Friday, July 30, 2010

Things of note.

It's been a while since I last posted, life has been busy for me! Things of note lately:

• The chicks have now been christened `ele`ele and Ke`oke`o (`black' and `white' in Hawaiian, respectively). They're doing well, and growing feathers at an astonishing rate.
`ele`ele and Ke`oke`o.
• Last Friday night I took my partially-complete mirror in to the Chabot Observatory's Amateur Telescope Maker's Workshop, to get done what I could on it while I'm here. I only have a few more grit sizes to work through before it will be ready for polishing (at which point I'm half-way done). I'm down to 17 micron-sized grit already. I'm planning to head up there again tomorrow night.

• Yesterday we stayed late at the State Fair and came home with a bunch of chicks from the hatchery there. Well, `chicks' is stretching the definition a bit, as these are about two weeks old already, so `adolescent chickens' would be a better fit. I had a pleasant surprise when the lady at the hatchery in charge of giving out chicks to 4-H or FFA kids recognized us from years past. Sure, we get chicks there almost every year, but I didn't realize we were that memorable!

Yes, my life is never quiet, is it? Even on vacation...or maybe especially on vacation...

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The saga continues...

Well, interestingly enough, that same mama duck has now hatched a second chick, all white this time. I found it outside the nest when I went out to check on her this evening. I'm guessing that the duck pushed it out when she realized it wasn't a duckling, so I don't feel quite so bad about playing Chick Protection Services for this one. The first one was quite happy to get a companion of the same species, too.

Also, apparently mama duck decided that psychological warfare wasn't working against me, and decided to abandon it in favor of full-on attack mode, latching on with her bill while simultaneously directing a flurry of wing-blows at any accessible part of my anatomy. I carried around marks from our latest encounter for several hours...

Friday, July 23, 2010

On fowl, friendly and fierce.

I have finally gotten around to taking pictures of my ducklings to post here. And while I was at it, I took some pictures of the chick that one of my other ducks hatched. Yes, a chick -- she appropriated a nest that already had some eggs in it, and some of them were chicken eggs. This put me in the unenviable position of having to chicknap her new baby, to protect it from its mother. I swear, it is no coincidence that "drake" can refer either to a male duck or to a dragon. If dragons were anything like vengeful mother ducks, they must have been fearsome indeed. Quite apart from the fact that duck bites hurt, the psychological aspect is somewhat unsettling. When feeling threatened, mama ducks react very much like cobras, hissing, puffing themselves up to look bigger, and generally notching up the terror factor from "cute duck floating on pond" to "totally evil looking creature intent on ripping bodily chunks off of anything that gets too close". It's quite dramatic.

Anyway, enough talk, more pictures...
Mama with three duck-lets in tow.
New chick. Currently unnamed.
Note the strong owl resemblance.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Today I went to the California State Fair to watch Abigail show some of her pygmy goats, then went to the Raging Waters water park on the fairgrounds with my brothers and some family friends. I'm going to get more time in the water in the few weeks I'm here than in the entire last two semesters (in truth, I think I already have). If you ever get a chance to go to that park, I highly recommend the Dragon's Den ride. You go by two's in two-person inner tubes down a steep drop in the dark, circulate around in a giant whirlpool for two or three revolutions, then finally vanish down another short drop and get ejected out into the splashpool at the end. The description just given, however, really doesn't quite capture the essence of it, nor the mix of anticipation, terror, and exhilaration that comes with riding it (especially because the official policy of "heavier person in the back" can send the inner tube backwards down the final chute).

It's just something you have to experience to really understand, I guess.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Home again, home again.

Well, I have to start this post off by pointing out that I completely flubbed the scheduled post time in the post directly before this one. I'd meant it to post at 10:00 PM California time, and accidentally set it to post in Hawai`i time, which means it posted three hours later than I planned (probably about the time I finally fell asleep, though...).

Traveling to a warm location from Hawai`i certainly has its advantages -- no coat necessary, and flip-flops (er, sandals) work fine, making getting through security a breeze -- probably the quickest and easiest I've ever been through...

...followed as always by the inconvenience and discomfort of several hours of trying to fit my lanky frame into airplane seats designed for a mean passenger height several inches shorter than I am. (Ironically, inter-continental flights are better, not worse than domestic ones...the seats there are usually larger, and built more with an eye for comfort. On domestic flights of a few hours, engineers figure you can just tough it out.) But, the long and short of it is, I made it home safe and sound, and am slowly adjusting to jetlag (very slowly, as the fact that I'm posting after 11 o`clock should make clear). I should probably get to bed now...

Friday, July 16, 2010

Well, I'm home.

Or at least, I should be soon. I'm writing this before leaving Hilo, and setting it to post about the time my plane lands in Oakland. So I'll be home sometime after that.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

When worlds align...

Well, the frogs are chirping merrily away in the background, and for once there are no clouds in the sky, allowing me to see the close conjunction of Venus and the Moon, with Mars and Saturn nearby for good measure. It's a beautiful night in Hilo.

It almost makes me sad, knowing that Thursday I'll be on the airplane back home to California for a few weeks. By the time you're reading this, I may already be in the air. To be honest, I'm going to miss the lovely weather here. And the rain. I'll probably miss the rain.

In the almost 11 months I've been living here, Hawai`i has steadily grown on me, ever since I first got off the airplane. I love it here, and will be sad if or when I eventually have to move away.

But all good things tend to come to an end, and indeed, trying to hold onto a good thing too hard often ends up being counter-productive. It'll be good to see family and friends again, catch up, "talk story". And at the end of my vacation, I have the coming back to look forward to. So I guess it's not so bad after all.

Mentioning that conjunction reminded me I should try to go photograph it. As you can see below, it's quite the picturesque alignment:

Saturn, Mars, the Moon, and Venus. Click on the image for a larger view.

Visible in the full-size picture but hard to see here, Saturn lies near the top of the picture with Mars to its lower right, while just to the right of the three-day-young Moon lies Venus. And the nifty part is, the alignments just get more interesting as we head into August! Saturn, Mars, and Venus will each take turns getting close to each other over the next few weeks, and are optimally placed for evening viewing. Check them out some time, if you get a chance. There's really no way you can miss Venus, as it's the brightest thing in the sky after the Moon, and Saturn and Mars will show up as fairly bright stars to its upper left, similar to the picture...for a few days, at any rate.

See you in California!

Monday, July 12, 2010

Climbing rocks, seeing stars.

Saturday was a very long and busy day for me, but in a good way. I went on a summit tour and decided to stay for stargazing and take advantage of the almost-new moon to do some imaging. The weather was beautiful up at the summit, and I was even able to catch a glimpse of the island Kaho`olawe for the first time! The view of Maui was also the most spectacular I've seen.

I took some time after lunch before the trip to the summit started to go back and smell the silverswords again. Knowing what to look smell for this time, I could tell that the silversword flowers smell very similar to sunflowers (pungent, a little bitter), but with a definite sweetness I don't remember sunflowers possessing.  While engaged in this pursuit, I noticed a dead flower stalk poking up from the cluster of plants I was looking at and decided to see what the seeds of a silversword looked like. To my surprise, they turned out to be almost indistinguishable from marigold seeds. (It was surprising to me at the time. Now that I know that marigolds are also in the Asteraceae family, it makes a lot of sense.)

I was also able to do a little geological sleuthing while I was there. Saturday morning I discovered the 3-dimensional views of Google Earth, and had been looking at the various Hawaiian islands. This naturally led to me find the Vis, at which point I was shocked to discover that directly south of the south, just before reaching it, the road to it passes through the remains of an enormous cinder cone. I was shocked because I have driven up and down that road (and through the cinder cone) over a dozen times, and never suspected its presence. It really doesn't look much like a cinder cone when you're actually standing on its rim, however, as I discovered. The east and west portions of its rim jut up significantly higher than the rest (the west side is a very popular location near the Vis for viewing the sunset), and on the south-east side where the road enters the cone its rim is completely invisible (there is another, much smaller cinder cone near that location, the formation of which may have destroyed the rim of the older, larger cone).

What really amazed me about this particular cone is how large it is. It is larger in diameter that most of the other cinder cones on the mountain, over a thousand feet from edge to edge. I don't think it's the largest cinder cone on Mauna Kea, but after looking around some more in Google Maps I'd be willing to bet it's in the top five (in terms of diameter, I'm not considering height).

Anyway, in other news, I've been given permission to post some of my pictures that I created as part of my summer project. The picture to the right is rather special to me because it's the very first picture to be created by my script. Somewhat amazingly, after I had all the code for creating pictures written everything worked perfectly, and this was the result the first time I ran the script.
Those of you who program know how rare it is for everything to work right the first time, especially when writing with functions you've never used before! I guess it's a testament to the power and simplicity of the Python Imaging Library that I was using to create the pictures.
If you're wondering what these are picture of, they are pictures of star-forming regions in relatively nearby galaxies (within a few hundred million light years). They are all made using one specific frequency of light, known as hydrogen-alpha (Hα), the frequency emitted by an electron jumping from the third level to the second level of an excited hydrogen atom, at a wavelength of 656.3 nanometers.
Well, actually I think the first one was made using hydrogen-beta (Hβ), which is the light from an electron jumping from the fourth level to the third, at 486.1 nanometers. For comparison, H-alpha is a distinctive pinkish-red, while H-beta is more of a cyan color. These last three pictures have no special significance for me like the first one, they're simply some of the more interesting ones I could find(many of the pictures have little or no contrast across them, partly for data reduction reasons, partly because there is much, much less H-beta light than H-alpha light, so pictures in H-beta are much fainter at the same exposure. The first picture, being a first-time test, is actually pretty heavily over-exposed).

Anyway, now you can see what I've spent my summer doing....making grainy black-and-white pictures. They may not be the prettiest pictures on the planet, but they're special to me (and, it appears, pretty valuable scientifically as well. Dr. Takamiya was quite impressed with them). It remains to be seen what results await our scrutiny...

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Image and imaging.

This Sunday I was fortunate to spend my 4th of July at the Vis on Mauna Kea under a clear dark sky. This time of year the Milky Way is simply gorgeous, so bright in the dark sky that people often mistake it for clouds. Sunday I finally fulfilled a wish of mine, and took a number of shots which I stitched together into a panorama of the Milky Way.

Summer Milky Way from Mauna Kea.

Again, you really need to click on this one to see. I should also mention that this is not exactly what the Milky Way looks like on Mauna Kea. Stitching the pictures together to make the panorama introduces some horrible stretching and distortions into the image, which due to the way I composed the shot is most visible just left of center, but is present everywhere to a small degree. It's very similar to the atrocities perpetrated upon geography by mapping a spherical globe onto a flat map. The picture is also not quite representative because it was made using 30-second exposures, so not everything in it is visible to the naked eye in such detail (although is is possible to get a glimpse, at least, of pretty much everything in this picture).

This picture is facing towards Hilo, the lights of which you can see on the horizon as an orange glow in the center of the picture. Although difficult to make out in the picture, you can just spot the glow of Kīlauea on the limb of Mauna Kea to its right. The center of our galaxy is located in the direction of the brightest region, in the upper-right part of the picture. The red-lit foreground comes from the low light level conditions and red lights used at the Vis.

In other unrelated news, I had major breakthrough with my job vocation yesterday, where I finished a project I'd been working fruitlessly on for almost a week in less than a day. I was tasked with creating images from the lists of data that I've been working with -- doable in principle, since the data came from (complicated) pictures in the first place, but not immediately obvious in practice.

I spent several days looking in the wrong places, before coming across a great resource, the Python Imaging Library. The night before I'd had trouble setting it up on my computer so I wasn't sure what to expect, but it went flawlessly: I was able to create my first test picture in less than 20 minutes after installing it, and had my first actual image within a few hours (most of which was spent figuring out how to map a one-dimensional list of numbers back into a two-dimensional image).

I then ran the script on all the data files, and the feeling I got while watching image files pop into existence in the folder I'd created for them was pure exhilaration. I'm sure the creators of the first digital cameras must have felt similar when they got their first images. The pictures aren't much to look at -- just extremely grainy, gray-scale images -- but knowing the exact process of their creation makes them much more interesting to me.

Well. I guess it's appropriate that this post about a digital image turned into a discussion about digital imaging. Perhaps at a later date I can share some of the more interesting pictures created by my script with you all.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Lustrous laser light. (Look! `lliteration! Lovely.)

Thursday night I got in the mail my first new toy in a while, a laser pointer of my very own! Up at the Vis there are a few laser pointers available for volunteers to use, but this way I can have one for giving my own personal star tours whenever I feel like it. If you've ever tried to point out one of the fainter or smaller constellations, or, really, pretty much any constellation, planet, satellite, etc, you know how frustrating it is trying to point it out with nothing but your finger and your voice. ("Ok, starting from the crest of that hill, look up about one fist's width for a just-barely-brighter-than-its-companions star, then look where I'm pointing towards the left for another three...see how they form a quadrilateral? Well, then you look...") Trying to point out stars with your finger after having used a laser pointer feels like going back to plowing your fields with a one-horse plow after using modern farming equipment. Frustrating.
Well, no more. I can now happily move into the modern era of laser-guided star tours. Of course, a laser has more uses than just pointing out stars. Mine puts out brilliant green light at a wavelength of 532 nanometers, which is very close to the color at which the human eye is most sensitive, allowing me to use it as an emergency flashlight. The British term 'torch' actually seems more appropriate, since it is bright enough that you need merely point it at the ceiling and turn it on in order to fill the room with enough reflected light to navigate easily. The importance of carrying an emergency flashlight was driven forcibly home this evening, as just before I started writing this post we had a short blackout. And it was black, with clouds covering up any possible moon- or starlight.

The lights came on again about 15 minutes later, but it reminded me of another thing you can with lasers and time-lapse photography:

Creating this picture took not a few attempts, as it requires great hand-eye coordination and a very good short-term photographic memory to be able to get your dots anywhere close to your i's, not to mention keeping the rest of your letters from bunching up and overlapping. It's akin to writing with extremely fast-acting invisible ink, since you can't see what you've written once you've written it.
From this picture you can see two things: 1) just how bright this laser is at short range; and 2) I really need to work on my laser calligraphy. (callaserigraphy?)

And lastly, I feel obligated to point out that lasers are most certainly not toys, and should never be treated irresponsibly or recklessly. I have, and will continue to take every precaution when using mine, even for lighthearted or fun applications. I'd hate to hear about someone who damaged their eyesight by trying to copy something I did without adequate precautions. Basically, don't try this at home unless you know what you're doing, and remember the similarity between bullets and lasers: they both do a lot of damage if they get in your eyes. So try to avoid that.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Of frogs and fugues.

If you've ever heard a coqui frog and wanted to know what they look like, I happen to have a very nice photo of one:
Coqui! Coqui!
(it's hard to get a sense of scale in this picture, but that frog is about two inches long) 

If you don't know what I'm talking about, coqui frogs are several related species of frogs native to Puerto Rico that are named for their distinctive (and loud) calls. This facet of their biology has prompted much vigorous debate ever since they were accidentally released in the state of Hawaii, with many people finding their calls obnoxious at night (they are quite loud) and working to kill as many as they can, and just as many people defending them and working to protect them.

I tend to like them, myself. They fill much the same role as background crickets (if slightly louder), but are much more melodious than insects, to my ear. They also remind me of the spring peepers back in Northern California.

Oh. I guess I didn't really talk about fugues, did I? Simply put, fugues are a complex musical technique, considered by many musicologists to be the most complex of contrapuntal forms (unsurprisingly, the Baroque era was their golden age, especially in the hands of such masters as Handel and Bach).
Oversimplifying greatly, a fugue has as part of its integral nature a repetition of a musical phrase over and over in different voices and keys, often in a staggered fashion, with a whole lot of other, more complicated things happening as well. If you take the coqui frog's two-note co-QUI! as a phrase, they could be said to be playing a very simple, rather extended, and somewhat limited fugue all night long, to a gentle and pervasive backdrop of crickets, accompanied by the odd cadenza-like trill of a gecko, or two male coqui's engaging in a “singing duel”. That is all.