Serious Telephoto

This is about 1/3 of a camera I spent a summer serving. You might recognize it from the movies Contact and 2010: Oddesy Something-or-other, or maybe from the cover to that Night Ranger album you’d rather forget.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Not even sure how to calculate the focal length on this baby, but the aperture is measured in miles.

Note: You do not want to watch Contact when I’m in the room, unless you want to hear me complain at length about how that’s not really how a radio telescope works. I can’t help it!

I was just a lowly grunt at the VLA, but I worked the quiet night shift and when data came off the antennae and passed through my system (using a special memory array to accomplish fast Fourier transforms on the data to convert it from time-based to space-based), I would become the first human being ever to see Things Out There.

Yeah, chills.

I’m pretty sure that specialized, really expensive piece of hardware could still outperform my phone for that one specific task. Probably. But then again game engines use that same math, so maybe not. The PDP-11’s that fed the data into and took the data out of the array were what once was called minicomputers before microcomputers ate them for breakfast after Moore’s Comet hit.

I spent free time working on the Silicon Graphics workstation to make false-color images that looked cool — uh, I mean, enhanced the features the scientists wanted to study.

I have some OK gear of my own now, but I won’t be photographing quasars shooting out gas jets the size of galaxies.

If you’re ever on a road trip across the southwest, I recommend highway 60 for Salt River Canyon alone. On your way through New Mexico be sure to stop off at the VLA and walk around a bit. It’s a hell of a camera.

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Venus!

I knew that there would be lots of people taking pictures of the sun as little Venus crawled across its face, and I knew that I could never hope to match the pros. I decided instead to emphasize the surroundings of the shoot instead. I happen to live near a city with a distinctive skyline, so I thought I might try for a dramatic sunset that just happened to have the little black spot of Venus on the sun.

But where could I stand so that the sun would set right behind the Transamerica tower? I fretted over maps and even drove up the coast on an unsuccessful scouting mission, but in the end I discovered that the ruler tool in Google Earth made the job ridiculously simple. I knew the sun would set at 300° azimuth, so I just had to click on downtown San Francisco and draw a line at 120° over to the other side of the bay. The ideal spot was right at the end of the runway at Oakland International Airport. I didn’t quite get to the ideal spot, but darn close.

As you can see in the pics, I was not the only one who did the math. All that was left was for the gods of photography and those of meteorology to shake hands.

I had a problem with stupidity for a while; fortunately I got over it before the critical period. Also, nothing makes dirt on your sensor show up like shooting at really high f-stops. Should have cleaned diligently before a last-chance-in-this-lifetime photo op. There were light clouds on the horizon, so my dream shot was not to be, but as the sun passed through a gap just above rooftop-level I shot like crazy. In retrospect, I should have shot even more, and exposed some of them far less, to give Venus a chance. As it is, however, I got about sixty nice sunset shots to choose from for this gallery. Not bad for an evening’s work.

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A Comfy Star

Recently ‘they’ found a brown dwarf nearby. A brown dwarf is a star that never quite made the grade; when all the other stars in the dust cloud were snatching up fuel these hapless wanna-bes were left just shy of the mass (and therefore gravitational pressure) to squish hydrogen atoms together into helium, and as a side effect shooting off heat. They’re barely stars at all.

You can see a thoroughly uninteresting photo of one over at Astronomy Picture of the Day. It’s pretty close to us — on a cosmic scale at least — a mere 40 light-years away. What made this one interesting (to me at least) is the surface temperature. It’s about the same temperature as the room I’m sitting in right now.

So let’s say, for the sake of Science Fiction, that one can travel faster than light. Only slightly more impossible would be dealing with the high gravity. Once those two minor things are taken care of, you could build your house on this star. Well, there probably isn’t a real surface per se, and there’s likely to be some pretty wicked radiation and magnetic what-not. And epic storms, like on Jupiter.

BUT – if you solved those things, you could build your house on a star. That would be cool.

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Kicking off the Workshop in Style

I’ll be in Kansas for the first half of July, attending a writing workshop. Big fun! Apparently some of the big names in Science Fiction are bigger than I thought, as they have arranged to have a comet fly by to announce the beginning of the session. Way to go, Jim!

Astronomy Picture of the Day is my new favorite RSS feed. Almost never disappointing.

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Need a Little Background for a Story

I’m writing an eclipse-inspired very short story, and I need a city in Mexico. The requirements are:

  1. Good view of the 1991 total eclipse (long totality and had good weather that day)
  2. Populous enough to have bad neighborhoods (bonus: name the neighborhood!)
  3. Bonus: humid enough to have lots of insects

It’s a silly little piece, but I like to get my facts straight. Currently I have it in Cabo San Lucas, but a larger city would be preferable, as long as the first two criteria above are met.

Thanks in advance!

The Big Day

The eclipse is past, it was a success, and the folks on board are ready to party. Fortunately it’s still practically deserted here in the aft lounge on deck 9, tucked away behind the casino. The pianist has been joined by a trumpet player who is quite obviously not on the payroll but what he lacks in prowess he makes up for with a sweet tone and a good attitude. Everyone seems jolly this evening. We saw a total solar eclipse together today.

I woke up early, but not as early as I had planned. Outside our porthole the sun shone brightly over calm seas. By gum, it looked like it would be a good eclipse-watching day.

Many paused for a moment of reflection, and veterans told their stories.

Astronomy buffs prepare for the upcoming eclipse as the boat passes Iwo Jima

My plan called for breakfast first, a big meal in case the excitement later took precedence over meals. When I got up on deck, I changed my plans. Pictures first. On the port side was Iwo Jima, about as close as tourists can get to it these days. It is hallowed ground, dedicated to the memory of the blood shed over a few square miles of rock in the middle of the ocean. I thought about the marines who had looked over the waves at the same island so long ago, knowing that soon they would step ashore there. I took a couple of pictures in cooperation with Stereoptic Pete, who I have not mentioned yet in these chronicles, but I’ll get to that another day.

The island behind us, we set course for the center of the path the eclipse would take, balancing the longest possible totality with the occasional banks of clouds. “We’re good for Plan A,” the organizer said over the ship’s PA system. I went for breakfast and to make sure that I was as ready as possible for the main event. memory chip cleared, battery (and backup) fully charged, no funky settings on the camera. I went over in my head what I would do for the six and a half minutes of totality. 1) Look at eclipse 2) take pictures of eclipse. I reminded myself to get the priorities right. There would be plenty of pictures to share among the family, but there won’t be another eclipse as long as this one for more than a century.

Also, before I took my position on the sunny deck, I needed better sun protection. My hopes of finding a decent sun hat were thwarted, but the gift shop on board had baseball caps, and one of those would be better than nothing. I sprang for the hat, slathered on the sunscreen, and headed topside.

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

Sun goggles on! Sunscreen on! Hat on (for now)!

I took up a position on the patio at the stern of deck 10. It was less crowded (most of the patio is covered by an awning) and it was close to the beer. It also had the benefit of having a good view to the rear, and I hoped to see the cone of the shadow overtake us as second contact approached.

It wasn’t long before first contact – the moment when the disk of the moon first impinges on the sun. I pulled out my sun-looking-at shades and watched. Near me was a German couple and their cute-as-a-button daughter. The eclipse was going a bit slowly for a girl her age, so I took the daily newsletter, unfolded it, and punched a pattern of holes into it with my pen, creating the largest array of cameras on the boat. We had a good time looking at the dozens of crescent shapes projected onto the table top, projecting them on each other, and generally goofing around.

The day grew dimmer, and cooler. The ship adjusted course to run right down the center of the track, prolonging the totality by a fraction of a second. (“Because we can,” the director explained.) Unfortunately, due to poor math on my part, I had positioned myself directly under the ship’s exhaust on our new heading. As the deck became crowded with the ship’s crew, I crossed over to the other side of the boat, pausing to get a beer on the way. I found a spot on the rail, introduced myself to my new neighbors, and made another check of the camera. I was shooting with a big ol’ zoom lens and it seemed like about halfway zoomed would give the best results. I checked ISO, focus, shutter speed, and aperture. I was ready. The plan was to not spend too much time thinking, but just step through a whole bunch of settings, assuming at least one would give good results.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

Second contact, the photo shaken as I grabbed in futility for my runaway hat.

The cone of darkness appeared behind us as the world dimmed. The temperature, cooling steadily for the last hour, dropped abruptly further. The light took on an odd twilight aspect. I looked up, and saw the last flare of the sun vanish behind the rugged lunar terrain. Second contact, they call that moment in the biz. I raised my camera, almost vertical, and lined up my first shot. Shoonk went the slider for the zoom, pulling me back from the image. Fwip went my brand-new hat as it tumbled off my head, over the rail, and into the sea far below. I took the picture.

You’ve seen eclipse pictures before, better ones than these. Probably you’re read descriptions of the time spent in the shadow of the moon. Twilight in the middle of the day. Sunset-pink clouds on the entire horizon, 360 degrees. All I can add is “spooky”. Venus appeared, then elusive Mercury and some of the brighter stars. The whispy streamers of the corona cast an eery glow over the sea, and the sky was a color I’d never seen before.

I raised my beer to sun and moon and corona and speedy little Mercury and I silently toasted the spectacle.

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

The inner corona of the sun, with streamers and stuff

I took some more pictures, pausing now and then to take it all in, not thinking about anything but the thing itself. Well over six minutes passed that way, then came the first peek of the sun through a valley on the lunar surface, a flash known as the diamond ring that means that we have reached third contact and the magic is coming to an end. I quickly made an adjustment to the camera and fired up at the emerging brightness. And waited as my camera beeped off ten agonizing seconds before taking the picture. It turns out I had adjusted two things. Maybe I was lucky, however; the picture came out right nice.

I hadn’t taken any shots of the crescent sun before totality, but afterwards I found a piece of solar filter blowing across the deck and held it over the lens with one hand while shooting with the other.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

The "diamond ring" as the sun peeks through a valley on the moon, while the corona is still visible.

Eventually it was time to abandon my post and find the rest of my group, in the more crowded areas forward of my position. “Did you get good pictures?” people asked as I moved around. “I don’t know,” I said. I hadn’t gone back to look at them. It didn’t even occur to me until later. I was pretty sure that I was moving the camera too much anyway.

Before fourth contact, while the moon was still slinking back into obscurity, the moon geeks began to break down their fancy telescopes and clever moon-watching devices and the party atmosphere began. The ship hoisted the official ‘successful eclipse’ flag and cheering ensued. Our boat shared horn blasts with other boats that had come to the ideal viewing spot. My cousin sweet-talked the head of bartenders on the boat to slide me a free Eclipse Cocktail.

The central lounge on the boat was packed this afternoon, filled with clusters of people (like us) reliving the experience, checking photos, and partitipating in the traditional cruise activities for the first time in days.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

As the eclipse geeks below begin to celebrate, the moon slowly moves along.

Tonight after dinner (celebrating fuego’s mother-in-law’s birthday) I followed my nephew out to the foredeck, kept dark for this cruise only, to allow people a place to see the stars. There was the Milky Way and a buttload of stars, along with the fiery trail of the occasional meteor. I stayed out there for quite a while in the dark and quiet, listening to the low conversations around me and thinking about how big it all is, this universe measured in time, and how tiny was the little island we had passed that morning.

Sun and Moon collide
bound by ancient formulae
meteors are free

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The Moon is Waning

Less than three days from now I will find myself at the airport, documents in hand, ready to go chase the new moon. Some moons, you see, are newer than others, and the upcoming one is going to get smack-dab between the Earth and the Sun. It will also be a particularly close new moon, so it will cast an unusually large shadow. My goal, and the goal of a brotherhood of geeks that my parents belong to, is to be in that shadow.

The best place for viewing this eclipse will be at sea, and happily there are enough moon geeks to encourage a cruise ship or two to make a special trip out to the middle of nowhere so people can spend a few hours risking eye damage. Our boat will be aiming for optimum totality time, modified by where clouds are at the critical moment. We eclipsists don’t like clouds so much. The boys steering the boat will have all sorts of gizmos to tell them about the weather (sailors have always been funny that way) and will try to put us in the ideal spot.

When the moment comes, we will be able to look almost straight up and see the moon eat the sun.

With only a couple days’ prep time left, I really should think about packing. I even went out and bought a pair of long pants just for the trip. Actually, most of the credit for that goes to my sweetie; left on my own I would have procrastinated on the slack-buying mission (slack slacking? Am I a slack slacker?) until just about now, then rushed about in a panic trying to find some. Apparently onboard and around and about in Asia, “semi-formal” doesn’t include cargo shorts and aloha shirts. What the heck?

Which brings me to the item that now I have to rush around in a panic to find. A suit jacket of some sort. Not only are we out there to ogle astronomical phenomena, we will be celebrating my parents’ fifty years of wedded bliss. There will be a dinner celebration on the boat, and it will be a fancy (on the Seeger scale) affair. I’m pretty sure I have a tie around here somewhere, and I have button-up shirts without flowers or martini glasses printed on them, but the coat is going to be tricky. Anyone have a spare they can loan me? Something in a meduimish size? I can roll up the sleeves if they’re too long.

Other than that, I’ll be packing a camera, lenses, laptop (but which one? the one that can edit photos or the one with a working battery?), a smaller camera, battery chargers (what plugs do they use over there and on the boat?), shampoo, and a toothbrush. Ooo, and a swimsuit. Snorkel and corrective diving mask? Probably not. Oh, and shoes. They’ll probably come in handy for that formal dinner thing.

Quest for the Perfect Moon Widget

You may have noticed that as of this moment there are three different moon phase widgets over on the sidebar. None of them are perfect, alas (although the Japanese one is perfectly inscrutable). I looked around at other WordPress widgets and did not find one that gave out all the information I was interested in (especially for the eclipse) and was aesthetically pleasing. I thought I might spend a few hours and make my own.

The design was very simple. I would write a little Flash thingie that read XML data from a server and draw the moon with great precision and also look nice doing it. In addition I could put numerical readouts for more interesting (to me) numbers. Piece of cake.

I started my quest looking for a server with current moon info. The US Naval Observatory has all sorts of lunar data available, presumably calculated with far greater precision that I will ever need. The only problem is, they didn’t have data for right now. They had almanac generators and whatnot, but nothing that I could ping and get back a message that said, “at this moment, the moon is…” I couldn’t find anything at NASA, either. I broadened my search and found that nobody seems to be providing this service. “fine, then,” I thought. “I’ll make my own moon server. I’m sure there are plenty of places I can find algorithms for calculating this stuff.”

Only, that didn’t turn out to be so simple, either. The motion of the moon is incredibly complex. There exists a thing called ELP 2000-85 which is the latest attempt to make the math match what the moon actually does. What the thing does is loop through a set of calculations a bazillion times, each time with tweaked coefficients that make smaller and smaller corrections to the calculation. Compiling the tables of coefficients must have been a real pain in the butt. Refining the tables is still ongoing. The accuracy of your calculation comes down to how many times you loop through the coefficients before you decide that the computer power is better used for something else.

Nobody in their right mind would actually use all the tweaks in the ELP 2000 for anything as simple as a moon phase widget, or, for that matter, a moon landing. Along came a guy named Jean Meeus, who published a book full of handy formulas for calculating where things are going to be. He includes simplifications of the ELP 2000 (only looping through 64 iterations), and while they’re not as precise, they’re pretty damn good. I don’t have that book, either.

Time wasted so far: 3 hours. Completion of widget: 0%

But now my search began to bear fruit. I didn’t have Meeus’ formulas, but other people did, and had written software. I found some open-source code that implemented some of his stuff. Yay! I implemented the code, moving it from c to PHP so I could run it on my server. After a few routine hitches the code was up and running and telling me just where the moon was, relative to the Earth, accurate to a couple of arcseconds.

Time wasted so far: 6 hours. Completion of widget: 5%

Unfortunately, it didn’t tell me anything else. This particular code did not provide any information that required data about the sun — like, say, the phase of the moon. Harrumph. Back to the Internet I went. Fairly quickly I found some different code, this time in JavaScript, that also cited Meeus. It was much, much, simpler, ignoring many of the more difficult-to-calculate corrections, but I figured that the first code sample had already done most of that. It was simply a matter of adding the new code to what I already had. Naturally, despite having the same source reference, all the variable names were completely different.

After a great deal of forensics (that’s a big word for ‘wasted time’) I established which quantities I had accurate versions of and which I still needed to calculate. I got everything set up and ran some tests. The results were not good.

Time wasted so far: 12 hours. Completion of widget: 3%

I had expected some problems like this – perhaps in one body of code an angle was expressed in degrees and the other expected radians. Things like that. I started working through things. Only after another day of head-scratching did I test the code I’d based the second half of my project on. It was wrong. So there I was with Frankenstein’s monster of code sewn together from different sources, and one of the sources was broken before I even started. Sigh. Back to the drawing board.

Time wasted so far: 20 hours. Completion of widget: 2%

I should mention along in here somewhere that there are people who sell moon software for quite a bit of money. My little server could potentially put a dent in their sales by bringing accurate calculations to anyone who asks, but its not really the calculations they are selling, but the application around it. I’m not too worried for them.

Back to the Web and by now I was getting better searches because I knew the key terms to look for. I found two more code examples, both of which take precision to the most extreme available. One is a complete implementation of the ELP 2000-82b. This honey consists of 36 files with tables with hundreds of rows of numbers, and a sample program in Fortran that shows how to use them. For ridiculously accurate calculations, I couldn’t do much better. But… It only calculates the position of the moon, just like the first code I implemented. I’d still need to work out the phases and whatnot.

The other code I found is based on earlier math, but really concentrates on what an observer would see from a given point on the Earth. It includes corrections for the optical effects of the atmosphere and for the friggin’ speed of light. It’s got a lot of stuff I don’t need (other planets, for instance), but it has everything I’d be looking for. The thing is, the code is horrible. It’s in c, and the writer apparently never heard of parameters or returning values. Or structs, or anything else that might help organize the information. It is impossible to read a function and know what it does or where all the numbers it uses come from. It would be a big task to translate the pieces I need, mainly because it’s very difficult to tell which pieces I need. Still, it’s an option.

Time wasted so far: 24 hours. Completion of widget: 3%

And that’s where I stand. You know, maybe I’ll wait until I’m on a boat full of moon geeks. I bet one of them even knows a Web site that gives current moon data.

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What’s with all the moon stuff?

I have added a couple of widgets over in the sidebar that show the phase of the moon. Why? Because when the moon gets back to new, I’ll be somewhere in the ocean around Iwo Jima, staring straight up and burning my eyeballs as the moon passes between them and the sun. Total Eclipse of the Sun, baby, and I’ll be there!

I added two different moon phase thingies because one was more aesthetically pleasing, while the other held more cultural interest. If you hold the mouse over the Japanese characters, you will be given important information about how to carry out your day. If you can figure out what it means.

I’ll be writing more about this adventure as I gear up for the cruise. A boat full of astronomy geeks! Woo hoo!

A Good Time for Late Sleepers

The days are getting longer! Hooray!

For the next few days, however, for most of us the sun is still rising later. Longer days and you still get to sleep in! Bonus!

Here’s a freebie…

I had an idea for an interesting story setup just now. It’s not a story setting I’m likely to use in the near future, but it was fun to think about.

If the world were substantially hotter, it would only be habitable at the poles. It leads to some cool scenarios when people are finally able to get to the other pole. Naturally, it would be more interesting if there were people there already, but how did those people get there? Are there entirely separate evolutionary branches going on, and if so, how do the results compare?

I’m not sure whether a habitable planet that is that much hotter would need more of its surface covered with water or less. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

Other questions arise, like:

Cosmology: would cultures that develop in polar regions have the same misconceptions that Earth civilizations did? Would seeing the sun go around in circles rather than rising and setting alter the perception of the solar system?

Cosmology 2: What shape would such people imagine the Earth to be? Perhaps an inverted bowl, which continues to bulge outward until you reach the edge? Maybe the bowl is spinning on some sort of flat surface beneath, which would explain the seasonal motion of the sun.

Mythology: The sun is important, but too much sun is deadly. Would a culture whose boundaries are defined by the strength of the sun imagine that evil lurks in the shadows they way we do, or are the shadows where the good guys take refuge from the evil that inhabits the sunny regions?

Navigation: It doesn’t seem to me that anyone will be inventing a compass in those parts. When travelers venture far to the south, what troubles are they going to encounter when trying to find their way around?

Weather: I bet there would be days when the huge storms come from the south (for the north pole dwellers) fed by the extra energy from the sun.

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The Art of Roving Mars

I was poking around over on gizo’s blog this morning. It’s been a while since I dropped by over there, but every time I wander through there’s something interesting going on. This time it was a You-Tube clip he had posted that caught my imagination.

Before you go look, consider this: NASA has done a lot of work to design the best possible machine to wander the surface of mars (with the constraint that it must not weigh very much at all). They’ve done a pretty good job, judging from where I’m sitting; little six-wheeled buggies have managed to poke around the surface of the red planet and find some cool stuff.

The Mars rovers are solar powered. What about wind? There’s a lot of that stuff up there. What if you could make a large machine that could step over obstacles and was powered only by wind? How far could it go?

OK, now go look at gizo’s blog, and the video. [I was, in my minutes of research, unable to figure out how to link to a specific episode over there.] Imagine something like what you just saw in that video, but able to crawl over boulders and hunker down when the wind got too dangerous. Gnarly.

The current Mars rover design is encumbered by a mandate that is must be a scientific instrument. For the Mars Wind Walker ‘Amelia Earhart’, I say screw that. Build it as well as you possibly can, throw it up there, and turn it loose. The romantic in me says don’t even include a transmitter. It might be centuries before we find it again, if ever, but we’ll know it’s out there. For the colonists of Earth’s dusty brother, there will be a ghost story waiting for them when they arrive.

Note that in the time since I posted the link above it’s become rather not-helpful for finding the video. I searched and all I could find is this much less poetic look.

Christmas Eve in Los Alamos – Farolitolicious!

The stars are close here, and on a still, cold, cloudless, moonless night there are a lot of them. Find a dark place, look up, and you will see them. 2.7 fucking buttloads of them, to be exact. (This number was scientifically determined many years ago by our crack stellar research team.)

On Christmas Eve the street lights are turned off over much of Barranca Mesa, and cars drive slowly, with only their running lights, and the stars shine down in all their brilliance. It’s a good night to take a little walk.

Just why are such unsafe driving conditions not only tolerated, but encouraged? Farolitos, of course. Often called lumenarias (opening the speaker up to correction by the more pedantic traditionalists), these little fires were first invented to act as runway markers for when the Baby Jesus was coming in for a landing. These days their job is simply to look cool, to provide a festive atmosphere without resorting to brash blinking and color. Farolitos glow, a calm and peaceful light that is more a “Silent Night” feeling than a “Jingle Bells” one. It fits with the tempo of New Mexico – it’s not a hurly-burly go-go-go sort of decoration.

Out at the end of Barranca Mesa, the whole neighborhood farolitafies, the street lights are turned off, and the neighborhood becomes a destination for people to slowly cruise or (better) walk, taking in the simple beauty for miles.

Farolito 101

For those among you not familiar with this tradition, farolitos require a little more effort to set up than strings of little blinky lights, but when you and friends work as a team things go quickly and it’s a nice way to spend the waning hours of Christmas Eve. The construction is simple, requiring a paper bag, ballast (usually sand), and a candle.

… and that’s all there is to it (although you do not want me to be in charge of folding over the tops of the paper bags. Many bags were injured this year in the creation of farolitos at my house).

Of course, technology never rests, and at the olde homestead we no longer use primitive sand for the ballast, rather we have specialized bricks, just the size of a typical farolito bag, with a hole ready to accommodate a typical votive candle.

Farolitos are a gentle light, and while photogenic, they require a long exposure. Most of the pics I took this year are hopelessly shaken (I should have used the 2-second delay even when using my little mini-tripod). Here is one of the homestead, including fuego’s giant automobile (dubbed by fuego the “hotelsmobile” and by my parents as “the #[email protected]*!! thing blocking the driveway that has long overstayed its welcome”).

As you can see, the parents favor a combination of electric and external combustion, enjoying the everyday colored lights and augmenting them on christmas eve with the farolitos. This is not uncommon, and allows the festive feeling to continue long after the candles have all burned away.

On the walk between John H’s place and Jojo’s, lugging beers and stopping often for photos, we met others out as well, enjoying the unseasonably warm evening. I’ll be putting up more photos at the gallery shortly.

I See Beauty and Stuff

Moonless night now here on the upper floor of the Earth. I step out into the darkness, into the humming cloudless night, and they are all there. All the names I know, and even more I’ve forgotten. Polaris, constant enough for our sorry lifespans. Antares, heart of the scorpion, named for what it isn’t. How would you like your name to be “Not John”? Alkaid, shining at the end of the handle of the Big Dipper. The name is Arabic, and means “the base” or “the fortress”. The street I used to live on was named for that star. Osama bin Laden also took a shine to the word.

Cassiopeia lies along the Milky Way, stretching her wings across the galaxy behind. As my eyes embrace the darkness she is almost lost among the clamor and light. The bears are there, diminished in reputation by the dippers they support. Draco, I never could pick out. It seems to be all the leftover stars that couldn’t fit into any other shape.

Arching almost directly overhead is the Milky Way. I look and try to turn that mysterious band into a disk of countless stars, but it is too much for me. There are enough stars I can see already.

Across the backdrop of the untouchable infinite crosses the works of man. High above but almost close enough to touch pass the blinking rumbling jetliners, crossing the sky but not daring to leave a trail behind them. The stars will not tolerate such impudence tonight. Another light moves across the sky, brightly lit as it crosses the plane of the galaxy then quickly fading. After a few seconds I lose sight of it, but I keep trying to look sideways where I think it might be, hoping to catch a hint of motion out of the corner of my eye. Whatever it was, it was big, and far above the atmosphere. ISS, I have chosen to believe. I could look it up, but I’m not going to.

Earlier tonight, driving back from a shopping run (the store closed early), our local star had just dipped below the horizon, carelessly leaving behind a rich sky full of pink and lavender. The ponds I passed stole from that palette and shamelessly reproduced it. The grass, green and haughty and still filled with the rain I had called forth, chose to contrast the colorful solar residue rather than echo it, which just made it all the better for me. I drove too fast, choosing to skim across the tops of the washboard ruts. It was good. It was thus with fondness that I said bon soir to out giant plasmic meatball, and welcomed the night.

Alone in the dark, more air below my feet than above my head, the stars blazed forth, barely bothering to twinkle. The hum of night insects surrounded me, supplemented by the vague, uncertain alarmism of Spike, who has obviously been paying too much attention to the government lately. Better to bark and have your ass kicked than to simply have your ass kicked.

The stars, and, strangely, no planet that I could identify (except Earth), continued on their vast journeys, unaware or our ridiculous fears.