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Odd Lots

The First Total Solar Eclipse I Didn’t See

Fifty years ago today, I didn’t see my first total solar eclipse. And thereby hangs a tale.

I had just turned 20. I was a college sophomore. Although I tinkered with electronics now and then, my primary passion (apart from Carol) was astronomy. (Ham radio was another year off.) I don’t remember at all who in my inner circles originally had the idea, but as ideas go, it was huge: We would all convoy 1200 miles around the south end of Lake Michigan, across the State of Michigan, and then across a great deal of Canada, to reach the path of totality, which was damned near at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River.

We called it Project Moonshadow, under the influence of the well-known Cat Stevens song of the same name and era.

Some of my friends had cars. I had a car, but it was a 2-door sedan that didn’t lend itself to lugging my ginormous telescope anywhere. I prevailed upon my parents to do a temporary car swap: my 1968 Chevelle for my father’s 1970 Rambler station wagon. We’ve become a lot more cautious as a culture since then. I doubt I could have pulled it off had it happened today.

But happen it did: Four cars carrying ten hapless amateur astronomers and a lot of handmade gear got underway before the crack of dawn on (I think) July 7. I had discovered CB radio earlier that year, and persuaded my convoy colleagues to equip their cars with radios and antennas. So it was Sundog, Houston, Gaspain and…I forget my friend George’s CB handle. I was Sundog. I believe Gaspain was a play on Gaspe, the name of the peninsula that the Sun’s umbra would cross a few days later. Houston, well, I’m pretty sure it was because of that evergreen catchphrase: “Houston, we have a problem.”

That name was…peculiarly…appropriate, as I’ll describe a little later.

Five of us had belonged to the Lane Tech Amateur Astronomical Society as high schoolers. One was my best friend Art, whom I’d known since kindergarten. One was Ellen, a girl Art and I knew from our church. The names of the other three I’ve simply forgotten.

Moonshadow Group Cropped 1972 - 500 Wide.jpg

On our first day on the road, we made it to the outskirts of Toronto. I was nervous about passing through Canadian customs with a huge aluminum tube strapped to the top of the Rambler, but the officer had evidently seen a fair number of telescopes heading east already, and grinned as he waved us through. We camped, we cooked, we slept, and the next morning we roared off again, this time to (I think) somewhere near Quebec City. The final leg took us to a campground in Cap Chat, Quebec, where we had reserved a few campsites. There was lots of room, good facilities, and gorgeous summer weather. The landscape was rolling hills and pine forest, and down a gnarly slope, the St. Lawrence River.

Cap Chat Campground 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

I boggle that I have as few photos of the adventure as I do, and how crude those photos are. (How quickly we have forgotten the Age of Film…) I also have to admit that most of them will not let go of the sticky pages of the photo album they’ve lived in for the last thirty or forty years. So the ones you see here will be the ones I could pry out of the album.

The morning of Monday, July 10 dawned bright and clear. The telescopes had been set up the day before. We tinkered and aligned and adjusted and got everything ready to rock. After that, we simply sat around and waited. First contact came, and we cheered. Solar filters and cameras were ready. As minutes passed, the bite out of the Sun’s disk grew larger and larger.

Jeff and scope at Cap Chat 1972 - 500 wide.jpg

But then–damn!–clouds began to roll in from the west. We saw most of the partial eclipse. We had, however, already seen a partial solar eclipse, right at home in Chicago on March 7, 1970, when we were still high schoolers. This time, totality was the whole point of the adventure.

By 45 minutes before totality, the sky had almost completely clouded over.

We got some photos of the partial phase. And we saw a strange thing as totality happened: The undersides of the clouds got very dark. Once totality was over, we sat around and moped. The next day we packed up for home.

We went home by another way, to borrow from an excellent James Taylor song of the same name. I was so annoyed by missing totality that my memories of the trip back are sparser than those of the trip out. We crossed the Gaspe Peninsula, bored our way south across New Brunswick, and then drove the entire length of Maine. I believe we stopped at a beach just north of Boston, where I touched the Atlantic Ocean for the first time. Sparse, except for when we were burning our way west across Ohio, and one of the ball joints in Ernie’s venerable early ’60s Chrysler New Yorker gave out. Ernie got the vehicle off the pavement and out of traffic. Then he keyed his CB mic: “Houston, we have a problem.”

Weirdly, I don’t recall in detail how we solved the problem. We got a towtruck to pull the Chrysler to a service station, and they replaced the ball joint. The rest of the way back to Chicago occurred without incident.

We did our best, and the failure of Project Moonshadow was no fault of ours. I consider it a coming-of-age adventure, since we got four cars and ten people to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and back, and didn’t lose more than a ball joint.

And an eclipse.

Ahh, well. I’ve since seen three total solar eclipses, including the fabulous one down in Baja on July 11, 1991. Win a few, lose a few. The trip was fun, and had other advantages: I got tired enough of CB that I started working on getting my ham radio license. I enjoyed the company of my friends. And I began learning how to deal with adversity. That may have been the biggest win of all.

But damn, the fifty years since have gone fast!

Odd Lots

  • Pertinent to my last two entries here: City Journal proposes what I proposed two years ago: To reduce the toxicity of social media, slow it down. What they propose is not exponential delays of replies and retweets to replies and retweets until those delays extend fifteen minutes or more. Like a nuclear reactor control rod, that would slow the explosion down until the hotheads cooled off or got bored and went elsewhere. Instead, they suggest Twitter insist on a minimum of 280 characters to posts. That might help some, but if the clue is to slow down viral posts, eliminate the middleman and just slow down responses until “viral” becomes so slow that further response simply stops.
  • A statistical study of mask use vs. COVID-19 outcomes found no correlation between mask use and better outcomes, but actually discovered some small correlation between mask use and worse outcomes. Tough read, but bull through it.
  • While not as systematic as the above study, an article on City Journal drives another nail in the coffin of “masks as infection prevention.” Graph the infection rates in states with mask mandates and states with no mask mandates and they come out…almost exactly the same.
  • Our Sun is getting rowdy, and getting rowdier earlier than expected. Cycle 25 is starting out with a bang. Recent cycles have been relatively peaceful, and nobody is suggesting that Cycle 25 will be anything close to the Cycle 19 peak (1957-58) which was the most active sunspot max in instrumental history. What Cycle 25 may turn out to be is average, which mean 20 meters may start to become a lot more fun than it has been in recent (slow) years.
  • And this leads to another question I’ve seen little discussion on: To what extent are damaging solar storms correlated to sunspot peaks? The huge solar storm of 1921 took place closer to the sunspot minimum than the maximum. The legendary Carrington event of 1859 took place during the fairly weak Cycle 10. As best I can tell, it’s about individual sunspots, and not the general state of the Sun at any point in time.
  • NASA’s Perseverence Mars rover caught a solar eclipse, when Phobos crossed the disk of the Sun as seen from Perseverence. The video of the eclipse was sped up, but it really is a startling image, especially if you know a little about Phobos, which is decidedly non-spherical.
  • I found this very cool: An online, Web-based x86/x64 assembler/disassembler. Although intended for computer security pros, I found it a lot of fun and it may turn out to be useful here and there as I begin to revise my assembly book for the fourth time.
  • Skipping sleep can lead to putting on belly fat, which is absolutely the worst place to have it. Get all the sleep you can, duh. Sleep is not optional.
  • How many stars are there in the observable universe? It’s a far trickier and sublter calculation than you might think. But the final number looked familiar to me, and might look familiar to people who do low-level programming.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • Mercury has a tail. Whodathunkit? With all that solar wind blasting over it, the poor planet’s already thin atmosphere is constantly being driven outward, forming a tail over 24 million kilometers long. That makes ol’ Merc the biggest comet in the Solar System. You can’t see it visually; if you’re used to astrophotography, shoot through a sodium filter to make the tail more visible. Some good shots at the link; check it out.
  • NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe has left asteroid Bennu and is headed for home as fast as limited fuel and orbital mechanics allow. It’s got 300 grams of asteroid dirt to drop, after which it will head into a parking orbit. NASA is considering another mission for the probe. Nothing crisp yet, but there’s still some life in the device, so why waste it?
  • Having listened carefully to 60 million stars in toward the galactic center, the Breakthrough Listen project has found no sign of alien intelligence. We may be the one impossibly unlikely fluke that solved the Drake Equation.
  • Relevant to the above: Our dwarfy next-door neighbor Proxima Centauri spit out a flare a couple of years ago that was 100 times more powerful than anything we’ve ever seen out of our Sun. If too many dwarf stars are in this habit, it could bode ill for the chances of life elsewhere in our galaxy, where we have red dwarf stars like some people have mice.
  • I stumbled across a British news/opinion site whose USP is going against the grain of conventional wisdom. Given the current drain-spiral of American media, it can be useful to have a few overseas news sites on your bookmarks bar. This one is definitely contrarian. It’s also sane and not prone to the often-comical frothing fury we see in news outlets here.
  • Tis the season to be stumbling, in fact: I stumbled upon Reversopedia, which is a compendium of things that we don’t know or can’t prove. The entries are odd lots for very large values of “odd.” E.g: “Why is space 3-dimensional? And is it?” I love that sort of thing because it makes me think about matters that could easily become the central gimmicks of SF stories.
  • Bari Weiss posted a solid article on Substack saying what a lot of people are thinking but afraid to say out loud: That vaccinated people don’t need masks, especially outside. Social pressure against mask skeptics is intense. Masks have become a culture-war thing, which is both absurd and dangerous: Antivaxxers are asking what is actually a sensible question: If the vaccines are real and not just saline solution, why do we have to keep wearing masks?
  • Substack (see above item) is an interesting concept, rather like a blog site that you can get paid for. A lot of articles can be read for free, and subscription fees for many writers are $5/month. It’s not a gumball machine for articles, but rather a gumball machine for writers. A lot of writers who would be anathema in big national vehicles can write there, gather a following, and make a living.
  • Is sleeping with your TV on ok? Short answer: No. (And I’m wondering how old the stock photo in the article is, given that it shows a glass-screen TV.)
  • IBM has just created a proof-of-concept chip with a 2NM process. IBM’s published density numbers for this node are 333M transistors per square millimeter, whew! They say 2NM will improve performance by 45% at the same power.
  • I haven’t said much about my book project Odd Lots lately. It was a classic “odd moments” project accomplished in moments scattered across the last year or two. I just got the first proof copy back from Amazon and will be cleaning it up as time allows. Most of what’s wrong are OCR errors of old writings for which I no longer have disk files and had to scan out of magazines. I expect to post it on Amazon before the end of May.

Odd Lots

Odd Lots

  • I’ve mentioned this before in several places, but I will mention it again here and probably more than once again before it happens: On December 21, Jupiter and Saturn will be only one tenth of a degree apart. That’s one fifth the diameter of the full Moon. I’ve never seen two planets that close, and I’ve been looking at the sky now for 63 years.
  • As I mentioned in a recent entry, I’m putting my big 10″ Newtonian scope back together for the first time in close to 20 years. Most of the work lay in building a new base. (Termites ate the original, which I cobbled together out of scrap wood when I was 16.) The base is finished. The rest should be easy. With some luck I’ll get it all together and do a star test tonight. If my stars are in alignment, it’ll work. But hey, all stars are my stars, so I can’t lose!
  • While listening to Peter Hollens songs on YouTube, I stumbled across a remarkable women’s vocal ensemble: Brigham Young University’s Noteworthy. They’ve posted a number of videos, and all of them are amazing in terms of pure vocal harmony. Nothing I’ve seen tops their cover of “When You Believe” from the animated film Prince of Egypt. It’s the best song out of a very good bunch, and those ladies nailed it for all time.
  • I suspect that by now you’ve probably heard, but SF legend and former Analog editor Ben Bova died on November 30, of COVID-19 complications. He was 88. Ben taught for a week when I attended Clarion East 1973, and he was spectacular.
  • And as though that weren’t bad enough, Chuck Yaeger died this past Monday, December 7. Yaeger, to me, almost defines the word “badass.” He shot down 13 German warcraft during WW2, five of them on one mission. He rode the Bell X-1 to the sound barrier and beyond, and piloted the X-15 to the edge of space. He fought Death to a draw that lasted 97 years. Godspeed, General Yaeger.
  • Watch for Northern Lights from Thursday sunset to Friday dawn. (H/T to Hans Schantz.)

Bringing the 10″ Scope Back to Life

Joe Lill and 10 Inch Newt - 3-8-1970 - Cropped.jpg

When I was 14, I took an opportunity and started out on a very large project: A friend of mine bought an Edmund Scientific mirror-making kit, decided he didn’t have the time to pursue it, and sold it to me. The kit included a 10″ Pyrex mirror blank, a plate glass tool blank, and all the abrasives needed to grind and polish it. I did most of the grinding in my basement, using a defunct round wringer washer as a grinding station. I followed the instructions in the kit, along with whatever I could find in the library, and though it took a couple of months, in time I had a Pyrex blank with a smooth curve, focusing at about 67 inches. My goal was 70, so I came pretty close, and in truth, 67″ would make for a shorter and somewhat lighter tube.

Now, grinding is only half the job. Polishing the ground mirror surface took sophisticated methods to gauge the accuracy of the curve, which has to be a parabola to focus items at infinity (like stars) to a sharp image. I decided I was over my head, and did the sensible thing: I enrolled in a class at the Adler Planetarium on Chicago’s lakefront, which took up most of the summer that I turned 15. They had an optical shop in the basement that included the required Focault tester, plus a superb teacher, Ken Wolf, who helped me get the polishing done and mirror curve accurate. They were also able to aluminize it, and by that fall, I had a 10″ F6.7 parabolic telescope mirror accurate to 1/25 wave, which was bogglingly accurate for a first shot by a 15-year-old.

The rest of the scope took another two years and change to complete. A friend’s father made me a tube out of sheet aluminum. I built a tube saddle out of scrap wood and hardware-store aluminum stock. I had no tools more sophisticated than my dad’s circular saw and saber saw. And that was for woodworking–for metal I did it all with a hacksaw and files. I had some help from my high school machine shop teacher, who dug up a piece of iron that he said was hull metal from a scrapped battleship. He cut it to size on the big bandsaw for me. I spent many study hall hours in his shop on one of the lathes, boring out 2″ pipe fittings and making numerous small parts. I owe Mr. Brinkmann a huge debt of gratitude. Without his help and the use of his machines, I could not have finished the scope.

It was going to be a big scope, and a much heavier one than the 8″ Newtonian I had built from a Sam Brown book the summer I turned 14. I turned my attention to building a base. There was a lot of scrap lumber in the crawlspace. I had the notion of building a cement form out of scrap lumber and pouring a solid triangular concrete shape 36″ on a side with bolts embedded in the top for the battleship-metal mount.

So I built me a cement form.

Whoops. Doing some math and library research showed me that the concrete base would weigh at least 400 pounds. Yes, I could make it–but once I made it, I had no idea how I would move it. So I was left with a scrap lumber cement form…


FirstDateSketchTelescope - 325 Wide.jpgThe form was made entirely from 2″ dimensional lumber, from 2X4s to a scrap of 2X12. I could carry it around with only a little puffing. So I would use the cement form as the telescope base.

A lot more work and allowance money would go into the telescope before I finished it–more or less–in the fall of 1969. On an early date with a pretty 16-year-old girl I had met in church, I told her about the project and drew a picture of it on her little spiral notebook. (See left. She enjoyed talking about science. So did I. She married me in October 1976, and our flag still flies.)

I used that scope a lot, even though it was bulky and heavy and awkward to cart around. In 2000, I (finally!) poured a concrete base for it at our house at the north end of Scottsdale. (See below.) I bought a large plastic trash can to put over the scope to keep the weather off it, and enjoyed it tremendously. Well, we moved to Colorado in 2003. When I went behind the garage to fetch out the now-retired wood base, I discovered that the local termites had been feasting for a couple of years, and there was nothing much left.

I haven’t had the 10″ assembled since. And it’s now about damned time to get to work.

10 inch with Michael Abrash - 2001 - 500 Wide.jpg

I’ve spent a couple of weekends messing with it. Yesterday I bolted the aluminum tang to the base, and although there will be some refinements, what you see below is pretty much what you’ll see when it’s in service.

New 10 inch wood base 1- 500 Wide.jpg

The equatorial head is still workable, though tremendously heavy. I hope to build a new one out of aluminum. In the meantime, I see no reason why I can’t have it up and working by the time of the Great Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn on December 21. The two giant planets will appear just 6.1 arc-minutes apart, close enough to see in the same eyepiece field, and closer in the sky than they’ve been since 1623. A conjunction of this sort is said by some to be the Christmas Star that the Three Wise men followed to Bethlehem. Miss that? No way!

More on the 10″ scope project as it happens.

Odd Lots

Three Coins 9-20-2020 - 500 Wide.jpg

  • The old pennies appear to be back. (See my entry for November 7, 2019.) Over the last two weeks, at least 75% of the pennies I’ve gotten at McDonald’s were pre-2000, some of them very pre-2000. Yesterday alone I got three pennies, two from the ’90s, and one from…1962. This morning I actually got a parking-lot nickel. (Left, above.) It’s from 1999 in case you can’t make it out, and it’s lived a very hard life. The nickel on the right is 80 years old. The penny, a trifling 38. I wonder if, with new coins in short supply, McDonald’s is again getting them from the people who run networks of supermarket coin exchangers. I was getting shiny new pennies for a couple of months, and then suddenly I wasn’t. We’ll just have to see how it goes.
    • “How did I come into the world? Why was I not consulted? And if I am compelled to take part in it, where is the manager? I would like to see him.”
      –Soren Kierkegaard, Edifying Discourses in Various Spirits (1847)

      (Hmmm. Maybe “Soren” is German for “Karen”.)

    • There’s an excellent COVID-19 stats dashboard maintained by the Arizona Department of Health Services that as best I can tell is updated daily. It covers new cases, hospitalization rates, daily death rates by date of death, demographics, and lots of other useful stuff. The daily death rates for the disease have been in single digits since September 10, and the peak death day was July 17, when 97 people died. Seeing the graphs and digesting the numbers, it’s pretty obvious that the pandemic is burning out in Arizona.
    • The older red wine is, the less trans-resveratrol it contains, and thus the fewer beneficial health effects. I’m not a wine snob, and most wine I drink these days is 2017 or 2018. I’ll open old wine now and then (we have some) when the occasion demands, but not for daily consumption.

    • Put this on your calendar: On December 21 there will be a “grand conjunction” of Jupiter and Saturn, which will be the closest conjunction of the two giant planets since 1623 AD. The planets will be separated by only 6 arc minutes, which is one-fifth the width of the full Moon. With a decent scope and good eyepieces, you should be able to see the disks of both planets in one view.
    • This is a good year for planet spotting. On October 6, Mars will reach its closest approach to Earth during its 2020 opposition. (The opposition itself refers to Mars with respect to the Sun, and is on October 14.) The Red Planet will reach magtnitude -2.6, and on that date will be brighter than Jupiter. It won’t be this big or bright again until 2030. So put it on your calendars.
    • Great fun: Sixty Seconds of Stella Leaf Jumps. (I remember leaves, heh.)
    • We’ve been hearing that Vitamin D enhances immune function for respiratory infections for quite awhile. It’s also true that many of the people who die from COVID-19 are significantly and often severely deficient in the vitamin. Here’s a scientific paper correlating Vitamin D levels with SARS-CoV-2 test results. Short form: The more deficient you are, the more likely you are to be infected after contact with the virus. Take some pills. Get some sun. Don’t just cower in your spare room waiting for a vaccine.
    • Twitter can be so worth it sometimes.
    • Check out the first graph in this article. Countries that treat their COVID-19 patients with hydroxychloroquine have far lower case-fatality rates than countries (including ours) that has banned or discouraged the use of the drug.

    Odd Lots

    Boy, writing this entry just felt good. I gotta do more of these…

    • People are asking me what’s happening with Dreamhealer. (First chapter here.) I’m working with an artist on a cover. The ending needs a hair more editing, but after that it’s an afternoon’s work to lay out the ebook in Jutoh. I had intended to introduce it at LibertyCon mid-June. Lacking a LibertyCon, I’m now just intending to get it out as fast as I can.
    • Are any of my ham friends (general or higher) interested in an experimental sked on the low bands? If so, where have you heard Phoenix? I usually try 20M before anything else, but if anybody’s got any heuristics, let me know somehow.
    • Everybody (ok, every nerd) knows about the Carrington Event. Even I didn’t know that we had another one of those in May 1921. Although Carrington is more famous, by strictly objective measure (the disturbance storm time index, or Dst) the two solar storms were almost exactly alike. In both cases telegraph stations caught fire from currents induced in the wires, and a lot of telephone equipment (which wasn’t deployed in 1859) was destroyed in 1921 by the same induced currents. Damn, like I needed something else to worry about.
    • I’ve backed a number of technologies before. Risky business. I backed Wi-Fi back in the early oughts and won big.I backed WiMAX and watched it swiftly and silently vanish away. I backed Powerline networking (now gathered under the umbrella term HomePlug) and lost but still use it. Here’s a good article on what happened to both WiMAX and HomePlug.
    • One technology I haven’t backed yet is 5G mobile, which is finally getting some traction in the marketplace. My LTE phone works just fine, and I don’t stream video to my phone. (I have a big honking TV for that.) Where I think 5G is most promising is as competition to the mostly monopolist residential broadband providers. We have cable Internet here, and it’s…ok. If 4K (or God help us, 8K) video is to have a chance, it will be through the benefits of 5G, and not otherwise.
    • Neil Ferguson’s computer model of the COVID-19 pandemic caused the UK’s lockdown. Now it comes out that the model was a good design with a trash implementation. (This from a computational epidemiologist, who just might know a crap pandemic model when he sees one.) Imperial College refuses to release the original model’s code and is making stupid excuses why not. A fragmentary and much-jiggered source code suite is now available on Github, and includes things like a global variable struct with 582 fields. (And lots more global variables.) Uggh. Her Majesty should demand her people’s money back.
    • A San Diego County supervisor stated that only six of 194 recorded coronavirus deaths were actually caused by the virus. The others died with the virus, but according to the supervisor, not of it. Yes, yes, I know, it’s not either-or. COVID-19 can push an elderly heart or cancer patient over the edge. Still, we need solid numbers on how deadly this thing is, and for that we have to back out the count of people who were already dying of other things.
    • Here’s a good example: A Colorado man died of alcohol poisoning. (0.55%, when the supposedly lethal threshold is 0.3%.) He was tested for coronavirus and found to be carrying it. So he was listed as dying of COVID-19. He had no comorbidities, beyond enough booze to kill a middling elephant.
    • The county I grew up in now has more COVID-19 cases than any other county in the US. Good ol’ Cook County, Illinois. I guess we got out in time.
    • In good news locally, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. is announcing plans to build a $10B plant in Arizona. Is it possible that those jobs are coming back? (Sorry, Steve.)
    • Now that we’re all obliged to wear masks, it was inevitable: Gait recognition technology is in development. It uses deep learning and sensors in the floor. This is more than a little creepy, granting that we once said that about face recognition as well. I recall a friend (now deceased) telling me in 1976 that “You walk as though you’re on your way to kill something.” (That was partly ROTC marching and partly the need to walk fast from one busted Xerox machine to another in downtown Chicago.) Maybe I should buy a scooter.