Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Off RAGBRAI's Beaten Path...

While the RAGBRAI bike riders are off peddling across the state, I usually have a little time on my hands.  I often try to linger over breakfast and read a newspaper, though I've never been able to find my normal New York Times outside of Iowa City.  Of course, there is the occasional stop at the midpoint town to pick up or drop off bikers, and there is the daily shopping for snacks, keeping the cooler stocked with drinks, and the approximate 30 pounds of ice per day needed to chill same.

And then, there is the occasional roadside attraction that catches my eye.  I'm trying to be better at hanging out more, but often it seems the route assigned for support (which we are advised to follow to avoid interfering with bike traffic) is often pretty dull.

And then on Wednesday morning, coming out of Knoxville, as I was crossing the mile-long bridge spanning Red Rock Lake (which the bikers came in on the night before), I spotted an unusual structure.  Shown at left, it is an observation lookout at Cordova Park, which was fortunately on the support route!  Pulling up, for a mere pair of quarters, you could climb the 169 steps to get a bird's eye view of the surrounding territory.  Finished in the late '90s, in a former life it served as the water tower supplying the park (built in 1972), but when it transitioned to a pipeline it was re-purposed into an observation station, as well as a night-time navigation light to lake traffic.  If you click on the image at left, you can spot a student and teacher about halfway up the stairs.

It was a magnificent view!  A display claims you can see the Iowa State capital building, as well as nearly a half dozen nearby towns.  In the early morning view I had, the view of the reservoir was about as good as it can get in the Midwest, and the view to the west shows the above-mentioned mile-long bridge across it.  Shown at left is a 10-frame panorama, unfortunately limited to the 1600 pixel limit of the blog...  Even the vertical panorama of the tower's shadow at right is interesting with the spiral stairs.  Other trivia facts - the observation level is 106 feet off the ground, and it is recognized as having the tallest and longest fiberglass stairway in the world!

And while the structure and view were great, I'm easily entertained, and a patch of prairie nearby also called out to me.  I'm a big fan of milkweed and the creatures they attract, so immediately went to some nice plants with the macro lens.  I was in luck - a couple milkweed beetles were posing for me!  Seemingly a little more rare than the milkweed bugs that dominate near our home in Illinois, the beetles are some of the few creatures that can feed on the toxic sap of the milkweed.  Both milkweed bugs and beetles are aposematic (brightly colored) to advertise to predators that they have absorbed toxins and are poisonous.  Both of these views are of the same fellow who was checking me out from the safety the leaf afforded.  Taken with the 100mm F/2.8 Canon macro, I tried to balance the on-camera flash with available light to get a reasonable exposure.  Both genus and species name (Tetraopes tetrophthalmus) comes from the latin for "four-eyes".  These shots show how the antennae nearly bisect the eyes on each side.

While the above beetle was mostly hidden, another on a nearby leaf reveals the red body and black spots they sport, as well as the microscopic hairs I've missed before...  When I finished taking 30 pictures to get the above 3 shots, a bit of motion caught my eye on a nearby plant - a Harvestman!  This fellow didn't want to pose and I was only able to get a shot or three, this one being the best.  Harvestmen are arachnids with their 8 legs, but are not spiders since they lack the multiple-segmented bodies. 

Anyway, I enjoyed a nice diversion from filling the cooler and driving the bus.  I ought to aim to do it daily!

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


The Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) is a peculiar event.  The one just concluded was the 41st edition - it was started by a couple of reporters for the Des Moines Register who set out to bike across the State and invited readers to join in.  They expected perhaps a few to show up, but hundreds came along on that first 6-day ride.  The next year they held what they thought would be the last one just to accommodate the riders that missed the first, and a couple thousand came along.  So an institution was born!  Every route is different, the overnight towns change from year to year, and the weather and route conspire to make each ride a killer or rolling party.  This year, rolling into Des Moines, actual counts of bikers tallied 35,000 riding at least part of that Tuesday!  Normally they try to cap participation to about 8,000, but since it is held on public roads, you can't keep out anyone who wants to join in.  At 410 miles, this edition was the second shortest, and most agree that the cool weather for most of the week made this one the easiest by far.

While traditions endure, like the dipping of the tires in the Missouri and Mississippi, the towns go to great length to ensure there are entertaining things to do both in the pass-through towns during the day as well as the overnight towns.  I remember an unknown town from decades ago where they ran "toilet races" - porcelain toilets on wheeled carts with each participant using plungers to push themselves along the route.  Or in Dutch-steeped Pella, contestants wearing wooden shoes used yokes and buckets to transfer water between tanks.  Never mind that most of the water ended being hurled at your "competitor", the fun was in participating. 

Sometimes, you bring your own fun...  In Knoxville, we weren't able to find a private yard to camp in, and we got assigned to the bowling alley.  It is always nice to have access to bathrooms and showers, and in this case, we camped on the small lawn next to the road and use of the facilities there.  In Knoxville, Grandma Maggie and Grandpa Dean got joined by their grandkids Becca and Linus for part of a day's ride.  And of course, a highlight for them was camping out with Grandma and Grandpa.  Curt brought along the perfect accompaniment for such a nice evening - a "balloon glow" as he called it, otherwise perhaps known as a Chinese lantern.  It is a little hot air balloon that used a small flame to heat the interior, floating off a half mile or more in the few minutes it burns.  BTW, if you know officially what these are called, I'd love to know to get some - Curt says they are available at Menards, but not here in the Chicago area!

In short, you light the wax-soaked piece at the bottom of what
looks like a clear trash bag.  Here Curt is assisted by Romy's daughter Allie.  As the interior fills with warm air, it gets lighter until it floats off.  The flame burns for about 5 minutes and in that time, I estimate it rose between 500 and 1,000 feet and went about a half mile down range.  Supposedly it is all made of biodegradable materials, so after a few rain storms there will be little left, so you can't be accused of littering.  It was fun to watch the little ones at their amazement as it floated off - and the adults were impressed too!  After describing it to Melinda and showing her the pictures, she wants some too!

While my friends Lee and Michelle had grown up in Iowa, they had never been on RAGBRAI.  This time, though they now live in Tucson, they combined a trip to visit family and their 30th HS reunion to include a couple days on the ride.  They joined us in Knoxville, and of course, when you are camping in front of a bowling alley, you need to go bowling!  I think they were the only ones from our group to take part in "cosmic bowling", complete with black lights, lasers and disco balls.  I might have joined them, but the outdoor balloon glow distracted me...  As first time riders - of course they had to take part in the tradition of labeling their calves with "VIRGIN" to identify themselves as newbies to the ride.  They took the labels in stride, though they were still visible as they headed off to their reunion 2 days later.  No word yet on reaction from their old classmates or their son who was staying at an aunt's...

The grandkids, Becca and Linus had fun spending time with Grandma and Grandpa.  In the morning they got put to work breaking camp.  Becca is just too adorable for words as she got the job of folding up the fiberglass  poles.

After camp is broken, there was time for a quick group portrait
(CW from upper left is Dean Maggie Becca and Linus), then the kids lined up for sunscreen coverage...

Then it was time to ride!  Of course, the adults were looking for traffic, but a few faced the camera.  Becca and Linus were on their tag-alongs, helping the grownups a little with the biking...  Also shown from our group is Romy, nearest the camera, with Allie next to her.  Our fearless leader Carl, recovering from 2 new hip implants, brings up the rear.  You can see our start at 7:53 this morning.  Pretty late by our normal standards...  I remember taking off at 6:30 back in the day, but this year we slept in and had a much more laid-back week than in the past.

Maggie commented once during the week to me that perhaps I'll be rewarded in a future life - trying to tell me that she appreciates the work I do in support of the group.  Well, my response is that getting to spend time with my friends on RAGBRAI is my reward.  I can't think of people I'd rather be with for a week every July with their friendship and generosity of spirit.  I'm only hoping to continue into the future!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

RAGBRAI 2013 - A Week Of Contrasts!

The Registers Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa (RAGBRAI) just finished its 41st trip across the state of Iowa.  I've been driving support for a group from Toddville the last few years after biking the event for 9 times.  It was a good ride, none of our group crashed or missed any of the ride, other than the bus.  The poor Ford bus developed a leaky fuel line to one of the injectors, and while affecting fuel mileage, making a puddle of diesel wherever we parked, and emitting combustible vapors for a few minutes after parking as it sprayed on the exhaust manifold, it continued to roll till we could find parts.  It was much happier after the repair in Des Moines.

So the ride started in a rerun of the heat and drought of the last couple years in Council Bluffs and Omaha.  For a couple days it was miserable with highs in the humid mid 90s and heat index in the low hundreds.  But the rains struck Monday night, soaking campers and riders, but not spirits in Perry...  It was a sign of things to come with moderating temperatures during the week, in fact, on the last day into Fort Madison in far southeastern Iowa, the high was only 66F with zippy tailwinds.  No complaints as riders finished and loaded for the trip home.  In the picture above, riders queue up patiently to dip their front tires in the Mississippi River.  In the background is a reproduction of the old fort which was occupied nearby from 1808-1813 - the first military fort in the upper Mississippi.  Interestingly, this replica was built on the grounds of the city of Fort Madison's other point of fame, the penitentiary by inmate volunteers, and moved to the present site in the 1980s.

Our group, some of which were doing their first ride, some their
20th, were mostly jaded and didn't bother to do the official dipping of tires in the river.  The tradition is to dip the rear tire in the Missouri as well, and if you do the first, how can you not do the second?  But after 410 miles of biking over 7 days, most of our group just headed to the bus...  I walked down and toured the museum in the old railroad depot there, and then ambled down to where the biker action was going on.  I assisted the woman on the left trying to take the obligatory self-portrait of her accomplishment, but travelling solo, sometimes your arm isn't long enough!  She came from Texas to bike across the state.  On the right I caught the "Fountainheads" from Kansas City as the entire group dipped tires.

One more point of interest in Fort Madison is the bridge in the background seen here in the background of tire-dipping bikes.  The Sante Fe double swing span bridge is the largest in the world at 530 feet across!  The image was taken just as it was about closed after allowing barge traffic going downstream.  Built by the Sante Fe Railroad in 1927, the upper deck is for car and truck traffic (2 lanes), and the lower deck is for trains (about 100 per day!).  The bridge is currently owned and operated by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe, and is also a toll bridge - $2 for cars to pass into Illinois, free to return!

I'll be posting more about our week across the state, but need to unwind and sort through the images before doing more. 

Thursday, July 18, 2013

New Rainy Season Hobby!

Our 700th Post!  I wish it could be better or more profound, but what are you gonna do?!  We put them out as they come in...

One of Melinda's collections (ask her about chickens sometimes!), is that she gathered second hand musical instruments as d├ęcor for around the house.  We've got a couple guitars, a trombone, trumpet, sax and clarinet.  And there was a stringless banjo that caught my eye.  Now I played a little (full-size, actually) trombone while in jr high school, and I remember almost nothing about music, but our last trip here I dropped off the banjo for restringing, thinking I might like to take it up (anyone remember the movie "Harold and Maude"?).  Today I picked it up, signed up for my first 2 classes, and also got the instruction booklet (note it says "grade 1" on the cover!).  So about the time I go back to Arizona, I'll know whether or not A: I have any aptitude at all, B: It still interests me after a couple weeks effort, and C: If it serves any secondary purpose like driving cats, spouses or insect pests from the room when I practice!  It turns out it even fits into a guitar case one of the guitars lived in, so it may well travel on RAGBRAI with me.  As bus driver I've got time to sit in the shade practicing, so it might be fun!  Besides, during Arizona's Summer rainy season, astronomy is mostly out of the question, so it provides an alternate activity.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

More Evening Visitors!

While lately I've been posting about insect visitors hanging out at our outside light in Tucson, I'm in a different venue tonight - just arrived at "Ketelsen East" this evening in the western 'burbs of Chicago.  Last time we visited was in early May and the cool wet Spring had delayed the trees budding out, but it is nice and green now.  I drove up right at sunset and it was spectacularly clear - something I've not seen in Tucson in some time!

And something else we don't see in Tucson - I fought a blizzard of mosquitoes to take a couple pictures tonight just outside the house.  In the growing darkness, I saw a 'possum prowling around, but by the time I zoomed and turned the flash on, it ran off. But I did catch something else - lightning bugs! While we've seen them often in previous trips, they are notoriously difficult to image.  They appear during twilight, but don't hang out till dark, so you can't expose a really long time to catch them.  Typically exposures are short and they don't look that impressive.  The picture at left is of our side yard to the South, along the property line with our neighbors.  Looks like a normal shot, but it is 30 seconds exposure with the kit lens opened up about as wide as it will go (F/4.5).  Though the glowing bugs can be detected, they show up a lot better in the zoomed-in version of the same shot at right closer to the resolution limit of the camera - make sure you click the image for the full-size shot - caught at least 8 of 'em!  RAGBRAI starts in a couple days and I may work to get some better shots, so stay tuned for this Summer's Midwest Adventure (SMA!)...

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Late Night at the Ketelsen's...

We've not seen much activity regarding the monsoonal storms in our part of town, just a couple sprinkles, but some parts have gotten damaging winds and flooding - that is the norm for our summer storms.  It might be pouring at the U of Arizona and dry at home a few miles to the north...  But one thing I've noticed is that our front entry light is attracting more insect visitors these days. A couple weeks back I posted about the Palo Verde Boring Beetle, tonight we've got new ones!

The last couple nights we've had a couple
cicadas attracted to the light.  This is a Cacama valvata, common in the Southwest - different from Magicicada Brood II winding down in the Eastern U.S. I've posted about these before, daytime views, but they seem rarer this year.  I love zooming in with the macro (Canon 100mm F/2.8) to reveal the lil' creature's alien details you can't pick out by eye.  Visible in both the above views are the 2 main bug eyes, and 3 little jewel-looking eye spots high on their forehead, not far from their little whiskers of antennae.  Notice also that they climb the vertical surface of our security door not with little suction cups, but have little claws that grasp the edges of the perforated holes in the screen - so cool!

The other documented visitor of note is your standard "June Bug", genus Phyllophaga.  Again, the details revealed with the macro are interesting  - they are much hairier than I would have thought, and like the boring beetle post referenced above, show some jagged armor on their front legs.  Also their antennae appear to have little leaves sprouting out the ends.  And also like the cicada above, use little claws at the end of their leg to grip the edges of the perforations on our screen door.

While the above are far from rare, I love seeing the tiny details, so always look for our night time visitors when I leave the outside light on - stay tuned!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Malala Day!

Wow - it has been well over a week since posting!  I've been waiting for inspiration and it has been lacking...  The daily threat of rain has prevented any astronomy or for that matter, even the sight of a star.  Work has been hectic, and with the heat and humidity I've been mostly a slug after hours.

But inspiration came today in the news.  Malala Yousafzai , the Pakistani child advocate for education for all youth, shot in the head by Taliban to silence her, today spoke at the United Nations on her 16th birthday - declared "Malala Day" by Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.  Her address, given to a youth council, was stirring and brought goosebumps and some tears, knowing what she has been through in her quest for education and her recovery in a UK hospital. 

She had many memorable lines, but my favorite quote is very near the end: "Let us wage a global struggle against illiteracy, poverty and terrorism.  Let us pick up our books and our pens - they are our most powerful weapon.  One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world!"  It doesn't get any better than that, and from one who just turned 16 today!  May we be so lucky to see her succeed and live a long life!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Desert View Panorama-Mania!

Even though we've been back from our recent Grand Canyon trip for weeks, I've been recovering from a hard-disk crash on my laptop, so some of the work on Canyon post have been delayed.  One of my days there, I took off with my small telescopes to try catching river rafters going down some rapids.  Melinda stayed in camp with friends while I went off to the eastern part of the Park where wider expanses of the Colorado River are visible. 

Out at Lipan point there were no rafts in view, so I continued a few miles to the Desert View Watchtower, built 80+ years ago.  The Watchtower was designed by Mary Colter who worked for Fred Harvey and the Santa Fe Railroad, and was responsible for some of the most iconic structures on the South Rim.  This was built not only as a lookout and rest stop for visitors travelling to the Canyon, but also to foster understanding of the Native Americans who live in the area.

The Watchtower is 70 feet tall and is the highest point on the South Rim.  After months of study, it took 3 years to construct at Canyon's edge in 1932.  The structure and Canyon begs to be imaged by something wider than most cameras and lenses allow, so I took several series of exposures that can be joined by software to make panoramic views.   It was a spectacular blue-sky day, though a little hazy and hot for the canyon - temps in the 90s.  Of course, the place was packed with tourists, and unfortunately it was tough to take pictures with the proper amount of overlap to join them, and yet not get people moving between frames to get disembodied body parts.  With careful planning, and sometimes several tries I got pretty good results.  These were assembled from vertical frames taken with my 10-22 zoom, with typically 4 frames joined to make the above.  These are also shown here at the maximum picture size that Blogger allows, 1600 pixels wide, a little larger than I usually show here.  Of course the original files are fun to look through when they're 12,000 pixels wide!  Of course, click the images to load the full-size...

This frame is not a panorama, but is a wide shot with the 10-22 zoom again.  But this shot is what is called an HDR image, which stands for High Dynamic Range.  Three exposures are combined, one properly exposed, one over-exposed, and another underexposed. When combined, the construction software compresses the highlights and shadows to allow all the details to be seen.  Sunrises and sunsets can be amazing with HDR, but at midday might not normally be utilized, but I think it helps this image.  This vantage point might be interesting for some night images.  Noted astro-photographer Wally Pacholka has a very nice night-time image of the Watchtower and Milky Way.

The interior of the Tower is also open to the public and has several levels with original Indian artwork by Fred Kabotie.  Again, the interior expanse requires another panorama, a vertical format in this case.  For this one, 3 horizontal frames were combined to form this vertical image showing the interior design.  Going to the full-size image allows some of the designs to be seen.  The artwork shows some classic designs in Indian art as well as relating some of the creation stories and beliefs.  I've never actually climbed to the top of the tower - perhaps next time without so many tourists!

Of course, I couldn't let you get away without a stereo pair!  This view was taken from very near where the HDR shot was taken above.  As in all this post's images, multiple shots are taken - in this case only 2, one to be viewed by your right eye, the other, taken a foot or two laterally away to be viewed by your left.  The result is a 3D image!  These are presented for cross-eyed viewing - cross your eyes slightly to look at the right image with your left eye and vice-versa.  The result will be a center image in 3D!  The thumbnail might be easier to practice on before going to the full-size image.  Since I was 50 meters or so from the Tower, the 3D effect is relatively small, but can definitely be seen.

So finally catching up on my Canyon posts.  One of the main projects I wanted to work on was some time-lapse sequences.  As a result I took nearly 5,000 pictures, mostly to be seen at 5 to 10 frames per second for a time-lapse.  Still thinking about how I'm gonna edit it and maybe set it to music - stay tuned!