Thursday, September 30, 2010

One Break, Caught.

Yesterday Dr. Takamiya and I had a big breakthrough in our research project, finally figuring out how to produce graphs of the data we're working on automatically, without human input. This is quite exciting because it allows for much faster checking of the results my script is creating, so we can evaluate it and catch any possibly questionable calls. The process turned out to be simple, but finding it wasn't; we spent almost two hours trying various combinations and searching the Internet for its sparse information on the subject. Speaking of the Internet, I wasn't able to post about our breakthrough yesterday because our entire household wasn't able to access it for some reason. It's fixed now, thankfully. I might be able at a later point to include some graphs, which will probably make a bit more intuitive sense than the images I posted a few months ago.

I also learned yesterday that I have an opportunity to go observing on the UH 88-inch telescope again on Friday night, which I intend to take. Assuming all goes well, this means a lot more data for me to reduce in the near future!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Kahakō and ʻOkina.

Today I found a really cool resource for Hawaiian, a Hawaiian “keyboard” program that you can download and install on your computer in order to easily write the kakahō and ʻokina that are part of written Hawaiian. The kahakō is the little bar that appears above vowels to indicate that they are long; it translates to something like “drawn out”. The ʻokina is the glottal stop consonant, represented by the backwards apostrophe “ ʻ ”, or single left quotation mark. This makes writing Hawaiian a snap, so hopefully I can include a bit more of it in future posts.

The keyboard program works by simply adding a few new keystrokes and switching the ʻokina for the apostrophe, so I can actually leave it on while I work with no problems. Just for fun, here are the names of the letters in the Hawaiian alphabet, in alphabetical order: ʻā, ʻē, ʻī, ʻō, ʻū, hē, kē, lā, mū, nū, pī, wē, ʻokina. Thankfully the naming system for Hawaiian letters is a bit more logical than the English one!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Rain and Moon at the Mauna Kea Visitor Information Station.

Last night I went up to the Vis, as I mentioned in my post yesterday. It was one of the worse nights I've been up there; a thick layer of clouds in the afternoon left everything covered in a layer of condensation in the evening, a very rare occurrence. Normally we get layers of clouds ascending and descending around us, but the air overall stays fairly dry. This time, everything was soaking wet, and every telescope had a layer of moisture on its optics. The smaller Dobsonian-mounted Newtonians with their open-mirror-cell design dried out pretty quickly, but the larger scopes were completely impossible (is that redundant?) to focus to anything more than a nice, large blur for almost the entire night.

I spent a good hour or two jumping between different scopes (we were a bit short-staffed) trying to dry off their optics with a hair dryer and get them aligned while having to tell people that they really couldn't see much more than a blur through them, unfortunately (which is stupendously depressing, having to turn people away from astronomy). The night had its funny aspects as well; I was highly amused at the percentage of people who will try to look through the eyepiece of a telescope while someone is standing in front of the other end shining a light into it and directing the flow of air from a hair dryer at it. (Do they think the telescope can somehow look through me? I'll never understand people...)

Another thing making it really difficult last night was the almost full moon. Due to the weather and the fact that the telescopes mostly weren't performing, there were hardly any people for the last hour, so I took a moonlit walk out to the silversword enclosure to see the silversword by moonlight. It was not quite as spectacular as I had perhaps foolishly imagined, but kind of cool nonetheless. They didn't glow in the dark or anything, but they did have a faintly visible silvery sheen, though not enough of one for me to get a picture without using the flash, sadly.

A hui hou!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Celestial Choreography.

Since I'm going up to Mauna Kea tonight, I thought I'd put up some pictures I took the last time I was there. The first one is very cool, because it shows one of the phases of Venus. I don't recall ever having seen these before, so it was an awesome experience for me. Seeing such phases is one way to tell that Venus orbits closer to the Sun than we do.
Crescent Venus.
North is roughly off to the right in the picture. Note the chromatic aberration present in the image, visible as a slight separation between the most red and most blue parts of the image.

The second picture is of Jupiter, the behemoth of the solar system.
North is up in this picture. You can clearly the North Equatorial Belt near the top of the planet. The corresponding South Equatorial Belt has been missing for several months now. It will no doubt return as it always has sometime in the next few years, but for now you get to see the planet in a little more lop-sided version.

While checking up on Jupiter, I learned a rather funny fact about the Trojan asteroids. The Trojan asteroids are two groups of asteroids that are caught by gravity at Jupiter's L4 and L5 Lagrange points. This means they orbit the Sun roughly 60 degrees ahead of and behind Jupiter in its orbit. I had never known why they were called the Trojan asteroids before, but it turns out it's because the first one discovered was called Achilles, and by convention every one discovered since (all 4,076 of them) have been named after figures in the Trojan War from the Iliad. In fact, it's even more structured than that; the asteroids orbiting ahead of Jupiter are named after people in the Greek camp, while those following Jupiter are named after people in the Trojan camp (although this rule was suggested after they'd found a few, so there are two exceptions: Patroclus is found in the Trojan camp, and Hektor, the largest of them, in the Greek camp).

As an interesting aside, the word trojan has now entered the astronomical lexicon to refer to any body trapped 60 degrees ahead or or behind another in its orbit. Thus, there are other trojan asteroids (note the lowercase spelling); several associated with Mars, and a few with Neptune. There are even 4 known trojan moons, all in orbit around Saturn, which is where three moons share the same orbit, one large one in the middle with two smaller flanking ones behind and before.

A hui hou!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

RAINBOW: Radiant Apparition Induced Naturally By Opportune Water

It's not every morning you get to wake up and enjoy a rainbow, even here in rainy Hilo. So imagine my delight at seeing one this morning while preparing to take the second part of my credit-by-examination test for physics. As a physicist, I do love rainbows. A wonderful and free source of spectrum viewing. Whenever I have a series of colored writing implements, I tend to arrange them spectroscopically, in order of increasing frequency, like the rainbow (though every once in a while I switch it up and arrange them by increasing wavelength, just for fun).

I am also reminded that today is the autumnal equinox, and thus the last day of summer (or first day of autumn) in the Northern Hemisphere. It also happens to coincide with the Harvest Moon this time, a rather rare event. The full moon was extremely well placed to rise just as the sun set from here on the islands, and was distinctive enough that I noticed the difference in illumination this evening caused by it.

A hui hou!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fiat lux (Let there be light!)

Last night I finally completed my multi-month long quest to get LuxRender to play nicely with Blender. (Blender, as I've mentioned before, is a 3-D modeling program, and LuxRender is "a physically based and unbiased rendering engine". It has a whole lot of nifty features, the most interesting for me being that it realistically models individual wavelengths of light, leading to realistic effects such as dispersion, or the ability to create a blackbody emission spectrum.)

I actually started looking at getting LuxRender to work back around Sping Break, but wasn't able to get it working. Blender is going through a serious reworking right now (going from version 2.4x to the new, radically redesigned and updated 2.5x series), and there didn't exist a version of LuxRender to go with the new Blender version. It seems to have appeared only recently, as I took another look at it after the semester ended and didn't find anything then.

Anyway, it took a complete wipe and clean install of the very latest Blender version (2.5 Beta), and of LuxRender (not quite sure what version it is, as it's still experimental as far as I can tell) to get Blender to acknowledge that LuxRender existed on my computer (quite the tedious manual installation. That should get better, in time).

Below is the first picture I've managed to get from it that looks halfway decent. A copper cube resting on some kind of...dirt...or maybe sand. I'm not sure which.
Nothing special, but I like the pretty copper color.

As both the Blender and LuxRender versions I'm using are still beta or experimental versions, it tends to crash every so often, so is not immediately useful right now. That will improve over time, though, and has inspired the artistic, creative part of my brain with some ideas for future projects.

At the moment, though, I have to study hard in order to try to test out of my basic Mechanics class on Monday and Wednesday. I have three hours allotted for each day, each of which will cover one half of the course (!). A hui hou!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Not much new.

First off, my apologies on the real dearth of posts around here lately. I can't even claim busyness as a culprit, merely a sort of ennui on my part. I've been busy in other ways. I have some homework, and Hawaiian continues to keep me on my toes, and my brain whirring, but it's good fun. Thursdays (or Po‘ahā) we practice actual conversational stuff -- making up and using our own sentences. I'm getting better, slowly. I'm certainly a far cry from thinking in Hawaiian yet, but I'm coming to string certain phrases together more quickly. I can even engage in very rudimentary conversation. And tomorrow we get to practice our hula, after the end-of-chapter test.

We occasionally learn Hawaiian proverbs, such as this pithy summary of the island hydrologic cycle:
"Uē ka lani; ola ka honua." "The heavens weep; the earth lives."

The weather is finally starting to get back to normal around here, I think. I've been here over a month, and yesterday was the first time that it rained during the day while I was walking home from school. I've used my umbrella to keep the sun off me more often than the rain in the last month, which is somewhat unusual. I'm quite pleased -- walking over a mile to school in the beating sun (usually near midday) gets really old, really fast.

Have to run to class now, so a hui hou!

Friday, September 10, 2010

Sights and Smells of Hawai‘i.

Ever since moving here to Hawai‘i, I've found myself noticing smells a lot more, to the point where I sometimes find myself unconsciously sniffing the wind to sample the scents of an area. It's kind of interesting, picking up the fragrance of the rain, or of the sea, or of other, more localized scents. Plants often give off noticeable perfumes; sun-baked lava rock has its own peculiar odor. Up on Mauna Kea, the wind has the intoxicating bouquet I associate with rolling Nebraskan prairie, which is probably one of the earliest scents I can remember.

I'm not a hundred percent sure why I seem to be paying more attention to my sense of smell now, at this time in my life, but I think it has to do with the generally higher humidity of Hawai‘i compared to California, and the fact that scents tend to travel better in moist air. Whatever it is, I enjoy it. Just another perk of paradise!

Friday, September 3, 2010

On the Beautiful Smooth Hawaiian Language.

The more I study the Hawaiian language, the more entranced by it I grow. It is both an elegant and a beautiful tongue. It uses an incredible economy of sounds -- there may exist languages with fewer sounds in the world, but none that I know of. It is sufficiently different from other languages I've studied to inflame my curiosity, yet simultaneously I recognize many tantalizing common linguistic threads running through it. Songs or chants in it often have a haunting beauty, and it lends even simple greetings a peculiar charm.

Hawaiian is interesting to me because, unlike other languages I've studied like Latin and Greek, its verbs do not decline or change at all. Mood, tense, and other things are handled by additional words in the sentence, somewhat similarly to English, but taken much further. Nouns, too, do not change to indicate their number. Like English, words can be used in various ways in different contexts. Some words can be used as nouns, verbs, and adjectives!

Edit: last night while writing this I couldn't think of an English example, but this morning I thought of one: "set". If you think of more, post them in the comments!

Like Arabic, Hawaiian also has no "to be" verb. It takes a little getting used to, but once you do it seems the most natural thing in the world to omit. It simplifies and shortens phrases, and makes the language much more concise than English in most cases.

I was a bit bored tonight, so I wrote a quick function in Python to randomly generate some short, simple Hawaiian phrases for me to practice translating. It generated some pretty funny phrases, such "this student of my chair", and "the uncle of my island". I had some ideas about writing a program to generate random phrases and eventually sentences for practice, so this was sort of a proof of concept. It's like really high-tech, random flashcards.

Well, I need to get some sleep now, so a hui hou!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Linux. Just...Linux.

Have I ever mentioned how much I detest Linux, the open-source operating system? Probably not, but there's no time like the present to start. There is no curse in Elvish, Entish, or all the tongues of Men for this blot on the good name of the human race. A typical session of attempting to install something goes like this:
  1. Download various packages and files.
  2. Begin following instructions provided, typing in arcane and arbitrary commands at the terminal. (If you have no instructions, you are basically out of luck.)
  3. If you're lucky, it will take more than 2 commands before you encounter an error.
  4. Spend anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours surfing the web trying to find out exactly what additional sequence or combination of arcane and arbitrary commands you need to type in to fix the error. Typically these will be scattered across several forum threads a few years in age, and must be pieced together with a care rivaling that of a linguist deciphering Linear B.
  5. Repeat steps 2-4 until you either (miraculously, miracles DO still happen) finish the installation, or realize there are better uses of your time, like counting the number of sand grains on the nearest beach, or watching paint curl.
Linux is like the Gnosticism of computers, as it requires "mystic, revealed, esoteric knowledge", which can only be received from someone who's been working with computers practically since they were invented. As one of the professors here at school put it, "Linux has a trillion commands, and it requires you to know them all". There is no way to learn Linux on your own by trial-and-error -- you must rely on someone else telling you what to do. I mean, it's the 21st century already! We have things called graphical user interfaces and self-installing programs (and they DO exist for Linux, as I've used some in the past). So why can't some of the most ubiquitous and important scientific programs (*cough* IRAF *cough*) of our day actually avail themselves of these marvels of modern technology? The abacus is starting to look more and more like a viable and productive alternative!

(deep breath)
As you can probably tell, I just spent the last two and a half hours trying to install a package for IRAF on my Ubuntu distribution, with only marginal success. During this time I overcame exactly two Linux errors (along with a good number of human-caused mistakes). And I still can't get the package to work right. I'm beginning to be worried about the increase in my blood pressure. If you ever need a good argument against going into astronomy, it is the fact that IRAF does not run on Windows (or even Mac).

*sigh* Anyway, now that I have sufficiently vented my spleen, I need to get to bed and get my very-much-needed sleep. A hui hou!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Pā‘ina and hula.

Monday night my Hawaiian professor invited the whole class over to his house for a pā‘ina, a small dinner party. It was very enjoyable. He and his family live a couple miles outside of Hilo, out in the good ol’ countryside. Everyone brings food to Hawaiian parties, and we enjoyed an ‘ono (delicious, tasty) meal of many different things. (If you have just enjoyed a savory repast, you can compliment your host with “ ‘ono ka mea‘ai” -- “delicious is the food”.)

We also saw and practiced for the first time the hula we'll be learning over the semester. Hula is an art form unique to the Hawaiian islands, and can be loosely described as a highly stylized form of pantomime accompanied by a mele, a song that may be chanted or sung depending on the hula. It was originally conceived as a means of passing on oral histories, and developed into an ubiquitous art form applicable to social situations ranging from serious state occasions to informal get-togethers. The mele we're performing is sort of a patriotic Hawaiian anthem, though a relatively recent one. Hula is incredibly complex and difficult, especially for such an uncoordinated one as I. There are foot, hand, and arm movements to be performed synchronously with the mele, while singing and trying not to hit or run into the people around you. It's a very different experience for me, but a very pleasant one. (Yes, I know, another shocker to those of you who know I am generally not much for the performing arts. All I can say is, I'm surprised too.) I'll try to translate the mele for you later on in the semester when I'm able, and perhaps even put up some pictures from when we perform.

A hui hou! (until next time!)