Tweaks & MNF

I’ve made a couple of tweaks to the site today, which you may notice in the sidebar over on the right side of the screen. “Latest Tweets” inserted, other stuff moved around and re-sized. Let me know if you like, dislike, or have problems with the updated layout.

Tonight I’ll be a bit busy with a certain midwestern NFL team playing a certain New England NFL team in Monday Night Football. I wrote last year about my one and only visit to Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City and posted several pictures from that trip in 2006. It will be an exciting 48 hours in KC, with the Chiefs at home in a premier, nationally broadcast game tonight, and the Royals next door at Kaufmann Stadium tomorrow night with a wildcard playoff game, their first appearance in the postseason in 29 years.

One picture that I didn’t use from that day because it was “blurry” actually fits in quite nicely with some pictures I’ve posted recently (here, here, and here), so here it is. Go Chiefs! Go Royals! (Even though the Royals will then get crushed by my beloved Angels in the next round.)

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Filed under Family, KC Chiefs, LA Angels, Paul, Photography, Travel

Juicy Chunks O’ Wisdom For Sunday, September 28th

‘Cause the baseball postseason is here and my beloved Angels have the best record in baseball, that’s why.

  • In addition to the moon in the evening sky, there are a couple of bright planets. Look for them all! Last night (Saturday, 09/27) the Moon was very close to a very bright Saturn. Tonight, the Moon was getting close to a somewhat bright but very reddish Mars. The Moon will keep heading up higher into the sky each night and getting brighter, but if you’ve got binoculars, it’s a great time to be looking. Before it starts getting cold. Like GRRM said…
  • The Long-Suffering Wife cut her finger yesterday in the kitchen. I put a bandage on it, and the one immediately at hand in the kitchen cupboard was an old SpongeBob SquarePants bandage. Not a big issue, until much later, when the lights got turned off in the bedroom and she realized that it glowed in the dark. Her reaction was quite interesting, to say the least.
  • Is it unreasonable to think that our air traffic system should be robust enough so that a single disgruntled employee can cause massive disruptions of thousands of flights, leaving hundreds of thousands of travelers stranded, a mess than continues to be a mess three days later and will continue to be a mess for days more? Did no one anywhere in the FAA or Transportation Department think that there should be some sort of backup plan if a single TRACON had to go offline?
  • Jessie went out on Wednesday morning and was stunned to find her prized squirrel carcass gone from the patio sidewalk. For two days, every time she went out in back she went straight to that spot and started sniffing around and looking for it. Then she would look at me with sad, accusing, old dog eyes. I swear, I didn’t touch it, I left it there. I’m figuring there’s a coyote or raccoon or owl or hawk or crow that found an easy, more or less freshly dead meal and took off with it.
  • Pumpkin spice Oreos? Really? I will make a bold statement here — I have never had “pumpkin spice” anything. Not lattes, not beer, not cookies, not cheesecake, not ice cream, not pickles — nothing! As such, I feel fully qualified to feel like I’m the last guy who can tell humanity about the pods in “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” or Charlton Heston at the end of “Soylent Green.” “It’s pumpkin spice, humans! Stop eating it! It’s sent by aliens to take over your brains! Don’t eat the pumpkin spice!”
  • At least the glow in the dark SpongeBob SquarePants bandage is on her “driving” finger. At least, that’s what we call it here in Los Angeles.
  • It’s hockey preseason and I’m learning that I need to get my gimpy shoulder into mid-season form quickly. My usual reaction to a Kings goal is to instinctively and immediately throw my arms in the air. If my arm hurts when I do that, we’ve got a problem. (The Vuvuzela of Victory only sings its sweet, sweet song during the playoffs. We have to save the juju for when it’s really needed.)
  • How much does a wagon cost these days? You know — small, red, kid sized, used for hauling toys, dirt, and little sisters. I’m asking for a canine friend.
  • The reports I’ve seen said that the contract employee who sabotaged the FAA air traffic control center in Chicago was upset because they had just been informed they were being transferred to Hawaii. Further developments and information are most certainly coming, but for the moment, let’s examine that allegation. Now, mind you, I absolutely love the city of Chicago. I spent a couple of years there as a kid (junior high school years) in the suburbs, still love going back to visit. I’ve never had a bad time there. But is it so good that when “threatened” with a transfer to freakin’ HAWAII I would go berserk? Are we talking about a different Hawaii than the one I see on TV with the beaches, the jungles, the weather, the surfing, blah, blah, blah?
  • Or the squirrel RE-ANIMATED and its rotting, evil, zombie squirrel body is stalking the trees, waiting for its chance to catch Jessie unawares so that it can WREAK ITS VENGEANCE!!
  • That comma is really important in the “It’s pumpkin spice, humans!” line.
  • Los Angeles about ten days ago, lunch time, near Beverly Hills. South of Sunset, by the Pacific Design Center, between San Vicente and La Cienega. One of the million little, itty-bitty strip malls that cover LA like scabs. As usual for the breed, this one might have had 12 to 15 parking spaces, all full. I’m sitting there eating outside when a brand new, white, shiny, Maserati Quattorporte pulls into the lot. He’s in luck! There’s a full size SUV, an Urban Assault Vehicle, just pulling out of a space. The SUV departs and the person driving (the windows were blacked out, couldn’t see them) whips it around and tries to pull into the just-vacated parking spot. “Tries” is the key word here. They back up and try again, unsuccessfully. And again. And again. All of this despite the fact that a vehicle twice as big just pulled out of that spot. Just about the time I’m ready to start laughing and go offer to park it for them, they give up. They ROAR out of the parking lot, tires screaming — because they have a Maserati Quattroporte and they have to show the world how insanely cool they are. As they leave, another SUV, just as large as the previous one, pulls in and swings into that parking spot in one try. The conclusion is obvious — despite that $140K price tag, the Maserati Quattroporte has the turning radius of a battleship and is a pig to handle in tight spaces! Well, that or someone was seriously overcompensating for something, and it wasn’t the fact that they can’t drive for beans.

Remember, “Some days you win, some days you lose. Some days it rains.” That’s deep. Really. Not even being snarky. From Bull Durham, one of the finest baseball movies ever made. (It happens to be about baseball. A bit. And other things.) ((I’ll shut up now.))

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Filed under Astronomy, Dogs, Freakin' Idiots!, Health, Juicy Chunks, LA Angels, Los Angeles, Ronnie, Sports

Panorama: UC Davis Picnic Day, California

One of my daughters went to the University of California at Davis. UC Davis has a wonderful campus and some great traditions that we got to learn about. One of the best is “Picnic Day” in the spring, full of parades, activities, food, and fun. Of these, my favorite was the “Battle Of The Bands,” held in the amphitheater-like park next to the river that runs through the campus. The year I was there the participants were the UC Davis band-ah, the UC Irvine Anteater band (my alma mater and that of my other daughter), the UC Berkeley band, the “legendaryStanford Marching Band, and I think one other that I can’t recall. Whatever. It went on for hours and was fantastic. This panoramic picture was taken in April, 2011. (Click to enlarge.)

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This panorama comes from seven images of 2304 x 3456 pixels (8 megapixels) taken with a Canon Rebel XT DSLR, combined into an image of 8924 x 3337 pixels (29.7 megapixels).

If you get to go to Picnic Day, have fun at the Battle of the Bands (remember to bring sunscreen!), and say hello to Gunrock for me!

 

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Filed under Family, Music, Panorama, Photography, Travel

Astrophotography For September 26th

“Low hanging fruit.” In common usage today, it means winning the easy game, picking up the simple rewards that are right in front of you, or taking advantage of opportunities that you practically are tripping over. Tonight’s photos are an instance of “low hanging fruit” in an astronomical photography sense.

When I took Jessie out for her evening constitutional, it was “clear and a million” here. It was about a half hour after sunset, just starting to get dark. The bats were out — it’s a good thing, keeps the bug population down. And hanging low in the west was a very thin crescent moon. I left Jessie to check her “pee-mail” and ran inside to get cameras and the little telescope.

A quick check of the ephemeris app (I like “Moon Phase”, it howls on full moon nights) shows that the moon was new on the 23rd at 23:15 UT. Since it was now about 02:00 UT on the 27th (19:00 on the 26th PDT), that meant that the moon was about 74:45 old, a bit over three days. That’s a thin crescent.

It isn’t that hard to see the moon as much as a day earlier than that, but it gets exponentially harder the earlier you get to new moon. Not only is the “younger” moon closer to the sun and lost in the glare, which means it’s closer to the horizon at sunset at a time when the sky’s brighter, but it’s also thinner and dimmer to boot. There are amateur astronomers who actively try to see how “young” a moon they can see. I think the earliest I’ve seen it is about 35:00 or so, but the records are 15:32 for the naked eye and 11:40 for optically-aided sightings.

So 74:45 is very pretty, quite noticeable, and not that hard to take photos of. With a mid-sized telephoto lens (75-300 mm) you can see this:

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A wider-angle shot with the moon down near the horizon will often show trees, hills, and buildings along with the moon. This can help frame the picture.

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In addition, you can see that the moon is floating through a sky that is still not that dark at all. For shots using a long telephoto lens, you should use a tripod if available, or at least try to brace yourself against something (such as a car). This will minimize blurring when the exposures get up to a significant fraction of a second.

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Quickly setting up the little ‘scope, while it was still fairly light, I got this view. It’s similar to the view I got when I did this last year, but the moon then was 13% illuminated and 91 hours old, as opposed to 8% illuminated at 74:45 hours.

The first problem with taking these images is that it’s hard to focus, with the moon being difficult to see. This same issue also makes the pictures wishy-washy. The problem is in the low contrast due to the bright-ish sky and relatively dim moon. In a few days, the illuminated portion of the moon will be MUCH brighter and the pictures can be taken well after sunset so the background sky will be quite dark, giving you a high contrast situation. Good pictures, easier focusing.

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Once the sky gets a little darker, your focusing gets easier and the contrast goes up, but now you’re looking through a whole lot more atmosphere. Even clear air is usually turbulent and gives a slightly fuzzy image as a result. (There’s a reason the Hubble Space Telescope and every other telescope we can manage are all up above the atmosphere.) At sunrise or sunset, longer viewing paths through the air, much more turbulence, much fuzzier pictures.

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The other factor which didn’t help was vibration as I took the pictures. I have gotten a neat little toy which will trigger the camera remotely, which can reduce the vibration by a couple of orders of magnitude — but the battery is dead on the receiver. So much for being an old Boy Scout — I was not prepared.

Tomorrow I’ll try to remember to get new batteries. Of course, tomorrow it won’t be “clear and a million.” If I’m prepared in advance and looking forward to an observing and photography session, we’ll no doubt have the first significant rain for the first time in close to a year.

It’s okay. We need the water.

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Filed under Astronomy, Photography, Space

Flash Fiction: Bust (Act Three)

Late last year we did something similar to the current ongoing Flash Fiction Challenge. Then, we spent five weeks (here, here, here, here, and here) writing 200 words each week. Each week we used the previous work of someone or some group to build on. It was pretty fun.

This time we were misled by a devious and diabolical ringleader, who instructed us to write 500 words as the first half of a 1,000 word story. But then our beloved Big Chuck changed the rules on us, revealing last week that our 500 words were only the first third of a story. Last week we all took someone else’s first 500 words and added the “middle” 500 words of our own.

My first 500 words from two weeks ago was picked up by Jemima Pett and her continuation of my story can be found here. I really liked what she did and there are many suitably creepy things for us to figure out on our own. Alas, as of this writing, no one has picked it up to write a third act. Maybe later.

Last week I picked up the first 500 words from Aspen Gainer — her original post and website can be found here, while my 2nd 500 word continuation can be found here. This story thread has proven popular. So far it’s been picked up by Leah Heard and by Jon Stoffel. Both are wonderful and well written and I encourage you to read them.

Finally, this week we’re to pick up a story that we have yet to work on and finish it with a third section of 500 words. I’ve picked “Bust,” which is so far very creepy and ominous and threatening and not necessarily for those who don’t like horror or slasher films. Like me! Which is one of the reasons that it’s such a challenge to finish without screwing up too badly.

(Late, late note — this was a bitch to get down to size, my toughest edit in a long time. First draft was 731 words, second was 619, third was 541, fourth & final draft is 500 words on the nose. I win!)

“Bust” was started two weeks ago by Geletilari, continued last week by Sweetsoleah, and now completed by me. I hope everyone enjoys it!

BUST (Act Three)

Act One (by Geletilari)

I throw the dart up into the air and it hits the ceiling and sticks. I watch it, laying prone on my bed, pillow under my feet. My new white Hanes crew socks are so bright. I love new socks and underwear. I wiggle my toes and look back up to the ceiling, eyeing the blue dart and daring it to fall. As if on command, it releases its hold on the ceiling and drops, landing softly on my thigh, bouncing and resting on the bed.

“Shit.”

I toss another dart northward and it does not make it to the ceiling, falling between my legs onto the sheet. I continue this way for some time. It is a game I made up and I change the rules every time. I don’t play it often. But I play it when I am angry. Why am I angry? I am angry because my brother Garth is successful. He is the golden boy in the family and he just got a new house and a new wife. I am angry because I am working at an Applebee’s instead of at the pool like I wanted to this summer. I am angry because Jeannette broke up with me right before our one year anniversary and after I spent money on concert tickets. I am angry because my name is Clark. Who am I, fucking Superman? I am angry that I will never be Superman.

I toss a red dart and it sticks. I roll over onto my belly and close my eyes. I wait for it to fall. The doorbell rings, and I jump up out of bed, catching the dart on my left forearm. It pierces the skin and I go to pull it out, looking out of the second story window. I love weekends. I smile for the first time this morning. Jehovah Witnesses! Two of them. One is a man in a nice suit, the other a lady in a pants suit. I can hardly contain my glee. Maybe today won’t be a total bust.

I open my top drawer and take out my revolver, sliding it into the back of my jeans. I grab a pair of cuffs.

“No, no, there are two of them.” I laugh and find some rope and a t-shirt and bound downstairs. The front door is at the bottom of the steps. I can see them peeking through the cut class window, altering the prisms on the quarry tile at my feet. Opening the door, I try not to look excited.

“Yeah?” I already see the woman take one step forward, a pamphlet in her hand already open to a specific page.

“Do you every wonder if God exists? Would you like to discuss it?”

“Yes, I’d like to. I’m very concerned about it.”

I open the door wider.

“Won’t you come in?”

Act Two (by Sweetsoleah)

With a bright smile the woman and the man step inside.

From here on it is easy for me, like following a pattern. It is not the first time that I will do this, but at this moment I feel like it is the most satisfying time.

A wicked grin spreads over my face while I close the door behind them. It only takes a few minutes for me to have them at the right place. A quick lie and they are in the basement. I show them the fitness room to appear polite, but then I lead them right through my favorite door.

„Inside please, the room is not as pretty as the one upstairs, but at least down here we have no problems with bugs. The exterminator said he would come yesterday, but he didn’t show up and now I can’t let anyone sit in there. It is really disgusting I am sorry.“

„No problem Mr. Bennington“, replies the man smoothly.

„Clark, please, Mr. Bennington is my father.“

I give him a friendly smile, before I turn away to close the door behind us. In front of us is not a room, but a small corridor with two other doors, one of those is a cupboard with my favorite playthings. They look back at me, but I shoo them forward. No need for them to know, that I will lock the door behind us. They reach the door on the other side of the corridor and open it. I know what lies behind. A small windowless room with four chairs and a table. No other furniture or decorations.

With a frown the woman turns around to look at me.

„Are you sure that we can’t sit upstairs? It would be a lot friendlier talking about the lord with the sun shining through the window.“

I put on the saddest expression and tell her the same lie again.

„Really I can’t let you see this and the smell is the worst. The only place that I can really use is this one. I am really sorry, but maybe you would like something to drink?“

Her smile doesn’t return, but she nods and I can feel the shell of my lie cracking. I have to move fast now. I smile reassuringly at her and move to the other door.

In the cupboard is everything I need. In the shadow of the door they both can’t see me and this is my chance. My smile broadens and I take my favorite knife out of the cupboard and put it on my belt. Next I take the revolver from the back of my jeans where I concealed it. The metall shines in the dim light and I check the safety off.

I step around the door of the cupboard and point the revolver straight at them. I remember the first time I did this my arm shook slightly, but today it is straight and strong. I am no longer nervous about this.

I grin at the man, who is looking at me with a strange expression.

„Stay exactly where you are, understand?“

Act Three (by Paul Willett)

“I understand, Mr. Benni…, uh, Clark. What are you doing?.”

“Shut up. Get into the room.” I wiggle the gun in that direction so there’s no misunderstanding. “Both of you, now.”

“No, Clark,” the woman says. “You promised we would talk about God. Salvation can be yours, but not this way.”

She’s supposed to be screaming. They always scream. What’s wrong with her, doesn’t she understand who’s in control here?

“Shut up and move. Get in there or the shooting starts.”

“Clark,” the man says, “what would your brother Garth think if he saw you right now?”

His words punch me in the chest. I stagger back and fall against the cupboard door. My gun drops to my side, leaving me vulnerable. I can’t ever allow myself to be vulnerable. I must be in control.

I quickly raise the gun back up, but neither of my guests moves to take advantage of my momentary weakness. My arm shakes again, just like that first time. My breath comes in short gasps as I stagger upright. I put the gun right in the man’s face.

“How do you know my brother?” I bellow. “Did that sanctimonious prick send you here? Did he tell you you were going to die here? Move or die! Your choice.”

The man’s melancholy gaze never wavers. The woman holds out that damn pamphlet again. “We must discuss God and salvation, Clark. Garth thought it might be a last chance to save you.”

I don’t need any more of this shit from either of them. With a quick motion, I shift my aim. Point blank, right between her eyes.

I pull the trigger.

This world becomes another.

The sound is deafening. The gun’s kick lifts my arm. Where there must be spattered blood and brains, there is nothing but gunpowder smoke, acrid and stinging.

The woman is a blur, now behind me. Somehow she finds my handcuffs, cuffs my free wrist, pulls and twists my gun hand down and back to cuff it. My arm breaks in two places. I have yet to take a breath since shooting.

I scream. I scream until my lungs ache. When I can finally stop screaming, I find myself bound to one of the chairs. The man is calmly tying a tourniquet on my arm, a jagged bone sticking out through the skin. There is a lot of blood.

“Who are you?” I scream hysterically.

“We are nobody, merely servants,” he says calmly.

“You should have listened,” the woman says. “You could have had salvation. Now you have damnation.”

I ignore her. My vision goes grey from the pain and loss of blood. I have a sudden moment of clarity. “Who are you servants of?” I ask.

The man stands and looks past me to the door, bowing his head solemnly.

“Hello, Clark,” Garth says, stepping into my view. “We’re going to discuss the secret to my success.”

Garth takes out a very large knife, his eyes starting to glow like coals.

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Filed under Science Fiction, Writing

I Need A Better System

Or an assistant. Or an editor. Or some software to keep track of what I’ve written and what I haven’t.

I just spent the better part of an hour writing a really good piece about a certain topic. Not a great piece, mind you, but a pretty good one. Not anything I was going to be sending out when I apply to Clarion, but not anything I was going to be ashamed about.

I proofed it, made a couple of changes. Just before I hit the big, blue “Publish” button, I stopped, something nagging at my brain. Something about one of the phrases and metaphors I had used sounded familiar…

I saved the draft and went hunting. Fortunately, with everything being electronic and WordPress having some good search and editing tools built in, it only took a minute to find what my subconscious had been nagging me about.

Almost the exact same article, written about four months ago.

On the one hand, consistency is a marvelous thing. Upon closer examination, there were whole paragraphs that were about 80% identical. The layout and flow of the entire article was the same. A couple of the new snarky comments were better than the old ones, but several of the old ones were pretty good too.

But it was all useless. Publishing it would have proven nothing other than the fact that I need to keep a closer eye on symptoms of early-onset Alzheimer’s. (Just kidding — I think.)

So, making lemons out of lemonade, it’s time to think about upping my game and getting a bit more organized here.

Any other bloggers out there having this issue and have any suggestions on software or a system to watch out for this sort of thing in the future? Suggestions in the comments would be appreciated.

However, no need to suggest that I simply pull my head out of my ass. I’ve already figured that one out on my own, thanks!

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Filed under Paul, Writing

Jessie 1, Taunting Squirrel 0

As dogs and squirrels do, Jessie and the squirrels in the yard have a love/hate relationship. Jessie hates them, and the squirrels love to taunt her. You know the game, where they see just how far down the tree or how far out onto the grass they can go to make her attack with a crazed fervor, only to have them dart to safety at the last second and then sit just out of reach making obnoxious squirrel sounds. Repeat as necessary until everyone involved will be getting a good night’s sleep tonight.

Jessie’s slowed down a few steps (she’s now 13-½ years old) and often ignores them these days, but a new crop of squirrels have grown up or moved in and they’ve been giving her all sorts of grief. It helps her keep her dog-ish figure to chase one every now and then.

This afternoon when I came home, as is often the case, the sound of me parking and then locking the car set off a round of barking and howling from the back yard. (I hope that she doesn’t do that all day long when we’re gone — I’ve always hated having neighbors who had dogs that did that and they didn’t do anything about it. It’s better than having dogs that bark and howl all night long, but it’s still annoying, and I don’t ever want to be that neighbor. On the other hand, we’ve never gotten a call or a note, so if she’s being annoying, she’s not annoying enough to make anyone complain.) Sometimes she’ll trot to the gate to see if it’s me (or The Long-Suffering Wife), but not today.

I went into the back yard, expecting to find her lounging in one of her shady spots in the dirt (it’s a dog thing) but instead found her out in the sun on the patio. Still howling and barking as I walked up to her. (In addition to losing a step in her advancing years, I suspect she’s also getting a wee bit deaf and blind.) When she finally sees me she jumps up — and grabs the dead squirrel that she had been guarding.

I’ve never seen any sign that she has ever actually caught one, let alone killed it. We’ve had them die of disease and wind up on the ground (gross!) and we’ve had them fall into the hot tub and drown (really gross!), but she’s never paid any attention to those. The one she’s got now seems healthy enough, except of course for the spots where something’s been gnawing on it. It might have fallen and been injured before Jessie got to it, but I’m not doing an autopsy (rodent-opsy? squirrel-opsy?) to find out.

So, behold, Jessie, the mightiest hunter of the neighborhood, ruler of all she surveys, killer of squirrels! (Please, dear God, don’t let it go to her head, especially if the next critter she runs into is a skunk!)

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photo 2

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Filed under Critters, Dogs, Photography