Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Around Home At Ketelsen East!

Since our multi-state trip ending last weekend, we've been hanging around the house here in St Charles. Officially we're working on some home-improvement projects, mostly in the kitchen reglazing the windows and tearing apart and repainting the sills. Today was a hot, sticky day, so we mostly relaxed - I took a walk in a local park, with Melinda reading and resting up for her "nurses night out" tonight.

With no astronomy to speak of here, I've converted to sort of a nature observer here in Illinois. Last year, the highlight of the summer was the discovery of the weirder than weird two-spot treehopper, shown at left here. Once seen, they appear quite common, though only on a few plants. Interestingly, I didn't see any this year our first 10 days here until just yesterday, with a few more today, so perhaps their life cycle just has them reaching adulthood now. But what I have seen is shown at right, and if anything, matches the treehopper for weirdness!  A little smaller than the treehoppers, these guys have what looks like cotton fuzz coming out of their rear ends!  I ended up sending some pictures to "Bug Man" Carl Olson back at the University of Arizona and he was similarly confused, forwarding it on to a friend.  The answer is that it is a nymph stage of Acanalonia conica, a planthopper.  I'm seeing changes over time, and will likely blog about it later, but wanted to let you know we're not just sitting watching TV!  And interestingly, once spotted here in St Charles, I also saw them on my friend Beth's spinach plant in Minneapolis!

Also, big news our resident groundhog Bruce has been spotted, first grazing across the yard, then today peeking our from beneath our storage shed.  We had seen the recent digging, but not seen him there until he was spotted looking out.  While it is unlikely this is the same groundhog over the years we call Bruce, it is nice to have the tradition continued with this version.  I've blogged many times about him, but the camp aggressively tried to trap him, and a body was spotted years ago, but this Bruce is still very much active!

And finally tonight, Melinda is out with a group of her former nursing buddies.  They meet, sometimes by the dozens, at a local restaurant to get together and relive memories and make new ones.  So since I'm home alone (I've been invited, but choose not to attend the typically 5-hour dinners) this morning while out getting my morning paper picked up a few ears of some good-looking sweet corn, and got a jalapeno bagel to act as a bun for my brat-burger.  Finished off with cheese, onions and fresh jalapenos, all I needed was an iced glass with an ale to make it a feast - it was great!

Monday, July 21, 2014

Denizens of the Arboretum!

While we were visiting Beth and Phillip in Minneapolis the other day, we made an excursion to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, nearly 2 square miles of gardens, tree collections, prairie and woods.  Run by the University of Minnesota, it has miles of trails, and you can also tour the grounds on a 3 mile touring road.  We chose the drive for an easy way to get an orientation, and it was quite incredible with the variety of the displays and gardens.  While our group went through the visitor center and gift shop, I roamed the flower gardens out front in search of photographic prey...

One thing I've learned in the little time that insects have come into my viewfinder is how little I know about the insect world!  It is certainly more confounding than someone starting out in astronomy - sure, the planets move around and you need to pay attention to what is where, but at least the stars, while there may be thousands of them, like the thousands of insects in a particular area, don't present the same problems in classifying and identification...  Sure, there are easy ones to spot - for instance, the cone flowers were popular with pollinators - here is a honeybee with its "fanny pack"(pollen basket) full of pollen for transport back to the hive...  And at right is a bumblebee that was quite distracted by its feeding on nectar in the flower to pay any attention to me.  These are both very common in the Midwest, though you don't usually get to see them in this much detail except with the macro lens (100mm Canon used for all of these).  While there are many species of honeybee (genus Apis, with 7 species and 44 subspecies known) and bumblebees (genus Bombus with over 250 species known), people know what you talk about when you call it a bee, but I'm hard-pressed to identify the species more explicitly.

Some are a little easier to identify - for instance, this guy got my attention by flying past a flower I was shooting, and diverted my attention to track him down till he settled on a flower.  Looks like a dragonfly, and, of course, the bright, distinct coloration should help with an identification, which it does.  But it took a lot of looking and comparing image details to ID it - turns out it isn't a dragonfly, but rather a damselfly, a Northern Bluet (Enallagma annexum).  The final details of the id are the spots behind the eyeballs, and the broad, blue stripes on its shoulders.  This is shown at full magnification, so is considerably cropped from the original image.  They are notoriously shy and wouldn't let me any closer...

But some insects defy my attempts to identify.  I hate to call in the experts every time, so I look at images on-line, but other than general classification, I now realize how little I know.  At left here is a bee fly (very original, I know) from the family Bombyliidae, but has over 4700 species scattered through more than 230 genera, so I'm hesitant to try to guess what to call it...  Its a bee fly!  And at right is another mystery...  I thought it was a grasshopper when shooting it, but grasshoppers generally don't have long antennae, which might make it a cricket, but most crickets are brown, not fluorescent green and rainbow-colored, so maybe it is a katydid, but most of those are solid green, so perhaps it is still a nymph which are notoriously difficult to identify.  So I'm looking for help if anyone has any to offer!  let me know - click on my name in the far upper right corner or jump into the comments...  Whatever it is, it is pretty amazing-looking!

At least I can close without an insect - I was shooting so many cone flowers that got a 2-frame focus-stack, combining 2 frames with slightly different focus to increase the depth of field.  These coneflowers (likely Echinacea purpurea) were attracting lots of the interesting insects above, and is quite striking in closeup as well, the red and yellow florets contrasting nicely with the pale purple petals.  The yellow details seen in the full-size image are individual pollen clumps. 

For such a short period of time spent at the arboretum, I got a wealth of nice shots, even if I'm a failure in naming what I've shot.  At least I know how little I know!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The 14-Hour Homecoming...

After 4 years of college and a couple years of living and working there, I can unabashedly claim that Iowa City falls high on my list of  favorite places.  I know what they say about "never going home", that things would be totally different if I ever tried to live there again, but it is a liberal bastion in the mostly conservative Iowa, and with the University of Iowa there are always movies, functions and speakers that anyone would find of interest.  It has been a couple years, my niece's wedding three years ago, since we've been there, so after bidding adieu to our RAGBRAI buddies, we headed down for an overnight there.

On the half-hour trip down, with no reservations for a place to stay, Melinda called down to the Iowa House, a small hotel at the Student Union for a room.  It is usually a nice, central place to stay on campus, and luckily we snagged a room even though incoming freshman orientation was ongoing.  But when we got there, it was like a war zone with construction going on around the periphery of the building.  We finally figured out where we could get in, but it sort of put a damper on our home-away-from-home for the night.  The first order of business was dinner, since it was already after 8pm.  We passed several new eating spots, but I had to return to one of my favorites from decades ago - the Sanctuary.  It was busy but not packed for a Summer Friday night, so ordered the standard microbrew beer and pizza.  I'm not sure the place has changed a whit in the nearly 40 years I've been frequenting the place.  I think they've extended into next door, but otherwise I suspect the same uncomfortable bench seats are still there, though the menu is a little too frou-frou for this farm boy!  But at least pizza was still allowed, though not as cheesy as I remember from decades past.  It was still good and tasty, and the 12" stuffed the two of us.

"Globe of Death" by Burford
The next morning we checked out after sleeping through the continental breakfast they offer - 10am comes and goes so fast! We wandered over to the downtown area and made the obligatory pilgrimage to Prairie Lights Bookstore - a wonderful place that has been in Iowa City almost as long as I've been going! I've mentioned it in a post before - it is a great place to spend a few minutes or hours, and rare is the stop where I can leave without spending $100.  Even the outside sign is interesting - resembling a pair of hands holding open a book that acts as an awning.  It seems standard that I always get proof how small a world it is in Iowa City, and it was proven again this trip...  One of the books I was interested in seeing was an anthology of letters by Kurt Vonnegut.  I had heard of it on NPR or the New York Times, and read an excerpt about his time at the Iowa Writers' Workshop.  It had seemed interesting, so asked the woman who prompted me if she could help me find anything.  After typing into the computer for a few seconds, she called an assistant asking about the book, "You know the one with your father in it!"  Well I walked upstairs to her and she had it waiting for me - I asked, "Your father is in it?"  Yes, she said, her dad, Byron Burford had befriended Vonnegut as a painter in the art department, and was on page 132...  Walking back down the stairs, I noticed a painting by Burford on the landing - it really is a smaller world at the University of Iowa...

We had a few minutes until our parking meter ran out, so we ambled down Iowa Avenue towards the Old Capitol building on the Pentacrest.  We had noticed driving around that like the Cows On Parade in Chicago 15 years ago, there seemed to be a number of painted Herky Hawk (the Iowa mascot). Turns out they are revising the "Herkys on Parade" from 10 years ago with 83 (!) new figures decorated by new artists.  In front of Old Cap was "Graduation Herky", which was a natural to have my photo taken near!  Walking down the other side of the street, I marveled at a number of literary brass inscriptions on the sidewalk.  I've noticed these in years past, they've been done since my graduation.  Standing out to me was one of semi-astronomical theme shown at right - the representation of the night sky with a decidedly not-currently-recognized constellation front and center (the  Bicycle is NOT a constellation!)...  Doing a little research on the quote, it is taken from a short story from Ethan Canin, interestingly currently a faculty member of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, mentioned above...

It is always great to swing by campus and Iowa City.  I don't know if doing it more frequently or for longer periods would diminish the impact, but a few hours every couple years certainly always wants me to come back for more!

Chasing Down Friends Old And New

We're just back from a 4-day trip, looping through 4 states to visit friends and family.  After our friend Michael left on Tuesday, we hit the road towards Minneapolis, the shortest route taking us through stretches of Wisconsin we've never seen.  Melinda had never been to Minnesota, so that section was all new to her, and we returned through Iowa via Cedar Rapids to greet our RAGBRAI buddies as they hit the road for the cross-state bike ride.  And Saturday morning we met family for lunch on the way back to "Ketelsen East".   It was a busy but fun couple of days to catch up with everyone.

The first leg of the trip got us to Minneapolis where one of my oldest friends (let's say longest, not oldest) Beth and her husband Phillip live.  We met nearly 40 years ago, and have drifted in and out of each others lives, but we try to stay connected.  They had a horrific car accident 12 years ago while on a camping trip where she suffered a spinal injury.  She requires massive amounts of care and continued therapy, and works hard to maintain her abilities and stay on top of her health.  Phillip does an amazing job of support and fills in caregiver gaps and juggles the schedules of at least three of them...  New on the scene is her new service dog Mika, a beautiful golden retriever.  They've only had her a few months, but it was amazing to see the two of them working together.  One of her stunning skills was opening and closing the sliding glass door to the back yard for Beth's wheelchair using a looped rope.  Mika also understands a large vocabulary for fetching various items and following orders.  We spent a couple days with them in their beautiful home and yard and got out a couple times to see some of the local highlights.

Friday we headed south for east-central Iowa for Toddville, home of the Toads, a bike group I've ridden with for a couple decades.  As we approached the little town, we passed the house of John Hill - I was hoping we might catch him in the yard and we did!  We pulled into the driveway as he crossed between his barn and house in his wheelchair.  Another astounding medical story, John was an active biker on our cross-state rides, when he had a massive stroke about 6 years ago.  He was given up for dead until he "woke up" 2 days later.  He has trouble speaking and gets around in a motorized wheelchair, but his spirit is unabated and he was overjoyed to see me and meet Melinda.  He was extremely proud to show off his new restored '85 pickup he had just bought.  Last year he regained his driver's license, and is awaiting modifications on the new wheels.  He is shown here with wife Nancy and his new-to-him truck.

This is the first time in recent years I've not been driving support for our RAGBRAI group.  For those of you for which that is a new term, it stands for the Des Moines Register Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa.  This is the 42nd edition of the week-long bike ride (NOT a race!) across the state.  I did the ride 8 or 9 times before my medical issues 10 years ago, and have driven support about the last 6 or so.  It is an amazing week, a real showcase for the hospitality and friendliness of the State.  Our little group, about 12 riders in total, arrange to camp in people's yards in the overnight towns, use their bathrooms and showers before the next day's ride.  This is repeated for 7 days as they take a new route every year, covering from 430 to 530 miles to traverse the state.  This year's is a shorter version near 430 miles.  I came by for the traditional bus loading to meet up with team mates.  Shown here is Maggie and Dean, who helped arrange the overnight hosts most every year.  At right is Carl at center with Donna at left and Chris at right.  You'll have to supply your own caption for the photo, there has to be a good one out there...

Also joining the Toads this year is Bryan and Carol from Tucson!  Bryan is an optical type like me, working in the shop in the basement at the Optical Sciences Center a couple blocks from the Mirror Lab.  He is a very active cyclist and bike builder, and first joined us on RAGBRAI 2 years ago, and couldn't stand missing it last year, so they are back, shown at left.  Their tandem, a Hase from Germany has a recumbent position for Carol up front, and a normal upright position for Bryan.  Also seen in the background is the 12 passenger bus that Carl got for free (a good story), that provides travel to the start and support for the week.  Finally at right is a "Melinda Sandwich" between Carl and his son "little Billy".  Billy rode with the support van about 20 years ago when he was to small to cycle, about 5 or 6 years old.  A year or two later he started biking with us, Carl providing a hand to help push him up hills.  Eventually he had to work thru the summer to make money for college, so stopped joining us.  He was a football player through college and is now a elementary school teacher in Missouri.  Little Billy is getting married this December down in Phoenix during his school break, so he is now officially all grown up.

After an hour or more of catching up with buddies, we took off for Iowa City to spend the evening, departing for parts east the next morning, stopping in Davenport at The Machine Shed for some "down home" cooking with a pair of sisters.  Well, it turns out that 8 showed up, including a brother, nephew, 2 nieces, and 2 great-nieces!  Shown here are the great nieces Mya and Alivia (left-to-right)with their Great-Uncle Dean and Great-Aunt Melinda.  We'll see everyone a few more times this trip - it is Alivia's 8th birthday this week, which we'll help celebrate Thursday.  We finally got home midafternoon Saturday, almost exactly 4 days after we left, tired, but glad we connected with everyone we reached out to...

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Not In Kansas Anymore!

As you can tell from any of these pictures, we're not in AZ anymore!  We are recently vacationing in the Midwest, and the rivers here actually have water in them!  In Arizona, the rivers are known as washes, normally bone dry though they might run for a few hours after a heavy rain during the monsoon season in July and August.  We had one of my college buddies come visit us for a day and with Michael being new to the area, took an afternoon paddleboat excursion on the Fox River.  The Midwest is being hit by what the local meteorologists are calling the summertime version of the Polar Vortex - temps have been 20+ degrees cooler than normal, which is lovely!  We've been enjoying nice weather in the mid-70s(F) for a couple days now.  The boats take one-hour excursions from Pottawatomie Park in St Charles once a day during the week, 3 times daily weekends.  The multiple levels are a great way to relax on the river and watch for birds as you cruise along.  Michael, last seen nearly 4 decades ago, looks about the same, shown at right.  He wore an Iowa shirt so I'd recognize him picking him up at the train station...

Of course, with it being summertime with LOTS of green here, I had to bring my IR camera along too, if only to demonstrate the striking differences from visible-light photography.  I've mentioned this camera a few times - instead of an IR-blocking filter that most cameras have, it was modified to block visible light and pass IR light to the detector.  So it is like shooting the IR film of a decade ago, which are generally no longer available.  The Wood effect generally shows healthy vegetation as white, sky and water as very dark.  You can compare the image shown at left with the visible color image above, taken a few minutes apart.  There are other subtle differences too - note the U.S. flag flying at the stern - while there is a bit of blue visible, the red and white stripes are indistinguishable!  Not to reveal any secrets, I believe the lady at left in the image may dye her hair - I've seen strange fluorescent-looking colors from dyed hair sometimes in the IR.

Back in the old days of photography using film, I often perused the old venerable Kodak information books.  I read about the Wood effect 4 or more decades ago, and I can still remember another effect of IR - the longer wavelengths penetrate further into the skin, and I remember seeing photos showing veins normally invisible.  While I was recalling this, a nearby teenager with short-shorts supplied an appropriate amount of skin, and I discretely shot a photo of her leg, not knowing what I would get.  Well, after stretching a considerable amount, look what shows up!  The color palette just happened to come out about right, but the subcutaneous veins are readily shown.  I also shot the lovely ladies that joined us on the trip - Melinda and Carolyn came along - note that Melinda's sunglasses don't absorb much in the IR...

The hour literally flew by!  Shown here is a photo of Carolyn and Melinda to compare to the IR shot above...  We saw a couple egrets and herons fishing near the shore, along with some goldfinches, cedar waxwings, and a few other of our normal population of birds.  The captain of the vessel, shown in an HDR image at right (3 exposures of different lengths to preserve details in shadows and highlights) says he has been plying these waters for 28 years!  That is a lot of trips along a couple miles of the river - the only length deep enough to navigate...  While we were told it was the only trip that afternoon, we noticed a couple hours later while at dinner that the boat was going out again for a sunset cruise - likely a private event.  Now THAT would have been fun too!

Friday, July 11, 2014

My "Brand New" 6-year-old Camera!

A couple weeks ago my venerable Canon XSi camera "blew up"!  I was taking a series of images of our back-yard cereus cactus blooming, and right around Midnight, after I went to bed, it stopped working, giving the mysterious message "error 99".  Looking at the last few frames, it worked fine till the last 3 exposures, then the image shown at left.  Even though it caught a Sphynx moth, it appears one of the shutter blades detached and blocked part of the sensor when the flash went off.  The error 99 is a general error that says something is wrong...  The Interweb has a few suggestions, trying a different lens, battery or memory card, but with the above image and performing the advice having no effect on getting the errors, it was obviously a shutter issue.

Now I've loved this XSi!  I got it just before our wedding in June of 2008.  After a couple years of using the Canon 20Da, I loved the HUGE 3" display screen and "live view" that the 20Ds lacked.  I literally brought tears to my eyes when first using it!  It has likely taken over 95% of the images on this blog...  Fortunately, I live all of about 2 miles from Tucson Camera Repair.  While they specialize in Nikon gear, I've used them to work on a couple lenses before and they always seemed reasonable - plus you gotta support the local businesses, especially specialized ones like this.  To make sure it wasn't something simple, I paid the $45 for them to take it apart and provide an estimate - the good part is that the fee is applied towards any repairs eventually made.  The news was not unexpected - it needed a new shutter assembly...  The part was $90 and it as $125 for the labor. 

Now a friend of mine bought a nearly new version of this camera for $200 at a local pawn shop over a year, and Ebay prices for a used XSi is even less, so I was a little torn about paying for the repair.  Plus, I had just received the new T3 from my sister-in-law's estate, but the more I used it (the T3), the more I appreciated the ole' XSi.  Even though it lacks the high ISOs, low noise and video capabilities of new cameras (the XSi was about the last DSLR without video), I decided to pay the $170 (plus the estimate fee) to get it fixed, which also included a thorough cleaning and going-over.  Since the shutter is the only mechanical part of the camera, it will effectively be a "new" camera.  I picked it up today, and got the old shutter assembly to play with.  It certainly doesn't look broken, but I was amazed that most of the assembly looks to be injection molded plastic except for the shutter blades.  I asked the shop how many shutter cycles it had, and I've taken 67,382 exposures with the camera in those 6 years!  How does that compare to other cameras?  Canon says to expect 100,000 shutter cycles from the XSi, but "real-life users report an average of 42,800 XSi shutter cycles to failure.  So I'm in the midrange somewhere - check the lists for the predictions for your own camera of choice... 

So I'm back with the XSi.  One of my nieces was asking about entry-level DSLRs and we're presenting the T3 to her.  Melinda still has her T1i for backup use, and of course, the nearly 10 year old 20Da still works fine too, so we're plenty covered for cameras!  Someday in the not-too-distant future, it would be nice to upgrade to a full-frame sensor (matching the 24X36mm format of 35mm film).  In the meantime, enjoy the enclosed video of ultra-slow-motion views of a modern camera shutter operating - it is not a gentle operation!  It seems amazing that with the obvious stress of bouncing mirrors and vibrating shutter blades that they will last for many years and hundreds of thousands of cycles!  Skip the advertisement, but do watch the video...

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

I'm (In-) Famous!

It doesn't happen very often, but occasionally an image stands out and attracts a bit of attention!  On a trip to the Midwest last November, I happened to have the window seat near the rear of the plane and tracked our progress across the nation.  Somewhere near the Oklahoma/Kansas border, I photographed something bright - it almost appeared like a reflection from a lake or pond, but there was no water surface around.  Shown at left, after consulting with Les Cowley of the Optics Picture of the Day, he correctly identified it as a subsun, and the nearby bright spot with a bit of color was effectively a sundog of the subsun!  He asked permission to run it on his website, indicating it might come out in a month or two.  Today, I got the e-mail - after 8 months it was my time to bask in glory!  Go to this link to see my image - unless you look today, the above link to OPOD will take you to the current post...  Actually, Les would be the first to tell you that a glory is another atmospheric phenomenon altogether!

The Optics Picture of the Day is a really fun place to browse around!  It is a rare day that you don't learn something new by perusing the images or Les' expert analysis, simulations and descriptions.  Make sure you add it to your daily Interweb excursions.  It was fun to have a contributed image!