Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Chicken Ranch anniversary: Happy birthday, Dolph!

On this date in 1923, Dolph Briscoe, who would go on to become the 41st governor of Texas, was born. Briscoe, a long-time Uvalde rancher, is generally remembered fondly from his terms as governor for being a decent guy. But his administration did earn some dubious distinctions. Briscoe was the last Texas governor to serve a two-year term and the first to serve a four-year term. He undermined two efforts to rewrite Texas' abysmal constitution (which remains a trainwreck to this day). Briscoe once appointed a dead man to the State Health Advisory Commission, and if what I've heard is true, called a press conference in the aftermath to reassure the press and public that he hadn't lost his grip on sanity.

But what most people remember him for--and which doesn't appear in most official biographies--is that he is the governor who ordered the closure of the infamous Chicken Ranch brothel in La Grange. Ironically, Briscoe had no actual legal authority to order the Chicken Ranch (or any other brothel, for that matter) closed. But he did, hoping nobody would call his bluff. Fayette County Jim Flournoy certainly knew the governor had no authority to do so, but acquiesced to Briscoe and effectively ended a surreal two-week media circus that captured the attention of Texas as well as the rest of the country.

Governor Briscoe died June 27, 2010, after ignoring my interview requests for the better part of a year. He's have been 91 today. Happy birthday, Dolph!

Now Playing: Dave Davies Chosen People
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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lunar eclipse!

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse animated gif Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D
The morning of Tuesday, April 15 saw the first of four lunar eclipses slated to occur over the next two years. That's celestial mechanics for you--like a Venusian transit of the sun, these things come in groupings. Unlike Venus passing in front of the sun (which happens at century-long intervals), lunar eclipses are comparatively common. But not that common. The last lunar eclipse visible from North America, in 2010, didn't turn out so well for me. Because of the chance of clouds at any time, I was determined to take advantage of the opportunity this time around.

Several things are different now than they were back in 2010. For one, I have a different mirror in my telescope, which I'm still sad about. The second is that I've figured out why there was so much diffusion in my 2010 photographs--the plossl eyepieces I use for visual observing introduce field curvature, which causes the edges of the image to be out of focus. If I'm ever to get serious about eyepiece projection astrophotography, I'll need to invest in flat-field orthoscopic eyepieces. I've also got a better camera--the Canon 7D--and have learned I can use a telextender to double the telescope's focal length, thus making the moon fill the frame of my camera. Finally, I've got a rock-steady Orion Atlas equatorial mount for my telescope, a significant upgrade from the 1970s era pier GEM mount that came with the scope.

Unfortunately, I wasn't feeling all that well, and wasn't up to doing much preparation. And I'm still not entirely familiar with the Atlas mount, so wasn't able to get it to track the moon very accurately (although the electronic controls worked very nicely and allowed me to position the image precisely). I moved the mirror up in the tube so I could shoot at prime focus with the camera. Ideally, when I did this, I should've collimated the scope to make sure the mirrors were in good alignment to ensure the best possible image. But I was tired and sickish so I didn't.

As for the weather, this time around I was not plagued by clouds. The sky was crystal clear, in fact, and it got pretty darn cold for Texas in April--down to the lower 40s. Brr. Which should've meant great views, but it didn't. There was a good bit of wind on the ground, and a lot of turbulence up high in the atmosphere, making the moon's edges waver and forcing me to adjust focus regularly simply because the "boiling" effect of the atmosphere made it impossible to be certain I ever nailed focus. None of my photos turned out as sharp as I'd have liked because of that, but overall it wasn't a bad effort. The 6" Meade 645 f/5 Newtonian has a focal length of 762mm, and for most of the night I used a Vivitar 2x telextender, which essentially turned the scope into a 1524mm f/10.6 lens. I had to remove the telextender during total eclipse, though, because the moon was too dim to shoot without those two extra stops of light--and even then I cranked the ISO up to 3200 (which introduced significant noise to the image). The good news is that I'm progressing with my competence in astrophotography. The bad news is that I clearly have a long way to go. I combined 30-something images into the animated gif above. You can see a progression of the original still images below. Hopefully, by the time the next lunar eclipse comes around, I'll have mastered the Atlas' tracking and be able to shoot totality using much lower ISO and longer shutter speeds.

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

April 15, 2014 lunar eclipse, Meade 645 Newtonian reflector, prime focus, Canon 7D

Now Playing: Pink Martini Hang On Little Tomato
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Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Night VIdeos

I just saw the new trailer for Cold in July, the movie based on Joe Lansdale's book of the same name, and darned if I didn't see Don Johnson in there, chewing the scenery for all he was worth. Which reminded me that Eddie Murphy wasn't the only 80s actor to try his hand at being a rock star. I remember Johnson going on and on about a "long-form video" in interviews, but all I ever saw was the regular MTV cut for his one hit, "Heartbeat."

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Del Amitri.

Now Playing: Pink Martini Sympathique
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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Babyon 5: Soul Hunter

I am re-watching the entire Babylon 5 television series along with my teenage daughter. I have not seen a single episode since B5 completed its tumultuous run, and Calista was just a few days old when the final episode aired back in 1998. Does J. Michael Straczynski still have the touch? Come along with us and find out.

In Valen's Name: The aliens on board Babylon 5 go into a frenzy when an alien known as a Soul Hunter arrives on the station. Soul Hunters have a religious belief that the souls of important figures should be captured and preserved at the time of death. Dr. Stephen Franklin makes his first appearance on the series, and scoffs at the notion "souls" can be captured--listing a number of cyberpunkish alternatives whilst being dismissive of the supernatural. Minbari Ambassador Delenn is particularly troubled, because some years earlier this particular Soul Hunter attempted to collect the soul of a great Minbari leader, but was rebuffed in what is alluded to be a very bloody confrontation. He recognizes Delenn of the ruling Grey Council, and wonders why she's acting as a mere Ambassador. The Soul Hunter claims everything went wrong after he was stopped on Minbar--he's failed repeatedly to collect souls of the important departed from then on. He decides he was drawn to Babylon 5 to collect Delenn's soul and promptly abducts here with the intent of killing her in order to collect her soul. About that time, another Soul Hunter arrives, warning Sinclair that the first Soul Hunter has gone insane because of his failure on Minbar and now is, essentially, a serial killer. Sinclair finds the crazy Soul Hunter in time, turns the soul-collecting machine against him and rescues Delenn. From then on, Sinclair bans Soul Hunters from the station and Delenn releases all the captured souls from his collection.

What Calista Says: In this episode, I thought the Soul-Collectors were very misunderstood, but at the same time they were pretty creepy. They reminded me of those crazy religious groups that everyone has a hard time accepting because what they believe in and what they do are so outrageous. I also think that the Babylon 5 captain was right to ban that race from coming on the station.

What Jayme Says: This isn't a great episode. It's not awful, but it's too cut-and-dried to really resonate. Part of the problem is that this episode is very much metaphysical, which is at odds with B5's otherwise hard-core science fictional universe. I'll admit giving the Soul Hunters a third eye is a nice touch for the metaphysical aspect (just as Game of Thrones has a three-eyed crow), but still. I understand why the concept of metaphysical souls needed to be introduced as part of the larger narrative, and the fact that this initially seems like such a throwaway episode is a sly way to do so... but still, these ideas are developed in future episodes less ham-fistedly, making "Soul Hunter" superfluous. And the alien race plays no significant role in the rest of the series narrative, save for the stand-along movie of the same name (which we'll get to eventually). Delenn being reduced to a damsel in distress is another problem here, but B5 is less guilty of this than other series/movies on the whole. And we do get our first look at Stephen Franklin, played by the late, likeable, Richard Biggs, so the episode has that going for it. Overall, though, it's mildly interesting at best.

Now Playing: Stevie Ray Vaughan The Real Deal: Greatest Hits vol. 2
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Friday, April 04, 2014

Friday Night Videos

Back in the day, I really liked Del Amitri (not to be confused with Don Ameche). "Always the Last to Know" in particular has remained a favorite of mine. It's not a typical love song, and it's got a good guitar hook. It's one of those uptempo songs that are really about distress. I go for songs that develop a narrative, and this one does, but it's a subtle one that doesn't become obvious until that final gut-check right at the end. Those few lines fill in a whole lot of blanks and change the context of the entire song. Nice. There doesn't seem to be an actual video for it out there, but here's a clip from Letterman that will serve nicely.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Rick Ocasek.

Now Playing: Janis Joplin The Essential Janis Joplin
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Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Sherwood Forest Faire

A day late and a dollar short as always. I'd intended this post to go up earlier, but life, you know? Took the family to the final day of Sherwood Forest Faire on Sunday, and had a good--if rushed--time. When we lived in Temple, we'd make annual trips to Scarborough Faire (which opens this weekend) but the four-hour drive from New Braunfels is simply too long a haul to do with any regularity (we've only been back once in the past decade). Having a viable ren fest less than two hours away (and 15 minutes from my mother-in-law's) is very nice. Plus, we're kinda sorta familiar with Sherwood's lineage. We attended the first couple of Cavalier Days way back when that defunct fair was held outside of Smithville with no permanent structures. Once Cavalier went belly-up, I participated (in costume) in the poorly-organized, one-day-only Underhill Village Fair in Austin, put on by some Cavalier refugees. That was an experience, and largely responsible for my not participating in any more ren fairs. Excalibur Fair followed shortly thereafter, back in Smithville, and despite some good word of mouth, I never attended. Despite a promising start, Excalibur crashed and burned when they tried to relocate it outside of Lockhart.

Which brings us to Sherwood, established 2010. We've never been before, but Monkey Girl and I have made it to their Celtic Music Festival and were impressed by the amount of permanent buildings and investment they've made in the place, outside of McDade. Sherwood has flush toilets which Scarborough didn't have until the late 90s. We also noticed some old standbys from the Texas Renaissance Festival--the water wheel, carousel, etc.--have relocated to Sherwood. They're building a full-fledged castle on one end of the grounds, and overall the property is well-developed for being such a young event.

I took my 500mm reflex lens along, hoping to play around with it and get some good candid character shots on the day. Alas, the crowds and scattered forest confounded me more than I'd expected. On top of that, despite recent rains in the area, the sandy ground was bone-dry and dust quickly coated everything, so I didn't keep the camera out for long. Still, I got a few interesting shots, and learned that my manual focusing skills are crap when it comes to moving targets. Hopefully, next year I'll get to try again, and maybe take in more of the acts for a change. I'll confess I love that first image. That sticker's placement is perfect, and makes me smile.

(ARGH! I just discovered Google is "enhancing" images uploaded to Google, which accounts for the skewed colors. I'll try to upload corrected images tonight.)

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens, Superman, knight, joust

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Sherwood Forest Faire, Lisa On Location photography, Canon 500mm reflex mirror lens

Now Playing: Mike + The Mechanics The Living Years
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Tuesday, April 01, 2014

New Delaney? AND Straczynski!?

I don't review nearly as many books these days as I did, say, 10 years ago, but every so often publishers send me advance review copies of this novel or the other. Most of the time they simply fail to grab my attention. Most of the time. Look what arrived in my mailbox today:

Samuel R. Delaney and J. Michael Straczynski Babelon 17 Babylon 17

HOLY MOLEY! How did I not know this was happening? From the cover sheet:

The eagerly-awaited, far-future sequel to the groundbreaking series teams Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Samuel R. Delaney with visionary talent J. Michael Straczynski for an unprecedented, mind-bending adventure. Set 700 years after the Shadow War, telepathy has grown ubiquitous throughout the Interstellar Alliance. But when a mental plague infects the very language of telepathy that unites the disparate worlds and alien species, it is up to a small band of uninfected Narn to uncover the truth before the galaxy is consumed!"
Knowing Delaney's track record, I'll wager this is more than just a simple space opera. Wow!

Now Playing: The Beatles Abbey Road
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