Monday, December 27, 2010

Waxing Gibbous Moon, Dec. 27, 2010

Yesterday I was struck by the intensely clear skies overhead, lacking even the ubiquitous brownish haze along the horizon. The front that'd blown through at Christmas really cleared the air, in a literal fashion. After my futile attempt to observe and photograph the solstice lunar eclipse last week, the astronomy bug had taken hold of me again. A quick check of the San Antonio Clear Sky Chart:

Showed that not only were conditions quite favorable for clear-sky observations, the rest of the week would be obscured by clouds. So it was now or never, to overstate the drama a bit. The only drawback would be that temperatures would drop below freezing. For this Texas boy, that's a significant obstacle to overcome, but I made the effort.

During my ill-fated eclipse shoot last week, I had major halation issues with the type of eyepiece projection photography I was attempting, so moved the primary mirror of my telescope up several inches for prime astrophotography. The resulting lunar image was very, very sharp and I wanted to experiment some more. Unfortunately, by the time I made the decision to set up, the sun had already gone down, and in the poor lighting conditions my polar alignment of my scope was mediocre at best. Good polar alignment allows long time exposures of the night sky, as the motor drives the telescope to track the sky as it appears to move overhead. Early test shots of the Pleiades and Orion Nebula was disappointing. Achieving accurate focus through the camera was exceptionally difficult, but even worse, exposures longer than 5 seconds resulted in stars elongated into streaks. Again, poor polar alignment.

Eventually I gave up on shooting any Deep Space Objects, and decided to wait for the moon to rise. Checking online, I expected moon rise at around 11:30, and figured I could shoot by midnight, or 12:30 at the latest. Turns out I got sloppy and looked up the pacific timezone table or somesuch, because it was 12:30 before the moon started peeking over the rooftops of my neighborhood. I was tired, cold and cranky by that time, and couldn't even entertain myself by random astronomical observations, because, you know, prime focus and all that. Eventually, I got this shot, and broke everything down by 2 a.m.

The shot above is the best of approximately 50 shots. Unlike my sharp pre-eclipse photo last week, with the air still and clear, the moon this night was still fairly low in the sky, and turbulence was rampant. Through the scope, it appeared as if the sky were boiling in front of the moon, and distorting it as you might expect. The trouble is that the turbulence causes focus to come and go. I had to discard many shots in which southern craters were very sharp, but northern mountains were fuzzy. Or the mountains were sharp, but the lunar horizon was blurred. It was a mess. Waiting until the moon was at the zenith might have cured those problems, but then again, might not. I wasn't about to stay up until 4 a.m. to find out. I'll get some better lunar photos some day, but until then, this will have to do.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Friday, December 24, 2010

Friday Night Videos

I was in college when MTV started playing this "Little Drummer Boy" duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. It was an incongruous pairing, and strange to see Bowie looking so young, but the arrangement was quite inventive and the two singers paired very well together. Would that all one-off celebrity Christmas specials produce such memorable music. Merry Christmas and happy holidays to you and yours!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Fleetwood Mac.

Now Playing: Bob Rivers Comedy Corps Twisted Christmas

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The eclipse that wasn't

So yesterday I checked the weather reports and read the tea leaves, at which point all indications were pointing toward perfect observing conditions for the 2010 lunar solstice eclipse. Neat-o! Lunar eclipses aren't all that uncommon, but I was jazzed to attempt some astrophotography of the event. I dimly recall attempting something similar 20+ years ago with a film camera, but like all my astrophotography efforts back then, classifying the results as "failure" is being generous.

I set up my Meade 645 6" f/5 telescope in the back yard, and spend maybe half an hour leveling it and getting it into polar alignment, more or less. Then I adjusted the finder scope and collimated the mirrors, so as to get the best possible images. After the sun went down and the full moon came up, I attached The Wife's Canon 50D camera to the telescope via a T-mount camera adapter, with a 25mm eyepiece in the adapter barrel. Using the camera's Live View feature to get accurate focus, I shot some test images, and was disturbed by the following:

Yes, the center is certainly sharp, but what's with that halation around the edges of the moon? I tried different size eyepieces. No difference--the center remained sharp, but the further out from center the fuzzier the image got. After about an hour of failed troubleshooting, I tried one last gambit. My telescope is designed to act as a lens for the camera, with no eyepiece in between. This is called "prime" photography. The downside is that I'm stuck at one focal length--that of the telescope--and can't swap out the magnification as with eyepiece projection. Also, the primary mirror of the 'scope has to be moved forward in the barrel several inches to make up for the focal difference between the human eye and camera, which means that in this configuration, it is useless for eyeball astronomy. It simply won't focus for human viewing. Still, I thought it worth the hassle if I could get some sharp eclipse images--and if the halation was still present, I'd know the fault lies with the mirrors of my telescope, or perhaps my crummy collimation. Here's my first test shot using the telescope as a prime lens:

Wow! Quite a difference, eh? I don't think I've ever taken an astrophotograph that sharp before. I was happy. Yes, the moon would be smaller this way without the eyepieces to magnify, but I could tolerate that in exchange for, you know, decent images. I was ready for the eclipse!

Then the high fog rolled in. Low clouds, whatever. Streaming up from the south, the misty stuff was like sheer curtains billowing across the moon, obscuring it one moment before clearing out for half a second of almost-clear viewing. The forecast had called for generally clear skies, with maybe partial clouds later in the evening. Nobody had said anything about this. I vowed to wait it out. Surely it would clear out, right? Around 12:30 a.m., just as the moon was entering the umbra of the Earth's shadow, I tried to shoot between the clouds, or at least through the thinnest areas blowing by overhead. The results were uniformly disappointing. Even in the thinnest sections too much light was lost for good exposure--below is the best capture I managed, and even this--over-dark though it may be--was brightened up considerably in Photoshop:

On the bright side, I've become a believer in my telescope's ability to take sharp astronomical photos, even if it wasn't able to show off with the eclipse. My particular telescope is a short-barrel Newtonian, designed back in the '70s for wide-field, deep space astrophotography. We've got plenty of clear winter nights coming up in the next few months, so hopefully I'll have an opportunity to turn it toward the Orion Nebula or the Pleiades and other cool celestial spectacles. We'll see if my sharp lunar image above is a fluke or if I replicate that focus on a regular basis.

Now Playing: The Kinks Low Budget

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bottling jalapeño braggot

Back in July I started several batches of brew. Of those, the plum wine oxidized and had to be dumped, the plum melomel turned out moderately well and the planned jalapeño braggot has continued aging in its 1.5 gallon fermenter. I finally bottled that braggot tonight.

Way back when, I started with a pound of crushed, smoked malt, sparged as if I were making a beer, and added the wort to a like amount of honey must. That was back in September. At the beginning of November, I placed a pan-seared jalapeño in the braggot, sliced lengthwise with the seeds removed. After a week, I racked the braggot and removed the jalapeño. Then I added potassium sorbate and campden tablets to kill off any remaining yeast, then back-sweetened with approximately a quarter pound of dissolved honey. At the time I didn't hold out much hope for it--the flavor was muddled and harsh, and the liquid was still quite hazy. What a difference a few weeks makes. After the last racking, the haze settled out and the braggot is much clearer. I ended up filling six bottles (again, it was a small experimental batch of only 1.5 gallons) and a sample taste revealed the jalapeño flavor wasn't nearly as harsh as I'd feared. In fact, I was surprised at how much it had mellowed. The smoked malt was lost in the mix of flavors, but it may come back out with a little aging. I'll put these aside for a year or so and see if time can work a little magic.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Aliens in the backyard

This is an automeris io larvae, otherwise known as a caterpillar that will eventually spin a cocoon and emerge as a striking, if short-lived, io moth. It caught my eye last week on one of The Wife's rose bushes in the back yard. It surprise me 1) because I'd never seen one in person before, and B) we'd had several freezes and I didn't think there were any caterpillars around after that.


I love macro photography because it brings out things that you'd never see with the naked eye. This caterpillar is a case in point. How alien is that? It normally looks like a fat, fuzzy green worm, but up close, wow! Those little tufts of spines, when magnified, reveal even smaller needles full of venom emerging from their tips. The face, which looks a uniform green, is actually heavily spotted with yellow dots. And the feet are hairy! Who knew these caterpillars were related to hobbits?


These shots were taken with a Nikon 50mm 1.8 AI-S manual focus lens mounted on a reversing ring coupled with a 2x telextender on a Canon 5D II. That's a pretty low-budget macro setup (well, except for the camera). I hope to some day own a real, honest-to-gosh macro lens like the Canon EF 100mm 2.8, along with some Kenko extension tubes. Until I can save up that kind of scratch, though, I'll have to make due with my current setup, and find backyard aliens where I can.

Now Playing: Talking Heads Stop Making Sense

Friday, December 17, 2010

Friday Night Videos

This is probably as far removed from a holiday song as possible, but "Tusk" is probably my favorite piece by Fleetwood Mac. As a reaction against the overwhelming success of Rumors it is brilliant, and as an example of Lindsay Buckingham's bugnuts insane creativity, it is uncanny. But for sheer, over-the-top excess (the entire USC marching band!?) nothing else even comes close.

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Go West.

Now Playing: Aerosmith Live in Houston, 1977

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Santa dropped off a little pre-Christmas surprise last week:

Monkeyshine, our 14-year-old pound-rescue beagle, is quite happy. She's been lonely since Precious disappeared right around the 4th of July. Bug has claimed the new puppy as his own and dubbed him "Polkadots" because of the tan spotting on his legs. It's quite the friendly dog, and destructively chews anything he can get ahold of as puppies are wont to do. He even has the classic beagle howl, but since he's young, it's squeaky and several octaves above what you'd expect. Quite funny, actually. He looks to be of the 15-inch beagle variety, with over-large feet that flop as he walks or runs. Reminds me a good deal of Sigfreid, actually. Let's see if we can keep this little guy from vanishing on us.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010


So I'm gradually taking a liking to my dark, malty, brown sugar ale, and I have five gallons of plum wine fermenting in a water bath to keep temperatures low enough to prevent the formation of harsh fusel alcohols. The other empty fermentation vessels in my office, though, are a depressing sight, and I decide I need to start another project. Normally I'd start a mead, but I almost always use the 6-gallon container for that (which I then rack into smaller containers to which I add different fruits/spices to experiment), not to mention honey is expensive. What could I do that's cheap and fast, scalable to small batches? On one home brew forum I occasionally visit, there's a permanent thread about "Apfelwein." The Wife and bought a bottle at EPCOT when we visited Disney last summer, and enjoyed it quite a bit. Apfelwein is essentially German apple wine, distinct from cider because it is drier and made with wine yeast as opposed to beer/ale yeast. It has a modestly higher alcohol content as well. It struck me that this would be just right for my 2.5 gallon fermenter, so I set to work.

In the fermenter I combined 2.5 gallons of Tree Top Apple juice (no preservatives!) and a pound of table sugar (the recipe calls for dextrose corn sugar, but I didn't have any and didn't feel up to a run to my local homebrew supply), along with two teaspoons of yeast nutrient, 1.5 teaspoons of yeast energizer and a packet of Montrachet wine yeast (which I'd started in a glass of water/apple juice earlier). Once everything was well-mixed, I closed it up, put water in the air lock and set the whole thing in the water bath next to the plum wine.

The water bath has been an interesting experiment. I've got the vessels wrapped in towels, and pour cup fulls of water over the towels to keep them wet. I add ice to the water every night, and the ceiling fan in my office keep the air circulating to aid in evaporation. The result is that my fermenting wine musts are significantly cooler than the surrounding temperatures. Having come into homebrew via ales, which ferment at much higher temperatures than other beverages, I never gave much thought to temperature issues before--which is probably why so many of my early mead attempts were so incredibly harsh. Wine yeasts ferment faster at higher temperatures, creating fusel alcohols that take months or years to break down. Fusels aren't harmful to drink, but they are harsh and unpleasant. By fermenting these at a water bath-aided lower temperature, the resulting wines should be drinkable at a much younger age and simply be a better drink overall. Also, by fermenting more slowly at lower temperatures, fewer fruity flavors and aromas should be "blown off" due to overly aggressive fermentation. Plus, unlike other projects I've had, there's been no foaming blowouts while using the water bath. Cool.

Will post an update when it's time to rack.

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Friday, December 10, 2010

Friday Night Videos

This... now this is truly a "Friday Night Video" throwback. Go West popped up on the late 80s music scene and scored a handful of modest hits. The first I ever heard of them, though, was through the video for "We Close Our Eyes", which earned heavy rotation status on Night Tracks and Friday Night Videos. I don't think the song actually charted, and have no idea if it aired on MTV, but it was quirky and original and got me to recognize the name of the band whenever I saw it. I'll never look at artist's dummies the same again...

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Noncy Sinatra.

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Monday, December 06, 2010

Once more unto the breach: Homebrew edition

Although my last attempt at making plum wine didn't turn out so well, I still have a deep freeze stocked with many, many frozen plums, quartered and pitted, so I had to give it another shot. This time, however, my intent is to be more careful and not repeat the errors that doomed the last batch. First off, I had major blowout issues with the first fermentation, stemming directly from using an insane 30 pounds of plums in a six-gallon batch of wine. Learning from my mistakes, I drew up a batch using 16 pounds of plums in five gallons--thus allowing more head space for the foam and cap. We'll see. I pulled the freezer bags of plums (roughly a 75/25 mix of juicy purple Methleys and yellow flesh, tart Santa Rosas) out on Saturday and let them thaw overnight. I have to say I'm a fan of freezing fruit for homebrew, because the juice gushed from the fruit and needed little additional mashing. The juice/pulp mixture was syrupy thick, incredibly fruity in scent and very sweet and fruity to taste.

I squeezed the juice from two large oranges and added a couple straw's worth of plum juice and cut the mix with an equal amount of water to make a yeast starter. I emptied a packet of Lavin 71B-1122 yeast--particularly well-suited for fruity wines. I covered this and set it aside to let it do its thing.

The recipe I'm attempting is a hybrid from Pattie Vargas & Rich Gulling's Making Wild Wines and Meads. Scaling up their one-gallons recipes for my 5-gallon effort, I put in:

  • 16 pounds of plums
  • 12 pounds of sugar
  • 1.25 tsp of grape tannin
  • 5 tsp pectic enzyme
  • 3 tsp acid blend
  • 5 tsp yeast nutrient
  • 1.25 tsp yeast energizer

I put the plums into my 6 gallon fermenter, and dissolved the rest in heated pots of water on the stove, then added that to the fermenter, which brought the total volume up to around 4 gallons. I topped up with cold water and stirred vigorously to oxygenate the must. It was about 90 degrees at this point. So I waited until the temperature had dropped to 80 degrees and pitched the yeast. One thing I learned in recent months is that wine yeasts don't like high temperatures. Well, they like it just fine, but ferment faster and produce harsh fusel alcohols in the process, which is why all my meads up to this point tend to taste like Listerine. Years of homebrewing ales have spoiled me this way. Lavin 71B-1122 yeast, specifically, like temperatures in the 50-70 degree range, preferably 55-60. To get around the problem, or at least minimize it, I've set up a water bath in my office--a shallow plastic tub which holds the six-gallon fermenter. I've wrapped a towel around the fermenter, and filled the tub with ice water. I soak the towel, and keep the ceiling fan in my office running. This, in theory at any rate, keeps the plum wine must fermenting at a lower temperature to produce a higher-quality beverage. We'll see. It was bubbling happily when I left this morning, but I may well find a blowout when I return home.

In other brewing news, I bottled the six gallon batch of Coopers Dark Ale I started way back in November. It took more than three weeks for it to fully ferment out, which my be a result of my belated addition of the brown sugar after the initial vigorous fermentation had peaked. In any event, the beer is a pretty, rich, dark color. I double-checked each bottle to make sure I added priming sugar (an embarrassing omission from some bottles in my last batch of beer) and they've been aging for a little more than a week and a half. All told, I filled 36 24-ounce bottles. They'll benefit from more aging, obviously, but curiosity is getting the better of me and I might try one tonight.

My other homebrew projects--both meads--are producing mixed results. After the plum wine oxidized, with grim resolve I decided not to chance it and bottled the plum melomel I'd started at the same time. The color wasn't quite so bright as I remembered, so the fear of losing another batch (albeit only 2.5 gallons) was too much to bear. I dosed it with potassium sorbate and campden tablets to knock out the yeast, then back-sweetened with a little more than a pound of honey before bottling. I opened a bottle several days later, just to check if there was any quality to it at all, and was happy to find it surprisingly drinkable. I think, yes, that a tiny bit of oxidation had occurred, but nothing tragic. It's extremely fruity, and the honey isn't apparent. It's also sweeter than I expected--before back-sweetening it was very, very dry--but not port wine sweet. It's not perfect, but entirely drinkable, which I consider a success. Aging may or may not help, and in any event, fruit wines generally don't age as well as grape wines. Not sure how all the honey in the mix will impact things, as meads generally benefit more from aging.

The other experiment, the 1.5 gallon braggot with smoked malt and jalapeño is still a work in progress. I back-sweetened with the remaining honey from the plum melomel back-sweetening attempt, added clarifying agents and was disappointed to see that it's being stubborn. Clearing is coming very, very slowly. A sample revealed the flavors to still be very harsh, with little blending. I expect I'll bottle this stuff up in a few days and hope aging will sort it out, otherwise I risk oxidation (which I'm now paranoid about, although I've gone 10 years without ever having that happen before).

I've got several empty fermentation vessels available now, but nothing cooking. I wonder what I'll try next--time to start another mead.

Now Playing: Dave Davies Rock Bottom

Friday, December 03, 2010

Friday Night Videos

Who's in the mood for retro? Good! Because that's what we've got today--Nancy Sinatra's signature hit, "These Boots Are Made for Walkin'". Dig those crazy go-go dancers and Nancy's oh-so-hip 60s dance moves. Groovy!

Previously on Friday Night Videos... Dream Academy.

Now Playing: Earth, Wind and Fire The Eternal Dance

Thursday, December 02, 2010

NASA discovers new form of life

Arsenic-based life. Yes, that's an over-simplification, but still. I've heard theories on chlorine breathers and silicon-based life (made famous by the Horta in Star Trek) and even hydrogen- and methane-breathers, but dang, this is bizarre:
At their conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe Simon will announce that they have found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic. All life on Earth is made of six components: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur. Every being, from the smallest amoeba to the largest whale, share the same life stream. Our DNA blocks are all the same.

But not this one. This one is completely different. Discovered in the poisonous Mono Lake, California, this bacteria is made of arsenic, something that was thought to be completely impossible. While she and other scientists theorized that this could be possible, this is the first discovery. The implications of this discovery are enormous to our understanding of life itself and the possibility of finding beings in other planets that don’t have to be like planet Earth.

Two possibilities come immediately to mind: 1) this evolved elsewhere and came to Earth via panspermia, or 2) life evolved on Earth twice, separately. Either way, this implies that at least simple life may be common in the universe. Simply stunning.

Now Playing: Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon