Thursday, January 01, 2009


Rod’s Resolutions

New Year’s Day and Oh My Achin’ Head Time. Again. Your Old Uncle Rod was fairly sensible this New Year's Eve; at least he didn’t run amok or say anything acutely embarrassing to anybody. I think, or at least hope, those years are over, thank God. Heck, it’s all I can do at my advanced age to stay awake long enough on New Year's to see the ball drop on Eastern Standard Time, muchachos. I was quite well behaved, if I do say so myself. There was but one teeny-weeny misstep: mixing Margaritas and chimichangas from my favorite Mexican restaurant, El Giro’s down at The Loop, with a few glasses of bubbly later. Don’ tell me I’m getting too old for that kinda foolishness; believe me y’all, this morning my body assures me of the veracity of that fact!

A hurting head and thoughts of “I’ll never do that again” (till next year, of course), just naturally lead to thoughts of clean slates and RESOLUTIONS, New Year’s resolutions. Me? Like most folks, I find it’s easy to make ‘em and equally easy to break ‘em. Especially if I never go back and review what I swore so vehemently to uphold by the light of a January First Sun (I don’t think there’s an astronomical reason for it, but, nevertheless, today’s Sun seems mucho brighter than normal—or is it jus’ me?). Sometimes it is good to go back and take stock of “how I did.” Not necessarily in the realm of “I’m a-gonna lose 20 pounds” or “I am never, ever gonna touch Taaka vodka again”—who’s gonna keep promises like that?—but in the realm of astronomical resolutions. Astronomical resolutions? In addition to to resolving to be more attentive to pore ol’ Aunt Lulu, don’t you also find yourself in the habit of making pronouncements about where you will be going in our beloved avocation in the coming twelve months?

Last few days, I started thanking about the astro-resolutions I made last (like every) year—and was foolish enough to commit to paper. How’d I do this time? Any better than that short-lived decision to quit the Taaka? “Lucky” me, I have a blog where these resolutions of mine are unwisely preserved, so it was simple to pull up that damned list and bounce ‘em against reality.

I Resolve to spend more time lookin'g through telescopes than talking about ‘em.

Well that is a good idea. These days with the Interwebs and all them online scope merchants and equipment discussion groups, it is all too easy to begin to fall into the role of telescope (or eyepiece or whatever) collector rather than user, and do everything with yer gear BUT turn it loose on the sky. That can not only be counterproductive, but can most certainly lead the unwary into dangerous territory. Like the folks who get into the unfortunate habit of cleaning the dadblamed primary or objective or corrector ever’time the stinking flashlight test reveals a minute speck of dust. Or those poor souls who decide the idea of “flocking” the inside of their SCT’s tube and baffle, something they have heard so much about on the Cloudy Nights or Astromart Forums, is a right good idea—and wind up with contact paper stuck to the surface of one or both mirrors.

The way you avoid such frustrating and foolish fixations is to point your telescope at the sky every chance you get. Do that, and it becomes more a tool than an objet d’art. A scratch on an OTA or a setscrew blemish on a Nagler barrel is no longer a disaster, but a memory: “That? Got that little nick when a dust-devil chunked a rock at the scope at the 1999 Texas Star Party.” 

Whatever. Let’s cut to the chase. Did I spend more time this year than last year observing? I confess I spent more time than I would have liked sitting on my butt in front of the computer or the TV set. But I plead innocence in part. This year started off just ducky weather-wise. I even got a crack or three at the Realm of the Galaxies before the Spring Storms rolled in. But by April the Great God Thor sure was swinging his hammer. No, we didn’t get hit by a major Gulf Storm this season, but there were enough brushes and near misses to ensure I spent most evenings looking at the undersides of clouds.

I probably coulda taken a little better advantage of the clear skies we had, but I am pretty satisfied at what I did accomplish. This past October, for instance, I spent a week down in Chiefland doing visual work with Old Betsy, followed the next week by more of the same at the Deep South Regional Star Gaze. I also headed to our Club Darksite every clear, or even just “OK,” dark of the Moon. And I took my university astronomy students out with their scopes each pretty class meeting night. If there is a place I need to clean up my act in this regard, it’s the backyard. Yeah, I’ve too often been guilty of using this hoary ol’ excuse: “Can’t seen nothing back there with all the lights and trees.” Me. Mr. Urban Astronomer’s Guide. Bull-puckey. There is still plenty to be seen despite trees, clouds, and sodium streetlights. I’ve got a StarBlast, and she is strategically positioned next to the backdoor. I Resolve to get out that door with her more often in 2009.

I Resolve that if there’s a Moon in the sky, I will give her the attention she so richly deserves.

Lovely Luna has always been a favorite target for my eye and camera, but I admit I neglected her this year. Y’all don’t have to tell me what I’ve been missing, either. I know good and well that even after almost 45 years of admiring her glowing countenance I still see something new every time I take the time to point a telescope at her. The good news? I began turning this one around as 2008 began to wane. One thing I did to renew my interest? I love Rukl’s Atlas of the Moon, but after usin’ that tool for—what? 20 years now?—I decided it was time to dig a little deeper. I did that, as you might expect these days, with a computer.

What has done more to expand my Lunar horizons than anything else is a wonderful piece of freeware by Patrick Chevalley and Christian Legrand, Virtual Moon Atlas. Not only is the program’s beautiful and interactive Moon much more detailed than a print-atlas on the scale of the Rukl work can be, it is supplemented by images from such professional (and formerly hard for amateur LUNAtics to obtain) sources as The Lunar Aeronautical Charts. VMA ain’t the only resource for computerized Moonwatchers, neither. Not only are many of the formerly forbidden resources now a click away on the Internet, quite a few pro atlases are also available on CD for next to nothing. Two I use the most are the Digital Lunar Orbiter Photographic Atlas and the Consolidated Lunar Atlas. One particularly wonderful thing about using a computer for Lunar mapping duties? I can finally easily orient the image to match the Moon’s appearance in my SCTs. Even if you don’t care to tote a laptop into the field for “mere” Moongazing, it’s pretty easy to print a properly oriented chart. I’m not exaggerating when I say VMA and these other modern marvels have almost made Hecate into a new Moon for me, so this here is not a Resolution I think I am gonna have a problem keepin’.

I Resolve to be more understanding when it comes to novice amateurs and my astronomy students. I will not use the words “you dunderhead” anywhere in my answers to their questions.

I tried, I really tried. I think I was reasonably understanding with my students, even those who explained away an absence or three with the sad news that their poor grandmother just passed on. Their fourth grandmother this semester. Shortly after the spring break it always seems the grannies start dropping like flies. Novice club members? I think I did pretty well in that regard, too. Not only did I not get annoyed with the usual questions (“Uncle Rod, I’m sure nobody’s ever asked this before, but WHICH IS BETTER, THE CELESTRON OR THE MEADE?”), I believe I’ve finally learned when to help and when to leave ‘em alone and let ‘em help themselves (just as important).

Where did I not do so well? With a woodenhead down to the club. Luckily, none of the regular members fits that description. Unfortunately, though, we do have one quasi-member who does. The person in question was a fairly regular fixture at Possum Swamp Astronomical Society meetings a decade and a half ago or so. This worthy, whose name shall remain anonymous, did stick in my mind, however, by virtue of her being one of those folks at the club (every club has one or more) who fit into what I call the “gimme” profile.

These people are never, ever willing to do anything at all for their club or their fellow members; their sole interest is the takeaway. “What are y’all gonna do for me?” Not only was this character in that group, but was often quite impatient and indignant when we didn’t come across with the goods—advice, loaner scopes, observing opportunities, interesting programs at club meetings—quickly enough.

Just my luck, but who should show up at one of this past year’s darksite hoedowns but You-Know-Who, who shall henceforth be known as Goober Pea, “GP.” Despite not having been a paid-up member in who knows how long, GP waltzed onto the observing field for our Members Only Star Party without so much as a Howdoyedo. I don’t enjoy being a hardass in situations like this—never have. I figured she would behave, and I don’t mind an occasional “guest” at the site. You never know…maybe this one had turned over a new leaf, was genuinely interested, and would soon be a valued member of the PSAS. Maybe I’d been mistaken all along. Ha!

Daughter Lizbeth and I set about preparing for a long night of long exposure imaging. It was a little chilly, but the skies were, for once, joyously clear, the SBIG camera was cooled, and Lizbeth was soon showing that she didn’t inherit her ol’ man’s lack of computer skills. Just as we were winding up the last 10-minute subframe of our first target around about 8pm, it seemed Goober Pea had had enough.

Not only did this pea-brain fire up her parking lights, headlights, and backup lights in quick succession, but also became confused as to which way was “out” and soon had a hulking pile of Detroit Iron pointed directly at me and Lizbeth. Our shot was ruined, and GP missed our scope (and us) by no more than 6-feet—that was the way it looked to us, anyhow—on the way to a ditch near the tree line. Not overly surprisingly, GP was just right put out when I waved my arms frantically and yelled in order to stop the jalopy’s further progress toward a large oak, and, in no uncertain terms ordered the vehicle turned around and slowly driven off the field. “I’m just trying to get out of here!” Sheesh.

I was at first a little embarrassed I’d resorted to colorful language and yelling. But not for long. I do Resolve, however, to continue to treat all my students and fellow observers with kindness and consideration. Long as they don’t try to turn me into a road-kill armadillo, that is.

I Resolve to spend more time enjoying the company of my friends at star parties rather than ignoring them in a quest for the ultimate deep sky image.

Alright! Here’s one where Unk can unreservedly say He Done Good. How did I accomplish this feat? Largely by leaving the cameras and computers at home. If you ask me, a star party really ain’t a good venue for that kind of thing, anywho. All it accomplishes is that it makes you into a bear—somebody shows too bright a red light and your blow your top—and impels you to ignore your friends and loved ones, who, as I’ve said before, are one of the main reasons you go to a cotton-pickin’ star party. Don’t you actually want to say at least a few words to the buddies you only get to see once a year at the Hoot Owl SP?

When did I turn over a new leaf? The day after a major star party when Miss Dorothy intoned, “You know, Rod, you really weren’t much fun to be around.” Ouch. Thinking about it, my best star partying memories are not of taking one more shot of NGC Umptysquat, but of the good times I’ve spent in the company of my wife, my best friend Pat, and the other folks near and dear to Your Old Uncle. OH, I still do do some purty serious visual work at some star parties, but I save that for the wee hours. What really helps me keep this one? I have a decent darksite where I can hunt take pix twice a month if I want to.

I Resolve to do some good presentations for my club’s monthly meetings rather than complaining about the lack of ‘em.

I think I did my share here. And I think we have the presentation thing purty well licked down at the PSAS. Like most clubs, we used to struggle to come up with ideas for programs and then find folks to do ‘em. Till we hit on the idea of Monthly Constellations. This is the core of our program each meeting, and was thunk-up by one of our most active (and knowledgeable) members, now gone from this plane, unfortunately for us. What he did was come up with the idea that every single meeting somebody would do a presentation on a constellation currently well-placed for observing. This talk could consist of a discussion of the star-pattern’s mythological background, its visual features, the deep sky objects within its boundaries, or all of the above. To this end, he presented the club with a star-emblazoned report cover folder (from the Possum Swamp Wal-Mart) containing a sign-up sheet of his devising with blanks for names, dates, and constellations.

Every meeting following the Monthly Constellation, the folder is handed off to a volunteer. This person enters their name and the name of the constellation they will “do” at the next meeting. We preach the near-sacred significance of this modest looking cardboard folder to newbies. They are told in no uncertain terms that once it is accepted it must be returned at the next meeting and they must give the presentation they’ve signed up for. This obligation can only be escaped in the case of direst emergency. Even then, if at all possible, arrangements must be made to hand the Monthly Constellation Folder off to someone else before the meeting in time for that person to prepare a presentation.

Does this sound a mite draconian? It’s really not; it’s actually fun. And it has worked for us when nothing else would—for years, now. Not only are folks doing some pretty fancy-dan PowerPoints, they are expanding-out to pontificate on things like astrophotography and astrometry of “their” constellation’s objects. Doing programs down to the club has become familiar and natural. We now often have members volunteering to give other talks at meetings—without prompting. In the bad old days, “Who’ll do the program next time?” was invariably met with cold and stony silence.

I Resolve to continue to support our great nation’s bourbon whiskey distillers.

Again, I done my duty. Only slight flies in the ointment? First, the local greenfront stores ain’t been getting Rebel Yell in with every shipment. Often I’ve had to go to my fallback, Jim Beam. Dang. Despite what you may think, Unk is not just a fan of the—uhhh—“bargain brands,” either. He also has some appreciation of what some folks call the Good Stuff. He was initiated by the gift (from some fans of one of my books) of a bottle of Knob Creek.

Had to admit it: good stuff. Smooth…I mean SMOOTH—though I usually prefer a bourbon that you know you drank when you drink it (with Yell that comes in the form of a metaphorical kick upside the head). Still, like I said, fine whiskey. I soon developed an image of Knob Creek Distillery in my mind. Way up yonder in the mountains. Two or three short-tempered and exacting hillbillies running the place. Barrels shipped out on mules. Imagine, then, my disappointment when I was informed, via a History Channel program on bourbon, that Knob Creek is just Jim Beam’s premium brand (!). It is still good whiskey, maybe even great whiskey, but it just ain’t the same for me.

I Resolve to support the flagging amateur astronomy industry (folks, it has not been a good year for the amateur astronomy biz) by buying gear like a madman.

Again, no slacker was Unk. To the tune of a pair of Ethoses (I do not like the precious plural some folks are using, “Ehtoi;” that sounds like some character out of a fancy-pants ballet). I plan to do more this year, god willin’. There is now the 17 and will soon be a 6. Scopes? I don’t reckon I need any scopes at this time…but two that have recently piqued my interest are Meade’s upcoming ETX-LS 6-inch SCT and Obsession’s 18-inch Ultra Compact. Must Not Remove Credit Card from Wallet!

I Resolve to try my best to get the quarterly issues of Skywatch on the street at least at some point during the season for which they are dated.

Didn’t do too well there. My excuse? Mainly that I had a book, Choosing and Using a New CAT, to put to bed. That done, I did get a new issue of the little ol’ newsletter from Chaos Manor South on the streets late last month. And you know what? It was fun. For the first time in a long time doing Skywatch was fun. Maybe I just needed a break. Anyways, I’ll indeed try to do four this year. Course that depends a lot on y’all. If you contribute lotsa good articles and pictures, that will make doing Skywatch as easy as falling off a mule-drawn Knob Creek wagon.

I Resolve not worry about taking down the Christmas Tree in Chaos Manor South’s front parlor till Twelfth Night.

Done. I ain’t worrying about it. Funny thing, y’all. I always have lots of volunteers to decorate the (big) tree ‘round here. For the Undecorating? Not so much.

All in all, I think I did right well this past year. Next year? Same Bat Time, same Bat Channel and we will find out. Till then (or really just till the next edition of this here ‘Blog on Sunday the 11th), have a good one, eat plenty of blackeyed peas, nurse them hangovers, and when you feel human again, at least think about getting them scopes into the backyard.

I admire your support of the national bourbon industry. I follow that course myself, when not behind the wheel of the big truck.
I suppose Yell could be considered a head slammer, but at my advanced age (just a few behind you) I have to recommend you to what I treat myself with, and that is Maker's Mark. Very smooth, and the bomb goes off in your belly, not your head.
Happy New Year, Rod.
Doug Bailey (doug76 on CN)
Stumbled on your comments about the Virtual Moon Atlas, and the miraculous generosity of the Saints who maintain that program, for free, no less. I was just about to open that program up, to confirm whether my eyes were decieving me where the terminator was, sweeping over the western Sea of Tranquillity. It's good to know great minds think alike.


Joel R
On whiskey--I don't indulge all that often, but my favorite is Jack Daniels, because I'm a caver, the spring from which the whiskey is made comes from a cave, and I toured the distillery once and was impressed.
Second place is Jameson, a fine Irish Whiskey.
For what it's worth, my late father liked Old Grandad (it was his annual Christmas present once I turned 21). I haven't seen it on shelves in a long time (the 70s), but that might be because I live in the Southwest where some varieties of whiskey like Rebel Yell are harder to come by.
Take it for what it's worth from an Astronomy Friend.
I learned years ago the astroimaging is best done as a solitary activity. Star parties are great for sharing views, and looking thorough other people's telescopes. To me that is the most fun activity when in an astronomy club.

I resolve to do more public speaking this year, if I can afford to get to the venues....the Saturn Observation Campaign is still going strong, as Cassini is in its extended Equinox Mission...
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