Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Contents of John Lewis' Backpack

one apple
one orange
one tube of toothpaste, for brushing his teeth in the holding cell
one toothbrush, same
one copy of "The American Political Tradition" by Richard Hosfstadter, pub. 1948
one copy of "The Seven Storey Mountain" by Thomas Merton, same

they broke his skull
lost his backpack
and he kept on marching

John Robert Lewis
February 21, 1940 - July 17, 2020
On the occasion of his memorial service, July 30, 2020

Wikipedia: James Lawson (activist) (speaker at John Lewis' funeral)
Wikipedia: Czesław Miłosz (poet quoted by James Lawson)

Tuesday, July 14, 2020


A new comet, just discovered in late March, is making its way through the pre-sunrise and post-sunset skies. Named Comet NEOWISE for the space telescope that discovered it, it is fading from view in the morning sky, and I wanted to try to capture it before it does.

Currently I am working from home due to COVID-19. I work night shift, 4:30 PM to 1:00 AM, which is convenient for a lot of reasons. I knew that this morning would be one of the last opportunities to see the comet in the morning. (Night viewing will require me to observe during my lunch.) I stayed awake after work, which is usually the case because of the large amount of coffee I drink from my lunch break on. I dozed a bit, but roused myself after 3:00 AM to check the sky for clouds. It was crystal clear, with Venus shining bright in the East.  I got myself together and headed out at 4:00.

The sky was beautiful and full of stars, but no comet that I could see. I swept the sky and the horizon with my camera, hoping to capture a hidden comet. Nothing. After about 45 minutes the sky was brightening, and I knew it would soon be impossible to see the comet, wherever it was. I took one more set of sweeping-the-horizon photos, snapped off a few others, and went in to go to bed.

I woke up just a few hours later and reviewed my photos, frustrated I couldn't see any comet. Then I spotted a faint blur lurking over a neighbor's house, just over the treetops.

And there it was.

So I captured the comet, even though I didn't know it. I would have liked to have been able to zoom in on it, but you take what you can get.

I snapped a few pictures of the Pleiades. In this one I also captured my neighbor's T.A.R.D.I.S. bird house, currently occupied by some purple-and-white tree sparrows.

And of course, I had to grab the Moon. The terminator is about to slide into a region relatively devoid of craters, so pictures after this will be somewhat less interesting. Not that I plan yo be up to take them.

One last shot, capturing the colors of the pre-dawn sky:

Now, to try to capture Comet NEOWISE in the evening.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Opening Day 2020: Rose of Sharon

For the record:  just like that, the dozens of Rose of Sharon in our yard have begun to open this afternoon, Sunday, July 12, 2020, with a great profusion of colors and shapes. They weren't open this morning, and they weren't open yesterday. Maybe yesterday's afternoon of intense ten-minute showers spaced out every 45 minutes followed by today's sunshine caused the blooms to pop open.

Pictures to follow, maybe.

UPDATE: I went out on 7/13/2020 to photograph the amazing variety of colors and shapes of these blossoms, and found that ONE Rose of Sharon had bloomed, with white blossoms with red centers. I thought I saw a pink one open yesterday, but it wasn't today. I'll try to note when the others open.

Recipe: Amish coffee cake

(OK, this recipe is technically a variation on Amish Cinnamon Bread, but it has very little in common with bread and is much more like cake. This is a direct port of this recipe, cut in half and modified per the suggestions of the Twitter poster who originally wrote about it, see below.)

Amish Coffee Cake (1/2 recipe for Amish Cinnamon Bread from Lil' Luna, modified)


If creating a buttermilk substitute, prepare it first. It needs to rest 5 minutes before being added.


1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon vinegar
1 cup milk + 1 teaspoon cream of tartar
2/3 cup sour cream + 1/3 cup milk (this is what I used in this recipe)

Blend and let stand five minutes before use.

In small bowl, combine dry ingredients:
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt**

In large bowl, combine sugar, softened butter, egg, buttermilk, and vanilla until creamy.
Blend as each one is added. Blend all until creamy. (Buttermilk may cause some liquid/solid separation.)
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup buttermilk*
1 teaspoon vanilla**

Gradually add dry ingredients to wet ingredients. Mix well.

Add any inclusions (finely chopped apples, blueberries, chocolate chips, etc.)

If using dry topping, prepare before pouring out batter.

Cinnamon/Sugar topping: 
1/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

Crumb topping
I made this again today (10/4/2020) , but added a large chopped Honeycrisp apple to the batter (3/4) and topping (1/4.) I also added ginger, ground cloves, and nutmeg to the cinnamon/sugar. Next time I make this - soon, with the other Honeycrisp apple I bought - I may replace the cinnamon/sugar with a crumb topping base, adapted from my Shoo Fly Cake recipe.

Also used with blueberry variation.

1 cup flour
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup butter
Spices: cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice, cloves, cardamon

Crumb topping #2, Martha Stewart variation:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup light-brown sugar
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 sticks chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces  

Add HALF of batter to greased loaf pan.

Cover with 3/4 of cinnamon sugar mixture.

Add remaining batter.

Sprinkle on remaining cinnamon sugar.

BAKE at 350 degrees (Fahrenheit) for 45-50 minutes.

**not in original recipe, modified per Twitter user @GeorgeWept

NOTE: The cake rose several inches from the loaf pan and leaked out in one spot. Recommend placing the loaf pan on a cookie sheet to catch drips. Also recommend rotating partway through baking time for even heating.

The cake seems excessively sweet. If I make it again, I may reduce the sugar, swap out some or all sugar with brown sugar, and add ginger and diced apples.

Broiled walnut glaze (for chocolate chip variation)
(prepare  while cake is in oven)

6 tablespoons butter (softened)
4 tablespoons milk
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

- While the cake is baking, make the topping. In a bowl, combine the butter, milk, brown sugar and nuts. Mix well.
- Spread this mixture all over the top of the warm cake.
- Place under the broiler (turned to low) and bake for 1-3 minutes or until the nut topping is bubbling.
- Remove from the oven and allow the cake to cool.


Last night I saw that "Amish" was trending on Twitter. I don't live in Amish country, but I like to think of Northeastern Pennsylvania as Amish-adjacent - it takes about an hour and a half to get to areas that are predominantly Amish or Mennonite, but it's not that unusual to see folks in traditional garb in stores, supermarkets, or just walking down the street.

I really have no idea why "Amish" was trending, but attempting to investigate led to this tweet:

That looked good, and I knew I would be up early this morning to try to see comet NEOWISE. I found the link to the recipe, saw that I had all the necessary ingredients, noted the modifications recommended by the Twitter poster, and (after inexplicably jamming my thumb into my right eye, possibly while trying to brush away an overlong wisp of hair) went to bed.

I woke up before 5:00 in the morning, as planned. The sky still seemed sufficiently dark that I might see comet NEOWISE just before sunrise. No luck. This is the earliest photo I took:

5:12 AM, looking east-by-northeast. No comets detected. Venus is at upper right.
I set my tripod up at the entrance to the local high-school football stadium, where I would have a clear and unobstructed view of the East. This placed me on a street with houses to either side of me. I was hoping to complete my mission without running into anyone else. But eventually a cheerful "Good morning!" came from my right. I returned the greeting without turning from the camera. They said, hopefully, "Oh a few more minutes to go?" - assuming I was there to photograph the sunrise. I responded that I was hoping to see the comet, and having no luck, and that it was probably already too late to see it. They left it at that, possibly not wanting to inquire further into this "comet" of which I spoke.

Otherwise it was just me, the ever-brightening sky, the unseen comet, the birds greeting the sunrise, and the sound of not-too-distant fireworks. (Seriously? At 5:30 in the morning on a Sunday?) I was eventually able to capture one of the birds:

As sunrise neared I decided to pack it in and head home. As I walked up the hill to my house I realized I had an opportunity to photograph the Last Quarter Moon:

Once home, I decided to grab pictures of some of the cats for a "Pets and who/what they're named after" thing on Twitter. Here are three of the cats:
Bojangles, named for dancer Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. Picture taken Saturday, July 11, 2020.
Spumoni, named for the dessert. She is Bojangles's litter mate. When I first saw them as kittens peering at me from deep in the shadows in my garden shed last May, I didn't realize they were two different cats.

Amber, one of the older cats. Named because she is amber. This is a lucky shot - she rarely comes out of concealment when I am around.
(Edited the afternoon of 7/12/2020 to add two more cats):

Mama Cat, with Spumoni behind her. A trick of the light brought out the yellow in her, but in reality she and Spumoni are identical in coloration and have very similar markings, except in the face. (They are also almost exactly the same size, except Spumoni has short little legs. Spumoni adores her mother, and sleeps with her most of the time.) She is mother of Bojangles and Spumoni, as well as their tawny sibling Simba, who vanished even before I could grab Bojangles. She was also mother to another litter of three cats, all of whom died before reaching six weeks - by which time she was pregnant again. We knew we had to grab her and break the cycle of baby-making, and grab Spumoni as well, since tortoiseshells are always female.

Babusz, who - holy crap! - is fourteen years old. She is three years older than the next oldest cats, except for Romeo, a longhair we inherited in 2011 from a neighbor who  got him in 2005 or earlier. Like all our cats (except Romeo) she is a feral, but I call her a "Russian Blue" - how accurate that is, I do not know. Silver-gray with bright white whiskers.

Comet NEOWISE is moving into the evening sky, so maybe I'll have better luck looking West-by-Northwest over the next week.