Archive for September, 2007

Third week of amateur telescope making

Sunday, September 30th, 2007

Telescope 39
I’ve made a lot of progress on my telescope since the second week. Just as a recap, I’m aiming to make an 8″ f/6 Dobsonian telescope, by hand. I’m still working on the 8″ diameter disk of Pyrex glass that is going to be my primary mirror. The last step is making it reflective by coating it with a layer of aluminum. I was at the workshop on Friday night for 3.5 hours. I finally saw some repeat people who had been there previously (besides the Guy running the place).

My night was fairly boring. I worked with 400, then 500, then 700 grit abrasives (the number is how many particles it takes to make one inch across). The particles are small enough now that it’s really important to make sure that they are always kept wet, so the dust they give off when ground up isn’t inhaled. There’s a famous astronomer who died of a really bad lung disease after making too many scopes and inhaling too much silica dust. His name escapes me at the moment.

The exciting part of the night came when a man who drove down from New York had his mirror aluminized. The amateur telescope workshop up there doesn’t have a vacuum chamber. He disappeared to the kitchen of the Community Center for an hour, thoroughly washing and re-washing his glass, making sure to get rid of every last bit of contamination. Then they started up the vacuum chamber.

The vacuum chamber is an old Navy relic that was originally used for God knows what. When it was too old for their purposes they donated it to American University, and then when it was then too old for their purposes, they donated it to the National Capital Astronomers, where it ended up in the amateur telescope making workshop. It’s not in bad shape though. It’s typical of military hardware: rugged as all hell, made from steel instead of wimpy plastic, and it does its job for its intended lifespan and then decades more.

It’s fascinating to watch the vacuum chamber in action. First, the mirror is loaded, upside-down, in a harness at the top of the vacuum chamber. Then an aluminum slug is inserted into a tungsten coiled filament at the bottom of the vacuum chamber and the dome of glass is lowered. It takes awhile for the vacuum pump to suck all of the atmosphere out of the chamber. Meanwhile, a diffusion pump is running through cold water coming from the sink, used as a coolant. Finally, the requisite level of vacuum is released, and a current is applied.

Read the rest of this entry »

Meeting your real life heroes

Friday, September 28th, 2007

A few weeks ago at the office of the company that I work for, a fire broke out.

Well, that’s what the fire alarm thought anyway. Reality had a different opinion. It ended up being the same thing that most such alarms end up being: a faulty sensor. But of course the fire department had no way of knowing this beforehand, and since this was a good-sized office building with hundreds of people working in it, their response was proportionate. They sent the fire marshall in his red SUV, a ladder truck, and a pumper truck.

The two floors below us in the office building are occupied by doctors’ offices. During the alarm everyone had to evacuate the building, including their patients. So the crowd outside of the office building ended up being more varied than one would expect under such circumstances; in particular, it contained a number of children who had either been going to the doctor or been dragged along by their parents (this was before school started).

The firefighters entered the building in full firefighting gear. One of my coworkers remarked that there was a lot of action going on, to which I responded “No, there’s a lot of axe-tion going on,” while pointing to an axe that one of the firefighters was carrying, thus cementing my win of the office pun of the week award.

The firefighters played around with the fire box inside for a little bit before determining that it was, indeed, a false alarm. Since it was a sweltering summer day, they let us in to the air conditioned lobby while we waited for the elevators to be reactivated. At this point a mother and her son, who had been away from the axtion at the rear exit of the building, entered the lobby. They had not seen any firefighters yet.

The boy was standing right next to the elevator in the lobby when it opened up and three fully geared-up firefighters emerged. His eyes lit up like the Tsar Bomba as he reverently gazed at what one can only conclude were his heroes. The reaction to being just feet away from real life firefighters was immediate and evident. Kids are honest; they don’t hide their emotions. I watched as his gaze followed the firefighters all the way out the front entrance, not missing a moment even to blink.

A funny thing happens as kids grow older. When they’re young, they all want to be firefighters or policemen. As they grow older, cold hard reality begins to intrude: these professions are low-paying and dangerous. The only benefits are the societal, although sadly not monetary, kudos often afforded to them. But who would have the heart to disabuse the notions of a kid who wants to become a firefighter? Not I.

Second week of amateur telescope making

Monday, September 24th, 2007

Telescope pic 1On Friday I continued working on my primary mirror at the amateur telescope making workshop in Washington, D.C. I finished grinding the 8″ blank with 60 grit, then 80 grit, then finally 120 grit silicon carbide. Guy, who leads the workshop, must have detected my eagerness to complete my first scope, because he asked me if I wanted to take it home and work on it over the week. Of course I said yes.

So he packaged up some 220 grit, 320 grit, and 400 grit aluminum oxide for me and I brought home the glass blanks and worked on them yesterday out in the backyard. I finished up with the 220 grit but I had to stop at that point. My arms and back were absolutely killing me (and still are). After four hours of rigorous grinding on Friday and another hour on Saturday, I’m totally shot. My entire upper body is sore beyond belief. Making a telescope yourself may save money, but it certainly requires a lot of effort. It’s good exercise too.

The workshop wasn’t as well attended as it was on Friday. Oddly enough, I didn’t see a single person who had been there the previous week (besides Guy, of course). It must be a sporadic activity, with most people attending as often as they have Friday nights free. A telescope project can easily drag out over the course of many months in this manner. But I hope to be finished much sooner. And I remembered to bring a camera this time.

The first photograph (used as the lead-in to this post) shows the two 8″ pieces of glass I’m working with. The one on top is what will become the mirror, and thus it has a concave (curved inwards) surface. The final step with the glass, which I’m a long ways away from, is aluminizing its surface, thus turning it into a mirror. The piece of glass on bottom is the “tool”. It has a convex (curved outwards) surface that matches up with the concave surface of the mirror. The two are ground together with water and 80 grit silicon carbide in between in a specific back-and-forth motion that creates the desired shapes (slowly). As you can see, it’s a messy task, hence the newspapers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Have we just written off this planet?

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

Blue Marble
I wonder why global warming isn’t the headline story of every newscast. It isn’t even talked about frequently, and when it is, it gets a one or two minute fluff piece before going on to the much more “important” missing white girl of the season story. This is despite the problem getting rapidly worse. It now seems that humanity is on for a collision course with an unavoidable 2 degree Celcius temperature increase, a figure that has generally considered by those in the scientific community as catastrophic. No, it won’t end all human life on Earth just yet, but it will kill many millions because of food shortages caused by drought. And don’t forget the millions of refugees that will be created when sea levels rise and flood out highly populated low altitude urban areas.

I know why global warming isn’t being addressed with the urgency that it should. It’s because of geographical luck. The “First World” won’t be suffering the same kind of fate as the rest of the world. The linked article gives the following consequences of a two degree Celcius increase for Africa:

Between 350 and 600 million people will suffer water shortages or increased competition for water. Yields from agriculture could fall by half by 2020 while arid areas will rise by up to 8 per cent. The number of sub-Saharan species at risk of extinction will rise by at least 10 per cent.

And what are the consequences for North America?

Crop yields will increase by up to 20 per cent due to warmer temperatures but economic damage from extreme weather events such as Hurricane Katrina will continue increasing.

So, you see, it’s simply not getting “bad” enough yet for us Americans to worry about it. Many people will suffer, but hey, we can grow more crops! There are sadly far too few people like Al Gore who really get it. And frankly, I feel like he has an obligation to run for President in 2008, because humanity needs a singular focus on this issue and nobody else is giving it.

The Jew addicted to gold

Thursday, September 20th, 2007

Gold RingI was briefly active in one of the Web 2.0 webcam community sites, Stickam (though I didn’t use the user name Cyde Weys, so good luck finding my profile). I didn’t much like their interface, which didn’t allow sorting of live feeds by number of viewers, so I write my own script that scraped all of the live cam pages, tabulated the viewership numbers, and ranked the feeds in order. That way I could always have the most interesting feeds at my fingertips. But they modified the interface and removed the live feed viewer numbers from the listings pages, thus removing the data my script needed to function. I found myself unable to find good feeds easily and stopped using the site.

But alas, this sad tale is not about the broken Stickam interface. It’s about a Stickam user I met and talked with many times over the course of a few weeks. He was a teenager from the Midwest. He was a Jew; I know so because his user name said as much. And as much as I hate to give evidence in favor of a stereotype about my people, it must be said, he was hugely into gold. He was telling me all of these elaborate stories about trading gold jewelry and how much money he had made. I didn’t believe him at first.

But since Stickam is a webcam site, he was able to show me everything. He showed me an entire drawer full of gold jewelry he had in inventory and hadn’t gotten around to selling yet. He showed me the torch he uses to melt down the gold he sells in bulk to his wholesaler at commodity prices. He showed me plastic bags full of solidified molten gold. He even showed me a testing kit he has that can determine how many karats an unknown sample of gold is, or if it isn’t even real gold, the kit will reveal that too.

He was something else. He easily had over $100,000 worth of gold jewelry just in his room, and he was younger than me. He told me some tricks of the trade, like what certain numbers engraved on the inside of gold jewelry reveal about the gold content of the jewelry. He said he got most of his gold either from yard sales or eBay. He would spend hundreds of dollars at a time on jewelry, with the seller thinking they’re getting a good deal, but in reality, they’re selling gold at far below the commodity value (which is over $750 per ounce as I write this). He recounted his favorite find: a gold ring he bought at a yard sale for a few dollars that turned out to be made by a famous silversmith who rarely worked in gold; it was worth many thousands of dollars.

Amidst all of this wealth and smart dealing on gold, you must think I would be envious. But I’m not. One night on the webcam I noticed him acting erratically: shaking around, making funny faces, unable to stay still. I asked him what was going on, as it looked like he was on drugs. His candid answer took me aback: he gets high off of gold. Literally. One day while melting down gold to sell to his wholesaler, he inhaled some of the fumes and discovered it gave him a pleasant high. So he started doing it on purpose. He said the high sometimes lasted for more than a day at a time. He had literally become addicted to gold.

I can’t imagine what the physiological effects of inhaling gold fumes are. He didn’t know and didn’t seem to care. I imagine the risks are somewhat similar to huffing spray paint. I stopped talking to him soon after that. The whole thing was simply too weird for me. Here he was, a teenager making an absolute killing on arbitraging gold, but he was throwing his life away by getting high off his product. And I didn’t even know that was possible. I’ve heard of all sorts of substance abuses, but who has ever heard of huffing gold?

So that’s my story of the Jew addicted to gold. I know some people will be tempted to use this tale as reinforcement of a silly stereotype, but realize this: my tale makes an utter mockery of that stereotype, pushing it onwards to absurd levels that are scarcely believable had I not seen them with my own eyes.

A dash of the medieval

Tuesday, September 18th, 2007

Medieval WenchI have a certain affinity for all things medieval. I do not know exactly where I picked it up, but fantasy novels, with their appealing environments, must have had something to do with it. And then there are the roleplaying games, which make such excellent use of medieval environs. I find the whole milieu appealing and captivating.

So naturally when I went to the Maryland Renaissance Festival on Sunday, I was excited. I went a long time ago as a kid, but looking back on it in hindsight, my assessment of it then was totally inaccurate. Yes, the Festival does have activities for children, including a jousting “competition”, puppet shows, music sing-alongs for kids, and the like. But that isn’t where the interesting story lies. Many places offer themed attractions of all varieties for kids; just think of Disneyland. The real story wasn’t in the huge turkey drumstick that I ate for lunch, as different as that was (think meat on a stick, but with no stick necesesary). No, the real story was the community that has grown up around the Renaissance Festival.

Unbeknownst to most, there is a thriving Renaissance subculture in America, akin in nature with the Goths, the pagans, the nerds and geeks, the roleplaying enthusiasts, and others (with considerable overlap). These people didn’t seem to be attempting to live a Renaissance lifestyle at home (nearly everyone arrived by automobile). It’s just something they do on the weekends. But when they are doing it, they go all out, complete with elaborate period costumes made of authentic materials. Many were even imitating European accents. But they were all realistic; I saw lots of knights, noblemen, and wenches, but not a wizard in sight.

I noticed a strange dichotomy at the Festival. The touristy attractions, like the stage shows and jousting tournament, had audiences that were mostly dressed in contemporary garb (such as jeans and a T-shirt). Some of the stage routines were mildly funny, but that wasn’t the most interesting part of the Festival. The best places to be were the places with the highest proportion of people dressed in period garb: mainly the bars and out-of-the-way places.

These regulars of the Festival pay their $18 to come to the faire and simply hang around in period garb, talking with like-minded folks. They are there for the community, not the touristy attractions, which they’ve long since seen multiple times if they ever held any interest. I did not show up in period garb myself (I don’t have any, in the same way that I don’t own any Roman gladiator gear), but I found myself having a best time when I was the only one in a T-shirt in sight. These people are really enthusiastic about the milieu they’re playing a part in, and it’s hard not to get caught up in it along with them.

Read the rest of this entry »

Bringing Detroit car culture to Maryland

Sunday, September 16th, 2007

When I was a teenager in high school, I was a bit obstinate about learning to drive. It seemed like a waste to me. I took the bus to school every day and didn’t need to drive anywhere after school either (oh, to be a nerd). Well, that’s what I told myself, anyway. I was foolishly trying to rationalize not desiring to go through the whole licensing process. Admittedly, it is a bit of a chore: you have to go to classes, take a learner’s permit written exam, do in-car driving with instructors and parents, and then take a final driving test. I just didn’t want to go through all of that. But my mom made me, and I’m very glad she did.

My mom grew up in Detroit during its heyday, when it was still the automobile capital of the world and before it started slipping towards its modern decrepitude. To say there was a car culture there would be a terrible understatement. It was simply assumed that every teenager would start driving the moment they turned sixteen. School children looked more eagerly towards the first day it would become legal for them to drive than the first day they could legally purchase alcohol. And so my mom was having none of my “I don’t want to drive” routine, and eventually got me to go through with it.

I went through the stupid class, acing all of the in-class tests. There was a brief hang-up when I failed the learner’s permit written exam the first time, with my dad accusing me of actively sabotaging the process (and wasting money). But aiming to fail a test is something that simply goes against my nature. I had some serious qualms with that test, disputing what they thought the “correct” answers to questions were. According to them, the correct answer to the question “How long does it take alcohol to metabolize in the body?” is “Never”, which is a stupid trick question that only works for extremely narrow definitions of metabolism, because alcohol is indeed broken down inside the body by the liver and is not excreted intact. You can tell how bitter I am because I still remember that damn question.

But I passed the test the next weekend and went on to do the in-car training and pass the real driving exam with flying colors at the MVA. I was a licensed driver at the age of sixteen and a few months. And immediately I realized the folly of trying to put off driving until later, because literally within a week I was reaping the benefits of convenience of being able to drive. I drove myself to my internship that summer rather than having to rely on my dad to drive me. I drove to the last school bus stop on the route instead of walking to the nearest one, saving me 30 minutes each morning and night. When I missed the bus, I could simply drive the rest of the way to school. And I was able to drive to my friends’ houses.

So being able to drive a car proved immediately useful, and I’m glad my mom kept persuading me to do it until I relented. Sometimes parents really do know best.

Playing Galileo on a Friday night

Saturday, September 15th, 2007

Schmidt-Cassegrain reflecting telescopeOn Friday night I went out and had a lot of fun. It wasn’t the typical kind of fun that most people associate with going somewhere on Friday night, but I daresay I enjoyed it even more. I started building my own telescope (a program put on by the National Capital Astronomers). Before I go any further, let me just get this out of my system: How awesome is that?! There are all sorts of awesome things you can do; you simply have to go and look for them. For me, that awesome thing was building a telescope, something I’ve wanted to do for a couple years now, and I’ve finally gotten started.

The telescope making workshop is held every Friday night from 6:30 to 9:30pm in the basement of Chevy Chase Community Center in Washington, D.C. Ten people were there in total, which is a surprisingly large number considering how esoteric the activity is. For comparison’s sake, that was about the same as the number of people in the juggling class I walked by that was being held in the activity room on the first floor. People were involved in all stages of the telescope-making process, including one guy who had fully assembled his 8″ scope and was tweaking the alignment, a guy making a monster 18″ scope checking how close his 47-pound primary mirror was to a parabola, and a guy who was just starting to grind down his mirror. That’s where I started.

After chatting up some of the other folks at the workshop and asking their advice, I decided on making an 8″ f/8 reflecting telescope with a paraboloid primary mirror (the simplest design). The materials cost was only $100, which is a bargain compared to how much a commercial 8″ scope would cost (go search, I dare you). Also, the quality is surprisingly better with a homemade scope. They have tools at the workshop to get the shape of the mirror to an accuracy of one-quarter of the wavelength of green light from an ideal paraboloid. Mass-produced commercial scopes don’t even come close.

The first step in making a telescope using this process is grinding down a 8″ glass blank. They use Pyrex at the workshop instead of plate glass because it has better thermal characteristics and is much harder (which also, unfortunately, means it takes longer to grind). The guy running the workshop, who is fittingly enough named Guy Brandenburg, helped me calculate the amount of curvature I would need to produce an 8″ mirror with a focal length of 64″. That turned out to be 0.029″ of indentation in the center of the lens as measured by the spherometer (which has a radius of about 2.9″, so it doesn’t go all the way out to the edge of the blank).

All I did for the rest of the night was grind, grind, grind. I had two 8″ blanks, one which would become the mirror and the other which was the tool. To create the initial spherical curvature on the mirror, one places the tool on the table, the intended mirror above it, and grinds it in a circular motion for hours. I was using water and 60 grit silicon carbide placed between the two glasses, though as it gets closer to the correct shape I’ll have to start using finer abrasives, and eventually, a polishing solvent. Once the blank reaches a spherical shape, the next step is to carefully turn it into a paraboloid. But I didn’t get that far in a single night. My blank started with 0.015″ of indentation in the center and I got it to 0.026″ — most of the way towards completing the initial step.

Read the rest of this entry »

World of no-regret-craft

Thursday, September 13th, 2007

World of WarcraftIt has been two years and two months since I quit playing World of Warcraft. I wasn’t really into it “that” badly as I “only” had 23 days of combined play time across all of my characters when I quit. 23 days of play time doesn’t seem like a huge figure, so let me put it into perspective: that’s 552 hours. Doesn’t seem so tiny now, huh. And remember, 23 days of play time is a pittance compared to the people who are really into the game and have been playing it for nearly three years now. Some players have exceeded an entire year of play time across all their characters. That’s a scary figure.

It’s not that I still obsess over World of Warcraft. It’s usually not on my mind at all. But I bring it up because two of the people at work are quite into it. One of my coworkers has 50 days of combined play time. They were discussing the game and I was able to join in, despite not having played in so long. That’s a testament to how much I played it (and thus how much I reinforced my knowledge about it), as well as a testament to how little the core game has really changed. They were looking at player stats online and checking out their realms’ forums, so I had the sudden urge to see what was going on at the forum for the realm I used to play on, Cenarion Circle.

Here’s the scary thing: I recognize a lot of the names of the characters that are posting on that forum. And that doesn’t even include the unfamiliar names of new characters created since I stopped playing by the people I played with. The number of people who have been playing for all of these past two and a half years is quite astounding. I gave up on World of Warcraft and went on to do much more useful things: for instance, I completed my college degree and got into serious writing. Others haven’t been so lucky. If I was still playing World of Warcraft now at the same rate I was then, my play time would easily be over 100 days. Imagine all of that time, completely wasted. And as I look on at my fellow players who never did quit and kept wasting their time, I feel very saddened.

Now many people will have qualms with that assessment; “Who are you to say they’re wasting their time?”, they might ask. Well, I’m someone who’s been there and done that. I can look back at the things I’ve done in my life and identify the ones that were useful and the ones that were not. For instance, every second I put into my education was worth it. And I use an extremely broad definition of education here — it includes everything I did that enhanced my academic, as well as technical, skills. Yes, that even includes blogging, which has helped to make me a better writer. I can look back at the archive on this blog and say to myself, “That was worth it”. This will be especially true when I look back on it decades from now as a detailed description of my life.

But World of Warcraft simply wasn’t worth it. I got nothing out of it. It’s a black hole of vanished time in my life. Yes, I made all sorts of “friends” while playing the game, but the simple nature of the beast is, as soon as you stop playing, you lose the main communications medium that was keeping you in touch with said friends. A WoW addict isn’t going to find a lot of time to talk with you in instant messenger; his time is better spent chatting with his friends in-game, who he can still play with. I’ve seen this same story repeated across the blogosphere. Oftentimes, people don’t even find the game fun anymore, but they keep playing it just because most of their social circle resides inside the game.

My one regret about World of Warcraft is that I didn’t quit playing it sooner. I really feel sad for all of those people who are still pouring double-digit percentages of their ongoing life into it. Imagine the realization they will come to a year after quitting (and quitting is inevitable for all players, eventually), when they realize that it was all just a huge waste of time and that they didn’t get anything out of it besides an ephemeral satisfaction of addiction. Let me repeat something I said after I quit WoW that I have kept my word on: I will never, ever, play another MMORPG.

Doing right by Jupiter

Tuesday, September 11th, 2007

JupiterEarlier, I wrote about the one good aspect of the encroaching darkness of winter: it makes astronomical observations easier. I had been trying to observe Jupiter and its satellites with my old 8×30 binoculars, with no success. On Saturday night, I made up for it in a big way.

I attended a meeting of the National Capital Observers (open to the public, though I intend to become a member). It was held at the University of Maryland, College Park observatory off Metzerott Road, where I had several astronomy lab sessions as an undergraduate, so I had a feeling of deja vu. Also, my parents took me there once when I was much younger for an open house. The only vivid memories I have of that experience were twirling instead of walking as we were leaving and getting yelled at by my mom, and the thousands of twinkling fireflies in the tall dark trees surrounding the observatory. I’ve never seen anything like it since; it actually took me several seconds to realize that the trees didn’t have blinking Christmas lights in them.

One thing that immediately struck me about National Capital Observers is that its members are old. And I don’t mean “old” as in “middle-aged”. I mean old as in octogenarian. I would estimate that at least half of the members were over 65. It was a very sad sight to see — astronomy is such a fascinating field, but it seems like it simply doesn’t enthrall people now like it used to. The most steadfast astronomy enthusiasts are simply dying out and not being replaced. I talked to some amateur astronomers online and they confirmed that my observations match the general age makeup of their local astronomy clubs as well. I blame the coming of the video age, which keeps most people indoors at night, as well as urban light pollution, which means that most people don’t see anything spectacular on the rare occasions that they do look up at night.

It wasn’t all old people though. A few other guys roughly my age who looked to be either undergraduate or graduate students attended. One middle-aged guy was there with his middle school daughter. She wasn’t just dragged along; she seemed to enjoy it. A University of Maryland professor from the Astronomy department, who I met back when I was an undergrad, gave a surprisingly (considering the audience) technical talk about resonances in orbital and rotational precession periods between Saturn and Neptune. The club is even affiliated with a local guy who runs free build-your-own telescope workshops, which I am so going to attend.

But the best part of the NCA meeting was the observing session afterwards. It was run by a cute female soon-to-be-graduate-student (what are the odds!). The observatory at UMD has two retractable sheds, only one of which was open for the meeting. The shed that wasn’t open houses a solitary 20″ telescope. The one that was open houses three telescopes: a 14″ cassegrain, a smaller diameter refractor, and a 14″ military relic that was originally used to take photographs of the sky in search of Soviet spy satellites. It looks totally unlike any civilian telescope I’ve ever seen; for one, it’s built like a tank, having several hundred pounds of steel in its rugged frame. It turns out not to be the best astronomy telescope though, since its eyepiece can’t be switched out, thus it doesn’t deliver very good magnification.

But the 14″ cassegrain most definitely did deliver. I saw globular clusters, binary stars (including the “Double Double”), and those elusive targets I had previously been looking for through my dinky binoculars, the Galilean satellites of Jupiter. I saw all four, including Europa as it was just transiting across the face of Jupiter and emerging as a small blob on the side. I even saw Jovian cloud bands. So my initial disappointment at not being able to see Jupiter from home is completely gone, and thus, I had a great time at the NCA meeting and will be attending the next one.