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.

Cyclocross - 02

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.

Cyclocross - 09

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.

Cyclocross - 04

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.

Cyclocross - 05

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.

Cyclocross - 03

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.

Cyclocross - 06

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.

Cyclocross - 07

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.

Cyclocross - 11

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:

Cyclocross - 12

(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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

I Spoke Too Soon

I’d like to apologize sincerely to all those inconvenienced by the weather Friday and today. After all, I caused it. All it took was one mention of how warm and dry the winter has been and how I’m looking forward to getting an early start on cycling and this happens:

I Spoke Too Soon - 1

Yeah, that was all me.

I Spoke Too Soon - 4

And that’s where the bikes live.

I know what you’re thinking: “But you love cross-country skiing as much as cycling, if not more. Wax up your skis and get out there.” [Of course my cross-country skis use wax for grip instead of those fish-scale patterns on the bottom. If you’re surprised by that, you’ve learned nothing from these essays.] Well, it’s not that simple.  Right now, there are four inches of dry powder outside with nothing but dead grass (and rocks and tree roots) underneath. Without a base of older snow, the skis go right down to Mother Earth, and there is a reason you don’t see this sport in the summertime. So, yes, there is snow, but it would ruin my day to try and ski on it.

But that’s all right, because I have embraced the precipitation and the mud that will result from its eventual thaw. I have a new project in my life, and it came from a most unlikely source: sporting scandal. It seems that…someone just got caught cheating in a bike race. [Try to contain your surprise.] This time, the performance enhancement came from a motor inside the frame instead of from drugs inside the athlete.

Now, permit me a small digression here. I’m shocked by the shock so many people in the cycling world are expressing. They are so angry that there is a call for a mandatory lifetime ban from the sport for any rider and mechanic involved in using a motor. Riders who have had their victories stripped away because they tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs routinely claim to be clean and re-join the peloton. When they win again, broadcasters praise them for [allegedly] realizing their errors and setting a better example by reforming their ways. But Femke Van den Driessche might as well be projected on a telescreen for the next Two Minutes Hate.


And drugs are better than motors?

Anyway, I was less interested in the cheating than in the event in which it occurred- cyclocross. I know this is the hot new trendy thing among people looking to buy still another bike, but I remembered reading about cyclocross decades ago in Greg LeMond’s Complete Book of Cycling.


[Why did nobody think aerodynamic handlebars were “mechanical doping” in 1989?]

Cyclocross began as a way for European riders to keep fit in the winter months. They would put tires with a little more traction on their regular bikes and ride through cow pastures or along wooded trails. When they came to unrideable sections like rivers or steep muddy hills, they had no choice but to dismount and carry their bikes across or over. Doesn’t that sound perfect for a curmudgeon? “Son, when I was your age, we didn’t have these fancy mountain bikes with all their granny gears. We ran up the hills. And we were thankful!”


[Real men.]

 Because riders could not go anywhere near as fast as they could on the road, and because they had to run for significant stretches, it was much easier to keep warm and stay happy.

Now, as my hero Bike Snob NYC recommends, I have a metal bike whose configuration I can change around any time I like and try out new stuff. Remember it?


Because I built light, strong, tubular wheels for it, I can simply put knobby, slightly-wider cyclocross tires on it and give a new (to me) sport a try. The fenders will need to come off so the knobs don’t rub, but they will find their way onto whatever I ride on the road in the rain.

Tell me this doesn’t look like a blast.

Not a doper or a piece of carbon fiber in sight.


Hobbies and Such

Last Sunday,  the weather forecast indicated the temperature would reach the mid-to-upper 50s. AND IT DID. I could not pass up the opportunity, so on the last day of January I went for my first bike ride of the year. I know what some of you are saying. It has been such a mild winter that you never stopped riding. Plus you have your “smart” blue-tooth toe heaters in your new graphite shoes, so you’ve leveraged the performance parameters by uploading your blood flow numbers from the monitor in your crank to the heads-up display in your sunglasses, which indicated it was all right to keep pedaling.

But, seriously, there have been plenty of opportunities for all sorts of outdoor recreation this winter. It’s just that they are not the usual ones. It has made me observe the way I engage in my hobbies, and I can describe it best as “streaky.” I seem to concentrate on one particular pastime for a while, and as long as I get to do that thing, I don’t get cranky or impatient with life. Then, suddenly, I feel like doing something else for a while, and I concentrate just as hard on that. While I’m doing it, I think to myself, “Hey, I’d forgotten how much I enjoy this.” I suppose it keeps me fresh.

You may remember that I was a competitive cyclist when I was younger, but for about the last five years, I was all about tennis. I decided to make practice time count, and actually teamed up with some hitting partners who would work on skills with me rather than want to play for points all the time. I learned to string my own racquets so that I could experiment with different types, gauges, and tensions of string. I even joined a club so that I would face different levels of competition. It was thoroughly satisfying, and I hardly thought about cycling.

Then, my wife’s youngest daughter graduated from high school. Being an avowed Anglophile, she wanted a three-speed bicycle with a basket to ride to class. While there were some new, retro-type models out there, we knew she wanted an actual vintage machine, so we searched classifieds and ordered her one. When it arrived, I started putting it together, and began again to smell the unique bouquet of road grit, leather, old rubber, and 3-in-1 oil that is peculiar to vintage bicycles. I felt the grunge under my fingernails, and it felt good. I realized how much I missed riding, and I have not picked up a tennis racquet since.

Last summer, I rode nearly every day. For the first time since I was in college, cycling became the activity I needed to feel as though my day was complete. My wife began to notice that, no matter what we were doing, I was checking my watch to calculate if we could make it home in time for a ride. We incorporated bicycles into lots of activities, like touring historic homes and visiting our favorite tea importer, but more often than not I wound up handing her the keys to my truck and riding the extra thirty miles home.

Then one day, I was done. I wasn’t burned out or injured, but I’d had enough. As fall progressed and the nights began earlier, all I could think about was setting up my telescope and searching for galaxies I had never seen before. In the same way that I had looked forward to a bike ride every day in the summer, now I planned my time to avoid the moon and made sure I had time for naps in the afternoon if my targets were going to keep me up until all hours. I did not even crave the exercise I was no longer getting, because my mind was completely wrapped up in astronomy.

I wrote in a previous post about following the Mets through the playoffs, but to get an accurate view of how that happened, picture someone sitting in pitch darkness in the yard with the radio tuned to a ball game in the background, staring through a telescope at tiny, faint patches of light whose photons began their journey toward me before human beings even existed on the Earth. For me, that’s a perfect evening.

On one hand, the mildness of this past winter made stargazing more comfortable than in most winters. Lots of my archived sketchbooks and log pages are smeared from the tears the wind has forced from my eyes. On the other hand, mild winters tend to be cloudy, and lately there have not been many opportunities to see stars. I was just beginning to feel cabin fever coming on when I received word of an estate sale arranged by the antiques dealer down the street. So last Saturday, as I browsed through the re-homing of someone’s worldly possessions, I came across a work stand that holds bicycles while you work on them. I purchased it for a song, brought it home, tinkered with my brakes, swapped some pedals between bikes, and suddenly I wanted to take a ride. And that’s what began on Sunday.

I wonder how long this streak will last.

Ad Astra per Aspera- Chapter One

In Which I Find the Object of My Search, Only to Wonder if it was Better Not to

     As I ascended the slight grade on the sun-dappled forest path, I had a hard time believing I was finally here.


For twenty years, I had looked forward to this day, seeking relevant volumes in dusty used bookstores, poring over topographic maps, driving through this place while trying to look nonchalant. No Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings, no Indiana Jones in an Amazon jungle, had ever felt more anticipation than I did that August morning. The fact that I was probably trespassing only added to my tension, and I have never been one to break rules, but a slight tingle of thrill drove me onward.

As I rounded a bend, a clearing materialized before me, and at the far end, the object of my quest gleamed white like some long-forgotten temple. Millbrook School Observatory, at last.


As soon as I recognized the building from photos in fifty-year-old books, part of me wished I hadn’t. This incredible structure, built entirely by the blood, sweat, and tears of high school boys, lay abandoned and neglected in a corner of the campus now given over to the storage of machinery and scraps of lumber, themselves seemingly long-forgotten. A dumpster out in front of this facility? Really? Is that all the respect they can muster for what these young men accomplished?


The small clearing was surrounded by tall trees, which made it difficult to recognize where everything I thought I knew so well was situated. Weren’t some of the photos I had seen taken from this spot? I thought they had been, but where was the concrete patio on which the nice young men in jackets and ties displayed their home-made telescopes? Had this three-foot-high mound of earth always been here? Had the site of the observatory once lauded by Scientific American magazine become a landfill? How had they even seen the sky from here?

I waded through thigh-high weeds, moving ever closer to what had been a center of science, community outreach, and geophysical research a few short decades ago. Vines had overrun and started to penetrate the doors covering the dome’s slit. They seemed to force it open, making it appear rather more vulnerable to the ravages of time than it ought.


The whitewashed finish of the building’s cinder block exterior had crumbled away in places, revealing construction details that should, by right, have remained seamlessly incorporated into the facade.


A blue tarp that had once protected equipment that did not even belong here now hung forlornly in tatters, exposed in its impotence against the elements.


I found myself wishing the school had demolished the observatory years ago, rather than let it be shamed like this.

I approached the door that sat forlornly open, feeling more than ever like an archaeologist about to enter the burial chamber of an ancient monarch. It seemed to invite my approach.


I can see they don’t value this, but will they mind if I do? After all, not having found anything marked as visitors’ parking, I had left my truck on the other side of the campus and walked all the way over here, feeling as conspicuous as a fox among the hens. But nobody seemed to pay me any heed, so after glancing over my shoulder one last time and listening for the sounds of maintenance or security personnel, I ducked inside and entered.

Immediately, my mood improved a bit. There was the student astronomers’ masterpiece, a 12″ reflecting telescope pointed to the south at an angle that meant it could be looking at the rich Milky Way star fields in summer or star birth regions in Orion during winter. The floor was relatively uncluttered, allowing me to examine the scope closely from all angles. Although its paint was flecked and peeling, the instrument gave off a feeling of solidity and dignity, as if it knew its own power.


Cautiously, I reached out a hand and attempted to slew the magnificent structure in right ascension. It complied without a sound, with just the right amount of friction to prevent an observer from overshooting his target. I did the same with the declination axis, pointing the massive framework tube ever-so-slightly more northward, and once again the instrument responded perfectly, almost with pride in the quality of its construction. So far, so good mechanically; what about optically?

I located the knob used to remove the primary mirror’s wooden cover and decided to lift it off. This was really my Rubicon. If anything went wrong now, I could easily be prosecuted for trespassing and destruction of private property. Hang on! This telescope deserves to have someone care about it. My righteous indignation fueled me on.


As I reached for the cover, I became aware of an almost-invisible inscription. What ancient knowledge would its decipherment give me? Raised slightly from the mirror cell’s surface, but painted in the same gloss black, were the words “MILLBROOK SCHOOL FOR BOYS.” I chuckled for a moment, trying to imagine how the makers of this behemoth expected it to go missing and need identification. Then it dawned on me: this was not meant to help recover a stolen telescope. It was written by a group of people feeling pride in their accomplishment, and wanting future generations to know about it.

I removed the cover to reveal a slightly tarnished surface, no worse than others I had successfully cleaned in the past, with…a postage stamp stuck to the middle of it?!


Someone has vandalized…no; wait a minute. The stamp, I realized, had once been a reference mark for the collimation of the mirror in the optical train. While it’s customary to place a tiny magic marker spot on the center of your mirror for this purpose, I had never seen one an inch by three quarters in size. Still, as long as it was smaller than the portion of the mirror shadowed by the telescope’s secondary mirror, it was no problem.

All of a sudden, I was back in archaeologist mode. Stamps change. If I could find out when this particular specimen was issued, I would have an earliest limit on when someone had last maintained the observatory’s equipment. On further inspection, it was in the denomination of 32 cents, and carried an illustration of a man with a glorious Victorian mustache, in a military band uniform, playing a trumpet. Across the bottom near the perforations was the inscription, “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Sousa. 32 cents. That should not be hard to track down.

I replaced the mirror cover and in doing so noticed the crudely-bent metal strips and cardboard spacers holding the mirror in place.


I could not imagine that Neale Howard, the science teacher who had inspired the creation of this observatory, would stand for such shoddy workmanship. After all, his students had machined every metal part of the tube themselves. What could account for this deviation from his usual standards? I glanced at the eyepiece end of the telescope and observed that the secondary, directing the light to the eyepiece at the side of the tube, was a mirror.


That’s strange. Didn’t Howard’s book specify that a prism was a better choice in this particular configuration? Something was afoot. People had tampered with this telescope!

Feeling appalled, I next examined the clock drive mechanism. I don’t remember being able to see the drive gear from his pictures. And what’s with these twist-on plastic connectors?


When I had first found that the mount’s bearings were in good shape and the mirror was cleanable without needing re-aluminizing, my mind immediately leapt to thoughts of Millbrook Observatory’s glorious re-opening. How many people had been introduced to the wonders of the universe through this instrument? Why could this not continue? Now, seeing some of the other problems, including the infestation of the sun-warmed dome by wasps and hornets, I wasn’t so sure.


Two decades after my quest to see Millbrook Observatory had begun, I had finally accomplished that objective. But, like all scientific and historic investigations, mine had left me with many more questions than answers.


I retreated down the forest path still hoping not to be discovered.  As I walked back to my truck, I reflected on my life in amateur astronomy. It had begun in the days of robotic planetary probes, led to an unsuccessful attempt to make astronomy my career, driven me to create my own equipment, and revealed to me the educational oasis that was and is Millbrook. Its history was meaningful to me because of my particular interests and hobbies, but the more I learned about it, the more I realized it was a paradigm of how education should happen. America needed Millbrook as much as, or more than, I did.

I knew my involvement with this place had just begun.

Handmade is Not Just For Hipsters

A while ago, I wrote about how I needed to replace a damaged wheel on my bicycle, and in doing so went completely off the rails and re-built my wheelset as tubulars. Wheel2

New Wheels3

As I think back on this, I realize it may come across as decidedly hipster: doing something in a completely unorthodox and old-fashioned way simply because I can, and then using modern mass-communication methods to tell the world about it. I suppose in that sense it was, but I always think of hipsters as people who fully embrace the modern world and then decide to go backward just to prove they know better than everyone else. And then use modern mass-communication methods to tell the world about it.

I, for one, have never embraced the modern world. I’m not Going Gently Into That Good 21st Century.


(Dylan Thomas reading this.)

I have never been modern, so I’m not choosing to undo progress I’ve already made.

Every time I write one of these essays, I am wracked with guilt that it’s so easy to get my ideas out there. I certainly have not earned the right to be heard by convincing a publisher to back me, the way a Thomas Paine did, for example. “So what?” you’re saying. “That’s just semantic. Admit what you really are.” Well, maybe, but I hope to convince you that I often make objects because a suitable commercial version does not exist, and sometimes what I make can actually be better than what I can buy.

Ever since I was nine years old and Voyager arrived at Jupiter, sending back its stunning close-up images, I have been an avid amateur astronomer. My father had received the iconic Criterion RV-6 Dynascope for his high school graduation, and it was the first instrument through which I looked at celestial objects.


Still, I wanted my own telescope, and I devoured every book I could find in our local library about telescopes and how they worked. I was not a hipster; I just had no money to buy one. In my mind, it was easy: I’ll just ask my eye doctor for spare lenses he’s not using


(Dr. Steven J. Tishler remembering me.)

and glue them onto a cardboard roll from paper towels.

This plan never came to fruition.

Mostly I used binoculars for stargazing, and I’m glad I did, because it taught me to find objects in the wide expanse of the sky and really study them to see what I could see. When I finally began working at a summer job (more on that in the future), I did not spend money on a car or driving. I gave in and bought myself a tiny Tasco refractor on a flimsy tripod with a useless finder scope. You know the kind: they appear in every department store around Christmas and have done more to frustrate and discourage generations of would-be astronomers than all the cloudy nights in history. But I’m glad for this, too, because it taught me the importance of a solid mount (more important than first-class optics) and the limitations of a small aperture.

Before I went off to college, I once again gave in and bought a much larger telescope, an Odyssey 10″ Dobsonian.


(That’s mine, third from the top.)

“Come on,” I can hear you saying. “I though this was about building things by hand.” Be patient, dear reader. The critical connection is coming shortly.

For a whole bunch of reasons that still haunt me, I had to leave the Odyssey behind at college. [That was shorter than you expected, eh?] But now that I was no  longer under my parents’ roof, I did not have to listen to their fears that making things was, at best, disappointing and, at worst, dangerous. (!) Thanks to Al Gore and his new-fangled Internet, I found THE BEST STORE ON EARTH, Surplus Shack. Now called Surplus Shed, it sells surplus optics, electronics, and all sorts of other goodies for do-it-yourselfers. [If you’re ever in east-central Pennsylvania on a Saturday, stop in and say hello. It’s one of my top five favorite places I’ve ever visited.] I bought a 4 1/2″ diameter overhead projector lens from them and actually made a telescope out of PVC pipe for myself at the age of 27.

The nearly-two-decade wait is not the point.  I surmised before I bought the lens, and had this confirmed by its performance, that it was designed to do far more than what I was asking it to do as a telescope objective lens. It performed as well as multi-element telescopes costing hundreds of dollars. So I was only a little disheartened when I ruined it.

Yes, my parents did have somewhat of a point. I was attempting to disassemble the whole thing to give the optical elements a thorough cleaning when one of them jammed sideways in the metal housing. Before I could free it, a chunk extending a third of the way across the lens had broken off, rendering the whole thing useless. But [wait for it] I’m glad this happened, because it taught me about how to handle complex systems of lenses, and it made me re-visit Surplus Shack, where I found this beauty:


Look at the size of that thing.


(Those are inches, not centimeters.)

It contains a series of lenses extending all the way to the rear, making its weight 19 pounds.


Because of its mass, I needed to build a sturdy mount, so I made a sawhorse minus one set of legs with a 4×4 as the main axis, and iron pipe fittings to support the scope.


The lens was made by Perkin-Elmer for the aerial reconnaissance camera on the F-4 Phantom, and probably originally cost you, the taxpayers, tens of thousands of dollars. No lens made by any commercial telescope manufacturer was ever made to that kind of standard. That flange bolted it into place under the wing or the fuselage. Who knows- this lens may have taken the photo that alerted President Kennedy that there were Soviet missiles in Cuba.


I painted it green because I have always wanted a green telescope. The focal length is so short (18″) that I simply bolted a focuser and eyepiece onto the back. It needed no tube. For ten years, this


was my porthole into space. It guided me through two successful Messier marathons, showed me minute details on Mars during its oppositions, and spied objects it really should not have been able to, like the Veil Nebula in Cygnus.  So why is it sitting on my library table now?

Because I’m an adult and, as such, I can revisit my childhood dreams. Back when I was in grammar school and dreaming of one day making telescopes, I obtained a catalogue from the A. Jaegers Optical Corporation.  Check out the 6″ lenses on page 39. The version here is from the 1960s, so mine was probably twenty years later. I think the 6″ cost $275 then. That was so far out of my reach as a ten-year-old that they might as well have said a million dollars. I never even said, “Someday…”

But someday arrived nonetheless. A few years ago, Surplus Shed acquired all of the remaining Jaegers back stock long after the latter had gone out of business. [Did I mention Surplus Shed is the BEST STORE ON EARTH?] Now I could own the lens I had always craved but never dared hope for. I bought it, and this


is the telescope I built from it. All of the structural parts are made from PVC plumbing pipe because it is relatively inexpensive, easy to cut and work, and incredibly durable.

So, is it better than commercially-available 6″ telescopes? Well, if you read any discussions of Jaegers lenses on line, most people say they are sub-par, and even cheap 6″ lenses from China outperform them today. Indeed, when I first used this telescope, I was somewhat disappointed by the image quality. In my mind, I blamed the astonishing views my Perkin-Elmer lens had given for spoiling me. But still, a 6″ lens collects almost twice as much light as a 4 1/2″, and this scope yielded 2 2/3 as much magnification with any given eyepiece, so I wanted to see how much performance I could tease out of it.

I began to think about the parameters that were within my control. One was the steadiness of the mount, but mine was solid as a rock because my previous telescope had weighed so much. Another was collimation, the adjustment of the optical elements to be precisely aligned with each other. A third was the amount of atmospheric moisture condensing on the 28 1/4 square inches of glass my lens presented to the sky. I had nothing to lose, so I thought and designed, drilled some holes, and made the tilt of the lens adjustable with three spring-loaded bolts mounted around its edge.


If you look closely, you can also see a ring of electrical-taped resistors between the lens and the plastic. The parts cost me less than $2 for this, as I had pulled the orange plug off of some other ruined appliance  in the past. [I’m glad I tend to save things. Did I ever mention that I’m the world’s cheapest human being?] Inside a dew shield made from a disposable paper paint bucket, this 50 ohms of resistance creates just enough heat to keep the lens frost-free and crystal clear in just about any conditions.

Now, these features are great to have, but so far they are not uncommon, only much cheaper than if I had bought an adjustable lens cell and dew heater. These improved the image, but I still was not satisfied. I realized that there was one more optical element that might need adjusting, and that was the star diagonal.

Rather than look straight up through a refracting telescope, most people prefer to insert a prism or mirror into the optical train to place the eyepiece at a comfortable angle. The result is seeing up by looking down, pacing the observer in much the same position that you remember from the microscopes in your high school biology class. My mirror diagonal was an inexpensive one because I had not thought carefully enough about it when I built my telescope.


The housing containing the mirror is thin plastic, and , stupidly, I would sometimes point the whole telescope by pulling or pushing on this part. This meant that it was not only wildly out-of -alignment, but also aligned differently depending on how I had handled it.

I managed to bring it into approximate collimation by shimming the housing with bits of card stock,


But I was not pleased by this solution. “Maybe I can make something better,” I thought. Returning to the drawing board and then to my local home improvement store for more PVC, I eventually designed and made my own collimatable diagonal mirror. [Just see how easy that is to find among commercial products.]


The front end of the wooden dowel is cut to a 45 degree angle, and the mirror cemented to it. I can precisely adjust the tilt via the three white screws around the outside.

The result? This was the missing piece of the puzzle. I am never disappointed by what I see through the eyepiece. Because I made so many of the components myself, with the advantage of hindsight regarding previous projects (and mistakes), I now have exactly what I want.

Actually, I have exactly what I have wanted since the Jimmy Carter was president.

How Far Can My Addenda Take Me?

If my last couple of posts have made you wonder whether I’m always for change and innovation, fear not. Let me tell you about


Some Things I Don’t Do Because They Do Not Make My Life Better

(By no means a comprehensive list.)

  1. Buy new “improved” sporting goods every year. Whether they golf, play tennis, or ride bicycles, some people seem eternally hopeful that the next new tweak of equipment will be just the thing that makes them great. I disagree. It’s my responsibility to improve my forehand or my top sprint speed. I mean, are you playing against me, or are our racquets battling it out? Are you racing me or my bike? Who gets the trophy, me or my Ben Hogan clubs? I think Olympic sailing has it right: everyone competes in identical craft, so the winner is the best sailor, not the sailor with the fastest boat. I think sporting goods manufacturers are like politicians. They need you to think they are taking care of your problems so you will continue to send them money, but if your problems ever went away, you would not need them any more. If acquiring equipment makes you happy, keep doing it. Just don’t call yourself an athlete.
  2. Carry a device that lets people contact me when I want to be alone (which is all the time). I do not want to pretend to Laugh Out Loud at pictures of overpriced restaurant hamburgers posted by “friends.” I have no need to show the world distorted close-ups of my face in front of the places I visit. These tasks were created by the devices. They did not exist before the cellular telephone. You are not making your life more efficient by quickly doing something that you did not do at all in the past. Just eat your food and let me enjoy mine.
  3. Read books that require batteries. Does this one really need an explanation? How much must you be a slave to change for its own sake to complicate reading with electronics?
  4. Make a single cup of weak coffee from a plastic pod, made from petroleum, that winds up in a landfill.
  5. Drink water out of plastic bottles, made from petroleum, that wind up in landfills. No one who does #4 or #5 can claim to be concerned about the environment.
  6. Computerize the telescopes I make. For me, the fun of stargazing comes from the tracking down of distant galaxies using my map reading skills. I enjoy the challenge of seeing objects that are on the limits of my vision. I do not want to reduce astronomy to “checking off” of some master list objects that a computer showed me. Why is that any different from looking at pictures of objects on line? How could you be sure some graphic designer did not create images of fictional galaxies and put them on line to fool you? I enjoy becoming familiar with the cosmos, getting in touch with our ancestors who knew their way around the sky. I know what I’m seeing is real.

It seems that everything in our society is about shortcuts. This makes people feel helpless and causes them to rely on people and machines that “know better.” For me, the process is always more important than the product. I wish more people approached life that way.