Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Eclipse Photos

I have been one acquainted with the night.
Robert Frost

Last night's (er... this morning's) eclipse of the moon was quite an experience and very difficult to describe. At first I wasn't going to view the whole thing as it started at 1:20 am PDT and didn't end until 5:55 am. But I ended up doing just that and I am glad I did. Being up in the middle of the night is weird enough, but seeing the bright moonlight diminish gradually until the night was very dark and then to have it all come back again was exciting to me. When I finally opened my eyes and saw the sunlight later in the morning, after catching a few hours sleep, it seemed very strange and unnatural. The darkness, the moonlight, and the stars are the universe's natural state. I gained a whole new perspective on sunlight.

The first photo collage shows the passage of the moon into the penumbra of the Earth's shadow. There is a problem with taking photos of the moon. At a full moon, it is so bright that it overpowers the camera and all you get is a bright smeary blur. So I closed the camera way down, shot at high speeds, and purposely underexposed the shots to get some of the land features on the surface of the moon. When there was only a sliver still showing, I switched to a wider aperture and slower speed to get the details. The copper color is how I saw the moon through my binoculars and with my naked eye.

At totality, the moon and the sky were very dark. The moon had penetrated deep into the umbra of the Earth's shadow. Stars came out around the moon that you would not have seen otherwise because of the moon's brightness. I used this opportunity to look at some other stars through my telescope. My old friends the Pleiades and Orion are up in the early morning sky now and it was beautifully clear and dark around them even though they rose in the east and the city lights are very strong there. The "Seven Sisters" of the Pleiades (M45) shown like jewels on velvet and the Nebula in Orion (M42) was very apparent.


Gradually the light of the sun began to fall on the moon once again. Totality was ending and the partial eclipse of the moon in the Earth's penumbra was beginning on the other side. As the glare of the light started to wipe out my photos, I switched back to the earlier closed down mode, but went even further. It was hard to judge from the little view you get in the LCD display to know which settings would be best once the files were downloaded to the computer. Also, you are working in the dark and pushing buttons without being able to see what you are doing very well. Anyway, the last photos were a little too dark but you can see the advancing light very easily. In the very last photo, after the whole show was over, I took a shot of the moon in standard mode to show how bright it really was.

All shots were taken as High Quality JEPGs, and none have been altered in the computer, only cropped. But now I wish I had taken at least one photo during totality in RAW mode. I didn't think of it until later. And as I said, I didn't want to fuss with the camera too much in the dark. I also didn't want the technology to overwhelm the experience. I wanted to see the eclipse and not spend my time trying to get the equipment to work.

Camera: Canon Rebel Digital SLR
Lens: Canon EF 100 to 300mm zoom used at highest power
ISO: 200 and 800
Aperture: f7.1 and f5.6
Time: 1/1000 to 2.5 sec.


More to follow... I need some sleep.

Thursday, August 23, 2007


My bromeliad bloomed this week. Usually this plant has bloomed in November. It's really early this year. I originally got this plant from Kathy. I treated it pretty badly at first. I left the cuttings she gave me in a plastic bag on the patio table, half in half out of the bag, for six months before I got around to putting them in a pot. It took several more years for the plant to bloom the first time, but in 2004 I had a spectacular display of 12 blooms all at the same time.

Once a plant has bloomed, it will never bloom again in that spot, but it will send out new "pups" which will bloom eventually. My plant had gotten so huge, I had to cut it back last winter. The pot kept falling over. The bloom on the left above may be the only one I get this year. The other two photos (top and bottom) were taken in November of 2004.

That was one of our wet years and we had just had a rainstorm during the night. (A surprising number of our rain showers happen during the night. This is truly Camelot, which is one reason why so many people want to live here.) I keep the plant on my patio where it gets shade most of the day but gets dappled light in the morning. I got up early to take photos just as the early morning sun started to light up the blooms.

I don't know the specific variety of bromeliad that this is and a search on the web didn't bring any results. If there are any bromeliad experts out there, I would love to know the full name of this spectacular plant.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Lesson in Vulnerability

I was powerless all day yesterday. Southern California Edison was making "repairs or upgrades" during which time, we were told, electrical power in my neighborhood would be "interrupted more than one time" from 9:00 am to 6:00 pm. OK, I thought, a few minutes here and there. In reality, the power went off at 10:19 am and didn't come back on until 8:23 pm. That's 10 hours without all the things that not only have made our lives livable but are essential to our existence. It made me realize how little prepared I am if "the Big One" should ever hit. (For those who live outside of California, I am referring to the huge earthquake that they predict is certain to happen in the next 30 years or so.)

Until the electricity goes off for some reason, we just don't realize how much we depend on it. The obvious things that upset your routine, to say the least, include no TV or computers, hence no Internet access, no radio unless you have a battery operated one, no appliances like the washer and dryer, the stove, the refrigerator, dishwasher. No hot water after the water in the tank runs out. No small appliances will work either. No can openers, blenders, etc. The garage door won't open so if your car is in there it is useless, or if it is out, it stays out. (I think there is a way to open my garage door manually, but I don't know how to do it.) One very important item that is useless without power is a cordless phone. Luckily, I still have my old phone plugged in and I happily discovered that it still works.

The thing that I worried about the most was the refrigerator because I had just done my weekly shopping at the farmers' market and it was full of fresh food. On my diet, I don't eat any packaged or canned goods so I really would be in trouble if I lost power for more than a few days. If you don't open the refrigerator door much, the food will stay cold and the frozen foods will stay frozen, but then how do you eat? And without the stove to cook, whatever you do eat, you eat raw and/or cold. I had sushi for lunch. I probably should stock up on canned goods, etc. but I just threw away a can of artichoke hearts that had been sitting in the larder for more than two years. Black liquid started oozing out of it. What a mess to clean up!

I was more than happy to be without the computer for a day. I spend way too much time sitting at this keyboard with my right arm stretched out to use the mouse. I have had bad tendinitis in the past when computers first came out so now I have an ergonomic keyboard and mouse pad. The neck problems I am having currently are probably due to the same thing. But yesterday I realized how much I use the computer to keep in touch with my friends and family. I couldn't pay the bills, check the stock prices, work on my photos or this blog. My huge genealogy database is on the computer. I consult the computer for astronomy, choosing what I am going to look at. I use it for knitting ideas and solving problems. I could live without it, I did once upon a time, but it definitely would hurt.

So I sat and knit a lot until evening when it became too dark to see. You can't do much of anything by candlelight. I wonder how our ancestors managed. Of course, they went to bed earlier than we do. My neighborhood was very quiet all day. I think the neighbors went out for dinner. I could hear a motor running somewhere, but haven't any idea where the sound was coming from. It was maddening to have to listen to it. The outage brought back memories of when I was 10 or 11 and we had several hurricanes. Power was out for a few days if I remember right and my mother coped.

When the power came back on, the refrigerator went into high gear and ran for almost two hours to catch up. I could hear creaks and pops as one by one all the clocks and other electronic devices returned to life. Devices with back-up batteries now need the batteries replaced and of course all those clocks need to be reset except for the ones that can "call home" automatically.

Note to myself: if this should ever happen again, take all the half frozen ice cubes out of the ice maker before they have a chance to freeze up again in one solid mass!

Monday, August 20, 2007

Messier Objects

I had a big night last night and the mess I left on the kitchen table was still there when I got up this morning. Normally I am an early-to-bed, early-to-rise sort of person. My natural rhythms are more in tune with the birds than they are with the stars but last night at about 10:30 p.m., I decided to go out and do some star-gazing. The night was cool, the sky was clear, and there was no wind—good seeing conditions. Plus with the moon getting closer and closer to full, I thought it was the best time to look at some Messier objects in the constellations Scorpius and Sagittarius. The moon is due to pass right through that area in the next week or so as it approaches its destiny with the Earth's shadow.

I have used my telescope only rarely since my husband died. Actually, it's his scope and while I had helped him to set it up in the past, I never had a chance to do it by myself. In the past two years, I have gotten it out a few times and used it manually, but I have never operated it in "GoTo" mode. The scope is a Meade ETX with the AutoStar feature which is a computerized system that allows you to just push some buttons to automatically find over 30,000 celestial objects. Sort of like using the remote on your TV. (The art of reading star charts and "star-hopping" to find an object may be lost someday soon.)

However, to get this feature to work properly requires a careful setup of the scope and an initialization of the computer. I was afraid it would all be beyond my capabilities to figure out so I have procrastinated doing it. But with my trip to the desert to see the meteor shower on Labor Day weekend coming up, I thought it was time to get the scope out and learn how to use it properly. BTW: you don't need a scope to see the shower, just a comfortable reclining chair and a blanket to keep warm, but I plan to do some other star-gazing while I have to opportunity to be in a really dark place.

On Friday I set the scope up in my living room and read through the manuals. Saturday night, I set it up on the front sidewalk and had a look at the moon and Jupiter. One sure way to attract your neighbors' attention is to set up a telescope on the front walk before sunset and I didn't really want any attention because I didn't know what I was doing. Last night, on impulse, I set it up again but because it was so late, no one was out and about.

My street is not very dark. There are the city lights to contend with, plus a streetlight right in front of my house. Fortunately, the light is intermittent because it is slowly dying and I have not called anyone to come and replace the bulb. I also have a big tree in front of my house which blocks the view a bit but also blocks the streetlight. Despite these problems, I managed to get the scope set up and started gazing.

After a look at Jupiter again to make sure I had good alignment, I slewed the scope over to M8 (the Lagoon Nebula) followed by M7, M6 (the Butterfly cluster), M25 (an open cluster), and the thrill of the evening, M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy). I attempted to see M16, M11, and M103 but was not successful because they were either too faint, or because my tree was in the way. These are all standard, run-of-the-mill viewing objects for the guys in the Astronomy Club, but for me it was exciting because I had set the scope up myself, and because I could actually see these deep sky objects in spite of all the light pollution.

Ever since Charles Messier published his list of "comet masqueraders" in 1784, they have been favorites of amateur astronomers because they are fairly easy to see with a small telescope. Some are even visible with the naked eye (although not in Los Angeles). There is even a Messier Marathon in the spring when people try to see all 110 in one night. They are an eclectic collection of celestial treasures: 39 galaxies, 57 star clusters, 9 nebulae, a supernova remnant (M1, the Crab Nebula), a swath of the Milky Way, a tiny grouping of stars, a double star, and even a duplication. The most famous Messier object of our time is M42, the Orion Nebula with its central Trapezium, which is starting to be visible in the early morning sky. It is spectacular.

I rounded out the evening with a look at Shedir in Cassiopeia. It's a nice bright star with a faint companion making it a Double. With a little more practice, I may be ready to throw a star party for the neighbors.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Knitting Anniversary

It has been one year since I started to knit again after a lapse of 30 or so years. When my kids were little, I did a lot of crocheting, but not much knitting. Last summer I was going to teach my daughter to crochet some baby things, but I got "hooked" instead. It was that fuzzy, funky, jazzy yarn (Patons Cha Cha) I saw in my local JoAnn's Fabrics. I wondered what it would be like to crochet with that stuff. I soon learned that to crochet with it was impossible; you couldn't see your stitches. So I switched to knitting and the rest, as they say...

I look on all of my projects for this past year as learning experiences. If something came out nice and actually wearable, that was a plus. I tended to buy fancy yarns at first and let the yarn do the work, a simple garter stitch was sufficient, but now I am into lace and cables and enjoy working on intricate patterns instead.

I have learned a whole bunch of new techniques that I had never done before. Some were only used once and I have forgotten them already, like fancy cast-ons, but others have turned out to be quite useful. The one technique that has made a huge difference in my knitting enjoyment, was learning to knit Continental style. It took a long time to get comfortable with the purl stitch and I continued to switch hands whenever things got tricky, but now I am doing everything with my left hand.

I also learned a lot about yarns this year. My experience in dyeing my own yarn was very helpful in learning the strengths and weaknesses of wool and I learned a lot about felting without intending to! I learned that you could wash wool and silk, even in hot water, if you were careful. I learned that the stretchiness of a yarn is very important. The cotton yarns that don't stretch at all were the hardest to work with and the Gedifra TopSoft was too stretchy. I leaned to love Rowan's KidSilk Haze even though I hated it at first. The triangle shawl in the photo is my latest completed project done with KSH. It's the Shoulder Shawl in Cherry Leaf Pattern from Jane Sowerby's Victorian Lace Today. This one is for my daughter and I have just bought some more KSH to make the Maltese Shawl for my daughter-in-law in Meadow.

Throughout the year there were lots of mistakes, lots of frogging back (with a grrrr... ), and a few disasters like the Gedifra TopSoft pattern No. 848 that turned out to be too stretchy. (I am planning to try that one again with smaller needles.) Some things I just didn't like after starting to work on them, or even after completing them. I don't like the Rowan Tapestry yarn. It splits too easily, and is scratchy. I started on Rowan's Sorrel, from Rowan Knitting and Crochet Magazine No. 40, and have left it with the back 3/4s finished. I got bored with the "Where's the Opaque?" sweater from Sally Melville's The Knit Stitch. It's all just garter stitch and the yarn I chose is not that interesting to me anymore although I may still finish it. Last winter when it was on sale, I bought the yarn for Rowan's Anya, magazine No. 40, which should be gorgeous if I ever get around to making it. I am waiting for the correct beads to arrive from England.

Currently, I am working on my first Nora Gaughan pattern—Elodie from the new Berroco pattern book. It is just flying off my needles. The yarn is Berroco's Ultra Alpaca Light, the color is Oceanic Mix. Elodie is a shrug with collar, knitted in a lace pattern that imitates waves. The light alpaca yarn is a bit scratchy but I am hoping that after it is blocked it will soften up. This should be just the thing to warm me up on chilly Fall days.

Techniques still to master: DPNs and sock knitting.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Eclipses and Showers

Two big astronomy events are due to occur in just two weeks. One is an eclipse of the moon, that is when the moon passes through the Earth's shadow, and the other is an extraordinary meteor shower that has occurred only three times in the 20th century and will not occur again for another 50 years, the Aurigids. Both will happen in the early morning hours. The eclipse will occur on the 28th of August and the meteor shower on September 1st. For both of these events, the West Coast will get the best show.

The lunar eclipse will have 90 minutes of totality with the umbral portion beginning at 3:51 a.m. PDT, that's when the moon starts to pass into the shadow, and totality commencing at 2:52 a.m. when the moon will be totally in the shadow. Totality will end at 4:22 a.m. and the umbral eclipse will end at 5:24 a.m. It will be so long because the moon will pass more deeply into the Earth's shadow. The whole event will actually begin at 1:51 a.m. when the moon passes into the penumbra. Here in California, we will get to see the entire show, but further east, the moon will set while still in eclipse.

An eclipse of the Moon can only take place at Full Moon, and only if the Moon passes through some portion of Earth's shadow. The shadow is actually composed of two cone-shaped parts, one nested inside the other. The outer shadow or penumbra is a zone where Earth blocks some (but not all) of the Sun's rays. In contrast, the inner shadow or umbra is a region where Earth blocks all direct sunlight from reaching the Moon. If only part of the Moon passes through the umbra, a partial eclipse is seen. However, if the entire Moon passes through the umbral shadow, then a total eclipse of the Moon occurs.

I remember viewing a lunar eclipse some years ago when I was at a rehearsal. The conductor allowed everyone to take a break and go outside to view the event for awhile. The moon was a coppery red and an eerie glow covered the ground. It was quite an experience.

On the other hand, I have not had a good track record viewing meteor showers. We just had the annual Perseid shower early in the morning on August 13th. I saw nothing, well maybe three, but I couldn't swear to it. I had stayed up until 1:00 a.m. when the meteors were supposed to be at their peak. All evening, every half hour or so, I went out to check on things. We had a new moon, so the seeing was supposed to be excellent. It was a warm night with no clouds or fog—until 1:00 a.m. Where did those clouds come from? It's is frustrating enough trying to do any astronomy from a big city location like Los Angeles with its light pollution, but being near the coast, we get a lot of fog, too. This time the clouds were high and coming from the east.

So I am planning to try something different for the morning of September 1st when the Aurigid shower will take place. This rare shower was formed by the dust trail of the comet Kiess which first passed by the sun (as far as we know) in 83 B.C. (give or take a century as the article in EOS, a publication of the American Geophysical Union, says). The comet returned in 1911 after completing one orbit! The dust trail comes into Earth's path a little more frequently. The shower will be brief lasting about an hour with the peak at 4:36 a.m. PDT and will be visible with the naked eye from locations in the western U.S.

However, while brief, it should be spectacular. When viewed in 1935, 1986, and 1994, the zenith hourly rate was about 200 meteors per hour. That's three times the rate of the Perseid shower. And they have been very bright, ranging from -2 to +3. (For your reference, negative numbers indicate brighter magnitude and the planet Venus appears at -4. The naked eye limit is +6.) The moon will be just past full, but should not diminish the display much (it is hoped).

For best viewing: Keep Moon out of field of view (best to block behind obstruction such as telephone pole, then watch whole sky), avoid city haze that scatters moonlight Best direction: East and Northeast Best time: Start one hour before peak, then see the rate of meteors increase and decrease while Earth travels through the shower.
If you play around with the handy Fluxtimator Java Applet on the Ames Research site, you can find out how well you will be able to observe the shower from your location. I'm planning to leave town.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Disney Hall

I'm in euphoria. I played a concert at Disney Hall last week, home of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it is every bit as wonderful acoustically as they said it would be. The hall was built for music alone, especially symphony concerts, so everything was designed with that in mind. There were no compromises made for theater or other stage performances which have requirements for lighting, props, curtains, backdrops, and the like. The stage, seating arrangements, materials used (lots of wood) were all chosen to enhance the performance of music.

The stage area is the most spacious of any hall I have played in, and sight lines are perfect. It is built in a bowl shape with the conductor at the lowest level and the orchestra rising in a half circle around him. I was perched on the tip of the wing on the left and the basses which are on the far right seemed to be miles away from me. Yet I could hear their sound as if they were right next to me. The solo oboe could be heard perfectly, but it was hard to tell from which direction the sound was coming. I suspect it was bouncing off the walls and coming back.

The acoustics were a little disconcer-ting at first and took some getting used to. When I was warming up, it seemed like the very scraping of the bow hair on the strings was being magnified. Yipes! I thought. Imagine if you were going to play a solo and all anybody could hear was scrape, scrape. But when we all started to play, I couldn't hear it anymore (or I forgot about it). The audience sits all around the stage and you could hear the sounds they were making just as easily: foot movement, program pages turning, and the ubiquitous coughing. As the concert progressed, they learned to sit very quietly.

I have been to Disney Hall many times and attended several concerts there including a memorable Messiah Sing-a-long. (Until last week I could say that I had sung at Disney.) It is one place I like to bring friends and relatives who are in LA for a visit because the architecture is so striking. It was designed by Frank Gehry and was begun with a very generous $50,000,000 gift from the late Lillian Disney, which grew through later Disney family donations plus the interest to over $100,000,000, hence its name. You can take tours through the building daily and if there is no rehearsal in progress, you may even get to see the stage area inside with its wonderful organ pipes. Outside, there are unusual gardens and a beautiful rose fountain made with chips of Delft porcelain—a gift to Lillian from her children and grandchildren.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Eating on the Road

Thankfully, it is getting easier to stay on my diet while traveling. Waiters and waitresses, especially in the "finer" establishments don't bat an eye when I request no starch, no bread, and extra veggies would be nice. It has gotten easier for me to pass on desserts, too, as my carb cravings are mostly gone. (I do get a twinge now and then for something chocolaty. But then I read somewhere that if you are going to cheat, cheat with chocolate because of the magnesium and flavonoids in it—especially dark chocolate. Of course, it's not the fat in the chocolate that is bad for you, but all the sugar that usually goes with a chocolate concoction. But I digress.)

I've already blogged about the difficulties of getting a decent meal on the day of a flight. The only solution there is to bring your own food which is not without its problems also. But I really ran into trouble on my recent vacation trip when we got to Pennsylvania Dutch country. I wanted to sample the traditional cuisine of the area, but discovered that it includes sugar in almost every dish, or at least in the dishes that the restaurants were offering. Of course, they are famous for their pies including shoo-fly pie whose ingredients are flour, brown sugar, molasses, with a little lard, water, and baking soda, and that's it! I didn't try that one and generally said no to all desserts, but I did try a hot bacon salad dressing and was surprised to find it was very sweet. When I asked the waitress what the ingredients were, she replied, "Well I know how my Mom makes it—eggs, sugar, mustard, vinegar, flour, and bacon."

Sweet and sour combinations seem to be the order of the day in PA Dutch cooking. The Pennsylvania Dutch are actually of German descent and much of their cooking is derived from German dishes like sauerbraten, sauerkraut, and schnitzel. Besides pickling with sweet/sour combinations, they like to have everything well cooked. But the meals also include corn puddings, cranberry sauce and other New World dishes. One dish I would have liked to try but didn't find was hasenpfeffer, braised rabbit.

Dr. Michael Eades has recently posted a blog about a new book by Gary Taubes that is due to come out in September. Eades seems to feel that this is the book that will turn things around and get everyone on the low-carb bandwagon. The current title of the book is Good Calories, Bad Calories and features a piece of white toast with a pat of butter on the cover. I'm sure many people will buy the book thinking that the "bad" calories are in the butter, not the toast, but we'll see. I hope Dr. Mike is right because that will make my life a whole lot easier.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

PA Ancestors

I love doing genealogical research. My husband got me hooked way back in the early 90s. Many of our vacations have revolved around searching for ancestors, finding the towns and even the houses where they lived, and traipsing through old cemeteries. It is so exciting when you find a piece of primary evidence that someone, who may have been only a vague figure in a family story, actually existed and you realize that someone is part of your history, part of you.

When we planned our trip to PA (my sister, her husband, and myself), we had intentions of meeting with a cousin who has shared our genealogy adventures in the past (to Newfoundland, NY, and PA). She is currently moving back to PA and we wanted to see her new house. I had also planned to do some research on my husband's side of the family since we would be in the area where they had lived. On our way, however, we were going by Stroudsburg, PA, which is where one of our own ancestors had gotten married and started his family before moving north along the Susquehannah River. I had not been able to get very much information about this ancestor previously. He was sort of the missing link. I knew more about the ancestors preceding him and the ones that came after, than I did about him, partly becaused he moved a lot.

Without any preparation on my part (I usually bring notes and family history pages so we will know what to look for), we drove into Stroudsburg just to see what the town looked like. Following some directions we were given to get us to the local library, we passed the Monroe County Historical Association and decided to drop in. Unfortunately, it was 3:30 pm and they were closing at 4:00.

There were several volunteers and staff members there who immediately went to work for us pulling out folders they had on our family names and my sister and I sat down to browse through them. I rather haphazardly chose a few pages to be photocopied and we were on our way.

Later when we met my cousin, she had a surprise for us. She had brought along a family Bible that she had inherited that dated back to 1833. It was the Bible of the very family we had gone to Stroudsburg to research! My cousin had looked inside the front cover and read the names, but didn't realize what a treasure was waiting in the middle of the book, between the Old and New Testaments. That is where family history information is recorded. When we opened the book to the middle, we found a wealth of information going back to the 1700s, plus a letter that had been written by one of our ancestors dated 1856!

My sister, my cousin, and I sat up past midnight making a transcription of all the information in the Bible and taking pictures of it. My cousin read through the letter out loud for our enjoyment. In the letter, which has no punctuation, our ancestor talks about a younger member of the family going to Strawberry, CA to dig for gold and being attacked by "Injins" and then goes on to talk about a grasshopper invasion.

Grasshoppers are plenty here and the Dollar newspaper says a St. Louis paper says that the grasshoppers have eaten up the entire tobacco crop of Franklin County and the last that was heard from them they were seated on the corners of the fence begging every man that passed for a chew

It turns out that the pages I chose to photocopy in Stroudsburg were just the right ones: a transcription of a will, and the family Bible of the father-in-law of the ancestor in my cousin's Bible. So now I have information on the wife's line back three more generations. It has been my experience that when you get close to them, your ancestors want to be found. They want their story told and remembered. Lest you think I have gone nuts, this has happened to me before and other genealogy researchers will tell you the same thing. It's uncanny.