Category Archives: Geek

Venus Transit 2012

There’s a little black spot on the sun today…

On June 5th, Venus passed directly between the Sun and the Earth. This happens in pairs eight years apart, twice every 120 years or so. The last transit, in 2004, wasn’t visible from Colorado, so I missed it. I did see a transit of Mercury some years ago. That’s not all that rare.

I took this rather cool event as an opportunity take some pictures through my 12.5″ scope. Yes, I have an observatory in my back yard. It doesn’t see too much use these days. I got into astronomy while working at Symantec, and, well, being rather bored. I’m not nearly so bored at Apple (usually!), so astronomy has taken a back seat.

Anyhow, I practiced taking photos a few days ahead of time so that I’d know what I was doing. The best results came from just holding my camera up to the eyepiece. (I put it into manual mode to get the focus right and adjust the shutter speed based on how cloudy the views were.)

Here’s a shot as Venus moves onto the face of the Sun. There were plenty of clouds at that point, but still enough light coming through to get nice shots.

This next one shows Venus fully on the face of the Sun. The clouds were a bit thicker, but some sunspots are easily visible too.

I took this shot directly with my camera, zoomed in at 20x, through a Thousand Oaks filter. The filter lets though more yellow light than the one on my large scope. Kinda pleasing. My large scope has a homemade filter that uses Baader Solar Film.

This is one of the best shots I managed. You can see more sunspots, and the large ones have a clear penumbrae around them. The view through the eyepiece was spectacular at times. Lots of small sunspots were visible, as well as a good bit of granulation across the face.

This last picture as things were getting more cloudy towards the western horizon.

I’d been hoping to get some shots as the Sun set behind the Rockies. Unfortunately, there’s a tree very close to the observatory that obscured the view.

Also on that night, Teresa was entertaining about 40 kids and parents from the robotics team she mentors. A large percentage of them came out to take a peak through the scope. It was very busy at times, and certainly more folks looked through the beast than any other time since I’ve owned it.


Well, I made it back to Florida at 11pm last night for a second attempt at seeing the space shuttle Endeavour make its last flight as STS-134. the launch was scheduled for 8:56 am, and I was supposed to get to the Kennedy Space Center by 3:30 am. Yikes!

I decided to push it a little, stay in a hotel in Orlando, and get a few hours sleep. I turned the lights off at just after 12 pm, but laid there, wide awake, until after 1 am. After waking briefly in a start, thinking I’d overslept, I woke again to the alarm at 4:10. By 4:30 I was on the road. (I’ve since discovered that I left my magic mouse behind. Hopefully, the hotel will ship it back to me soon. I miss it.)

I got to the visitors center at around 5:30. The traffic was light the whole way, just as it was two weeks ago for the last launch attempt.

I ate breakfast at the Orbit Cafe shortly after arriving. For some silly reason, a cheese omelet sounded good. Actually, it still sounds good. But that was easily the closest I’ve ever come to eating cardboard. Cardboard filled with cheese wiz.

After breakfast, I wandered around a bit. I took another look in the Explorer shuttle mockup. It still impresses me at how big the thing is. Or rather, how big the shuttle bay is. Much bigger than a school bus. (Volume-wise. Lengthwise, it’s probably about the same.)

I then wandered over to the NASA briefing area and sat and watched the video coverage for a bit when a guide came in with some news. They still had tickets for sale to view the launch from the causeway. Everyone in the room (it was mostly empty) got up and high-tailed it over to get in line for the busses. For $20 more, I’d get to see the shuttle on the launch pad. Woo hoo!

I got in line with older gentleman who also came over from the briefing room. We got to talking, and spent most of the next few hours hanging out together. His name was Wayne, and he’d worked at the space center in the early 60’s. Not only did he see a bunch of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo launches while working there, but he told a story about being pulled out of work one day to go wait in the parking lot for some mysterious reason. After a bit of waiting and wondering, a limo drove up, and President Kennedy got out and gave a short speech. That’s a bit different from my recent experience with a president at the space center.

We waited on the bus for about 30 minutes before they brought us over to the causeway, getting there around 8am. It’s only a mile closer, but the view was perfect! (OK, 6 miles out is still a looong ways away, but it was very easy to see what you were looking at.)

Wayne had a radio (VHF, maybe), so we could get the full update on launch status. Weather was always a risk. They’d been worrying about wind initially, but it was flat calm. Unfortunately, there was a low layer of clouds just starting to move over the launch site when we arrived. We were hoping it would pass completely by before the launch, but that didn’t happen.

As launch time approached, I was impressed at how quiet it was in the crowd. Every now and then, someone, like Wayne, would give some status, and you’d here it make it’s way across the crowd. As a hold at T-9 minutes was approaching its end, we heard them cycle through all “go/no-go” calls for each different aspect. Finally, when they got to weather, it was a “go”!

One of the coolest things to happen as the launch got closer, was that people turned to the other folks nearby and let them know what they were planning to do at launch time. I was behind a couple of guys with cameras with huge lenses, and they pointed out where they’d be standing, and where they’d be holding their arms. Another man said that he would be picking his son up and putting him on his shoulders. Imagine having that happen right as you’re trying to get your perfect photo? Very cool how everyone understood how everyone else around them would feel if their once-in-a-lifetime viewing opportunity were ruined at the last moment.

Then the launch!If you look closely, you can see the initial steam and exhaust as the main engines fired. I took this with my iPhone. I should have waited another couple of seconds before clicking. Here’s a closeup:

It’s hard to describe. I’ll eventually put up my video. [It’s here.] It’s not too bad considering that I was trying hard to view through my eyes, and not worry about the perfect shot.

But there were a few things that stuck out. It was bright. Really bright. We were looking somewhat towards the rising sun, and my eyes still needed to adjust to the brightness. It was really, really bright.

Wayne was taking pictures with a handheld Nikon D7000. He got some amazing shots. Here’s a pic from my iPhone of the screen on his camera. It’s totally amazing that the CCD didn’t saturate due to the brightness. That’s one heck of a camera. This capture of his shot doesn’t come close to showing the quality. You could zoom on his shot and see pretty good detail of the shuttle.

We started to hear it a bit before the shuttle hit the low lying clouds. It wasn’t very loud at first. But it got louder, and then louder. You could feel it. What a rumble! Wayne mentioned that that was one of the loudest shuttle launches he’s been to, and that it varies a lot depending on the wind.

The sight of the shuttle going into the clouds was one of the coolest parts. The clouds really lit up around it. I can only imagine how bright that was for the astronauts on board!

The next bit was disappointing. After hitting the clouds, there wasn’t much left to see. Every now and then it would peek through the clouds, but for the most part you only knew it was there by the sound. On a clear day, you’d normally get to see the solid rocket boosters separate and fall away. And on the best of days, Wayne said that you can track it nearly to the horizon. That’d be a sight!

A few minutes later everyone started packing up and heading back to the busses and cars. A little less than an hour later, we were back at the visitors center.

My flight wasn’t until 5:30, so I figured I had enough time to hang out for a bit. Wayne had been telling me that the Hubble 3D IMAX movie wasn’t to be missed, so we got in line. Unfortunately, it wasn’t for another hour, so we went to the 10:30 showing of the Space Station movie, also in 3D. It was still pretty impressive. You got a real feeling for the tight quarters up there. Sure, the ISS is much bigger now than when the movie was filmed, but jeepers, I’m not sure I could handle it.

People had been warning me that it might take 5-6 hours to get back to Orlando, so I figured I better head out after the movie. Just like our last trip, it took less than an hour to get there. This time, I think I left before most other people. The parking lots were still very full. Two weeks ago, I think we left after almost everyone else.

Since I was there so early, I decide to get some BBQ for lunch at Sonny’s, just north of the airport. I’m still hoping to find some BBQ outside of Colorado that comes close to KT’s and The Rib House. Still, nothing has come close.

Once at the airport, I figured I should try to get onto an earlier flight. The one at 3:50 supposedly had no room, so I got on the standby list. And luckily, I made it onto the plane.

So, overall, a mixed trip. It stinks that the kids couldn’t come back to see the launch. And K and Sparkles too. But it wasn’t the most spectacular of launches due to the cloud coverage. I’m definitely glad I went, but it would have been good to have company (though hanging out with Wayne most of the morning was a pleasure).

Still, thinking back on it, it’s just so cool watching a rocket head up into space. It’s nothing like watching it on TV. On TV, you just don’t get a good feel for the power involved in sending the shuttle up. You don’t get a feel for how much is involved. It seems so humdrum, so ordinary. In person, it just seems amazing. So difficult. An amazing achievement.

(For kicks, Endeavour made the Astronomy Picture of the Day.)

It takes more than math

There’s something in common between the nuclear disaster currently occurring in Japan and the financial meltdown a few years back. Heh. There’s a correlation. And it’s the lack of understanding correlation.

The financial meltdown largely occurred because risky loans were packaged together under the assumption that defaults on individual loans would be uncorrelated. The stupidity of that is mind boggling. Sure, this is hindsight. But someone should have realized is ahead of time. And not just someone – many people should have. There’s really not much excuse here. (There’s such a lack of excuse that it feeds conspiracy theories. Still, I expect it really was just stupidity.)

The same issue occurred with the nuclear “site blackout” problems in Japan. It’s perhaps less obvious that people should have understood this one in advance. And actually, many people were worried about it. It was a known weakness in the plant designs. But they didn’t come up with the scenario that finally occurred. If they had, perhaps the plants would never have been built. Perhaps….

In any case, now I’m worried about how many other things in our society are so poorly understood. We can wrap math around problems, but if the people doing the math don’t understand the reality of those problems, they’re bound to make similar mistakes.

A bit freaked out

I was up late Thursday night watching the news coverage of the 8.9 earthquake in Japan. A friend of mine tweeted about how it was silly that #prayforjapan was trending on twitter. After all, their vengeful god had just caused the quake. Right? Why would he listen to prayers about it?

The videos of Tokyo showed how well the city had withstood the fifth strongest quake in the last hundred years. So I tweeted:

The headline you won’t be reading: “Millions saved in Japan by good engineering and government building codes”. Buts it’s the truth.

(Yeah, the typo in my tweet just pisses me off.)

I noticed a couple of re-tweets before heading to bed, but didn’t think much about it.

The next morning I noticed my iPhone was awake. It was showing notifications of re-tweets – at what looked like about once a second. Yikes! When I checked my email, I had more than 300 new followers on twitter. Eeak!

A few hours later, a friend at work pointed out (and then more friends later), that my tweet was the top news item on Reddit. That freaked me out enough that I went and closed out new followers on twitter.

By the evening I decided to let people follow me again. I actually had a ton of follow requests sitting there on twitter, and didn’t really want to go through them. Surprisingly, most of the requests I did look at looked like real people. I kinda get why people would re-tweet my post. But it’s weird that they’d also follow me. The people I follow are either real friends, friends of friends, famous, or represent a company or topic I’m interested in. I’m just some nerd in Colorado.

Anyhow, I couldn’t have been more wrong in my tweet. As hundreds have now told me, the New York Times did a very good article on the matter quite early on. Kudos to them! And the coverage elsewhere has also been pretty good too.

I almost said “government regulation” instead of “government building codes”. That’s how I really felt about it. I don’t know why I made it more specific. (Damn it, I want my government to regulate stuff!) I expect I wouldn’t have had such a freaky day if I’d said that instead. And for crying out loud, even in the wake of the disaster in Japan, the GOP wants to remove lots of funding for just this sort of stuff.

More programming for kids

While looking through a book on amazon, I was led to Peter Norvig’s site, and to a short, interesting essay. At the bottom of that essay, it lists two languages I haven’t run into before, Alice and Squeak. OK, I have sorta seen Squeak before, since I knew it was part of the One Laptop Per Child project, but that’s about it. The OLPC is a pretty cool idea, and I’d kinda like to get one (and give one). But it’s not much more than a toy until it supports Java… and I’d need it to support Java so that the kids could use it to play Runescape (i.e. use it as a toy!).

Teresa is also looking for a way to teach some kids programming as part of the robotics club she’s mentoring. Perhaps one of these languages would work….

Make a what?

Some months ago, I first heard about a new magazine called Make. Well, the other night, we saw it on the shelf at Borders. It had a lot of cool stuff in it. For me, the most interesting article was about putting together a cheap satellite dish for free TV. For Teresa, it was how to build a windmill for generating electricity. Now we both have some summer projects. Since Teresa plans to watch the kids at home this summer, maybe they’ll pitch in too!

In the first issue, there was an article on how to make a video stablizer for $14. If you’ve looked at my skiing videos, you probably think I need to build one!

It’s like crack for kids

Scott and Tim just can’t stop playing/programming with Stagecast Creator. As a parent, you always need something that your kids really love. You need it so that you can threaten them with its removal. Programming is now the drug of choice. Removing it causes withdrawal symptoms. Threat of removal gets instant compliance.

Sarcasm aside, I’ll have to post one of their games soon. The artwork could use some work, but the “tar monsters” and “ninja stars” seem to keep them happy. 😮

Stagecast Creator

Well, I read a paper the other day about teaching programming to elementary school kids, and it mentioned Stagecast Creator as one of the tools it looked at. It actually seems pretty similar to AgentSheets, but it’s more polished, costs only $50, and has a 120 day free trial. The programming is more “by example” (you move things around by dragging them, rather than writing code).

The boys and I spent an hour each of the past two evenings going through the tutorials. They really like it, and the only frustration has been that the tutorials hold your hand so strongly that you can’t experiment while you’re playing with them. That may be a good thing.

More on Programming for kids

This week Timmy, has really been bugging me to teach him to program. He wants to write a video game. Hmmm…. I guess I’d rather he spent his time writing video games than playing them!

One of his questions was how to create a window. Well, he got a bit of an introduction to Interface Builder. Now he wants to work on his program all the time!

Anyhow, I’ve been playing with AgentSheets a little. This is software by Alex Repenning that started out at CU back when I was there too. It looks pretty interesting, but only has a 10 day evaluation, and costs $100. That’s really steep in my view. And honestly, it doesn’t look much different than it did back in the early 90’s. There’s what looks to be a newer version for Windows, but nothing on the site says how it’s different from the Mac version. Sigh….

The latest issue of Wired magazine has an article on the next version of LEGO Mindstorms (also see the nxtbot blog). I caught Tim reading it, so I did too. Looks very interesting, but they won’t be coming out until August or so. That’s a bummer. It would be really nice to have them for the beginning of summer since it’s likely that the boys will be staying home a good deal of the time.

Of course, I should probably be talking to Steve Richards about all this. He’s an old friend from RSI, and started a company called Acroname Inc. Time to invite him to lunch.

Programming for kids

Teresa and I have been trying to figure out how to teach our kids programming. We spent last night’s dinner talking to Scott and Tim about bits and bytes, storing characters, and binary arithmetic. The term “Unicode” even came up.

But we really don’t know how to get things started.

Someone at work recently pointed me at James Gosling’s blog. In an old post, he talks about BlueJ. Perhaps that’s the right direction.

Also, back in grad school, there were a couple of projects going on that were geared towards kids. I need to go figure out what all that was again. (And see what’s been happening since!)