Keeping the Summer Alive or J. D. Evans for Mayor

This winter,  the weather has been much more like what I remember growing up than anything we’ve experienced recently. Mornings began to get cool in August, the daytime highs fell steadily in September and October, and it was consistently cold by November. There has been enough snow to cancel school three times in December and January, and we have had two weeks of temperatures between zero and fifteen degrees with cold northerly winds. You know, the kind when weathermen begin instructing viewers about survival techniques, or, “Don’t be a moron and wear flip-flops today because you think it’s cute.”

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(Moron.)

 

One person at work called this winter a “gut punch.” Hard to believe, because this person has lived in New England all of his life, including many years before Al Gore invented the Internet to tell people about global warming.

CAS46Gorrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre (“You laugh now, buy one day people will be wearing flip-flops in January.”)

 

The monumental discomfort of those around me made me think back to the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been because of the weather. This happened last summer, and it happened during the second greatest thing I’ve ever done, after climbing to the top of a mountain in a foot of snow to get married. More on that later. Maybe.

My friend Stephen and I have had many adventures over the years involving model rocketry, tennis, and especially astronomy. We have fought fog, freezing temperatures, and marauding mosquitoes to see meteor showers. Massachusetts state troopers have descended upon us for setting up a telescope next to a pasture.

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(“How do I know you’re not escaped felons?”)

 

(He really said that.)

 

We have used old aerial reconnaissance lenses to see all of the Messier object in a single spring night. We have collected spectra of a space probe smashing into a comet. We have plotted the infinitesimal dip in a star’s light as its planet passed between us and the Earth. But last summer, we decided to travel to the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse on August 21st.

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The event had been on my radar for almost two years, ever since Sky and Telescope  magazine ran a feature in January of 2016 advising astronomers to plan ahead. They said that people were already making reservations to stay near spots along the path of totality nationwide. I looked at a map of the track, running from Oregon to South Carolina, and resigned myself to seeing a partial eclipse from home. After all, we would need to drive if we wanted to bring our own equipment, and we lived at least three days by car from the nearest point of totality. That’s quite a commitment when the entire event can be ruined by a quirk of August weather.

As the summer progressed, though, I began to feel the urge to end it with a bang. Why go gently into the end of vacation? I knew Stephen loved driving, and often took long road trips to see different parts of the country. Why not make this a week-long adventure that might or might not contain a total eclipse?

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His first reaction was somewhat less than enthusiastic. After all, the date was quite close to the start of the academic year, and he’s a high school science teacher. Because he takes his job seriously, he ordinarily uses the time to prepare for the upcoming campaign.

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(“I don’t need no education.”)

 

By the next day, though, he had completely changed his tune. What better preparation could there be for nine months of adolescent posturing than to out-fun the youths? Over the course of a single drizzly afternoon (with the Little League World Series playing as background), we put together a six-day odyssey. Its outbound leg would stop in Maryland and North Carolina before arriving in South Carolina on Sunday to scout out potential locations near Charleston for the big day on Monday. Instead of my pickup truck, we opted for his parents’ old minivan, which would keep our telescopes and cameras and tent dry if the weather turned foul, as well as offering emergency sleeping options for us. As an afterthought, he warned me that the air conditioner was not working. This is for science, I thought. How bad could it be?

We drove about eight hundred miles, pretty much due south to southwest, during three blindingly-sunny days in August. If you have never quite understood how a greenhouse works, try this sometime. Open the windows at highway speeds? That just moves hundred-degree air around. (Not to mention making it quite difficult to listen to an audio book. Imagine listening to Richard Feynman talk about the Manhattan Project at volumes that would make The Who put in earplugs.) Spend two hours stopped dead in traffic on the Delaware Memorial Bridge and you can actually feel the muscles in your legs slowly roasting.

As we progressed south, even the nights stayed unbearably hot. Camping at a national forest in North Carolina, I slept without covers intentionally for the first time in my life. I wore no shirt, but my sweat could not evaporate into the still, saturated air. Worse, step out of the tent for a breath and the horse flies descended as if we were road kill. If we ventured down to the water to dip a toe in, we risked walking through the webs of these guys.

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The webs could stretch between trees ten feet apart. The spiders themselves were up to six inches across, and somehow not as cute as the tarantulas I could outrun when I lived in Tucson. When I woke up, I tried to take a cold shower intentionally for the first time in my life, but the water from the well was lukewarm.

During the entire journey south, I had the distinct impression that someone was poaching me like an egg. The ten-minute sojourns into Wal-Marts (Wals-Mart?) and air conditioning only made it worse. I will never know how any Union soldiers survived, let alone won any battles, in the Civil War.

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(“I did it while wearing wool.”)

 

In order to give us the best chance of seeing the eclipse cloud-free, we looked for spots along the coast. Historic weather patterns indicated that off-shore breezes were likely to blow any afternoon clouds a few miles inland and facilitate the view. We spent several hours cruising up and down Route 17, finding out where we could legally set up as close as possible to the center line of totality. A state park ranger at a former plantation site told us he expected his parking lot to reach its 800-car capacity within minutes of opening at 9 AM for an event that would only start four hours later. Sites on the beaches that were holding ticketed viewing events were already sold out. We decided our best bet was to find a school or church parking lot, and settled on a middle school tennis court in McClellanville. Still, where were the millions of sungazers everyone had told us to expect? There were even vacancy signs on hotels! On the way back to our camp, we spent a triumphant hour body surfing at Myrtle Beach,

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(the beach part, not the mall)

convinced that we had positioned ourselves for success.

The next morning, we had our complacency rudely shaken out of us. As soon as we got on the road, we found all of the people who had not been in evidence on Sunday. Bumper-to-bumper traffic stretched as far as we could see, and all of the license plates came from Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other points north. We began to wonder if we would get to our spot in the four hours we had, and if there would be any space for us when we got there. Worse, as we sat, the clouds became solid overcast and started to rain on us. Last night, the Clear Sky Clock had indicated only partial cloud cover for the 2-3 PM hour. Now, it indicated nothing but overcast. Our coastal breezes plan had backfired, and all of the previous day’s planning was wasted. But forecasts for some inland locations looked more promising.

We looked at each other and knew what we had to do. Pulling out a paper map from AAA ( yes, they do still make paper maps, and we would not have been able to pull this off without one) on which we had drawn the path of totality, we turned northwest at Georgetown and began our eclipse chase. Think of those time-is-running-out-because-the-danger semi-documentaries where two guys in a van chase tornadoes across Nebraska. Stephen had our map, a cellular telephone, and a laptop computer in the passenger seat trying to determine how far we had to go away from the coast to have time to set up and a decent chance of actually seeing anything. I drove, perhaps faster than I should have, constantly scanning the horizon for clear sky and police. When we entered a downpour which turned into a lightning storm, I was convinced that all was lost. No, Stephen assured me, this was the last band of clouds. If we got within a couple of miles of Interstate 95, we would be in the clear.

Sure enough, the storm passed and we finally drove into bright sunlight with a few puffy fair weather clouds scattered about. Better yet, the roads, parks, fields, and parking lots were empty. It seemed that everyone had headed for the coast. And, apparently, disappointment. As Stephen continued to navigate, I worried that we would pass up good spots in search of perfection, then need to waste time backtracking. On the outskirts of the town of Manning, I suggested we find a place to set up, since we now had less than an hour to go before the Moon entered the Sun’s disk.

Stephen agreed, located the town’s high school (for the open athletic fields), and directed me to it. Then, as we approached, my heart sank. The place was packed. The parking lot was full. The school band was playing. People were lounging and dancing. Had we taken a wrong turn at Albuquerque and wound up at Burning Man?

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(“What’s up with the crowd, doc?”)

 

I was on the verge of asking if we could turn around and pick a deserted parking lot outside of town when Stephen preempted me by locating the middle school as a separate point on the map and suggesting we try there. We did, and found this.

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Sorry about the exposure, but that’s not the important part. WE HAD THE ENTIRE PLACE TO OURSELVES! And there was not a cloud anywhere near the sun. We’d done it! We began unpacking and setting up our equipment with forty-five minutes to go before the first contact of the Moon on the Sun. We could now relax and enjoy our first total eclipse.

Or could we? As I began looking through my filtered telescope at the Sun, a car drove into the parking lot. Oh, no; here we go again. Remember, many of my astronomical experiences involve the arrival of police with instructions to pack up and move along.

Not this time. A (non-police) man walked over and said, “Howdy, fellas. I’m J. D. Evans. Who all are you?” We introduced ourselves and waited for the hammer to fall. “My wife’s the secretary here at the middle school.” Yup. He’s going to tell us we’re not allowed to be here. “Our family is going to be over at the eclipse party next door.” Damn! We’re trespassing and we’ll need to move. Can we do it in time? “We wondered if anyone had discovered the junior high. Do you have everything you need? Can we bring you a cold drink or something?” HeyI think he means it. You know, this is the first time on the trip when I did not notice the heat bothering me. We assured him we had fruit and plenty of water. “Great! Well, I’ve got to take my family back to the high school. We’ll check back on you later.”

That was it. No cops. No charges. No frenzied relocation. Just the friendliest guy either of us had ever met.

At 1:15, I saw the Moon’s silhouette take its first bite out of the Sun’s image. It was really on! I called my wife and daughter to make sure they were watching at home and then got back to business.

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About fifteen minutes before totality began, another car drove up (NOT NOW!) and out climbed a young couple with four little children (much relief). They had done a family art project making their eclipse viewing glasses into monster masks. It was adorable! Despite being incorrigible introverts, we ended up chatting with them about our trip and the day, showing them the view through our telescopes, pointing out how small gaps between the leaves on trees made hundreds of pinhole eclipse viewers,

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marveling at totality,

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and generally enjoying their company. I guess I don’t hate all people, just large crowds of them. It was over all too quickly, but it was worth every moment of heatstroke and anxiety.

Right on cue, J. D. Evans returned to see how we had fared. He really did just care whether we had enjoyed ourselves in his town.

Yes, Mr. Evans, we did. The day, the place, and you were all perfect. Thank you.

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What is Wrong With People?

When I do need to go into work, I have a short commute. I mean really short, as in seven minutes on a bicycle. I also go early in the morning, so there is hardly any traffic. I guess I’ve gotten out of touch with what happens in the savage gladiatorial world that is the roadway. It has gotten so bad that I am actually calling for GOVERNMENT ACTION to get things under control.

This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in an archaeological dig at the home of one of the least-known founding fathers of the United States, Oliver Ellsworth. It was great fun while I was digging, but it meant four hours of highway driving every day for two weeks. (At this point, I think my father would mumble something about “wear and tear on the car.” Does he mean the seat upholstery will tear?) Here are some of the behaviors I observed:

  • People using hand-held cellular telephones while driving. “Of course,” you’re saying. “Those damn kids again.” Wrong! Out of thousands of cars (actually, I have no idea of the number; it may have been thousands per day), I only saw one teenager breaking the law this way. The rest were professional types in their 50s wearing leopard-print dresses in their Audi SUVs (sub-utilized vehicles), and tradesmen wearing Oakley sunglasses (aerodynamics is important when painting a house) in beaten-up American pickups. These are supposedly-mature adults who are so desperate that we all think they’re with it that they will endanger the lives of everyone around them by stroking their screens. If this doesn’t demonstrate the addictive characteristics of hand-held electronics, what could?
  • People passing in the slow vehicle lanes on hills. Every single time. There was not a single instance when someone didn’t jump into this lane (which, in case you’ve forgotten, is marked “SLOW VEHICLES!”) and pass on the right, thinking he was putting one over on all of us suckers. EVERY SINGLE TIME. “Why is this dangerous,” you ask? Because when one of these morons finishes passing on the right, he invariably barges back into the middle lane, endangering those of us who pass legally on the left and then move to the middle again. Don’t tell me it’s my responsibility to watch out for people who are breaking the law.
  • People using on-ramps as illegal passing-on-the-right zones. This was a completely new one on me. I have been driving for thirty years and I had never seen this happen until my two weeks of highway commuting. The solid white line on the right side of the road means “DON’T CROSS THIS.” Why? Imagine you’re minding your own business and starting to get up to speed on an entrance to merge onto a highway. Out of nowhere, some irresponsible jerk jumps into your way. He’s wrong, but you’re still damaged and/or injured if you collide.
  • People driving through construction zones to pass on the right and merge later than anyone else. Are you kidding? I have always wondered why drivers in heavy traffic allow late mergers to enter ahead of them. But this takes it to a whole new level of entitlement and stupidity. THE SHOULDER IS CLOSED BECAUSE PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT COCOONED IN TWO TONS OF GLASS AND STEEL ARE WORKING THERE! People you could kill while you look at low-quality pictures of your “friend”‘s sushi. And, of course, when you barge your way back into traffic (why isn’t there more tire-puncturing construction debris left about?), you will be one of those
  • People turning and changing lanes without signaling. I know; that’s none of my business. Why would someone driving near you need to know what your self-propelled killing machine is going to do next? I’ll stop being voyeuristic and go back to looking at cat videos. While you’re at it, why don’t you disconnect your brake lights, too? That way, the rest of us will simply need to gaze at you in anticipation at all times. But seriously, did I miss something? Have turn signals become illegal since Inauguration Day? Probably not, because quite a few of the drivers who did this had Bernie Sanders stickers on their cars. (They’d vote to share everyone’s income, but can’t be bothered to share the road. Interesting.) After the first three days of this lunacy, I actually brought a pitch counter with me and kept track. (I know what you’re thinking, but it’s just a small cube of metal with a button on it that moves a mechanical counter. No screen tapping required.) Fewer than half of the movements cars made had a turn signal associated with them. People didn’t signal more than often than they did, and that was only what happened near me.

After this two-week eye-opener, I started to notice similar behavior among drivers everywhere. People aren’t just committing California stops at intersections. They’re simply driving through without even touching the brakes. Not a signal light to be seen anywhere. Passing on narrow country roads abounding with deer, pets, and playing children. And, most annoying and distracting of all, why doesn’t anyone turn down their high beams any more? I think I know the answer to this one, and it led me into the steps I think we need to take.

  1. Ban any innovation in cars that takes away the need to be careful or concentrate on driving. It all started with the automatic transmission. “I don’t need to worry about shifting gears. The car will do it for me.” BAD IDEA. First of all, this frees up a driver’s gearshift hand to eat, put on makeup, or send and receive meaningless, stupid, self-congratulatory text messages. Ask any driver who still uses a manual stick shift how much closer attention he must pay to the terrain, his speed, and his engine revs. These are good things. he is concentrating on DRIVING. But besides shifting, look at all the things cars claim to do for you now: warn you about drifting out of your lane, warn you when you get too close to another car (and sometimes even apply the brakes for you), turn on your headlights, turn on your wipers, parallel park. . . When will it end? (And, no, Americans will never take to self-driving cars. We already have them. They are called busses and trains, and people only use them in places where driving is too miserable an experience, like New York.) I think all of the drivers that leave their high beams shining at me, forcing me to take my eyes off the road or go temporarily blind, think that the car will switch to low beams for them. Why should they need to bother? Maybe some of them think the cars will signal turns automatically. “Great! I’m too busy ‘liking’ some anti-Trump posts to signal my turn.” Even safety innovations create hazards. I’ll say that again. Safety innovations like computerized four-wheel drive, anti-lock brakes, and air bags make the roads more dangerous. Why do you think idiots go bombing around on icy roads looking at their phones? They think the cars will keep them from crashing, and in the unlikely event of a crash, safety features will protect them from any bodily harm. People need to understand that, besides raising children, driving is the most awesome (in the Biblical sense) responsibility they have. Citizens should be a little nervous and cautious when they pilot a four thousand pound object at speed within inches of others.
  2. Sue cellular telephone companies for creating an addictive product and not providing enough warning in their marketing. Remember when the Clinton Justice Department under Janet Reno sued tobacco companies for the same reasons? Everyone applauded that. This one needs no further explanation.
  3. Ban the use of the word “accident” to describe an automobile mishap. We seem to feel that “accidents happen.” Well, that means I’m not responsible when I drive into another car, right? WRONG. If something goes wrong on the road, it happens because one or both drivers chose to do something illegal or unsafe. No exceptions. Even encountering deer or fog. When traffic authorities set speed limits, they take into account everything that might happen, and set an ABSOLUTE MAXIMUM speed you may drive under ideal conditions of traction and visibility. If it’s raining or dark or foggy, you must slow down. (Not many drivers seem to know this. See Point #4 for details.) So what term would I substitute for “accident?” Some have suggested “crash,” but I don’t think this asserts enough blame. I would use NeRD. It would stand for “Negligence Resulting in Damage/Death.” Then people might realize that nothing is accidental when negligence is involved.
  4. Require annual written and on-road testing for every driver. This is the most obvious one of all, but the one sure to cause the most outcry. But think about the absurdity, in any other arena, of certifying competence once and then turning someone loose for the rest of his life. You would fight that with every fibre of your being. We had the Revolution and gained independence from Great Britain because one person became a leader and held the position for life. He could not adapt to changing conditions and realities (read the Declaration of Independence for details), so we substituted a system with periodic recertifications of leaders (elections). We require doctors (who do hold our lives in their hands) and classroom teachers (who do not) to participate in professional development learning throughout their careers. Airline pilots must pass both physical and professional exams every year, despite the fact that, worldwide, only 325 people died from air travel in 2016 out of 3.5 billion who flew. Drivers can operate cars from age 16 to age 116 without any periodic health or skill checks, and automobiles killed 40,000 in the United States alone that same year. Our population is about 350 million. Hey, they want all decisions made on the basis of BIG DATA, right? The data could not possibly paint a clearer picture. People who operate motor vehicles should be reminded every year about the laws, about dangerous behaviors, and about their responsibilities. “No way! That’s too inconvenient!” Too bad. If safety is inconvenient for you, don’t drive.

I wish, too, that it were more difficult to obtain a driver’s license in this country. I wish all of the tests were given on manual-transmission cars, and I wish drivers had to be able to proceed safely in hazardous conditions like ice and snow. The first time you slide should not be in the middle of rushing to work, but under skilled supervision. And won’t all of this cost more? Sure, but think of all of the increased revenue from the more-frequent testing. More money? Hey, I just thought of another reform:

5. Require police to ticket infractions with zero tolerance. “Wait! That’s too much work. There aren’t enough cops to do all that!” Gotcha. #s 2 and 4 would give us lots more money to hire police. And I’m tired of hearing about how minor violations should be overlooked. For the sake of what? People’s feelings? Rubbish. Any official, whether a federal employee, a cop, a school administrator or teacher, or a parent, who does not enforce the rules is a coward. If you don’t like confrontation, get another job. When people get away with breaking “small, unimportant” rules and laws, that behavior becomes habit. The more someone gets away with, the more he will try. And so we get the driving behavior I started with. THAT KILLED 40,000 PEOPLE LAST YEAR.

Once again, Ronald Reagan had the right idea:

“There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers. We must have the courage to do what we know is morally right.”

 

 

Hey, I figured Something Out!

No; don’t laugh. I don’t mean I figured out how to tie my shoe or hit a forehand. I mean I think I discovered something that no one has though of before. At least, I’ve read a lot on this subject and I’ve never seen this mentioned by anyone else.

As you know from a previous post, I make telescopes. Because of the sensitivity of the particular lens I used for this one, I made both the objective mounting cell and the diagonal mirror collimatable. This allows me to adjust all the parts so that their optical axes are aligned precisely and I can see the sharpest possible images.

Most telescopes allow such adjustments, and there are lots and lots of instructions out there that tell how to collimate a telescope. If you’re so inclined, you can purchase gadgets ranging from a simple cylinder with a peephole and a crosshair to a complicated laser projector to help you collimate more easily and precisely. But how do you know when to collimate?

Poor collimation causes imperfect images in the eyepiece, and it can keep you from seeing objects that are as small and faint as you should. But there are plenty of reasons that your views may appear less-than-sharp, and most have nothing to do with optical alignment. Most often, turbulence at some layer of the atmosphere bends the light from the object and distorts the view. This is known as bad seeing. But maybe you have eyestrain; maybe you had beer with dinner and your optic muscles are too relaxed to focus well; maybe your telescope and eyepiece haven’t cooled down yet. Without being sure, should you pull out your collimation tools and take time tinkering that could be spent actually looking at the universe, even though it’s not tack-sharp?

The other night, I (to my knowledge) invented what I’m calling the Curmudgeon Test. When I pointed the red-dot rifle sight I use as a finder, I noticed that the star I sought was off to the side of the view in the main scope. That can happen. Who can always point within a fraction of a degree to a star? This particular star was a close double that I have, in the past, been able to see as two distinct stars. But this time, try as I might, I could not see them. I put it down to atmospheric turbulence and moved on. Saturn was up next, and once again the image was offset in the main scope after I lined up my finder carefully. I then had a hard time seeing details on the planet that I usually can. Well, it’s not a good night for high-power, finely-detailed observations, I thought, and sought out a galaxy instead. Bad seeing matters less on diffuse objects. I pointed the telescope to a nearby star to begin the step-by-step hop to the galaxy, and, wouldn’t you know it, the star was off-center in the eyepiece. But all of a sudden, the scales fell from my eyes as I realized that each object had been displaced by the same amount in the same direction!

This was no random error; the finder and the telescope were not pointing at the same spot in the sky. It could have been that the finder was mis-aligned, but I quickly ruled that out because it fastens securely to the telescope and is placed such that it never gets knocked around once set. This left collimation as the likely culprit. Even a small bump when putting away a telescope or shifting lawn equipment next to it in the shed can move a lens or mirror system enough that its axes no longer align. And when that lens or mirror tilts, it moves the image it produces in a corresponding direction. I checked it and, sure enough, the lens was canted slightly in the exact direction each star was off-center. With a couple of turns of a screw, I was back in business. To my relief, I noted that all of the details I had been missing were suddenly visible and sharp. The rest of the night was a true pleasure.

So, here is the test: If your telescope images are consistently displaced from those in a previously-aligned finder, check the collimation. Otherwise, don’t sweat it and look at something else, or try another night.

But at least you’ll know.

P. S. Only align your finder with a telescope in perfect collimation. Otherwise the world will little note nor long remember what I’ve said here today.

In the World But Not Of It

Over Columbus Day weekend, I went camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. That might not sound Earth-shattering, but I had a truly transformative experience. So, just what transpired?

When I lived in Eastern Connecticut, which was most of my post-college, early-adult years, I would camp in New Hampshire several times a year. One friend showed me a national forest tent site in Lincoln, and another got me interested in skiing Tuckerman’s Ravine on Mount Washington. I would go whenever I needed to get away from the daily grind, and the season made no difference. I have gone during the height of the summer’s heat and humidity, when no over-the-counter mosquito repellent would deter the parasitic creatures, and only standing in the smoke of a wood fire could preserve my circulatory system’s contents. I have gone during the depths of winter when I made the mistake of removing my snowshoes to pitch a tent and found myself submerged to the waist in white powder. I have heard howling winds outside my tent driving the chill factor into the double-digits below zero. I have seen the rinse water freeze on my newly-washed dishes in a matter of seconds. Friends and family who knew of my obsession never struggled to come up with birthday and Christmas presents of camping gadgets.

Then I got my current job and moved to the southwestern part of the state. Suddenly, my beloved White Mountains were an additional two hours’ drive away. My vacations now corresponded with school breaks, so I could only go camping when the sites were at their most crowded with families. My wife is a good sport, and she has gone with me on a few occasions, but (reasonably) she would rather have a real bed and a hot shower than a foam pad and an icy river. So, in the last decade or so, I have camped less and less often, instead focusing on closer and more comfortable recreation that we can enjoy together. The last time I determined to re-visit my old haunts, which was three years ago, a steady rain began just as I started my three-mile hike in, and when I reached the tent sites it showed no sign of letting up. I don’t mind being cold, but I hate being wet. I turned around, hiked back out, and drove the five hours home the same day.

Out of fear that I was getting soft and losing my edge, I determined this year would be different. I checked and re-checked the weather forecast for Lincoln, and it remained, “Cool but dry.” I dug out my old gear, re-stocked my food supply, and drove to New Hampshire. Even though it rained for most of the drive, I somehow knew it would be dry when I arrived. It was! The fee for the camping permit had not changed since the Clinton administration! And how can I describe the foliage? Absolute vivid peak, as if someone had electrified a Van Gogh painting. Wonderful, variegated colors covering every bit of mountain side and valley floor. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

Or had I? remember that episode of Family Guy when the residents of Rhode Island cower in fear of the influx of leaf peepers from the cities? It turns out this was not even slightly exaggerated. I think everyone in the greater Boston metro area had converged on this bit of the world.There were distracted drivers, oblivious pedestrians, and more people taking pictures with telephones on sticks than at the Rio Olympics. I experienced a few minutes of trepidation when I had to circle a multi-acre parking lot, in which I have never seen more than a handful of cars, to park and start the hike. But I eventually found a space, and after a mile walking into the woods, I had left the crowds and craziness completely behind.

After that, the experience was exactly the one I had been craving. I hauled water from the Pemigewasset River to supply my camp’s needs. I foraged for dry firewood to keep me warm. I ground coffee to make high-quality espresso over the camp stove (some things are non-negotiable). I had to drape my rain shell over my sleeping bag because the nighttime low temperatures were lower than predicted. I felt alive. I felt virile. I felt competent.

That was not the transformative experience.

It turns out there is a down side to such a trip: coming back from it.

Imagine: for three days, you go to sleep because it got too dark to read the words in your (printed) (on paper) book. For three days, the only lights you see during the night are the star Vega shining through a small gap in the trees and the Moon casting silvery shadows among the foliage. For three days, you get up and dress because there is enough light to cook the breakfast you just retrieved from a steel bear-proof box (because bears will rip you and your camp apart if they smell food). For three days, the only sounds you hear are the wind rustling through pines, the river gurgling over rocks, and owls plaintively calling to each other in the inky darkness.

Back in the “real” world, you go to sleep because you need to be somewhere looking presentable first thing in the morning so a client can insult you. You need to close the blinds to block out street lights from your tired eyes.  You awake because an electronic device makes a hideous noise until you turn it off. You eat your breakfast because that’s what was on sale at Trader Joe’s, and it’s what you can reach in the cabinet. The only sounds you hear are presidential candidates calling each other names and holier-than-thou partisan pundits repeating the insults.

I wish I had stayed in the woods.

Lost In Translation

In my job, people are forever telling me that my approach to the English language is all wrong. I believe that grammar, spelling, and punctuation carry equal importance with the ideas that a writer expresses. They claim that my insistence on correctness is, at best, backward, and, at worst, hateful and possibly racist. They say spelling is obsolete “since we have spell check,” and that grammar and punctuation are unimportant “because there is just so much information out there.”

I maintain that, in the era of BIG DATA, grammar, spelling, and punctuation have become more important than ever before. When only professionals wrote for public consumption, we could feel safe that they possessed the organizational skills and precision of presentation to tell us exactly what they meant. Now, anyone can transmit anything to an audience of indeterminate size. If they do it sloppily, our entire informational existence will become “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” There is no electronic shortcut that can tell us what a person is really thinking. That Shakespeare guy really knew a thing or two, didn’t he?

On one end of the spectrum lie the small, careless, ignorant errors: Hot Dog’s $1. I never understood that one. It’s actually more trouble to do it wrong. Or the graffiti on my grammar school walls: Class of “83.” As if it really were some other year. In a recent article from Sky & Telescope on line, Bob King and/or the editorial staff wrote it’s as a possessive. You don’t put an apostrophe in his or hers, do you?

“So what,” you’re asking. “It doesn’t matter as long as everyone knows what you mean.” Well, that’s where the lack of discipline required to produce correct grammar has greater consequences. Consider, if you will, the recent controversy between the Pope and Donald Trump. When asked about Trump’s proposed wall to keep Mexican immigrants from crossing into the United States illegally, Pope Francis made a statement which was translated into English by the Vatican Press Office. It said:

And then, a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the gospel. As far as what you said about whether I would advise to vote or not to vote, I am not going to get involved in that. I say only that this man is not Christian if he says things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.

That’s interesting, and not only because Trump call himself Presbyterian, not Catholic.

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“All I want is a wall. Is that too much to ask?”

If the translation represents the Pope’s words accurately, then the Holy Father has blundered. His job consists of guiding believers in the areas of faith and morals. This means he acts as Christ’s representative on Earth, telling the world proper beliefs and how to  act on those beliefs. He could certainly say that a person’s actions or words were not Christian. He could recommend someone seek forgiveness for a transgression against another person. But he, as a human being, cannot judge another person. If actions could permanently disqualify a person from God’s grace, the Catholic sacrament of Reconciliation would not exist. In addition, many people misunderstand this sacrament itself. The priest in the confessional does not forgive the sin; only God can do that.

So, what if the pundits are correct, and the Pope’s words were mistranslated? John Leo believes that the English version of Latin and Italian thoughts might be inaccurate.

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“That’s not what I said!”

He seems to be offering a typical modern excuse for an important theological misstatement. But that’s also quite dangerous. Catholics who do not speak Italian or Latin depend on this translation service to deliver the Pope’s guidance to them. Hiding behind poor translation is sloppy and irresponsible. Some might argue that certain words do not translate exactly from one language to another. Exact translation produces different nuances of meaning. If this is such a case, the Vatican Press Office has a responsibility to tell us what the Pope meant by his words. I have a hard time, though, believing that they could not differentiate between criticism of an statement and judgement of a person.

So let’s all focus and get these things right, shall we?

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Recently, I heard a couple of colleagues at work talking about a proposal to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday. I don’t know if they simply wished for this to avoid having to leave parties early or if elected officials were/are actually considering such a plan. Remember, there was once debate in the House of Representatives about mandating the format of college football playoffs. Isn’t it also strange that many of us would hide our heads in embarrassment if the United States government created a national football holiday, but would think nothing amiss if the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies officially closed all businesses during soccer’s World Cup?

I, for one, am never in favor of more government intervention in my day-to-day existence. I also have never understood why so many people consider the ultimate tribute to a great national figure like a civil right leader to be a paid day off for state employees.

Call me crazy, but wouldn’t it be better for children to go to school and have a full day of lessons about what Dr. King did? I’m such a curmudgeon.

If we ever did get time off for sports, I would propose the opening Thursday and Friday of the NCAA basketball tournament. Talk about a time when nobody does anything related to work! Ever since streaming service began, the NCAA has included a “Boss Button,” which instantly switches the viewer’s screen to something seemingly-work-related if a supervisor strolls in. People push the button between 2.5 and 3 million times in an average year. Think about how many views go undiscovered. Consider too that only the opening Thursday and Friday games of a three-weekend-long tournament happen during normal business hours. It seems that we as Americans just must watch.

But I would never propose shutting down the country just because so many people are slacking off instead of working. I’ll bet shopping and the viewing of pornography constitute a much bigger portion of wasted office hours, and those continue year-round. No, the celebration properly called March Madness speaks to so much of what makes us Americans that it deserves to have universal observation. So, what do we all love so much?

  1. We all feel a real kinship with the institutions represented by college athletes. It always drives me nuts when I hear people talking about a professional sports team and calling them “we.” “We would have won last night if Bird had only hit that jumpah.”

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[“I always hated that accent.”]

These people don’t work for the Celtics, or any team they talk about, for that matter. On the other hand, if I attended the University of Arizona, I actually have something in common with the players. I have every right to say, “We lost in the first round again.”

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[“Just shut up, all right?”]

2. Lots of our greatest memories in sports come from the NCAA Tournament. For me, let’s start with 1979. Larry Bird’s Indiana State team met Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in the national championship game. Their rivalry would pretty much define NBA basketball for the next decade. In 1982, I watched freshman Patrick Ewing and Georgetown attempt to defeat a North Carolina team sporting Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Sam Perkins, and Matt Doherty, and come darn close to doing so. In 1983, against a Houston team that was one of the most talented of all time (Akeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler, etc.), North Carolina State’s Dereck Wittenburg threw up one of the worst air balls in basketball history, only to have Lorenzo Charles bail him out and dunk the ball for a national championship win. That game was so exciting that my father just couldn’t bring himself to make me go to sleep, although it was more than two hours past my bedtime. In 1984, Georgetown finally got its championship, only to be stunned by Villanova the next year in probably the most surprising upset ever. I’ll never forget the look on my best friend’s face when his Connecticut Huskies won it all in 1999. It’s the only time I ever drank champagne over a sporting event. By far the sweetest moment, though, came in 1997, when Arizona finally emerged victorious. After having lost in the first round to East Tennessee State in 1992, Santa Clara in 1993, and Miami of Ohio in 1995. [Don’t forget Wichita State in 2016.] Yes, my alma mater has to be the worst good college basketball team of all time. But we keep watching and hoping.

3. College basketball is so much better than the professional game. Lots of people criticize the way the system of college sports handles athletes. They point out that most are just performing to make money in television appearances for the school, and hardly ever engage in serious academic pursuits. Their athletic scholarships seem to be the equivalent of a salary, since they are worth tens of thousands of dollars every year. I think these criticisms are off base. If the point of college is career training, what better job could a person get after he is finished with college than that of a professional athlete? Nobody with a degree in electrical engineering earns even a small fraction of the signing bonus a star receives. But the truth is most of the players in the NCAA tournament will not play professionally. Some see their college days as a long-shot attempt to receive consideration from pro teams; some know that they will earn a living as coaches, athletic trainers, commentators, or some other sports-related job that does not involve playing; and some just play for the experience and comradery that come from being a part of a team. In each case, the fans see a player playing his heart out, leaving it all on the floor, and reacting with genuine emotion. This may be the last time he is on such a stage. On the other hand, as soon as someone gets a lucrative guaranteed contract, I believe all of the passion goes out of him. A professional sport is a job like any other. If someone can put out less effort and prolong a career, he will certainly do so. He will follow the money and leave a team to play for a rival, regardless of the love the hometown fans have for him. Not so in college.

4. Everyone loves an underdog. As long as they’re not sending your team home early, everyone roots for an underdog to take down one of the perennial powers. Think the colonies vs. Great Britain, the 1980 U. S. Olympic hockey team vs. the Soviets, or Butler making it all the way to the NCAA championship game in 2010 and 2011. Consider Northern Iowa’s 2016 tournament experience. First Round:

But they could not bask too long in that glow. They had to play another higher-seeded team two days later. Still, they led by twelve points with 44 seconds to go in the game. Sure thing right? Not exactly.

5. It’s better than soccer. I know Europeans and South Americans go crazy for “the beautiful game,” especially the World Cup. But the players are all professionals, and national teams are essentially short-lived all-star teams. In college basketball, the squads have forged brotherhood through the long winter season, and that is apparent when you watch them play. In the World Cup, or any other soccer competition, there is a great deal of strategic advantage in playing for a tie. It can keep you alive to move to the next round. Just ask Texas and Northern Iowa about playing for a tie.

Yeah, I’m convinced. Bring on the national holiday.

Under the Weather

The last twelve months have been really strange ones for me in terms of general health. Most years, I have one severe bout of allergies in March or April when plants start to bloom and pollen fills the air. But, when I say severe, I mean feels-like-the-flu-with-bodyaches-and-chills severe. There is usually a period of two or three days when I simply do not leave the couch. I’ll put on an entire series such as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and sleep through most of the episodes.

The following week, I generally sound awful because I lose my voice, but I feel so much better overall that getting up and facing the day actually becomes a pleasure.This provides my answer to the age-old philosophical question of whether a thing can exist in the absence of its opposite. For example, can we really appreciate capitalism if communism has died a lingering death throughout the world? In this case, I would argue in the negative, because since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union, U.S. voters have lurched decidedly to the left, expecting the national government to take care of more and more of what they need.

But back to illness. I know that I tend to take my academic and athletic abilities for granted, and this carries over into my expectations for the state of my health. [Notice I didn’t say “wellness?” That word irks me almost as much as “blog.”] I am extremely fortunate in that I have no long-term health concerns of any kind. Because of that, I have come to believe it’s important to feel lousy once in a while so that you appreciate how good it feels not to be sick.

This past fall, you’ll remember, I had a lingering multi-week sinus infection that made it painful to turn my eyes to the side or be in any kind of bright light. It was unpleasant, but I figured I was done being sick for a good, long time. Then, two weeks ago, my wife came down with a draining, plugging, sniffling, coughing head cold. Because it happened in the week between leaving her old job and starting her new one, we both figured it came from a long-needed relaxation and drop in the adrenaline on which she had operated constantly. It took her almost exactly a week to start feeling better. By that time, guess who was feeling sick.

Correct. Twice in nine months is just too much. I refused to be stopped by a tiny little virus. And by this time, I had additional motivation to carry on. The weather was beautiful. (See how that makes the title a double entendre?) It was the second week of March at a temperate latitude, and the daily high temperatures reached the 70s. I put away the cyclocross bike and went out for daily road rides!

To my surprise, I felt almost as if I had attained mid-season form. My average speeds were surprisingly high. My pedaling felt smooth. My shoulders and neck did not complain about spending multiple hours in a riding position. Best of all, I could breathe. My nasal passages and lungs felt better than any over-the -counter decongestant could have made them.

So, what was going on? It occurred to me that I may have unwittingly experienced performance-enhancing drugs. Decongestants are on the banned stimulant list for UCI bicycle races. But I think that if I experienced congestion, then the ephedrine would just have put me back to normal. My fitness level would have been just whatever it already was, right? If that were the case, something had made me stronger than is normal in March. For the first time since the Carter administration, I did not go cross-country skiing a single time over the winter. It just never snowed enough here. That would mean cyclocross got me strong and fit in just a handful of rides. I’d call that plausible, since a cyclocross rider has to work hard just to maintain any speed at all in snow, mud, and grass. Plus, jumping off and running up hills while carrying a heavy steel bike can’t hurt.

I prefer, though, to believe that I was embodying what Nietzsche believed his Super Man would do: put himself through physical challenges in order to prove his strength and superiority to others. Why climb Mount Everest? Because it’s there. Why go out and put yourself into oxygen debt when you’re feeling sick? To show those germs who’s boss. I do know that when I relaxed in the evenings after my rides, the pressure, congestion, and post-nasal drip returned.

I think from now on, I’ll just ride the microorganisms off my wheel.

If I Seem Self-Confident, It’s Because I Am

In its March issue, The Atlantic published a story about how the Green family, owners of the now-infamous Hobby Lobby retail chain, are currently in the process of creating a new Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. The article raises some specific, detailed questions regarding the legality and ethics of the methods by which the Greens acquired their artifacts. It ends up questioning the very basis of the museum’s creation, accusing the Greens of engaging in pedagogy rather than stimulating open and honest discussion. The ways in which Joel Bader and Candida Moss characterize the Museum of the Bible enterprise reveal the subtle ways in which pundits influence the public. In the end, “Can Hobby Lobby Buy the Bible?” ends up doing exactly what it accuses the Greens of doing, making me wonder if the authors simply wish to smear the undertaking because of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Hobby Lobby’s birth control policies.

I feel that I must, in the interest of full disclosure, say that I think the Greens are completely off base in their views of the immutability of scripture. By showcasing the earliest available written fragments of the Bible, they wish to demonstrate the truth of Biblical teachings, showing how little they have changed over the years of retelling. They cite the Authorized Version (the “King James” Bible) as the ultimate expression of what a religious text should be. The article’s authors are correct that, “The main story that [this exhibit] tells about the Bible, in short, is a Protestant one.” The Greens either do not know, or are ignoring, that the King James I, who came from Scotland, ordered the compilation of his authorized version to create religious unity throughout Great Britain. He wished to sort out the many translations that existed in his kingdom by having experts from all parts of the country meet to decide the single best way to express the passages that conflicted. Often, they made their decision based on what sounded most poetic in early 17th century English. As Adam Nicolson points out in God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, it is “the greatest book ever written by a committee.” This hardly makes the case for the unchanging nature of the work.

Baden and Moss do not base their criticisms on history, though. They seem to think that people should question the Museum of the Bible because the Greens are out-of-step with modern American culture. Take a seemingly-innocuous passage about the authors’ interview with Steve Green, the president of Hobby Lobby. They state:

Not once during our time together did he check his phone or watch.

When I read that, I thought, “Wow, here’s someone who respects the time of those who are interviewing him. He wants them to know they have his full attention, so he is behaving politely.”

Baden and Moss do not agree. The next sentence reads:

He had the air of a man who knew that people would wait for him.

They have managed to turn manners into a form of narcissistic tyranny. How dare he not look at a cellular device from time to time! Doesn’t he know that someone might need to send him a joke, show him a picture of a meal, give him a coupon, make fun of Donald Trump talk to him? He does not bow to the machine the way we all do! He does not share our addiction! He just does not get it! There is something wrong with him! Burn the witch!

Worse, The Atlantic’s correspondents hint that the Green family may be in league with terrorists as they attempt to create their museum. They point out that archaeologists have been shocked by the amount of artifacts that have come into the family’s collection. Since many of these objects were previously unknown to scholars, questions arose as to their provenance. It turns out that the Greens have been less than meticulous in their record keeping and their investigation of the legality of some of their purchases. These actions certainly warrant scrutiny. It would be appalling to break laws in order to bring your view of religion to the world. But while they don’t come right out and say it, Baden and Moss hint that there might be something more nefarious at work:

The rise of the Islamic State, or ISIS, has brought heightened attention to the antiquities trade. That’s because the group considers the looting and trafficking of antiquities a valuable source of revenue. “Such funding,” the UN Security Council recently declared, “is being used to support recruitment efforts and to strengthen operational capability to organize and carry out terrorist attacks.” In May, when U.S. forces assassinated Abu Sayyaf, a senior ISIS officer, and then raided his compound in Syria, they found it stuffed with hundreds of ancient Iraqi artifacts.

 

What image could possibly come to mind other than one of Steve Green not checking his phone while buying papyrus fragments out of a windowless van filled with automatic rifles and rocket launchers in a back alley? The authors back off a little:

For these reasons, the issue of provenance—the record of how an artifact was discovered, and who has owned it since—has become crucial in the study of antiquities, especially for newly announced artifacts. In 1970, UNESCO drafted a landmark convention calling on member nations to delegitimize the sale of cultural artifacts. If an item can be shown to have been removed from its country of origin before 1970, collectors can generally be secure that its purchase is legal. Records of sale, however, are not always well maintained (if they are maintained at all)—and, of course, they can be forged.

But the damage is done. They certainly don’t say Hobby Lobby is not knowingly funding terrorism.

The article’s final strategy works in a most subtle way, but that makes it the most insidious and dangerous ploy. The authors present their overall concerns about the Museum of the Bible as questions of open-mindedness and intellectual dialogue:

The thousands of artifacts they have so rapidly acquired could become merely the pictures that accompany this story, which, put simply, is this: The text of the Bible has essentially never changed, and its authority is timeless.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this message. From a faith perspective, it’s no better or worse than any other. What’s striking, though, is that the Greens have potentially figured out a way to make one story of the Bible seem like the story of the Bible.

Think back to the last time you watched a documentary on evolution or visited a museum detailing the incredible age of the Earth. Did the producers feel obligated to say, “This is simply one theory. Many people believe that God created the world in a week and species never change”? Of course not. Science feels sure it has the story of the Earth, and wants to educate you so that you know the truth as well. Even though new research constantly changes the currently-accepted picture of cosmology or geology, scientists always speak to the public of their current models as certain. Only they themselves are allowed to question them.

I remember another example from the time when I lived in Washington, D.C. The issue involved how to address the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in the display of the B-29 Enola Gay. As originally designed, the exhibit questioned President Truman’s decision to drop the bomb and blamed that action for ushering in the age of the nuclear arms race. Protests by veterans’ groups resulted in a redesign of the exhibit, and this triggered outrage on the part of historians. In essence, they were demanding the right to teach their beliefs to others via museum displays. This doesn’t sound all that different from what the Museum of the Bible will try to do. But how many of those historians would stand up in support of the Greens now? You can’t have it both ways.

It seems as though Baden and Moss also wish to have their ideas accepted as the story. [Should we listen to closed-minded supporters of terrorism who don’t even check their phones during interviews? Only an ignoramus would do that!] And remember, all of this criticism is taking place before the museum actually opens. The editors of The Atlantic clearly do not want visitors to the nation’s capital influenced by the Museum of the Bible. I believe they unintentionally show why:

Hobby Lobby, [Green] explained, is not just a business. It’s a business that enables a ministry, and at the center of that ministry is the Bible.

I guess that’s too dangerous an idea for some people to allow.

Cyclocross Chronicles

It’s been a couple of weeks since I decided to play around with my beater bike and try cyclocross. Here’s the scoop.

What I did:

When my knobby 32 mm tires came, I glued them onto the wheels I built last summer.

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Aren’t those gorgeous? Plus, for traction, cyclocross tires use much lower pressures than road tires. Low pressure = comfort. These have 40 psi in them, and that feels perfect for all kinds of terrain.

I removed the water bottle cages.

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The cages would get in the way when you have to put your arm through the frame to carry the bike on steep or unrideably-muddy stretches. Since the longest cyclocross competition lasts about an hour, there is no need for hydration en route.

I switched to a shorter stem and raised the bars a bit from where they were before.

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Because the speeds are so slow compared to road rides, there is no need to maintain a streamlined aerodynamic position. Also, the shorter reach helps to maintain control over rough sections.

Because I had to remove the old handlebar tape to change stems, I replaced it with cotton twill cloth tape.

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Where has this been all my life? Granted, after a half dozen rides it is starting to look dirty, but this is not about style. This tape gives me incredible grip without feeling tacky or spongy like others do. I like the feeling of firmness and control.

I changed the saddle.

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I took this one from an old mountain bike. It’s not leather, but in cyclocross the tires constantly throw mud and water up onto and under the saddle. The synthetic composition of this one will withstand the elements much better. Also, this saddle has a narrower profile than the ones I use for road cycling. This makes things easier when I need to dismount to run or remount after running.

I swapped for the double-sided pedals that had been on my mountain bike.

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Because cyclocross necessitates transition from riding to running and back so often, I thought it was much more important to have these on this bike than on my mountain bike.

I left my gearing alone.

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Combined with a 39-tooth small chainring, this 14-28 five-speed freewheel gives me all the range I need.

I kept the moustache bars.

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These are much wider than those I would use on a road racing bike. but the wide stance gives me lots of control and stability on downhill and technical sections. Also, these bars put your hands in a great position for climbing, much better than drop bars.

So there she is:

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(Gratuitous shot of bike and new-to-me workstand.)

I’m so proud of her. So now that I have a dozen rides under my belt, what are my thoughts on cyclocross so far?

Things I like:

I stay warm. For one thing, he speeds are much slower than those of road rides. There is no easy riding on a cyclocross trail. You’re either riding through grass, thick mud, or snow, and when you can’t ride any more you pick up the bike and run. Also, the trails are generally narrow openings in woods, protected from most of the wind. In all the years I’ve been cycling, I have never found a way to keep my hands and feet warm while riding on the road in cold weather. You name a glove or boot or overshoe that is guaranteed to keep you warm, and I’ve tried it, unsuccessfully. On the other hand, this past weekend I finished a ride having worked up a lather sweating, while wearing normal wool socks and thin running gloves. When I checked the temperature, I was shocked to discover it was 34 Fahrenheit. I never could have lasted if I had been on an open road at 17 or 18 mph.

The rides are shorter. Bicycles are such efficient machines that it normally takes three or four hours to get a worthwhile workout. That’s fine in the summer, but winter evening comes much earlier, and I like to pack in as much activity as I can in a day. Because you work so much harder just to maintain your forward momentum in cyclocross, you can get a decent workout in an hour.  For me, that means being able to go home, clean the bike, shower, read for a while, and still go out with my wife for sushi before it gets too late.

There aren’t the usual road hazards. Whether it’s traffic, glass and other detritus, or red lights and stop signs, there are lots of things that can break up road rides. I’d much rather avoid a tree root that nature put in my way, or stop for a family of ducks to cross my path, than deal with anything man-made.

 

Things I don’t like:

People walking unleashed dogs. In the state where I live, dogs must be on leashes when they are in public. But no matter where I go, there seems to be someone who can’t be bothered to leash his pet. So here I am, trying to maintain control of a skinny, light bike on a technical trail, and along comes Fluffy, running into my path and jumping up on me when I stop so I don’t hit him. Invariably, the owner lollygags around the bend and says, “It’s all right. He’s friendly.” Well, you might be friendly too, but if you jumped on me, that would be assault, pal. I love dogs, but you don’t know that. It takes a really selfish, entitled person to assume someone else doesn’t mind being jumped on by a dog.

That’s it. My dislikes constitute a really short list. Notice, also, that the dislike list has nothing to do with cyclocross itself. Unleashed dogs can ruin any activity I want to keep to myself.

There really is no satisfactory way to avoid the presence of others.

Ad Astra Per Aspera- Chapter 2

In Which I Get a Whiff of Something That Will Become an Obsession

 

As thrilled as I was to see the images sent back from Jupiter by the two Voyager spacecraft on the evening news throughout 1979, it was nothing compared to the indulgence I felt sitting with National Geographic‘s January 1980 issue. The cover sported a false-color image of a volcano’s eruption on the moon Io. The story recounted the approach to and fly-by of the gas giant by the robotic probes, and detailed the struggles of mission scientists to make sense of the treasure trove of data returning to the Earth every day. I re-read the article so many times that this particular issue of my father’s National Geographic archive was the only one that ever appeared used.

National Geographic

As I read, I would picture myself soaring above Jupiter’s cloud belts as if I were a passenger on Voyager or a resident on one of the moons constantly stretched by gravitational tides and bombarded by cosmic rays from the main planet. The idea never failed to terrify me as I learned about the incredibly low temperatures and the giant storm systems that could easily swallow the entire Earth. It reminded me, in a way, of looking at the pictures of spiders’ faces in elementary school picture books. The images gave me nightmares, but there was something about their strange beauty that made me keep looking.

One Saturday later that year, as we piled into the family car for the weekly visit to my grandparents’ house, I remember my father wondering if “it” would fit into the hatchback of a Pinto. I asked him what he was going to put in our car, and he replied, “I’m getting my telescope,” as if it were something I should have known all along. I thought I had misunderstood; A Ford Pinto’s hatchback could hold quite a bit of cargo, and it seemed all the more cavernous in relation to my ten-year-old frame. That must be one heck of a telescope, I thought.

During our visit, probably while most of us watched Dance Fever with Deney Terrio (my grandmother’s favorite), my father disappeared into the car port for a while. When we got into the car to drive home, the end of a wide, white tube, covered by something that looked like a shower cap, extended from the trunk over the rear passenger seat. When we rounded curves in the road, heavy, metallic clanks issued from behind the seat. This all seemed wonderfully mysterious and exciting.

When we set up the telescope the next day, I realized that I did not understand much about telescopes at all. It was hard to get my head around the idea that this one used mirrors, not lenses, to produce an image. The observer actually looked into the scope at right angles to the tube, and from the front, not the back. In fact, when the telescope was fitted onto its massive metal pier base, I had to stand on a step stool to look into the eyepiece. Stranger still, when my father pointed the scope at the chimney on our house to test focus and optical alignment, the chimney appeared upside down and backwards. Here was a new frontier of knowledge for me to conquer.

I later learned that this telescope was the iconic RV-6 Dynascope, made by the Criterion Manufacturing Company of Hartford, Connecticut. Its 6″ diameter f/8 optical system was a classic setup for everyone from beginners to advanced amateurs since the time of Isaac Newton, and gave images that astonished me. The inverted image was correct for an astronomical telescope because a telescope needs additional optical components to produce a correctly-oriented image, and they rob brightness and clarity. The $194.95 price tag for an observing package including three eyepieces and a quality sidereal drive motor to track celestial objects automatically represented great value.

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I just could not understand why, now that my father had brought this treasure into my life, he was so hesitant to use it.

With hindsight, I realize that we lived in a place that made astronomy inconvenient. Our house was located in an area of dense woods, so the only visible sky was directly above the cleared part of our yard. Complicating matters, there was hardly a level square foot on our entire acre, meaning the mount could not be set up to follow objects easily as the Earth rotated over the course of a night. There was no possibility of staying up late enough to use his telescope on work/school nights, and often on weekends we were faced with the options of staying inside by a cozy fire or freezing out in the yard while trying to track down astronomical targets. The fire usually won.

But I was ten! Like all ten-year-olds, I was made of rubber and magic, and never ran out of energy. I wanted to set up the scope! I wanted to move it around the yard each time we looked for a different celestial object! My father was not quite as enthusiastic about these endeavors as I was, but over the next couple of years, there were enough clear weekend nights when I was able to persuade him to go stargazing that I was hooked for life.

I can only clearly remember seeing four objects from my early days in astronomy: Jupiter (of course; after Voyager, how could we not check it out for ourselves?), the Moon (the one object other than the Sun that everyone can find and identify), the Great Nebula in Orion (which, in retrospect, I have a hard time believing ever rose above our tree line; it may be a false memory), and the Andromeda Galaxy, which passes nearly overhead at our latitude.

Thinking back on this, I realize that these may have been the only objects my father knew how to find. His reluctance to go observing with me more often may have stemmed from a fear of seeming inadequate to a young son. I know he did not have any star charts detailed enough to match his scope’s capability. I struggle with this fear of inadequacy myself, and that may explain why it took me so long to find Millbrook’s observatory or to believe that anyone there would care about my interest.

It may seem odd, but I will never forget the smell of that telescope. The fact that it was stored in my poorly-insulated attic bedroom certainly made it more prominent. To this day, every time I get a whiff of Bakelite (the Dynascope was actually made of phenolic resin) I am right back there in my parents’ yard, teetering on a ladder and focusing critically on Jupiter’s Galilean satellites. I recently learned that other astronomers had distinct and fond memories of the Dynascope’s aroma. Various on-line astronomy discussion board posts likened it to the nose of a fine wine, or even an astronomical aphrodesiac!

Spurred on by Voyager and by the premier of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos series on PBS, I began to devour every astronomy-related book I could find in our small local library. Our librarian, Mrs. Card (you can’t make this stuff up), must have wondered just how many times a person could read, re-read, and re-borrow the same books. I treasure one of these above all others: Starlight Nights by Leslie C. Peltier.

Peltier

The author tells the story of his life in astronomy in a way that expresses simply but poetically how much a love affair with the night sky can mean to a person. I have since shared the book with people I care about, many of whom have little interest in astronomy, and even they become captivated by the storytelling. From his first glimpses of the Pleiades and Halley’s Comet when a young boy to his national recognition for variable star observations and comet discoveries, Peltier was someone in whose footsteps I wanted to follow.

Soon, my father bought for our home library a copy of James Muirden’s The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook.

Muirden

Little did I know that a seemingly-minor passage in the book would be so intertwined with my adult research. For star charts, Muirden recommended The Telescope Handbook and Star Atlas by Neale Howard.

Like many of the other books I read, The Amateur Astronomer’s Handbook contained illustrated sections on the workings of telescopes, and it looked incredibly simple to make one. All I needed were a couple of lenses and a tube. I even thought of a source. The next time I had an appointment with our optometrist, Dr. Tischler, I asked him if he had any lenses lying around that he wasn’t using, and if so, might I have them? Everything makes sense in your head when you’re ten. He explained to me patiently that his were not the type of lenses I needed. I could not understand why he did not understand my project, and left that day somewhat miffed. I had made an impression, though, for Dr. Tischler kept a close eye on my interest in telescope building. It was many years, however, until I could show him something I had made myself.

At about the same time, I began my forays into binocular astronomy because of an opportunity that may have seemed like drudgery to some. A high school in a nearby town hosted a Gifted and Talented program for students of middle school age on Saturdays. I cannot now recall how my parents found out about this, but it may have been through my mother’s job as a first grade teacher in a local Catholic School. The program was run by Dr. Sally Reis from the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, and for several weeks, eager, nerdy children indulged their interests in music, debate, photography, archaeology, rudimentary computer programming, and in my case astronomy. My class met in UCONN’s planetarium, and it was taught by physics professor Dr. Cynthia Peterson. She provided exactly the primer I needed, a thorough but non-threatening introduction to the constellations and the fixed and wandering objects to which they served as signposts.

The course provided each of its attendees with a planisphere, a rotating miniature star map that shows what objects are visible in the sky at any date and time. One of its interchangeable wheels showed deep-sky objects visible in binoculars, and so I finally had a way to tour the sky on my own. I’m glad I began my explorations with binoculars rather than a telescope, because it taught me much more about the sky than I otherwise would have learned. First of all, binoculars orient the image to appear the same way it does to the unaided eye. I could point my binoculars at a visible pattern of stars and see it somewhat magnified, but I could also see many fainter stars in and around it. This demonstrated the advantage of increased light-gathering power, since the lenses had more surface area than those in my eyes. Also, because binoculars offer a wider field of view than a telescope, they made navigation among the stars to locate the brighter objects much easier. Still, when you’re bitten by the bug, you’re never satisfied. I wanted a telescope of my own.

When I got my first summer job in high school, I had access to significant sums of money for the first time. I confess that, like a good American consumer, I caved. I had been looking at a red Tasco 2″ refractor telescope in the window of our local camera shop. It was new. It was shiny. It was red! So one day, I went to the bank, withdrew money from my savings account, and took home my very own telescope.

s-l225

I believe that department store telescopes have done more to discourage generations of budding astronomers than all of the cloudy nights in history. They usually have useless finder scopes and unmanageably-small eyepieces that produce way too much magnification. That way, the manufacturer can sell them as “500-Power” telescopes to appeal to power-hungry Americans who don’t know any better. Worst of all, they invariably have flimsy mountings that cannot hold the optics still enough for the user to get a good view of anything. This one was no exception. On the other hand, I remembered that my astronomical hero Leslie Peltier had worked a summer job to save the money for his very first telescope: a 2″ refractor!

Fortunately, I still had a desire to build something, and that made me willing to tinker with this scope until it worked better. Based on other models I had seen in magazine ads, I had my uncle help me drill the tube and tap in a mechanism to hold the scope solidly in one position. I hung weights from the accessory tray on the tripod to minimize vibrations from wind and my contact with the telescope. I fashioned a long dew shield out of cardboard and black construction paper to keep the objective lens from frosting over. All of these improvements made the scope’s performance acceptable, and though planets were my favorite targets, I was able to see examples of every class of object beyond the solar system: double stars, open and globular star clusters, galaxies, and planetary and diffuse nebulae. I used my binocular star wheel supplemented a rudimentary atlas purchased at a local book store.

Star Atlas Detail

And, like Leslie Peltier, I carefully smoked a glass disk with oil lamp soot to make a filter which, when placed in front of the telescope’s objective, allowed me to view the sun and its spots. I wasn’t always successful in my hunts, but I was leaving the nest for the first time.