Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not So Stormy After All...

Two nights ago there was a chance of a storm - a "meteor storm"!  The source was a small comet discovered about 10 years ago, 209P/Linear.  Most meteors are from near-microscopic dust released from comets as their ices warm when they near the sun.  It so happens that on Friday night the earth was to pass by a possible swarm of particles released nearly 200 years ago by the comet.  While predictions of comet appearance are notoriously unpredictable, some experts were predicting storm-levels of meteors, upwards of 400/hour!  This shower was to appear to come from the unimpressive constellation of Camelopardalis (the Giraffe), so the meteors would be called Camelopardalids...

Melinda and I decided to drive in search of dark northern skies, which for us in Midtown Tucson, meant a trip up to Geology Vista on the Mount Lemmon Highway.  We often go there for the Perseid Meteor Shower in August as it takes less than an hour for us to get to the site, about 6500 feet elevation.  After a long day of work, and chores at home, we didn't leave until after 10pm, arriving a little late for the 11pm to 1am predicted peak.  We arrived to a zoo!  Geology Vista, normally a lonely place at night was packed as we glided into the last parking spot.  There seemed a large number of people taking photos, there were a few scopes set up and some just watching from lawn chairs.  I got Melinda set up in a comfy chair, and I set up a tripod, and decided to play some with the new T3 Canon obtained from sister-in-law Susan's estate - its first time in a dark sky.  It didn't take long to see there wasn't a storm of meteors taking place, but shortly after arriving we saw a brilliant meteor slowly moving north parallel to the eastern horizon - NOT a Camelopardalid. and of course, NOT in my camera field of view...

The new-generation camera, only 18 months old, is a significant upgrade from my 6-year-old XSi.  While the T3 is not a top level camera, the significant difference for astronomy is that the ISO goes a factor of 4 higher to 6400 and likely has better noise characteristics, so decided to see how it performed at that speed.  The rising Milky Way was an impressive view in the East, so installed the Samyang 14mm lens, and set it to F/4 for these exposures.  At ISO 6400, I exposed for 30 seconds (!) for the shot at left.

Even with the ultra-wide 14mm lens, only parts of the Milky Way could be imaged, so I did what has been popular these days - panorama time!  Turning the camera to a vertical composition, and moving between frames, Photoshop can assemble them into a ultra-wide shot taking in the entire sweep of the galaxy!  Of course, by this time, the parking lot got even fuller, with cars now double and triple-parked, and the Midnight traffic for the holiday weekend seemed more suited for midtown Speedway than the Mount Lemmon Highway!  For those shots taking in the sweep of the landscape, it was tough to miss the cars passing along in 30 second exposures...  The 6-frame panorama shown here reaches from the broadcast towers, Polaris and the Little Dipper at left around to rising Scorpius in the SSE.  This was assembled from 20 second exposures, and Photoshop never burped in assembling them into the panoramas shown here.

I couldn't decide between the ultra-wide panorama shown above, or this one with a slightly shorter arc, so both are displayed here.  By the time I was having fun with these, Melinda was climbing into the car to "rest her eyes", and without the meteors to observe, it was tough to justify staying up late with my need to go to work Saturday morning, so left about 1245.  By this time there was a banjo and guitar playing tunes, about a dozen cameras working, and still a parking spot shortage, so we gave ours up...  The verdict on the camera - shows promise!  While ISO 6400 might be pushing it a bit, there are very few hot pixels in 30 second exposures.  The 14mm lens isn't sharp enough to enlarge much more than these down-sampled images here, so will be trying other optics in the future.  Unpacking the camera later, I was amazed how light the camera was - only 460 grams - right at 1 pound without the lens - amazingly light for all the features it offers!  The verdict on the meteor shower - less promising, but Camelopardalids were seen, just not the storm levels some had predicted.  I think it is still amazing they can predict a new shower like this at all, and if it gets people out looking upwards, all the better!

EDIT:  I'm sorry if I made it seem like Photoshop is required for assembling the sky panoramas shown.  I know it is expensive and not everyone can add it to your software package.  As a University employee, I get the educational version (same as full-price, actually) for a much-reduced cost.  This morning I've been playing around with the Microsoft ICE (Image Composite Editor), and it does a fine job lining these up too and it is free!  You still need a program to adjust brightness and contrast, but you don't need the hundreds of dollars for Photoshop.  So get out there, start shooting and have fun!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Hidden Talents!

When recently back in Illinois and treating some family to dinner and birthday celebration at our house there, our firefighter nephew Rick made good his offer to serenade us with his bagpipes!  He evidently uses his spare time at the firehouse to practice, and is good enough to play in a regional band, as well as being a recent inductee of the Chicago Highlanders (a big deal!), playing in parades, funerals and other occasions.  I've heard bagpipes before, but until they are played a few feet away, you don't realize how loud they are!  Evidently their infant daughter Emmy must be used to them as it didn't seem to bother her at all.  He was quite good, and played some standards including "Amazing Grace" before they needed to leave.  One of our trips back we'll have to go to one of his more official performances.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Virginia Theater!

It was a month ago now that we arrived in Champaign, Illinois for the 16th Ebertfest, named for film critic Roger Ebert who started the "Overlooked Film Festival" way back in 1999.  Through its entire run it has been held at the Virginia Theater - quite the amazing place.  Built in 1920 as a vaudeville stage and movie house it has also hosted everything from dramatic plays to dance recitals.  We posted a few pictures in our first Ebertfest post upon our arrival, but I've got more shots of the incredible interior to show too. 

The Virginia was commissioned by prominent local contractor A. W. Stoolman, who named it for his daughter Elizabeth Virginia Stoolman.  The exterior is of the Italian Renaissance style and designed to resemble an Italian pavilion.  The recently restored marquee is shown at left, and at right some of the detail of the exterior stonework.

Of course, one of the highlights of this year's Ebertfest was the unveiling of the sculpture of home boy Roger Ebert.  By next year's event, the statue will be permanently mounted a few yards east of the entrance to the theater.

Refer to our previous posts of wide shots of the interior.  We were assured by fellow attendees in the long lines to get in that there really were no bad seats in the house and after sitting in both the main floor and balcony that it is absolutely true.  The interior seems open and expansive, and the details are quite spectacular.  Shown at left is part of the organ loft where the pipes are housed, and at right is some of the details in the columns.

And while the organ was only played the first evening as Ebertfest opened, it was impressive too!  Part of the original construction in 1920, it was reported to cost 50,000, thought to be an exaggeration.  It received a restoration in the '60s, and benefited from ongoing work that started in the late '80s.  The keyboard and controls and plaques are shown at left, at enough scale to read some of the labels...

There is liberal use of stained glass from signage to lighting.  Shown at left is one of a pair of stained glass house lights, with decorative murals.  At right is the front face of the balcony seen from the main floor - incredible details showing Spanish adventurers Cortez and Hernandez.  Descriptions say the interior is of Spanish Renaissance design.

It seems everywhere you look are designs of incredible detail. In the dusk of the downstairs concession stand, wall panel designs with perhaps Greek influence are shown at left in a quarter second exposure.  In the balcony level concession, the ceiling panels feature incredibly deep relief designs, shown at right.

While the Ebertfest program is second-to-none for quality movies, it is the venue of the Virginia that really makes it special, and part of the reason that we're likely to return in the future...

Friday, May 16, 2014

It's That Time of Year!

A couple notable milestones today - first of all, it broke 100F in Tucson today!  Turns out, 16 May is about average for it to happen.  Last year, it didn't happen till 1 June, but then set a record by exceeding 100F for every day of the month, the first time it has ever happened!  It has also broken 100F as early as April too, so really, it is the season for that to happen.  One of the local stations runs a contest to name the date, hour and minute that it happens, the big prize being a trip to Cancun or somewhere, so is kind of a big deal 'round here.  They call it the "Icebreak Contest", when the proverbial ice breaks on the Santa Cruz River...  Of course, the Santa Cruz is a dry wash for 360 days of the year, so you have to use your imagination!

The other milestone is that our neighbor's saguaro cactus started blooming yesterday!  A couple years back it was damaged by some cold temperatures (they don't do well below 28F for more than a few hours).  It lost a good 60" (1.5 meters) off the main trunk, and one of the arms, normally held high, droops down to almost head level.  The good thing about that, if it survives, is that the flowers normally out of reach will be easily accessible.  The amazing thing about this particular branch is that it had literally dozens of buds on it.  Unfortunately they don't bloom all at once, only a couple per night typically, but it may keep me entertained for weeks!  The shots shown at left and right were taken a couple days ago, and you can see my reason for excitement.

What you may not know about the Sonoran Desert icon, Cereus giganteus or Carnegiea gigantean is that they are night bloomers, opening shortly after sunset and close up in the heat of the next day.  They require pollination from other plants, but fortunately there are numerous night-time and early-morning pollinators from long-nose bats, birds and insects.  One of my favorite local bloggers, biologist M. Brummermann has a great post on non-insect pollinators...  Shown at left is tonight's crop of flowers, freshly opened! 

I checked on these about an hour after sunset and they were just starting to open.  An hour later and they were in full bloom!  The closer you look, the more the flowers look fake!  The short white petals look like the satin cloth that make up a lot of artificial flowers, and the cup-shaped bowl full of pollen almost looks artificial in it's perfection.  I'm going to look at these in the morning to see if they look a little more ragged after a night's worth of visits...  At least I'm glad I don't have to be 20 feet in the air in the dark to take these closeups!

Of course, there are a couple things I forget when writing a post...  Concerning the 100 degree temps, of course, the local qualifier is that at least "It's a dry heat!"  It is not as uncomfortable as you might think because your body's cooling system works fine - while you sweat, you sweat efficiently - no sweaty clothes!  And that is one of the reasons we can have low temperatures near 60F, yet break 100F later in the day - dry air takes less energy to heat up than humid, so you can usually infer that when it is that hot, it is also dry.  Case in point, last night when we heard it had broken 100F on the 5pm news, the dewpoint at the time was 1F, for a depression of nearly 100 degrees (!) making the humidity 3%!

Shown here is a photo of the neighbor's saguaro flower this morning after surviving the night time pollinators.  Looks none the worse for wear, though perhaps in our part of town we don't get many pollinators.  There are some differences from the freshly-bloomed blossom above - the center of the flower is much deeper, either an artifact of the flower further blooming or of pollinators burrowing in to get to the nectar at the flower bottom, their ultimate interest in exchange for carrying pollen...

So of course, I had to stick my finger in it...  If you went to the Brummermann blog above, you saw birds that stuck their heads into the flower and came out yellow-headed!  So yes, I had to try and sure enough, the pollen coats your finger, or whatever it comes in contact with to carry to the next plant and cross-pollination goes on.  The macro lens (Canon 100mm used for all these shots) can resolve the pollen grains against my fingerprint structure...

I'm sure that by the time this saguaro is done blooming, you'll be bored with all my posts on it.  Then, of course, comes the fruit and seeds from the plant - much more interesting when the flowers/fruits/seeds are at eye level than 30 feet in the air!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

One Month Later...

I was out right at sunset checking out my neighbor's saguaro buds for flowers (look for a future post!), when I saw the nearly full moon rising over a couple palm trees on the street behind our house.  It reminded me of the moonrise on eclipse night exactly 29 days ago (14 April).  While the moon takes 27.3 days to circle the earth (the sidereal month), because during that time we've also been circling the sun, it takes an additional 2 days to move back into the same phase relative to the sun (the synoptic month).  So while the full moon last month occurred about Midnight, full moon here will happen about noon tomorrow, the aforementioned 29.5 days!

There is another difference from the full moon a month ago that I tried to explain in the prequel post to the eclipse - there won't be a lunar eclipse this month because of the inclination of the moon's orbit has moved the moon above the ecliptic plane.  So it won't intersect the earth's shadow so no eclipse...  If the moon's inclination was zero, there would be a lunar eclipse every month, and at noon tomorrow, Europe would be enjoying a lunar eclipse during our midday.  No such luck though - the next lunar eclipse won't be visible until October...

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A Celebration of Seashells and Sea Life at the Seashore!

I've got some catching up to do!  This post is from images taken 4 weeks ago on our Mexico trip for the Lunar eclipse.  Being that it was full moon, Puerto PeƱasco enjoyed 6 meter tides!  It is an interesting effect of the shape of the Sea of Cortez that 1 meter tides down at its mouth near La Paz results in such a huge range at the northern extent of the Sea.  It is very much like the result of splashing in a bathtub can result in large excursions in the shallow rear of the tub.  The photo at left shows the sea a couple hundred yards out from a vantage point that would be underwater a few hours later...

Since I grew up in the Midwest, the shore has an attraction for me to explore the differences from the ordinary.  While they say that Tucson is all beach and no ocean, the beach in Rocky Point is real with little animals and shells to attract my attention like little baubles.  It is a natural place for me to bring the macro lens and see what I can see.  And any regular readers know that I'm also a fan of 3D images, so here are some more hyperstereo (generally greater depth than with your two eyes) images of shells and things...

While I've shown 3D images below here, I've always displayed them for cross-eyed viewing.  In other words, the image for your right eye is on the left, so that you view it by crossing your eyes slightly.  The advantage of that is generally with training, you don't need to use a viewer to see the stereo effect.  Of course, that upsets the people who are used to using the viewers and can't utilize the cross-eyed method.  So here, for the first time, are both ways of presentation!  I still prefer the cross-eyed version as it is less dependent on the image dimensions, where for the straight viewing the images can't be much larger than your eye separation.  So if you can't cross your eyes, try looking across the room, then diverting your eyes to the straight version of the pairs, or use a viewer if you have one.  Anyway, here goes, let me know what you prefer - they both work for me without viewers.

Cross-Eyed Vision
Straight Vision
First up is a little bivalve shell that I saw when I first hit the beach on eclipse afternoon.  Again, these are hyperstereos, so you can see stereo depth even in the grains of sand, so the effect is magnified from the stereo of your two eyes.  At left is the straight pair (left to left, right to right), and at right is the cross-eyed pair...

Straight View
Cross-Eyed View
Next up is one from the next morning and shows a little shell, likely from a snail, perched atop a sand ridge causes by the ripples of water flowing out towards low tide.  While the detail in the shell is neat, I like how you can make out the perspective of the ridge of sand too...

Straight View
Cross-eyed View
Another pair of shells make an interesting stereo pair - a close-up from what started out as a wider shot, but I ended up liking the narrow field better...

Cross-Eyed View
Straight View
A single shell atop some barnacle-covered rocks provide some interesting detail contrasts...

Straight View
Cross-Eyed View
It didn't take much of a search around the high-tide mark to find some interesting subjects for macro 3D.  Even well-worn shells make interesting views.

Straight View
Cross-Eyed View
When closely examined, you see that there are more shell fragments than sand particles making up the beach surface!

Straight View
Cross-Eyed View
And as I mentioned before, even the well-worn fragments are of interest in stereo viewing!

Before and after the stereo pairs, I went searching the tide pools for some action.  While there wasn't a lot of sea life to shoot, what I did notice is that most shells, even the microscopic ones were inhabited by little sea creatures awaiting the tide to return.  I took a couple series of time-lapse exposures, typically a shot every 2 seconds.  When played back at faster rates, it was interesting to see the snails and crabs in motion going about their activities.  I'll definitely be back looking for more action like this in the future to see what I can capture!  Oh, and be sure to let me know in comments or e-mail (click on my name at upper right) if you like the new 3D option!

Monday, May 5, 2014

Our Nephew the Firefighter!

Before leaving the Midwest, we took advantage of an offer from our nephew Rick to come take a tour of the firehouse where he works.  Sounded like fun to us, so Sunday found us in search of where he works.  With me driving, and Melinda examining the map on her IPhone screen, we actually missed the big building on the hill with the big flag, big doors, big living area and big parking lot with the big sign - D'oh!  After parking, he was waiting for us at the entrance.  At left is a 3-frame panorama of the ladder truck in the garage...

He has worked at the Algonquin/Lake in the Hills fire house for 7 years, and his pride in the place shows.  We got a complete tour of the place, living quarters to going through all the equipment.  As you would expect when lives are on the line, everything you might need is right there in its proper place so there is no wasted time in getting the right tools.  This is HUGE machinery, and of course, he has to be proficient in all aspects of their use from ambulance to ladder truck.  Shown here are two of the emblems we spotted a lot.  I like the look of the tooled brass letters and pin striping shown at left even though it is an applied decal.   At right is the emblem he called the "smiley face" design.

Of course, Aunt Melinda was invited to sit in the driver's seat - quite a climb for her!  Rick explained a lot of the controls and turned on the emergency lights too, but no sirens as there were sleepers in the building...  You will note his radio close at hand - he halted the walk-through a number of times to listen to transmissions, and was on his phone a time or two also.  The picture at right is similar to the panorama frame used above, but a narrower, better shot.

These million-dollar machines are also versatile - the controls at left just hint at the complexity of what they can do.  While they carry some water on board, they can pump for less than a minute at full flow before using up their on-board water, necessitating a hookup to a hydrant or alternate source quickly.  The picture at right is interesting too - a fireman's outfit just outside an open door...  They drill to get into their gear in under a minute - during an alarm, they run out, kick off their shoes, step into their boots, pull up on the suspenders and they're ready to go!

And while the daily chores can be a routine of tedium, the risk of danger is never very far away.  At left is the ladder truck's bell, dedicated to a firefighter who died in the line of duty (also barely spotted in the panorama shot above).  Rick himself keeps those dear to him close - a picture of his daughter, year-old Emmy resides in his helmet so it is always near to him, shown at right.

It was great to see Rick and learn more about his work.  I had a little training in first responder and fire fighting when on Kitt Peak decades ago with their army surplus fire truck and modern ambulance, so I have an appreciation and respect for the job they do every day.  I hope his job continues to be routine and the dangerous aspects minimized...

Sunday, May 4, 2014

In Search of Prey!

I'm thinking of a new motto: "Anything worth doing is worth doing to the extreme!"  With yesterday's post about the "ceremonial first dandelion" of the season, today's clear skies seemed to multiply their appearance by a large factor.  So I was wondering about pushing the macro lens a bit to see what it would do.  Besides that closeup lens, I had packed a set of extension tubes, the "old fashioned" way of getting closer to the object by extending the lens further from the camera body (mounted between lens and camera), allowing much closer focusing.  The picture at left shows the setup - I used a ball mount on the underside of the tripod center column, to allow the correct angle for low targets.  I also used a painter's drop cloth to lay on the ground and the intervalometer to take images without jiggling the setup.  The hard part was in using the new camera (a Canon T3) upside down like this, with all the controls scattered all over the new camera, then reversed up-down and left-right!  Oh, and did I mention the wind?  There were scattered leaves blowing across the yard it was so strong!  I even tried using an umbrella to help block it, with little success.  The only thing going for me is that dandelions are pretty sturdy and low enough to the ground that they weren't affected as much, but I still needed to wait for the wind to let up, and shoot at larger lens openings to use faster shutter speeds.

The results were quite amazing!  Despite the wind, the magnification afforded was significantly higher than I've used before and shown here.  One of my favorites is the view across the flower at the forest of pollen-covered stigma.  The stigma split at the end, forming a pir of curling lobes.  As you would expect, the depth of field of the macro setup with extension tubes is quite small, and, in fact, focus-stacking was used to increase the depth of field across this view.  14 frames (!) were combined while changing focus slightly between shots to get all parts of the flower center in focus!

But I was after smaller prey!  As spotted in one of the frames yesterday, there were little pink aphids even on the just-opened flowers, so I was sort of searching for those tiny insects.  I had some luck right away.  This dandelion at left had a couple feeding on it, this aphid seeming to pose for me patiently while taking this 7-frame focus stack.  At left is a nearly full-frame view, and the crop at right from the same image is shown at the full-camera resolution.  I'm quite amazed at the resolution - pollen can be easily resolved, as well as details on the aphids, though to the naked eye they could barely be detected at all even when knowing where to look! 

There was nothing magical about the focus-stacking, it was only used to widen the depth of field in the above image.  I also shot a number of single-frame shots of our little friend, this one at left about the best one, again, showed here at the full-camera resolution.  This shot was taken at just about the close-focus limit of the macro setup, so is just about as good as this setup allows...

While this stuff seems amazing, given the lowly dandelion as subject, the plant itself is pretty amazing!  I found an interesting site about microscopic dandelion structure if anyone wants to learn more.

Parts of the yard are carpeted in what Melinda calls "snowdrops", and I tried imaging them though they are much harder to work with in the wind than the dandelions.  They sit atop a slender stalk, and even though small, they are buffeted a lot by any breeze.  This is a 7-frame focus stack, but unlike the dandelion close-ups, pollen grains can't be resolved though the color variations are striking...

Finally, later in the afternoon, another target presented itself!  Canada Geese are a common sight around here all winter long as some stay even in the Midwest's cold temperatures.  But yesterday the adults were seen with their goslings feeding in the yard.  I grabbed a telephoto lens (a Nikon 500 F/8), and even though nearly 40 yards away, only got a couple shots before they headed into the Fox River.  They err on the side of safety with potential predators, so take off when anything strange (like me!) make an appearance.  We've also got a duck nest nestled against the house, but have about given up on our chance of seeing ducklings this trip...