Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Emilia Blaschke (1922-2011)

My paternal grandmother, "Grandma Melio," died early Tuesday. I'm not as emotional as I should be about it, 1) because I've only had occasional contact with her over the past 25 years, and 2) she's battled dementia and failing health over the past few years, to the point where passing is merciful for her.
Emelia Blaschke, 89, of Nordheim, passed away Tuesday Nov. 29, 2011. She was born April 7, 1922 in DeWitt County to the late John and Martha Skloss Gaida. She was a member of Holy Cross Catholic Church.

She is survived by her sons Joe Blaschke of Spring, TX, James Blaschke of Houston, TX and Nolan Blaschke of Columbus, TX, sister Adelene Decker, seven grandchildren and nine great grandchildren.

She is preceded in death by her parents, husband Joseph Blaschke and brother E.G. Gaida.

A rosary will be 7:00 pm Wed. Nov. 30, 2011 at Finch Funeral Chapel. Funeral Mass will be 10:00 am Thurday Dec. 1, 2011 at Holy Cross Catholic Church. Intement will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Pallbearers will be Frankie Seifert, Flavis Kozielski, Gervis Blaschke, Gary Rangnow, Glenn Mueller, Keith Blaschke, Jayme Blaschke, John Blaschke and Christopher Blaschke.

Memorial may be given to Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery Fund or Masses.

Arrangements by Finch Funeral Chapel-Yorktown 361-564-2277
I hadn't seen much of her for the past 2-plus decades because of a feud my father has perpetuated with that part of our family. Because of a wrong they did to him, my father cut off all contact with his mother, father and brothers as well as their respective families (a wrong I suspect, viewed through the wisdom of years, may actually be the other way around). He refused to attend his own father's funeral when Grandpa Joe died a few years back. He won't be attending his mother's funeral. He won't bury the hatchet because he'd rather nurse this hard lump of bitterness within him and play the victim, even though his siblings and parents have tried over and over again to make amends.

You know what? I'm sick of his petty, self-centered childish behavior. My five-year-old son has a better-defined sense of right and wrong than my 71-year-old father. I cannot count the times I have received messages from former students of his, telling me what a great person he was. In the interest of civility, I have bitten my tongue. No more. Nolan Blaschke is a prideful, arrogant, self-centered petty dictator who is a racist and misogynist, pretty much your all-around misanthrope. He has alienated almost all of his close family and friends over the years, and has abandoned my mother. That last part isn't hyperbole, and I will not pretend any longer. I will not make excuses for him any longer. I've been to far too many funerals and functions in recent years where I've had to make excuses for his absence or behavior, and that stops now.

If anyone asks me where my father is tomorrow, I will reply that he "Is at home, wallowing in self-pity. He is a vile, reprehensible human being, and we'd all be better off if it were him we were burying today instead of his mother."

If he doesn't want me telling everyone that, then he'd better man up, get his head on right and start acting like he has a soul, instead of just a shriveled, spite-filled cinder.

Now Playing: Berlin Philharmonic Wagner: The Ring Without Words
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Sunday, November 27, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 8

FINALLY! I am finally done with the current chapter, one that has taken well more than twice as long to write as I'd planned. One that has put me significantly behind schedule. One that was ornery and difficult to write, fighting me every step of the way. To add insult to injury, it is very much a "first draft" chapter, one in need of significant rewriting before it is fit for human eyes. You'd think that after taking up so much time, it could at least come out polished and ready for the printers, but nooooooo.

In any event, I'm very happy to put this one behind me. I had to rely on existing sources and other people's research heavily here, as opposed to my own, and it's awkward when something that's been accepted as fact by many, mean people for so long ends up being debunked by me. Or, if not debunked, at least seriously questioned. Especially when there's no clear alternative to the current assumptions, which are clearly and demonstrably flawed. Here's some of the words I close out the chapter with. Tomorrow, on to the 20th century, and my own primary research!
Prostitution may have established itself in La Grange in the days of the Republic, but the frontier was a dusty memory, as was the “anything goes” attitude that accompanied it. La Grange had grown into a modern town of more than 2,000 residents, with electric and water utilities, an opera house, four schools, three banks and five churches. With the progressive era of a new century dawning, there seemed little chance that the status quo the brothels had enjoyed for so long could continue.
Now Playing: Miles Davis Kind of Blue
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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

My new German toy

At this moment, I am feeling pretty mediocre. There's been some sort of virus working its way through my family, and I started feeling it Monday afternoon. By Tuesday morning just driving the kids to school caused me to break out in a cold sweat, so I wisely headed back home and climbed into bed. By late afternoon I'd started feeling moderately better, and ventured forth, to discover the nice UPS man had left me a present:

Canon EOS 7D with Astronomik CLS Clip filter

For those of you scratching your head and going "What the heck is that?" I'll tell you. It's an Astronomik CLS clip filter from Germany. It's an ingenious little device. Because of the way Canon APS-C cameras are made (those that have a "cropped" imaging sensor which is about 3/4 the size of a 35mm film frame) there is a small open space in between the mirror/shutter assembly and the rear of the attached camera lens. The German engineers at Astronomik realized they could design a filter that could "clip in" to this unused space for astronomy purposes (sorry Nikon users--your camera design doesn't allow for internal clip filters).

The CLS filter I got is a light pollution filter. Because there are so many street lights in my neighborhood, not to mention the sky glow from New Braunfels, San Antonio and Austin, astrophotos of more than a brief exposure end up having an ugly, brown fog to them. Yuck. But the CLS filter is coated in such a way that the sodium and mercury vapor light produced by most street lamps and city lights are almost completely blocked. This means longer exposures are possible without the ill effects of light pollution!

My first attempt at astrophotography using the CLS clip filter and my Canon 7D is above, the Orion constellation. I set the camera up on a tripod and shot 20 10-second exposures at 800 and 1600 ISO (I couldn't go for longer exposures because I hadn't set my telescope up, and the camera had no way to track the movement of the start across the sky). I stacked these individual images using Deep Sky Stacker, a nifty freeware program. The result isn't anything near award-winning, but it does show all the relevant stars without the washed-out effect of light pollution. And the Orion nebula is easily visible. I think I'm going to have a lot of fun with this in the future.

Now Playing: Stan Getz The Complete Roost Recordings
Chicken Ranch Central

Monday, November 21, 2011

My beef with Peter Lik

In a remarkably short period of time, I have become a huge fan of Australian photographer Peter Lik. I first became aware of him back in the spring, when he was featured in the June issue of Professional Photographer magazine, which The Wife gets as an active member of Professional Photographers of America. His dramatic colors and sweeping panoramas inspired me greatly, and made me think of a color-centric Ansel Adams. When we set out on our family vacation road trip out west, I was determined to shoot some landscapes that, if not Lik-worthy, were at the very least "pretty good." Although I mostly shoot as an assistant to The Wife with weddings and portraits, I've had a keen interest in landscape/nature photography for as long as I can remember. Far longer than I've had any competent knowledge of camera operation, certainly.

Sadly, the road trip did not turn out as I'd hoped. They never do. I made a few attempts, but they all fell short of the goal. Take the famous "Horseshoe Bend" south of Page, Arizona. A late start and a crush of other photographers (not to mention a sheer drop-off and cranky kids) made this a real challenge. Harsh shadows marred the lower portion of the scene. I used some Photoshop processing to pull out colors from the river, but the end result is merely a "nice try"--a far cry from the gallery-worthy shot I was hoping for.

Horseshoe Bend Arizona, landscape, fine art, New Braunfels photographer Lisa On Location

Our visit to Monument Valley was a bust as well. A huge sandstorm blew up, obscuring the great mesas and buttes and pretty much made driving miserable. The Wife was sorely disappointed, because while she's not normally a landscape photographer, she had wanted to shoot the iconic north approach to Monument Valley herself. The one shot I got that I was pleased with (and I didn't know it at the time--the awesomeness only became apparent later on when I processed the image) came from my infrared camera. This infrared scene of Monument Valley in the middle of a sandstorm is the single best shot I got on the entire road trip, and one that I do feel is gallery-worthy. Could Lik do better? Probably, but then again, he doesn't shoot infrared, so score one for me.

Monument Valley Arizona, Merrick Butte, West Mitten Butte, Sentinel Mesa, infrared, landscape, fine art, New Braunfels photographer Lisa On Location

After our vacation, I discovered Lik's photography television series on the Weather Channel, From the Edge with Peter Lik. I only managed to see about five of the 13 episodes before the season ended, but I found them engrossing. Granted, Lik has some financial and equipment advantages because of who he is, but it was amazing to see his adventurer's spirit at work. He really is a larger-than-life personality, sort of photography's version of the Crocodile Hunter, as some have derisively labeled him. There's actually quite a bit of derision directed his way, I've learned. Some of it is motivated by jealousy, no doubt, because haters gonna hate. But other criticism is deserved. While Lik is undeniably a skilled photographer, his greater skill may well be self-promotion. That can get old very fast, but from what I see, there is a divide between Peter Lik the photographer and Peter Lik the businessman. The photographer would be fun to hang out with. The businessman, probably not so much. The businessman also goes around claiming that the photographer uses no post-processing or Photoshop on his gallery images, which is a patently untrue. The idea that all of the dramatic colors are captured entirely in-camera has become a marketing mythology perpetrated by Lik himself--in interviews from only a few years back he had no qualms about claiming to use Photoshop to manipulate the colors in his images (the whole video is entertaining, but check out the 1:30 mark:

While an unfortunate pile of marketing hooey, that doesn't diminish the photography any in my mind. Lik still has to actually get out there and get the shot before any Photoshop magic can be done. And nature doesn't always cooperate. So I still greatly admire his eye for composition and photographer's instinct for finding that perfect shot that's just waiting to be captured. Which brings me to the beef I have with Peter Lik.

Recently, his company has launched a snazzy new website. There is much amazing photography on display--"Tree of the Universe" in particular is exactly the type of photograph my inner astrophotographer wants to capture. Amazing stuff. On neat perk for people registering with the site, though, is a digital download copy of Lik's Spirit of America book, which is out of print with used copies going for something north of $50 a pop. I've wanted this for a while, so jumped at the change to download it. Naturally, the first thing I wanted to see was what he came up with for Texas. Texas, as anyone who lives here knows, has a bunch of wildly differing climates and terrains. The possibilities are endless--Enchanted Rock, Padre Island National Seashore, the Guadalupe Mountains, Palo Duro Canyon, the Big Thicket... So imagine my reaction when I saw this:

Now, it's not a bad photo. The Chisos Mountains in the background have a nice red glow of sunset about them. But honestly, could Lik gotten a more uninspired shot if he'd tried? I've seen the agave-in-the-foreground composition more times than I can count, and other than the colors of the Chisos, this isn't even a particularly inventive composition. Out of the length and breadth of the Lone Star State, this is the best he could do? Even limiting himself to Big Bend, I'm thinking Santa Elena Canyon, Grapevine Hills, Lost Mine Peak, Ernst Tenaja, the Mariscal mine... but no. A random agave is what he found the most inspiring and representative of Texas? Is it so wrong for be so disappointed? Other state with much less diversity got several images in the book. I can't help but suspect Lik was already in New Mexico and just decided to jaunt down into Texas to check one state off his list. Maybe he was nearing the end of his years-long project to photograph all 50 state, and what would merely be a rejected outtake at the beginning was "good enough" by the end. I dunno.

I'm still inspired by Lik, and he's a big reason why I'm planning a trip out to Big Bend in early 2012 for photography. But if he ever wants to come back to Texas and get some shots that are more worthy of our state, I'll be happy to serve as a guide. In Central Texas alone I can think of an endless number of sites, from the Canyon Lake Gorge to Enchanted Rock to Hamilton Pool to Honey Creek to the Bracken bat cave... yeah. We can set you up, Peter. Just say the word.

Now Playing: Oni Wytars Ensemble From Byzantium to Andalusia
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Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Night Videos

When Aerosmith released the massive Pandora's Box career retrospective in 1991, they made a new video for "Sweet Emotion" to promote the occasion. It got heavy airplay on MTV, back when MTV still played music videos. This video was a revelation to me, not because of Areosmith's ironic humor that frames the video (although that's fun) but rather, I'd never heard the extended album version of "Sweet Emotion" before. I'd only heard the single version on their Greatest Hits album, which also happened to be the only version they ever played on the radio. I actually thought it was a re-recording until someone pointed out to me that I maybe ought to, you know, listen to Toys in the Attic. In any event, the album version of Sweet Emotion is probably my all-time favorite Aerosmith song, not counting odd album tracks like "Hangman Jury" and "Seasons of Wither."

As a side note, I once had a boss who looked just like Joe Perry. The resemblance was uncanny. Except my boss was a woman, and not a very good boss at that. You'll be happy to know I don't hold that against Joe Perry.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Spinal Tap.

Now Playing: Clannad An Diolaim
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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 7

As I prepare to hie myself off to bed, plagued all of the day by a lingering headache (likely brought on by the sleep disruption caused by Bug's 3 a.m. fever and vomiting--a nasty episode that vanished as quickly as it came) I feel compelled to share with you good readers this latest strip from the geeky web comic XKCD. The point is well-made. In researching the Chicken Ranch, I've come across a number of oft-reported "facts" that, near as I can tell, were cut from whole cloth by one over-imaginative individual or another. Once a so-called fact is picked up by one publication, it's often cited by another and they all end up referencing each other with little thought given to the fact that this particular house is built upon a foundation of sand. It's an interesting companion to my musings on plagiarism yesterday.

Tonight's writing sample is a good one. A juicy one. I have to confess, I love the irony of this section and took no small amount of glee in writing this up. I could've gone on quite a bit more, but the book is about prostitution in La Grange, after all. Waco's going to have to be content with a walk-on role, even if it was a thousand times more tawdry than the Chicken Ranch ever dreamed of being!

Along the south banks of the Brazos River near Waco’s famed suspension bridge, a red-light district alternately known as “The Reservation” or “Two Street” existed for more than 40 years, as Waco blazed a trail by becoming the first city in Texas to legalize prostitution. Brothels had business permits and were taxed while prostitutes were licensed and--much as the women of the Chicken Ranch would do decades later--submitted to regular, mandatory medical examinations. Although the Reservation was ostensibly supported by the political establishment as a means of keeping vice segregated from more respectable parts of the city, the vast amounts of revenue generated by taxes and licensing fees levied upon commercial sex held far more sway over public policy than moral concerns.
Hoping to get the current chapter put to bed by this weekend. Wish me luck!

Now Playing: Stan Getz The Complete Roost Recordings
Chicken Ranch Central

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The perils of plagiarism

You may or may not have heard of the recent plagiarism scandal centering around Quentin Rowan. It's been written about extensively, like here, here and here. In a nutshell, this guy, writing under the pen name of Q.R. Markham, published a spy novel to initial acclaim. Bully for him, right? Well yeah, except that it soon came out that the book was almost entirely cobbled together from lines and paragraphs lifted verbatim from other spy novels, with only the names changed. Seriously. Rowan stole from the James Bond books written by John Gardner as well as the works of Robert Ludlum, Charles McCarry and others. The book in question, Assassin of Secrets, was getting some good reviews before folks started putting together that it was other authors who were more deserving of credit. The publisher, Little, Brown & Co., subsequently pulled the book and it's now likely to become a collector's item.

Beyond the obvious stigma of stealing someone else's work and presenting it as your own, I have to wonder about Rowan's sanity. When college students plagiarize a term paper downloaded from the internet, that's cutting corners to save time and effort. In Rowan's case, however, harvesting so many random lines and paragraphs from so many different books and authors, then stringing them together in such a way to construct a coherent plot... that strikes me as an insane amount of work and research. Far easier and straightforward to just, you know, make up the stuff on your own.

Being a journalist by training, plagiarism's always been an issue high on my personal radar. Back in college, not a year would go by without some writer for the student paper, The Battalion, running afoul of plagiarism charges. They were invariably working for the sports desk, believe it or not. Each time, it was a columnist that got in trouble. Two were fired outright for copying a syndicated sports column and presenting as their own. The third, who happened to be working for me the one summer I served as sports editor, also used unattributed material in his column. To his credit, he did attribute the original source earlier in the column, but not when he referenced more points the original author made. In my meeting with the managing editor on the matter, we judged that it was a mistake rather than intent to deceive. So we only suspended him for two weeks. Plagiarism's serious stuff, folks.

Which brings us to today. Plagiarism has been weighing heavily on my mind long before Mr. Rowan's creative novel writing came to light. In writing this book on the Chicken Ranch, I'm putting together a non-fiction work that is not unlike journalism. I'm using many sources that came before me, and striving to properly attribute everything via endnotes. In some cases, however, the historical sources run pretty thin. Some facts and stories about the brothel can be found in a mere single source--the myriad publications that came after all cite that one source. This in and of itself is troubling for a journalist conditioned to always use multiple sources in order to verify facts, but in my case I have no choice but to go with what I can find.

My biggest challenge with this is that in many cases, these sources often presented the relevant facts in the clearest, most logical and straightforward way. Were I given this information, I'd likely write something very similar. But as I'm using them as a source, I dare not repeat those words verbatim outside of a direct quote (which I want to avoid whenever possible, as I have primary source interviews I plan on directly quoting very heavily). I'm constantly worried about reading a particularly good bit and having it worm its way into my subconscious, only to sneakily reappear later, masquerading as my own original thought. This has led to some awkward writing situations. Take last night for instance. Months ago, I'd found a section in a book that I knew would make an absolutely perfect point at this certain point in the chapter I'm currently working on. So I wrote the material down in a paragraph, added the citation, and wrote toward it. Last night I reached said paragraph, and my heart sank as I read over it again. It was perfect. Too perfect. What I'd written up to that point dovetailed nicely with the cited material. Despite the fact that the paragraphs flowed together beautifully, I steeled myself for an extensive rewrite. No matter how perfect the words were, I would not plagiarize. But folks, I'm telling you the rewrite was agony. Those words on the page were the perfect fit, and anything I came up with as an alternative read like nothing more than a convoluted work-around. After an hour or so of this, I pulled out the original source book in frustration, hoping to maybe find some little nuggets of inspiration in the text surrounding the material I was referencing.

It was then that I realized that I'd already rewritten the source material, incorporating some of my own original research as well! I'd spent the previous hour trying to paraphrase and recast what were already my own words. It was maddening. Frustrating. I said words that would make sailors cover their ears. But hey, the words on the page are mine. And the citations and reference are in proper order as well. I may yet drop the ball and botch things royally, but if I do, it won't be due to lack of effort.

Now Playing: John Coltrane The Very Best of John Coltrane
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Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Night Videos

Today, according to the Gregorian calendar, is 11/11/11. There is only one band appropriate for such a singular, august date. "These go to 11."

Now that the mood is properly set, behold the magnificence of "Big Bottoms":

The edgy education of "Bitch School":

Or their resplendent opus, unmatched in the annals of annalized rock opera, "Stonehenge":

Remember folks, Spinal Tap is strong stuff, so use only in moderation!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... John Cougar Mellencamp.

Now Playing: The Hollies Greatest Hits
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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 6

Had a fun evening at Wurstfest tonight, with a dinner of wurst and sauerkraut washed down by some good Dortmunder. You know why I like living in New Braunfels so much, despite all the B.S. from the city council? This is why. Lots of Germanic pride on display tonight, along with polka. Lots of polka. And yodeling. Good stuff.

None of which is directly relevant to tonight's writing on the Chicken Ranch book, but I suppose it put me in a good enough mood to tackle one pressing issue head-on. Namely, how do I deal with oft-repeated "fact" that I strongly suspect, but cannot prove, was wholly invented by a previous author? How does an author, writing a history, handle an important time period in which which no good contemporary sources or after-the-fact accounts exist? I tread carefully, but firmly. How can I do otherwise?
If the widowed Mrs. Swine is a fiction, then she is a convenient one. Prostitution certainly flourished in 19th century La Grange, as it did throughout Texas and the Old West. Somebody had to be first, it stands to reason, and if nothing else, the homely, crude widow dressed in black makes for a good story.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: For being the world's most famous brothel, the Chicken Ranch has had a mind-boggling amount not written about it. My list of 19th century sources is vanishingly short. Still, I persevere. It's what I do.

Now Playing: Dire Straits On the Night
Chicken Ranch Central

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Chicken Ranch report no. 5

This past week has been tough on the writing front. Not much progress simply because too many other things have gobbled up my free minutes like Pac-Man munching so many glowing dots. Some of these time sinks have been good, such as photographing weddings and the like with The Wife, or doing reading homework with my youngest. Others have been bad, like the upstairs toilet overflowing overnight and completely flooding the garage. Throw in some much-needed fun, like Halloween and back yard astronomy, and my week was gone, just like that. Fortunately, I was able to grab some quality time at the keyboard this evening. Yay! Here's a sample of what I got down:
The saloon was in a prime location to take advantage of the abundance of thirsty, road-weary travelers, and as a matter of course offered several rooms to rent. It is here Mrs. Swine took up residence with her girls, and the saloon operated continuously as a brothel for at least the next 50 years.
The good news is that I'm back on track. The bad news is that I'm already behind my self-imposed schedule. I need to double-time it this week if I'm going to finish the current chapter and the next before the end of the month. And I suspect Thanksgiving won't let me have a whole lot of free time for writing...

Now Playing: Count Basie The Atomic Mr. Basie
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Friday, November 04, 2011

The moon in my sights

With the weather cooling off, the astronomy bug has bitten me again, as it tends to do every year at this time. Driving hone this past week I've been treated to some exceptionally clear skies, so I decided to take out my telescope and play around a bit. I had it out last week, but most of that time was spent struggling with collimation--which is the technical term for making sure all the mirrors line up in my Newtonian reflector telescope. If they don't, then distortion degrades the image of whatever you happen to be looking at. So I used a compass to get a passably accurate polar alignment, then monkeyed with the mirror settings for half an hour before I finally was satisfied that the scope was as collimated as good as I was going to get it. Collimation is a very basic task for owners of Newtonian telescopes, but man, I struggle with it.

With collimation more or less achieved and a pretty half-moon beckoning in the sky above, I was inspired to break out my Canon 7D and see how it handled for astrophotography. The 7D has live view, which my XTi does not, which should make accurate focusing much easier--at least in theory. The moon is an easy target, so I gave it a shot. There are two way to take astrophotos through a telescope--using the scope itself as the lens, which is called "prime photography," or using an eyepiece between the telescope and camera for increased magnification, which is called "eyepiece projection photography." Of the two, eyepiece projection is the more challenging, but I tend to do it most often because I like to mix my astrophotography with visual observing. With prime focus, although the image is brighter and sharper, the rear mirror must be moved inside the telescope tube which renders it unsuitable for visual observing. Plus, it would have to be re-collimated, and you know where I stand on that.

The image above shows the southeast of the moon. In the center of the image, the overlapping craters are, from lower left to upper right, are Janssen, Fabricus and Metius. Just to the right of them is a shallow, diagonal gash that is the Rheita Valley. Pretty cool, huh? I shot this image, and the one below, using a 12mm GSO Plössl eyepiece. The image at the top of the page of the entire moon was taken using a 20mm Plössl for a lower magnification and a wider field of view.

The image above shows the moon from the lunar equator southward. The smooth, grayis areas are the Sea of Fertility (right) and the Sea of Nectar (left). The Sea of Tranquility joins them at the top of the image, with the Apollo 11 landing site in the upper left-hand corner. The prominent crater with the central peak on the western edge of the Sea of Nectar is Theophilus. Notice the loss of sharp definition in the lower left of the image--I'll back to that shortly.

With the 12mm Plössl images turning out so nicely, I thought I'd push my telescope's capabilities to the max, and traded the 12mm for a 4mm Plössl, which is the highest magnification eyepiece I own. Turns out the 4mm is a bust for astrophotography--I could not bring it to focus with my camera. There simply wasn't enough inward focus on the telescope's focuser, and the image stayed blurry. So I tried my next highest magnification eyepiece, a 6mm Plössl. This one did work, as evidenced by the image above. The crater Theophilus and the Sea of Nectar are visible upper right hand corner. The view was certainly much closer, but it was also much dimmer. Not only that, but turbulence in the atmosphere was more obvious, distorting and degrading the view. Despite my best efforts at focusing precisely, the rather soft image above is the clearest I could manage. For practical purporses, 9mm is probably the highest magnification eyepiece I can use under normal sky conditions for astrophotography.

In case you were wondering, the image above shows how the eyepieces connect with the camera in the telescope adapter. Different eyepieces are swapped out for narrower or wider fields of view. What suprised me the most was the poor imaging results I got from my wider eyepieces, such as the 20mm Plössl. The full view of the moon at the top of this post was taken with the 20mm, as was the image below. Notice the halation and distortion that becomes more apparent the farther away from the center you get. I'm really not sure what this is--I'd have thought a lower-power eyepiece would minimize distortion, but the opposite appears to be the case. Because the higher magnification eyepieces restrict the field of view to a very narrow portion of the telescope's mirror reflection, I suspect the distortion is the result of either the natural "coma" distortion inherent in the Newtonian mirrored telescope design, or errors from poor collimation. I'm not at all confident my collimation is good, but that's an awful lot of distortion. The same goes for coma. I'll be asking people more knowledgeable than myself in the future to try and figure this one out.

As I was wrapping up my photo session, three middle school kids who'd been walking up and down the block all evening stopped and asked "can you see the moon through that?" I removed the camera and re-balanced the mount, then invited them to look. There were gasps of of amazement and much marveling all around. Then I showed them Jupiter and its four Galilean satellites. One exclaimed "I like science now," which gave me a chuckle. They thanked me then headed home, and as they were walking away, I heard one say, "No wonder Monkey Girl is so smart!" Monkey Girl being my eldest daughter. That made me smile--two compliments for the price of one.

I'm going to try and set up my telescope in the front yard more often during these mild autumn evenings. Even though light pollution keeps me from viewing any deep space object--galaxies and nebulas and clusters--the moon and planets are still gorgeous and more than impressive for a bit of astronomical outreach among the neighbors. I just wish I could figure out how to control that fuzzy distortion in my images...

Now Playing:
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Friday Night Videos

The Occupy Wall Street movement over the past couple of months has brought a particular John Cougar Mellencamp piece to mind: "The Authority Song." It strikes me as an anthem custom-made for the folks out on the street protesting rampant corporate greed, and the video, too, plays into the "little guy vs. the machine" archetype. What really jumped out at me, though, is how much that kid in the video resembles a young Mark Wahlberg. I haven't been able to find any references online to Wahlberg's participation in the video, but as Wahlberg was born in 1971 and "Authority Song" was released in 1983, the age would be about right. In any event, the resemblance is uncanny.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... The Cranberries.

Now Playing: Derek & the Dominoes The Layla Sessions: 20th Anniversary Edition
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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Can the Ban and Iowa call centers

Last night I got a phone call on a pressing local issue. A woman on the phone was urging me to vote in favor of the ban on disposable containers on the Comal and Guadalupe Rivers within the New Braunfels city limits. Otherwise, she informed me, we'd be facing an environmental catastrophe.

I asked her if she'd seen the river management plan for the Comal and Guadalupe from the River Systems Institute at Texas State University? She said, "I don't have that in front of me." I informed her that it didn't exist, because for all the New Braunfels City Council's fear mongering about litter and the environment, not a single one of them have approached the state's premiere aquatic resources management institute to solicit any advice or guidance whatsoever. An institute that is a mere 20 miles up I-35, that actually re-stocked the various endangered species in the Comal River after the springs in Landa Park ran dry in the 1950s, wiping out that entire ecosystem.

Why haven't they done so? Because the majority of the current City Council doesn't give a rat's ass about the environment or endangered species or litter. They want a private waterfront for their cronies with million-dollar McMansions along the Comal, and hate the idea that the Comal is a navigable waterway, and therefore regulated by the state. If they can't close the river, then by golly they'll regulate it to death, so that the public stays away because it's too much hassle to do otherwise. Banning disposable containers accomplishes that feat, because people need to drink something during a two-hour float to stay hydrated. What are the logistical complications of taking non-disposable drink containers and dispensers along? And I'm not even talking about alcohol. It's absurd. The same factors were at work a few years ago when the Council, led by Ken Valentine, tried to restrict the size of coolers to a tiny, unworkable maximum size to achieve the same results. The measure failed and the public backlash led to Valentine's recall. It seems some factions never learn.

So, anyway, my phone caller was taken a bit off guard by my statement, so I started to lecture her. I told her the history of this sorry state of affairs, how the City Council forced through the ordinance over vocal public opposition, refusing to put it up for a public vote. How the city attorney's office said the ordinance was likely unconstitutional. How it took a petition drive to get it on the November ballot. How the weasel publisher of the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung publishes 100 percent pro-ban articles and letters that don't even try to be objective. How councilwoman Kathleen Krueger has earned the title of "Drama Queen for Life" with her hysterics in front of the media, going so far as to cancel her participation in a public debate on the issue yesterday because she "feared for her safety." Just to put this into perspective, her husband, Robert Krueger, risked his personal safety on a daily basis as Ambassador to Burundi. U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford was recently recalled to Washington because of threats to his personal safety. Yet Kathleen Krueger had the audacity to cast herself in the same light as these advocates of human rights over her support of a city ordinance that is wildly unpopular with her constituents? Shameful.

So I'm laying this out for my caller, and she finally breaks in, saying, "Hey, I don't know anything about this stuff. I'm in Iowa, and they're just paying me to read from a script." So there you have it. The Can the Ban opposition have tireless local volunteers working the streets, hosting fund raisers and essentially running themselves ragged to get this ill-conceived ordinance voted down, while the pro-ban City Council hires out-of-state phone banks to do their dirty work for them. Hmm.

I voted early last week against the ban. I certainly hope everyone else does as well. And if the City Council really has any concern about the long-term viability of our rivers, I invite them to give RSI Executive Directory Andy Sansom a call at (512) 245-9200. He'll be happy to work with New Braunfels to develop a pragmatic, sustainable, long-term plan for the continued use and preservation of our rivers. After all, the RSI's Vision Statement reads:
Rivers are a major part of Earth's circulatory system, supplying nutrients to support the oceans' biological productivity, plus other important natural and cultural functions. But rivers are also used for consumptive uses and waste disposal in ways that reduce their essential flows and otherwise hinder their crucial functions. Recreation and tourism are increasingly important uses of rivers. These are essential human activities that can be instrumental in helping people understand and support proper river stewardship.

The Research Center for River Recreation and Tourism will encourage and facilitate research from all relevant disciplines and will foster a holistic perspective on river systems. The Center will particularly focus on developing and disseminating an understanding of the processes and methods by which recreation and tourism can lead to better stewardship.
Sounds like a win-win for everyone involved. That is, of course, assuming one side is more concerned with the greater public good, as opposed to establishing a private waterfront for the well-heeled in New Braunfels.

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