Saturday, February 27, 2010

A River Runs Through It!

Rain has come to the desert. The El Nino weather pattern that has brought real winter to much of the country has been responsible for steering the storms that normally pass to our north right over the Desert Southwest. We ended last year a good 5" under our normal annual rainfall (about 12"/year), but year-to-date we are about 2" wetter than normal, bringing weekly rains to Tucson and snow pack to the mountains.

A walk yesterday along the Rillito River Park, which meanders along a wash that is normally dry for 50 weeks of the year, confirms a real stream. It appears to be the result of snow melt from the surrounding mountains - snow that can be seen in the Rincon Mountains in the background. In fact, tonight's forecast is a 90% chance of rain - rare in the desert. I think the local weathermen are getting a little cocky with the regular storms coming through. Normally even a 30% forecast of rain (about the highest it ever gets here) guarantees dry weather. But this Spring appears different, with the regular rains turning yards green (weeds germinating for the first time in years!) and precipitating predictions of spectacular wildflowers in the desert in the coming weeks, which require regular winter rains.

The walk along the Rillito showed no signs yet of spring, but remember, these are desert plants that spend the summers at 105F, so they don't stir much until it gets to the upper 70s. Highs have only touched the mid-60sF lately, so it is still early. I did spot a few hummingbirds that seemed out of place, and the only other wildlife was this Red-tailed hawk, watching the walkers with interest - especially those walking small, yappy dogs!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Another One-of-a-kind Telescope Mirror!

While I've posted about the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) by both describing the project and updating recent work, this week we started something never done before with any other large optic. We started hogging out another curvature into the substrate - for another mirror! It was decided early in the project that instead of making each of the 3 mirrors separate substrates, the primary and tertiary (1st and 3rd reflection) would be built into a single piece of glass. As far as I know, this has never been done on anything larger than meter-sized optics. As shown in these images from the LSST website, the inner (M3) surface has a considerable shorter radius of curvature, allowing it to be built into the M1 surface.

Even with the gentle looking curves of the above figures, given the huge 8.4 meter diameter of the mirror, something in excess of 5 tons of glass needs to be removed. We are taking off about 8 cubic inches per minute (about 2 cc/sec) so we will be doing this for a couple weeks of extended shifts. There haven't been any issues yet with the 2 curvatures, and we hope there won't be any. After the diamond generating, our polishing machine has 2 polishing heads, so each surface will have a dedicated tool to allow work at the same time (though likely not simultaneously).

The images of the diamond wheel above show the view down the ventilation system (to remove coolant mist)showing the M3 curve, and the shot with the flash freezes the wheel rotation to show the pellets and coolant droplets. The safety roller is seen at right which provides real-time feedback to the computer of the glass position. The third shot at left shows the reflection of Kirk, the machine operator, in the reflection of M3.

LSST is a seriously cool project - stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Talavera Bath wrap up....better late than never!

We never posted pictures of the guest bath, once it was finished. Of course, as pokey as I can be, it took me forever to get back in there and actually finish the work. In fact, I still need to put in baseboards - I promise to NOT post about the baseboards when those are finally in! I had great ideas to 'cover' the vanity base, almost like doing a veneer - but with 1/4" wood. I didn't do that, as time was running short. We were down to the wire before having our friend, Carolyn, come and visit us for a week. Dean questioned whether we really could get the vanity top and sink finished before Carolyn arrived - so that really gave me some incentive! I guess we work best under pressure!

In reality, this would be a great weekend project. Dean took the old vanity top, with the sink attached, off of the base. We then measured and cut the 3/4" plywood for the vanity top. After that was cut to size, we figured out the placement of the sink as well as the fixtures. Most sinks have the fixture holes in them. That is not the case with handmade Talavera sinks. The fixtures needed to come up through the vanity top. After getting the plywood set to go, we cut and measured the "Easy Backer" (similar to Hardy Backer, but only 1/4" thick and easy to cut and work with). It was easy to transcribe the sink hole onto the Easy Backer, and then make the cuts for them to match. Dean cut the back and side splashes from Hardy Backer, as we wanted something a little thicker for those. With the cutting out of the way I attached the plywood to the vanity top, aligned the Easy Backer (clamping them together), and cut the holes for the fixture (cutting through both layers at once to insure proper alignment of the holes). I attached the Hardy Backer to the walls with Liquid Nails and screws. The splashes actually sit behind the plywood top, giving them a bit more stabilization. The Easy Backer is attached to the plywood with a layer of mastic, the same that is used to 'glue' the tiles down. We gave all of that 24 hours to dry before putting any strains on the bonds that needed to harden.

The next step was to start cutting and laying out the yellow tiles for the vanity top. It was really easy to do, and actually fun to see it all coming together! We started with the edge/overlap pieces, to make sure we wouldn't have to cut those pieces much (full tiles are easier to cut, in my opinion). Dean cut all of the small, straight edge pieces - making sure that each was precisely the size needed. He's good! Before putting in the sink, we needed to do the back and side splash too. Since we had used 'medallions' of larger tiles in the shower, I thought it would be nice to do a similar effect on the splashes. This is the part where I give a big "THANK YOU" to the guys at Sierra Tile, in Tucson! I had coffee with them two mornings in a row, picking out and getting the medallions and tiles to finish the project. They now give us a "volume discount" which translates into about 50% off of the marked price for the tile. They are great to do business with, and if you live in the Tucson area and are planning a project, we highly recommend them for your supplies! Tiling the back splash was easy, and done before we knew it! We found that we can do 45 degree cuts to miter the corners, giving the work a more professional appearance.

Once the tiling was done (and literally, it was done in about 4-5 hours even with me taking breaks!) we had another 24 drying period to wait before moving forward. While we were dying to get that sink in place, it is really necessary to do the grouting first. After the grout, the new fixtures. If you've ever put in new fixtures you know that there is an advantage to doing them without the sink in place. Once the fixtures were in, then we could move forward with placing the sink. Dean dropped the sink in, one evening while I was at work, making sure to use lots of silicone caulk to not only waterproof the gaps, but also to hold the sink in place. Together we finished attaching the drain (not without some glitches, but there are no leaks!) and hooking all of the connections together. To give a nice rim to the sink, we grouted around the sink - between the tiled counter and the sink side. This filled in any gaps (preventing water seepage), and helps to hold everything solid. The grout we used is made for 'wet applications', so no sealing was required. It is the same grout that we used in the tub/shower area. After all was said and done, we had to get busy on painting that room! I chose Kilz Casual Colors (we've had good results with that, in Illinois) in "Sequoia". I did a quick paint job on the ceiling, then moved to the walls. The walls did take two coats, but we were painting over off white walls with a very dark color. At that point, the room was ready for use - and not a day too soon! Carolyn arrived 48 hours later! She and I took a little shopping trip to the store where we had gotten the sink, to find 'artwork' for the walls. I think the Mexican tin art, as well as the patina of the lions head door knocker really add to the style of the tile. We also need to send a "Thanks Erica!" out, as our friend (Erica) gave us the Talavera kitty sitting on the counter as a "Yay! The bathroom is done!" gift! As mentioned before, I still need to get some baseboards for the room - in the mean time, I think we both like the finished result!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

California Seals, Pelicans, and more...

Dean promised (recently) "no more bird pics for a while!"...but I didn't make that promise! What is a trip to California without pictures of the wildlife there (and I don't mean frolicking starlets)?!

One of the highlights for me was a little trip up the coast to the La Jolla beaches. La Jolla is the next town north of San Diego, and has beautiful cliffs overlooking the Pacific as well as beautiful rock formations that are jutting out into the water. There is a little cove that is called (alternately) Casa Beach or Children's Beach. It's a shallow little inlet that is quiet, and shallow enough for small children to play in the water and not be overwhelmed by the large waves on the beach. A number of years ago some Harbor seals decided that they liked that cove too, and now the greatest attraction to that beach is that you can look down on dozens of seals as they take their naps. It also seems to be popular with the seal moms, as they bring their babies and young seals there! Seals need to sleep about 14 hours a day, so a sunny and protected beach is a great spot. In addition to many adult seals, we also saw many young seals, and were fortunate to see three babies. The people from the "Save the Harbor Seal" group (who were there to give out information) said that the babies were 5 and 3 days old. If they hadn't had the area roped off (mama seals will aggressively protect their young) it would have been tempting to rush onto the beach and pick one up to snuggle! I loved watching the bonding between the moms and babies, and even got to see a couple of the babies nursing (seals are mammals, remember?). While you can go to the zoo and see seals swimming and playing - it's such an incredible experience to see them in the wild, living their lives as they are meant to!

In addition to the seals, we also were able to get up close to some Brown pelicans. There were several sitting on the nearby rocks at Casa Beach. For some reason I didn't remember that Brown pelicans have some very pretty colors on them, and had never been close enough to see that their eyes are a bluish gray color! It was fun taking their picture, they were very willing subjects - almost posing for us, and being patient enough for me to try different camera settings to get 'just the right shot'.

In addition to the animal wildlife on the beach, no group of pictures is complete without some of the little human wildlife. Even though we don't have children, we love watching kids play on the beach - a time of pure joy in their lives! What can be more fun than jumping in the waves, or digging for treasure?!

The final leg of the trip was stopping by the Salton Sea (on the way home). The south end of the sea features the Sonny Bono National Wildlife Refuge, though it's not very close to the water. We wanted a little closer vantage point, so we drove over to the boat launch area. We stayed for our "last California sunset" for this trip, and were not disappointed! There were a huge variety of birds out on the water, including some Great Egrets and Great Blue Herons. Silhouetted against the setting sun, and the water, it was a beautiful sight to end our "Carolyn, Melinda, and Dean's Excellent California Adventure"!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Seaside Sunsets and a Conjunction!

More on our trip to San Diego last weekend... On Sunday, Sweetie's Day (14 February), we walked a LOT, and by the time we returned "home" to Pacific Beach, I got horizontal to help reduce the swelling in my knee while Melinda and Carolyn went walking down the beach and searched for adult beverages. I noticed with the exceedingly clear skies there might be a very nice sunset and indeed there was! The only telephoto I had was a 200mm zoom with 1.4X telextender, and I shot from our room on the 3rd floor. By sunset time, the Girls were in the bar on the ground floor, but likely within a few dozen yards of me. Melinda had her 300mm zoom and shot a wedding party out on the beach, with the sunset behind, zoom setting unknown. But what is truly amazing is the stark difference in the sunset appearance from the 8 meters of vertical difference between us. Hers is a standard sunset with an oval sun, but from 2 floors higher, an inversion layer split the sun and two slivers set! Here are my photos - click to enlarge!

And here are a few of Melinda's with no evidence of the inversion layer.

What I think is happening is that from my elevated position, a layer of cool air over distant pacific waters (that wasn't visible from Melinda's position) produced an inferior mirage that produced a second sliver of the sun near the ocean horizon. I've seen similar effects from high elevations like Kitt Peak while looking through an inversion layer and evidently they are not too uncommon.

In my nearly daily scan of astronomical events going on, I found there was to be a conjunction that evening. In the last few weeks, Jupiter has been falling towards the evening twilight, and Venus is coming out of the solar glare, and they were to converge with crescent moon Sunday night. We hadn't packed binoculars, which would have been very useful. The other disadvantage we had was that we were literally at sea level, far below the clear desert air we usually enjoy in Tucson. But with the clear skies, we were optimistic.

But as the twilight darkened, We spotted no points of light or skinny crescents in the west. I thought I saw a flash just above where the sun had set, so I used my camera and telephoto to take a shot - sure enough there was Jupiter, and to it's right was the thinnest of lunar crescents, and Venus was even visible below Jupiter. I went on to see Jupiter only 4 or 5 times, but never saw it's companions visually. I went on to take a half dozen images to stack and bring them out more clearly, but was definitely a tough observation from San Diego. Shown is a crop of the stacked image - click to enlarge. The ocean is at bottom - perhaps I should have started earlier before Venus was so low. Fortunately, David Harvey in Tucson had better conditions and recorded them more clearly.

I think one more California post to come!

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Carolyn, Melinda, and Dean's Excellent California Adventure!

As mentioned in our last post, we made a quick trip to Southern California over the weekend. When Carolyn visited a year ago and we took her to the Grand Canyon, she saw road signs that pointed out San Diego and Los Angeles to the west, and since she had never been to the Golden State, we made plans to take her. I had a painful knee thing going on (doctor diagnosed it as a hemarthrosis via e-mail), so on Saturday I mostly navigated from the back seat while Melinda drove and Carolyn followed along on the map.

We had an uneventful trip (uneventful is good!), and made it to our beach side lodgings in Pacific Beach, San Diego shortly before sunset. The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful - not a cloud in the sky for the entire time we were in California - rare indeed! We had talked up eating seafood at the Green Flash restaurant, where you could eat a few feet from the beach and watch the sunset, so we did - no solar green flash, though!

The next morning we rose to another tradition while in PB - breakfast at Kono's Surf Club Cafe. The line out front was about average - only halfway down the block, so we waited. Kono's is quite the place - not great food or decor, but is a character of a place. There is a small sign posted "1030 days since we last raised prices". The three of us got stuffed for breakfast including drinks for $22. The line moved pretty fast, so we only waited about 20 minutes. Unfortunately, there wasn't space on the patio overlooking the surf near Crystal Pier, so we had to settle for people -watching. We did spot a celebrity there, however - Jeff Garlin, perhaps most famous for playing Larry David's manager for HBO's Curb Your Enthusiasm, was eating there with his youngest son.

Another surprise waited for us as we walked along the shore afterwards. I only know 2 people in San Diego - Annie, a former Kitt Peak employee and volleyball teammate, and Roy Ang, who has been a semi-regular volunteer at the Grand Canyon Star Party. It wasn't 3 minutes of watching the surf before Roy comes strolling along, a couple cameras in tow! He was late to meet his folks for brunch, but turns out he is making a small living as a photographer in the San Diego area, besides his usual software gig. We were only able to visit for a few minutes before he had to continue on.

Not wanting to stress ourselves, or my knee too much, we only had a couple goals - a visit to see the seals at La Jolla, and a late lunch at the Coronado Hotel later in the afternoon. We had a great time strolling the beaches and watching the enormously high surf - just about as high as I've ever seen it. That plus the extreme new moon tides made shore walking interesting! We saw the seals (pics saved for a later post), and Coronado too. We didn't realize that it was a holiday weekend - of course, we knew it was Valentine's Day Sunday, but didn't realize that many people had Monday off too for President's Day... Anyway, a LOT of people on the road, on the beach, and looking for parking! We walked a lot, and my knee was pretty miserable by afternoon's end. The girls went for a beach walk while I rested, and we both watched an interesting sunset (again, another post).

The next day was the continuation up to Los Angeles, and the bulk of the afternoon was devoted to witnessing the Craig Ferguson taping. Fortunately Melinda found lodging at the Beverly Laurel in West Hollywood, within walking distance to the CBS studios - a funky sort of place - the living room was furnished with fabulous 40's furnishings, while the bathroom had "mod" fixtures.

The famous "Hollywood" sign was missing, though. From what I heard, the land atop the hill is for sale, and rather than see mansions built there, a group wanting the land purchased for a park covered the sign to demonstrate the change in appearance. We're sorry to miss the landmark, but understand their plight.

After the taping, we drove up to the "real" Hollywood, up to Hollywood/Vine, but unfortunately (or not), there was little parking to be found, so after a driving tour, found a nice deli near the hotel before crashing.

Tuesday was our return to Tucson, but first wanted to visit an optics and astronomy friend Dick Buchroeder living not far from Pasadena. Melinda had never met him and it had been over a year or more since he's visited Tucson, so we paid a short visit since he was less than a mile from the I-10 freeway. He seemed great - got to meet girlfriend Nancy, catch up on them both as well as see his telescope projects.

We didn't dawdle, however, as we wanted Carolyn to see as much scenery on our return as possible before sunset. Continuing east we were impressed with the snow-capped San Bernadino Mountains, and the windmill farms as you come into Palm Springs is always impressive to a newcomer. We made it to the Salton Sea before sunset, and explored a little of the wildlife refuge there in anticipation of future trips. Still a long way home, though - we walked in the door in Tucson just a few minutes after Midnight, which had been my goal for the day. Melinda did all the driving too, an excellent job!

We can likely milk all the pics we took into a few more posts, so keep an eye out!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Craig Ferguson!

I guess we didn't mention it before leaving, but our friend Carolyn from St Charles, IL, is visiting us for a week, and we're currently in Los Angeles after a couple days in San Diego. We seem to have Internet every other day or so, and of course have been busy so haven't blogged yet. But figured a shortie post tonight would do - we watched a taping of Craig Ferguson today!

Now we've not mentioned him before, but he is a favorite of ours, both of us trying to stay up till after 11:30 local time to watch him when we can. Originally from Scotland, he is now an American citizen, and is proud of his new country and it shows in his nightly monologues as he starts out with "It's a great day for America!" He is quite often provocative, often funny, but always entertaining. One of my favorite monologues, since the moment I heard it was about the then-upcoming election between McCain and Obama. It is on Youtube here - make sure you hear it to the end! Otherwise there are a gazillion clips there, so check them out.

When Melinda was planning the LA portion of the trip, she looked into Craig tickets and managed to get 3 for us, even finding lodging within walking distance to the CBS studios for the taping. It was quite interesting to witness it all - we got in line about 2pm, waited in line about an hour at the entrance, after going through security and metal detectors(for cellphone detection!) we waited another hour, then about an hour and a half for the taping. The studio seemed much smaller than on TV, and there was only room for 108 "show enhancers" (not audience members)There was a "warm-up" comedian to get us excited for our national TV debut, and then it was time for Craig. He looked just like he did on TV, even doing some of his puppet routines. We got to witness 2 totally different intro takes after the show ran long, and he had an interesting nervous habit rearranging the 20 pieces of candy on the floor managers stand during commercials. Guesting on the show was Oscar-nominee Colin Firth for his performance in "A Single Man", which we've not seen, though Melinda was a big fan of him from Bridget Jones and the BBC version of "Pride and Prejudice"(the ultimate Mr. Darcy, she says!). Amanda Righetti from the CBS show "The Mentalist" was also featured, but bumped when Firth ran long.

One of the highlights for me was running into Exec Producer Peter Lassally in the hall as we were being herded out. I would have liked to say hi, but temporarily forgot his name. After reading his bio in Wikipedia, I wish I'd been braver! All in all, a very fun afternoon and highly recommended if you pass through LA! Back to Tucson tomorrow and more updates!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Last Bird Pics for a bit!

I know, we've been posting a LOT of bird photos lately and you must be sick of them by now... But this fellow showed up in our back yard! We were taking a painting break from our bathroom project (next post!), and we heard a hawk scream - and it sounded close! We stepped into the back yard and there he (she?) was, a Red-tailed Hawk, on a utility pole less than 100 feet away. It's mate was also in the area and in a few minutes they flew off together. We were able to grab a few frames before takeoff. I think they were sizing up the cats for an easy lunch, but our kids are likely too big to be carried off, with one or two exceptions. And with the humans there, they moved on. I was surprised how little attention the cats paid to them! Anyway, these were taken with the 400mm + 1.4 extender on the Canon XSi. The first shot is almost the full frame, the last is pretty zoomed in...