Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

March, 2008:

Junkbox Telescope Gallery

Some years back I posted Jeff Duntemann's Homebrew Radio Gallery, and for reasons unclear it's become one of the most popular pages on my site. (Tube construction may not be quite dead…) So a while back I wrote up and (almost) finished a page about all the various telescopes I've built out of junk since 1966. Longtime Contra readers have seen some of the photos, but a few are new scans of prints I've had in a box for decades.

Jeff Duntemann's Junkbox Telescope Gallery sat unfinished on a thumb drive for some months, until I finally bore down and finished it a few days ago. It's not a how-to; there has never been and will probably never be a better junkbox telescope how-to than Sam Brown's classic All About Telescopes, which is in turn a compendium of shorter booklets that Brown published through Edmund Scientific in the early-mid 1960s. $14.95 is cheap for a book like this. If you ever have the least inclination to put together a scope from scratch, buy Brown's book first.

The page is mostly a photo collection, with some odd notes on how I did what I did. Note well that you don't have to grind and polish your own mirror as I did. Ready-made 8″ primary mirrors can be had for $300 or sometimes less, and the rest of the scope can be, well, junk. Also note that I think Dobsonian mounts are silly: With a 2″ 45° street elbow you can have something approaching an equatorial mount if you live in the US.

Building scopes like this is mostly a lost art, and there are definitely advantages to scraping up the cash for a Meade or a Celestron. (Tapping in “M31” on a keypad is less messy than lying on your back in a cowfield and sighting the nearly invisible object along the edge of the tube.) But it's a good kid project, because when you're done you—and any involved kids— will know exactly how it works, and that's worth something all by itself.

Treasure Chest and Obama as Pettigrew

Even diehard comics fans have generally never heard of Treasure Chest of Fun and Fact—unless, of course, they went to Catholic grade school between 1946 and 1972. It was a comic book produced in Ohio for national distribution to parochial schools, and maps well to the era of Postwar Triumphal Catholicism. I was a grade schooler between 1958 and 1966, so Treasure Chest was always kicking around somewhere, along with Our Little Messenger, Young Catholic Messenger, and numerous other things that the George A. Pflaum Company of Dayton was always pumping out. I read Treasure Chest when it was handy, though I did so absent-mindedly and was never a big fan. The comic ran the gamut from preachy (always) to silly (often) and the quality was very uneven. The larger and long-running series were often beautifully done from a writing and art standpoint, though much of it glorified sports, which was a Catholic fetish at that time, in the hopes that young boys exhausted by sports will not go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know.

I was chasing memories around the Web the other night when I discovered the Treasure Chest archive at the Washington Research Library Consortium. This is a wonderful thing, but for copyright reasons it only has the magazines from 1946 through the end of 1963, which is unfortunate for reasons I'll relate shortly. I remembered only three of the continuing series; the rest of it had fled my brain cells until I started skimming the archive. There were textual letters from some priest (probably advising young boys not to go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know), illustrated lives of the Saints, and insufferable lectures by Patsy Manners on etiquette and how to throw good parties. (Mixed parties! No, don't read that! We don't do such things in Chicago!) It was a real and sometimes classic comic; if you read nothing else, check out Kidnaped by a Spaceship from 1959. If they ran more like that I might have been an enthusiastic fan, but no; most of what we got was like Chuck White and His Friends, which was about an older guy who took young boys off on wholesome adventures, I'm sure so that they would not go off by themselves somewhere and, well, you know. Funny animals were big, and for a bit of prescient comic surrealism (I flashed on Cerebus) skim The Bear and the Wicked Wainwright. (At one point the Wainwright calls the Bear a “base poltroon,” which became faddish on the playground for a few weeks, though I may have been the only one of us sixth graders who bothered to look up “poltroon.”)

If Treasure Chest is currently famous for one thing, it was for the 1961-62 series This Godless Communism, which still gets the lefties het up. I rolled my eyes a little then and still do; the problem with Communism is not its godlessness but the fact that it murdered a hundred million people in the 20th century alone. Treasure Chest understood its working-class Catholic audience and was completely comfortable with praising organized labor in one of its illustrated civics lessons. No contradictions here; being a liberal has not always meant being a Marxist.

And Treasure Chest was fundamentally liberal, as the term was understood in its time. If it has been famous primarily for This Godless Communism, it may soon become even more famous for something else: a 1964 series called 1976: Pettigrew for President! inked by the well-known comics artist Joe Sinnott. Again, it was a multipart civics lesson: A very slightly futuristic tale of how a candidate runs for President during the election of 1976—12 years in our future—with a little political huggermugger thrown in to keep it from being completely boring. (There were a few scenes with the SST, but in truth not a lot of other futuremongering. I was disappointed. What? 1976? No flying cars?) What none of us noticed at the time is that we never actually saw Mr. Pettigrew full-on. We saw his back, his hands, and so on, but never got a good look at him. I guess we all figured that it was about the process and not the man himself, and in truth we were all taken in and completely poleaxed when on the final page it was revealed that Timothy Pettigrew was Black! He got the nomination, but beyond that the story was open-ended. Here's what the final panel said, courtesy NPR:

“And so this man Pettigrew became the first Negro candidate for the President of the United States. He then went out across the land, this black man, to campaign for the highest office. Would he win? Well, the year was 1976. It was the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Could he win? Well, it would depend in part on how the boys and girls reading this comic grew up and voted … it would depend on whether they believed and, indeed, lived those words in the declaration — All Men are Created Equal.”

Alas, I have yet to see the comic scanned and posted anywhere, since content published in 1964 and after is automatically still in copyright. (The earlier issues had not been renewed and thus passed into the public domain.) The best we can do is a YouTube video, of all things.

It's a measure of our progress that what was seen as an inspiring piece of comic book science fiction in 1964 smacks of tokenism today: So we should vote for him just because he's black? Or dare we ask whether he has a chance of running the country? (The country may end up doing a lot of growing up next year, heh.) And if you ever wanted to invest in comic books, now's the time to hunt down and grab Treasure Chest Volume 19, issues 11-20. They're going to be worth something soon, no matter which way things go this fall.

Odd Lots

  • Do not fail to read Bruce Schneier's latest short item in Wired, which is his simple demolition of David Brin's peculiar “transparent society” concept, which I first read of in his so-so novel Earth (1990) and thought was BS even then. Having no secrets doesn't help where the differential of power between two parties is high. This seems pretty obvious to me; I do not understand why Brin gets points for this “no secrets” notion of his.
  • Some of the worst horror films (as well as SF films and some westerns) can be streamed without charge here. Where else can you find “Attack of the Giant Leeches” or “Killer Shrews,” both of which I recall seeing on Channel 7 at 4 PM on Thursdays back 1965-ish. Even at age 12 I could roll my eyes and say, “Those aren't giant shrews. Those are dogs in bad shrew costumes.” But hey, that's what makes a B-movie a B-movie, right?
  • It may be clever, but can a gun this small really be deadly? (That is, assuming you don't aim it up your left nostril…)
  • This is freaking amazing: Images of a landslide on Mars, taken while it's happening. (Thanks to Pete Albrecht for the link.)
  • Jim Strickland pointed out a pneumatic tennis-ball based antenna launcher. We always used slingshots back in the day, and I have a Greenlee Cablecaster that was designed for dragging CAT5 over suspended ceilings via fishline, but something about the ball shooter is very appealing.
  • Glover Wright is bringing back Science Fiction Quarterly as an online pub, and it looks promising. I recall reading a few ancient issues of the original SF Quarterly pulps from the late 50s and was pleased, though the world and I were, um, at least thirty years younger then. The first issue will be out in March.
  • Gripe of the week: The keycap letters on my expensive Avant Stellar keyboard are decals, and they are already wearing off. It's only been a year. What's this thing going to look like after another ten?
  • Speaking of keyboards: I need a wireless keyboard for use while sitting on the couch and running photos or video clips on our big TV. The SX270 is under the TV in plain view of the couch. The keyboard needs to have an integral pointing device. (I prefer things like IBM's TrackPoint nipple to the ubiquitous scratchpad.) Anybody got any suggestions?

Fruit Wine and Pork Stew

Not much time tonight, but it's worth reporting a recipe that Carol threw together off the top of her head earlier today:

Pork Stew

Cut a two-pound pork roast (not a loin) into 1/2″ cubes. Sprinkle flour on a cookie sheet and then salt the flour. Coat the pork cubes with flour and salt, then brown them in oil. Add half a 750 ml bottle of some sweetish wine. We used Mountain Spirit Winery's Angel Blush, a fruit wine consisting of 40% apple, 40% pear, and 20% raspberry. Cover and simmer the browned meat in the wine while you cut up three Yukon Gold potatoes and two apples (we used Braeburns) into similar sized cubes. Simmer for three-four hours. It's not critical. Add water if the liquid level gets too low. The apples will break down and contribute some body to the gravy. Makes a lot; we should get three suppers out of it.

I tend to like sweeter wines, but I've never really warmed to fruit wine of any kind. I just finished the bottle of Breezy Hills Raspberry we brought home from Iowa (near Minden) last October, and it wasn't terrible but wasn't great. Fruit wines tend to taste yeasty to me, a little like beer, and I don't know if it's just a taste quirk of mine, or if I simply haven't tried any really good fruit wines.

The stew recipe was an experiment to see if stews (which can sometimes have a sweet edge to good effect) could be simmered in a sweet wine. The Angel Blush is a little too sweet to drink in any quantity, so we used it in the stew, and it worked very well. I don't think I would cook a darker meat in sweet wine, but for whatever reason, it went beautifully with lean pork. Give it a shot.

Odd Lots

  • I remember reading somewhere years ago that having a photo of a box on your Web store improves your sell-through of downloadable software, even if the product is never sold in a box and even if the box doesn't even exist. Anyway, here is a product that helps you create imaginary product boxes.
  • Here's another very similar product. We evidently have a small industry here that I had never heard of before this morning.
  • And yet another: This time, it generates a 3-D rotating video of an imaginary box!
  • After a little further research, I'm guessing that the “online affiliate marketing” industry is driving the imaginary box subindustry. On the other hand, the online affiliate marketing industry is itself imaginary, and basically a scam that labors mightily to stay just half a hair on the legal side of the razor. It's what the 419 scams would be if Nigeria had something like the FTC.
  • From Pete Albrecht comes a link to a video showing how well a 21-foot (!!) X-wing model rocket flies. (Flies? So-so. Dies? Spectacularly!)
  • Don Lancaster has a detailed article (PDF format) about why rooftop PV solar power isn't as big a win as everybody says it is. Definitely worth reading, and pay especial attention to the description of exergy, a concept I had heard of but not understood until now. As with TTL and CMOS logic, Don finally made it click for me.
  • Is Flash memory “write endurance” (i.e., the number of times you can change the state of a Flesh emmory cell) a serious issue or not? I always thought it was, but Eric Brombaugh (one of my EE friends who knows a thing or two about such matters) sent me a link to an article that changed my mind. If you're interested in Solid State Drives (SSDs) the parent page is worth a look as well.

The Friction Is In the Discovery

I don't buy a lot of music anymore, and in thinking back, I suspect that I stopped buying when I stopped listening to the radio. (I stopped listening to the radio because the stations play the same sixteen stupid songs every twenty minutes…forever. But that's a separate rant.) The tough part in selling anything is discovery—basically, getting the prospective customers to know that you exist—and it becomes a lot tougher when you slide from machine screws to wine, and incomparably tougher yet when you move from wine into the realm of art. Absent radio, I discover new music a lot less often. Here's a recent discovery tale that did lead to a purchase, and if I were the artist I'd be maybe a little annoyed:

Carol and I don't watch a lot of TV, but we turn on the Weather Channel before we go to bed to catch Local on the 8s, and then again in the morning over breakfast. The Weather Channel plays “smooth jazz” during its canned local forecasts. My affection for smooth jazz is sparse, albeit less sparse than my affection for what I call club jazz. No sax please; we're contrarians—I think I dislike sax music because almost everybody else worships it. A few mornings ago, I looked up over my Cheerios to watch Local on the 8s, and realized that there were no saxophones playing. Better still, it was not the usual mournful, shapeless noodling, but a purposeful, upbeat (nay, near-manic) piano piece. Two minutes later, the forecast over and the music cut short by yet another Mucinex mucus man commercial, I ran out of the kitchen to the machine here, muttering, “I gotta have that!”

Alas, the Weather Channel does not announce the artists on its forecast music, so I hammered out a quick email to them, after spending several minutes digging through their site looking for a contact link: Please, folks, what was the title/artist of the bouncy piano piece playing during today's 6:58 AM Local on the 8s?

I only half expected an answer, and was working on memorizing the piece so that I could whistle it to whomever I might know in smooth jazz fandom. But yay wow, by late afternoon, I got a nice note from a Weather Channel junior staffer who confessed that she didn't know precisely, but the February AM playlist was attached. And so it was: The email carried an Excel spreadsheet containing the titles and artists for 15 songs, one of which was by implication the bouncy piano piece. I just didn't know which one.

I had done this kind of detective work a time or two before. I first looked up the artists, separating the pianists from the sax maniacs. It came down to either Leo Tizer or Bradley Joseph. I went over to Amazon, looked up the artists, and started playing the samples for the album tracks named in the playlist spreadsheet. On the third try, I got it: Brandley Joseph's “Rose-Colored Glasses” (and Bradley himself) had been discovered. Ninety seconds later, I had purchased the track through One Click for 89c, and had a DRM-free MP3 in my music directory. Ninety seconds after that, I had his CD album (Hear the Masses) on its way. The friction was all in the discovery.

Amazon supposedly sells two million music tracks as unencumbered MP3s. I shop for music so rarely that I didn't even know this. I did know that Amazon has been selling PDF-formatted short stories (and other short textual works, including nonfiction) for a couple of years now, for 49c a pop. Alas, by the time I decided to apply to the program, they had closed it to new submissions, but the delivery mechanism is the same as for MP3s: If you have One Click enabled, you get the item in a few seconds.

I think Amazon Shorts may have been doomed because Big Name Writers would not sell unencumbered PDFs, and Small Name (or No Name) writers do not sell enough of anything to justify the effort it takes Amazon to vet them and post them. Or perhaps Amazon is simply migrating the program to Kindle. We'll find out eventually. The point to be taken away here is that we have digital delivery down cold. Discovery is fluky and always will be, especially for things like fiction, which (with vanishingly rare exceptions) you do not hear on the radio. Amazon can make the gumballs drop into your hands. We're still not sure how they'll make you want the gumballs, but tougher problems have been solved.

In the meantime, Bradley Joseph has another fan, and might have more if the Weather Channel would just put his name in the corner of the screen while they're playing his music over their forecasts. I hope he got some cash for the license, because not everybody is going to dig as hard as I did!