Stan’s Obligatory Blog

Happy Thanksgiving

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9/22/2014

That’s a big telescope

Filed under: — stan @ 5:50 pm

Tonight’s adventure was a trip up Mt. Wilson with the Obscura Society for an evening of looking at the stars with the 60-inch telescope. We headed up to the top of the mountain, where we were met by our guide, Shelley Bonus. She led us in to the telescope and told us the history of it while we were waiting for nightfall. And once it was fully dark, we were able to get started. And since Matt from the Obscura Society had suggested bringing baked goods along for the evening, I brought a batch of my blue-ribbon-winning chocolate cookies. They disappeared fast, so I guess that’s a good sign.

Shelley explained that the telescope has its strong and weak points. It’s great for observing stars and small star clusters. Because it has such a long focal length, it is best run at what would be considered impossible magnifications for a small amateur telescope. There was one night back in 1997 when the air was very still and I was able to run my 8-inch Celestron up to 300X. But normally, about 100X is as far as I can go. But with the 60-inch, we were routinely running close to 400X, and the image in the eyepiece was rock-solid and clear.

We started out with Epsilon Lyrae. Splitting the two double stars is a test of the resolving power of any telescope, and the big telescope did it easily. And while we were in the neighborhood, we had a look at M57, The Ring Nebula. This is another thing I’ve looked at with my telescope, but it was much bigger and more detailed here. We also had a look at the Dumbbell Nebula, but it wasn’t such a great sight. It’s a relatively large object, so it didn’t fit well into the field of view a high magnification.

We looked at a couple of globular clusters, which were very nice. They actually looked like balls of stars, rather than the round patches of fuzz they look like in smaller telescopes. And we ended the evening with a look at Neptune. It was nice and big and blue, and its moon Triton was clearly visible. Triton has a visual magnitude of about 13, which is beyond the reach of my little 8-inch telescope, but it was obvious here.

All in all, it was a good evening of nerdy fun.

Addendum: I didn’t make the connection until the next day, but I knew Shelley before. Back in 1990, I took a class at UCLA Extension called “How to Perform Stand-Up Comedy”, and she was the instructor. But because it had been so long, and being in a completely different context, I didn’t put it all together at the time. But in any event, it was a very weird coincidence.

9/19/2014

Tower running

Filed under: — stan @ 9:47 pm

Friday evening was time for the stair climb up the U.S. Bank building in downtown Los Angeles. 75 floors, and 1,664 steps to the top. I know. I counted them.

In contrast to past years, I wasn’t thinking about trying to prove anything this time. I just wanted to go up in a non-embarrassing time, and to enjoy seeing all my stair-climbing friends in the process. So my goal was to do about 15 minutes or so, since that’s a reasonably relaxed pace in my book.

I had to leave work a little early to get downtown for my schedules 4:00PM start time. When I was getting signed in, I got a message from Kathleen that she was starting up the stairs. Her start time was 3:30, so I thought that we might come out at the top at close to the same time. So I got changed and headed down to the starting line. When I got there, I was the only one there. That was decidedly weird. Usually, there’s a long line to wait in, but I just walked up to the start and went in.

I was aiming for five floors per minute, and I was able to maintain that pace pretty easily. Unlike other years doing this, there was very little traffic in the stairwell. One guy passed me soon after the start. I caught and passed him again about 30 floors later. And along the way, I passed a handful of people. I passed Kathleen somewhere in the high 50s. At that point, I was still on my pace, but my shoe had come untied at about 35, and by 58, I had to stop and retie it before it fell off. So I lost about 30 seconds doing that. But then I just continued on, and I came out on top with a time of something like 15:34. A little slower than I’d wanted, but, as I said, I’m not trying to prove anything.

After just a few minutes, Kathleen came out on the roof. We looked at the view and took a few pictures, and then headed down the other stairway to the big open space on 71. We had some water, took some more pictures. And then we took the elevator back down to the ground.

At the bottom, I saw some friends who had come up from Orange County to do the climb. So I joined them to go up again. By now, there was a line at the start, so we got to talk for a while while waiting to go. And then I went up for the second time. Part-way up, I got a message from Morgan that she, Jason, and Irving were all there. They had finished their first climb, and they were thinking of going again. So I said I’d go again with them as soon as I got back down. And when I got back down, the four of us got back in the line, and we headed up again. It’s kind of nice to take a leisurely-paced climb up the building. Not that there’s much scenery or anything, but it’s sort of like hiking up an industrial-looking mountain.

After three climbs up the building, I was done, so we got changed and headed home. It was a fun evening.

9/14/2014

what if?

Filed under: — stan @ 5:52 pm

On Sunday afternoon, we took a trip to Santa Monica to go to a talk and book-signing with Randall Munroe of XKCD. He has a new book out: What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. It’s a collection of his what if? columns, and it’s all very entertaining.

The basic format was a conversation between Randall and Wil Wheaton. They talked about the book, about science in general, told stories, and took questions from the audience. It was a fun time, and at the end, we all lined up to get our books signed by Randall. And I got to thank him for the little bit of geek fame I got from when he mentioned my Pet Project in the mouseover text for this cartoon: http://xkcd.com/723/

8/10/2014

The Kingdom of Rubelia

Filed under: — stan @ 4:15 pm

Today’s bike club ride was our old route out to Glendora. But there was a twist. The Obscura Society had arranged for a tour of Rubel’s Castle. We’ve been by there many times before, but we never had the chance to go inside. So today was the day. And in the end, I was the only one who bought a ticket to take the tour, but Kathleen drove out and met us there, and the two of us went on the tour. Everyone else just went to Classic Coffee and rode home.

Our guide for the tour was from the Glendora Historical Society, which inherited the castle from Michael Rubel when he died in 2007. We started out at the front gate and the entrance courtyard. There was a small barn and a couple of horses there. And chickens. Several chickens just running around the grounds.

The first major stop was the cemetery. Our guide said that nobody was actually buried there, but Michael just thought that a castle should have a cemetery on the grounds. He got the rejects from a local headstone maker, and later on, had some made for himself and other friends who were important in the story of the castle.

At the back of the property, there were some smaller buildings. They had garage space underneath where they had a variety of old cars, tractors, and so forth. Above were apartments, and our guide said that something like seven people live there full-time, and they help with the upkeep.

There was a barbecue pit back there, and a bird bath. The bird bath was run by an enormous engine inside a shed. There was a whole story of how they got the engine and moved it there. The story involved a truck, some dynamite, and gouging the new pavement on Route 66 on the way back to the castle. It was a pretty funny story.

Back outside, we walked under the big water tower next to the windmill that pumped water up from the well to fill it. Then we took a turn through the caboose. There was a lot of train memorabilia all around the grounds, but the caboose was the single biggest piece of it. And then it was time to go into the castle itself.

The castle is built on what remains of a giant concrete reservoir that used to store water for the citrus orchards. In the middle of the castle courtyard, there is a small house that Michael build out of rocks, bottles, and cement. He lived there for many years while building the rest of the castle around it. It was amazing to see just how much went into building the castle. There were weird objects embedded in the walls, and the walls themselves are something like six feet thick, so there are more weird objects embedded inside them that we can’t see. It’s just incredible to see such a monumental structure built out of junk. Just look at the stairs. They are made out of broken pieces of stone that they just scrounged from somewhere or other.

The clock in the big tower struck eleven while we were there. We got to look inside the tower and see the big clock mechanism working. Then we walked around and into the machine shop building that is in the center of the castle courtyard.

The last stop on the tour was the Tin Palace, where Michael’s mother held her big parties. There were more trains in there, and some memorabilia about Sally Rand, since she was one of the famous people who came to the parties there. That room also had the stained-glass painting depicting the story of bring the big engine to the castle.

The castle is a monument to Michael Rubel’s personal obsession, and it’s truly one of a kind. So it was a real treat to finally get to see inside after all these years. And on top of all that, I had a nice bike ride out there and back.

38 miles.

7/18/2014

Marine Mammals and more

Filed under: — stan @ 5:17 pm

After leaving the Nike Missile Museum, we went just a short distance away to visit the Marine Mammal Center. This used to be another Nike Missile site, but it has been turned into a hospital and care center for sick and injured marine mammals. We saw seals and sea lions there. They sometimes have sea otters there, but there weren’t any today.

Leaving there, we headed back across the Golden Gate Bridge. And when we were about halfway across, traffic suddenly came to a dead stop for no apparent reason. We sat there for a few minutes, and when it became clear we weren’t going anywhere soon, everyone got out of their cars to look around. After a few minutes more, we noticed that there was no traffic coming the other way, so the northbound side of the bridge was completely empty. That’s got to be fairly rare, so we all started walking over there to take pictures of the nearly-empty bridge. And after a few more minutes, we saw some flashing lights, and a tow truck came across on the empty side of the bridge. They told us that we would be moving again in just a minute, so we all packed up and got back in our cars. We never did find out what had happened, but all the way back to our hotel, we could see the traffic headed for the bridge backed up all across the city.

For dinner, we’d planned to take the cable car over the hill to the wharf to go see the sea lions at Pier 39. But when we got down to Powell St, the cable cars were not running. They said that there was a problem with the cable, and it was going to take some time to fix. So instead, we took the F-line streetcar up Market Street and over to the wharf. We looked a the sea lions, and then had dinner there. It was a pretty entertaining day.

Cold-war nostalgia – The Nike missile site

Filed under: — stan @ 2:55 pm

One of my hobbies is collecting memorabilia from the Cold War, and visiting sites related to it. I’ve been to see the Titan Missile Museum in Arizona, and took a bike ride up in the San Gabriel Mountains to visit the remains of a Nike missile site there. Since we were in San Francisco, I wanted to visit Golden Gate National Recreation Area, since I’d read that an old Nike missile site there had been restored and turned into a museum.

The Nike missiles were intended to shoot down Russian bombers. The first iteration was the Nike Ajax, which was a slim missile with a conventional warhead. It was intended to shoot down bombers that flew higher and faster than regular anti-aircraft guns could hit. Later, as bombers got faster in the late 1950s, these were replaced with the Nike Hercules, which could fly higher and faster, and could carry a nuclear warhead.

The tour started in the little building where they had a disassembled missile for us to look at. We got to see where the solid-fuel rocket motor was installed, and where the nuclear warhead was mounted. Then we went outside to see the radars and the little building where the controlled the missile. In the days when the site was operational, those were located a couple miles away from the launch pads. Something to do with how the radars tracked the missile for guidance meant that they couldn’t do it well if the radar was right next to the launcher. Of course, when we were in the control trailer, everyone wanted to get a picture with the big red button marked “FIRE”.

The next stop was the building where they assembled the missiles. They had both an Ajax and a Hercules missile on display in there. And then we headed underground to the actual missile magazine. Each site had two magazines, each with six missiles in it. The showed us how the missiles were mounted on rails, and they were really pretty easy to move. In the center, there was a big elevator that could lift one missile up to the launcher above, which they demonstrated for us:

After they raised the missile up, we all came back outside, and they showed us how the launcher would raise the missile up to its launch angle, which was something like 85 degrees. Not quite vertical, since they didn’t want the first-stage booster rocket to fall back down on the launch site.

This was a fun and interesting little bit of Cold War history.

7/17/2014

Heading to San Francisco

Filed under: — stan @ 10:29 pm

On Thursday, it was time to leave Monterey and head to San Francisco. But before we left, I did a little sightseeing while Kathleen got ready to go.

I took a walk to the ATM to get some cash, and on the way back, I stopped in at the Cooper-Molera Adobe. We’d walked by it last night on the way back from dinner, so I wanted to see inside. There is a little museum attached to it, and a volunteer who told me the story of the house and how the family fit into the early history of Monterey. She also told me about how the remains of Hartnell Creek were visible behind the parking lot at Trader Joe’s, next to the adobe. That creek was the original reason the adobe was built where it was.

Leaving Monterey, we headed up the 101 toward San Francisco. We stopped for lunch in Gilroy. The idea of an entirely garlic-themed town was just too entertaining to pass up. And yes, they get into it. I had the garlic soup, we saw the garlic murals and banners, and we stopped in at Garlic World.

Continuing north, we took the 280 into San Francisco, passing the two big reservoirs there that began life as sag ponds on the San Andreas Fault. Then we found our way into the city and our hotel. When we got there, they told us that they were overbooked, so they asked if it was all right to move us to a higher floor, which was all right with us. We ended up on the 31st floor. So I asked them if I could take the stairs to get there. They said that that was all right, as long as I entered the stairwell at the third floor, since the doors on 1 are in the alley behind the building and are generally locked, and the second floor was mostly offices and meeting rooms.

We got checked in to our room and spent a little time looking at the views from our window before we headed out for dinner. Our plan was to ride BART across the bay to Berkeley to have dinner with my old friend Jim Ward. Jim is retired now, but back in 1979, he was the owner of Gauntlet, the first body-piercing shop in the world, in West Hollywood. Not many people have had a hand in creating an entirely new industry in our culture. We met up at his favorite Thai place and we had a nice dinner. He has a lot of interesting stories to tell.

7/16/2014

Visiting Monterey

Filed under: — stan @ 11:44 pm

After traveling through Big Sur, we arrived in Monterey. We headed to Cannery Row and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. We were hoping to see some sea otters there, among other things. As it turned out, we got there just in time to see the sea otters get fed, which drew a big crowd. And after that, we went outside, and we saw a couple of wild otters floating in the kelp just offshore.

Next, we went to see the “Tentacles” exhibit. Check out the colors on this cuttlefish:

There was also a big exhibit of jellyfish, and a lot of history of the sardine canneries that used to be there.

When we went to check in to our hotel, we stopped for a photo-op with the bell across the street. We’ve been seeing these bells all the way up the 101 since before we left L.A. And when we got in our room, we had a laugh about the evacuation map and instructions. Then we headed out for yet another fancy dinner, and later on, we settled in by the fire pit back at the hotel. All told, it was a fun day.

Traveling up the coast

Filed under: — stan @ 2:08 pm

On Wednesday morning, we headed back up the coast. The plan was to stop and see the elephant seal colony at Piedras Blancas, and then continue on up to Monterey. We left Moonstone Beach and headed north. When we were close to the visitor center at Hearst Castle, we saw some zebras running on the hills next to the road. The tour guides at the castle had said that there were still some feral zebras on the ranch there, descended from the ones that were in the Hearst private zoo. Then, a few miles north of the castle, we saw the sign for the elephant seals. There were quite a few of them lounging on the beach. The volunteer from Friends of the Elephant Seal told us that most of the seals there were males, and that the females were out at sea feeding at the time. There were several pairs of males out in the waves, jousting with each other. She said they do that when they’re young as practice for later on, when it becomes a serious business for mating.

Here’s a short video clip of a pair of seals jousting:

After the seals, we continued north, through Big Sur, where we saw a new type of animal crossing sign that I can add to my collection.

Hearst Castle and Moonstone Beach

Filed under: — stan @ 10:39 am

Our second day plan was to travel from Santa Barbara to San Simeon. We’d signed up for two tours of Hearst Castle for the afternoon, and then we were spending the night in Cambria.

The castle was impressive in an absurd way. Completely over-the-top excess. The tours we took were the “Upstairs Suites Tour” and the “Designing the Dream”. I was pretty much dumbfounded and left speechless by this.

After the castle, we headed down to Cambria and Moonstone Beach. When we checked in, they told us they were going to move us to one of the ocean-view rooms. We didn’t complain about that. The view from the front porch was nice. We walked down the street and had dinner at the only restaurant right on the beach. Then we went back to our room and opened the windows. We listened to the waves all night. In the morning, I took a walk down the beach, hoping to see an otter or two. I didn’t see any, but I did see seals and some dolphins.

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