Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Watch a cruise ship leave Hilo Bay

One of the places I've been flying my new Mini 3 Pro is a scenic lookout point along the coast just north of downtown Hilo, along the Hāmākua highway. From there you can get a good view out over Hilo Bay, as it's just across from the end of the breakwater protecting the harbor. It's pretty much the closest place I can go to fly over the ocean due to the proximity of the airport to the bay beaches, and as once I got over my worry that my drone was going to randomly plummet from the sky into the ocean, I discovered that flying over open water is pretty great because of the lack of obstacles or changes in ground height to have to pay attention to.

Coincidentally, the first time I went was on a Tuesday, which is the day each week when a cruise ship visits Hilo from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM. I got there just after the cruise ship had left the bay and was heading out into the ocean, and decided that it would be an interesting challenge trying to film it in the process of exiting the bay. The next week I went, the weather was bad, with spitting rain not long before the ship passed by and threatening overcast skies; I was also caught off guard by just how fast it could move, so I barely managed to get my drone in the air fast enough to catch it, and only got a few photos (which weren't great due to the lighting conditions).

With the days starting to shorten again after the summer solstice, I tried again this week, and this time the weather cooperated and I was ready (just). I could tell that my confidence was much improved even from just the week before, as I quickly got my drone into the air and sent it whizzing off over the waves.

But rather than continue to tell you about it, I'll just show you! I got enough footage to put together a short video, and here it is:

That ship was really moving, mind you; all but the very last shot in that video is from a single nine-minute take, and that includes the time getting to and from the boat at the beginning and end. The time it took to get out of the harbor once it lined up was no more than about three minutes, which is part of why I wasn't prepared for it the week before. All that movement made it a really interesting target to try to match velocity with and get some cinematic shots of, though, especially since I didn't have to worry about hitting anything else while flying.

As I was editing the video I realized it's been a little over a year since my last one (from before I left Australia), and it felt great to get back into editing again. Hopefully this will be merely the first of many to come! A hui hou!

Sunday, June 19, 2022

Laupāhoehoe Point, aerial edition

Yesterday morning I visited Laupāhoehoe Point  with a photographer friend of mine. I'd told him about getting a drone, and he suggested an outing wheret I could fly my drone to get some photos and he could get some photos of it (and me) in action. I last visited Laupāhoehoe Beach Park back in 2015, but it was pretty much the same as I remembered.

This shot is back up the gulch we drove down into to reach the point.
Laupāhoehoe Point sits at the end of a gulch, a little spit of land jutting into the Pacific in stark contrast to the sea cliffs on either side. Both times I've been it was beautifully sunny weather with a few clouds, and a strong wind blowing off the ocean. This was actually the windiest I've taken my drone up, so I was a bit worried it'd encounter some problems. Luckily, the Mini 3 can handle surprisingly strong winds—while it was definitely buffeted about a bit, I was never worried that it wasn't going to be able to make it flying against the wind or anything like that.

Panorama at Laupāhoehoe Point. Click for a larger view.
Though, due to the wind I didn't fly quite as high as I might otherwise have. I got this nice panorama looking out to sea from about 50 meters up (of the 120 m I could've gone). The drone-generated panorama had some visible glitches in the horizon (probably from the aforementioned-buffeting), but I saved the raw photos and was able to get this lovely panorama out of Hugin. I got it at a good time; the wind was intermittently blowing clouds overhead, and I was surprised to see, upon reviewing the photos, just how washed out and dull the ones in the shade looked compared to the one in full sunlight. (You can see this in the top photo, actually, though the valley further back in the center was still unshadowed.) It doesn't show in the panorama due to the distortion, but those sea-cliffs to either side of the point run basically straight from north-west to south-east.

It was a fun trip, and is the farthest I've gone yet for drone flying (it's about 40 minutes out from Hilo). Interestingly, while my original intent with getting a drone was simply getting aerial photos and videos, I'm finding that I'm coming to enjoy the simple act of flying at least as much. I'm excited to go out and fly, even in places I've explored before or where I don't end up taking many photos. It's a new experience, but I think I finally have a proper outdoor hobby. So expect more aerial photos (and videos) in future! A hui hou!

Friday, June 10, 2022

Dreams of flight, fulfilled!

I don't remember when I first heard about remote-control quadcopter drones, but it must've been some time ago, approaching a decade. I remember because my impression at the time was that they were toys: a little RC helicopter-like device you could send hovering around in the air for a few minutes. Neat, in a way, but not something I was really interested in.

Over the years I didn't pay much attention to the improvements taking place in drone development (especially the inclusion of cameras), until about two years ago. Sometime a few months into lockdown in Melbourne in 2020, I started watching videos incorporating drone footage that were popping up in my recommendations on YouTube. At a time when I could leave the house for no more than an hour a day (and then only to walk about enjoying a grey and dreary Melbourne winter), seeing people's soaring footage from around the world (often from before the pandemic, to be clear) made me realize that drones now had the potential to be more than mere toys: in the right hands, they could be conduits to completely new perspectives on familiar things, vicariously allowing people the power of flight in something other than a ponderous airplane. I was quickly hooked.

But of course, I was completing a PhD at the time; I had neither time, money, nor access to anywhere interesting to fly, and no prospects for any in the near future, so it remained a dream. But if there's one thing I can be when needed, it's patient, so I bided my time and started learning more about the various kinds of drones out there, dreaming of a day when I might possibly return to Hawaii and have a drone of my own, able to show off the natural wonders of my adopted home like other people were doing for places around the globe. Miraculously, the first part of that dream came true last year when I was able to move back to Hawaii with a great new job. And this week, the second part came true when the DJI Mini 3 Pro I ordered arrived!

An early-morning shot looking north-east towards Hilo bay, from about 60 m up.

Yes, I've finally made the jump into drone flying, and I am having a blast. I had plenty of other more necessary things to spend money on when I first arrived back in Hawaii, so I've been waiting patiently for months. In January rumors of a new DJI drone in the Mini family surfaced, which piqued my interest, so I held off until it was officially revealed in May. The Mini line of DJI drones represents drones under 250 grams, which both means they don't need to be registered in the US if used for solely recreational flying, and makes them eminently portable on, say, a nice long hike. They're not the highest-end consumer drones out there, but they're highly capable little flying cameras, and the Mini 3 Pro continues that tradition. So when it came out to good reviews (the specs having been leaked a few weeks earlier), I took the plunge and ordered.

A few miles out of Hilo, about 1000 feet in elevation. (Find me near photo center…)

I'd been vaguely hoping it would arrive before my trip back to California last week, but alas. It instead arrived on Tuesday, and I've been eagerly taking it out flying almost as often as possible; I was so excited on Wednesday after flying it the first time Tuesday evening that I woke up early and went flying before work—then again after work. The Mini 3 Pro routinely gets upwards of 20 minutes of flight time on a single battery, so even with just one I can get out for a good length of time and take photos and videos and practice my flying.

Another shot towards the bay; greater distance from the airport let me go up to the full 120 m limit.

I find the experience of flying itself magical, though it's a bit nervewracking, to be sure, especially sending my (not exactly cheap!) drone far away from myself either horizontally or vertically. Still, being able to get a perspective from up in the sky is worth the nerves, and the feeling of directing it around through the air is a lot of fun. I haven't been more than a few miles out of Hilo yet, but I love being able to look out over the city and recognize places from the air. I'm still practicing my cinematography skills, but I can hardly wait to start exploring some of the amazing sights this island has to offer in photos and video. (To aid with the latter I've got some additional batteries on order to allow longer flight times, but they won't ship until July.) National parks are off-limits (a fact I'm both happy and sad about), so don't expect any cool aerial shots of Kīlauea or anything like that, but there's still a lot of island available to fly over, and I'm looking forward to having more photos to show in the future. Now, it's off to bed so I can get up early and fly again tomorrow morning while the Sun is low. A hui hou!

Friday, June 3, 2022

Catching COVID-19

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen eventually, but I finally caught COVID-19. I took a short trip back to California to visit family over Memorial Day weekend, and came down with what I initially took to be the flu in the middle of it. The incubation time for the Omicron variant matches up suspiciously well with my outbound flight, and I started feeling vaguely off over the next few days, so that's most likely where I picked it up (though I can't entirely rule out catching it earlier, before leaving the island).

While I did have some vague feeling of coming down with something, it really came on quickly overnight. I woke up the next day having slept horribly with aching muscles everywhere and feeling utterly drained of energy. I thought it was the flu based on how powerfully it hit me (and how little I'd reacted to my COVID-19 vaccines), and the experiences I had with the flu back in 2018 and 2019. I actually only took an at-home COVID-19 test to rule it out, only for the result to come back extremely positive. Thankfully, while it was pretty awful for two days, I'm definitely on the road to recovery and it's since morphed into a more cold-like set of symptoms like a cough and sore throat. And night sweats. I'll not miss waking up each morning drenched in cold sweat for the past few days now.

I have to say, with how utterly wretched it's made me feel so far, it retroactively gives meaning to all that time I spent in Melbourne isolating at home. I wouldn't wish the experience of having COVID-19 on anyone (and if I reacted like that while fully vaccinated, boosted, and generally young and healthy, imagine if I wasn't!), and it's nice to think that all my self-sacrifice and restraint (along with tens of thousands of other Victorians) was for something all those long winter months of lockdown. If you're one of the increasingly-rare individuals who hasn't caught COVID-19 yet, and are wondering if it's worth just “getting it over with”…take it from me, it's not. Omicron may be milder than Delta (I'm not equipped to say), but it is by no means mild. This would easily go in the top five times I've been sickest in my life (though I think my 2018 flu still takes top place there).

On a positive note, I'm clearly past the worst and making a recovery. I don't seem to have lost my sense of smell at all, and while it's hard to make definite pronouncements at this juncture I'm optimistic that I won't end up with long COVID. I also took the remainder of this week off as sick leave, so I'm getting some actual rest and relaxation such as I haven't had in years. That part, at least, has been very welcome, and I actually felt motivated to paint today for the first time since leaving Australia, so perhaps I'll have something to share in the near future. A hui hou!

Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Lāhainā noon, May 2022

Now that I'm back in the tropics again, I got to experience a uniquely tropical phenomenon today: at noon, the sun stood directly at the zenith overhead. In Hawaii, such days are known as “lāhainā noon” days, after a contest held by Bishop Museum in 1990 in which that was the winning entry. Briefly, as the Earth travels around the sun, the latitude at which it appears directly overhead (the subsolar point) varies from +23.5° on the June solstice to −23.5° on the December solstice. Points at those latitudes will see the sun reach directly overhead on just that one day, but points between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn will see the sun pass directly overhead twice a year. On the equator this happens on the equinoxes, then steadily closer to the solstices the further away you get.

Here in Hilo, at a latitude of +19.7°, the two lāhainā noon days are May 18 and July 24 (at least for 2022, it's possible the exact day could shift by one depending on e.g., whether it's a leap year). So this is the first one I've experienced since moving back at the end of September last year. For the next two months, roughly, the sun will appear north of zenith in the sky. Directly at lāhainā noon, however, shadows are cast straight down, so tall straight objects like flagpoles effectively have no shadow. I tried to get some photos, but there was a haze of clouds over the sun that made shadows very faint—I could make them out by eye, but they didn't really come out well on camera. I'll just have to wait for July to try again.

Oh, and if you're wondering about the name, it comes from the Lāhainā region on the island of Maui, which, being on the leeward side of the island, is prone to droughts. It can be translated fairly literally as “cruel sun.” Another, older, Hawaiian name for this phenomenon is “kau ka lā i ka lolo,” which has the humorous translation of “the sun rests upon the brain.” Anyway, that's all for now. Hopefully I'll be able to get some photos next time the sun comes around overhead. A hui hou!

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Birthday #33

Another trip around the Sun, another birthday. The first one I've spent in Hilo since 2017, in fact. Which in itself is a birthday present. We finally got some belated winter rain for most of April and the beginning of May, but the weather's been really pleasant these past two weeks or so, with a mix of brilliant sunny days, enough clouds to keep it from getting too hot, and light showers.

This past weekend was AstroDay here in Hilo (also my 137th birthday on Mercury!), annual event where various observatories and astronomy-related organizations (like the UH Hilo astronomy department) set up tables in the mall and engage with the public. I've volunteered before both as an undergrad and with the JCMT, but the latest I would've done it would've been 2015, so it's been a while since I last participated. This time I was at the Gemini Observatory table with a few co-workers, and while it was rather draining (so many people!) it was also a really positive experience. It's nice to interact with a generally very supportive and interested public and engage in some outreach, and with the pandemic this was also my first chance to really work together with some of colleagues in person.

Anyway, I'm off to play board games with some friends as a birthday get-together this evening. Here's to many more birthdays in Hawaii!

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Terraforming Mars (again)

This past week a game called Terraformers, about (what else?) terraforming Mars released on Steam. I've been waiting for its release for a while now, having played both its initial demo for Steam Next Fest nearly a year ago and then the free prologue that came out back in October. It's a neat game, and it's been interesting to see how it developed over time, but instead of telling you about it here, I will link to an article about it which I submitted over at Gaming on Linux, and which came out today. I didn't really plan to write an article beforehand, I just enjoyed Terraformers enough while playing it that I figured the worst that could happen was that it didn't get accepted. If you're interested, check out the article! A hui hou!

(And if anyone's wondering about the closing sentence over there, the other three games I have about terraforming Mars are Surviving Mars, Terraforming Mars, and Ad Astra.)

Monday, April 18, 2022

Expanding the Farmstand: Part II

This weekend I performed my first complete reset on my Farmstand—that's where I harvest all the plants, take it all apart and clean it, put it back together, and reseed (generally with new seedlings, though you could transfer mature plants over if they were still producing). Lettuce Grow recommends doing this about every three months, which at first I thought was a bit frequent, but I can see the rationale behind it better now. Plants—at least the ones offered for use with the Farmstand—grow fast enough hydroponically that they've generally finished their useful lifespans in less than three months after arriving as seedlings. For instance, my dill, which I planted at the beginning of December, flowered and died off in less than four months, and most lettuces start bolting (growing tall but with small leaves) after 5–9 weeks. So there's not really much point to letting things continue growing indefinitely. I've learned that lesson after this first cycle, and will be a little more prompt in harvesting things in future. (And proactively pruning, because pruning the bushes that my oregano and thyme had become by this point was un-fun, to say the least.)

The actual process was straightforward, if somewhat physically exhausting. I ordered some replacement seedlings, and spent the last two weeks before they arrived systematically harvesting various plants. I've been composting the organic remains with Lomi, but it has a limited capacity per run so I tried to spread things out over as much time as I could. Lettuce Grow was also running another promotion for a free Farmstand level with purchase of at least eighteen seedlings around the time I ordered, so I took the opportunity to expand up to five levels with a capacity of thirty plants in total. 

And here it is! It's nearly as tall as I am now—I can still see over the top flat-footed, but only just. I used to wonder why Lettuce Grow only ever talked about going up to six levels—after all, the pump used to bring water up to the top is quite strong and could easily lift water higher—but putting the fifth level on for the first time I understand why. Even at that height I was needing to connect the electrical connections of the light-providing Glow-Rings (which go up the inside of the Farmstand) sight-unseen in the highest levels. I imagine I might need to stand on something for a sixth level, at which point the Farmstand would officially be taller than me. When everything's producing, thirty plants is going to putting out a lot of produce, so I'm again in no major hurry to add a sixth level, but who knows? It's nice to be able to share the excess with people, so if there's another promotion later this year…well, we'll find out, won't we? A hui hou!

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Berry good!

Now that I'm no longer spending my nights and weekends getting my papers ready, I've once again got time and motivation to dash off silly projects like this Venn diagram comparing things we call berries, and things which are berries according to botanists:

A Venn diagram showing things called berries and things which are berries.
I got the idea for this upon learning this weekend that pumpkins are actually giant berries, botanically speaking. I already knew raspberries and blackberries weren't berries, so I got curious about just how large the overlap is. This is by no means a comprehensive image; I listed everything I could think of with “berry” in the name, then looked at the Wikipedia page on berries for more such things and examples of things that were berries botanically. There are definitely more things that fall into the bottom circle, I'm sure; I left a few controversial ones out, like avocados, because there's apparently some disagreement about whether they're actually berries or not.

On the whole, I was actually slightly surprised at how many things fell into the intersection of the diagram. I was expecting more entries in the top circle, but it looks like possibly a majority of things with “berry” in the name are actually berries, botanically speaking. Though there could very well be more things called berries than I could think of, so if you think of any please leave a comment!

A few things in the bottom circle also surprised me; like, I can see how tomatoes and grapes could be berries, they're similar enough in form to things like blueberries or cranberries that it makes sense. But pumpkins? Eggplants? Bananas?? Bananas definitely surprised me. Guess I've got a fun bit of party trivia for the future.

And speaking of strawberries (which are actually “accessory fruits”), I had my first one from my Farmstand! They're a bit on the slower side to grow (compared to, say, lettuce), since I started the plant at the start of January, but the strawberry I had was deliciously sweet. There's another red one and a few still green that are coming along, so I'm looking forward to having some more perhaps later this week or the next. I'll probably have some more news on the indoor farming front around that time as well. A hui hou! 

Friday, April 1, 2022

Papers are submitted!

It's been six months (plus a few days) since I arrived back in Hilo, and yesterday was a pretty significant milestone for me: I finally submitted the two papers that form the basis of my thesis to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society! While the papers were mostly written before I moved (indeed, they've been being written for literally years now), they went through a long period of editing and refinement and rewriting since, and even had some new sections added along the way. (Including just this past week!) It mostly took so long because I was having to do it on weekends and holidays and weeknights after work, but it's finally done.

My two papers were submitted along with another two (including one to Science) by people in the solar twins method research group as part of a coordinated wave, revealing the method I spent my PhD establishing and its results: a constraint on variation in the fine-structure constant nearly 100 times more precise than the current best constraints from astronomy. (At some point in the future I'd like to write a post series explaining my PhD work in simplified terms, so I won't go into detail here just yet.)

This is just the first step; from here the papers will go to peer review (assuming they're accepted, but I don't expect that to be an issue), and probably within a few weeks or months I'll get them back and have to make changes for the final published versions. The upshot, however, is that—for now—I actually have free time, for basically the first time since moving. I'm luxuriating this evening in the lack of a feeling in the back of my mind that I really ought to be working on my papers, for the first time in over half a year (I've got other things I need to get done that I've been putting off to work on my papers, but now I can finally start checking them off.)

It's a significant milestone for a few reasons: for the solar twins method, as these papers will establish its validity and open it up to the wider research community, allowing people to build on it in the future. And for me, I'm finally getting to share all the work I've been doing for the past 4½ years beyond the handful of people involved. Many, perhaps the majority, of PhD students in astronomy already have several papers published by the time they get their degrees, so it's validating to finally have my work published as well. (Due to the nature of my establishing the solar twins method almost from scratch, it didn't really make sense to publish results along the way; instead we needed to have everything done to prove everything worked before we could really publish any of it.) With my papers submitted (and eventually published), I'm also finally going to start having more free time to begin recovering from the past few years of nigh-unrelenting stress and toil, and start getting to enjoy living in Hawaii again. I'm bursting with ideas of things to do and create and try, and hopefully that'll translate to more posts this year sharing the results of those ideas. Maybe not immediately, but there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's more than just the point it's been for years. A hui hou!