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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sky photos, 8/31/2010

Silently, the wandering objects in the dome of the heavens known as "planets" continue to thunder across the sky.  Venus and the bright star Spica had their closest encounter tonight, and the difference in the positions of these two objects from last night to tonight is quite remarkable.

Due to a cat who chose to hide when it was time to take his medicine, I had to get my images from a different location tonight than I did last night.  This location doesn't have a very clear view of the western sky, and features utility lines and bright streetlights that cause all sorts of internal reflections in my lens.  Here is the uncropped first image I took tonight at 8:24 PM.  You can see what I was up against.


It wasn't great, but a quick zoom of the image showed that I had captured Venus, Spica, and Mars.  Compare this to last night's image, when Venus was to the right of Spica; tonight it is on the left.  Mars, once again, is to the far upper right.



I was able to get quite a few photos, but due to the cumulative glare any composite that combined all of these images would be too washed out to actually show anything.  Here is a composite image of the last ten of my photos, taken between 8:29 and 8:33 PM.  Notice that in the last one, Venus has already partially disappeared among the branches of the evergreen tree.


Now we enter the endgame.  Venus will put more distance between itself and Spica, and will also gradually pull away from Mars.  Mars will pass closest to Spica on the evening of September 5.  According to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar 2010 (or, more precisely, Fred Schaaf's "Observer's Highlights for September" from this calendar), "Venus pulls away from Mars but retrogrades back to pass 6.5 degrees south of Mars on September 25."  As the month progresses, Venus will brighten considerably and - visible to keen-eyed observers and those with the appropriate observing tools - will increase in diameter while at the same time shrinking down to a thin crescent.  This is one great feature of having a bright planet like Venus on an inside track  with the sun - we get to see it go through phases.  I have never observed phases of Venus myself, but we'll see if I can change that at the end of this month.

Sky photos, August 30 2010

The planetary triangle visible in the western sky after sunset in the end of July and beginning of August has broken up and moved on.  Venus and Mars have continued to sail away from the Sun while Saturn has been left behind in the sunset glow.  And as Venus and Mars have continued their southern and eastward movement against the background of stars they have encountered the occasional very bright star.  At this moment a new triangle has been formed by Venus, Spica, and Mars.  Here is a crop of my first image, from 8:18 PM:


Spica is on the upper left, Venus is the very bright thing below it and to its right, and Mars is on the upper right, just to the right of the center top of this image .  The three of them make an almost perfect right triangle.

I was able to take thirty-three images of tonight's trio between 8:18 PM and 8:37 PM, but because of the way I combine images to make composites, I was not able to use any where the sky was too light.  Here is a composite of seventeen images from 8:26 PM through 8:35 PM:


Combining these images brightens them considerably.  Here is a similar crop of one of the earliest images in this series, from 8:27 PM:


Venus soon sank below where I could reliably get a bead on it, and I had to change my position to get any more images.  Here is my final shot of the night, taken at 8:37 PM, just as both Venus and Mars were about to slip beneath rooftops.


Tomorrow Venus and Spica will make their closest approach, and then they too will move apart.

Jack Horkheimer would have loved this.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Work on a beautiful day

This marks the end of my second full rotation of work since the end of July.  I was laid off for all of one rotation and most of another, and was actually expecting to be laid off for all or most of August.  I had plans, all involving the house.  But of course, those plans did not include getting robbed.

Mostly I want to paint.  My front porch needs to be repainted.  Much of the paint I applied just four years ago is peeling off.  I could have repainted last year, but last summer never saw more than three days in a row without rain.  This summer the main enemy of painting has been oppressive heat, occasionally interspersed with torrential downbursts.  My layoff period at the beginning of this month featured both of these weather phenomena, so I didn't get painting done then.

I also want to refinish my porch furniture, and sand and repaint my wrought-iron fence.  That last item will be a huge and tedious undertaking.

The weather these past few days would have been perfect for any of these projects.  Unfortunately I have been at work when I could have been doing these things.  At least I'm earning money, for now.  But rather than being therapeutic, work has been a source of stress since the robbery - while I'm at work, I'm away from the house, and the people who robbed my house the last time have probably figured out my schedule by now, if they're planning to rob the other side.  Soon I'll have a security system installed, and I'll have a little bit of peace of mind.  (Hmmm...come to think of it, I'd better get a security camera installed that covers the front gate, which will probably be the next target of scrap-metal thieves.)

Friday, August 27, 2010

Reality or illusions?

As can be expected, the majority of my search engine hits are from people searching for "two moons on august 27" or some variation of those terms.   I guess a lot of people are finding out for the first time ever that this is not true.  I wonder how many of them will be back looking for this next August?

Oh, and the stuff about this August containing five Sundays, five Mondays, and five Tuesdays, something that happens only once every 823 years?  Yeah, that's not true either.

I've actually had people get angry with me for revealing that the thing about Mars is a hoax.  Would it have been better to let them continue to think that this was really happening, and they just somehow missed it, and all the major news organizations of the world somehow didn't think it was worth knowing?

Is it better to live with our illusions?  Getting robbed has made me think a lot about some things, like the illusions of safety and security.  Getting robbed is, on a microscopic scale, your own personal 9/11 or Katrina.  Not in terms of scope or impact, but in terms of realizing that you were not prepared for this, that there were very simple and obvious things you could have done to prevent this or at least mitigate its effects, that just because something hasn't happened ever before doesn't mean that it can't or won't happen.  And then when you begin to think about it you realize that any precaution can be circumvented, that you can only be prepared for that which you are prepared for, and anything worse can easily overwhelm your defenses.  You know that you can never be completely safe, and that you never were in the past.

I'd rather deal with the real world than dwell in an illusion.  But sometimes that illusionary world is just so much more comfortable.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Yet another blog: Hot Notes

I've been asked to create a blog that will serve as an online place where "dislocated employees" from my current workplace (which, in a few months, will include me) can easily access the information that is being provided by the Transition Team and Pennsylvania Career Link.  To make this site as accessible as possible, I've had to make it accessible to anyone, anywhere - the one drawback of this is that some of this information is specific to Pennsylvania, so it won't be universally applicable. 

Unfortunately, it hasn't started to get indexed by Google yet, so people who are searching for this information won't be able to find it.  So I'm giving this a little kick-start here.

Hot Notes

The blog is called Hot Notes, after the Transition Team's newsletter of the same name.  (The newsletter was originally going to be called "The Final Note", but that sounded too...final.)  Unfortunately, that name was already taken on Blogspot by a "squatter blog," but my second choice was available - http://hotnotesnepa.blogspot.com.

Most of what will appear here is not my original content but is reprints of content from the Transition Team newsletter and from information sheets provided by the folks at the Scranton Career Link office.  As I have said, much of it is specific to Pennsylvania, but some will be applicable to everyone.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Dialing it back

This break-in has made me even more paranoid than I already was.  (Though if I had been a bit more paranoid before, I would already have done all of the things I just did and am planning to do to secure the house, and the break-in would not have happened - or would have happened in a completely different way.)  A few weeks ago a blog-friend went on vacation to the beach and announced this fact very publicly on his blog and on Facebook.  At about the same time, a rash of burglaries in a local area were traced to someone who was using Facebook to determine when people were not home.  I never got around to warning him.  And then my house was robbed.

I've been pretty open with publishing details of my on-shift/off-shift schedule here, as well as other details of my life which could be very useful for someone cruising for helpful information when seeking to break into a house.  I don't think that had anything to do with my break-in, but I think I'll be stopping that practice anyway.  Maybe I'll also dial back my post-a-day routine, especially since I've been asked to work on creating a new blog to post useful information for people affected by past, present, and future cutbacks at my workplace.  Plus I'm going to be meeting with plumbers, home security installers, and other such folks during my free time, so I'll have less time for blogging - or anything else, for that matter.

The things you hear when you can't sleep

These past few days have been a mix of exhaustion, frustration, and insomnia.

I have been unnaturally tired at times when I should not have been.  I have also spent a lot of time waiting to hear back from people - the police, the insurance adjuster, the window replacement people.

I have installed numerous alarms at my house.  Will they do any good?  If no one heard or paid attention to the sound of a window being smashed, will they hear or pay attention to an alarm?  I am contacting a home security company today.  How much will they charge?

A friend came over to reattach the water heater on my side of the house yesterday.  The inlet pipe coming from the main had been knocked off when whoever was robbing the other side of the house jerked the pipe loose while ripping out all the copper pipes on the other side.  (They apparently didn't use cutting tools, just worked them loose.  How long did that take?)  With that done, I was once again able to spend the night there, since I now had water to the bathroom.

I worked on security stuff until after dark, called a friend I haven't talked to in a while, and then settled down to watch some TV - an episode of NOVA on PBS about feathered dinosaurs and the four-winged dinosaur called the Microraptor.  I was dozing near the end of this program when another friend called to check on me.  We talked for a bit, and then I decided to haul myself up to bed.

Only now, I couldn't sleep.

I don't know how long I lay there awake.  An hour, maybe two.  I listened to the sounds of the neighborhood, the various comings and goings of people and cars.  Those footsteps - are they on my porch, or the porch next door?  Was that noise a car door, or something getting knocked over next door?

I slept eventually, and woke up dreaming of Drew Barrymore, something involving the house and her career.  I fell back asleep for a while and woke to another dream involving a party at my house, in the back yard, with people I didn't recognize sitting at two long picnic tables.  My sister was there, and she had brought something from NASA that was a fold-out map of the night sky that would wrap around into a 360-degree display.  She told me about some neat trick involving the summer solstice, but I couldn't figure it out, even after I had rotated the assembly to display the sky in June.  As I was fumbling with the device the people at the tables started to laugh at me, and I heard one of them say "He thinks he's so smart, and he can't even figure that out."  So I invited the guy with the big mouth to show me, and it quickly became apparent that he had no idea what he was supposed to do with the thing.  Then I woke up.

In a few hours the person from the glass company is supposed to come over, and then the insurance adjuster.  In the meantime I will contact ADT or Broadview or Brinks or whoever the hell does security these days and find out about prices and options.  I will also be doing some security reinforcement of my own.

Eventually I have to go back to work.  And who will be watching the house then?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Keep Looking Up: Jack Horkheimer, 1938 - 2010

When Carl Sagan's Cosmos premiered in 1980, TIME magazine ran a cover story featuring Sagan in his "On the Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" pose.  Inside many pages were dedicated to the making of the show, the goals of the series, and the audacity of creating and marketing an expensive TV program that amounted to a lengthy science lesson.  Sagan was a celebrity, and was duly celebrated.

When Sagan died in 1996, TIME barely took note.   His obituary was only a few sentences long, and accompanied by a thumbnail version of the cover image from sixteen years earlier.

Jack Horkheimer has died.  Many people remember him from their childhood, despite the fact that his weekly five-minute show has run continuously for more than thirty years, with new episodes ready to air at least into the beginning of September.  Perhaps this is because people were more likely to be watching their local PBS station at the times when Jack Horkheimer's show* aired  - usually late at night or just after science fiction programs like Dr. Who - when they were young children than after they became jaded and distracted adults.  But Jack Horkheimer was still around, at least up until last week.  Then he died.

I was over my house last night, making my presence known and installing various alarms on a house that has stood without any such thing for nearly a century.  But before I did that I stopped in the back yard to grab a few quick photos of Venus and Mars and some attending stars.


I had started things off pretty late this night - the time-lapse above is of images taken between 8:47 and 8:49 PM.  Venus abruptly dims in brightness between the first and second images and then gradually increases in brightness again until it vanishes behind a rooftop.  This is because some clouds scudded across Venus just after the first image, though their presence is diminished by the way I have combined images.

After Venus had passed out of visibility I turned to face the nearly-Full Moon.  This is a lousy time to try to observe the Moon:  most surface detail is washed out by the absence of dramatic shadows, and any prolonged viewing of the Moon will result in immediate loss of dark adaptation in your eyes.  But I observed it anyway, and even tried to take some photos - which resulted in washed-out, overexposed images.

I went inside, read the instructions for my motion sensor a few dozen times, and watched some TV.  I saw my first episode of "The Jack Benny Show" ever - it featured the Mills Brothers, or at least the two out of four Mills Brothers that the legendarily cheap Jack Benny was willing to pay to appear on his show.   (I wonder how long it took for contemporary audiences to grow weary of the continuous "Boy, is Jack Benny Cheap" shtick.  It took me all of five minutes.)  While the episode was on I went into the other room and installed the first of several motion sensor alarms.  After some trial and error - and the ransacking of a battery-operated screwdriver for its batteries, since the motion detector takes AA batteries, not the AAA batteries I had specifically purchased for these alarms (I have three different sorts of alarms that take four different sorts of batteries) - my alarm was installed, and one part of one side of my house was protected, or at least would make a lot of noise if someone broke in that way.  It was time to go back across town and make my presence known at another house, and start thinking about strategies for securing that one.

As I stepped out of the front door and onto the porch I saw something else amazing in the sky:  Jupiter, mighty and bright and brilliant, getting ready to put on its best show in - well, I don't know, a dozen years, or more like fifty years, depending on which source I am reading.  I suppose in a situation like this, I would wait a few weeks until Jupiter would be rising at a time that would make it more conveniently visible to the general public, and then see what Jack Horkheimer had to say about it.  But unless he recorded episodes many weeks in advance, I do not know if we will be hearing from him on this subject.

Two weeks ago I wrote in a footnote about one of the most memorable events of my late childhood and early teens, the Triple Conjunction of 1981.  I don't recall exactly how I became aware of this event.  Maybe I actually noticed the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn all on my own - it was very visible at a convenient time of night, and was hard to miss for anyone who ever bothered to look up.  But the sad fact is that most people do not bother to look up.  The hymn "My Soul is Longing for Your Peace" extols the words "my eyes are not lifted from the Earth" as a virtue, and Spider-Man has noted "nobody ever looks up" and has used this to his strategic advantage.

Maybe it was a copy of the magazine Natural History that my father randomly brought home one day while the conjunction was just beginning.  That magazine featured (and, for all I know, still features) a monthly sky chart and planetary information.  I seem to recall going through this magazine around this time, and visiting the library down the street to see earlier and later issues.

But I think it was also around this time that I first started noticing episodes of Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler.  Could he have been the reason I was so aware of the months-long dance going on between Jupiter and Saturn throughout the first half of 1981?  Maybe.  I don't remember.

I walked down the front steps from my house - I really need to repaint these, soon, I thought, when temperatures get a little cooler and the weather gets a little drier - and to my car, with Jupiter blazing before me the whole while.

Nobody ever looks up.  Jack Horkheimer is dead.  What would he have had to say about this?

I don't know.  I miss him.  From the tributes I have read online, he truly had an impact on a lot of kids during those formative years when they happened to be watching PBS at exactly the right time.  And maybe some of them have remembered his jubilant exhortation at the end of each episode:  "Keep looking up!" A few years ago he actually wrote his own epitaph:
Keep Looking Up was my life's admonition,
I can do little else in my present position.
Those of us who have been looking up will continue to look up.  Perhaps we will persuade others to begin looking up.  Perhaps not.

Goodbye, Jack Horkheimer.  When I look up, I will remember you.


*Originally called Jack Horkheimer: Star Hustler, but later renamed Jack Horkheimer: Star Gazer after too many nannybots started blocking searches for the show.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Back

OK.  I'm back.

- This thing with my house being robbed has thrown me for a loop.  To complicate matters, this was my first full rotation of work since the end of July.    Although I have been getting as much sleep as I usually do during work weeks - maybe more - I have been more exhausted on the ride home.  Dangerously so.  The first morning back I actually sailed right past my exit.*  I have also been struggling to stay awake on the ride home, and multiple cans of diet cola and copious amounts of grapes have not been helping much.

- I haven't actually been able to get much done related to the house in the past week.  The insurance adjuster has agreed to meet with me on Monday afternoon, or maybe Tuesday, or possibly Wednesday.  I have put in two calls (on Wednesday and Friday mornings) to the leading company in this area that does on-site window repairs and have not gotten a call-back.  Tomorrow I will stop in the place in person and ask them if they can help me or, failing that, if they can recommend another company that can help me.  Meanwhile, I have a few cheap little toy alarms in place, and I have a few battery-operated door alarms and one motion sensor that I want to install tomorrow.  This is just a stopgap measure until I can contract with a professional alarm monitoring company, but I do like the idea of battery-operated alarms, as well as the idea of multiple overlapping independent alarm systems.

I did a security review of the house a decade or so ago - I think my grandmother was alive at the time, but in a nursing home - when we thought someone had tried to break in, and I was overwhelmed at the number of possible entry points at ground level alone.  Installing shock sensors on every window will be an enormous undertaking.   Strategically placed motion detectors may be a more efficient first step.

Entry into the house was through a window.  The window was totally smashed in.  How brazen is that?  Even though this window is concealed from the street, the neighborhood still has enough people in it that someone could have heard.  (The elderly neighbor next door whose kitchen door is just feet from this smashed window was out of town last weekend.)  Even if you are assuming that most people will be shut up in their houses with their air conditioners running, a quick check of the street showed that there are a few people who keep their second- and third-story windows open for fresh air.  So how could you assume no one would hear?

I was at the house late Saturday night, and I know the break-in had not happened yet because the water was not pouring out of the dislodged water heater inlet in my basement yet.  On Sunday I gave blood, and was amazed at how hard it was raining.  It rained on and off through Sunday and into Monday morning.  It was supposed to rain all day Monday, but the surprisingly nice weather made me decide to go over to the house early that evening with the weed-whacker - which is when I discovered the break-in.  But there was no obvious weather damage near the open window or on the curtains, which were still in place.  (The curtains protruding out of the place where the window had been were the thing that triggered my Hey, that ain't right response.)  Based on that, I have concluded that the break-in must have happened sometime Monday morning after it had stopped raining.

But could this be wrong?  The window is in a relatively shielded area - this made it a tempting break-in target, I suppose.  Maybe very little rain came in through the open window, and what came in had dried up before I got there?  If you're going to enter a house by smashing a window, your greatest enemy - after lacerations, and maybe a rib-bruising injury brought on by an inconveniently-placed wire rack and can of paint - would be the sound of shattering glass.  What better way to cover this up than with a rainstorm?  I wonder how many break-ins happen during downpours?

- I am now completely paranoid.  I am not at my house now.  Has someone broken in since I was there this morning?  Is someone breaking in now?  What about now?  If I leave this house to go over there, will someone break in here?  What about when I am off at work?  Will the presence of my elderly mother deter anyone from breaking in?  How much security can I afford?

- The thing that was supposed to bring closure to my family this week after a delay of five years, didn't.  Nothing was settled.  We're not quite at square one again, but it sure feels like it to me.  I truly believe that someone is trying to run out the clock on my mother.

- I missed Gasstock yesterday because I was working both the night before and the night after.  Several of my blog-friends were there.  There were so many bloggers there that Mark from Circumlocution for Dummies commented
And early on, before the people started streaming in to some degree, it seemed as if every other person in attendance was a blogger, anti-fracking and otherwise. All of which had me uttering the words…Blog Stock.
- Jack Horkheimer, Star Hustler, died yesterday.  He was an important part of my developmental years, and I still caught him from time to time on television.   A while back the blogger at the currently-on-hiatus blog Nite Sky Girl clued me in that his weekly shows were now being posted to YouTube , and whenever I have wanted to explain some fascinating astronomical event I have found it easiest just to cite the relevant episode of his show.**  He was a wonderful popularizer of naked-eye backyard astronomy.  The world needs more people like him, with an infectious enthusiasm for the universe and a willingness to share and teach.  Maybe I'll expand this into a full-fledged post sometime.



*It wasn't entirely my fault; someone has thoughtlessly taken down the work zone that had been in place just past my turnoff for the past few months, and was apparently serving as a cue for me to exit.  Exactly the same thing happened about twelve years ago.
**I can't believe it was less than a month ago that I referred to him as a "living treasure" and wrote "Jack's been doing this for a long time, and I fear he may not be doing it for much longer."  I guess my fears were correct.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sporadic posting ahead

My posting will be spotty at best over the next few days as I try to integrate the things that you have to do after you've been robbed with my schedule as a night shift employee.  I should have been asleep fifteen minutes ago, but I'm still up.

Fun detail about my post-robbery conversation with the police:  It only occurred to me after the fact that, in addition to being sweaty and smelly after going a day-and-a-half without a shower, and dressed in a ripped T-shirt and sweat pants, I was also sporting a lovely huge syringe mark on my left arm, along with some blue marker as a handy guide for the location of the vein - the aftermath of my blood donation the previous day. I think I may need to explain to the investigating officer that this wasn't, in fact, some junkie-on-junkie crime.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

It's called Snopes, people

Once again a local newspaper has published an e-mail hoax as a letter to the editor.  From the August 18 Citizens' Voice:

Protect your privacy from hotel room magnetic key

Editor:

Ever wonder what is on your magnetic key card when you stay in a hotel?

Answer:

A. Customer's name
B. Customer's partial home address
C. Hotel room number
D. Check-in date and out dates
E. Customer's credit card number and expiration date.

When you turn them in to the front desk your personal information is there for any employee to access by simply scanning the card in the hotel scanner. An employee can take a hand full of cards home and using a scanning device, access the information onto a laptop computer and go shopping at your expense.

Simply put, hotels do not erase the information on these cards until an employee reissues the card to the next hotel guest. At that time, the new guest's information is electronically overwritten on the card and the previous guest's information is erased in the overwriting process.

But until the card is rewritten for the next guest, it usually is kept in a drawer at the front desk with your information on it.

The bottom line is: Keep the cards, take them home with you, or destroy them. Never leave them behind in the room or room wastebasket, and never turn them into the front desk when you check out of a room. They will not charge you for the card (it's illegal) and you'll be sure you are not leaving a lot of valuable personal information on it that could be easily lifted off with any simple scanning device card reader.

For the same reason, if you arrive at the airport and discover you still have the card key in your pocket, do not toss it in an airport trash basket. Take it home and destroy it by cutting it up, especially through the electronic information strip.

Information courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service.

(name deleted)

It takes five seconds to Google a line of text from these letters. And didn't the line "Information courtesy of the Metropolitan Police Service" set off any warning bells? Obviously not.

http://www.snopes.com/crime/warnings/hotelkey.asp

It's bad enough when gullible people pass along these emails to their friends. But it's much worse when a newspaper publishes letters like this, and the Fort Hood "Obama photo op," and the "twelve year old girl kills intruders with daddy's shotgun", and the rest, in its pages. Do a little fact-checking before you publish!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Inopportune return to work

Tomorrow night I will begin another four-day rotation of work, my first full rotation since the end of July.  Unfortunately this comes at a very inopportune time.

Since I discovered yesterday that my house had been broken into, I've been going through some stages - different from the stages of grieving.  I started off at a level of bemused acceptance.  Now I have worked my way up to  full-blown paranoia.  Now that the thieves know that they can smash a window, go through a house (there was evidence that they had been on the second floor, though nothing was missing up there), cut out the pipes in the basement, and exit through the back door, all while making a hell of a racket (based on the window greenhouse and can of paint that the first person through the window apparently fell onto, and the footlocker of magazines that they knocked over while getting through a draft-blocked doorway), all without being challenged or apparently even noticed, will they be back to try for more?  And will they try doing the same thing on the other side of the house?  I've shut off the water coming into the house so that if they do, I won't have another water gusher situation, but I've also installed rudimentary alarms here and there.  Now I need to have a friend over to reattach the pipe to the water heater on the side that they didn't hit (the water pipes on either side were connected through the wall, and in stealing one they jarred the other loose), and have someone come over to repair the window, and have an insurance adjuster come by to calculate the damage.  At least some of this will probably take place on days when I should be sleeping before or after work - maybe even tomorrow.

There's something else going on this week that I won't discuss, other than to say that after five years it will bring my family closure, one way or another.

Finally, on Saturday is the big Gasstock concert.

Come to GAS STOCK! « NO FRACK MOUNTAIN
Susquehanna River Sentinel: My Trail of Tears
Gort42: Gas Stock Saturday
Circumlocution for Dummies: Real Housewives? Here? (scroll to the bottom section)

I knew from the start that I was scheduled to work this day, and once the layoffs began I knew I couldn't pass up the chance to work if it came along.  It has, and I cannot.  I'll have to count on my circle of fellow bloggers to be my eyes and ears at this event.

If I had been given a choice, I would gladly have worked last rotation and taken the layoff this rotation.  But I was not given that choice.  So now I'm off to work to earn a paycheck, for the next four nights at least.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Planetary triangle, 8/16/2010

I went over to my house to run the weed whacker, replace the handle on my lawnmower, relax a bit, and then see if the sky was clear enough for photographing the planets. The smashed window I discovered in the back of the house on the "storage" side of my double-block while running the weed whacker caused a change in plans. After calling the police, who quickly determined that a) there was no one still in the house, b) the copper pipes leading to the water heater had been cut out of the "storage" side of the basement, and c) in doing this, the water feed pipe to the water heater on the other side of the house had been dislodged, resulting in the water flowing freely along the floor and into the floor drain for up to the full 43 hours since I had last been in the house.

I never did get around to changing the handle on the lawnmower.


I tried to settle myself down after all this by calling people on the phone while setting up to photograph the planets. Unfortunately, most of the people I tried calling were not available. Also unfortunately, I had not verified the relative positions of the planets before I started, so most of my shots cut off Saturn. All three planets are present in the image above, though multiple compressions may make them hard to spot. You'll have better luck with the crop below: Venus is the big bright thing in the lower left, Mars is tucked in the very upper left corner, and Saturn is on the extreme right about 1/4 of the way up.


While I took a lot of images, most of them did not include Saturn. Here's a composite of three that did, taken at 8:45, 8:48, and 8:48 again. The extra star above Mars is Gamma Virginis, actually a tight double star.


And here is the same image in closeup:


After Venus was obscured by the grapevine I repositioned the camera, unintentionally cutting off Saturn. So while I took numerous photos after 8:48 PM, none of them contained the third planet of the triangle.

Here is the final photo from that series, taken at 8:48 PM:


And here is a crop clearly showing all three planets.


How much longer until these three planets no longer fit in the same field?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Starring George Clooney as Paul Krugman

What happens when a Nobel Prize-winning economist is pushed too far?


Some days it must be hard to be Paul Krugman. The death threats, the trolling, the being mistaken for Thomas Friedman (and vice-versa), the being ignored by the people who could most benefit from his advice - or rather, the people who could do the most good with his advice.

But on the other hand, if the movie Syriana taught us anything, it was that George Clooney with a beard looks a lot like Paul Krugman.


(Image from Syriana. Caption by me.)

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Blood again

Tomorrow I am scheduled to give blood. It's a Sunday, not a typical donation day, but there's a special drive going on. I had gotten into a pattern of donating blood every eighth Wednesday, since this allowed me to combine donation outings with other Wednesday-specific activities. But that ended just before the date of my last scheduled donation, when the blood center suddenly cancelled its Wednesday donor hours. I could have switched back to a Saturday donation schedule, but for that to have fit in nicely with my work schedule I would have needed to do that last Saturday, and I didn't.

I don't know what the donation site's new schedule is, but I'm willing to bet it won't be open regularly on Sundays. If they have Mondays open, I'll try to schedule my next donation for Monday, October 11. Otherwise we'll just roll the dice and see. Besides, who's to say what their schedule will be eight weeks from now?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Cracked.com

So there I was, innocently checking updated statuses from my friends on Facebook. One of them, a blogger I have known for several years, mentioned that she and her husband were finally getting around to watching James Cameron's Avatar, a movie she wasn't feeling entirely positive about.

I myself have never seen Avatar. If I ever do, it will be because I'm visiting some friends who have decided that this movie will be the entertainment for the evening. I have, however, read Ursula K. Le Guin's "The Word For World is Forest" as well as a comic book adaptation of Poul Anderson's "Call Me Joe," so I think I've got most of the social and science-fictional bases covered. Alas, I've never seen Pocahontas or Dances with Wolves, so I still may be missing some important ingredients.

Plus I might just want a science-fictiony explanation of why the critters on the planet Pandora look like slightly modified and mashed-up Earth critters.

I remembered that Cracked.com took the movie to task and made on of their infamous lists of "The (some number) (somethingest) Things About James Cameron's Avatar", or something like that. It was funny, it hit on most of the points I had made about this movie I had not yet seen, and it made other points I hadn't thought of. I decided to find the list for my friend.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find it. What I did find was a surprisingly positive review, 'Avatar' Is Horribly Written, Way Too Long, Totally Worth It. I read through it, posted a link to my friend's Facebook page, and then went back to look at the "Recommended For Your Pleasure" links at the end.

And like that, I was finished.

The 6 Most Gigantic Everything in the History of War
6 Japanese Subcultures That Are Insane (Even for Japan)
5 Reasons You Should Be Scared of Google
The 10 Most Important Things They Didn't Teach You In School

Each of these lists - each spread out over two pages - ended with another set of links. Some were repeats from previous sets. Some were brand-new. All of them led to more lists, and more, and more...

Once upon a time Cracked magazine was a second-rate MAD magazine copy, inferior to the original but superior by far to Crazy, the only other survivor of the wave of MAD knock-offs of the 1960s and 1970s. It felt safer and less radical than MAD, with the notable exception of the art of John Severin. Years have passed since I picked up a copy - with good reason, it turns out, as Cracked was nearly put under by a 2001 anthrax attack, actually ended publication in 2004, and came back (briefly) in a very different format in 2006.

Today, Cracked is known mainly for its website Cracked.com, "America's Only Humor and Video Site, Since 1958," which is very different from the old Cracked magazine - as well as MAD magazine's website. It's not safe for work, not safe for kids, and not safe for anyone who doesn't have an infinite amount of time to just scroll through hilarious, informative, and occasionally accurate lists of things you didn't know about and wouldn't think to ask.

5 Ridiculous Ancient Beliefs That Turned Out to Be True
The 5 Greatest Books With Psychotic Fanbases
8 Historic Symbols That Mean The Opposite of What You Think
9 Beloved Characters Made Horrifying by Japan

Be warned. Some of these pages take a while to load. So opening, say, twenty of them at the same time may cause your system to have performance issues. As well as cost you hours of your life.

The Sideshow Gathering 2009 from Mitchell Klein

Received this in an e-mail today:

I was looking at your pics from last year's (2009) Inkin the Valley and Sideshow Gathering and thought you might be interested in seeing the one's I took and have on Flickr. If you want, you can use any of them just as long as credit is given (Mitchell Klein). Thanks.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/yogurt75/sets/72157622828765764/ (626 pictures)

So, ummm, that's a lot of photos! And the sad truth is, I haven't even done my Day 3 report yet! (Nor have I finished my Stained Glass Project posts yet. Because, you know, when they're over, they're over, right? So why not stretch them out a little bit more?)

So, while I'm here being lame, do check out Mitchell Klein's AWESOME photos from the 2009 Sideshow Gathering! And then make plans to come and hang out there in Wilkes-Barre this November 5-7!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Dinosaurs of Country Junction

There's a chain of stores in eastern Pennsylvania called Country Junction. There are currently five locations: Lehighton (which I believe was the original), Wilkes-Barre, Quakertown, Wind Gap, and Hazleton. These stores - which collectively bill themselves as "The World's Largest General Store" - feature a happy jumble of furniture, home furnishings, tools, decorations, plumbing supplies, pet supplies, food, toys, lightbulbs, wall hangings, dinosaurs...

Yes. Dinosaurs.

I haven't been to the Lehighton location since the original building was destroyed by fire back in 2006. But I know back in the day that I would stroll through that shop I would stop to admire the dinosaur statues that were mixed in with their taxidermy animals and statues of Charlie Chaplin and the Blues Brothers, and the Tyrannosaurus head mounted next to assorted bison and water buffalo and other largish creatures.*

The Wilkes-Barre location, the only other Country Junction I have visited, also featured a great many dinosaurs, inside, outside, among the furniture, everywhere. Not all at once, but you could usually count on running into a Velociraptor or two somewhere in the store. At least, before it, too, was heavily damaged by fire on Thanksgiving Day in 2008.

That store has since reopened as a slightly less whimsical version of its former self. Gone are the velociraptors by the outside patio furniture, or even the access to the outside where the velociraptors stalked among the patio furniture. (Gone is the toy department, too, unless I missed it in my last visit.) But a few dinosaurs apparently stop by from time to time.

Back in January I photographed this fine fellow standing guard outside the front entrance.


It's a Triceratops - which, despite what you might have heard, is not getting excised from the dinosaur books. I can't vouch for the general accuracy of this representation, though I can tell you that the beak and horns probably didn't have that fossilized appearance on a living specimen.


The price tag informed anyone interested that they could purchase this dinosaur for the low, low price of $1900.00.

I can't remember if I have been back to the Wilkes-Barre Country Junction since that visit in January. But I stopped in at the end of July with one goal in mind: to find and photograph dinosaurs. I was thwarted in this effort by the pronounced lack of any dinosaurs...until I spotted this guy as I was leaving the store.


For the life of me I don't know what this is supposed to be. The neck made me think it was a sauropod of some sort, but the teeth make me think it's supposed to be a carnivore. A cartoonish Tyrannosaurus, maybe?


The inside of his mouth is wonderfully (if not necessarily accurately) detailed, from the ridged roof of his mouth to the oddly banded tongue. And in his mouth...


...is a price tag. This head-and-neck alone with set you back $1999.00 - $99 more than a complete Triceratops! Inflation, you know.

I hope there will be more dinosaurs visiting the Country Junction in the future. And I hope that if they do stroll by, I'll have my camera ready!



*I have no idea if these animals are the real deal or every bit as simulated as the dinosaurs.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

EPA moves Marcellus Shale meeting from Binghamton to Syracuse

UPDATE, Wednesday, August 11 (The day before the scheduled hearing):


Hearing on fracking study postponed - News - Citizens Voice

Just a day after the Environmental Protection Agency moved a regional, stadium-style hearing on a landmark study of hydraulic fracturing from Binghamton to Syracuse, N.Y., the agency announced Tuesday the meeting is now postponed.

EPA officials said the event, which was expected to draw thousands on Thursday, will be held in upstate New York in September and the agency is looking for a new location.
(read the rest of the article here)

So, now people who changed their reservations from Binghamton to Syracuse now have to change them again to some unknown future location. Stay tuned for further developments. I expect that all future announcements will also be made at the last minute.

Everything that follows is now obsolete:


Here's a story I first read about yesterday on the Susquehanna River Sentinel. (That post is no longer available for some reason.)


EPA swaps drilling hearing to Syracuse from Binghamton - News - Citizens Voice
By Laura Legere (Staff Writer)
Published: August 10, 2010

A regional hearing to be held Thursday on a landmark Environmental Protection Agency study of hydraulic fracturing has been moved from Binghamton to Syracuse, N.Y., the agency announced Monday.

The hearings on the controversial natural gas drilling process, which are expected to draw as many as 8,000 participants and protestors including many from Northeast Pennsylvania, will be held in the Exhibit Hall of the Oncenter Complex Convention Center in Syracuse, after the EPA and Binghamton University, the initial host site, disagreed on a venue.
(read the rest of the article here)

For those of you not familiar with this area, Syracuse is about seventy-five miles north of Binghamton, occupying a latitude farther north than even Buffalo. It is also on, or possibly outside, the border of the region considered to be Marcellus Shale territory. Here's a helpful map taken from syracuse.com:


For reference, I do not believe Nanticoke would even appear on this map. Note that, despite what the map implies, Marcellus Shale territory does not end at the southern border of New York State. Which is the problem: the long-announced meeting slated for Binghamton on Thursday was expected to attract thousands of interested people from across the broad swath of Pennsylvania that will be affected by Marcellus Shale drilling. Many of those people booked accommodations in the Binghamton area. And now, with days to go, they have been informed that the hearings have been moved an hour north of where they will be staying. Would they like to do a last minute reservation change, with all the costs and hassles associated with that? Or perhaps they might prefer to keep their current accommodations and commute from Binghamton to Syracuse and back again, a round trip of about one hundred and fifty miles?

And what about the folks who were planning to commute from throughout Marcellus Shale territory to Bighamton? Will they be willing and able to make that extra seventy-five mile hike up to Syracuse?

Someone more conspiracy-minded than I am might see this as an attempt by the EPA (or whoever is calling the shots) to thwart public participation in this hearing. Other venues were surely available, even throughout the Wilkes-Barre / Scranton area. Why shift this meeting to the very edge of the region affected by Marcellus Shale drilling?

I won't be going. I wasn't planning to go, and I am technically scheduled to work that day, even though I will almost certainly be laid off. By the rules of Unemployment, I must be "able and available" to work - not sick, not on vacation - or actively seeking out work in order to receive unemployment compensation. I do know someone who is a Marcellus Shale insider, who, if I were to simply flip a bit from "opposed to" to "supportive of," could possibly get me a job in the industry. Anyone who knows me knows how likely that is. So I could not in good conscience claim to be attending this conference looking for employment opportunities. (With the EPA? Maybe. But my stated opposition to the extraction methods being used, and the reckless disregard for both the environment and the safety of locals exhibited by too many of the companies involved in this industry, may disqualify me from any future employment there.)

If anyone reading this does go, I look forward to ground reports.

Monday, August 09, 2010

Upcoming Astronomical events

Well, the big day for the ongoing meetup between Venus, Mars, and Saturn has been and gone. Yesterday was their closest grouping, and now, like old schoolfriends who were once close, they will begin to drift apart.

Only don't tell them that, because they've got some more shows to put on.

August 9 (tonight) -Venus closest to Saturn. Whoopsie, too late for me, but the sky was a clouded mess tonight anyway. Venus made its closest pass to Saturn, about 3 degrees.

August 10-14: The Persieds. These aren't related to the planetary assembly in the Western sky, but they are an astronomical event worth seeing. The Persied meteor shower will peak on these nights, or more precisely, these mornings. Look to the northeast after midnight. As a bonus, the Moon will have set long before the start of the show, so its glow won't drown out any dimmer meteors. If the beautiful meteor a friend spotted over Coney Island last week was a harbinger of things to come, this may be a spectacular meteor shower.

August 11-12: The Moon joins the party. On the evening of August 11, an almost invisibly thin crescent Moon will hide below Mercury, briefly showing up just after sunset for anyone keen-eyed and clear-horizoned enough to see it. On August 12 a somewhat thicker crescent will lurk below and to the right of Venus, making a straight line with it and Mars. By August 13 an even thicker crescent will be just below but now to the left of Venus - and this time it will line up with Saturn. Watch for the eerie glow of Earthshine causing the unlit portions of the Moon to become visible.

August 12 - 25: Venus and Mars continue the dance. According to the 2010 edition of Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar, an 82-page coffee-table-sized softcover that is an indispensable reference guide to the night skies, Venus will be within three degrees of Mars during this entire period. They will be about two-thirds that distance apart on August 18, but will be almost as close on August 16 through the 21.

Ottewell also notes that this period will be the beginning of a Triple Conjunction* between Venus and Mars. Triple Conjunctions of Venus and Mars are not particularly rare, but they are worth noting. The first conjunction will be on August 19. At some point - I'm not sure when - Venus will appear to move backwards in its orbit (this is called "retrograde motion") and pass Mars going the other way on the evening of October 1. Venus will catch up to Mars once again on May 23, 2011.

End of August: Mars, Venus, and Spica in a 5-degree pattern. You may not know which star is Spica, but Mars and Venus will be happy to help you figure it out. Venus and Spica will pass within one degree of each other on August 31.

Jupiter rising. As all this is going on in the West, Jupiter is rising in the East, getting ready for its fantastic show next month, when it will be at its biggest and brightest in twelve years. Plus you can use it to find another planet, dim and distant Uranus. But that is weeks away, on September 22.

Notice that nowhere is there any hint of "Two Moons on August 27" - because that's not going to happen. It won't happen this year, it didn't happen last year, and it hasn't happened at all since 2003 - which was the first year it didn't happen. In fact, Mars is very tiny and dim right now. But look at all the other cool stuff there really is to see in the next few weeks!



*One of my fondest childhood memories is of the Spring of 1981, my last year before entering High School. So many things seemed to be lining up to justify and approve of the things that held my interest. Two things that literally lined up were Jupiter and Saturn, shining brightly and close together in the Southeast after sunset. They were going through a Triple Conjunction - as well as a "Great Conjunction" and a Colbertesque "Greatest Conjunction." This was a remarkable thing to see, and as far as I know, I was the only person in the world who actually bothered to observe it. If there were others, I'd love to hear from them.

Quick and easy Garlic Bread

I'm on a bit of a recipe kick right now, so I figured I'd share this. Especially since I just got done eating it.

Quick and easy Garlic Bread

Ingredients:

Bread, toasted
Garlic, one clove per slice of bread
Salt, dash
Extra-virgin olive oil, 1 teaspoon per slice of bread


Toast the bread lightly, until it is just barely showing some color. (I use Maier's Seeded Italian.) Place on microwave-safe plate.

Grate garlic onto bread, one (or more) cloves per slice. (There is no such thing as "too much garlic.") I use a plane grater, but you can use a garlic press if you prefer.

Sprinkle salt lightly onto bread.

Pour extra-virgin olive oil onto bread through the garlic. Extra-virgin has the strongest taste, which is why I recommend it. I specify a teaspoon, but I just use enough to lightly coat the bread once it's spread around.

Now for the spooky science part...

Put the plate with the bread into the microwave on HIGH for 25 seconds for two slices.


I have a friend who is a professional chef who swears you should never microwave bread. It changes it structurally and does other nasty things on a chemical level. But in this case, as in some others, that's what I want. The microwaving transforms the toast with olive oil and garlic into something soft yet tough, chewy and slightly crisp.

I have made this a standard companion to spaghetti. This evening I was having some spaghetti for dinner and realized something was missing. And then it hit me: I didn't have my garlic bread to go with it! So I set aside my bowl of spaghetti and ran out to the kitchen to make some. And that brings us to...here.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Planetary triangle, 8/8/2010

For previous nights see these entries:

Planetary line-up at sunset (Introduction, with Jack Horkheimer videos)
Planetary triangle, 7/29/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/30/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/31/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/5/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/6/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/7/2010

Sunday evening did not look too promising for observing that evening's closest configuration of Venus, Mars, and Saturn during the ongoing conjunction. Much of the sky had been a milky-white haze through the final hours of the afternoon, and as the sun was setting that haze was condensing into clouds. Beautiful, wispy-looking clouds in shades of pink, but dense enough to block the light of Venus.

This is the sight that greeted me as I set up in my back yard. I aimed the camera at where I knew the planets should be, locked the tilt and pan controls on the tripod*, and took my first image at 8:50 PM:


Clouds.

And so things stood for the next five minutes. Finally, the brilliant light of Venus pierced a thinner area of clouds, and I felt a glimmer of hope for the evening's viewing.


A confession: The only planet I saw all evening was Venus. I took it on faith that at some point the clouds would thin enough to let Mars and Saturn shine through, and even if I couldn't see them my camera might. Saturn actually did show up fairly quickly in the upper right in this crop of an image taken at 8:58 PM:


A minute later my camera's rechargeable batteries died. I had to remove the camera from its tripod to pop in the Lithium backups. (I always carry backups since the dead-battery incident with Chelsea Clinton.**) Once I had everything reassembled, there was no chance that the camera was pointing in exactly the same direction, so I started a new series of photos.

I created another time-lapse sequence from the new series. One major advantage of this is that I can look for images that follow the same pattern of shifts as the planets - these are most likely stars that would have been hidden in the background noise of any one photograph. Unfortunately, on this series of photographs there are no stars that pop out of the noise. In fact, I had a hard time extracting Mars from the background noise. I thought my first image of Mars was from 9:06 PM, but a careful study of the time lapse revealed that I actually captured a dim, fuzzy image at 9:04 PM. Both images are laid out below, with the earlier appearance of Mars circled.


Next is the complete time lapse sequence, which consists of twelve images taken between 9:03 and 9:11 PM, which is when Venus vanished behind a neighboring house. Note that this image is brighter than any individual image taken between 9:03 and 9:11. I stacked the images in Adobe PhotoDeluxe using the "Lighten" option for the Blend on each layer. This causes any bright objects (like stars or planets) to show up very well, but also causes any slightly bright object (like a cloud) to also lighten the image. Stacking twelve dark images like this causes the sky to become very bright; stacking images that were taken even earlier in the night - like the images I took yesterday - results in a sky that is so bright that it washes away any stars and planets.


Mars and Saturn are very hard to see in the full-sized image. Here is a crop of the same image that emphasizes the planetary trio. Note that there are twelve images of Venus and Saturn, but only nine of Mars due to the clouds selectively blocking the Red Planet.


Here, for comparison, is the last truly decent shot of all three planets, taken at 9:10 PM. This is the exact image used as part of the crop, above.


After Venus vanished behind the rooftop I cranked up the tripod extension all the way, got out of my comfy Adirondack chair, and took a few final photos. Mars is barely visible in this final photo, taken at 9:12 PM.


And then I lost Venus for good, called it a night, and packed my stuff into my car for the ride across town. I caught a final glimpse of Venus as I rounded a corner in my car, but by then I had declared the evening's festivities to be at an end. We'll see how the planets shift as they move beyond this, the tightest configuration of this conjunction.


*Not very well, apparently, if you compare the details at the bottom of the first two photos here.

**Heh. This may be an "Untold Tale". While I was hanging out waiting to take pictures of Chelsea speaking, my batteries were gradually dying, and finally died right before she started taking pictures with people. Somehow my batteries accumulated enough charge to permit one last photo - the one shown
here.

24-hour Pickles

One of the more shocking revelations of the internet era - for me, anyway - has been that many of my grandmother's delicious and ancient recipes were actually just things she picked up from magazines and cookbooks, or things that were passed on to her from other people who cribbed them from these sources.

One favorite childhood memory was of her 24-hour Pickles. These weren't an every-year treat, but were something we enjoyed once in a while. I got the recipe from her before I headed off to grad school in Delaware (a nasty, brutish, and short experience) so that I might be able to recreate a favorite taste during my far-off exile.

I modified the recipe slightly from her original, based on my observations of the stuff at the bottom of a jar of Claussen dill pickles. (After these pickles, Claussen dill pickles are my favorites.)


24-hour Pickles

(Makes about 4 one-quart jars)

2 quarts (4 cups) water
1 cup vinegar
1/3 cup salt (most recipes call for non-iodized salt or even special pickling salt, but this recipe works fine with regular iodized table salt)
1/2 cup sugar

Cucumbers, quartered

Fresh dill (2-3 4" sprigs per jar, favor feathery leaves over seeds)
Garlic (1-2 cloves per jar)
Peppercorns
Allspice
Red pepper (USE SPARINGLY)


Boil water, vinegar, salt, and sugar and allow to cool. I experimented with boiling the water first, then adding the other ingredients and returning to a boil. This way less of the vinegar boils off.



While that stuff cools:

I don't boil or sterilize the jars and lids, just wash them thoroughly. Any glass jars will do, preferably with metal lids. Naturally, pickle jars work best! But I've also used peanut butter, mayonnaise, and spaghetti sauce jars. As these jars are now mostly plastic, you may need to actually purchase appropriate jars.

Quarter cucumbers and stuff them into jars. I usually cut them into eighths. You could also probably just slice them into pickle chips - I'm going to try that next time.

Add some dill to each jar. 2-3 sprigs, each about 4" long, should be adequate for each jar, but you can add more. While the flavor comes from all parts of the plant, I prefer the feathery leaves and little round buds and avoid using any dill seeds.

Chop garlic into tiny pieces and add to each jar, at least 1-2 cloves per jar. More if you like garlic. (After handling the garlic and dill, your hands will smell delicious for days.)

Add black peppercorns, maybe 6 - 12 per jar. Not sure what these do to the flavor, but if they're not there, they're missed.

Add cloves of allspice, maybe 2 - 3 per jar. I'm not sure when I started doing this - maybe this year. Damn, the pickles I made this year are good.

Add red pepper flakes - SPARINGLY. This year I used EXACTLY three flakes per jar, and that's what I'm recommending. I've ruined batches of pickles by adding too much red pepper. The hot peppery flavor came to dominate all the other flavors in the pickles. To get the same effect, take a cucumber slice, dip it in pickle juice for five seconds, rinse it off thoroughly, and then add a few dashes of Tabasco. Without red pepper the pickles taste bland, but too much and they don't taste like pickles.


Once the liquid, or "brine", has cooled add it to the jars stuffed with cucumbers and spices. The more tightly packed the jars are, the farther the brine will go.


Let the pickles sit in the refrigerator a minimum of 24 hours. (I admit I have stolen a few before the full 24 hours.) Eat and enjoy.

I make no claims about how long these will keep, or if you will die of botulism or something from not sterilizing the jars and lids. Also, The Joy of Cooking insists that you should remove the garlic after the first 24 hours to avoid bacterial growth. So, do that if you feel you must.


Note: If you prefer, you can make a half-batch. For your convenience, here are the half-sized ingredient measures:

1 quart (2 cups) water
1/2 cup vinegar
1/6 cup salt = 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons
1/4 cup sugar = 4 tablespoons

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Planetary triangle, 8/7/2010

For previous nights see these entries:

Planetary line-up at sunset (Introduction, with Jack Horkheimer videos)
Planetary triangle, 7/29/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/30/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/31/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/5/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/6/2010

Observational astronomy is a hit-or-miss proposition. Will the sky be clear? Will humidity cause a milky translucence in the air? Will a flotilla of clouds show up and cover over the trio of planets you're trying to photograph just as it's getting dark enough to see them clearly?

This evening the answers to those questions were yes, no, and yes.

I got to my house earlier than I had planned and set myself up in bright twilight. I tried to aim my camera in a direction where I would see the planets just as soon as they appeared, and where I would be able to see the planets as they sank beneath my grapevine horizon, all without having to move the camera. I took my first image at 8:32 PM:


Here bright Venus is clearly visible, but even doing terrible things to the brightness and contrast on this image I am not able to tease out Mars or Saturn. They do not show up on the series of photographs I took until twelve minutes later, at 8:44:


You probably can't see them in this photo, even on the enlarged version. But trust me, they were there in the full-sized original. Here's a crop showing just the three planets. Venus is at lower right, Mars is at upper left, and Saturn is at upper right.


Previous photo sessions have all started after 9:00 PM. But the sad fact is, the Sun is setting earlier and earlier as days are getting shorter and nights are getting longer. (Which is good news for backyard astronomers like me.) Venus was rapidly heading for the grapevines and I was concerned that it would be obscured by them before the sky was dark enough to clearly image the planetary trio. I needn't have worried, as I should have realized when the clouds began rolling in at 8:53.


Things rapidly went from bad to worse. Within three minutes the clouds were beginning to obscure Mars and Saturn. I took my last useful image at 8:56 PM:


Once again you might not be able to see the dimmer planets in this image, so here they are in an enlarged crop - once again, with Mars in the upper left, Saturn in the upper right, and Venus in the lower right.


And that was the end of that. Clouds reached up and covered Venus. I had to take a break at this point, and packed up my camera and tripod and headed indoors. I knew I had spoiled any chance of directly comparing later shots to these earlier images, but I had a feeling I was done observing for the night. When I peeked outside five minutes later my assumption was confirmed. The clouds which had only been covering the planets low in the West now extended to the zenith of the sky. Whether they had blown in from the West or had condensed out of the moisture in the air, I don't know. But whatever had happened, I was done.

Tomorrow night, Sunday August 8, is the closest gathering of these three planets for this conjunction. Will I be able to see and photograph it? We'll find out then!

Friday, August 06, 2010

Planetary triangle, 8/6/2010

For previous nights see these entries:

Planetary line-up at sunset (Introduction, with Jack Horkheimer videos)
Planetary triangle, 7/29/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/30/2010
Planetary triangle, 7/31/2010
Planetary triangle, 8/5/2010

So. Through a series of adventures that included not buying a corded electric weed-whacker, going to the wake of a father of a long-lost friend in Scranton, discovering upon leaving the wake that one of my tires was completely flat, reinflating that tire and hoping it would hold air until I got back to Nanticoke (a distance of some thirty miles), and then not buying a new seal for the flush mechanism of a slow-filling toilet, I found myself back in Nanticoke on the clearest night in a week with only minutes to go before Venus would pass out of visibility. I leaped out of my car with my tripod and camera and quickly realized that the only clear vantage point would be, once again, on the sidewalk along one of the busiest (if not the busiest) streets in the city.

I set up and tried to position myself so that Mars and Saturn would not be obscured by overhead wires. I got lucky right off the bat and got this image at 9:14 PM. (As always, click to get a larger image.)


I then proceeded to take image after image, thirteen in all. This was the sixth, taken at 9:16 PM:


My final shot of the night has Venus just passing behind a rooftop at 9:18 PM. Unfortunately there was no other vantage point that had an unobstructed view of the planets, so I had to call it a night at that point - scaring the heck out of some people walking their dog along a cross street. Having a large man dressed in black pants, white shirt, maroon tie, and black suspenders suddenly come across a lawn toward you while toting a camera tripod with a camera the size of a deck of cards attached is always surprising.


I realized that all of my images were essentially identical, so it should be possible to do a time-lapse study like I did with yesterday's images. Unfortunately it became clear quite quickly that my pan head had shifted slightly between some of the photos, especially between the third and the fourth and by a much smaller amount between the eighth and ninth. I removed the first three images from the sequence and worked with the rest.


Two background stars are visible in this photo that were also visible in yesterday's three-image sequence. One dim star is just above and to the right of Mars. (In the image below this almost looks like an image artifact, but trust me, it's really there.) According to Google Sky, this is Eta Virginis - apparent magnitude +3.9. Not bad for my little camera! Another, brighter star can be seen trailing well behind Mars. This is the binary star Gamma Virginis - combined apparent magnitude of +2.9. (Or +2.74, take your pick. Wikipedia lists both.)


It seems like it was just last Saturday that I was noting the presence of Beta Virginis midway between Venus and a line drawn connecting Mars and Saturn. But that was then, and this is now. Beta Virginis is now located on the other side of Venus, heading towards the sunset twilight. While these planets appear somewhat lower each day, they are all moving against the background stars in a direction opposite the nightly direction of the background stars. This motion has more to do with the motion of the Earth in its orbit than the actual motion of the other planets in theirs.

Imagine a series of concentric merry-go-rounds, with the Sun the calliope in the center. Mercury rides the first merry-go-round out, Venus the second, Earth the third, Mars the fourth, and Saturn the sixth. (Jupiter is on the fifth merry-go-round, but it's behind us.) Oh, and each merry-go-round out moves slower and slower, though they all sweep out equal areas in equal times. Right now we can see Venus (which is closer to the center than we are), and Mars, and distant Saturn. It appears that Saturn has moved dramatically over the nights I've been photographing it, but in fact it's moved very little. Mars and Venus and Earth have all been moving more quickly, and the relative positions of Venus and Mars and Saturn also appear to be shifting because of the motion of Earth. Meanwhile, the background stars can be thought of as the stands and buildings outside the last concentric merry-go-round (on which poor, forlorn Pluto rides - well, actually, there are merry-go-rounds beyond that...). Or maybe we can think of them as distant mountains. Whatever they are, they appear to swing by dramatically, when in fact they are not moving at all. Wait, yes they are. Oh, and our calliope is moving, too, and dragging all its concentric merry-go-rounds with it.

My point is: thinking about all this stuff will make you feel vertiginous. And don't get me started on retrograde motion.

On Sunday these three planets will be in their tightest configuration of this conjunction. By next Thursday and Friday nights the planets will be pulling apart in the sky, but the thin crescent Moon will join them on those nights. Let's hope for clear skies!