Bloody hell, my room’s on fire!

Another restless night at the Hale Pohaku Resort & Hotel for Stray Astronomers. But there was a tinge of excitement to waking up. I thought there was a smell of sulphur (translation: ‘sulfur’) in the air and my first thought was “Blimey, the vog can’t be so bad that it’s climbed 9000 feet and is thick enough to penetrate into the buildings and rooms? ”

Now, we all know that your first thought of the day (even though it was 4pm, this was the start of my new day!) is never your best one, so I dismissed it and waited for the next, better, thought to arrive. “Fire, it smells like something is burning.” That was a better thought, for it was to turn out to be the truth. The next thought, my third, was worse than my first: “Bloody hell, my room’s on fire!”

In the back of my mind (and that’s where I keep my best thoughts, but they always hide away back there as whenever they venture out they get bullied on by the Crap-Thoughts-Gang), I knew that what I had just thought was b*ll*cks (translation: ‘b*llsh*t’… well, close enough).

Curiosity is probably one of my strongest instincts and it was that, rather than fear, which got me out of bed, showered (another round of the HP Shuffle) and out to investigate. As I climbed the stairs between the dorms and the main building there were white flakes falling.

Crap-Thoughts-Gang: Snow!! It’s snowing!! Come on Ant, let’s play!!

Back-of-my-mind-thoughts: (quietly) No it’s not. It’s ash. You go and play, we’re staying here.

Indeed it was a fire. A controlled fire we were told. Not-sure-who, were clearing bushes on the north-eastern slopes of Mauna Kea near to HP. The smoke was really thick and it did smell like a forest fire (I know, I’ve been caught in the middle of one). I thought of taking a picture but the smoke was so thick that a grey (translation: ‘gray’) picture wouldn’t have been that interesting. (Andrew over at A Darker View has a good image though which shows the smoke filled sky.) Anyway, another thought came to me: “It’s been 8 hours since I last ate.”

Actually, I think hunger must be my strongest instinct.

UPDATE: Andrew over at A Darker View has found confirmation that this is indeed a real fire, scorching some 60 acres near the Mana Road.

A poll on readability

A trusted and beloved family member has been complaining at me advising me on the font colours in this blog. The opinion is that the grey words are too hard to read against the dark background. Not wanting to disappoint in the first week of this new adventure of mine, I thought I would poll the readers on what they thought (and I really wanted to have an excuse to use this poll feature!!). Here it is:

Of course, I’m opening myself up here. My fragile ego is in your hands gentle reader. The reality could be that my ramblings are read (or merely looked at if koumera is correct) by just three people – at least we’ll get a result that way.

In the spirit of fairness (or something) I promise not to vote or rig the result in any way.

Halema`uma`u’s plume heads for Hilo

On the way down from the summit after finishing for the night we noticed something spectacular.

It wasn’t a great night – it was cloudy throughout which closed off the other optical and infrared telescopes, but because the JCMT is a submillimetre (i.e. sensitive to microwave radiation) telescope we can see through the clouds. However, the stability and ‘wetness’ of the atmosphere above us was poor, so although we could work it wasn’t great.

It was cloudy above but it was clear down to the coast and we had a great view of the volcano. In these pictures you can see the plume of volcanic emissions coming from the Halema`uma`u vent from the top of Kilauea volcano. Tom had some nice pictures of it close up when he went on his ‘shopping trip’ this weekend. The pictures below aren’t as clear as I would like (click on them to get a better look) as the Sun hadn’t fully risen yet so getting the right exposure (bright sky & dark ground) was tricky as I wanted to try and preserve some of the colour in the sky – I’ll see if I can improve them a bit when I get them into Lightroom on my return home.

I never cease to be humbled by the place we are privileged to call our workplace. It always gets me as we drive down from the summit, the fact that we are (usually) looking down onto the cloud tops rather than up. In these images we are looking down onto another volcano as its exhaust plume is carried away by the wind.

Ah, but notice, where is that plume heading? Not out to the ocean as usual. That’s because the trade winds that usually come in from the east and carry the vog (a uniquely Hawai’ian term, I believe, for ‘volcanic fog’) out to the ocean and beyond (and affecting the sky lines and respiratory systems of folks on our neighbour islands) are not there. Not this day. The winds were coming from the west (we call them ‘Kona winds’) and carrying the vog straight to Hilo!

I spoke with Mila that afternoon and she said that the vog was particularly bad that day…. no wonder.

The new Nikon Monster

There’s been a lot of fuss on the interweb this past couple of days with the release of Nikon’s newest camera, the D3X. It is being dubbed by several bloggers as a “digitial monster” – Nikon refer to is as a Digital Masterpiece. The basic specs are : 24.5 megapixels, full format (35.9mmx24mm) sensor, 138MB RAW files (!!!), 51-point AF system. There’s more but I’m running out of breadth. Why? The cost of the camera is $8000!

So forget about it! Not for mere mortals then, but clearly aimed at the high end of the market where pros could get that money back with the first image they take with the camera. I’m not really moaning at the price. It’s the market – the point is they can sell them at these prices otherwise they wouldn’t be marketing them so. And there are other camera manufacturers who do the same. For instance, you can pick up the Canon EOS-1Ds MarkIII for $6700 at B&H Photo. But if you want to go medium or large format, then check out the Hasselblad H3DII-39MS SLR Digital Camera Kit with 80mm Lens which you can pick up for a mere $44,000! Nice of them to throw in the 80mm kit lens…

It’s just like wanting the latest Porsche you see parked on the street from your 8-year old Honda Civic! I’m outside, looking in – somebody, please close the curtains! I know I shouldn’t be looking but there’s something vouyeristic about high end geek-and-gadgetary.

Comparisons are usually mundane, at times uninformative and often boring. But,  Jeff Revell at PhotoWalkPro has an interesting one (although, arguably, not very informative). Apparently, when the Kodak DCS420 Digital SLR came out in 1994, it cost $8000. It was at the very high end of digital imaging then (what happened Kodak?!) and it came with 1.5 megapixels (most crappy phones have more nowadays). Furthermore, we all know that geek-and-gadget gear gets cheaper as time and technology move on right? So, Jeff made this estimate: the D3X (and other camera’s of its monster-ilk) would have cost about $140,000 in 1994.

It’s a bloody bargain! By the way, Jeff also points out that you can pick up the DCS420 for about $69 on eBay.

The blackest Friday

Yesterday was Black Friday in America. Traditionally the day after Thanksgiving, it is the day when the country goes mad for bargains at the stores and malls. It marks the start of the Christmas season. It is called ‘Black Friday’ because its the one day in the year when so much shopping is done that it pushes most stores’ financial accounts for the year from the red and into the black. It means a lot to them, and more so in the current economic climate.

I’ve nothing against capitalism. Mila will tell you that I like shopping for gadgest and gear as much as any other wants-but-doesn’t-have-an-iPhone guy. But, when this happens…. something is seriously wrong with our society and values.

Astronomy with lasers

As I said in the last post, I’m on the mountain for the next week or so. I’m just working the last quarter of the night for the next few nights, commissioning a new instrument at the JCMT. So I made my way up to the summit leaving the Hale Pohaku Hotel & Resort for Stray Astronomers at about 1:30am. The sky was beautiful and clear – it is one of the natural wonders of the world, truly amazing and I never, ever get used to seeing the night sky from the summit. However, when I looked over at the ridge above us where the biggies are (Subaru and the two Kecks) I noticed this bright orange line shooting out of the Keck I dome into the sky. No, not James Bond, but adaptive optics with lasers.

The technology is actually quite cool. At Keck they call it LGS – laser guide stars. Of course adaptive optics with natural guide stars (NGS) has been around for a while, but it depends on the presence of stars near where you want to observe (within about 30 arcsecs or so). Despite there being “billions and billions” of stars in our Galaxy, apparently this leaves something like 99% of the sky unviewable with adaptive optics. Hence the genesis of this new technology. The laser is shot up in the direction of the astronomical object of interest where it interacts with the sodium layer high up (about 90km) in our atmosphere. The sodium atoms (which got to be there by virtue of meteor strikes, etc, by the way) are excited into emission by the laser and the telescope uses it as an artificial source to correct the aberrations that are introduced by the atmosphere.

All pretty cool and it looks cool as well. I happened to have my camera with me (!) and so went to the back of the JCMT, onto the gantry and set up a long exposure on a tripod. This is what I got:

_mg_5453_ijfr1 _mg_5454_ijfr Not that great, but cool nonetheless. If you look closely (click on the images) you’ll see double stars and two lines for the laser. That’s because the way that the JCMT telescope is built, the whole building rotates when we follow sources around the sky. So the double stars and laser tracks are because the telescope moved in the middle of my exposures. (We’re not going to stop working just because I want to take a photograph!). These were a 1.5 and 3 minute exposures, respectively.

If the lasers are out again in the next couple of nights I’ll set up the tripod outside and see if I can capture a better shot. In the meantime, here’s a really nice image from the Keck website.

Water of Life – a balancing act

For the next few nights I am here at Hale Pohaku Hotel & Resort for Stray Astronomers, exiled from the world, civilisation and my family.

Having the fortune of living in Hawaii, we are constantly reminded every day of the beauty that surrounds us. This planet we live on is a gift and it seems that we are only just starting to learn that there’s a delicate balance in the existence of this beauty around us – delicate, as once it is gone it will be very difficult to get back.

Paradoxically, one of the things that you become acutely aware of by living on an island is that precious commodity, water. You’d think that being surrounded by water  we would have no trouble with its supply for domestic and agricultural use…wrong. “But you’re in Hawaii,” I hear you say, “the tropics, it’s always raining there!”. Yes that’s true – we have lush rain forests, waterfalls and rainbows – but it seems that almost every year we go through a drought when the scarcity if water for domestic use becomes a serious issue for many on the island. (Part of the reason for that is that many on the island depend on rain water for their domestic water)

Maybe it’s an island-thing?! I was born on another island, in the Mediterranean (aka ‘Middle-Earth’ for all you Hobbitses out there!), called Cyprus. Water shortages are a very real problem there as there is nowhere near the amount of rainfall in Cyprus as we enjoy here in Hawaii. There are times when neighbourhoods go without water for days, the local government cutting off supplies in order to regulate its use. And they’ve come up with other “innovative” methods. There are two types of water supply: clean domestic water, and partially cleaned water exclusively for use with agriculture (almost everybody in Cyprus has a their own little ‘farm’ in their back gardens, no matter how big or small). I’ve heard my dad say at the table, “They’re watering our potatoes with sewage water! How do they taste?”

Now, back to the point! At the Hale Pohaku Hotel & Resort for Stray Astronomers, the problem is more accute as the Resort is built at the 9,000 ft level on the slopes of Mauna Kea, and all water needs to brought up here by tanker. However, a very unique system for preserving water has developed. It has been around for as long as I have been coming here (gosh, that’s almost 20 years now!!) and it prevents you from wasting too much water in the shower. You’ve been awake for 18 of the last 24 hours, twelve of which you’ve spent at the summit. You only managed to get 4 hours sleep and you fall grogilly out of bed needing a shower before you start the next 18 hours. You get the mixer taps balanced just right and the water is perfect. You jump in and you’re really comfortable and you start to relax and your thoughts unwind from the previous night’s work at the telescope. Just as you get to the point when you think you finally understand what’s going on “up there” your back and shoulderes are scalded by extremely hot water coming out of the shower. From contemplating the universe in a zen-like state to 3rd-degree burns in a fraction of a second. You struggle to regain the balance but there’s no chance of getting back to that nice place. Whatever is in there regulating the mix of water has gone non-linear, chaotic. Add a touch of cold water and freezing water tries to frostbite your toes (and other bits!). Too much, go the other way! Ow, ow, hot, hot!

Soon enough you give up and get out. The shower has won and the water of life is preserved.

Mira’s birthday robot

I was rudely woken up this morning by an over-excitable young girl who has just this day started her 11th year of life. Jumping up and down on bed at 7am when I’m trying to recover from finishing a telecon with colleagues in the UK at 2am… grump!

And now that Operation ‘Get Grumpy Dad out of Bed’ is ‘Mission Accomplished’, what should we do?

Time for presents!

And what did we get?

A robot!?

And the robot itself is really cool! Introducing the Lego Mindstorms NXT :

_mg_5298_ijfrb _mg_5296_ijfrb

This is the first one that Mira put together. Loaded the software onto the computer and made a simple program which sent the robot in a perfect square pattern. We’re going to have fun with this… more posts to follow on this I predict.

First post

I’ve been contemplating for a while about whether I should join the blogosphere or not, and today I thought I would just take the plunge. What have I got to lose?

What am I going to blog about? Well, that depends on how I feel at the time and what I’m recently inspired by. So I’m hoping that there’ll be a variety of things, things which interest me and maybe some of you. In the main, it’ll probably be about a photograph I’ve just taken or done something with. We’ll have to wait and see…

…let the adventures begin!

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