Friday, March 30, 2007

"My God, It's Full of... Seats!"

Sorry, Dave... but the seats are a good start, anyway. It'll be full of stars pretty soon.
My last entry about the progress of the DeAnza Planetarium renovation was ten days ago. At that time, it didn't have any seats. Ten days from today, the spring quarter begins -- and eight hours a day of classes will be taught in the facility -- for the first time in more than a year -- starting then.

Having seats for the students would be a good thing, so I'm glad to see them.

There are 139 seats in the new configuration (there used to be 167 in the old, all-center facing orientation.) This smaller number of seats, all facing the same way, allows for a "stage" area for lectures or other kinds of performances.

We can have them all face the same direction because, unlike the MS-15, the Infinium-S can be rotated azimuthally to bring any part of the sky into front-view. It will be easy to fall under the illusion that the room is rotating, I'm sure.

The Infinium-S machine now looks much more like it will in use than it did ten days ago, too. The innards of the starball are no longer left exposed, and the peninsula (at front-left) for the wanderers is more fully enclosed. (All photos can be seen in larger format by clicking on them.)

The starball. This part of the machine is mounted on a scissors-lift "elevator" and can be lowered about three feet for clearer sight lines in lectures, etc., when it's not in use.

The control area is rounding into shape now, too. Most of the furniture is now in place, including computer cabinetry and auxiliary desks. There will be two or three more flat-panel monitors working when everything is functioning fully, and those monitors will be specially-dimmable to extremely low brightness.

Even though classes are scheduled in the planetarium for the spring quarter, we won't be simulating the sky in them for at least the first month. There is still a lot of fine-tuning to be done by the Minolta team (they'll work 10pm to wee hours once classes are taking up most of the day hours), and training of the staff (including yours truly) will take a while. Our large astronomy classes have been taking up space in the College's lecture halls for more than a year now, though, causing headaches for the classroom schedulers, and they want us to move back into the planetarium at the earliest opportunity, whether our fancy projector is fully-functional yet or not.

... but it has some great assets besides the Infinium-S. Above is the instructors' cart (you can't see the wheels). The cart contains an "Elmo" digital visualizer, which can feed either transparencies or opaque media such as writing on paper through the video-projection system. This replaces black- or white-boards for notes, etc. It also contains a new computer with a T1 internet connection which, likewise, can be piped to video. The main classroom video projector is a very-high resolution, very bright (I don't have the specs for either resolution or lumens in front of me, but I've seen it in action -- even across the 50-foot throw from under the back of the dome to the front, it's plenty bright enough to have the house lights up so students can take notes easily while watching whatever is on the "screen," i.e. the ~20-ft. wide section of the dome onto which the video projects.)

Other goodies for classroom use that you can't see are high-end DVD and videotape players and a very fine audio-mixing board.

As the sign on the wall behind the cart says, there will also be an "assistive listening system" available on request for patrons or students who need it. I haven't seen this yet, but it is necessary, since closed-captioning during planetarium shows is not a technology that we have yet, and, of course, the College's signers can't work in the dark.

All photos in this post by S. Harrington, March 30th, 2007.

Standard disclaimer for any entries about my employers, DeAnza College: I don't speak for them, they don't speak for me, they pay me.

Thursday, March 29, 2007


No, not this bigfoot (just down the road from the Fort in Felton, California.)

This one:

Alnitak does everything gracefully...

... even silly things. (Pictures taken about an hour ago.)

Monday, March 26, 2007

Half Dome? Full Tenon!

Click on any image to see a larger, higher-resolution version.

Half Dome Mountain in the Early Sun of March, 2007

One of my first posts in this blog was a gushing tribute to Lick Observatory's "HamCam" as perhaps the finest webcam of places I've actually been. I'll still hold by that assessment, based on a combination of image size and dramatic scenery. But if the only criterion were scenery, I'd have to go with any of's webcams, especially the "View from Below Sentinel Dome." This is the current version of "View from Below Sentinel Dome" (or should be):

I like that view primarily because of the grandeur of the vista, of course, but also because it shows famous "Half Dome" mountain for what it really is: a narrow slice, almost as steep on its "back" side as it is on its more photographed side, and a very, very odd-looking mountain, indeed.

Half Dome's more-photographed side: in gathering evening twilight from the Ahwahnee Meadow, August, 2005. (Photo: Sherwood Harrington)

Afternoon March sunlight, captured by the "Below Sentinel Dome" webcam.

The "Below Sentinel Dome" webcam view is very close to my absolutely-favorite view of Half Dome, the one from Washburn Point along the road to Glacier Point:

The "Giant Stairway" of Yosemite as seen from Washburn Point: Nevada Fall (right) and Vernal Fall (lower-center). The great tenon of Half Dome Mountain stands tall at left. (Above three photos by Sherwood Harrington, August, 2005.)

The absolutely most stunning version of the view from Washburn Point that I could find on the web is this one. Be prepared to pick your jaw up off the floor if you click that link.

Sherwood and Diane Harrington and the Merced River, December, 2001 (photo by a passing German tourist.)

Sherwood and Diane love Yosemite... and Yosemite has been very good to us, too! Click here to see our amazing Christmas in Yosemite of 2001 -- thanks to a lottery!

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Buffy & Goldie (or vice versa)

Buffy (or maybe Goldie) on Sunday afternoon, March 25th, 2007.

Our dear friend Carla came to visit Ft. Harrington this weekend. She had just passed a landmark licensing exam in her profession, and needed a place to decompress among friends and animals. She really likes the chickens, so Diane let them have the run of the yard for most of the weekend. She also let Carla have the run of the yard, but that's usually not a problem.

Buffy and Goldie (or maybe the other way around) on a backyard table, vandalizing some ornamental vegetation.

Two of our dozen girls are Buff Orpingtons, and were among the batch we received from a hatchery in Iowa in June of 2005. The "blondes" (as we call them) are named Buffy and Goldie, but perhaps it's the other way around. I have never learned to tell them apart.

Young blonde chicks in August, 2005.

They have always hung out together. The above picture shows them at age two months, perched atop a chunk of redwood, in part of the run they still share with ten other chickens.

Buffy (or Goldie) at age two weeks in July '05.

She's in Diane's hands in the above picture -- and looks like a living Peep, doesn't she? She is in our so-called "Potting Shed," which is really more of an animal-care facility. Only eight by twelve feet and heavily insulated (walls, floor, and ceiling) it is easily kept very warm by a tiny electric space heater. Its rafters and wall-hooks afford easy hangings for various veterinary goodies, and this is where we care for sick or injured animals -- and where we incubated Goldie (and Buffy) and their sisters for a long time after they arrived as two-day-old chicks.

A two-day-old mob, June 20, 2005.

Goldie and Buffy are in there somewhere in the above picture. It shows most of the 25 chicks we received from Iowa by mail two days after they were hatched. After raising them to sturdiness (and we didn't lose a one!) in their incubator in the Potting Shed, we gave all but ten of them away to various members of the Math department in the college where I teach. Together with the two older biddies we still have, that makes a dozen chickens at Ft. Harrington... and they're all still going strong.

The "younger ten" were all hatched on June 18th, 2005 -- the same day in the same year that our youngest dog, Jax, was born, and 35 years to the day after my younger son, Adam, was born. All of that makes it easy to remember when Paul McCartney's birthday is.

A redhead, Sunday, March 25, 2007

Blondes aren't the only birds at Ft. Harrington. The proud guy above is clearly a redhead, as he shows off his ruby topknot for us at the wild-bird-bribery cylinder. (As with all the others, click on the image to see a larger version.)

Ready-made Easter eggs, March 25, 2007.

Now that spring is well and truly here, our girls are popping out eggs at a prodigious rate -- just about one per chicken per day. Above is two days' worth. Goldie and Buffy lay the very pale beige ones, our older girls lay the white ones, our Araucanas lay the (yes) green ones, and the others give us various shades of brown.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Vernal Plum-Q-Nox

The first sign of spring at Ft. Harrington, as noted earlier, is the wremoval of the wragtop from the Wrangler. The second sign is the blossoming of our old plum trees around the deck. They don't insinuate themselves gradually; generally and annually, it's as though someone snuck by in the night and festooned our old fruit trees with popcorn.

That happened two nights ago.

Plum blossoms and bbq smoke (above)

The third Ft. Harrington sign of spring -- and, to this All-American, Stars-n-Stripes man's MAN, hey, the signal (and, dammit, yes, I meant "signal" not "single" because Dad paid for that ability to be linguistically pretentious and I hate to waste his money) most important -- is the first barbeque of the season... which I managed to pull together tonight. The deck is by no means ready for prime time, though. Even a relatively "dry" winter here in the rain forest (which this year meant only four feet of rain instead of the usual six) leaves slimy biota of many colors, none of which is appetizing, all over everything. That hasn't all been cleaned up yet.

Above: BBQ corner tonight, with iridescent deck-slime cropped from the bottom of the frame.

... but, when it is all cleaned up, it's well worth the effort. Above is the barbeque corner of our deck last June.


Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Giddy with Anticipation

Disclaimer for this and anything I post that involves my employer, DeAnza College: I don't speak for them, they don't speak for me, they pay me. All photos by me unless otherwise noted.

I get to play with some of the coolest toys.

The above photo shows a silhouette of the Minolta MS-15 star projector in the DeAnza College Planetarium. More precisely, it was in the DeAnza Planetarium until just about a year ago.

The MS-15 was Minolta's first planetarium in an American facility (installed in 1970), and represented the company's serious entry into a tiny, specialized, expensive market dominated before that by legendary names like Spitz and Zeiss. The planetarium branch of Minolta (now Konica Minolta) did well after that and is now a revered name in the niche -- just like Spitz and Zeiss (and Goto).

The DeAnza Planetarium and its revolutionary MS-15 was inaugurated with great fanfare in '70, and rightly so. It was then -- and, I think, today remains -- the largest planetarium in the western U.S. that is operated by a Community College, and has provided a great indoor astronomical experience for hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and college students for the past generation.

The MS-15 near the end of its days.

Problem was, it got old. Really, really old. The MS-15's projected useful lifetime in 1970 was 15 years... but it was kept working by innovation, desperation, magic, and duct tape for more than twice that. By the time it was pulled down in 2006, it had even lost Arcturus, and was taking more of the technical director's (Karl von Ahnen's) time in upkeep and cajoling than his actual shows were.

So, out with the old, in with the new:

Planetarium Director Karl von Ahnen (left) eyeballs progress on March 20th, 2007.

The planetarium is nearing the end of a year-and-a-half thorough renovation, inside and out. The heart of the renovation is its new star (and planet) projector -- a spiffy-new, state-of-the-art, Konica Minolta Infinium S star machine. Our Infinium, like the old MS-15, will be the first of its generation of Minolta machines installed anywhere outside of Japan.

Installation, fine-tuning, and -- especially -- training will take several more months before the facility is ready to swing into full operation. Meanwhile, it will see limited use for College classes and some school shows during the spring and summer quarters. The official grand opening will be in the Fall.

When fully-operational, the facility's capabilities will be stunning, and I'll have more posts as time goes on to detail them. For the time being, I'll just mention that the Milky Way will actually be a quarter of a million individual points of light instead of a ghostly smear, that some nebulae and galaxies will be projected with sufficient resolution and realism that one can actually use binoculars inside our 50-foot dome to see them better, and that the positions of the planets (for any date and time) can be shown as seen from any of them, not just Earth!

For more of the astonishing capabilities of the Infinium S, please click here to see Karl von Ahnen's "top ten list" style rundown.

A member of the Minolta installation team aligns the Infinium-S horizontal axis on March 20th. The team of five technicians will be here for several more weeks, finishing and fine-tuning the installation of hardware and software... and setting up a training regime for the wetware (us operator types.)

Dry but possibly necessary background bureaucratic information: The planetarium is not operated by DeAnza College's Physical Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering Division (of which my Astronomy Department is part.) It is operated by a fiscally self-sustaining unit of the College called "Community Education," under the very capable direction of Dr. Caron Blinick, a former English Professor. Dean Blinick and I (as head of DeAnza's academic Astronomy department) coordinate the facility's use, balancing needs of instruction, community outreach, and Community Ed's mandate to balance its books. I like the arrangement -- there's no way in the world or out of it that I would want the responsibility of scheduling grade schools' field trips, for example -- but.. well, let's just say that it's a good thing that we all like each other and leave it at that.

Photos for the time being:

If you've ever remodeled a kitchen or a bathroom, you know how strong the urge is to make something look different on the outside, too, just... well... just because. Same goes for remodeling your star projector. Here's how the planetarium dome looked for years:

... and here's how it looks now:

Photo taken on March 9th, 2007. The switch of dome color from red to blue was not based on political considerations. Really.

Sherwood ponders a learning curve, March 20th. Photo by Karl von Ahnen.

When completely installed, the machine will have a very sleek look. Today, everything's exposed (sort of like Darth Vader without his helmet.) The gizmos in the foreground in the above picture are for projecting the positions of the planets, Sun, Moon, and programmable transient events (like comets or near-earth asteroids) against the background of the stars. The stars themselves (and other things that don't appear to move relative to one another, like galaxies, nebulae, and other deep-space objects) are the job of the star-ball above my head. Both parts are equally vital to a planetarium's working -- and contribute about equally to a projector's cost. That cost, retail, for this machine would be about $2 million, but don't expect to find one on the shelf at WalMart.

Vader's helmet (the shell for the starball). Caution, indeed. This shell is individually fabricated from the aluminum casting on up. Dents are not welcome.

My future workstation. This little set of computer controls replaces the five times as much control surface (conservatively speaking) that was needed to operate the much more primitive MS-15.

If you've been interested enough to read this far, please visit Karl von Ahnen's much more extensive account of the renovation/resurgence of the planetarium.

(Karl is a delight in all ways except one: accompanying him on commercial air travel is an extreme exercise of one's patience. No fault of his, really, since he's had it since the '60's -- but that beard invariably attracts a great deal of attention from TSA droids. Thank God he doesn't wear a turban. Karl treats it all with great equanimity, but the rest of us have been known to fume.)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Seventh Earl

Brendan Parsons, Seventh Earl of Rosse, photographed in the Birr Castle archives room by Sherwood Harrington, August, 2006

In a comment on the entry "Cloudy Skies, Clear Genius..." ronniecat asks:

Is the current Lord Rosse as interesting and unusual as his predecessors?

Brendan Parsons, the Seventh Earl of Rosse, is a remarkable man in his own right (just take a look at this article from 2005 about his honorary doctorate from Trinity College, Dublin.) He is also a very charming man in person, and Diane and I are honored to have had the delightful experience of conversing with him and his wife, Alison, Countess of Rosse, in their home. (The current Lady Rosse is an accomplished artist -- see #s 45 and 46 in this index of works displayed in the current display at the Jorgensen Fine Art Gallery, Dublin, "A Century of Women Artists." But, of course, they are all accomplished at something or another to a degree that makes ordinary folks like me feel pretty mundane.)

Diane chats with Lord Rosse in the gathering evening twilight as he tends a bush by the banks of the Camcor on the Tipperary side of his Demesne.

His identity internally seems to be completely Irish, as befits someone whose ancestors going back seven generations have occupied the same house in the Irish midlands. I say this because for some the title "Earl" or "Lord" -- originating as they do in England -- seems superficially to token an English identity.

Some insights into Lord Rosse's thinking can be found in numerous quotes from him in Anne Chambers's 2000 book, _At Arm's Length: Aristocrats in the Republic of Ireland_. Here are just three: [Double quotes denote Chambers, single ones denote Lord Rosse]

[On his family's multi-generational eschewing of upper-class English schooling] "[He] maintains that if his ancestors had not bypassed the established route of an English public ["private" in American usage] school for an education at home, 'they would never have become famous scientists. They would have been turned into these sort of petty-minded bureaucrats who might have made good civil servants, but who would not have a flair for anything mathematical or scientific or any feeling of a wider world beyond the British Empire.'"

[Concerning the political future of the island] "Brendan Parsons feels strongly 'that we should and must be one country. It will be a gradual process but it will be a process of gradual elimination when the border will count less and less. It costs three billion pounds per year just to keep six counties of Irland half-British. They will soon be discarded by Britain who will get bored for paying for all that.'"

And, most poignantly, this concerning famine then and now:
"At Birr Castle today, the memory of the Famine has remained indelibly etched in the psyche of following generations of the Parsons family. The present-day Earl of Rosse has in more recent times had first-hand experience of the ravages of famine. For fifteen years he served with the UN as relief co-ordinator during the disasters in Bangladesh and the Sudan. The fact that his ancestor during the course of the Great Famine chose 'to employ the people creatively, earning a wage instead of enduring the ignominy of the soup kitchen,' is something that he himself endeavoured to put into practice during his tenure with the UN relief agency. During the Famine over five hundred people were employed on the estate at Birr, building everything from walls to bridges. 'I've now got over five and a half kilometres of wall and twenty-three bridges to keep up, thanks to all that,' Brendan Parsons muses ruefully.

A famine-relief work that the Parsons are still paying for: a "guardhouse," and a bridge over a moat that were built by townspeople during the Great Famine.

"Although the Famine happened over a century and a half ago, it is still close to the consciousness of all Irishmen. This, he maintains, is what 'enables us Irish to empathise with and have a closer understanding of the problems of famine in the world today. As I have seen in Bangladesh, the Sudan, Ghana and in other countries, the Irish command enormous respect because of the confidence they are able to gain of the local people in those situations.'

"He contrasts this with the attitude of some British agencies that come in and 'tend to try and impose their solutions and economic theories which don't work on the ground. You must identify with the problems of the people actually starving, give them a respect by adhering to their traditions and not try to turn them into something they are not.'"

Ronniecat, this man is a force. Yes, indeed, he is as interesting and unusual as his predecessors, and I wish the world had more like him.

However, since this blog seems to be running the risk of becoming a pean to the Parsons, I'm going to give them a rest for a while. Oh, right after I reply to Brian's comment real soon now.

(More of our pictures of the Birr Castle Demesne can be seen in this slideshow.)

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Vernal Jeep-quinox

The San Lorenzo Valley in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California during the rainy season. Ft. Harrington is in the middle of the frame but, like tens of thousands of other residences, it cannot be seen because of the engulfing forest of Sequoia Sempervirens.

Please click on any image to see a significantly higher-resolution version.

Ft. Harrington is in the Santa Cruz Mountains of central California, a little bump pushed up by a kink in the San Andreas Fault. That little kink provides a barrier to the prevailing flow of air from the Pacific, and wrings out about six feet of rain on an annual basis, almost all of that falling in the five months from November through March. The redwood forest here is, officially and actually, a rain forest.

One of the surest signs that our long drenching is just about over is when this:

turns into this:

Putting up and taking down a Jeep's ragtop is more like tent building than convertible-top operation, so mine tends to stay securely in place all winter. The transformation this afternoon took about ten minutes, and the quick changes in light and shadow here in the deep woods can be noted by comparing the areas of light and shadow (and reflections in the driver's door panel) in those two frames. Trees like this will tend to do that to spots of daylight on the ground:

(The tallest group in this picture, taken this afternoon, is on our property; the other one in the background is on a neighbor's. Both sets are rings of second-growth redwood, offshoots from the roots of giant trees that used to be in their centers, harvested a century ago.)

Spring is the Wrangler's season, it seems. It's a toy, and a joy, that doesn't have any real purpose but to entertain (unlike Diane's red '92 Cherokee -- which can be glimpsed in the background of the above photos -- or our workhorse Dodge pickup.) It marks happy times in our past seven springs. A few examples:

Spring, 2000

My sons Doug and Adam happily investigate their dad's new toy. The popped hood was Doug's doing -- I don't think he had any clue about details of how modern power plants work, but, being an alpha male, he had to appear to seriously ponder it, anyway.

Doug took this picture of his brother Adam, his wife Adrianne, and his dad (no, that's not Jerry Garcia, thank you very much). This was before Doug and Adrianne graced us with Grace-the-Granddaughter.

Spring, 2003

The Wrangler doesn't go too far afield. This is about as far as it gets: a little park just across the state (the narrow way) from us.

Spring, 2004

Grace-the-Granddaughter practices her California-Girl-in-a-Convertible pose. She's doing pretty well here, don't you think?

Kesley-the-dog is in heaven when the Wragtop's down.

March, 2006

Not all springs are as mild as this one has been here on the West Coast. Last March was the wettest, most wintry of the rainy months that season -- and included a pretty good dusting of snow on the 12th, almost exactly a year ago.

(Above) Part of the rambling central house in Ft. Harrington, early in the morning of the snow. (Below) Looking toward the kitchen entrance later in the snowy morning.

We get a little snowfall about once or twice a year. It doesn't stick around long, but the animals (humans included) get a kick out of it. Here, Alnitak appreciates the phenomenon: