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Other Diaries

Jeff Duntemann

Michael Covington


Aug 24 to Dec 30 2008

  • Supernova 2008ax
  • Souls in Silicon
  • Narrowband imaging
  • Watchers of the Night, Tunatic
  • Einstein's telescope
  • NGC 891, M1 in color
  • Blagojevich follies
  • Apollo 8, Illinois Science Lecture Association remembered
  • Cookie crumbles

April to August 2008

  • The incredible deported telemarketer saga
  • The idiocy of growing your fuel
  • Black Eye Galaxy
  • ISS pass captured by webcam

March 2008

  • Asteroids: Eugenia, Covington, Albrecht, Geographos
  • Arthur C. Clarke
  • Eclipse shadow from Mauna Kea
  • ISS flyover
  • Absurd Earth Hour
  • Model rockets
  • Feynman quote + Shuttle Challenger
  • Thermoforming Hartmann mask
  • Carl & Jerry Stories
  • Jupiter images
  • M27, Lunar Eclipse, M16, M20
  • Griffith Observatory ripoff
  • Pluto, Ceres, Vesta
  • New DSI II Pro camera: M33, NGC 7331, M16, NGG 7662 Helix, Comet Holmes

Jan - Feb - Mar 2007

  • Comet McNaught
  • First images w/ Vixen scope
  • Apollo 11 landing site imaged
  • Excellent Saturn image
  • First shots with solar filter
  • Comet C/2006 M4 Swan
  • More about absurdity of fry oil fuel — with numbers
  • Mercury transit
  • Carpetbagging Iowa governor, biofools lobby
  • Airplane & Mercury transit
  • “Waltons” pilot “The Homecoming” 
  • Bought a Vixen ED80Sf telescope
  • Remembering Dr. Hynek, Lindheimer Observatory
  • Comet McNaught C/2006 P1

August - September 2006

  • Inappropriate Google ads
  • Images of Dumbbell Nebula M27
  • More images, M13, M27, tried Meade's “Drizzle” 
  • Blue snowballs & galaxies
  • Crepuscular rays
  • M57 Ring Nebula, Pillars of Creation, mystery satellite photographed & ID'd

June-July 2006

  • Cat trees bear
  • Diet Coke & Mentos
  • Vandenberg launch
  • Shuttle STS-121 pass predicted & photo
  • Evolution a no-no at NASA
  • World's tiniest pizza
  • Is that your Johnson?
  • Nautical Almanac and why it's not used anymore
  • How & Why Wonder Books
  • Adventures of Baron Münch- hausen
  • High school electric motor
  • Biodiesel from liposuction
  • soylentgreen motor fuels
  • fry oil is not a power source
  • F-104 land speed record car
  • illegal bears
  • San Diego Auto Museum, Ariel Square Four, Meyers Manx
  • The new Bear State Flag

  • April 1:  NASA covering up Martian fossils
  • Anaglyphic (3D) images of Mars
  • Fukung wrench
  • Liberian 419 scam prediction
  • Bunkers I Have Known
  • Early Landsat imagery &  satellite tracking software
  • Apollo 11 & Ted Kennedy
  • Another face on Mars, “Marsworms”
  • Trees on Mars
  • Osama worth only an XBox
  • Old film cameras (Zeiss Icarex, Nikon F3), new digital camera (Kodak P850)
  • Hawker Tempest, Napier Sabre engine, Pierre Clostermann, BRM engines, Napier Lion engine, 1930s land speed record cars, W-layout engines, Napier Deltic, Bristol Hercules, Noratlas, real airplanes vs. wannabes
  • Various gasoline scams, MTBE and ethanol lobby scams, oxygenated fuel ripoff, biodiesel & run your car on waste french fry oil, expensive solar energy
  • Hydrogen fuel scam, hydrogen sources, coal gasification (Fischer-Tropsch)
  • The beatings will continue... Bizarre patents for fraternity/lodge initiations, the De Moulin company
  • Google places oddball ads
  • Steve Ballmer & Peter Boyle, Ballmer's rantings caught on video
  • Kabul Cab
  • B-17 comes to Orange County Airport
  • Chicago pizza
  • Mars maps and globes
  • Selling auto press kits on Ebay
  • Website listing scam
  • Bizarre Google ads (for weeds)
  • Star-mangled spanner

January-February 2006

  • Airshow photo gallery
  • Old Heinkel He-111 bomber
  • Overused phrases (“boots on the ground”)
  • Lotusarians, Mohammed cartoons
  • Darren McGavin (A Christmas Story, Kolchak, Adler planetarium), Don Knotts
  • Claude Akins = 1956 Mercury, Dame Edna = Chrysler 300

April 1, 2011


New York, April 1, 2011.

The New York Times today announced that it has terminated its relationship with three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman. Friedman, the author of New York Times bestsellers The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century and Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why we need a Green Revolution, has won three Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure at the Times. None were in the field of economics.
The stunning announcement came as the New York Times continues to struggle with dwindling advertising revenue, shrinking circulation, and temporary lack of any really juicy government scandals on the level of Watergate, Contragate, Monica Lewinski or Valerie Plame. Recent cost-cutting measures include printing horoscopes for every other sign of the zodiac, and limiting box scores to winning baseball teams.

It was Executive Editor Bill Keller’s sad duty to break the news to Friedman. Afterward, Keller presided at a press conference featuring a hosted bar and hors d’oevres.

When asked by a member of the press to recount Friedman’s firing, Keller replied “Recount it? Heck, we’ve got something better. We’ve got it on video.” To this reporter, it seemed that Keller took no small pleasure in ordering the lights dimmed and the video played.

"Tom, have a seat. I'm sorry to have to break this to you, but we have to let you go. Now, don't be upset. Step back for a moment and take the larger, cosmopolitan view. What’s your salary now, more than half a million?”

“Actually, closer to a million, sir.”

“A million. You know, a million a year will feed three villages in India. Can you in good conscience object to us sending them money that, let's be honest, would have been wasted on you, but will keep several thousand people alive in India? So they can all afford to fly Lufthansa to New York and thank you in person?"

“But Bill, think of all I’ve contributed to this newspaper! My books! My three Pulitzers!”

“The Pulitzers are nice but we already have about ninety others. Frankly, I’m tired of paying the carpenters to make a bigger display case every year. And the books, well, let’s say that they didn’t make our own best-seller list by accident, eh? Besides, your books gave me a wonderful idea. You may have noticed that some papers are outsourcing their routine writing jobs to offices in India.”


“We owe it all to you, and your book on the glories of globalization, The World is Flat, to open our eyes to the enormous opportunity presented by India. Just think! It speaks to us in English – well, sort of; it’s desperately eager to please; and it survives on what amounts to economic table scraps.”

“So, you’re taking my salary and giving it to three villages in India?”

“Don’t be silly. That was a figure of speech. We’re paying some semi-literate grunt in Mumbai who thinks he can speak idiomatic English to pretend to be you. We’re paying him two percent of what you used to get. That buys him a house with outdoor plumbing, a new Tata Nano with driver, a Bollywood wedding, two mistresses and a goat. We pay some kid at City College of New York two cents a word to proofread the copy. Giving your salary to keep the population of three villages alive was a…  an… um… what do you call those things that are like something but not really?”

“A metaphor, sir?”

“Yeah. Whatever. A metaphor. We may be crazy, but we’re not stupid, and right now we need the money. Your money.”

“Well, I suppose I can still survive on my lectures.”

“Well, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. We found a guy in Delhi who, with a little makeup, looks exactly like you, can be just as arrogant and know-it-all behind a podium or on “Charlie Rose” as you, and he’ll do it for chickenfeed. Literally. His mother-in-law runs a chicken ranch in downtown Calcutta. So, if you’ll look at your contract, you’ll find that we own the property called “Thomas Friedman, Self-Trained Economics Pundit.” And we’re subcontracting that to the lowest bidder. “

“Well, what do you suppose I can do for a living after this?”

“Given your credentials, I suppose you could teach high school economics. But my advice is, read ahead every night, so the kids don’t know more than their teacher.”

When asked to describe Friedman’s reaction, Keller said “Really, he only has that one, that wombat-in-the-headlights look. I’d seen it so many times that I didn’t pay it any mind.”

November 30, 2010

I told you so, again.

One of my pet peeves is the complete idiocy of adding ethanol to motor fuel. (Motors and fuels are my department. It's the field in which  I got my master's degree, and in which I spent a good part of my working life. I can say with a high level of confidence that I know more about this field than any politician). Way back on April 22, 2006, more than four and a half years ago, I wrote

As should by now be obvious, the past decade's debate in Washington on the complex question of reformulated gas has never had anything to do with scientific evidence or real facts... And this leads to the greatest irony of all. Oxygen, whether in ethanol or MTBE, does not produce a cleaner-burning fuel.

Now we have this gem as published by the Wall Street Journal and several other sources in the mainstream media. “Al Gore's Ethanol Epiphany.”

“It is not a good policy to have these massive subsidies for first-generation ethanol,” Al Gore told a gathering of clean energy financiers in Greece this week. The benefits of ethanol are “trivial,” he added, but “It's hard once such a program is put in place to deal with the lobbies that keep it going.”

No kidding, and Mr. Gore said he knows from experience: “One of the reasons I made that mistake is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for President.”

Gee. Who could have foreseen that? (Anybody with a college degree in hard engineering, for example. Or just ordinary citizens who are suspicious of pied pipers and other messiahs. Especially those with Nobel Peace Prizes). And notice the nuancing. “One of the reasons I made that mistake...” He's justifying his “mistake” with excuses. “Well, it wasn't my fault. I was only trying to get elected.” The only thing missing from this now is the phrase “I take full responsibility for the ethanol fuel debacle.” What does that mean, exactly, “taking responsibility?”

Could we have our money back now? (Eh? What? It was never our money? Oh. OK). Could we have our cars back now, dammit, and will you technologically ignorant bureaucrats and political hacks stop messing with the fuel system after the thing is designed and developed and built and sold and rolling on the streets?

Is it time for Saint Algor to make a sequel, titled “An Inconvenient Lie”? Hey, maybe that, too, will win an Oscar.

Most important – what else has St. Algor been lying about? Global warming? No, he wouldn't do that, would he? Well, if he would lie to get elected, doesn't it stand to reason that he'd lie even more readily to make a financial killing on his Cap'n Trade carbon indulgence racket?

We have seen that the global warming True Believers – Algor, the “scientists” involved in the University of East Anglia leaked e-mails, all the rest of them – are happy to sacrifice truth, objectivity, and the very fundamentals of scientific method on the altar of the greater good – as they define it. These people are not to be trusted with anything. Certainly not with control of a government, or power over our purse.

Update: December 6, 2010
Today's Wall Street Journal carried an un-bylined editorial on this very topic, titled "Ethanol on the Run." It may be retrievable (or maybe not) here. (I get the full text when going through Google News, but otherwise only the first few paragraphs).

Some choice excerpts:

The political class inevitably invokes the moon shot or Manhattan Project as a model for every unrealistic energy goal...

Last week, no fewer than 17 Senators signed a letter calling ethanol "fiscally indefensible" and "environmentally unwise."

...what kind of business can't survive without subsidies when government also mandates that consumers buy its products? As the Senators dryly noted, "Historically our government has helped a product compete in one of three ways: subsidize it, protect it from competition, or require its use. We understand that ethanol may be the only product receiving all three forms of support from the U.S. government at this time."'

...also last week, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that under the 2007 energy bill Americans
must use at least 13.95 billion gallons of ethanol next year, or about 8% of total U.S. fuel consumption. In protecting its free ride, the ethanol lobby is like Fannie Mae before the crash. But at least now there's a glimmer of political hope for taxpayers.

Yeah. What they said.

It never ceases to amaze me that obvious frauds like ethanol, solar and wind power, electric cars, and the whole global warming / carbon trading scam continue to rumble along, juggernauts that are almost impossible to stop (can you say "too big to fail"?)

June 30, 2010

A little privacy, please

I was at the local Tandy Leather shop buying some minor supplies (“Chicago screws”). My purchase came to $5. Cash.

The guy wanted to know my phone number. So I gave them a false one.

“Hmm... that's not coming up.”

Well, I said, it's a new number.

Tried it again. Still no good. (In other words, their computer is checking all known phone numbers).

“What's your name?”

I said, you don't need that.

“Yes I do, because the System won't take this unless I put this in.” (God bless the System, whose devoted slaves we are).

Look, this is a cash transaction. You don't need any of that. I get enough unwanted phone calls as it is. Please understand my side of it and respect my privacy.

“Oh, we wouldn't give that number out.”

Doesn't matter. Your system can be hacked, or your company goes bankrupt and the new owners sell the contact list, whatever. You don't need that number.

Finally he put in 800-555-5555 or something.

I kept it polite but I suspect most people, in order not to appear to be contentious, would just happily give up and surrender their number.

I don't think I'm being paranoid here. But I think we've lost a large degree of our privacy in this country. Europe, especially Germany, may have a lot of goofy intrusive micromanaging socialistic laws, but when it comes to privacy, they've got a better idea than we do. And, bottom line, there is absolutely no benefit to me, for Tandy Leather to know who I am.

There's a bigger picture here. On sites like Facebook and Twitter and even Linkedin, people post stuff that's nobody's business and can come back to bite them. (When a name appears on the police blotter, the first thing the blessed Media does is, look for the Facebook page – see Eliot Spitzer's hooker, see the latest Russian spy bust). Or that current Microsoft TV commercial (second commercial here) where people are suckered into the “Greater Offshore Bank and Trust” and happily give away extremely sensitive, dangerous information (ATM password  numbers, all credit card numbers, mother's maiden name, Social Security number, DNA sample...) in order to get a $500 gift deposit. Maybe it's good to be paranoid after all.

May 23, 2010

Changing of the Gort

For Christmas, Jeff Duntemann sent me a very nice, massive, cast-and-plated metal statue of Gort. To replace the cheesy cardboard model described here on June 21, 2009.

Gort's been very active but I finally got him to stand still long enough for a portrait.

May 5, 2010

Amazing what turns up in junkyards

Jeff Duntemann recently linked to Criggo, a web site that collects strange newspaper bloopers, badly worded classified ads, and the like. Proof, in part, that journalism school doesn't teach kiddies to think. (In fact, journalism may be an excellent career for those who can't think independently). 

I've been collecting such oddities too, in a fat manila folder. I may post some of the better ones (some from the car industry) in the next few days.

Meanwhile, here's a classified ad I cut out of the lurid yellow pages of the industry standard publication for buying and selling all things related to airplanes – Trade-A-Plane. This must have appeared about 1978-1980. That's about the time frame when Trade-A-Plane was a sort of “wish book” for me.

This sounds like a gag from Monty Python, “The North Minehead By-Elections:” “It's that nice Mr. MacGoring from the Bell and Compasses. He says he's found a place where you can hire bombers by the hour.”  

I haven't posted anything for a couple of months. Been busy. More soon. 

February 20, 2010

Will the real Cap'n Trade please stand up? 

He's so... so... “totally cereal.” (Explanation here).

     Copyright © 2010 Peter L. Albrecht

Whether one believes in “anthropogenic global warming” or not (what the heck should belief have to do with this? If it's science, either it can be proven, or it can't. Belief is for religions – but that's what AGW is now, on both sides) the reality is that “global warming” legislation is effectively dead. For now, maybe forever, for the following reasons:
  • The leaked University of East Anglia e-mails revealing improprieties in scientific ethics
  • The failed Copenhagen conference
    • Can't confirm his speaking calendar, but it appears Algor hasn't been seen in public since before Copenhagen, where he bailed out of a scheduled multi-hundred-dollar-a-head fundraising event. Why? Most likely because the East Anglia e-mails were so damaging, they ripped his cause a new body orifice. Al Gore is good at one thing:  avoiding being pinned down with questions. Update Feb. 26: It's not my imagination. He really is laying low. From today's news (OK, it's Fox, but they noticed too). Apparently he showed up at the Apple stockholders' meeting and got ambushed. “Since his appearance at the Copenhagen climate summit in December, Gore has been reluctant to talk to the media, making only a handful of public appearances.” 
    • At Copenhagen, the Chinese played Obama like a cheap fiddle
  • Record deep snowfalls in the Seat of Power, Washington, DC. 
  • Snowfalls where it's not supposed to snow. Dallas, especially Houston, and Florida...
  • More revelations that UN agencies were a little too loose with their facts, for example claiming that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. And getting millions in funding as a result.
  • More established, respected scientists coming out and saying “Wait a minute, who said this issue is 'settled'?” They're not quite as likely to be shouted down by the True Believers anymore, so they're finding the personal and professional courage to speak out. It used to be career suicide to do so. Not anymore.
  • More revelations that the data has been diddled
    • Historical weather stations located in sites that are now a lot warmer due to development
    • Data that has “turned up missing.” In science, you never throw away your data. It has to be there in case somebody wants to audit your findings. No raw data, no science. Heck, I learned that in high school science fairs. “Show your work.”
  • Phil Jones, center of the U of East Anglia scandal and forced to resign from the Climate Research Unit in the wake of the e-mails, is now waffling.
  • Hackers stole European carbon credits. (Why steal imaginary carbon indulgences? Simple. They represent real money and are backed by consumer / taxpayer dollars).  
  • And finally, the economy is in the toilet. Make no mistake, cap and trade is a tax, passed to the bottom of the economic food pyramid – us. People don't want to be taxed even more for their energy use, and can ill afford it right now. In an election year, politicians voting “yes” on any of this are committing political suicide.

One friend has the pragmatic suggestion that instead of trying to turn “global warming” around, we should be spending effort and money looking at how we will deal with it if/when it happens. But that makes too much sense. 

Me, I'll just turn up the air conditioning. Problem solved.(Investment tip: air conditioning manufacturers, refrigerant manufacturers, water parks).  

February 14, 2010

Mars after opposition

The rains finally stopped and the skies cleared. ClearDarkSkyClock claimed that the transparency and seeing last night should be 5/5, so I figured I'd give Mars another shot, two weeks after opposition. Here's the result. 2400 images each out of 3600, in full color and infrared, IR used as luminance layer. 


January 29, 2010

Another neat military surplus gadget – the Astro Compass Mk II.

Way back on April 18, I wrote about modern uses and past history of the N-3C gunsight. I mentioned, and linked to images of, a B-25 Mitchell bomber that has an odd gadget mounted ahead of the copilot – an Astro Compass Mk II. I said “I gotta get me one o' those...” Well, I got one, on Ebay.


Here's how it would be used to sight on the Sun (note shadow bar and alignment lines). For star sights, there's a little half-lens at the back, which magnifies the pointers at the front sight.

It took me two attempts to buy one. The first one was in beautiful condition, made in 1948 and still in its original foil-and-linen issue wrappings,

but after surviving in like-new condition for 62 years, the seller stuffed it into its box wrong and it broke on the way to me. A shame, but I got my refund. Now, these can go for cheap, as in under $50, or for crazy prices, near $200. I would say a fair price is no more than $70, and there's no reason to ever settle for a less than perfect example. An outfit called Celestaire also sells “reconditioned” ones, for use by boaters and yachtsmen, at nearly $300. The ones I see on Ebay, if they haven't been abused in storage, are in near-new condition, since they saw very little use. The usual failure mode is that the cast aluminum or pot metal declination arm snaps off due to improper stowage. I've seen three or four like that on Ebay.

It seems that these things were intended for navigation in the polar regions during WW2. Magnetic compasses are not much use in the far north. That means these were used for ferrying aircraft to Britain, and probably weren't much use for anything else, hence the low wear. Although it looks like they might be used like a sextant, they're actually much simpler than that. They really are what the name says, a compass, that uses the stars (or sun, or planets) to do what compasses do – tell you which way is true north and which way you're heading. To use this, you already need to know where you are and what time it is. You look up the coordinates of a star etc. in a navigator's almanac, such as the Air Almanac, set the dials for your known latitude, the local hour angle of the object and its declination. Spin it around to point at the object, and the mark on the base gives you your true heading. 

This is a wonderful, clever little piece of craftsmanship, with nicely machined parts, knobs, gears, and engraving, packed into a Bakelite box. Two companies made these for the military: W.W. Boes in Dayton, OH ...

...and Sperti in Cincinnati, OH. Boes has disappeared but Sperti lives on, making sun lamps in Kentucky. The Sperti units came in a wooden box with a canvas web strap. I think the Bakelite is a lot neater and they're usually not as beat up as the simple wooden box by Sperti. The Boes version of the manual may be viewed or copied from Scribd, here.

Well, what good is it? I'm a sucker for old military surplus gadgets, especially if they're not very military (optics, cameras, navigation, electronics). I don't plan to do any arctic navigation anytime soon, and I don't have a boat, but one thing I did do with it was to use it as an ordinary theodolite, to take azimuth and elevation readings. The altitude drum makes it easy to read angles to about 1/5 of a degree.  This allowed me to do a site survey of my backyard telescope location and place the readings in a “horizon file” in Cartes du Ciel. Now I can tell when objects of interest are blocked by surrounding houses and trees, and when they become “unmasked.”. Like this. (Black is visible, blue is not).

The manual says it can also be used to identify stars. Oddly enough, when I was in 5th or 6th grade, I borrowed a book from the Chicago Public Library that showed how to make a theodolite to identify stars, using just some common boards, screws, and cheap protractors from the corner drug store. I actually built such a thing, because I couldn't afford the commercially available version sold by American Science Center:

I had completely forgotten where I found the plans for the one I built, only that it was an astronomy book from the childrens' section. Recently, I somehow connected some dots and discovered that it was a little book titled Challenge of the Universe, written by Dr. J. Allen Hynek of Northwestern University. In 1965-66, I could not have known that within 10 years, his leadership of the Astro-Science Workshop at the Adler Planetarium would influence me to choose Northwestern U., and that I would be taking classes from Dr. Hynek. So I dredged up a nice hardbound copy on ABEbooks. The little volume is a concise guide to astronomy, intended for science teachers. It was published in 1962 (about the time the U.S. was playing catch-up in the space race, and there was a push for science and math education), as part of the National Science Teachers Association “Vistas in Science” series. (I owe much of my education to the rivalry between the USA and the USSR).

One look at the plans in that book, and the details of my woodworking project from 45 years ago all came back to me. This was my first-ever astronomy shop project.

The drawings in Challenge of the Universe were done by one Helmut Wimmer. He was the artist in residence for the Hayden Planetarium in New York, and is perhaps best known for his iconic representation of a black hole that first appeared on the cover of  the January 1971 issue of Physics Today (“Introducing the Black Hole” by the late great John Wheeler). For decades, Wimmer's artwork has been the classical, conceptual image of a black hole.


January 9, 2010

Still more Mars

Composites from 6 minutes x 10 frames per second in color, with 6 min x 10 fps infrared for luminance.


Just infrared:


It's hard to find good maps of Mars

By “good” I mean a map that will let one identify what all those blobs in the above photos are called. These are “albedo features” and may or may not bear any relationship to actual terrain. The problem with many current Mars maps is that they're just too good, have too much detail of things we can't see down here. The is for example Google Mars, which gives psychedelic colors for terrain elevation or muddled, nearly unrecognizable black and white images.

Probably the best recent guide to visual features is the map prepared by noted British planetary imager Damian Peach, especially this one; click on the image to go directly to his page. The map is zoomable by clicking, making the text easier to read. Note that this is upside-down from my images, the map has south at the top.

A list of offical albedo feature names and meanings is here.

The Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers has some recent images of Mars. There is also a Yahoo newsgroup with more recent images.

Old business: 
I found a copy of the original Palomar 200-inch telescope's first-light image of Hubble's Variable Nebula
. Interesting to compare my amateur image, using commercially available very-late-20th-century technology, with what Hubble himself did in 1949 – 61 years ago this month – with the leading-edge equipment of his day. See original entry of Nov. 20, 2009.

January 6, 2010

Mars again

This time, I had my digital focus readout set up to let me switch between predetermined focus positions for visual and infrared in just a few seconds. Seeing was about average. I toned down the contrast of the processed image a little on the left, increased it on the right. Both are based on the exact same processed raw data.


Valles Marineris, the huge canyon complex, is just below center in these images.  This NASA photo taken with the Hubble Space Telescope shows it more clearly.

The digital focus readout – I built a gizmo for situations just like this, where I have to switch between predetermined focus positions quickly.

From left to right, that's the digital dial indicator on its bracket; the plunger bears directly against the telescope backplate. It's connected by serial cable and USB-to-serial adapter (Keyspan type USA-19HS, don't ever fool with any other USB-to-serial adapters, especially not Belkin brand – this one just plain works) to the telescope computer for remote digital readout. I can change focus, and have a numerical indication of focus position to half a thousandth of an inch, remotely, at my telescope control computer from indoors, or alongside the telescope. The thick, black 2” to 1 1/4” eyepiece adapter slips through the dial indicator bracket. Next, a TeleVue 2.5x Powermate; Atik filter wheel; my own custom T-thread adapter (infinitely better than the commercial plastic ones) and Philips ToUcam.

January 5, 2010

Much better Mars

Getting better at it... Clear Sky Chart said this morning was to have seeing conditions at 5 out of 5, so I tried something that has worked well on Jupiter in the past. Narrowband imaging tends to minimize the effects of atmospheric seeing and turbulence, and red light is better at penetrating the atmosphere. Near infrared works too. So I did 4 minutes at 10 frames per second through an infrared filter, and 4 minutes in normal color mode (with the obligatory infrared and ultraviolet blocking filter). I processed the two sets of images, the IR as a black and white, and used that as a luminosity layer in Photoshop. Here's the result. 

Mars is displaying more or less the same face as two days ago, but what a difference in contrast. (But I still have a ways to go to match the best amateur images – like those by Christopher Go in the Philippines).

What the heck is all that stuff? Well, ya need a Mars map.This one sort of works. (Others have way too much detail, you lose the forest for the trees). Mars Previewer by Hector Leandros works well, and is downloadable from the Sky and Telescope web site. (In this case you have to put in Jan 5, 2010, 10:30 Universal Time, and check celestial east at left). Scrolling over features pops up their names and locations. 

One thing I still need to address is refocusing for the two filters. Moving the scope to nearby Regulus and putting on the Bahtinov mask to refocus takes valuable time, meanwhile the planet is rotating so two sets of images won't register as well. I have a fix for that, a digital dial indicator with remote, computer readout, based on the Televue TVFocus system. I need to install that for next time.

More to come...

January 3, 2010

First Mars of the season

Mars is currently visible in our eastern sky these evenings. Can't miss it; it's the brightest, reddest thing up there. It will reach a so-so opposition (when it's opposite to the Sun – in other words, is overhead at midnight) on January 29. It won't be as large in the sky as on its record-setting opposition of 2003, when it was 25 arcseconds across. That's still incredibly tiny; it about the size of a dime seen from the other side of a football field. (For some reason, there is still an Internet hoax going around, about Mars being “as big as the full Moon.” Uh, no. Never was, never will be). A list of various oppositions is here

Early this morning, with Clear Dark Sky Clock promising good seeing, I set up the equipment to once again image Mars. Here's one of the better results on the left, with the simulated view from Calsky on the right. This doesn't compare with my best-ever Mars, from October 2005. Shows you how much difference atmospheric seeing can make.

Equipment details: 12” Meade LX200GPS, TeleVue Powermate 2.5x, Baader IR blocking filter, Philips ToUcam; Registax stacked 1800 of 2400 images; 10 frames per second,  1/100 second exposure, 4 minutes).

It is currently spring in the northern hemisphere of Mars, and the north polar cap, made up mostly of frozen carbon dioxide, is shrinking.

This morning, Mars was 12.9 arcsec across. At best, on the 29th, it will be 14.1 arcsec across, not enough bigger to matter. No sense waiting until the one day that it's closest; might as well start imaging now, and hope for good seeing.

Sky and Telescope Magazine indexes online again

Sky and Telescope indexes, going back to the first issue of November 1941, can once again be downloaded. My advice is, if you have any need for these, grab them now, these things have a way of disappearing. Very handy; searchable. 

December 28, 2009


We're being watched!!!

The other night I was fooling with the telescope, again doing some calibration and setup work. I used the Orion Nebula as a target, with brief exposures of 1, 2, and 4 seconds. Live, on my monitor screen, I could see... unidentified objects flying past the nebula. Not just once, but several times.

Here's one example. Exposure time 2 seconds. Click on the images to activate an animated GIF. They take a while to load (If they take TOO long, click here and here).

Here's another. Exposure time 4 sec.

What are they? Birds? Night-flying insects? The mysterious Air Force Aurora spy planes / secret anti-terrorist fighter patrols over major cities / aerial refueling operations / not-quite-black-enough helicopters? Or... are they UFOs? Perhaps these are night-flying versions of the infamous “rods” or “sky fish.”  One of these is even visible in an episode of Carl Sagan's Cosmos. But he never mentions it; of course not, he was a well-known UFO skeptic. Are we being watched, or, worse, invaded? Has the President been informed?

Turns out it's nothing of the sort. This is a well-known phenomenon at this time of year, in these latitudes, when people are photographing the Orion Nebula. These are geosynchronous satellites that just happen to pass through the line of sight. The satellites are essentially stationary with respect to any spot on Earth, but because the Earth is turning, and the telescope is tracking to compensate for that motion, the satellites appear to move from west to east past the nebula. (To try to photograph the satellites, I could shut off power to the scope when they sail into view – but photographing something that's at best the size of a schoolbus at 23,000 miles sounds like a long shot, in every way). Astrophotographer Jim Misti  has an excellent writeup on his web site, including the math to demonstrate where these things should (and do) appear in the sky, depending on the observer's latitude on Earth. (Another writeup, in more depth, here and another nifty photo here).

So what exactly are these things, anyway? I spent a long time wrestling with a free program by satellite guru Mike McCants called Findsat (you can find links to this, to the similar IDsat, and others in my big list of useful astronomy links). It runs under DOS and is fairly clumsy to use. But once the latest satellite elements from NORAD / Space Track, my geographic coordinates, universal time (the images are time-stamped to the second by my computer) and location on the sky (easily found in Cartes du Ciel) were loaded into a text file and the program run, it returned the identities of these objects.

The top two are Anik F2 and Wildblue 1, at altitudes of 23032 and 23031 miles respectively (which sounds awfully close... doing some math using their visible lateral separation on the sky, they are about 14 miles apart in space). Anik F2 is a Canadian communications satellite, Wildblue is used by ViaSat of Carlsbad, CA for two-way Internet communications. Anik F2 is a Boeing 702 satellite, claimed to be one of the largest communications satellites ever launched (massing over 13,000 lbs. at launch, with a “wingspan” of  nearly 160 ft. and 27 ft. wide).

The object in the second image is Satmex 6, at 23,022 miles.

It's like Grand Central Station up there. Here's proof.

December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas, everyone!

It's that time of year again when we think of friends near and far, and the reason for the season.

At the end of a year marked by hard times for so many of us, it's good to remember that this too shall pass.


November 30, 2009

Going deep

I've been testing some telescope equipment recently, using the Crab Nebula as a subject. Out of curiosity, I checked my images against to see what are the faintest stars I can record.

Here's the lower right corner of one of my M1 images.

Meade 12” LX200GPS, Meade 0.63x (long focal length version) focal reducer, white light (with Baader UV/IR block filter), Meade DSI II Pro camera, off-axis autoguided with Meade DSI color working at native ~f/10 of telescope. Stack of 120 one-minute exposures in the early morning hours of Nov. 27. Some of the stacked images were obtained while the Moon was still well up (exposures taken between 12:39 AM and 3:11 AM, Moonset was 1:46 AM). Location: light polluted suburbia.

Here's the link. Mouse over some of the dim stars and a yellow box should pop up with the star's U.S. Naval Observatory catalog number and its magnitude.

It's significant that when it went into service in 1948, the 200-inch Hale telescope at Mt. Palomar, the big-science, big-technology “Moon landing” project of its time (the 1930s through the 1950s, maybe into the 1960s), could record, I think, 21st magnitude stars – that makes them about 1/6th as bright as what I'm getting at mag. 19 – on special Kodak glass photographic plates after exposures of many hours. The above was shot while I was sound asleep in front of the TV set, by a mass-produced consumer-grade telescope. (Back in 1948, at the Hale Telescope's dedication, observatory director Walter Baade wrote of extending the scope's magnitude limit down to mag. 22.5, “the limit attainable with the 200-inch”;  Eric Chaisson in Hubble Wars says the 200” can go to 25th magnitude. That may be a more recent achievement, perhaps with CCDs replacing glass plates – yes; this 1984 paper, on Mt. Palomar's early quad-CCD “Four Shooter” camera, says “A one-second exposure will show stars to magnitude 21, and a 26th magnitude star will produce one count per second... This is a long step beyond the 23rd magnitude limit that was once traditionally quoted for the Hale telescope.” See also extensive material on Gunn, Oke, and their Four-Shooter in Richard Preston's excellent book “First Light”.)

My long-term goal: 20th magnitude. From the city. While fast asleep.     

November 22, 2009

Homemade Bahtinov mask with a difference

I needed/wanted a Bahtinov mask to help in focusing the Zeiss 200mm focal length lens (results: Nov. 20 entry). They're not terribly expensive when they're available, but nobody has any in stock just now. So I made my own.

Now, when I printed out the mask for the tiny little 50mm diameter lens using the online mask generator, I realised that there was way too much fiddly work involved in cutting out the tiny strips in this size. So I thought... I could get something like Ronchi gratings... overkill, way too expensive... or... hmmm... a cheap drug-store comb would do the trick.

So, I got a comb, milled the back edge parallel to the tips of the teeth, and cut the fine-pitch half into three pieces. I got some 1/4” dense (not the Ikea-grade sawdustboard) MDF particle board, turned it to slip into the dewshield of the lens, and mounted and centered it on a rotary table on the mill. I bored three round holes, and milled edges to locate the backs of the comb sections. It helps to have a milling machine and rotary table for this, to get the two angled edges at exactly 20 degrees (or whatever, so long as the angle is identical left and right) to the axis. I then used hot-melt glue to stick the comb pieces to the disk, using the milled edges for location. I attached the finished piece to a larger round (and appropriately bored) MDF piece that slips into the dewshield of the Vixen refractor, for a double-ended Bahtinov mask that works on two different sized optics.

What's it look like when you use it? Here's an image of a bright star with the 200mm lens, showing good focus.


When the nearly “horizontal” bar splits the two “Vees,” it's focused. This is an extremely sensitive method, better even than the Hartmann mask I used to use.

I should start making these. I even have a trademark name picked out: B.O.R.I.S. Stands for Bahtinov Optical Resource for Image Superiority. Boris Bahtinov, get it? (Hey. It's... nested puns. A pun on a pun. Ees better dan Moose and Squirrel).

(For more on Bahtinov masks, how to print out and cut your own, several sources for ready-made masks, and a new alternative, the Carey mask, see my Useful Astronomy Links).

November 21, 2009

British Airways mileage points credit card scam

Travelers, beware. Somebody is always trying to get their fingers into your wallet. Yesterday, CNN News had one of their “reporters” singing the praises of a new Visa / British Airways credit card from Chase that does the following: 1) gives you 50,000 British Airways miles the first time you use it, and 2) gives you another 50,000 miles if you spend $2000 within 3 months. (Hey, that's easy...) The cost is only $75. So the reporter was touting this as basically getting two free economy tickets to Europe on BA, for only $75. 

Wow. Maybe I should go for that. Let's have a look...  Here's the BA page to apply for the card. Yup, sure enough, it touts two transatlantic award tickets. Here's one enthusiastic article. But hold on now... read the feedback at the bottom. On the second page. 

Sounds great, but the problem is that BA charges more in taxes/fees than any other airline for “free tickets”. We redeemed miles for 2 free business class tickets from LA to Venice earlier this year, and paid $1375 in taxes. A similar redemption using United miles for 2 business class tickets from LA to Athens on Lufthansa cost us a total of $264. I'll keep earning on my Chase United card, thanks...

Oh-oh. Let's have a look at those fees. Googling for “British Airways” +  fees, I found this.

Does anyone actually know why the fees and taxes on BA flights are so high? We are exploring the possibility of using frequent flyer miles to get from Denver to Johannesburg. We have enough miles in both BA and Delta to get there. If we use Delta, it will probably be 125,000 miles + $62 per person. If we use BA, it will be 90,000 miles and $638 per person.

Another travelers' forum with comments. And another.

The culprit appears to be high fees whenever you pass through London Heathrow. If your trip isn't to England anyway, avoid!!!

So those two free tickets cost a lot more than you expected – the $75 card fee, the horrendous fees and taxes slapped on by British Airways, and maybe the cost of a major purchase or two, to get up to $2000, that maybe you didn't need after all. 

I'm glad I caught that in time, before filling out the online application form. This is a scam, pure and simple, to attract people with “free” airfare for doing basically nothing – and then blindsiding them with hidden airline fees that approach the level of other airlines' (United, for example) cheapest paid fares. And it appears that just applying for a credit card diminishes your credit rating somewhat. So when you pull that application trigger, it had better be for a good reason. 

I recently applied for, and got, a new United Airlines credit card that offered triple miles for travel on United. Well, I didn't read carefully enough. That's triple miles only on the cost of a United ticket bought with the card. No, no, you don' unnerstan', I don' wanna buy no tickets, I wanna get tickets... I never used the card and when the first bill arrived with the $150 card fee, I called and cancelled it and got the fee waived. I had to explain to the customer service rep on the phone why I was declining the card – he, too, thought it was triple miles for miles traveled, not just on the ticket cost. So I'm sticking with my ancient one-mile-per-dollar United credit card, which I've had for close to 30 years. 

There's always somebody operating some kind of scam. Jeff Duntemann sent me another one. Yeah, is always pestering me to sign up and give them money. It always smelled scammy to me. 

OMG, why doesn't the President do something???

November 20, 2009

Catching up on astrophotos

Time to compile some recent astrophotos. 


Rosette Nebula complex in Monoceros. Zeiss 200mm Super Dynarex with Meade DSI II Pro, narrowband filters (H α, OIII, SII). Piggybacked on Meade LX200GPS, guiding with Meade DSI Color. Four-minute exposures; 59 images in H α, 63 images in OIII, 21 images in SII. Used nonstandard palette with H α as red channel. November 14, 16, 17, and 18, 2009.

This nebula is very large, actually about one and a half or two times the apparent width of the full Moon in our sky (the moon would take up less than half the height of this frame). Mouse over the image to show the Moon to the same scale. It can be seen in good, large binoculars under very dark skies. 

I have shot this before, on color film. The results (reported here for February 25, 2007 and repeated below) show why digital has essentially made film extinct. The image below is a stack of three 30-minute exposures, shown as a full, uncropped 35mm film frame. This was shot through a larger optic, a Vixen ED80Sf, 80mm f/7.5 lens.

Maybe I would have gotten similar sharpness and saturation if I had stacked ten hours' worth of 35mm film shot through the bigger Vixen ED80Sf scope.  Yes, the stars are sharper in the film image; that's due in part to the larger Vixen objective with coated optics (the Zeiss 200mm lens is uncoated) and in part to the dynamics of film vs. CCD sensor. 

NGC 281, the “Pac-Man Nebula” in Cassiopeia. Zeiss 200mm Super Dynarex with Meade DSI II Pro, narrowband H α filter. Piggybacked on Meade LX200GPS, guiding with Meade DSI Color. Stack of 37 four-minute exposures, November 15, 2009.

NGC 2264, the Cone Nebula / Christmas Tree Cluster complex in Monoceros. The cone is at the bottom, the “Christmas Tree” nebulosity with embedded cluster is upside-down, and the dark Cone marks the “top” of the tree.

Zeiss 200mm Super Dynarex with Meade DSI II Pro, H α filter. Piggybacked on Meade LX200GPS, guiding with Meade DSI Color. Stack of 46 four-minute images. November 19, 2009.

I had to make a special bayonet adapter to couple this lens to other equipment; see June 21 entry.


NGC 2261. This is Hubble's Variable Nebula, located in the rich but little known constellation Monoceros, just east of Orion. On the night of January 26, 1949, this was the very first object to be photographed, by Hubble himself, through the new 200-inch telescope at Mt. Palomar. Update Jan. 7, 2010: An image of the actual photo taken on that night can be found at the Caltech web site, here. Note that it is flipped right for left. (And his stars aren't quite round...)

Equipment details: 12” Meade LX200GPS operating at nominal f/10, Meade DSI II Pro, no filters, stack of 37 one-minute exposures. Autoguided with off-axis Meade DSI color. October 22, 2009.

NGC 2022. A planetary nebula in Orion. 12” Meade LX200GPS operating at nominal f/10, Meade DSI II Pro, no filters, stack of 9 four-minute exposures. Autoguided with off-axis Meade DSI color. October 22, 2009.

November 15
, 2009

2012 and all that

There's quite a flap right now about yet another piece of Hollywood make-believe, a movie titled 2012. About the end of the world, supposedly on Dec. 21 of that year. (I've mentioned this before; see March 17, 2008 entry). We've been subjected to “End of the World” nutters ever since I can remember, and for centuries before that. The British comedy troupe “Beyond the Fringe” had a good take on these cults:

Well, it's not quite the conflagration I'd been banking on. Never mind, lads, same time tomorrow... we must get a winner one day.

This time, though, Hollywood is cashing in on it, and has put its considerable publicity machinery behind the film. Two problems: 1) Most people are too dim to take an objective look at this stuff, and automatically believe what they're fed by the entertainment media (underlying problem: the educational system no longer teaches rational thinking, analysis, objectivity – only how to pass the state-mandated test). And 2): with their proliferation of bogus web sites, building up an entire fictitious “universe” complete with authors and publishers of nonexistent books, and nonexistent planets, Hollywood only muddies the waters, obscuring what little reality is still perceived by a demon-haunted, scientifically illiterate public. 

So in response, NASA has gotten into the act. The Space Agency is now in the popular-myth-debunking business. As if they don't have enough budgetary problems, as if there aren't enough projects desperate to be funded and launched, now NASA is spending money (I don't care how little it is; it's still coming out of a budget somewhere) on trying to herd the unherdable, the great unwashed masses whose mantra is “Don't waste money on space, we need it here.” Instead of trying to get into the heads of people whose lives revolve around football, American Idol, Survivor, and what Slutney de Beers isn't wearing today, NASA would do better if it stuck to its present mission – fixing Space Station toilets.

NASA is missing a huge opportunity here. Instead of trying to debunk an idiotic film, they should be using the mass hysteria to leverage their own budget. Just think – NASA could hint that yes, there are indeed signs of a previously undiscovered planet headed for Earth. The anxiety could be ramped up over several weeks. We have only 3 years to prepare; we need to pump absolutely vast amounts of money (on a par with the bank/car company/stimulus programs – easily 40 times the current NASA budget) into research on how to deflect the planet. Build rockets, fast! Re-activate Reagan's “Star Wars” program! Establish a Moonbase to shoot at the thing! At the very least, finally get around to funding the search for potentially hazardous asteroids! People of Earth! Write your Congressman! Write Obama! Write your local neighborhood dictator! NASA is Mankind's only hope! (Sheesh. Why do I have to think of everything?)

The scenarios are always different, but always the same. Some previously unidentified planet (in the case of the 2012 film, named “Nibiru” – of course there is no such animal) crashes into or does a near approach to Earth, causing all sorts of improbable cataclysms. Wikipedia even has a list of these nonexistent rocks.

The backstory is that those wise astronomers, the Mayans, had this all figured out, and that's why their calendar ends on December 21, 2012. Well, I see no point in hoping to receive scientific wisdom from an extinct Late Stone Age culture that specialized in human sacrifice and wasn't bright enough to invent the wheel.

The whole Nibiru thing seems to have been started by a guy named Zecharia Sitchin. Oh, joy of joys, he's living in New York. That means bank transfers will be easy. I have a Modest Proposal. If Mr. Sitchin really does believe that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012, then obviously all of his money will be worthless on that date. I propose that if he truly believes this, he should transfer the money – all of it – to me, on December 20. That, incidentally, is my birthday and I will be most appreciative of the gift. After all, he has nothing to lose. And what's in it for him, why should he give me anything, if the world does undergo some great cataclysm on 12/21/2012? Won't we all be losers, because we'll be dead? Well, let's make this interesting. He can hedge his bet so that he can't possibly lose. Even if the world is not destroyed, but only suffers some major cataclysm – say, something at least on a par with the December 26, 2004 tsunamis – then promptly, on Saturday, December 22, 2012, I will return, via bank transfer, to Mr. Sitchin's account all of his money, in full, plus $50,000 of my own money. There, is that a deal, or what? Come on, catastrophists. Put your money where your mouth is.

Isn't it strange that there's never any followup after the predictions by the various nutters, catastrophists, astrologers, UFO abductees, and what not, never come to pass? They just go forward and make the next set of predictions.

And will this wind be so mighty as to lay low the mountains of the earth?
No - it will not be quite as mighty as that - that is why we have come up on the mountain, you stupid nit...
When will it be, this end of which you have spoken?
In about thirty seconds time, according to the ancient pyramidic scrolls... and my Ingersoll watch.

November 10, 2009

Land of Heroes

A few week ago I mentioned Otto Klemperer's opening comments in his book The Language of the Third Reich, re “heroism.” Everyone and everything was “heroic,” from race drivers to ordinary soldiers fighting a lost (and ultimately, at its core, evil) cause.

We have the same situation today – hero inflation. It used to look like this.

  (Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, 1940).

But today, everybody's a hero. Any public servant doing his job is a hero. A fireman is automatically a hero. A motorcycle cop killed in a freak road accident while just riding along to his next speed trap is a hero. It's only a matter of time before the local county clerk filing the deed to your house does so heroically, despite paper cuts and bad coffee..

We had a few examples of this over the past week. The Ft. Hood massacre, for one.

The men and women will be honored like soldiers killed in action, Col. (promotable) John Rossi, Fort Hood deputy commander... said Sunday... “These heroes will be treated the same way,” he added.

As sad, as unfortunate, as infuriating and outrageous as the incident might be, there's a point of language here. The people killed at Ft. Hood were not heroes, they were victims. The real hero in the situation was the civilian police officer, Sgt. Kimberly Munley, who charged in and, despite her own wounds, put four bullets into the killer. She didn't take cover and phone it in. She didn't wait for backup. She didn't let it become another Columbine farce. Those killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11 were for the most part not heroes, although there must certainly have been heroes among them who performed heroic actions that we will never know about. By and large, they were victims who were not asked, and did not volunteer, to give their lives for some higher purpose (what purpose? Those victims certainly were not aware of one). They did not willingly step in front of a bullet to save somebody else or to serve a noble cause. The situation on United Flight 93, however, was different. By that time, the passengers knew the score.

Updates, Nov. 28 & 30: There may yet be a hero among the victims. A few  very few news sources (more here and here) are now reporting that a Capt. John Gaffaney (at first mistakenly listed as Gaffney) was seen by several witnesses to charge the shooter, getting “within inches” before being fatally shot. Strangely, this is being very under-reported by the mainstream media. Apparently Capt. Gaffaney was 54 years old and had worked for the County of San Diego, had been a major in the Army Reserves, and had to pester the Army for three years to take him on in the “regular Army” as a captain.

Meanwhile, a so-called Islamic “holy man” describes the traitorous, murderous, duplicitous religious fanatic who did this deed as... a hero. Predictable. And there is talk now that the killer should not be subjected to the death penalty because it would only make him a martyr. Well, it seems that members of that bunch are able to turn themselves into “martyrs” any time they want, taking victims (or heroes, depending) with them, so it makes no sense to forestall his martyrdom. In fact I think we should expedite it. Auction off grandstand seats to his spectacular martyrdom on ebay. Sell it on pay-per-view TV. Because like hero inflation, there's no way to prevent random application of labels. We should stop caring about what other people label us, and just get on with the job.     

There was another example of hero inflation, just this morning.

BOSTON — The driver of Boston subway train that came to a screeching halt just before hitting a woman who had fallen onto the tracks has been hailed as a hero. Charice Lewis got a radio call from fellow Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority employee Jacqueline Osorio, who was standing on the platform at North Station on Friday night when she saw the woman tumble. Lewis, who saw passengers on the platform frantically waving their arms, immediately tugged her emergency brake.

No, no, she heroically tugged on the emergency brake! Well, what the heck else was she going to do? I should get in the car Heromobile and heroically drive down heroic Harbor Boulevard, heroically braking for every red light – even though I don't really have to – and so avoid killing turning into heroic victims all those innocent bystanders. Can I have a medal?

Nearly 40 years ago, the satiric genius of Monty Python had its own take on what happens when superheroes become the norm.

The trouble with the Internet is that no matter how clever you think you are, somebody else has beaten you to it. Googling for “hero inflation” I found this.

Recently though, a fourth trait – victimhood – seems to have become as important as anything else in determining heroic status. Today heroes don't have to do anything; they just need to be noble victims.

The article mentions this Budweiser ad. I had to look that up. Yes, it's parody – but it works only because the ad agency, and presumably at some level the viewer, recognizes the absurdity of labeling everybody a “hero.” Another one here. And here.

Misuse of the language, and the concept of heroism, only dilutes the actions of those rare, true heroes. There is a world of difference between the Purple Heart and the Congressional Medal of Honor, between a John Kerry and a John Basilone or James Howard. It is unfortunate that today, most people don't know the difference.  

October 31, 2009

Knee-jerk environmentalism and the arithmetically challenged

A few weeks ago, the news services ran a story that All-Nippon Airways is now asking passengers to go to the restroom before boarding the aircraft, as this would reduce fuel consumption and therefore carbon dioxide – CO2 – emissions. How much CO2 would this save? Why, 4.2 metric tons per month! That's apparently not per aircraft, but system-wide. Gee, sounds like a lot. I'd hate to have to shovel 4.2 tons of anything. And we're always being told how all those evil jetliners are spewing out all that CO2 and causing global warming.

Well, let's take a look at some numbers. Let's take my current favorite airliner, the Boeing 777-200ER. The aircraft can carry 45,220 U.S. gallons of fuel, 301 passengers (in 3-class configuration), and has a maximum range of 7700 nautical miles. So call it 45,000 gallons, 300 passengers, and 8850 statute miles. Let's take jet fuel as being basically kerosene, C12H26. Jet fuel weighs about 6.7 pounds per U.S. gallon. For comparison with motor fuel and emissions, as a first approximation let's take the CO2 emissions as being about the same per gallon, regardless of fuel type (gasoline, diesel, or kerosene).

Is that a valid assumption? Check:
  • Diesel is basically C12H23, essentially the same as kerosene for our purposes. Molecular weight (12 x 12) + (23 x 1) = 167. Carbon makes up 86% of diesel by weight..
  • Kerosene is C12H26 so molecular weight is (12 x 12) + (26 x 1) = 170. Carbon makes up 85% of jet fuel.
  • Gasoline is made up of a bunch of differnt things but let's assume it's effectively 2,2,4 trimethylpentane (isooctane, the standard for 100-octane fuel) or in other words C8H18. Molecular weight is (12 x 8) + (18 x 1) = 114. Carbon makes up 84% by weight of gasoline. The density of gasoline is about 6.2 lbs/gal.
How much CO2 results from burning a gallon of kerosene? 85% of 6.7 lbs/gal = 5.7 lbs. carbon per gallon. Carbon has an atomic weight of 12, CO2 an atomic weight of (12) + (16 x 2) = 44. So the carbon in a gallon of kerosene is leveraged to produce 44/12 x 5.7 = 20.9 lbs. of  CO2. By similar arithmetic, burning a gallon of gasoline produces 19.1 lbs. of CO2 – about 8 percent less than kerosene. (But diesel also has significantly higher energy content – heat per gallon – than gasoline, by about 10 percent – so you have to burn more gasoline to do the same job and it comes out nearly even).


There, that's all the information we need. Let's assume all the flights are long-haul 777s, the airplane has all its seats filled, goes to its maximum range, and uses up all its fuel (this is not realistic but is an extreme worst case for fuel consumption and CO2 emissions per passenger per flight).

45,000 gallons / 300 passengers = 150 gallons / passenger.
8850 miles / 150 gallons = 59 miles per gallon (per passenger).

In other words, if a person were to drive a (diesel) car, alone, cross country instead of taking the plane, he or she would have to get 59 miles per gallon (or, for a gasoline car, with 10 percent worse fuel economy – about 53 mpg) to have the same CO2 output as flying. Now, if you start putting more people in the car, the driving option looks better – but even with two people, you'd need to get nearly 30 mpg diesel or nearly 27 mpg gasoline to match their share of the airplane's output of CO2. So flying actually puts less CO2 into the atmosphere than driving (alone).

So how much CO2 is produced per passenger, per flight, on that long-haul Boeing 777? Assuming complete combustion (which is very nearly the case, for any engine), each carbon atom in the fuel comes out of the engine as part of a CO2 molecule. 12 weight units of C go into 44 weight units of CO2, a leveraging of 44/12 or 3 2/3 to one.

150 gallons x 6.7 lbs/gallon x (0.85 lbs. C per lb. fuel) x (44/12) lbs CO2 per lb. C = 3100 lbs. CO2 per passenger. Call it a ton and a half.

Now, ANA wants its passengers to go potty before boarding to save 4.5 tons of CO2 per month, system wide. This is the equivalent to three passengers' contribution. For the entire month. For all the thousands of flights completed by ANA's fleet of 209 aircraft each month. (209 aircraft x 30 days = at least 6000 flights, probably several times that). Or, less (maybe way less) than a pound and a half of CO2 per airplane per flight. Remember the airplane puts out (300 passengers x 3100 lbs.) = 930,000 lbs. of CO2 per flight. And they hope to reduce that by a pound and a half. That's 0.00016 percent, or one part in more than half a million. That's the CO2 produced by burning 9 ounces, about a cup worth, of kerosene per flight. This amount is so vanishingly small, such a tiny part of the total (45,000 gallons for a fully fueled 777, for example) that it would be physically impossible to measure it. A splash lost in refueling, or dripping out of the hose nozzle, or evaporating, more than makes up for this. It's just not humanly possible to measure accurately such a small fraction of such a huge amount of fuel; the thing you're trying to measure is buried in the noise of measurement.

So, how much CO2 do humans exhale? I don't want to do the numbers. Somebody else has already done so. I haven't checked these. But if correct, that works out to 5/8 of a pound of CO2 per passenger per eight-hour flight. Or, about 190 lbs. for the whole airplane full. That's two orders of magnitude (~100 times) more than ANA claims can be saved by going to the can before boarding. But, like most environmentalist stunts, it's not about actually doing something; it's about being seen to be doing something.

Now, it is a well-known fact that humans breathe slower when asleep/unconscious/comatose. My humble suggestion: ANA would reduce CO2 emissions a lot more if they kept all of their passengers in a drunken stupor for the duration of each flight. Dr. Whoopee prescribes free booze – no, mandatory booze – for all on board.

Why doesn't Obama do something? See, mandatory booze... corn growers... ethanol... campaign contributions... it all works out. Government-mandated inebriation: it's a beautiful thing.

October 26, 2009

East German rhetoric, 20 years later

Recently, a friend showed me a piece of ephemera from the former East Germany: a little card issued to military reservists who have been called up for training. Twenty years (November 9 - 10) after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the language is so stereotypical that it is actually comical. I would almost call it self-parody except that the Communist Party was surely unaware of how ridiculous it appeared to anybody but its own captive audience. Here are images of the little red card, and my translation. The reference to 11th Party Congress dates this to about 1986.

We wish you great success in carrying out your Party assignment during your reservist training!
– The Political Section

{Logo of the SED – the Socialist Unity Party of [East] Germany}

Wherever there is a comrade, you will find the Party!


We welcome you to our military collective and to our Party organization. We are confident that you will carry out all assignments in an exemplary manner.

With your activation for reservist training, you have been tasked with performing a vital and active contribution to the armed defense of peace, especially in preparation for the XIth Party Congress of the SED.

Everywhere, at all times, embody the principle…


You have been given the following Party assignment:

1. Immediately take the lead in fulfilling all political and military assignments, and realize your exemplary role as a Communist!
2. Seek out the personal, political dialog in your collective, and demonstrate idealogical steadfastness as an agitator for our Party
3. Support your military superiors in implementing a deliberate military discipline.
4. Be alert! At any sign of enemy activity, rumormongering or opinion control, immediately inform your military superior and Party secretary!

Too bad. If they had come up with such inspiring rhetoric in 1961, they might have prevented unfortunate scenes like this  (more background here and here):


Stereotypical political rhetoric is almost always funny when perceived by uninvolved, or better yet cynical, outsiders. A few months ago a friend gave me a copy of The Language of the Third Reich by Victor Klemperer, who just happened to be the cousin of famed conductor Otto Klemperer and second cousin of concert violinist and actor Werner Klemperer – better known as Col. Klink in Hogan's Heroes. Klemperer's very first observations, on the mis- and overuse of the terms “hero,” “heroism,” and “heroic,” hit particularly close to home in our own time, in the land of Homeland Security, Patriot Acts, and the attempted implementation of our very own version of the East German Stasi, the TIPS program.

Afterthought and test. Just to see if you've been paying attention, answer this question: Dude, where's the party?

October 16, 2009

Four rocks, one photo

This morning, the Moon and three planets lined up for a group photo. Mouse over image for object idenfication. Mercury is a hard one to see; it's never more than about 28 degrees from the Sun, and on this date it was only about 13 degrees west of the Sun. Local sunrise on this date was 7:00 AM, a little over half an hour later; Mercury was lost in the glare a few minutes after this was taken. At maximum elongation, Mercury could appear about as far from the Sun as the star β Virginis in the photo below. 

Camera: Kodak P850, exposure 1/2 second, f/3.2, ISO 50, time 6:24 AM (13:24 UT).

October 4, 2009

Blind Astrometry

No, no, not “blind astronomer.” Blind astrometry, which basically means “give me any photo of a bunch of stars, any scale, any stars, any time, and I'll tell you exactly what it is.” That's a tall order and involves some pretty intensive computing. But there's at least one team working on it now (stories here and here), with the goal of being able to take any input images and generate the data to enable identification, classification, and archiving of those images. (The world's observatories are filled with archival photos, some more than a century old, that need to be digitized and classified to make them accessible in a digital age).

So somebody working on this project had the brilliant idea of setting up a group at photo hosting site to accept images and automatically run their software on them, for practice, as a learning experience, and a way to debug their own programs.

As a test, I uploaded a few of my own astro images. For the first batch of eight, within a few minutes the blind astrometry solver managed to identify 50 percent of those. The other four have yet to be solved, but probably won't ever be. I don't know why those weren't solved, because for example others have uploaded images of  M16/ the Eagle Nebula (at a different scale) and it was able to figure those out.

The images, and their comments, can be seen here. What's especially useful is the report of field size and image scale. Example:

One can cut-and-paste the coordinates (in this case, 22:29:46.791, -20:49:35.634; the decimal version won't work) into the search box in . The resulting image allows you to mouse over objects, and their identifying information pops up in a yellow box. Very useful for determining star magnitudes, the limiting magnitude in your image, etc.

As a tougher test, I uploaded a couple of comet images I took – Comet 17P/Holmes, seen here on October 30, 2007, and Comet C/2006 M4 (SWAN) on October 27, 2006. Also images of Pluto and the asteroid Ceres, from September and October 2007. Those are moving targets; what will the astrometry software do when it finds an extra object in the field?

Well, the blind astrometry solver quickly identified the starfields for Pluto, Ceres, and the two comets, spot-on, but it didn't identify the interlopers. Just ignored them. So as far as identifying images in space and time, it still has a way to go. Also it appears that it won't detect novae, asteroids, or variable stars in the field (nor, I suppose, is it intended to – there would be a lot of false alarms). It just ignores extras.

The solver has more difficulty with nebulae. I uploaded two images of M27, with different fields. It identified the larger-field version, but drew a blank on the tighter image. There were three images of M16, at different scales. It got one of the three, and a mirror-reversed one at that.

Box score:
  • Total number of images: 19
      • Comets, minor planet images: 4
        • Identified 4 of 4 starfields; 100%
      • Galaxy and nebulae: 15 images
        • Identified 8 of 15 objects; 53%
    • Overall success rate: 63 percent

September 28, 2009

Where have all the bookstores gone?

Today I intended to go by a very large used bookstore in Huntington Beach to browse and, with luck, pick up some books as gifts. This isn't just being a cheap gift-giver; 99 percent of all books ever printed are currently out of print, so going the used-book route opens up more possibilities for finding just the right gift.

Well, when I got there, I found the former location of Bookman Too to be empty. In today's economy, storefronts that go empty, stay empty, for a long time. There's a midsize attempted-upscale mall here that has prime real estate that has been empty for years.

Looking online, I found this.
Just to let everyone know, Bookman Too plans to close in late June 2009!  The stock is being liquidated, and most books are 50 to 70% off.  It's sad to see yet another southern California bookshop closing up.  In just the last couple years we've lost Book Baron (Anaheim), Acres of Books (Long Beach), Equal Writes (Long Beach), Bungalow News (Pasadena), Dutton's (Brentwood) and Dutton's Used Books (Studio City) – and that's just off the top of my head.
What??? Book Baron and Acres of Books are gone too?

Sure enough. Book Baron closed a couple of years ago, and the huge, rambling Acres of Books, a Long Beach instutution since the 1930s, closed a year go. Acres even warrants its own Wikipedia entry.

Back when I was growing up in Chicago, one of my favorite haunts was Booksellers Row, a store on North Lincoln Avenue right next door to the Biograph Theater, on the opposite side of the alley where John Dillinger got rubbed out. Yes, I loved those tall, rolling ladders to get to the top shelves. My idea of a night out was a movie, pizza at Bacino's, and a ramble through the shelves of Booksellers Row (they were open way late). Even after I took a job in Germany, I looked forward to coming back to Chicago on holidays and raiding the place. Before there were airline baggage weight restrictions (“If it fits, it ships” is not a post office idea), I would haul entire suitcases of new old books back to Germany. I think one of my arms is measurably longer as a result; one year I hauled the entire 11-volume “Story of Civilization” series by Will and Ariel Durant back on Lufthansa. Well, Booksellers Row went away years ago. Then I moved to California, and found stores like Bookman Too that had at least five times the floor space of Booksellers Row. Acres probably had ten times. Things were even bigger in California than in Chicago. Well, now those are gone too.

That leaves just two large bookstores in the area – Bookman (no longer affiliated with Bookman Too) and Camelot. Sure, I can still order from ABEbooks. That's fine if you already know what you want. But sometimes you just want to browse and see what's available.

This is not a good sign. I earn a good part of my living in the book production trade. It appears people don't read anymore (maybe they just read twits or tweets or twats or whatever those self-important announcements are called). One reason I still live in Suburbia instead of becoming a hermit is because I tell myself that I can still get services here that I can't get living in the back of beyond. Well, you can't find decent bakeries anymore, bookstores are disappearing, real hardware stores are an endangered species, same with genuine car parts houses (not Pep Boys or Kragen!) What's the point in staying here anymore? Might as well move into the mountains and shop via FedEx and UPS.

September 27, 2009

The Joy  of User Serviceable Parts Inside

Recently, my 16-year-old Krups model 964 espresso machine stopped espressin'.

Steam was blowing past the coffee basket, and water was dripping past the seals of the milk foamer thingie.

So I started looking for parts online. It took only seconds to find  Sure enough, they had replacement gaskets, O-rings, and screws. Then, I started looking for a better deal, and found it – Small Appliance also sells through Amazon, and the prices are a few pennies lower than on their own web store.

I found the original receipt for this machine: $200 in 1993 dollars, from a Starbucks in Berkeley, CA, which would make it about $300 in today's money. I wasn't about to toss it if I could fix it. For about $30 including postage, I got all the parts I needed to restore it to as-new working condition. 

The underside of the unit reads “Made in Switzerland.” That may have something to do with its repairability and non-automatic-obsolescence. I don't know where equivalent Krups products are made now, but if current trends are any indication, they probably had to move their production “offshore” (to use the euphemism for “we had to move to Cheapistan to keep up with our competitors and avoid going bankrupt”). This Amazon review and this one indicate that at least some Krups products are now made in China – and they're crap. Note pattern of complaints for same problems – plastic odors, for example – on completely different products. Given China's seemingly neverending parade of toxic products, is it really a good idea to buy anything from there, especially if it has a funny smell?

I like a big cappucino in the morning. I also like machines that work, and can be fixed when they don't. So I'm going to look for a new-in-box espresso machine on Ebay, to put away as a spare Just In Case.

There's another reason to repair rather than replace. A good case can be made that the blessed “carbon footprint” of any manufactured good is largely due to the energy and material expended in its manufacture, not over its service life. It has been pointed out by various pundits that the recent “cash for clunkers” program is absurd if its true purpose was to generate an environmenal benefit. Even a gas guzzler, if still functional, will be kinder on the environment than expending energy to scrap and recycle it, or worse, put it in a landfill, and then expend more energy to mine, manufacture, and assemble its (slightly more fuel economical) replacement. It doesn't make environmental sense to scrap equipment before it has reached the end of its service life. (And you will never, ever, “save” enough gasoline on a more efficient new vehicle to make up for the depreciation of its replacement). A more cynical view of all this is that it's not about energy at all, it's about making Stuff in order to keep the people who make and transport and sell Stuff busy. “Energy efficiency” is just another smoke-and-mirrors marketing gimmick

On a somewhat related topic (the foolishness of popular wisdom, and populist knee-jerk reactions to environmental issues), noted science fiction author James P. Hogan (I enjoyed his stuff while I was in college) wrote a piece for somebody else's blog on nuclear energy as the only rational solution to energy problems. Yeah. What he said. He makes some important points re energy density, and the absurdity of trying to get meaningful amounts of energy out of sun or wind. And just wait until all the earth muffins start driving their electric cars to save the planet...  I've said this before, after looking at the cost of windmills, the time needed for them to amortize their manufacturing and installation costs, and their planned service life; the economies just plain don't work out. I've looked at solar energy for my own house. With an amortization time of 30 years, it's a non-starter. Of course, if you're getting tax breaks and subsidies to install windmills, the situation looks a lot different – you're passing the true cost off to the taxpayers. Just like “cash for clunkers.”

September 24, 2009

Finder for Flak Glasses

Back when they were used For Real, in WW2, the German flak binoculars had a sighting framework mounted on the top dovetail for rapid pointing at objects to be observed in more detail through the optics. This original framework, called the Notvisier (backup, or auxiliary, sight) in the parts list, looks like this

and can be seen in action here. The original had painted glow-in-the-dark bars (probably radium. Do not eat.) for night service.

Well, I wanted something to more easily sight the glasses at star fields. Today, there's a more modern solution – so-called “red dot” sights, intended for shooting applications but also popular in the telescope world. These can be expensive, or they can be relatively cheap. (Or they can be really cheap and nasty plastic toys). As mentioned earlier, I found a nice all-metal unit for less than $50 at Oceanside Photo and Telescope. This comes with a plastic base to attach to sockets on many popular telescope models, but that won't fit the binoculars in any case. I made a much sturdier bracket, machined from a lump of one-inch aluminum..

The finder can project any of four different images (small dot, big dot, cross, circle with cross) in seven different brightness levels. The reticle image appears to float at infinity; you just look through the combining glass at your field of view and center the object, then look in the main binoculars. In effect, it's a miniature version of the classic WW2 aircraft gunsight.

This modern sight is made to clamp onto standard rails on firearms – the Picatinny / STANAG 2324 rail.

After making lots of chips with dovetail cutters on Gort, the finished result looks like this:


What's it look like in service? Like this. (Moon and red crosshair at center).


September 23, 2009

Io eclipses Europa

Last night, I shot a time lapse of Jupiter's innermost Galilean moon Io eclipsing the next moon out, Europa. These events are not terribly rare, but I had never watched one before. (Predictions can be found here). The following time lapse was made from successive one-minute exposures using a 12” Meade LX200GPS, 0.63x focal reducer, and a Philips ToUcam webcam. The Jupiter image is not real time, but shot right after the eclipse with a more appropriate exposure time, and pasted over the (overexposed) ball of the planet in the time lapse frames to give an idea of scale. Io is the rightmost moon; Europa is the next to the left. Imagine the Sun behind your right shoulder, so Io's shadow is going from right to left. At the very left edge of the field is another moon, Ganymede. (Io is a bit larger, Europa a bit smaller, and Ganymede quite a bit larger than our own Moon). As the time lapse progesses, Europa will “wink out” as it passes through Io's shadow.

September 22, 2009

Sunspots are back

Today, the Sun sported not one but two spot groups, both of the new sunspot cycle. The SOHO satellite saw it this way. 

I cranked up the telescope, put on the Baader Astrosolar white-light filter, and shot these, of spot groups 1026 (lower left) and 1027 (upper left):


September 18, 2009

Transit of Io

After practicing satellite tracking last night, I figured I'd have a look to see what Jupiter was doing. One of the moons (Io, it turns out) was about to start crossing the disk, so I started imaging a time-lapse sequence. The Meade LX200 GPS still had an 0.63x focal reducer, used to get a bigger field for chasing satellites. Exposures with the Philips ToUcam 740K were 4 minutes long, 5 frames per second, generally with a two-minute pause between exposures. Sometimes I missed the timing because I was busy refocusing, or miscued something in the software (K3CCDTools 3). Processed in Registax, taking 600 of the 1200 exposures in each set, using a fixed package of wavelet settings and 1.5x resampling. I did some tweaking in Photoshop, especially to bring out the dim image of Io after it left the disk, and animated it all in ImageReady. Here's the result. The GIF will loop continuously once it finishes loading. Io can just be seen as a bright spot against the limb darkening, coming in on the left, just about exactly on the equator, then it disappears briefly as its brightness matches the background, then it appears as a darker spot, then its very dark shadow enters from the left.

Doing some quick experiments after this was done, I found that 10 frames per second for 2 minutes, again using half of the resulting 1200 frames, actually seemed to get better images than 5 fps for 4 minutes. It makes sense; Jupiter rotates fast enough (once every 9.9 hours) so that 4-minute exposures (which works out to nearly 2.5 degrees)  will smear out fine details. Trying 15 fps for 80 seconds or 20 fps for 1 minute resulted in worse images because of the camera's compression at those speeds. So next time, I try 10 fps for 2 min each.

Jupiter resources:

September 17, 2009

Space Station flyover

I managed to image the Space Station, with docked Space Shuttle Discovery, as they flew over on September 7. I didn't get many frames, and this is the result of only about a dozen stacked images. The scope was my 12” Meade LX200GPS with an 0.63x focal reducer, Philips ToUcam, driven by Brent Boshart's free “Satellite Tracker” software. I attempted to guide the ISS onto crosshairs using my Vixen ED80Sf with a 32mm war surplus Erfle. I  never got it to stay in the center for any period of time, but got three sections of “filmstrip” with the ISS zooming through the field of view. With a For what it's worth...

I have no idea what I'm looking at. There may be a Shuttle visible in that image, or there may not. There used to be an “ISS Simulator” but now it's years out of date. (Somre pretty amazing images here).

The next night, the station and Shuttle had already separated. By eyeball, I could see the slightly fainter Shuttle flying about 10 degrees ahead of the ISS. Unfortunately Satellite Tracker refused to track that day and I got no images. A couple of days later it tracked again, and although I didn't attempt any imaging, I was able to make out some details even with the low-power eyepiece on the 600 mm focal length refractor, giving about 20x. (Figure the ISS is about the angular size of Jupiter; if you have optics that will show a disk for Jupiter, you may be able to see some details of the ISS).

August 18, 2009

Flak binoculars – an ongoing project

I've been engaged in more lilygilding with the WW2 German flak binoculars (technically, a Doppelfernrohr 10 x 80 – a double telescope, ten-power magnification with 80 mm lenses) last mentioned here on May 29.

I've dressed it up a bit and made a proper tapered roller bearing azimuth mounting. The tapered roller bearing came from my stash of surplus (removed during overhaul) bearings from Bosch inline diesel fuel injection pumps. 

The mounting goes into a large hole in the top of a wooden tripod, bought from surplus dealer Deutsche Optik in Nevada. These are supposedly Carl Zeiss surveyors' tripods, supposedly ex-NVA (the former East German former National former Peoples Army), but except for the characters “K 001,” there are no identifying marks of any sort, nor are they painted the typical sickly green of most military surplus the world over (it's a Rule). Regardless, although there are cheaper surveyor's tripods out there, these are pretty cool and so I didn't have to buy a  new, probably Chinese-made surveyor's tripod (you can get those for as little as $70, like this).

I've added decorative ends to dress up the trunnion bolts. The centers are a decorative insert made of wood harvested from my lemon tree. Any resemblance to Cadillac styling cues from the 1950s is probably a vestige of my childhood. Or very Freudian. I don't care, I think it looks neat. Bumpers should look like they can go “bump” with a smile.

I also added a contoured-grip handle on the left side to assist in pointing. That wood was harvested from my carob tree, carved to fit my hand and varnished. It looks and feels pretty neat, I think.

Some people have asked, why bother with a complex cradle like this? Well, for one thing, notice the sliding steel counterweight on the bottom. The rig can be balanced so that it has no tendency to swing, no matter where it's pointed. The center of gravity falls right on the horizontal axis (the one with the bullet-shaped caps). For another thing, the angled arms of the cradle allow the binoculars to swing all the way vertical, something that isn't very practical on an ordinary photo tripod.

Howzit work? The other night I took it outside in mediocre, hazy conditions to spot satellites. Works fine. Also saw the four Galilean moons of Jupiter. Binoculars are much more manageable now, than on a regular photo tripod.

What next? Well, I'd like to put a red-dot finder on the top dovetail, like this unit from Oceanside Photo and Telescope.

August 4, 2009

Arise, ye workers from your slumber!

You wanted change, you get change. Now, let's all sing the Internationale. If you don't know the words yet, better learn, fast.

In 1989, one of the iconic images of the fall of the Berlin Wall, East Germany, and the entire Soviet Bloc, indeed the utter, complete collapse of the centrally planned Soviet-style economies, was a picture of East Germany's most miserable excuse for a car, the Trabant, stuffed into a dumpster. I can't find the well-known image but this one shows the general idea. 

Note that the photo was taken on Jerusalemer Strasse, Berlin. I can hear Monty Pythonesque alternative lyrics to William Blake's “Jerusalem” now – (No apologies to William Blake, I got tired of his flaming tigers way back in high school):

“And did that heap, in ancient times

Intrude upon Berlin's traffic stream?
And did that wholly worker-owned
Brand vanish from the scene?”

The former owner of this Trabi probably replaced it with a proper... uh... Chariot of Fire.

Now, after the collapse of two of the three remaining American auto manufacturers (and their almost immediate, miraculous “resurrection”, with the help of some fancy government sleight of hand and running roughshod over established bankruptcy law and due process), we've come to this. 



Twenty years ago, would any American have believed it would come to this?

Well then. The government now owns 60 percent of General Motors and 9.85 percent of Chrysler. It's taking money – that's taxpayer money (if not, then it's Chinese loans, which have to be paid back by taxpayers) –  from the bailout fund to pay “cash for clunkers.” This basically subsidizes cars, at taxpayer expense, for people who might otherwise not have been able to pony up for the things. In other words, it's a classic wealth redistribution scheme. Oh, yes, the car companies have wildly increased sales (for a while) and take in more money, some of which goes back to their partial owner, the government. At some level, this is a closed cycle. 

Just like those wonderful centrally planned Eastern European economies of a couple decades ago.

July 24, 2009

Hornet Plus Three, Plus 40

Forty years ago, Apollo 11 splashed down and astronauts Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.

Hornet was retired just a year later, having seen action in WW2, Korea, and Vietnam, and is now a floating museum in Alameda, CA.

I believe it was the late Walter Cronikite's CBS News, or perhaps Cronkite himself, who labeled the post-splashdown coverage of Apollo 11 as “Hornet Plus Three.” There is also a book by that title.

Wired Magazine has an interesting slide show of what visitors can find aboard Hornet, here.

This week's goings-on aboard Hornet are here.

July 21, 2009

The Jupiter impact

Last night, I was able to image the smudge on Jupiter left by some unknown impacting object.  

There it is, the unmistakable dark spot near the south pole (at bottom). This is a stack of 1000 images out of 2400, Philips ToUcam webcam on a 12” Meade LX200GPS, processed with Registax 4 and Photoshop. From my location, Jupiter was low in the sky, with mediocre seeing (lots of air turbulence from rooftops).  

Here's an official JPL press release.

While working at computer and telescope outside on the patio, I had the TV tuned to the History Channel, which was replaying the CBS coverage of the Apollo 11 landing. Legendary CBS anchor Walter Cronkite was left speechless and in tears by the events. Cronkite was a true space enthusiast and NASA booster. Unfortunately he passed away last week, just three days before the 40th anniversary of the landing. His co-anchor was former astronaut Wally Schirra, who is also gone now. Schirra died two years ago. But watching and listening to their coverage brought back those momentous events in the summer of 1969.

Added July 22
I processed some more of the footage shot on Monday night. None of the images shot using a Televue 2.5x Powermate worked out; just too much noise which resulted in camera artifacts. This image doesn't show much different in the way of the impact feature, but the frame does capture the moon Io at upper left. To put things in scale, Io is actually a little bit larger than our own Moon. And Jupiter is about 11 times the size of Earth.



July 20, 2009

Something big happened today

Forty years ago today, people from planet Earth first set foot on another world.

It was one of those historic days where everybody remembers exactly where they were, what they were doing.

Just before Neil Armstrong was to step out of the LEM onto the surface of the Moon, at 9:56 PM Chicago time on that balmy summer evening , I walked to the nearby Walgreens to get some ice cream. (Probably Neapolitan – the flavor of choice for the indecisive). I remember looking up at the nearly half full Moon on that warm Chicago summer evening and finding it completely amazing that there were actually people up there. It still brings tears to my eyes to even think of that. In part, because we can't do that anymore. I've said it before, (March 18, 2008, on the occasion of Arthur C. Clarke's death) and I'll say it again, here and now on the anniversary of Apollo 11:

2001, of course, created a vision of space that steered the course of an entire generation – my generation, our generation. A generation, now fast approaching retirement age, that saw Man set foot on the Moon, and then, in the most colossal failure of vision in recorded history, withdraw from the frontier, without taking the next step.

There are the usual arguments against “spending money in space” (got news, earth muffins, there's noplace to spend it there – it's all spent right here). Don't we have enough problems on Earth? Shouldn't we fix those first? Well, we've always had problems on Earth. We will always have problems on Earth. If we wait until those are fixed, we'll be waiting forever. Take hunger, for example. As soon as you feed the starving masses, they get frisky and make... more starving masses. The problem never ends.

And, I submit that homo sapiens is able to walk and chew gum at the same time (unless they're the subspecies known as politicians). We can solve earthly problems and explore the universe too. It's not even that expensive. For example, look at the piddling NASA budget. OK, you can argue that NASA is a featherbedding bureaucracy whose main mission is to ensure the survival of NASA. But it's the only organization we have (for now). The current NASA budget is just a shade over 17 billion dollars. In these days of rebuilding Middle Eastern sandpiles that are congenitally resistant to any sort of rebuilding, and bank bailouts and the government collecting up car companies, that's chickenfeed. That's kangaroo pocket lint. In the trillion or three dumped on Iraq, in the 700plus billion in the bank bailout and “stimulus” scheme, in the many tens of billions (I can never find a clear answer of exactly how many billions) dumped into two failing car companies, surely it would have been possible to find some extra money to make NASA flush again. If we as a nation wanted to. The reason we don't is because we don't want it to. The average citizen is too ignorant to care. (And remember, they vote). As it stands now, the future spacecraft being developed to replace the Shuttle appear to be complete Rube Goldbergs. The Shuttle itself was a magnificent achievement but an ill-conceived design without any real purpose. The underfunded Ares I / Ares V / Constellation projects aim to go to the Moon (again...) but why? We already did that. Why not Mars?

There's another anniversary today: 15 years ago, a string of big, dirty snowballs named Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into the planet Jupiter. And left marks. Consider that these marks are on the order of the size of Earth itself. Such an event had never been seen before. No impact of any celestial body on another had ever been observed (not counting the occasional earthly meteor fall – mere pebbles by comparison). 

Now, to prove that God has a sense of humor (and timing), last night the second-ever such event was observed, again on Jupiter. Like this. Almost exactly 15 years later, give or take a few days. Discovered by an amateur in Australia, Anthony Wesley.

My friend from Chicago days, Donn Mukensnable, just happened to be on the scene (not on Jupiter, but at a major telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii):

 As (incredible) luck would have it, I find myself in the control room of IRTF as the first images of the new Jupiter impact feature come up on the screen.  They look uncannily like SL9, even down to a slight irregularity in the shape of the feature.  Observer Glen Orton is thrilled; it's an atmosphere of anticipation and discovery, 15 years to the day from the main SL9 impact.   It's going to be a busy night, as the observer is going to want to use several instruments to record the event in image and spectroscope.  Wow!

I'm planning to image this tonight, if weather permits. Checking the very neat utility called WinJupos, I see that the spot and planet will be in a favorable position around midnight my time.

July 5, 2009

Fireworks for the Lazy

By capturing successive images from the Mt. Wilson Webcam, I stitched together an animation of last night's fireworks display from the Rose Bowl. The R.B. is 7.5 miles from the 150 ft. solar tower on Mt. Wilson, where the webcam is located. (To speed up page loading, I've moved the animation off to its own location; to see the time lapse, click on the image below). 

July 4, 2009


We haven't seen much in the way of sunspots for nearly two years, but just in time for the 4th of July, the Sun decided to produce some smallish firecrackers. “Active Region 11024” popped out on July 3. A little past noon local time today, I shot the following.

This is a stack of 111 images out of 3000, taken between 19:33 and 19:38 Universal Time, 7/4/09; 12” Meade LX200 GPS, native ~f/10 focal length, full aperture Baader Astrosolar white-light filter, Philips ToUcam 740K, captured with K3CCDTools 3, processed in Registax 4 and Photoshop CS.  

Here's an animated GIF from the orbiting SOHO satellite, showing how the group appeared and grew.

An hour after I shot my black and white image above, SOHO saw it this way.

June 21, 2009

Gort, meet world.

World, Gort. Now play nice. 

Gort is my new (to me, at least) Gorton Model 1-22 Mastermil (one L, if you please). Un-airbrushed, it looks more like this.

The adoption papers that came with it say Gort was built in late 1962 by the Gorton Machine Tool Co. in Racine, Wisconsin. Apparently Racine was quite a hotbed of machine tool making, back when this country still made machine tools. Richard Gorton, I think the grandson??? of the company founder, has a web site with lots of manuals, catalogs, and information on the company's products.

So what's so special about the Gorton? Well, for one thing, it is considerably beefier than the usual Bridgeport vertical milling machine. Everything is just more massive. The thing weighs about 3000 lbs. The one thing that it doesn't have, compared to a Bridgeport, is a “knuckle” that lets the head tilt toward or away from the column. That could be useful on rare occasions when making long angled cuts, but otherwise is just another potential source of compromised stiffness. The head does rotate around the ram, and the ram can rotate on the column, and can be racked forward and back. This machine also has outstanding Mitutoyo digital readouts, with precision (not accuracy!) down to a hundred-thousandth of an inch – that's 0.00001 inch, or 1/300th of a human hair, or 2500 Angstroms – the wavelength of deep ultraviolet light. Or, it's about half a wavelength of visible yellow light – approaching the accuracy (“half-wave”) of optical surfaces. That sort of precision is not very useful because it's not accurate; things like the entire machine bending, and expansion or contraction due to temperature changes, make that last decimal place meaningless. You can shut the machine down, leave the readout on, come back a few hours later and the last digits will have changed. It might be useful in a carefully air conditioned tool room with certain small, specialized machines. But the next level, accuracy down to ten-thousandths, starts becoming useful. Because this milling machine is not a Bridgeport, it doesn't command Bridgeport prices. Amateur machinists may not know what they want or need, but they know the word “Bridgeport” so that alone drives up the price. That, and there's a lot of BPs out there, and parts and accessories are plentiful.

What impresses me with this machine is how solid it is. I've used Bridgeports in the past, and other clones of their design, and never knew any better, but now I can tell that this is just much more rigid. Positions remain where set, and don't dither (as long as we're not looking for half-wave optical precision). And I can set to specific locations using the readouts with much greater ease and precision than on some BPs I've used. This machine isn't terribly beat up. Nobody has drilled into the table, and much of the frosting is still visible on the ways.

Drawbacks: the spindle takes Brown & Sharpe #9 taper instead of the ubiquitous R-8 collets. But I have a fairly complete set of B&S 9 collets, small work is done using an Albrecht precision drill chuck anyway, and I'm always on the lookout for more tooling. Some nifty Bridgeport and clone accessories just won't fit, for example the various angle heads such as Volstro or horizontal milling arbors like the Dorian. The spindle outside diameter is the same as Bridgeport, but the accessories all want an R-8 collet. It is possible to send the Gorton spindle out to be reground for R-8 collets, and it's not terribly expensive, but right now I don't have that need. If that were done, this machine could take many Bridgeport accessories, and general tooling is easier to find.

I took delivery just before Christmas 2008. To get it here, I drove a forklift from the seller's shop, 3 miles through town, no license plates, past (so I'm told, I never saw him) a police cruiser...  I decided not to push my luck and had a towing service take the forklift back to the shop on a flatbed. Cheap at $60.

The machine is powered by a 2 hp, 220 volt, three-phase motor. As a residential electrical consumer, I don't have, and can't get, three-phase power. But I do have single phase 220 V for the dryer in the garage. So I have to fake it somehow. One answer is a phase converter. In this case, I use a Phase-A-Matic static converter coupled with a 5 hp motor as an idler. (Surplus big 3-phase motors are surprisingly cheap; there's little second-hand demand). The milling machine motor is connected to the idler motor. There's a main switch, and on the advice of Phase-A-Matic, one of the three legs is only active to start the idler, so that has just a regular (but appropriately rated) toggle switch. It can be left on while running, but the latest wiring diagram says it's better not to.  I got carried away and made an aluminum housing over the exposed motor shaft, and mounted the whole contraption on a roll-around base, like this. That lets me wheel it out of the garage if I get tired of the jet-engine whine.

So what can you do with one of these? Well, yesterday I made a “bayonet” - type adapter to allow mounting various T-threaded astrocameras like the Meade DSI or the Philips ToUcam to certain Zeiss Icarex lenses in my colleciton, especially the 200 mm f/4. This mount is variously called a “bayonet” or “breech lock” mount and it interchanges with nothing else that I'm aware of. Zeiss made the Icarex, my first (high school years) camera, with a choice of their proprietary mount or the more common M42 x 1.0 mm thread – what we call “Pentax thread” in the USA, or what's called Praktica thread elsewhere. (Way back in the early 1970s I at least knew enough to buy the threaded version; I've since collected examples of the bayonet version). Pentax thread is more or less standard and readily available. But most threaded astro equipment uses T-thread (see previous entry, June 14), which is diabolically similar at M42 x 0.75 but trying to jam 0.75 pitch and 1.0 mm pitch together is guaranteed to result in boogered threads. There are Pentax to T adapters (Baader Planetarium / Alpine Astro's item T2-23, “Russian/Pentax adapter”) so it's easy to attach a Pentax-threaded body to T-threaded optics. There are also Icarex to T-mount adapters that convert an Icarex camera body to take Tamron or other T-mount aftermarket lenses. Such lenses are deliberately made shorter, with enough space to allow inserting an adapter and still reach infinity focus.

Here's the finished Icarex bayonet to T-thread adapter, showing the bayonet side.

Here's the lobes of the bayonet being cut on a rotary table on the milling machine.

Here's the threaded back side. Note that the threads go all the way to the shoulder. This gets tricky, especially when cutting metric threads on a lathe with an inch leadscrew; you can't disconnect the carriage from the leadscrew or you'll lose the registration.

Here's a Zeiss (actually, it's a Voigtländer design – Zeiss bought them out and renamed the product line) 200 mm f/4 Super-Dynarex attached to a Meade DSI I Color using the adapter and T-thread spacer rings to get the proper lens-to-image plane distance.

To join, you align the slot in the adapter (or camera body) with a pin in the lens (marked by a red dot), then twist a locking ring on the lens (seen above as a knurled black ring just ahead of my adapter). The ring on the lens has a finely crafted feel, with a subtle click stop when the ring is disengaged. I like the idea of this breech-lock type mounting, it's quick and easy to join components and it's very rigid, but it's complicated to make, and for simplicity, it's hard to beat threaded unions.

Works? Works. (Meade DSI II Pro, 50 stacked images).

Today is Father's Day. He was a machinist. He helped me build many of my early telescope mounts, and make stuff for my various science fair projects, which put me on the road I eventually took. I can't help but think that if he were alive today, he'd get a kick out of seeing this milling machine in the garage. It might be hard to keep him from playing with it. Whenever I work on my machining projects, I use tools that he handed down to me, or that he gave to me as gifts. Red boxes of Starrett precision measuring tools under the Christmas tree might seem strange to some, but not in our house... So in a way he is still helping his kid with his off-the-wall projects.


June 14, 2009

Oooh! Swirlies!

At a going-out-of-business auction for a local optical fabricating company, I picked up many boxes of narrow bandpass optical filters for cheap. They're 2-inch square interference filters with about a 10 nanometer (100 angstrom) bandpass, covering most of the visible spectrum and well into the infrared and ultraviolet. They might be useful to photograph certain nebular emission lines, or clouds on Venus, and the like – but I don't have a 2-inch square filter holder, and the commercially available ones are expensive (like this one and this one). 2-inch square filters are attractive because they're cheaper than dedicated astronomical filters. Edmund Optical sells them for cheap(er) and they're available in a wider range of passbands. (For example, compare Edmund hydrogen alpha NT43-190 at $161.50 vs. nearly $300 for Astronomik brand). The Astronomik item may be better, but the Edmund may be good enough.

Those filter wheels are way bigger than I need or want to hang on my telescopes, I don't need the motorized feature, and I can't justify dropping more on the filter wheel than the cost of one of my telescopes and camera, combined. And I'm content to shoot in “muzzle loader” rather than “revolver” mode – to switch filter bands, just remove from scope, disassemble, remove old filter, install new filter, refocus. So I made my own holder. Total cost about $5, and that was for the four setscrews and brass thumbknobs.

Then I got carried away. With my wunnerful new milling machine and its digital readouts with overkill precision, it was easy to put an “engine turned” finish on it. (Why? Because I can... And it's a sign that I have way too much time on my hands). Engine turning, which goes by other names like damascening, jeweling, krayling, snailing, or guilloche, is done by pressing a spinning object against the workpiece in conjunction with abrasive (embedded or loose, sprinkled abrasive powder) or abrasive action (wire brushes). Like this. Properly, though, engine turning is much more complex patterns of decorative engraving often found in fine watches. The swirly-type decoration, call it what you will, was commonly found on classic cars, most notably Bugattis, and aircraft like Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. One can buy ready-made swirled metal panels for architectural and other decorative purposes, like this.

Anyway, I milled a box out of 1/2” and 1/4” aluminum flat stock and cut the T-threads (M42 x 0.75) on a lathe. The result looks like this. Here, for demonstration, a 620 nanometer filter – that's what we calls “red” – is installed and backlit. The black rings are T-threaded adapters and were bought commercially (I can make them, but at the price, it's not worth it – I have a boxful of these in different lengths for different jobs).

How's it work on the scope? Don't know yet. I'd like to try it on Venus with a near UV filter. 

June 2, 2009

Chrysler Then and Now   

I read the news today, oh boy. GM officially filed for bankruptcy (and the stock market responded by zooming up 220 points). And the judge in the Chrysler bankruptcy cleared the “sale” of what's left to Fiat, the U.S. and Canadian governments, but mostly the auto workers' union. 

By no small coincidence, I've had relationships with both GM and Chrysler. Both made job offers when I got my undergrad engineering degree; I decided to stay on for a master's degree instead. I liked Chrysler; it was smaller, friendlier, and back then, the company still had a reputation for high-quality engineering. And GM's  Technical Center in Warren, MI was impressive too; I still believe General Motors has among the finest automotive engineers and facilities on the planet. It's just that what eventually comes off the assembly line has been beancounted and consumer-clinicked to death. 

Update, June 3: Hours after writing the above, I ran across the following in the Wall Street Journal. 

As for management, not long ago a group of executives was reviewing a prototype new Buick model, about the size of a BMW 3 Series, at GM's design studios. The sporty styling had been developed in China for sale both there and in the U.S. But the company's cautious product planners suggested conducting customer clinics to gauge reaction to the design and possibly changing both the front and back end. It would have delayed the project and cost tens of millions of dollars.

CEO Fritz Henderson wisely said no. But the very next day the product planners were charging ahead with their clinic plans anyway, just in case the boss wanted to see the results of their research. Maybe the new Buick should be named the CYA. Neither billions in losses nor the brink of bankruptcy, it seems, have been enough to change many traditional ways of doing things at GM.

Yeah. Like I said. Clinicked to death. This is just typical. And the ultimate irony is that the customers are absolutely clueless about what they “want” to buy anyway; they'll buy the worst dreck imaginable if it's the latest must-have, if they see it on TV, if the neighbor got his first. The unnatural fascination for SUVs – vehicles that are completely inappropriate for most of their owners, but which were “fashionable” until fuel prices hammered home their unsuitability for the job – are ample proof.

Another friend got a Ph.D. in engineering and went to the GM Tech Center. His war stories tell of an incredibly inept bureaucracy that manages to mess up even the most brilliant ideas. Thirty-plus years ago, I would have faced a difficult choice between GM and Chrysler. Another classmate of mine also went to GM and as of a few weeks ago was still there. If I had gone for the fast money back in 1978, who knows where I'd be now. Maybe taking an early buyout (instead of waiting around for the axe to fall), and retiring to live year-round in a summer cabin on some lake in the freaking freezing Upper Peninsula. 

Over the years, I've done engineering consulting and technical writing work for Ford and several GM divisions. More recently, my professional relationship with Chrysler has had its ups and downs, in rapid succession. I have only this to say about that:

Jeep Liberty rollover T-shirt

But by odd coincidence, today I stumbled across an interesting piece of history. Sixty-five years ago, World War II was underway and Chrysler was a very different company. They were making license-built copies of the Swedish Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun, and touting its qualities in a series of magazine ads. Like this one.

What makes this interesting in the context of recent posts here is the stylized depiction of a gun director (complete with elbow telescopes) in the last frame. Like the ones in my March 30 entry. The one shown here looks like the more primitive M5 director, the U.S. copy of the British Kerrison Predictor made by the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Here's another, less legible copy of a Chrysler war bonds ad touting their Bofors gun production:

First two frames read This is a Jap bomber. It is more than three miles above the earth. But we can hit it. This Bofors gun does it.”

The bomber is a Mitsubishi G4M “Betty.” More recently, Chrysler and Mitsubishi had a joint venture, Diamond Star Motors, with a plant in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. But that ended 15 years ago. The recent complaint is that Chrysler has no small, economy cars in its product mix. Well, they used to, at one time...

In view of today's court-approved giveaway to Fiat (20 percent ownership, no money down... except your and my tax dollars, of course), it's probably a good thing they didn't have wartime ads showing Fiat bombers being shot down.

 May 29, 2009

Mounting WWII flak binoculars   

I finally got around to making a mount for my WW2 German flak binoculars. For a while I just had an aluminum plate bolted to the underside in place of one of the original dovetails, and screwed that to a standard photo tripod, but the problem is that the binos are so heavy that once you tilt them from horizontal, the entire rig becomes grossly imbalanced and wants to swing to point straight up. You really need a cradle for these things, similar to the original, so that the pivot is more or less at the center of gravity. Original cradles are sinfully expensive, when they turn up at all.

So I spent some time making lots of chips on my milling machine, carving up half-inch aluminum plate. Here's the result, shown mounted on a Tiltall tripod (an oldie but an outstanding, solid, clever design – highly recommended. At one time owned by Leica. History here. Current prices including parts here). The base of the cradle has a recess that drops over the top of the tripod, so there's no fumbling for the threaded mounting hole. Plenty of swing clearance, allowing the binos to reach the zenith. A conventional photo tripod like this is still kind of marginal; next step is to find a bigger military surplus or surveyor's tripod, and modifiy the attachment point accordingly. Easily done on this rig; the round plate is held by four countersunk screws, and a different adapter plate can be made to take its place.


I still need to make something more attractive to cover the ends of the trunnion bolts. Also a counterweight for the heavy headrest. The knob on the bottom of the plate pulls a clamp down onto the dovetail, and the little rectangular tab on the front is something I added as a safety to keep them from slipping out in case the clamp isn't tight. The counterweight rail will go into the same threaded hole that's used for the safety tab.

The motions are smooth and it's very easy to track objects.


May 18, 2009

Mobs, budgets, and fire engines

Stupid question: How many Costa Mesa fire engines does it take to put out a burning motor home?

Silly answer: All of them.

A couple of weeks ago, I looked out to see a towering cloud of black smoke, perhaps a mile away. I grabbed my camera, hopped on the bike and pedaled over. Apparently I wasn't the only one who couldn't pass up a good disaster. When I got there, I found at least four large fire engines on the scene. Plus some paramedic trucks, general fire department staff vehicles, a couple of police motorcycles, uncounted police cars blocking off the area, and a swarm of uniforms. In effect, it was an emergency services flash crowd. There was a flaming midsize Class A motor home parked behind the garage of a private home, and by the time I got there it had burned down to the chassis. The firefighters were able to save the adjacent garage, and the house was far enough away not to be in danger. Here's the OC Register account. More photos here. But the best parts of this story are:
  1. Only two fire engines were actually connected to hydrants. There weren't any other hydrants anywhere near for the others to hook up to, so they just stood around. And
  2. One of the engines came all the way from Fountain Valley – at least five miles away (“Can we play, too?”) Fire engines were lined up in the two streets along this corner house; to get out, the Fountain Valley truck had to back up – carefully, between parked cars –  the entire length of the residential block. I just checked with Mapquest - FV has two fire houses, they are 6.53 and 7.68 miles away (actual travel, not as-crow-flies) from the scene. I passed the nearest Costa Mesa fire house, the main station next to city hall, on my way to the scene; it's 1.20 miles from the fire. 
Smoking wreck:

From the other side, showing the other engine that actually did any work:

And here's part of the flash crowd:

Between the two engines that were actually connected to hydrants, there was another unit. Then there was this kid. Hmmm...  He musta gotten into his junior firefighter outfit in record time. Say, has anybody noticed if he just so happens to show up at other fires, too?

The media-in-training from the local community college was more interested in interviewing the kid than in the actual fire.

Right now, California is going through a budget crisis.This coming Tuesday, California voters will decide on a brace of referendums to give the state more money to fill the budget shortfall. This time, the voters aren't buying it. It looks like every single “proposition” will go down in flames, except one: the one that says state lawmakers will no longer be allowed to vote themselves a raise in years of budget deficits. It seems the state govenrment has been spending like a drunken sailor in a brothel. Whenever more money is needed, the state has just shaken down the taxpayers, or raided public funds that were set up as “we promise, this is hands-off money, we really mean it this time, trust us.” Now, all the blood has effectively been squeezed out of us turnips and the state doesn't know where to go for its next fix. Given that, and looking at the response to this fire, one can see in microcosm where at least some of the blame can be placed. This is why I enjoy watching our ongoing economic train wreck: because without the wreck, the “engineers” at the throttle are never going to get the message.

We all need firefighting services; California perhaps more than most states. But do they all have to show up at what are, let's be honest, minor incidents? One truck, certainly. Maybe two for backup. But five trucks??? Moving a crew and truck costs money. That has to be billed to an account somewhere, and it has to be funded and paid for. Ultimately, it comes out of our pockets.

And another thing I've noticed – the fire department here in town takes its fire trucks grocery shopping. Incredible. Four firefighters stuffed into the cab of these diesel behemoths, taking up half the parking lot, crossways, at the supermarket, to bring home a few bagfuls of food. Yes, I know the trucks need to be “exercised.” Maybe even the drivers need occasional practice. In case they don't get enough of that in normal service. But, isn't there some more appropriate vehicle to go running errands? Like the commander's van? One of my more cynical friends claims that they do this so the equipment will wear out faster and they can get a shiny new fire truck every ten years or so. I remember as a kid in Chicago, the fire department was rather proud of how it kept its old equipment looking and working like new. Some of the vehicles were about 30 years old. But those Costa Mesa trucks look pretty new.


April 22, 2009

Review: 400 Years of the Telescope on PBS

I just watched 400 Years of the Telescope on one of the local Public Television channels. Here's the official web site.

Lots of talking heads. Lots of cosmology. I don't have much time for cosmology; it's as close to a system of religious dogma as anything you'll ever find in science. The title implies that it's a history of the telescope, but there's precious little of that. Huge historical gaps; how did telescopes evolve into what we have today? It's never explained. The treatment is juvenile. The web site seems aimed at a sixth-grade audience, and the film itself doesn't set its sights much higher. The web site has odd, disconnected snippets of history without context (“Tycho Brahe,” “Christiaan Huyghens,” “E.E. Barnard,” and finally “Aristarchus of Samos” – who had absolutely nothing to do with telescopes). There is nothing here to stir the imagination, not even of sixth graders. Sagan's Cosmos it ain't.

The short review: “Lacks focus.”

A much better production, more on-topic, is Journey to Palomar. (Web site here). And one could learn more about telescopes, seen from a different angle, by viewing Timothy Ferris' Seeing in the Dark. Both of these productions did a lot more to capture the wonder of the seeing the night sky, and the marvelous machines that let us do so.


April 18, 2009

Modern uses for a World War II aircraft gunsight

If one can use WW II flak binoculars for something other than directing flak, then certainly other wartime optics can be turned to more sociable uses as well. A couple of years ago, I was browsing through the Edmund Scientific book Popular Optics, written and illustrated by the inimitable Sam Brown, and came across plans for an optical bench based on a World War II surplus U.S. Army Air Corps Type N-3C gunsight. Intrigued, I snagged one on Ebay.

It's a wonderful little piece of workmanship. The optics are uncoated, but the casting of the housing is nicely done and finished in black wrinkle paint of a quality that I just can't get from a spray can. There is a sheet metal cover for easy changing of the light bulb; it opens and swings out by pressing two spring-loaded buttons. I have two of these now, both were made by Service Tool and Engineering Co. of Dayton, Ohio. I have an original shipping carton for one, labeled Sight Assembly, Fixed Gun, Type N-3C. (What do I want with two? Well, mount them in a fixture and you can use them to align binoculars...)  

By itself, the gunsight is nothing more complex than a lens and some sort of target, backlit by a bulb, that is projected as an image. Think of it as a slide projector that projects a very boring slide – just a dashed circle with a dot in the middle. The neat thing about the N-3C, according to the Edmunds book, is that this slide, the “reticle,” just so happens to subtend 1/10 of a radian (for those who slept through high school geometry, a circle has a circumference of 2π radians, or 2 x 3.14159 radians; therefore a radian is 360/2π = 57.29578 degrees; another way of looking at a radian is, take a string the length of the radius, and wrap it around the circle; it will wrap for 57.3... degrees). So what? Well, that helps to simplify some optical math. For example, put a lens of unknown focal length in front of the N-3C gunsight (assuming it has been focused to project its reticle image at infinity), and look at the resulting image of the reticle using, say, a projection screen (as seen below) or a small magnifier (essentially turning your unknown lens and the magnifier into a small telescope). If your hand magnifier has a calibrated grid, like one of these, you can measure the diameter of the gunsight reticle image as made by your unknown lens. Here's where the 1/10 radian part is handy: Multiply the measured diameter of that image by 10, and you have your previously unknown lens focal length, to a fraction of one percent.

Here's one of Edmund's several suggestions for how to use the N-3C:

Here's what's inside. I notice that the various Edmund sources give differing specifications for the objective lens focal length; sometimes 142 mm, sometimes 136 mm.

Now, the bulbs are an oddity, specified as 28 volts like most stuff on aircraft, but they can be found easily and cheaply enough. The bulb is frosted all over, with an  apparently painted-on aluminum reflective coating and a translucent “window.” The connector at bottom of the gunsight is a standard MIL-spec Amphenol, still available new from the usual suspects (I got mine from Mouser Electronics – excellent, fast service, good prices). That's the neat thing about MIL spec – what was standard in the 1930s is still standard today.
Update: In case anybody is looking for the mating plug for this, it's Amphenol 97 Series, two-conductor, shell size and insert are 12S-3S.
Plug: Amphenol 97-3106A-12S-3S (Straight cable plug; alternatively, angle plug is 3108B). Note that sometimes the illustrations show pins where the actual part number would have sockets, and vice versa; Amphenol plugs and receptacles can go either way).
Receptacle (if you need to replace or want to make something else to use same plug): Amphenol 97-3102A-12S-3P (Box mount style receptacle).
You'll also want the cable clamp and strain relief bushing for the plug and cable, Amphenol 97-3057-1004-1.
Amphenol 97 series is MIL-C-5015 style, but strictly speaking not actually MIL spec. General info on how these go together here and here. Or the full-boat Amphenol Series 97 catalog from this site. 

Edmund also has an online instruction sheet, at their Anchor Optics page, showing how to make an N-3C gunsight into a finder telescope that projects an image of its reticle onto the sky.

The trick here is you look at the reticle image with one eye and the sky with the other, and let the brain superimpose them. This is sort of the same idea as the Telrad finder, except the Telrad uses a “combining glass” just like the N-3C originally used when installed in an airplane, so you can see the sky behind the reticle image. (The next section of the Edmund instruction sheet after the N-3C section shows how to turn a military surplus Mk. 2-C pelorus drift sight into a reflex sight – like the Telrad).  

My own optical bench looks like this right now. Shown under test is one of the infamous Meade “too short” focal reducers (which work just fine once you know their focal length – and set up accordingly; hence the need for an optical bench).

Here's the view through the Peak comparator. For actual precision measurements of the image size, the micrometer heads are used. The unevenness of the lighted ring projected by the gunsight is caused by inaccuracies in hand-holding the camera.

Note that the circle is about 8.8 mm in diameter. That means the focal reducer has a focal length of 88 mm. If I were to take an inside micrometer set to 88 mm and measure backward from the focal plane (the etched reticle with all those markings) of the Peak comparator, back to the object under test, I would then know where inside its body the “principal plane” falls. That is the imaginary plane from which the focused rays originate; this information is needed to get an accurate, rather than trial-and-error, focal reducer setup.

If I set up the gunsight with a piece of glass to work like the combining glass in an airplane cockpit, like this,

then looking at the neighbors' house through that setup, with the unaided eye, would look like this.

Note the Peak optical comparator (a glorified magnifying glass) and large micrometer screws for X-Y motions, used to measure exact reticle image sizes. The X-Y stage is made of thick MDF, which is easy to “machine” using a router table and which is great for making working mockups. I still need to make a more substantial rig like this using aluminum angle brackets, a heavy-duty aluminum clamp to hold the N-3C, a nice smooth-acting X-Y stage, stuff like that. But for now, it works.

Now for a bit of history. When got my first example of the N-3C a couple of years ago, I took it apart to see how it worked. Insiide I found an etched brass reticle, very cleverly dished to account for focal plane curvature (so that both the center hole and the slotted ring were in focus at the same time). The reticle was marked with the words “100 mph”, “50 cal” and “50.5.” It's pretty easy to figure this stuff out. 100 mph refers to the speed of the target, at right angles to the line of sight. (Think locomotive). The pilot, when shooting at ground targets, could guesstimate the object's speed, do the math in his head and give it the right lead (between the center dot and the outer ring) for the target's speed as a fraction of 100 mph. For example, a barge moving at 20 mph, you put the dot 1/5 of the way to the outer ring, ahead of the target. The “50 cal” obviously refers to the standard American M2 .50 caliber machine gun, used in just about every fighter and bomber in the war (the U.S. quickly abandoned its .30 caliber aircraft machine guns as being way too small). The “50.5” is the radius of the reticle, in mils (corresponding to that 100 mph lead on the target). Now, mils are poorly defined. There are 2000π milliradians in a circle, so a “real” milliradian is 1/6283.185 of a circle or 0.0573 degrees. But the military simplifies this (sometimes; apparently rifle sights use true milliradians, artillery sights may or may not), and how they simplify it depends on whose military. NATO uses 1 mil = 1/6400th of a circle; Sweden used 1/6300th; and the former Soviet Union 1/6000th. Which do I have? What did the U.S. Army use in WW II, and specifically on this device? Doing some real-world measuring, it appears that the 50.5 mils refer to 6400 mils per circle. My reticle is pretty darn close to exactly 1/10 radian in diameter, or 1/20 radian (50.0 milliradians) in radius, if I use the outer edge of the ring as the dimension. Update: Doing some digging, it appears that U.S. ground-based artillery used the approximation of 6400 mils per circle. Regardless, for practical artillery purposes, the round off error is not significant. The handy thing about figuring in mils is that for small angles, it allows gunners to quickly calculate corrections. 1 mil of traverse at 1000 yards is one yard; if you know your target is 1000 yards away and want your shot to land 50 yards farther to the left, you crank the knobs on your gun or whatever to move it 50 mils. Or, the other way around: if you know an aircraft, ship, or vehicle is X yards long, then you know that in profile it will be X mils wide in your optical device if it's at 1000 yards. If you see a 300 ft long ship in your submarine periscope, for example, and it looks pretty much like it's movng crosswise to your line of sight, and it appears to be 30 mils wide as measured by the marks in your periscope's reticle, then you know it's 10,000 ft. away.

Check: The target speed of 100 mph divided by the muzzle velocity of a .50 cal. bullet should give us 1/20, the radius of the ring, in radian measure. From the Internet, one can find several alleged muzzle velocities for the cal 50 Browning Machine Gun round, but a good one is 2930 ft/sec (others are 2910 and 3050, all close enough for government work). 100 miles per hour = 146.67 ft/sec. So... 146.67 / 2930 = ....  0.05006; pret' darn close to 1/20!

Another check: The reticle is about 9/16” in diameter. Take 10 times that, and it should be the focal length of the gunsight lens. 9/16” = 14.29 mm.
10 x 14.29 = 142.9 mm.  Edmund (in one instance) claims the gunsight lens focal length is 142 mm. Close enough.

(To put the art of hitting a moving target in perspective, what this means is, if my neighbor's house in the image above were moving sideways at 100 mph – in a very strong Santa Ana wind, let's say – and I were shooting at it with a 50 cal. BMG round, I would have to lead whatever I were trying to hit by about two front-door widths).

So, how exactly were they used in military aircraft? Here's how they would look in the installed orientation with combining glass. Older N-3B on left, N-3C on right.
Lots more gunsight images here.

Here's a picture of an N-3C installed in a Curtiss P-40. You can just barely make it out, sitting on top of the instrument panel.

But a far more interesting application was in the B-25 H and J models. The H was famous for carrying a 75 mm gun, removed from a Sherman tank (or equivalent). Like this (eight 50 cal + one 75 mm gun)                      The gunsight looked like this.

The reflector gunsight was combined with an early radar installation, which provided range to target info. The idea was, the B-25 could make a run at a target (usually Japanese shipping) well beyond the range of the usual itty bitty 25 mm anti-aircraft guns. With the radar ranging info and a manual way (the adjustment knob at left, which tilted the combining glass) to adjust the vertical aiming of the gunsight to account for shell drop, the plane could make repeated runs at the target and lob 75 mm shells from a long way away.

Here is a view of the pilot's side of the instrument panel of a B-25 J that's still flying, showing the gunsight, combining glass, and light switch. (Note widget on the right – that's a Mark II astrocompass. I gotta get me one o' those...) I just love the way these old planes were built. Technology you could understand. High-tech blacksmithing. That's why I like old cars, too.

Here's how the gunsight was used in conjunction with radar to determine range. If that wartime graphic and its claims are to be believed, the radar ranging gave each 75 mm round fired by the B-25 H a hit probability of up to 90 percent at a range of 3000 to 5000 yards (nearly 2 to nearly 3 miles).

Hey, there's even a YouTube video (in four parts). Unfortunately, silent. But at least it's in color. Parts 3 and 4 show the planes in action. The 75 mm guns can be seen firing at about 1:40 into Part 4, the titles say it's two miles out.

More B-25 H info here.


April 11, 2009

Let's drop a dime on a drunk

A couple of weeks ago, my friend Jeff Duntemann lost one of his friends in Colorado Springs, Mike Sargent, to a drunk driver. The drunk driver was one Jason Archuleta, age 20. The legal age to purchase and publicly consume alcohol in all 50 of these United States is 21.

Closer to home, just this past Thursday, Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two others were killed by a drunk driver doing 65 in a 35 zone. The driver, Andrew Thomas Gallo, age 22, was already on probation and his license had been suspended for earlier drunk driving. He had a blood alcohol level three times the legal limit – in other words, 0.24 BAL. Remember that number. It's important. We'll get back to it in a minute.

In this day of ubiquitous communications, there is absolutely no reason why the obviously drunk should manage to struggle more than a mile or so down the road before the Heat comes down on them. We've all seen the signs: “Report drunk drivers. Call 9-1-1.” How many of us would do that? How many would, instead, take a “live and let live” attitude? Well, from the above two data points, it is obvious that the concept of “live and let live” is incompatible with letting drunks run loose on the roads.

I don't care to share the road with drunks. I have dropped the proverbial dime on one, and I'm damn proud of it – nearly as proud as I am of getting that illegal alien scammer shipped back to Israel. The story goes like this.

I came out of my housing tract at about 3 PM on a workday. As I was driving up the main drag through town, a large, late-model pickup truck came out of one of the car dealer lots, right in front of me. The first thing I noticed was that he was driving along the empty parking lane, thinking it was a traffic lane, and gently bouncing off the curb. Driving by Braille, as it were. Then he noticed a parked car (“How did that idiot get there? Oh...”) and jerked the truck over into my lane. Then we came up to a red light. He hit the brakes, released, hit the brakes, released... The truck bobbed up and down. Crazy kids, I thought. Horsing around in the truck, making their heads bob... Wait a minute, there's only one head in there. So I got the phone and called 9-1-1.

As I suspected, calling the emergency number from a mobile phone in California puts you through to the California Highway Patrol. I asked them to connect me to the local police, which was done in a matter of seconds. I described the situation to the local dispatcher.

By this time the truck had turned onto another street. Headed for the freeway. I hadn't intended to go that way but I followed him anyway. The dispatcher cautioned me not to get too close. Not to worry, I'm staying way away from this one... We came up to a stale red light. I braked gently. He nearly blew through it, locked up his wheels at the last minute and slid to a stop in a cloud of blue tire smoke. “He just locked up his wheels for a red light,” I said. “Yeah, I could hear that,” said the dispatcher (my driver-side window was open).

Now we're in a left lane, approaching a freeway on-ramp (beautiful... Drunks on the freeway, oh my...) The right lane is free. The drunk (by now I have no doubt about it) decides he's going to get around everybody by switching lanes. Nearly gets creamed by a FedEx truck coming up on the right. FedEx leans on his horn, long and hard. Drunk jerks back in front of me. I look in the mirror and see a police cruiser coming up behind me. On a cross street up ahead, I see a motorcycle cop coming in from the right. I've told the police dispatcher what I'm driving. I could see what's going to happen next, so I said “I'm just going to drive past like I have nothing to do with this.” The police cruiser followed me, we went around a corner, out of sight, while the motorcycle cop (by now joined by another) made the stop. I got out, exchanged information with the cop in the cruiser, why I thought this guy was sloshed. I asked the cop, “How could anybody be that drunk at 3 PM?” No doubt he'd seen plenty of drunks; his answer was “If he's that drunk, he probabably started at lunchtime, and hasn't stopped since.” I drove on. I was going to do some grocery shopping and this stop was already a mile out of my way. As I circled the block, I could see they had the guy out, doing the repertoire of Stupid Human Tricks (touching nose, walking on a line, etc).

Now, it is very likely that this person was about to get on the freeway. I know what that freeway is like at 3 PM. It's five lanes and wide open – until you get about a mile up the road and another freeway merges and traffic comes to a screeching halt. Every day, like clockwork. The permanent traffic jam is even visible in Google Earth. I'd already seen how this guy reacted to stop lights. I leave the imagery of what he might have done on the freeway to the reader's imagination.

Did my shopping. Half an hour later, I figured, let's see what's happening. Maybe by now they have a tow truck to haul away the pickup. Drove by, and they're still there, the guy is sitting down. I drove past. At the next light, there was a police car next to me, older veteran cop in it. I got out and asked if he was part of the festivities back there. “No, don't have any idea what that's about.” Well, I called in a drunk driver about half an hour ago. “If  they've been talking to him for half an hour, it's only because they're crossing their Ts and dotting their Is, that guy is going to jail.” Beautful.

That night I got a call from the police department. Again they wanted to know what drew my attention to this driver. I told them the story again. (I imagine they need to show probable cause; “Officer, would you explain to the court why an anonymous citizen fingered the defendant?”) At the end of our phone conversation, the officer said, “Congratulations. You took a point-two-four drunk off the road.” That's 0.24 percent blood alcohol level, or if you use the European system, 2.4 pro mille. The same level as the drunk who killed the Angels pitcher two days ago. The effects of point-two-four: Stupor, severe motor impairment, loss of consciousness. Beautiful. We're not talking slightly tipsy here. We're talking 9 or 10 hard drinks, or most of two six-packs of beer. (Geez. What's that guy's bladder like?) We're talking deadly-weapon, falling-down-drunk in nominal control (or not) of a two-ton unguided missile moving at about 100 feet per second.

Jeff asked me if the police aren't bothered by people calling in to report drunks. No. Most decidedly no. Cops live for drunk driving busts. The drunker the driver, the more the cop enjoys doing his job. It's his validation. He sees his efforts having a real, instantaneous effect. Trust me.

Another friend in Colorado, hearing this story a couple of years ago, said I had done something that “most citizens would not do.” I was astounded. Why not? “They'd be afraid of getting sued. Or worse.”  And, if I may get up on my soapbox, that is a real problem in this country – there is a prevalent attitude of “Don't be a snitch,” especially in youth “culture.” Such as it is. De po-lice be da enemy, us homeys gots ta hang tagethah, dig? Well, the police have a function. They are the society's garbagemen, they are tasked with taking the garbage out. It's a job that most of us do not want to do, and indeed are not allowed to do under a system of laws (taking out your own garbage works well in frontier societies. Once the laws and the lawyers arrive, you can't do that anymore). If you can't or aren't allowed to take the garbage out yourself, and you don't want to let the garbagemen do their job, well, then you're going to live surrounded by garbage. It's that simple. (And if you look at the areas where the “don't snitch” non-ethic is strong, well, garbage is as garbage does). 

So drop a dime on a drunk. The odds are very good that you may save somebody's life. Maybe somebody you know.

Update, April 13, 2009. Somebody asked, how do you recognize a drunk driver? Good question. The guy I described was obviously not driving like a normal person would; his movements, reactions and reaction times were way outside of what anyone, even an untrained observer, might consider the normal range. But in general, what are the signs?

Well, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a list. Also This and this are derived from the NHTSA document.and are as good a list as any. (The one I called in qualified under at least three of those points). Or, having read my story and having pictured those events in your mind, if someday see that same movie, or  major parts of it, being played out in front of you, now you know... Call it in.

Here's a more technical official NHTSA document. That boils it down to four basic categories and the likelihood that it's caused by alcohol impairment.
  • Problems maintaining lane position, probability of being drunk (p) = 0.50 to 0.75
  • Speed and braking problems (including stopping too far, too short, too jerky), p = 0.45 to 0.70   (Yup, he qualified)
  • Vigilance problems (including slow response to traffic signals), p = 0.55 to 0.65  (Yup)
  • Judgment problems (including improper or unsafe lane change, driving on other than designated roadway),  p = 0.35 to 0.90.  Yup and yup, twice. I figure in retrospect, that alone made my case a 90 percent probability. 
My pigeon got three out of four of those basic groups; the NHTSA page further says that any two of those cues, and p = at least 0.50. That's a minimum 50% chance the driver is drunk.

March 30, 2009

Antiaircraft computing, American style

A couple of days ago I went on (interminably, I suppose) about German flak binoculars and related gadgets. I hinted that the U.S. and Britain had similar gizmos. Here's a similar gizmo. 


OK, it's not a binocular, but it is a telescope that was used for antiaircraft spotting. As such it's more like the 12 x 60 binoculars mounted on German rangefinders than it is like the standalone 10 x 80 binoculars. This is an M17 elbow telescope (or perhaps that's Telescope, Elbow, M17), an 8 x 50 telescope made by Minneapolis Honeywell Corporation in 1943 (other manufacturers were Linotype and Eastman Kodak) and like the German flak glasses, there are tons of these out there. It also has night illumination and a rotating filter wheel. One just sold on Ebay today for $9.95. (That's a darn sight different from $500 and more for flak binoculars – but it's a darn sight different view, too). Sometimes they have crazy asking prices. There's even a nifty Irish-dog-carrier of a canvas cover, but I've never actually seen one:

Looking at my 1968 Edmund catalog, back then they were getting $24.95 for it. I've had my example since I bought it at American Science Center in Chicago in the early 1970s. These were very popular in the late 1950s with Project Moonwatch, the first, amateur satellite tracking program which was called into emergency session after the launching of Sputnik because the big Baker-Nunn cameras were not online yet.  

Several sources claim that the excellent Edmund 28 mm Kellner eyepieces were put together postwar using leftover or salvaged elements from the M17 telescope. I don't know that for certain, but I took the eyepiece off of this M17, put it on my optical bench, and indeed measured a 28 mm focal length. Given 8 power and a 28 mm eyepiece, that makes the main objective a 50 mm f/4.5 lens. My example does not have any antireflection coating. It needs to be taken apart and cleaned as over the years outgassing has left a film on the inside of the objective.

So where was the M17 used? I'm glad you asked that... because that's a handy springboard for laying out all the nifty American anti-aircraft sighting and computing gizmos. Parallel evolution is an amazing thing. The M17s were used on the M4, M5, and M7 Directors. The M4 and M7 were made by the Sperry Corporation. The M5 Antiaircraft Director was made by the Singer Sewing Machine Company (because Sperry had its hands full already) and was based on the British Kerrison Predictor. This was used to automatically move small, low-altitude guns like the 40 mm Bofors, used against low-flying aircraft. As such its job was somewhat different from the complex rigs used for large-bore antiaircraft guns firing into high-altitude bomber streams; it didn't have to worry about setting fuses to explode at the right point in space.

Outwardly, the operating principles appear amazingly similar to the German Kommandohilfsgerät 35 – a mechanical computer box made by Carl Zeiss of Jena, and mounted separately from the 4 meter rangefinder.  

German Kdo. Hi. Ger. 35:                                        US M7 Computing Sight. The cables on the right go to the guns. 

Another view of an M7, this time on New Guinea:

Oh, I'm sure they work very differently inside, but outwardly, both the German and U.S. devices are big boxes operated by a bunch of people peering through telescopes and working cranks, dials, gauges, nomograms... Note the pair of M17 elbow telescopes on the US M7 directors. Also casting style differences between the M17 telescopes. And along with the railroad-flatcar-mounted German director is a set of flak binoculars on tripod, and, at lower left, a 4-meter rangefiner. 

But the parallel evolution story gets better. Here's the US Army's M1 height finder, being used to train troops at Ft. Sheridan, IL. And again note similarity to the German 4-meter rangefinder (March 28 entry), right down to the number of crewmen and their positions.. 


Later in the war there were the M9 and M10 computers, developed by Bell Labs. Unlike the German hand-crank method, the M9 (90 mm gun) and M10 (120 mm gun) controlled servomotors to point the guns. The directors were part of a four-component system: director, height finder, computer, and gun, as shown in the artist's rendering. Now we're starting to get into something that looks like you would expect a computer to look. 


All of this stuff was obsolescent by the end of the war. With the invention of radar proximity fuses, (my old astronomy prof. Dr. J. Allen Hynek was part of that research program at Johns Hopkins; he kept an epoxy-potted dummy fuse on his desk), the gunners no longer needed to set timers on their shells. And the entire complexity of at least two crew-served electro-mechano-optical boxes could be replaced by radar feeding the computer moving the gun.

Lots more info at this site.  

March 29, 2009

The evils of riding the green bandwagon

Well, last night the whole freaking planet celebrated another blessed Earth Hour. I ranted about the absurdity – golly, it's a year ago already. Marvelous. Now then, Earth Muffins, since you've found the switch, how about leaving the lights off instead of lighting up empty streets, parking lots, daylight-bright flashing LED billboards and such at bleedin' 3 AM?

Today's news says that finally, finally we may be getting some new nuclear powerplants. It's several decades late, and the way these things crawl along, it will be another decade before any of them come online. The techno-scientific illiterates have blocked all nuclear energy in this country for a generation and a half now. But that story says 59 or 67 percent (depending on poll) of Americans now favor nuclear energy. I just hope they have the dedication to shout down the likes of Algor and the Sierra Club. The tragedy is that entropy has stolen a 30-year march on us.

I just got a book through ABEBooks, which is an excellent source and service for finding used bookstores with just the title you want. But, it can backfire. Be it hereby known that the bunch known as Thrift Books of Auburn, WA, or the Atlanta Book Co. of Atlanta, GA, Motor City Books (see that link for many other rants, as a result of an Amazon purchase) or Green Earth Books of... wherever... anyway that bunch does not know how to ship books. Here's the note I sent ABEBooks.

Is there any way to leave customer feedback for a bookstore? I'm really unhappy with “Atlanta Book Co.” or “Thriftbooks” of Auburn, Washington or whoever the heck was responsible for my order.

While the order was being processed, they sent me a gushy e-mail saying in part

We work very hard to provide exceptional customer service. Please let us know if we can improve your online experience. You may also have noticed our new packaging. We are discontinuing the bubble mailers we previously used in favor of a 100% completely recyclable package. If your latest shipment arrives in a non-bubble wrapped bag, then congratulations, you can now recycle it with your plastic grocery bags. It's just one more way we are trying to help the environment.

Well, their wunnerful “green” packaging consists of a thin-gauge plastic sack. It's a BOOK, people, not groceries or a T-shirt! Needless to say it arrived severely bumped and looking like something from the Salvation Army bargain counter.

When I'm ordering books, I don't care about “green” this or “eco” that and I don't appreciate having those compromises forced on me. If I want to cavort around in burlap underwear and Birkenstocks to save the polar bears, I want that to be my choice, not forced on me by the people who sell me shoes or underwear. The first priority should be customer service, and leave the activism to me on the receiving end. There's a reason quality bookstores use padded mailers, cardboard book mailers, and the like.

No, I can't return this book. The costs start adding up and there's only one other copy listed. But I'm not happy and I want to vent somewhere. So, is there a customer feedback site?

March 28, 2009

Catching flak

More fun with surplus optics.

Last year, while browsing the astronomy web site “Cloudy Nights,” I came across one poster's description of his restoration job on some huge German WW2 binoculars – so-called “Flak binoculars.” Flak glasses. Flakfernrohr. FlakglasOfficially, Doppelfernrohr D. F. 10 x 80.

Intrigued, I watched the Ebay auctions for a while, and saw mostly well beat up junk going for more money than I wanted to part with. Finally I found some in Germany that looked good and the price was no worse than the junk. I sniped the auction, paid with Paypal, and had them shipped to a friend over there who inspected them and trans-shipped them to me. I think I did OK.


What's the view like?  (Handheld Kodak P850 up against right-side eyepiece)


The image on the right, above, is full frame, using the camera's own zoom to magnify the area at upper right center of the left image.

Somebody had obviously gone through these, put in new screws, gave it a good solid paint job. The optics are clean. Some of the Ebay auctions show examples with the front lenses delaminating – the lens cement (“Canada balsam”) shows star or snowflake-shaped crazing. This can be repaired by a professional, but it's not something the amateur should tackle. It involves removing the objective lenses and marking the optics for rotational alignment, gently heating them in a fluid bath until the balsam melts, carefully sliding the two glass elements apart and letting them cool slowly or else the glass is likely to crack. Then clean with solvent (xylene) and reassemble with fresh cement in a super-clean environment. It can be done but it's not a Joe Hammermechanic job. Other examples appearing on Ebay show cracked lenses or fungus; these are to be avoided. At best they are organ donors. (Unfortunately, a set on ebay with the rare coated optics just sold for over $1000 – complete with cracked lenses. Invariably the ads for cracked, scratched, fungus infested or delaminated optics say “still works fine, I can see though it.” Uh huh... )

These glasses are 10 x 80; that means 80 mm lenses with 10 power magnification. Theoretically, that produces an 8 mm exit pupil, bigger than the normal human eye can take in But the people who made these weren't dummies and they had a reason. These are very comfortable glasses to use for long periods of time, and there's never any difficulty finding the image. Most do not have coated optics, so there may be some internal reflections. It would be nice to send the optics out for modern antireflection coating but the cost might be prohibitive, and the cemented lenses would first have to be separated because coating requires that they be gotten really hot in a vacuum chamber. Messy and risky. Cloudy Nights also has a review by  Markus Ludes, a noted German telescope dealer, manufacturer, and authority.

(As an aside, WW2 saw a great proliferation in antireflection-coated optics. The process in its modern form was  invented in Germany in the mid-1930s, by a Ukrainian-born Zeiss optician named Dr. Alexander Smakula. It was called T-Belag (T coating), for transparency, at the time. Later, in the 1970s, Zeiss came out with T*, their name for multilayer coatings. After peace broke out, Smakula went to the USA and became a professor at MIT. Zeiss and Smakula's patent, number DRP 685767 was granted in 1935 but kept secret until the end of November 1939; plenty of time for other combatants to read and implement the idea.

As an aside to an aside (I'm beside myself today), the German patent database is searchable just like the U.S. Patent Office dbase. To do it, go to, click on English (at top center), click on Search, click on Beginner, and in Formulate Search, under Publication Number, put DE (not DRP; there shall be no mention of “deutsches Reich” in any Bundesgovernment web site! Ever! Kapisch?) in the first, small box, then 685787 in the next box, and at lower left click Start search. It comes back with the scanned document. I can't link to the document because it has to be accessed through the German Patent and Trademark portal; anything else eventually times out.  

A lot of my WW2 American optics are antireflection coated. These are first-generation coatings, probably a single layer of magnesium fluoride 
MgF2  for that classic blue-purple look, although the patent only mentions calcium fluoride. Today, better optics use multi-layer coatings for even better light throughput. Reading the 1935 patent, it's obvious that Smakula immediately recognized and pointed out the possibility of multi-layer coatings for practically zero reflective losses. But I digress. I do that a lot).

These binoculars are amazingly well built pieces. Cost-no-object, who-cares-if-we-lose-the-war hardware. Like the USA, Germany spared no expense when it came to making military hardware – amazing, really, since most of the stuff got consumed, destroyed, and even if it survived the war, eventually abandoned or scrapped in place. There were a number of contractors who supplied these, identified by a code on the right side prism housing. Mine were made by Schneider of Bad Kreuznach; they're still in business, my Kodak digital camera uses an alleged Schneider Variogon lens (I have to believe it's made in China though). Other vendors were the company that designed these, Emil Busch AG of Rathenow (near Berlin); also Leitz (Wetzlar) and also optical shops in Vienna and Warsaw controlled by Zeiss. 

Originally, these were mounted in a complex cradle, like this.

The cradle has geared slow motions and degree readout verniers for azimuth and elevation (the azimuth knob is not shown here; it would be a red knob). The binoculars have a night-illuminated crosshair in the right-side optic, a rotating knob to select sunshades, and an interpupillary distance adjustment that physically racks the two telescopes toward or away from each other.

Update: I made my own version of the original cradle. See May 29 entry, above.

Attention to detail in the altitude readout:

There are all sorts of fanciful claims on Ebay that these were “tank binoculars” or “U-boat binoculars” or “German Navy binoculars” but mostly that's just the sellers believing in some fantasy or engaging in creative marketing. They might have been “appropriated” by “creative” troops in those services but that would have been unusual and there were lighter, better, more appropriate instruments for their applications. These were normally placed atop a tripod – a “Gestell 39” in the military hardware catalog. Like this.

These tripods turn up occasionally but there's no reason to spend a fortune to get an original one if you want to use such binoculars; a modern surveyor's tripod can be adapted, and is cheaper (under $100 new) and sturdier. The complete rig, the cradle, box, illuminator, battery holder, etc., when found, can set you back a couple of thousand bucks. Here's a picture of a complete rig in original box. This went for nearly $2200 on Ebay. I see a dealer selling a rig, with box and tripod and not nearly as clean as these, for nearly $3700.

    Another one:  

The binoculars would be manned, usually by teenagers, to report bearings of bombers high overhead. You would think this could have been used to triangulate altitude and direction, but that was probably never necessary. It appears they were most commonly used at night (and, given their 8 mm exit pupil, that makes sense), to direct searchlight batteries. They could also have been used to direct a much larger instrument such as a four-meter rangefinder, crewed by a bunch of adults. The 4 m rangefinder had a collection of  unique “finderscope” binoculars all its own. The binoculars on the rangefinders are less interesting for modern use, as they were of a less useful size: 12 x 60, and extremely bulky for all that. Here's some photos of a 4 m rangefinder (EM38, Entfernungsmesser 38) and labor-intensive crews. The big box in the right-side photo is a Kommandogerät, (also here), in this case a Kdo.Ger.40, a mechanical analog computer that used data from the rangefinder to send firing solutions and even operate each gun's individual, unique (because as the barrels wore out, their muzzle velocity dropped, and that had to be compensated) automatic fuse setter via a system of 108-conductor cables and an array of lights on each of  the four guns that typically made up a flak battery. This was a sort of early servo system; the servomotors were humans furiously cranking altitude and azimuth wheels until all the lights indicating (for altitude, as an example) 1/10 degrees, single degrees, and tens of degrees were “zeroed,” lining up like three cherries in a slot machine, to what the Kdo.Ger. told them to set. You have to wonder why they didn't take the last step and make it fully automatic. The left-side photo shows an older model, a Kommandogerät 36. (Was there a U.S. or British equivalent? Sure. More on that some other time).


Here's a fellow who's probably not birdwatching.

Here's a historical image of a teenage “Flakhelfer” using a set.


Now, the military (everybody's military) likes to sell the idea that you get on-the-job training that you can use after you get out. Well, one would think there's precious little postwar demand for people trained to shoot down airplanes, but the fellow in that photo actually turned it into a peacetime hobby, if not a career – he became a guru in the field of astronomical telescope optics. (The sign at left shows the silhouette of a British bomber – can't tell if it's supposed to be a Halifax or Lancaster – and says “Fuhlsbüttel 20 km.” So that places it in  the Hamburg area. Where he still lives and lectures on astronomy, as a retired music teacher).

The basic design of these glasses continued in production after the war; the French navy adapted some abandonware/leftovers/reparations, the Russians copied them and made a bigger version. There are known examples of recent  Russian copies that were captured from the Iraqis in Desert Storm and brought to the USA as souvenirs. There is also an East German version, fairly easy to find. Here's the East German model (from the “NVA” – the National People's Army), which was in service until the Wall came down. One of these, with coated optics, is currently being offered by a high-end surplus dealer for about $1200. In typical East German style, there's a little right-angle finder on top so the observer's boss can observe what the observer is observin.' (“Why do the Secret Police go around in groups of three? One reads, one writes, and the third one has to keep an eye on the two intellectuals.”)


Amazingly, there are people for whom WW2 ended far too soon, so they are “re-enactors.” Oddly, these people are never German. This sort of behavior would get you put in a rubber room, or worse, in Germany. Wait, correction: they're out there. (And note that turnabout's fair play; some like dressing up in American flight jackets). If Americans putting on Nazi uniforms is silly, Germans doing it is kinda creepy. If only because Germans are so much better at it than Americans (viz. Guantanamo; wouldn't be in the news with Germans running it. You'd never know what went on there). So, apparently, these people “re-enact” being gophers in a flak battery. Presumably they acquire optics like this, prance around in those cool superbad uniforms like that Tom Cruise character, and squint through optics, looking for bombers that never come. Note also that even if the bombers never come, “re-enacting” can be hazardous to one's health. This guy made some cop's day. 

I have different plans for mine. I intend to put it on a motorized tracking mount and use it on the stars. No uniform needed.

Mine came without the rain tubes (Regenschutzrohr) or rubber headrest (Kopfstütze). I bought new reproduction “rain tubes” from a fellow in Belgium. I made my own headrest using a new, modern rubber part and custom mounting hardware.


There are a few books out there covering this topic. First and foremost is Dr. Hans T. Seeger's self-published Militärische Ferngläser und Fernrohre in Heer, Luftwaffe und Marine. The book has gone through several editions (the latest, third edition, is 2005) and the older ones appear on the used market at low prices but don't contain the latest material. Key chapters appear in German as well as English. Another is Eyes of the Wehrmacht by American binocular collector Dr. Stephen Rohan. I found this to be less useful as it's mostly a catalog of the author's personal collection. The third item is Die Geschütze, Ortungs- und Feuerleitgeräte der schweren Flak by Werner Müller, who has written many works on German flak of WW2. Many have been translated (badly) into English. This book has little on binoculars except the occasional view of a set in use as part of a larger installation, but offers tons of background on the direction finding and fire control equipment. This has been translated into English and published by Schiffer Books, but from past experience, Schiffer's translations are so awful that the publisher's imprint amounts to a warning: “Stay away! Incompetent translation inside!” (Do a Google search for schiffer publishing awful translation). Invariably, they hire translators who don't know the subject matter or its jargon, and can't be bothered to find out. I can tell that it applies to their translation of this book, since they didn't even get the title right and used made-up words instead. I'm not going to dignify it by listing the English title here. (Their funniest mis-translation was on a book about the Czech-built tank 38(t) Hetzer, where the transmission was described as “Transmission: Parge-Wilson tarpaulin power drive with 5 forward gears.” Tarpaulin power drive? What on earth is a “tarpaulin power drive”??? Then I figured it out. It's a totally boogered translation of “Vorgelege-Getriebe” – the old Wilson preselector gearbox. Mssrs. Schiffer would be just as well served by letting Babelfish do their translations. They would come out about the same, and cost nothing.


March 10, 2009

Journey to Mt. Wilson

This is something I've been meaning to write up for a long time.

Back when it was still a reasonably healthy company – oh, about a year and a half ago, although it had been bleeding red ink for many quarters already – Meade Instruments put on an annual shindig called “Hands on the Sun.” It appears the October 2007 incarnation was the last ever. Now, I'm not much of a solar observer (and at the moment there's precious little to see in the way of sunspots) but one of the events was a hosted tour of the Mt. Wilson Observatory, with viewing through the 60-inch reflector. Signup for the tour was $100. I was so caught up with work that I completely forgot – until somebody from Meade called and said “Where are you? We're on the 5 freeway on the way to Mt. Wilson!” This was at 3 PM, the start of rush hour. I said rats, I probably couldn't make it, given Friday LA traffic and all. Then I said, nuts, I'll give it a shot anyway. Threw some stuff in the car and sallied forth to do battle on the freeways. Living in southern California, you soon learn shortcuts and workarounds for some drives – obviously not all, or everybody would take them. So in little more than an hour and a half, I was up at the top of Mt. Wilson. I'm very glad I made the extra effort. Found my tour group just in time to catch the tour of the 100 inch telescope, hosted by Don Nicholson, who has to be the most alert and active octogenarian – as of last year, nonogenarian – I've ever met. His father Seth Nicholson was a staff astronomer at Mt. Wilson in the 19-teens and '20s, and as a boy Don used to help out with chores like guiding long exposure photographs on the 100-inch. For a moving demonstration of what it was like to drive the (at the time) world's biggest telescope, there's an outstanding re-enaction in one of the episodes of Carl Sagan's Cosmos documentary (click on link or thumbnail to start video).

Also acting as guest speaker and tour host was famed comet discoverer David Levy. (Here's Levy in Levy's words).

Next stop was the 150 ft. solar tower telescope, just in time to see the sunset from the observing room at its base. We were treated to several airplanes flying across the Sun's disk – not too surprising, since at sunset one is looking horizontally through many miles of heavily-traveled airspace – and just the tiniest hint of a green flash.

Next stop: the 60-inch telescope. In 1908, this was the world's biggest telescope. Its mechanical parts were made by the Union Iron Works of San Francisco, and narrowly survived the 1906 earthquake. The same Union Iron works was more familiar with shipbuilding (the kind of technology needed in those days to make big steel precision structures like this). Union Iron Works built a few famous warships, including the cruiser USS Olympia, Dewey's flagship at the Battle of Manila Bay, and the bigger battleship USS Oregon which also saw action in the Spanish-American War off Cuba. It was the Oregon's high-speed dash around Cape Horn that made a strong popular case for building the Panama Canal. So if all those exposed boltheads and rivets on these telescope mountings look like something out of the days of riveted iron dreadnoughts and huge canal locks, that's why.

In 1917, the 60-inch was superseded by the 100-inch a few yards away, then in 1948 by the 200-inch on Mt. Palomar. All three – plus the 40-inch refractor at Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin – were the work of one man, George Ellery Hale. I've been reading some books on the history of Palomar, and of Hale, and the man was one of the most unlikeable nutcases to be found in the annals of science. Apparently his advisor on the building of large telescopes was a little red elf. The way he treated, and eventually cast off, visionary telescope maker George Willis Ritchey, is just another cautionary tale from the book “Never Work for Crazy People.” 

Then, with a thunderous crash, night fell. And we of the tour group had the 60-inch all to ourselves (with some staffers who actually knew what they were doing as Designated Telescope Drivers). Yes, it, and the drivers, can be rented for the night. It's not terribly expensive if one gets some friends together. Now, I've looked at Google Earth, and measured the horizontal distance from the 60-inch dome to the outskirts of well-built-up Pasadena. It's about 3 miles (plus a mile straight down). So close to the lights of the Los Angeles Basin, you'd expect to see a sky washed out by streetlights. Not this time. A layer of clouds rolled in. below us, completely socked in the LA Basin, and you could see the Milky Way above. Looking over the edge of Mt. Wilson, you coudn't even tell there was a city down there. Eventually, about 1 AM, high clouds rolled in from the north, and that was the end of our observing session.

The next day was one of talks and seminars on telescopes, imaging, and solar observing. In the evening, more telescopes were set up in the Meade factory parking lot, and there was a raffle. For the first time I can remember, I won something – a Meade DSI Pro II monchrome camera and color filter set. (I see the price has dropped way down since I got this – as with the original DSI, Meade must be dumping them, just prior to killing the product). Many of the images I've posted here in the past year have been shot with that camera. David Levy was also signing copies of his latest book, Star Trails. I got one, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Click on thumbnails for larger view.

David Levy, Scott Roberts, Don Nicholson, 100-inch

100-inch telescope. To give some idea of size, note 1950s era “Bud console” bolted to side; that takes standard 19-inch rack mount electronic panels.

100-inch telescope

David Levy, 100-inch telescope

100-inch telescope

150 ft. solar tower telescope image

150 ft. solar tower telescope image

150 ft. solar tower telescope image

150 ft. solar tower telescope image, near sunset. Note slightest trace of “green flash”

150 ft. solar tower telescope image, near sunset. Note slightest trace of “green flash”

150-ft solar tower telescope

60-inch telescope

Your basic battleship technology, circa 1908

60-inch telescope

Edwin Hubble's locker in the base of the 100-inch.

... and Fritz Zwicky's locker. Presumably, the only one not filled with “spherical bastards.”

Alas, I may have gone on the last-ever Meade Hands on the Sun junket to anywhere. Scott Roberts, the ebullient, enthusiastic Meade spokesman and astronomical ambassador to the outside world, jumped, fell, or got pushed off back in January '08, and the company's public face has been absent ever since. He has started his own company, Explore Scientific, and David Levy seems to have shifted over as well.

Meade the company is currently sliding down the Great Razor Blade of Life on the bones of its butt, and does not appear to have what it takes to survive in this economy. I could write a book about all the mistakes, mis-cues, flat-out lies and general outrages perpetrated by this company – the latest was today, when I discovered that they had billed my credit card for $600 for telescope parts, which they haven't shipped and can't ship because they're backordered. I suppose I'll never see those parts, but I have been trying to lay in a supply of spare parts because my guess is that the company is not long for this world. The person who promised me that he, personally, would see to it that I got the parts, today basically said it's no longer his baby as he now works in the shipping, not customer relations, department (basically like Dr. Strangelove's Gen. Buck Turgidson, “I told you never to call me here.”) In the background I could hear the irritating beep of a forklift in reverse, and, so help me, somebody singin' de blooz. So, tomorrow, I have to see if they really did reverse the charge, as promised, or whether I have to have my credit card company do it. Never, ever, in 30 years of using this credit card, and spending many tens of thousands of dollars on thousands of purchases, have I needed to dispute a charge, or even had to consider doing so. As a company, Meade is so incompetent they couldn't sell toilet paper in a diarrhea ward. It's sad, but life – and telescopes, and astronomy, and even the universe – go on. There are better telescopes, and better companies, and better people out there. My sincere advice right now for anybody in the market for this sort of thing is... Don't buy a Meade telescope.

February 27, 2009

Moon and Venus conjunction

Just photographed the conjunction of the Moon and Venus at twilight this evening.

Time 18:11:21, Kodak P850 digital camera, set at maximum (digital) zoom, 72 mm, equivalent to 432 mm telephoto on a conventional 35 mm film camera. 1/4 sec, f/3.7, ISO 50. Tweaked and cropped in Photoshop CS.

February 23, 2009

A glow-in-the-dark eyepiece?

The Edmund catalogs of the 1960s showed a third surplus eyepiece – a 38 mm Erfle. Yup, I have one of those too. And no, I never intended to “collect the whole set.” It just turned out that way. Probably because Edmund saturated the market for this sort of thing. (And because World War II was so popular – much more so than newer-model wars).

The price is interesting – $19.50 + $3.95 for the (too-small) 1.25” adapter, in 1967 dollars. In today's money, that's nearly $150.

Along with the other eyepieces in the group, I have had this one since sometime in the 1970s. It is obviously military surplus (olive drab paint is always a giveaway), but from what? I never knew until recently. Something off a tank, I thought. And I never used it until recently, and thereby hangs a tale.

In a fit of boredom, at some point I decided to pull this out of the old-optics cabinet and make a proper adapter to fit this onto a standard 2-inch telescope eyepiece holder. And a fine job it turned out to be, too – wonderful tight-fitting threads and all. Justifiably smug, I posted a message and a photo on an astronomy newsgroup.

Somebody came back with a message that “Be careful there, some of those things are radioactive.” Huh? Radioactive? What the heck? Some kind of joke? So I did some digging. No joke. Back in the 1940s, “our friend the atom” was all the rage, and atomic this and nuclear that were great selling points. In the optical field, lens manufacturers used optical glass containing thorium to get high refractive indices. (Today, we would use non-radioactive rare-earth glass). It was just a minor side effect that this also made the glass mildly radioactive.

Well! How to find out if it is, or isn't? My first stop was the local fire department. In this day of post - 9/11 Security Theater (now we can all fly barefoot and thirsty) and mega-budgets dedicated to blessed Homeland Security, all to protect Mother Rus... I mean, the Homeland, and what with the supposed threat of them there dirty bums and all, you'd expect a well-equipped, well-endowed California fire department in a heavily taxed upscale suburb to at least have a Geiger counter, no? Well, no. “Oh, we threw all that stuff out last year.” Great. So glad my tax dollars get thrown into the dumpster. Wait! I know! We'll give them more money to protect us against invisible terrors! Never mind. A call to an even more upscale suburb's fire department got the suggestion that I call a local “hazardous materials disposal company.” Uh, no thanks. Those people are certifiably crazy. Who else would run around in a bunny suit all day? 

Then a nurse I know suggested the radiology department at a large hospital, and put me in touch with the department head. I took the lump of glass-and-brass in and told him my story. “So, you think it's radioactive, huh?” (Another nutcase, he thinks. They're always bringing in radioactive rocks, radioactive crockery, radioactive tinfoil beanies...) “Why do you think it's radioactive?” Well, it's something I read on the Internet. “Oh, the Internet, eh?” Humor me, I said. “Well, we can tell pretty quickly if it is or isn't.” A technician comes in with a Geiger counter (good thing they don't talk to the fire department) and whaddya know, it hits on the eyepiece. It turns out that what's coming out are alpha particles – essentially, helium nuclei. So how dangerous is this eyepiece? The doc said “Well, if we had a radiation therapy patient emitting this amount of alpha particles, we'd send him home but suggest he or she not sleep right next to the spouse or family pet until it diminishes. You probably shouldn't put your corneas right up against this for hours on end.” He also added that there was no known epidemiological link between World War II tank gunners and, say, cataracts – but I wonder if anybody had ever looked for one, that's so far out in left field. It's clear that the radioactive nature of this stuff was not obvious to the people buying and selling this surplus after the war. The doc pointed out that alpha particles are easy to stop – even tissue paper would do it. I suppose I could make a clear-glass window on the eye side that would stop all of the particles. But one side effect of radiation from the thoriated glass is that stuff in the optical path turns yellow over many decades – and inside, this eyepiece is so deeply yellow-brown, it looks like it has a “warming filter” in it somewhere. Making it kind of useless at nighttime on a telescope.

Outside the world of cost-no-object military optics, thoriated glass was quite popular for a while, and was used in some well-known consumer lenses – some Pentax Takumars for example.Also some of the war surplus Kodak Aero Ektar recon camera lenses. (Update 2/25: add some Yashicas to the list). It's unclear (so to speak) whether it's the glass itself that turns yellow, or the Canada balsam cement. This is an Erfle eyepiece so it has 3 lens groups, the ad says 5 pieces of glass, so 2 layers of optical cement and lots of glass. There are discussions online that indicate long-term exposure to ultraviolet radiation (like, sunlight on a windowsill) will, over several months, bleach these things again. (Update 2/25: Here's another set of cookbook bleaching instructions). So I'm trying that now. I may pop for a UV light source, build a light-tight enclosure, and let that do its thing for a few hours at higher intensity – in effect, build a tanning studio for this WW2 veteran. That project is on hold for now while I just let sunlight do its thing for free.

If it's radioactive, howcome it doesn't fog the film in those cameras? Simple, those alpha particles can't get through the camera housing and other parts, not even a cloth-curtain shutter, to get at the film, and the shutter is open for way too little time for the particles to result in any significant exposure.

So what's it offa? I think this, like the Feb. 5 entry, is from the M70 family of tank gunnery telescopes, used in the M4 Sherman and a few other types. Here is a scan of a US Army document (see about halfway down) on what telescopes were used where. The Feb. 5 eyepiece is not radioctive. This one is. There were quite a few sub-variations of the M70 line, and I think perhaps the 38mm Erfle came from an M71D. This thing weighs in excess of 3 lbs. I suppose in a worst-case scenario, the tank crew could unscrew it and use it to club the enemy into submission. At that weight, for those who regard amateur astronomy as a contact sport, it can certainly beat a more modern over-the-top, wretched-excess eyepiece, the TeleVue Ethos, into submission.

It's interesting that when the M4 Sherman first went into combat, the dinky little M47 and similar telescopes (Feb. 1 entry), small enough to fit off to the side, inside a tank periscope, were considered adequate for gunnery. Prewar American tank doctrine saw armor as a support for infantry, not for tank-on-tank engagements. When faced with late-war German tanks and their 75mm, later 88mm high-velocity guns that could knock out a Sherman from a couple of thousand yards away, the Sherman needed to be able to direct its fire to much greater ranges – hence the much bigger M70 telescopes. (The M47 looks like a half-scale monocular, or perhaps a 1/3 scale spotting scope used backwards; the M70s are about the size and shape of a baseball bat). The M47 telescope was retained in the periscopes, as a wide-field, close-combat and backup instrument.

There was an American tank, actually a tank destroyer, whose mission it was to hit enemy tanks from a long way away, hard enough to penetrate heavy armor. That was the relatively rare M36 Jackson, with a 90mm high-velocity gun (compared to the Sherman's 75 or 76.2 mm). It basically looked like a downsized Tiger II built by Detroit. It would be interesting to find out what the M36 Jackson used for sighting equipment, but I can't find anything online and the book I found on Amazon doesn't list sighting equipment in the index. I would not be surprised to find it was the M71D telescope.

Somebody offered an M71D on Ebay a few weeks ago, at $100 with no takers. Here's some images.

Yup. That sure looks like what I have, plus it has a rubber eyeshield. The white paint was typical for the interiors of tanks – German, American, Russian, British – and it's still done that way today.

What about the other end, the objective? Well, Surplus Shed just happens to have new old stock M71D objective lenses – made by the Bulova Watch Co.

(Now there's a thought. In WW2 there was enough of a skilled industrial base in this country so that watchmakers transferred their talents to precision optics, carmakers built heavy four-engined bombers, wooden gliders, aircraft superchargers, naval guns, and the like. Small tool and die shops made fighter-plane gunsights. If we ever need such skills in the future, how do we retrain a generation of burgerflippers not to stab themselves when they pick up a screwdriver?)

That looks suspiciously like another lens I have in my collection – but that's a shaggy glass story for another day. I'm in the process of turning that into a wide-field camera to acquire satellites for tracking in my bigger scopes.

Update, March 20: I bought that M71D tank telescope that didn't sell on Ebay, for cheap – there's not much call for these since they're not terribly good or useful as telescopes. They are, after all, low-power gunsights with a very small front lens, just big enough to peek out of the armored gun mantlet. It has the same design huge Erfle eyepiece but does not appear to have the yellowing of my other example, so it may not have the thoriated glass and therefore may not be radioactive. The metal parts of the eyepeice were black oxide coated and show some rust; it's not as clean as my olive drab example. It contains a reticle with range markings, presumably in yards, and the legend “76 - M62.” Indicating that the reticle was calibrated for the 76 mm gun firing an M62 “APC” for armor-piercing, capped  projectile. There are slight detail differences in the shape of the metal parts between the two eyepieces, although this telescope is clearly tagged as an M71D, and online images of a different M71D show my other eyepiece design. Probably a difference between subcontractors.

And lest anybody accuse me of being a surplus-optics packrat, note that all of these things get used, somehow. Except the radioactive ones, of course. And maybe even those.

February 5, 2009

Another amazing surplus eyepiece, and a prewar Zeiss turret with Barlow and diagonal

In the previous post, I sang the praises of an ordinary looking eyepiece from the old Edmund catalogs. There were two other military surplus eyepieces on that page. It just so happens I have the second one, too.

This, too, is a pretty amazing eyepiece. Larger, more massive than yesterday's item, longer focal length, huge field of view. It may be my best eyepiece. I haven't seen one of these for sale in ages. I think this may be from a later model tank sighting system, used later in the war than the tiny M47A2 mentioned on Feb. 1. It may be the eye end of an M70-family tank telescope. There were various models and designs.

The thing with all of these surplus optics is that if there were enough of them available after the war for somebody like Edmund to buy them en masse and list them in a catalog, then they were almost certainly used in front-line combat equipment – tanks, planes, warships, artillery units, and the like. These were not laboratory or workshop / optical shop aids.

I got this decades ago, as part of a package. Somebody had kludged this onto a prewar Zeiss Jena eyepiece turret and prism diagonal. I made nice adapters to attach the eyepiece to the standard Zeiss thread of M44 x 1, and to slip into standard 2” focusing tubes. Here it is with an adapter to go on the Zeiss thread of the prism diagonal, and another adapter Zeiss thread to 2” ID barrel. The rubber eyeshield is not part of this, but was another Edmund surplus item of the 1960s-70s. I sent out all the bare aluminum pieces for black anodizing.

Of course the threads on the two faces of the Zeiss diagonal match, so the two adapters can be screwed together to put the eyepeice into a 2” straight-through mode.

While I was on a roll, making precision fine-pitch threads, I figured I might as well make a single-piece eyepiece to 2” barrel adapter. Here it is after anodizing.

The Zeiss turret itself is a pretty amazing gadget. It has the Zeiss-proprietary thread for a big eyepiece (or other accessory), and two smaller, 0.965” eyepiece barrels. I used to think that was a Japanese standard, but maybe they got the standard from somewhere else...

The turret has a built-in, removable negative lens (think “Barlow”) in a threaded brass barrel. This lens is overcoated. If prewar, this must be one of the first examples of antireflection overcoating.

The Zeiss turret design has apparently been around for most of a century. Zeiss has been out of the consumer telescope business for a few years, but in Germany, Baader Planetarium and their U.S. agent, Alpine Astro, still sell M44 (Zeiss) to T2 (Tamron T-mount) adapters. The Zeiss turrets, like these postwar examples, show up occasionally on Astromart. Not cheap.

February 3, 2009

The world's best telescope eyepiece? 

Or, perhaps better said, the world's best telescope eyepiece bargain?

Forty years ago, Edmund Scientific and American Science Center sold a nondescript eyepiece, marked only with its focal length, 1 1/8” (which works out to 28 mm). The catalog listing looked like this:

Note the backstory. Edmund dug into its warehouse full of war surplus optics and put together a telescope eyepiece.

I've had one of these for nearly 35 years, and have compared it, side by side, with modern mass-market eyepieces such as the kit of cheap Chinese-made Erfles marketed by Meade Instruments. The old-crock Edmund eyepiece simply blows the shiny-toy modern ones into the weeds. OK, so the Meade eyepieces aren't exactly “premium quality” – nothing by Meade ever is, nor is it intended to be the best (Meade strives for profitable mediocrity – and, lately, is failing on the “profitable” part) – but they're not universally regarded as total junk, either. They work, and if you never look through a better eyepiece, you'll never know they can be beaten.

The thing with this concoction of surplus optics is its incredible eye relief (see comment on eye relief and military optics, in Feb. 1 entry). And the eye lens is nearly the full diameter of the barrel. As you move your eye in to look for the image, suddenly the metal barrel seems to disappear, and you're looking into a hole full of stars. It's one of the most spectacular eyepieces I've ever used. OK, I haven't used a TeleVue either – but with those, I can't help but think that most of the price is marketing, to the crowd that is convinced “I spent X hundred dollars, it must be the best...” Every hobby has its equipment junkies. Yes, that TeleVue Ethos has a 100 degree field of view and the Edmund “only” 50 – but 17mm focal length and 100 degree field will show only slightly more sky than 28mm and 50 degrees.

Well, I've been looking for another example of that eyepiece for years, at swap meets, on Astromart, on Ebay. Missed a few on Ebay. Finally snagged one, for $40. So, now I have two – and they will be perfect for use in a binoviewer.

Here's the new acquisition, on left, and my old standby, on the right. There are some detail differences in the barrel but the optics are identical as far as I can tell. I checked the focal lengths on my optical bench and they match, at 28 mm.

Edmund still sells something similar. When they ran out of surplus lenses to put in custom barrels, they designed their own, which they call an “RKE” eyepiece. Some RKE history here.

Speaking of old eyepieces, some of the faithful old commercial eyepieces are still available new. Edmund used to sell Orthoscopics and Kellners, made in Japan. When I was a kid I could only afford a 6 mm Ortho and an 18 mm Kellner. I'll never forget my first views of Saturn and the Orion Nebula with these. It turns out that these were, and still are, made by a small (I think family-run) company called Kokusai Kohki. That site has a few species we never see here from that maker, like the Erfles. But University Optics still sells the Orthoscopic type here in the USA. To this day, these are excellent eyepieces for planetary observing, and will outperform some of the whiz-bang hyper-expensive umpteen-pieces-of-computer-generated-glass designs we see out there.

And, if all this talk of eyepiece designs is confusing (what's a Kellner? An Orthoscopic? An Erfle?) here's more than anybody wants to know.

February 2, 2009

Thor's Helmet in narrowband false color

Back to nifty surplus with next post, but first, a news flash – Here's my first try at narrowband color imaging. This is Thor's Helmet, NGC 2359, using the “Hubble color palette” of Sulfur II = red, Hydrogen α = green, Oxygen III = blue.

4 minute exposures through Astronomik narrowband filters, Meade DSI II on Vixen ED80Sf, autoguided with 12” Meade LX200GPS. Total exposure times H α = 164 minutes, O III = 152 minutes, S II = 352 minutes, total more than 11 hours exposure.

February 1, 2009

Fun with surplus optics, Part I

A long ramble, but bear with me. (“Bear with me...” I always liked that expression. It sounds like “Gott mit uns” for outdoorsmen).

Growing up geek in Chicago, one of my haunts was American Science Center, at 5700 Northwest Highway; that address is burned into my memory. Don't bother going there, it's gone. Or it's something else. Whatever it is, a virtual drive past the old place using Google Street View shows that it looks like a cut-rate castle now. (A quick Google search tells us it's now “James Precious Metals Plating.”) The address search also turns up a reference in an odd book about an obscure Chicago-based murder mystery writer, citing a previous name at that address: “American Lens and Photo Company.” That excerpt mentions a “Frank Logan Goodwin, genius, and inventor of the astounding Goodwin Resolving Telescopic Lens, which has split most of the stars in our and other galaxies into “binaries” or double-stars...” Ahem. Well. No lens made is going to split double stars in other galaxies. But never mind that; this must be the source of the “Goodwin Barlow” lenses sold by Edmund Scientific and American Science Center. It goes on: “We continue to get letters... asking where oh where oh where can the astounding double-lens-with-airspace-between device. The answer is, of course, from the American Lens and Photo Company of 5700 Northwest Highway, Chicago, who bought the manufacturing and selling rights, in perpetuity, of this lens from Hazel G. Keeler before her own death.” This mentions that the Goodwin Barlow was popular in the 1950s and '60s. And here's the ad from the 1967 Edmund catalog. Back in '67, $23.50 was a lot of money – about $145 today.

American Science Center lives on, as American Science and Surplus, at another location. Maybe a little less heavy on the surplus than they used to be, but on the other hand, they now have other useful things, like rubber chickens...

Edmund Scienctific Co. of Barrington, NJ started selling optics during the war, and continued on after peace broke out. They left the surplus unissued combat boots, the bayonet sheaths (minus bayonet), and mess kits to the local Army-Navy stores (remember those? almost extinct now) and concentrated on the high-tech stuff. A line that kept them busy for at least two decades. Edmund is still around, with three divisions: the popular science toys and kits, the high-end industrial optics, and the cheap experimenter-grade optics.

American Science Center also had the most wonderful offerings of high-tech military junk. Especially optics, and some electronics. But mostly optics. Stuff like one-meter rangefinders. Torpedo directors. Most of the business end of Norden bombsights. Tank periscopes. And eyepieces, eyepieces, eyepieces.

ASC had a fat catalog. For a 10 year old kid interested in all things science, this was better than the toy section of the Sears, Roebuck catalog. ASC was actually somehow affiliated with Edmund Scientific. The catalogs were identical, except for the wrapper, and ASC carried the full line of Edmund stuff, new and surplus.

I still have a couple of the 1960s ASC and Edmund catalogs.

The one on the right is stamped “De Paul Astronomical Society.” And thereby hangs a tale, too. (For picture of what's left of the De Paul observatory, see my entry for Feb. 7, 2007).

Just recently, Michael Covington mentioned in his blog that he bought some vintage Edmund catalogs. (Which is what brought on this ramble in the first place).

Michael Covington mentions the books written by a fellow named Sam Brown for Edmund (and links back to my own list of Sam Brown articles in Popular Mechanics on how to use a small home shop milling machine and metal shaper). Those were, and are, excellent little books, and over the years I've collected a number of them:

  • Fun with Optics (my first, I think – late 1960s – and the inspiration for a series of science fair projects that eventually got me a couple of college scholarships and took me to the 1973 International Science and Engineering Fair as one of the two finalists from Chicago. The other was a fellow named Tony Maranto, and I wonder where he is now – anybody?) I recently found some of the projects I made from this book back in elementary school. I had actually hand-cut cooling louvers in sheet aluminum, decades before I ever saw it done on hot rods and race cars. It's easier than most people realize.
  • Mounting your Telescope. My dad and I built a succession of scope mounts based on its teachings.
  • Telescope Optics – a recent acquisition, within the last 10 years or so.
  • Collimators and Collimation – bought recently, for the information on using a US Army Air Force N-3C gunsight as a collimator. More on that soon.
  • All About Telescopes – a huge thick book, and it's still available from Edmund.
  • Popular Optics – the most recent acquisition. Also still available. I figure better get them while I can. An excellent, comprehensive guide to practical optics.

That was the thing about Sam Brown's writing style – comprehensive. He could pack into a few pages of Popular Mechanics more useful information than you'd find in an entire chapter of a machine shop textbook. Stuff to get you going now, making Stuff. Brown also wrote a ton of books for the Delta Manufacturing Company (think Norm Abram on TV, and his endless parade of Delta power tools), including a prewar book on paint, and one on boatbuilding. On ABE Books, I see Delta and Sam Brown go back to at least 1934. And The Boat Book was published by Popular Mechanics Press, Chicago, in 1931.

Brown must have been quite a character; I would love to see a biography of him, much as Sky and Telescope recently profiled Roger Hayward, the little-known artist and genius who illustrated “The Amateur Scientist” in Scientific American, as well as the art for John Strong's Procedures in Experimental Physics, and Linus Pauling's The Architecture of Molecules. Also, Hayward was an inventor. The highly popular modern telescope design known as the Schmidt-Cassegrain was patented by Hayward, for military aerial reconnaissance applications in WW2. Today, just about any biggish amateur telescope made by Meade, Celestron, and a few other makers uses this design. Another artist/engineer/inventor of that era comes to mind: Russel W. Porter, who was so instrumental (pun not intended) in starting the amateur telescope making hobby, and whose incredible drawings, made from blueprints years before any actual metal was cut, showed people what the 200-inch Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar would look like.

The thread here is old, surplus optics, American Science Center, Edmund... (Stick to the script, Pete...) Recently, a friend gave me some optics that he couldn't figure out. My friend was using it incorrectly, because “everybody knows” that you look in the small end and point the big end toward the thing you're looking at. And besides, it looks like the GI Joe / Barbiedoll version of a spotting scope. I recognized the unit immediately, from those childhood catalogs. I had never seen this in person but here it was, 40 years later, and I knew exactly where to find it in the catalog:

Here's mine. The backside of the column has a focusing rack cut directly into the shaft. Note red window about halfway, for nighttime reticle illumination.

What do you do with it? Well, for one thing, you can set it up to watch teeny tiny stuff from a safe distance. Like, on this milling machine, cutting a 4 mm wide keyway with a 1/8” cutter. (What I did earlier today).

What can you see in there? Quite a bit, it turns out.

OK, so Edmund sold it as a microscope, but it's obviously military surplus of some sort; so, what did you do in the war, Mike? 

Well, in the war, Mike was an M47A2 telescope. (Note added Feb 14: link taken down because AVG antivirus now reports that the site is infected with something. Didn't do that when this was written). These were mounted vertically inside the M4A1 tank periscope (note adjusting screws for telescope). On its adjustable mount, it looks like this (note machined pads where adjusting screws bear). It was used on the M4 Sherman tank and a few other largish pieces of ordnance. Like this.

(Thumbnail history of Sherman tank optical evolution here).

Designers of military optics prefer huge eye relief, so the user can see something even with the eye a long way from the last glass surface, as in riflescopes – you don't want your eye back there when the gun recoils, or when bouncing around in a moving vehicle. So they could get away with mounting the little erecting telescope inside the can of the tank periscope, and still let the user see an image. And that's how I was able to shoot the image with a hand-held digital camera.

See? Old military surplus can be fun! That's the trouble with modern wars; we don't get all sorts of neat old technical junk trickling down to the surplus market. If you don't get that junk, what's the point of even having a war?

So that's my surplus optics ramble for today. Coming up next: one of the finest eyepieces I've ever used, and Edmund used to sell them for cheap.

January 10, 2009

Autograph hunters

I'm beginning to see why some authors refuse to autograph their books. At least, not unless a publisher or bookstore is paying them for it. 

It's because the people asking for the autograph don't really give a flying fig about the book's contents, or the author, or the special feeling of having a favorite book signed by the author; they just want something to “increase the value” of their “book investment.” 

This week, a friend, acting as an intermediary, sent me a book to autograph for one of his customers. This book. I am not the author, but I translated this way back in 1993. I tried to help the publisher put the word out in the Porsche community (I'll never do that again, not for that publisher – he's been stiffing me on royalties for years), so I took a boxful of books to that year's Morro Bay Porsche 356 meet; I signed most of the copies.

So this book arrived from my friend with a request to autograph it and mail it to the book's owner. Fine. No problem. Happy to do it. Except, when I opened the book, ... I found that I had already autographed this, way the hell back in 1993. Obviously the owner of the book forgot, or didn't care enough to look – just pulled on his “connections” to get another autograph added to the pile. He may never have cracked the book since he bought it 15 years ago.

I have my own small collection of autographed books. I cherish them and don't keep them as “investments.” I have never sold an autographed book from my collection. Some of the autographed books I have that come to mind:

  • Ferry Porsche
  • Paul Frère
  • Derek Bell
  • Hans Herrmann
  • Mano Ziegler
  • Jeff Duntemann
  • David Levy
  • Dr. J. Allen Hynek (one of my professors)

plus many others signed by authors whose books I've translated, plus many others with pages signed by non-authors who have something to do with the book – because they're mentioned in it, or there's a photograph of them in a race car or whatever. I have a copy of John Strong's Procedures in Experimental Physics that was signed by Jacob Rabinow, its previous owner, a famous inventor at (what was then) the National Bureau of Standards. I bought that copy for that specific reason – maybe genius can rub off its pages.

For years now, ABEbooks has listed an autographed copy of a novel written by John Tomerlin, whom I've known since way back in Road & Track days. For all those years now, I've been bugging him to buy it, because, gee, golly, it's autographed, he can't just find an autographed example anywhere, and he should turn around and sell it on ebay at a premium. He wouldn't have to undertake the onerous task of signing it. Or, trying to forge his own signature. He asked the location of the the book. North Dakota. “I think I know whose book that was.” How embarassing – for the original owner.