so likely brighter than 8th. It looked very nice in Mike's scope and I've got pics, but need to learn the software better. Keep checking back!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Comet Lulin

I've heard reports of a comet that is brightening a little more than expected. Realize that a "bright" comet is not necessarily easy to see in the sky - this one is currently barely a binocular object from Tucson, but should attain naked eye visibility in a month or so from a dark sky. It will not be bright with a long tail like Comets Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp, but it will be visible all night as it appears exactly opposite the sun the end of February.

Comet Lulin (C/2007N3) was discovered in July of 2007 by Lin Chisheng as part of the Lulin Sky Survey. It was closest to the sun just a day or two ago, but it will slowly come closer to the earth, being closest to us on 24 February when it will be 36 million miles from us.

I left my warm bed this morning in an attempt to spot it in binoculars and get a photo. It is a morning object above the "claws" of Scorpius. There was a bright moon only 40 degrees away, and the sky glow of town make it hard to spot, but it was visible via "averted imagination" with binoculars. It showed up pretty easily in this photo taken with the Canon XSi. This is a stack of 10 - 30 second exposures with a 50mm lens at F/2.8. Still pretty small, but it will get brighter, and rise earlier in the next month.

Interestingly, it's orbital inclination is nearly 180 degrees, so will always appear near the ecliptic. Since comets sometimes show "anti-tails" as we cross the orbital plane, it already shows similar effects since we will be living in it's orbital plane as it brightens. Check out the photo gallery and finder charts at Spaceweather.Com's Lulin section.
Also be sure to check out our more recent posts from February 3rd, and from February 25th.

Finally...the end of a project!

After, literally, months of working on the 'new' table and chairs for the dining area - the project is virtually complete! Granted, there were many days that I didn't work on the chairs (work, other fun things to do, uncooperative weather, etc.) - but the final phase has been this morning. If you don't feel like going back in the archive to figure out what I'm talking about - here's the recap....

Shortly after arriving in Tucson I convinced Dean that it was time for a 'new' dining room table and chairs. He had the previous set for a couple of decades, it was time. We had discussed this even prior to coming to Tucson, and I had voiced that I envisioned a nice, old (antique), oak, pedestal table. After doing some shopping around I found the exact table at an antique mall for the price I wanted to pay. It would need some 'cleaning up', but would be worth the effort. There were no chairs to go with that table, but that would make the project more exciting...finding chairs! By visiting several thrift shops, Dean and I were able to find 4 chairs (oak) of similar design - all in great condition (but varying colors of stains and finishes) for no more than $15. per chair! Dean had two chairs already, left from Vicki's (his late wife) belongings. They are great chairs, so they set the tone of what type of chairs we should look for. After much stripping, sanding with a sander, then hand sanding, and restaining and sealing the wood - the chairs are finished, dried, and in use! I had done some cleanup work on the table, but thought I could still get a nicer finish. I was so pleased with the product I used on the chairs (MinWax Wood Sheen in Windsor Oak) that I decided to put a coat on the two "Vicki chairs" as well as the table. I am currently watching the finish on the table dry. Watching it dry is as exciting as it sounds -but it serves a purpose. With 8 cats roaming the house (Lance never comes inside) I have had to 'touch up' two areas of kitty prints already. Overall, the table and chairs have turned out exactly like I envisioned! I'm ready to hit the rest of the wood in the house with the MixWax stuff! We don't like to recommend products, etc - but this really is great stuff if you're refinishing some furniture. Of course, with the low humidity and warm temperatures here, the dry time is even less than the two hours that they say on the bottle. That's not a bad thing when cats are involved! This project being complete now opens the door for other projects.....hmmm, time to try out that new reciprocating saw I got for Christmas....

(Addendum: For some reason, the table is not drying a quickly as I thought it would. It may have to do with the existing finish that was on the table, and the combination of the chemicals, that is causing a longer dry time. Be aware of that if you decide to use the above mentioned product!)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Dinner At Barrio Brewery With The Matchmaker

We hadn't seen buddy Jane in a while, so we scheduled a dinner for tonight, picking one of our more recent dining discoveries - Barrio Brewery. I actually read about it in the Tucson newspaper online edition last summer while we were in Illinois. There was a bar on the edge of U of A campus - Gentle Ben's that has been there forever. They started brewing their own beer a decade or more ago, but about a year ago moved the brewery operation down into an industrial location southeast of downtown. It is sort of a scary looking place - from the outside it looks like a ramshackle warehouse in danger of falling over, but the inside is fine and the bathrooms are state of the art with some nice tile work. You can see the working brewery through the windows in the left side background.

I'm not sure I like the name - Barrio Brewery doesn't really roll off the tongue. Always reminds me of season 1 of "30 Rock" - the Jane Krakowski character was in a movie called "The Rural Juror", and always sounded like a bowl of mush as you said it. Of course, for fans of the show, the sequel to "Rural Juror" was "Urban Fervor", and Barrio Brewery has always sort of had the same feel for me. Anyway, the food is ok, and the home brew beer is great. Unfortunately, it seems to have been "discovered" about the same time we did this fall and has always been packed lately.

For those of you who don't know the story, Jane and Melinda were schoolmates and best friends back in junior high school in Aurora, Illinois, but lost touch when Jane moved to Tucson after high school graduation. I've known Jane for 15 years or so through the astronomy club and local biking activities. Meanwhile they reconnected on the Internet about 5 years ago, and on a subsequent visit a few years back, I got to "babysit" Melinda for a night while Jane worked her evening job and the rest is history. And here we are living in the same city for 6 months out of the year... That's Jane with me in the left photo, Melinda on the right.

More Mirror Lab Activity

A few more images of the Steward Observatory Mirror Lab where we are making the biggest telescope mirrors in the world. The other day the casting crew moved the LSST(Large Synoptic Survey Telescope) primary from it's vertical position (horizon-pointing during mold clean out) to horizontal (nadir-pointing) in preparation for transport to the polishing lab next door. So while it looks like a new volleyball court, it is the rear surface of our newest mirror project!

I mentioned the other day that the holes in the back plate are a by-product of the casting process. The mirror is cast into a mold, the hexagonal structure of which is anchored with cylinders of refractory. When the mold material and refractory is removed from the glass interior, a cylindrical hole remains in the back plate. These honeycomb hollows give the mirror substrate it's stiffness, and also is responsible for the mirror to be only a fourth of the weight if it were a solid mirror. Temperature-controlled air can also be blown into the mirror while it is in the telescope to actively control the mirror temperature, tracking the nighttime air temperature to minimize thermal distortions of the incoming light.

So while the back plate holes are a necessary part of the process, they are currently a nuisance for the generating, grinding and polishing of the back plate. So we are currently working on plugging all 1600 holes to keep the interior of the mirror from being flooded or contaminated. The red plastic plugs fit snugly into the holes. The next step will be to fill the plugs with a blue castable modeling RTV that will provide a waterproof seal, yet will be easily removable without leaving any traces.

The polishing crew has a lot of work in the next few weeks as diamond generating starts. From left here is Jordan, Kevin, Pat and Kirk. With me added in, nearly 45 years of experience in mechanics and optics. And don't forget that there are other fabrication tasks going on at the moment. Stay tuned and you will see!

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

New Layout and a Birthday Party!

We've been lax in posting lately, but in a flurry of activity, Melinda modified the blog layout after months of our unhappiness with the default parameters. It seemed so wasteful to have almost 1/4 of the screen on the left and right of the blog content be blank (nearly half the screen), so she found an alternative and here it is! As a result, most all of our old posts (older than this first page on display, anyway) will be a little funky-looking with text and photos rather haphazardly strewn, but I think it will look better in the future as we better fill out our new space. Who knows, I may go back and re-edit the previous 160 entries (or not!). If anyone has issues seeing the entire page (best viewed in full screen mode), or knows why default parameters are the way they are, let us know!

And speaking of letting us know, with all the hits we get, we seldom hear from anybody... We know you are out there, so drop a line once in a while! Someone complained today that you need to have a blogger profile to comment, but I think not - at a minimum, if you click our names under the "Author! Author!" label (currently under the world map), you can send a private e-mail that will not appear in the public comments. So let us know what you think - you know who you are!

So, in catching up with old business, last Saturday evening, we attended a party at the home of TAAA members Michael and Mary. It happened to coincide with John Kalas' birthday, and also for the seasonal visit of Mary's mom Elaine. We've not previously attended a soiree at their home, but they are known for their smoked meat cookouts, and in fact, the listed "guest of honor" was a leg of lamb, as well as a side of ribs and a beef tri-tip roast - a true "meating" of friends! The smoker that they've been refining their skills on is the true Cadillac of smokers - the Komodo 7. It is quite the functional piece of art, available with custom tile patterns, colors and accessories. And it is so heavy (over 600 pounds) that it is unlikely to be stolen out of your yard (I've had lightweight grills stolen from my yard before)! Here Mary oversees the last entree (the beef) before the meal.

Their abode is in the foothills of the Tucson Mountains west of town and besides their obvious interest in grills, their view extends into a minor valley of the range. They also take advantage of the sky view for night time observing. Melinda was particularly interested in the tile work in their home, not only on the floor, but the kitchen counter tops had granite tile instead of the more usual solid counter tops. We both liked the effect of the grout work, and knowing that tile would be less expensive than a solid counter top. Someday we'll get to that at our homes and the wheels were turning!

Here Ellen is working on carving our "guest of honor". Interesting that with the birthday boy, the celebrities present (comet discoverer David Levy) and the other 3 guys there, I only seemed to get photographs of women!

And to finish up, Ellen and Liz are dishing out desserts, including a birthday cake, as well as a black-bottom dessert. We literally had to run - Melinda had to leave for work at 1830 from our place, so we needed to depart pretty much as soon as dinner was finished. Unfortunate for us - it would have been fun to stay and converse on topics from smoking meats to observing programs. Melinda is working on keeping her weekends a little more open - she is still working the schedule she was first assigned when she started work - all the least desirable shifts including most weekends... It will be getting better soon!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Sunday night programing on the local NPR station (KUAZ)

It was a 'typical' Sunday work night, when I was driving to UMC last evening. Pleasant, not too cool, less than average traffic. I was listening to the local NPR station (KUAZ), as Dean and I tend to listen to it a lot. Last night I heard something I hadn't heard before, however! Dean had told me about it some time in the past, but I had never listened on Sunday evening.

We all stereo-type the Southwest as being "the wild, wild, West" - chock full of cowboys and Indians. That's not a total stereo-type, however. Yep, there are cowboys out here...we even saw a Border Patrol on mount, wearing chaps, the other day. I've long known that there are the local Tohono O'odham Indians in this area (they have a huge reservation just outside of Tucson). On Sunday nights, however, KUAZ broadcasts a program for (and by) the tribe! Here is the information I've found (during a very quick search on the Internet this morning):

"The Tohono O'odham Nation consists of four smaller Papago Indian reservations. Tohono O'odham Reservation stretches 90 miles across the southern boundary of Arizona, the reservation actually extends into northern Mexico, too. To the north of Tohono O'odham is the smaller Gila Bend Reservation. To the east is San Xavier Reservation, near Tucson. And, east of the Gila Bend Reservation is the much smaller (20 acre) Florence Village, just west of Florence Arizona.

The location of Tonhono O'odom Nation allows easy access from Tucson and many other Southern Arizona destinations. Sells, Arizona is the nation's capitol and just 15 miles to the south lies Baboquiivari Peak, legendary home of I'itoi, the Papago Creator."

Listening to their program was interesting - their language so different from anything I had heard before! Interesting, also, was the woman doing the program. She was telling of meetings coming up for the tribe, as well as social functions, doing church announcements, and information about health care clinics. She gave all of the information in their Native language, followed by the same information in English. The picture on the left, of the young women is from the Miss Native America pageant. The young woman in the middle is "Miss Tohono O'odham". The black and white picture on the right is Ofelia Zepeda, a Tohono poet and scholar.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Learn Your Arizona Landmarks...

Growing up a Midwesterner, the Arizona landscape took some getting used to, but I've come to appreciate the beauty of the desert and stark landscape. With lots of mountain ranges and desert plains between, it is a long way from the cornfields of Iowa and Illinois. One thing that took some getting used to was that in the Midwest, a water tower or other feature on the horizon might have been at most 10 miles away. If you spot a landmark in Arizona, it might take an hour to reach it at highway speeds! The low humidity, elevation and clarity of atmosphere allow routine visibilities in excess of 100 miles. As a result there are a number of spectacular landmarks in southern Arizona that are special to me.

First up is one that we saw several times yesterday on our day trip to Animas, NM and to Whitewater Draw. It is called Cochise's Head - the profile of some side hills of the Chiricahua Mountains forms the outline of the great Apache chief. What makes it interesting is not only the accurate profile of a human face, but that it can be seen from the north or south! When driving into Arizona on I-10, it can be spotted well east of Lordsburg, NM, at least 30 miles east of the state line, and is a prominent sight for nearly another 20 miles in Arizona. It can also be spotted from Whitewater Draw, a good 40 miles to the southwest. But the absolutely best viewing spot is from Massai Point at the Chiricahua National Monument. From there you are only about 5 miles from the outline and can even spot a tree that forms part of an eyelash. Cochise was one of the most famous of the Apache leaders to resist the settling of the Arizona Territory. The more you learn about him, the more it seems appropriate to name the profile for him.

Another landform favorite of mine is the mountain peak named Baboquivari. I posted a blog entry a couple months ago about a day trip near the peak. It is a spectacular sight, made more striking for the lore surrounding the peak as the center of the universe for the Tohono O'Odham Indian Nation. Also, I spent many years working at Kitt Peak National Observatory, about 15 miles to the north, and it was a beacon on the horizon, denoting nearly due south. Geologically, it's striking shape is explained by it's formation - it was a lava plug from a now-extinct and since eroded-away volcano. It is about 60 miles southwest of Tucson and can easily spotted as a nearly 8,000 foot elevation pimple on the horizon.

And of course, nearly anyone in Tucson can point out "Finger Rock", a distinctive formation in the front range of the Catalina Mountains north of Tucson. Found beyond the north terminus of Swan Avenue, it can be seen throughout Tucson except for the development on the northwest side of town. This shot is taken from the parking lot of Finger Rock Trail at the north end of Alvernon Avenue. The hike takes you quite close to the formation, and I've read of hikers that bushwhack to it and climb the 50 foot high spire.The Rock may perhaps be a silent suggestion to "Keep Watching the Skies", which I'm trying to do and promote in my small way!

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Rancho Hildago and Whitewater Draw

This week we had friends Dave and Joan visiting a mere 150 miles away in southwestern new Mexico, so today we took a day trip to visit and spend some time with them. They bought land near Animas, NM last year, and were spending time at the development. We talked them into a lunch in Douglas, about an hour away, then a side trip to Whitewater Draw, a favorite attraction of ours. Fortunately, they agreed!

The construction west of Animas is not your normal project - it is an offshoot of Arizona Sky Village - an astronomy-themed development about 30 miles to the west near Portal. It is geared towards astronomers - give them pristine dark skies, and make sure there are none of the normal "security" lights that adversely affect your night vision. Over the years, they have sold all the plots in the Portal area, so they moved to, and bought a working cattle ranch west of Animas - Rancho Hildago. We met mover and shaker Gene Turner at the ranch headquarters and the 5 of us talked for about an hour about their experiences at ASV and some of the plans for Rancho Hildago. It sounds like a spectacular project, and with 2,000 acres there, lots of elbow room! The ranch headquarters were very comfortable and well-appointed, and the guesthouse where Dave and Joan stayed was also very nice. The landscape could be called high plains (elevation about 4,700 feet), with some mountainous hills off in the distance. This project is still in it's infancy, but is likely to be a future astronomy hotspot!

After our time with Dave and Joan, we were headed west towards Tucson, and they east back to Animas, so unfortunately, we had to drive separate cars for the rest of our day... We headed southwest for the 1 hour trip towards Douglas for a late lunch. A good sign you are in the middle of nowhere (where astronomers love to be!) is if you have to drive over an hour for a grocery store or a restaurant! Since I was the only one who had been to Douglas (twice for the Cochise Classic bike ride), I was in charge of picking a spot. Recalling there was a restaurant in the Hotel Gadsden, we headed there. What a spectacular place! The lobby is magnificent - an Italian marble staircase and marble columns with a 42 foot wide Tiffany stained-glass desert mural. The food was great - half of us had the lobster enchilada special, which were great - no leftovers to worry about!

Finally, about 3, it was time to head to Whitewater Draw. A regional birding hotspot, the previous trip a couple weeks ago the Sandhill Cranes arrived very late in the day and seemed fewer in number than previous years. We weren't sure what to expect this visit. We found some cranes waiting for us upon our arrival, but at quite a distance from the observing platforms. They again seemed to be congregating in some fields to the west. But we were able to take some photos of cranes flying past the LBT telescope on Mount Graham 75 miles to the north and Snow Geese moving west towards the fields.

We searched around for other birds and fortunately, my personal favorite, a male Vermilion Flycatcher was in the area and was very obliging as I stalked him and was able to get within about 60 feet. The flycatchers are interesting in that they will fly an irregular path in search of insects, but almost always return to the same perch. This behavior seems to be followed by almost all varieties of flycatchers... Anyway, I got some fine shots of this fellow - but I couldn't decide which I liked better - the over-the-shoulder look or the formal-portrait pose. I also got a nice shot of him taking off, showing the red plumage over nearly everything but his wings and tail.

As sunset came and went, there were a number of owls hooting a couple hundred yards to the south. With the onset of twilight, one was spotted moving to a branch about 50 yards away, and I was able to get a semi-decent shot of the Great Horned Owl. The large yellow eyes and already dilated pupils in the growing darkness was it's most striking feature.

Some of the cranes moved over to the wetlands area from the fields, but always stayed on the far side of the water. I am sure there are only about a third of the birds from last year, but it is still an amazing visual and aural feast as twilight descends. Probably at least one more trip this winter yet! All of the bird photos taken with the Canon XSi and Meade 80mm F/6 triplet APO.