Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This N That

In my post Sunday about our trip out of town, I showed a side view of a distant thunderhead, with a swath of rain below. Last night we had a closer, more oblique view. Right at sunset, as I walked out to get the mail, the rumblings of thunder woke me to the close proximity of this thunderhead that was certainly photo and blog-worthy. Even with the wide-angle lens (10mm) I could barely get the uppermost sweep of the cloud. No rain to report here...

With the end of the month upon us, the monsoons are also winding down and with them the forecasters promise of a wet summer storm season. The nightly weather dutifully reports we are upwards of 4" behind our normal annual rainfall, which doesn't sound like a lot, but is nearly half our yearly total! Of course, with the passing wet season brings with it the promise of clear cooler nights, and in fact, Jupiter shines brightly in our southeastern sky tonight, but after a long day at work (more about that in a sec...), no scope set up tonight. Of course, those of us living in the desert (even the astronomers!) would likely prefer a drenching rain, but it is looking more and more like that won't be happening anytime soon...

Today was high temperature day of the latest Mirror Lab casting - that for the San Pedro Martir 6.5 meter telescope. The day started early with representatives from this project's partners, from other current telescope projects, and dignitaries from south of the border (I spotted several from the mayor's office of Ensenada, Mexico). In this photo the Steward Observatory director, Peter Strittmatter, facing the camera in center, talks to attendees, with the spinning oven containing 11 tons of molten glass behind. At this moment (2130 local time) the oven is well past the peak temperature of 1165C to 1125C, and will continue to drop about 30 degrees/hour or more until the glass freezing point is reached at about 800C. The oven will continue to spin at 7.4rpm until 700C, which is scheduled for sometime Friday at the moment... Cooling slows considerably to prevent internal stresses from building, with the oven staying sealed until mid-November - a long time to wait for a cake to come out of the oven! I haven't heard of any issues or problems, not that casting these is routine yet. This is the 12th (by my count) casting over 3.5meters diameter and it still attracts a lot of attention!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Blog Stats...

We went out to see "Julie and Julia" yesterday, the new movie about the lives of Julia Child - the woman who brought French cuisine to America 50 years ago, and blogger Julie Powell, who used Julia's tome "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" to add purpose and drive to her life. The movie is very good - I absolutely love ANYTHING Amy Adams is in (portraying Julie Powell), and Meryl Streep truly channels Julia Child's voice and mannerisms.

The story is a compilation of 3 books - Child's cookbook as well as her book "My Life in France" describing her postwar years in France while her husband works as a diplomatic envoy, in addition to the Powell book "Julie and Julia" based on her year-long blog cooking her way through Child's cookbook. Nora Ephron as screenwriter and director does a great job combining the women's stories yet provide strong roles for the movie husbands as well.

So after thoroughly enjoying the movie, I went looking for source material, reading the original New York Times article that publicized Powell's goal of cooking her way through Child's book in a year, as well as checking out her current blog. Now we've been doing this little blog thing too for 14 months, compared to the 6 year following Julie has built up, but it was still a little depressing to look at her comment totals - two of her last 3 posts have garnered an average of over 350 comments! We're lucky to get a couple per week... Oh well, as long as we are having fun, and our sparse readership does the same!

Time To Melt Some Glass!

This shows the lowering of the oven top onto the now-loaded mold almost 2 weeks ago. After hooking up circuits and testing along with some new training proceedures thrown in, time to cast the 6.5 meter mirror for the San Pedro Martir Observatory.

If you can't be there to feel the heat of the nearly 1200C temperatures on your face, or feel the wind tousel your hair as the oven and mold rotate at 7rpm, the next best thing is to check out the nearly-live pictures from the website one of the project scientists has thrown up. In addition to weblinks to the principle partners, the latest photos of the melting glass, temperature profiles, video files will be available as well. The peak temperature will come sometime Wednesday midday.

As of this moment (4pm Monday) , there is a normally scheduled hold at 500C for checking out systems. Much hotter and the glass will start melting, so is the last chance to stop the casting if there are issues.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Getting High!

So what do you do when the hot desert temperatures (made worse by the humidity of July and August) get you down? Well, many flee the 6 or 7 hours to San Diego and the Pacific shore where the high temperature approximates the ocean temperature of about 72F (21C). But there are closer alternatives, nearly as good - get high! Climb a mountain where the temperatures can easily drop 20F (10C) if you go up 4 or 5 thousand feet, available close to Tucson.

Yesterday we took part in a star party for incoming students to Optical Sciences. We started doing this particular event at least 10 or 12 years ago, held every August up at the Kitt Peak national Observatory picnic area. While the clouds and rain sometime limit observing, the cool mountain temperatures and catered meals (usually Mexican food) are a joyful break from the Tucson heat. Plus, you get the advantage of some great views - case in point is the thunderhead about 25 miles to our north here. Everyone has seen a rainstorm from underneath, but to be able to look across and see it eye-to-eye is really cool - you can see not only the anvil shape of the small thunderhead, but get an idea of how high it goes up and the drenching rain quenching the desert below.

We got to the picnic area well before sunset, and a few of us took a little walk before unpacking the scopes and joining in the mealtime activities. I had a favorite walk that was only a couple hundreds yards, if that, and provided some great views. It was on top of a 60 foot high (18m) boulder, requiring some scrambling on a slippery trail and climbing the boulders crack - another chance to "get high"! The view was spectacular, from the telescopes on the peak and an unobstructed view from north to south. I goaded our friend George to climb to get a view of the Kitt Peak lake he had never seen in many visits there, and I think he was rewarded with the view and his ability to climb the rock. Shown from left are friends Mike, Melinda, Donna, George and yours truly, photographer... And here is a shot of Melinda showing off her new short hairdo...

Eventually, sunset came and some striking cloud formations dissipated, revealing familiar summertime constellations and other luminous clouds of the Milky Way. Lines formed early as clouds cleared and darkness grew. It was a great night, but moisture from recent rains dewed up the correctors of the Schmidt Cassegrain Telescopes quickly, leaving the best views for naked eyes and laser pointers! Our friend Mike pulled out a container of home made brownies, and it felt so decadent to sit back scanning the skies for meteors and satellites while inhaling the chocolate-laden treats and catching up with friends. It was a great night, but ended all too soon for the trip back to a warm Tucson. The nip in the mountain air had told us of the cooler fall temperatures to come...

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Tiling project and Dean update!

As some of you know, Dean had some minor surgery on Monday. He had some scar tissue in his bladder (from last year's surgery) that was causing concern. Monday morning we arrived at the Ambulatory Surgery center at UMC at 6am. He was in surgery at 7:37am, recovery room at 8:25am, and on our way home at 10am! They originally said that they would keep him over night, but decided that he could home. He will have a urinary catheter until Thursday, then they will remove that. Otherwise, activity as tolerated and no heavy lifting for two weeks. The last surgery was concerning because of the excessive bleeding that he had. This time he does have blood in his urine, though it seems to be improving today. We're hoping that everything will heal quickly, and as expected, so that he won't have to go through this again. He's a great patient, here at home though!

Even though Dean hasn't been able to help, we were in need of getting that tile job done in the bathroom! Dean sealed the tiles for me, when I was at work this past weekend. The next step is the grouting of the tiles. He put two coats of sealer on them, and I'm glad he did! I think too much grout would have stuck to the tiles with only one coat. The label says that I can use the same sealer with the grout - and that project will be the next step. Yesterday afternoon I mixed up the grout and got to work. The books we have say that the grout should be the consistancy of peanut butter. We used sanded grout due to the wider grout lines. I've never grouted this large of an area, so I worked in about 2-3 sq foot sections. The challenge is that you have to remove the excess before it dries on there - but you don't want to mess with it too soon. When we did the slate hearth, in Illinois, I cut my fingers on the edge of the tiles - filing the grout in by hand. Not this time! While the grout was pretty stiff, it worked well using a float to apply it. Right away I was able to see how it was going to look - and loved it! The color of grout we used is called "Mushroom". It was a little darker when it was wet, lighter now that it has dried. I like the effect and am glad that we did the diagonal pattern, it's so much more dramatic that way! While I should have gone over the floor last evening, again, I did put that off until today. I'm pleased with the results and am looking forward to the next step - sealing the grout and another coat of sealer on the tiles. We have guests coming to spend the night on Saturday, so we're working with a deadline this time. My guess is that we will be able to put the new toilet in the bathroom on Friday evening. I'm including a picture of what the floor looked like before we started tiling (brick patterned linoleum), and how it looks right now (pretty new quarry tiles). You can refer back to the previous posts to see the actual tiling in process!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Rarer Than Hen's Teeth!

It is rare that the Summer monsoonal flow clears out to allow any astronomical observing in the 2 month period between 1 July and 31 August. And it is one of the corollaries of Murphy's Law that if it does clear, it happens during full moon or definitely on a school night. So it is rare indeed when it clears on a dark-of-the-moon Saturday with enough advance notice to make plans. This has been a rather pathetic monsoon - we are several inches behind in rainfall, this after the weathermen predicted a wetter than average season, but we really haven't had that much clear weather. Yes, the diurnal variation allows clearing usually late in the evening and most days dawn clear, but you can't depend on it.

Thursday we had a 60% chance of rain - unusually high for Tucson, so what happens? It clears out - the moisture heads east and north somewhere and dry air is overhead. I still haven't loaded up the scopes in the van after our Midwest trip (why bother - it's the rainy season!), so I got out my little tracking platform and planned some wide field imaging. I didn't even pack (I forgot, actually) the binoculars, so mostly stood and enjoyed the brilliant Milky Way while taking some pictures. No firm plans - a few objects on the list that I didn't actually get to, but I did pack the IR-modified camera to take some shots.

Heading west towards one of my favorite pullouts on the Kitt Peak National Observatory road, I arrived late and saw the last rays of twilight illuminating the 4-Meter Mayall Telescope Dome with the Teapot asterism in Sagittarius behind. In the next 15 minutes (the time between the 2 shots), the Milky way became more obvious, and the dome fainter as twilight faded. Both were taken with the Canon XSI at ISO 1600 and 15 seconds of exposure. The first was with a zoom set to 70mm and F/2.8, the second with a 50mm and F/2. In both pictures, the diffuse glow near the top is the Lagoon Nebula (M8), and the diffuse golden glow to the left and a little down is the globular cluster M22. The wider field below also contains clusters M6 and M7 at lower right.

I continued up towards the top of the mountain and took some comparison shots of the Milky Way with visible and IR cameras - will need to look at the results before posting. There are some things visible in the IR I was not expecting... It was a fun night, always great to get out under a dark sky, and I was home by 1am. We've got a star party planned for the Kitt Peak picnic area next Saturday - chances of clear sky? Iffy at best, but we'll be there to give it a try!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Scruffy Status...

Thought it was about time to bring you up to speed on our newest feline addition Scruffy. It was about 3 months ago that we took him to the vet for a neuter job, shave to get off all the mats that were causing him discomfort, and a dental to fish out 2 broken canine teeth. We also found out he was FIV+, the kitty equivalent of HIV, so he could safely be introduced into our herd only if there was no fighting or blood or saliva exchange. As a reminder, here is a shot of him in the "quarantine bathroom" looking none to happy or attractive!

My how times have changed! Here is a portrait as he watches TV with dad. After his treatments for fleas and mites reduced his scratching and skin irritation and as his hair grows out, he is a handsome boy! In those three months he has gained nearly 3 pounds. While a near-fixture on the couch, he has never showed any signs of hostility towards any of the other cats (we introduced him to the others in a dog crate, which seemed to work well), though many of the others hiss at him when they want their owner's attention. Generally, he is doing very well.

However, he still walks like he is an old, arthritic cat - my thinking that it was his mats that made him uncomfortable to move was not the case. So with Hannah needing her annual checkup, Scruffy made another trip to see Doctor Darowalla a couple weeks ago. After a look at his teeth (vets can judge age with that method), she estimated him to be a young adult, about 5 or 6 years old. After seeing him walk and judging from the way he flinches as you rub your hand down his back, she thought he might have suffered a spine injury. Sure enough, the X-rays show one of the vertebrae is compressed, with almost no gap, with calcification growth pinching part of his spinal cord. While she considered it inoperable, she thought that anti-inflammatories and glucosamine might help. After a couple weeks of this therapy, he still moves tentatively, but now seems a little faster and perhaps with less pain. His range the last week or two seems larger as he is exploring parts of the house for the first time, so I think there is a little improvement. But mostly, he is very happy to be in his new home - he has expressed no interest in going outside, and since he spends so much time on the couch, is always ready for some interaction time from Mom or Dad - what more could you ask from a cat?!

Friday, August 14, 2009

Last Step Before Casting!

Wednesday was the glass-loading into the mold for the San Pedro Martir 6.5 meter telescope. I've been making regular posts about this telescope's recent mold construction and glass inspection, and the loading of the mold is the last big step before the casting starts week after next.

In "the old days" of casting large mirrors (I'm thinking Palomar 200" vintage), the glass was mixed and melted nearby (mixed in large batches for uniformity) and the molten glass was ladled into the mold. This has many inherent problems, and would be nearly impossible to implement into our spinning oven. Yes, you heard right - at the Mirror Lab, we spin the mold and glass whenever the temperature is over 700C (the softening point of the E-6 Pyrex we use) primarily to put the steep curve into the mirrors we make. The curve in this 6.5 meter diameter mirror will be about 30cm (12") deep in the center. Spinning the curve into the molten glass saves not having to add another 10 tons of glass into a non-spinning mold, but also saves the work and effort of removing it again with diamond tools to put the curve back in! We can simplify the casting by using the glass blocks shown - Ohara Glass goes to a lot of work to make a very uniform product for us, saving us from having to deal with mixing or dealing with large quantities of molten glass. The spinning process also insures that the thickest part of the glass mirror is only a couple inches thick, which saves annealing time - the slow cooling of the filled mold to insure no internal stress is built up in the glass. That Palomar mirror, cast in the '30s was about a foot thick and took over 13 months to cool. Our process, including the heat up from room temperature is finished in 12 weeks.

So Randy's well-oiled casting crew was again in action carefully placing the 11 tons of glass into the mold. The mold core material - a machinable aluminum silicate ceramic, is quite fragile. You can easily pick out little chunks with your fingernail, so the sharp glass edges can easily damage the cores. Indentations in the cores can usually easily be seen in the finished mirror castings as bumps in the back of the faceplate. So care is exercised, yet at the same time, the task was finished in record time. The crew started loading at 6am and by lunch was lowering the cone (top and sides of the oven) down over the now-filled mold.

After electrical hookup (heat comes from resistance heaters - visible in the inside-oven shot at left) and checkout of all control systems, the casting starts in about 10 days. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Fun With Bricksaw and Tiles!

The last few days have gone by in a blur! Between work at the Mirror Lab and home improvement projects, the days have been full. But there is progress on the projects! After deciding on tiles and a layout, we've had lots of fun sawing and laying tiles.

We've never had a wet bricksaw before, and got one before our slate hearth project in St Charles. It is likely the best $59 we ever spent! Melinda just loves the idea of sawing tiles, and I can likely use it for small glass shaping too, though I've not tried it yet for that. You can tell from the picture at left that Melinda is having a great time - it is fortunate she stopped smiling while sawing or there would be stains on her teeth too!

We decided on rotating the tile 45 degrees for a decorative look, but first formed a border or frame around the walls. Note also the existing linoleum approximates a similar layout, but now we have real tiles! This layout requires a LOT of sawing. Unfortunately we had to do some of it twice - we set our reference at the door and long wall end and risked being "tiled in" in the back of the room. So we cut a good number of tiles in advance, but once we started laying them out in the mastic, the Earth's magnetic field caused enough drift we had to re-saw a goodly number of them... But by the time we had invested over 4.5 hours in layout, we had long ago given up perfection and in fact, see the slight imperfections as desirable - proof that we indeed did it ourselves!

Still to come is the sealing of the semi-porous tile before we grout, and Melinda will attempt that tomorrow after the 24+ hours of mastic cure. She is back to work tomorrow night, so I see grout in our weekend schedule, and after another sealing job, finally installing our new low-flow toilet in a week or so with company staying over the following weekend - a tight but doable schedule. Then you should see the rest of the plans for the bathroom - stay tuned!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Home work updates and a taste of home

It's been an age since I posted, so here's some news/thoughts/going's on from Melinda!

I'm heading into a seven night stretch of freedom from work. I love my job, but I love my time off even more! Over the past several months we have traveled when I've had stretches off. That's always great fun, of course, but it's good to have a block of time off at home. It's projects time again!

We have a verbal update from sister Maj (in Illinois) on the status of the cottage there, as well. When last we left it, Dean and Maj had been gutting the part of the storage room (also known as "the scary room") in preparation of a wall being moved to make a bigger master bedroom for us. You can read about that work here, and see the before pictures. We don't have pictures of the current work, yet, but will when we visit in September. Maj has really outdone herself, tearing out the floor in the scary room in preparation for the reconstruction phase. I have to hand it to her, she is fearless when she's doing this stuff! She had the floor open (there's a dirt floor crawl space under the house where critters have been known to burrow) in no time, and made sure to cover it well enough to keep the raccoons, ground hogs, chipmunks, and skunks out of the house when she was finished. What she did find under the floorboards was that 4 of the 6 joists supporting the scary room were rotted through - yikes! Yesterday was the big day however....the carpenters came (kudos to Mike and Dave for the great job they did!) and did their magic in one day. They put new supports under the scary room (lifting and evening the floor with the rest of the house), put new supports in the roof for that section of the house, put in a solid 3/4 inch plywood sub-floor, and (last but not least) moved the wall to create a more spacious master bedroom! Maj is already talking about putting in insulation before we get there in September, when our tasks will be to finish the wiring (pull cable for a TV outlet), put in the ceiling and walls (wainscoting and drywall), paint, finish the windows off, and dare I hope - flooring?? I firmly believe that if we work on the house every day while we are there we will completely finish that project during our stay! We will have pictures after we make that trip - so something to look forward to!

The above update doesn't reflect what plans I have going on in Tucson, does it? Ahh.... This long stretch has been planned for, however. It's really too hot outside to do outside work, so what's cooler to work with than tile?! I have been doing my homework and legwork, and Dean and I have finally decided on a tile for the bathroom floor (hall bathroom). If that project goes well, then we'll move on to the bathroom in our bedroom. I really love the look of Saltillo tile, but the installation and finishing is a daunting task. Our next best idea is quarry field tiles! They are very strong, work well in areas of moisture, are non-slip, and have that lovely brick color. After visiting most of the local tile places (and a tile guy in a back alley, really); we have made our choice. We'll use 6" tiles, instead of the 8" one shown. We'll be able to get a better repeat of pattern in a small space with the smaller tiles. I am hoping to be picking mastic out of my fingernails very soon!

While we were visiting family in Iowa, in July, we enjoyed going through albums and boxes of pictures that sister, Linda, had brought to the party. I always get a kick out of seeing my hunk o' stuff in his earlier years! This is one of the pictures that particularly caught my eye -- Dean standing atop of Baboquivari mountain. Baboquivari is near Kitt Peak, where he worked when first coming to Tucson. Nice 'mountain man' shot!

And, finally, a little taste of home! Dean came home this afternoon to find a large box by our front door - from Illinois. Our sister, Linda, sent us a surprise that we appreciated immediately. You just can beat fresh sweet corn from Illinois (or Iowa either)! Even after it made it's 1500 mile trip, and sat in the 106 F heat on our doorstep - it was pure summer goodness! She sent enough to last several days, as long as we pace ourselves!

Saturday, August 1, 2009


The enclosed photos are taken on my sister Sheri's porch in San Antonio, Texas. She pointed out the anole (ah-noal-ee) sitting on her Norfolk Island Pine. When first spotted above, it was definitely a brownish color. She pointed out they can change color tints and indeed, a few minutes later after getting my macro lens for the lower shot, it had shifted to a definite greenish. A quick Google search indicates it is a green anole (Anolis Carolinensis), the only anole native to the US. Interesting, other species grow in the states, but are escaped or released pets. And while it can shift colors between green and brown, depending on background, temperature and stress, they are unrelated to chameleons. They are small compared to Arizona lizards, this one was only about 4cm including tail, but the color change was new to me! This was the only wildlife we saw in East Texas except for birds (twice saw a gray fox at Elinor's in West Texas).