On our way

Yesterday at work, I set up the live cast of the CRS-8 launch on the big TVs in the kitchen:

There were a lot of people watching with me. The footage from the rocket was absolutely amazing...but of course, the landing was spectacular. I found myself swearing with amazement, over and over again, I'm sure much to the amusement of my coworkers.

I'm fortunate enough that there are a string of evening ISS flyovers happening for me right now, and Heavens Above has tracking info for the Dragon as well. Sure enough, there was one tonight just before 10pm.

I went out to a local baseball field with 10x50 binoculars; nothing at all resembling a dark sky, but of course it was enough to catch the ISS as it rose. At first I thought it might be the Dragon -- it was faint and looked smaller through the binos than I've seen it previously. Of course, most times I see it much higher in the sky (and thus closer, larger & brighter). As it rose, it became apparent that it was indeed the ISS. It went slowly through the Pleiades (now that was pretty!) and right by Menkalinan (Beta Aurigae). But where was Dragon?

I stopped following the ISS with the binos and let it rise out of view -- and just a few seconds later, following almost exactly on the same track, a dim satellite came into view. Dragon! It was maybe two degrees further from the ISS than would fit in the FOV of the binos. I followed it along until nearly the zenith, then tried to catch it with the naked eye. Sure enough, there it was -- maybe 4th mag or so, much dimmer than the ISS but still visible. Although it was harder to see this way, it was so much more wonderful -- it was so obviously in pursuit of the ISS. It's amazing to see a supply ship on its way to a space station. I like living in the future.

Tags: spacex

Cloud sensor -- initial plans

So after doing some digging around, I think there's a simpler approach than using Peltier coolers, and that's using an IR temperature sensor. This guy has built his own using this approach, though he's using Arduino controllers to read them. That led me down the Arduino path, and after a lot of reading I think I've got an approach that might work.

Sparkfun sells the MLX90614 temperature sensor in a couple of different formats: bare sensor, or on an eval board. After reading that tutorial, my understanding is:

  • I can connect the evaluation board to an FTDI cable/breakout board, and hook that up via USB to the Pi. The default sketch in the evaluation board will give me temperatures in Fahrenheit once per second over a serial port. Later, I can change the sketch by using the Arduino IDE. Pro: Quick to start, USB is dirt simple, and I don't need a RedBoard or similar. Cons: Not as flexible as it would be if connected to RedBoard, since that would give it lots of expansion possibilities (humidity sensor, motion-activated potato cannon, etc.)

  • I can connect the evaluation board to the Pi via I2C. Can still reprogram the sketch later. Pro: Not really sure. Cons: Have to build my own I2C connector....not that hard, from what I can see, but I'm a newbie.

  • I can get the bare sensor (no eval board) and hook it up to the Pi via I2C. Pro: Unsure. Cons: Much more fiddly than anything I've tried before.

  • I can jump right in to Arduino and get an Inventor's Kit. I can use the bare sensor (as shown in the tutorial -- start on breadboard, package it up somehow when I'm confident it's working), or the eval board (doing something like [this example4), using I2C in both cases. Pro: Lots of room for expansion, Arduinos are fun, etc. Cons: Will take me a while to get up to speed.

Assuming I've got all that right...my inclination is to start with the FTDI breakout board and USB; that'll make the learning curve easier, and I can get the Inventor's kit later on.

I've asked on the SparkFun forum whether I've got all this right...time will tell. But getting quickly started with the USB seems like a good way to start.

Tags: astronomy raspberrypi cloudsensor

Possible Raspberry Pi project

For a while now I've been wondering idly how I could measure cloudiness. My goal is to both track how cloudy it is now (and over time), and to compare actual cloudiness with predictions from ClearSkyChart.

A few days ago I came across an approach that I think might work. This person measured the current coming from a Peltier cooler when exposed to the night sky. The difference in temperature between the ground-facing side (warm) and the sky-facing side (cold) varied depending on whether it was cloudy (less difference in temp == less current) or not (greater difference in temp == more current). It occurred to me that I could use a Raspberry Pi I've got lying around to take that same approach.

Since then I've been browsing around, and here's what I've found:

I'm starting to think I've got a good approach here.

Tags: astronomy raspberrypi cloudsensor

Observing Report -- April 1, 2016

April 1 was a busy day: second day of the semi-annual OpenDNS Hackathon (Team Sales Grenade represent!), and Clara's and I's 10th Housiversary. But despite being tired, and the forecast going back and forth, I went out to Boundary Bay to tackle the Virgo galaxies again. In fact, it'd been so long since I'd been able to go out that I had the time to think hard about what I wanted to do. Here's what I came up with:

  • Compare the XT10i (10" push-to Dob) and the Meade LX10 (8" Schmidt-Cass). I haven't used the LX10 in a while, and maybe I need to think about passing it on to a new owner -- but I wanted a chance to evaluate each one first.

  • VIRGO GALAXIES MOTHERFUCKER. Seriously, every spring it seems like there's a 90% chance I'll wake up one day and say "Crap, there goes Virgo...maybe next year." I really wanted to see Markarian's Chain, and between the trees on the horizon and light pollution at my usual location (suburban park), I figured this was my chance this year.

  • A fun, long night observing. Later the better, amirite?

  • Didn't have this on the list but should've: I broke down recently and bought a Televue 6mm Radian. It was time to try it out.

I arrived about 8.20pm and started getting set up. I had a nice talk with a birdwatcher while waiting for darkness to fall; he told me that the big hawklike birds I'd spotted on the drive in were almost certainly juvenile bald eagles, and I showed him Jupiter. We were both happy.

Comparison first: I looked at M42, both when the sky was still light (who can wait to look at M42?) and when it was darker, and Jupiter. M42 was much brighter than the Meade. This shouldn't surprise me, since the Dob gathers ~ 1.5x more light than the Meade (not even thinking about the central obstruction)...but I was. It made the difference between seeing subtle details in M42 quite easily (or is that a contradiction? whatever) with direct vision, and only being able to see them with effort and averted vision. M43 was also a DV object, though faint, in the Dob. Not only that, with the 6mm Radian in the Dob I was able to resolve the E component of the Trap. The Meade, though, showed no sign of the E with the Radian.

This brings up something about the Meade: higher magnifications just leave things fuzzy, with a real loss of contrast and an inability to focus cleanly. I have adjusted collimation once before, but my impression is that Cats are meant to hold collimation much longer -- I'm not sure what's going on here.

This became quite apparent with Jupiter. The 6mm was high mag on the Dob, to be sure, but it held -- moments of clarity with the zones & belts (swear I saw some kind of triple banding on the South Equatorial Belt), and Callisto and Ganymede clearly resolved as disks -- tiny, but disks nonetheless. The Meade showed markedly less contrast (central obstruction?) and as mentioned didn't hold up to the increased magnification. Backing off to the 12mm helped, but focus was still hard and the contrast was still noticeably less.

Objections, accusations & fixmes:

  • Having tracking is nice -- very nice. So is the fine adjustment. There's no question that the bump-bump-bump in the Dob can be a pain, particularly when swapping in a higher-powered eyepiece -- it's easy to lose your target and have to back out to find it again.

  • I really should look into the collimation.

Two objects obviously isn't enough to do a thorough comparison. But...I didn't feel the need to keep going. I stuck with the Dob the rest of the night and don't regret it at all. The extra aperture does wonders, and despite being fast held up to the added magnification of the Radian well.

Speaking of which...OMG this eyepiece is wonderful. Comparing it to the 6mm Expanse I've got, it's got practically zero CA, and resolution of stars is pin-fucking-point. It's amazing. Eye placement is a bit of a problem -- kidney-beaning happens pretty easily if you shift your head to the wrong place -- but by the end of the night I was pretty comfortable with it. It is very, very nice, and I'm pretty sure I'm going to be spoiled for other eyepieces.

So -- settled on the Dob, and I like the Radian. What else did I do?

First off, I observed the ISS through the Dob for the first time. It did a flyby low in the sky (right by Sirius) early in the night, and I was able to follow it relatively easily with the 17mm (1.2 degree FOV). And WOW -- WOW. Detail was apparent -- this was very obviously an H-shaped object. The stars flying by as I followed it gave a wonderful impression of its speed -- it was amazing to see it zoom across the sky like this. And on top of everything else, it went right by Jupiter -- within an eyepiece view of it. Truly amazing.

I went to M81 and M82, which were way high up in the sky. (I tripped over another faint fuzzy getting here -- I'm guessing one of NGC 3307 or NGC 2976.) It was interesting to compare the view with last week's session in the park; the 6mm showed detail in M82 that I simply wasn't able to see previously. I tried sketching it and am not happy with the results, but it was a good exercise in bringing out what I could see: two knots of brightness near the center of the galaxy, with maybe a dark lane between them -- something like what was sketched here or here. It's 12 million light years away, and is 5x more luminous than my own galaxy. I love this hobby.

M51, by contrast, was hard to find (the Intelliscope was a little off in this area of the sky), and didn't show much detail at all. I saw two faint but distinct blobs, with maybe a hint of a larger area of fuzziness around the larger galaxy. I certainly didn't see any connection between the two.

I decided it was time to head over to Markarian's Chain. The Intelliscope took me there without any problem. Following along with both Turn Left At Orion (God, I love that book) and a photo I'd printed out from Cartes du Ciel, I was able to pick up a lot with just the 17mm (71X). M84 and M86 were obvious; NGC 4438 and NGC 4435 took a bit more effort, but not much. I also saw NGC 4461, NGC 4473 and NGC 4477, to give me the tail (?) of the chain. NGC 4458 came out, but only with averted vision. By putting in the Radian and then using AV and jiggling the scope, I was able to pick up NGC 4388 -- a thin slash, and obviously elongated. I might have picked up NGC 4413 with AV, but can't say for sure. I couldn't find any sign of NGC 4402 or NGC 4387. I sketched it all -- not a great sketch, but a great souvenir.

I swapped in my 30mm Antares Erfle for a broader view (40X, 1.85 degrees). M84 and 86 were there, of course; 4438 and 4435 were ghostly and barely visible. (Thin, patchy clouds were starting to roll through, so that may have contributed to their faintness here.) 4461 was only visible with AV, and 4458 not at all; 4473 was an easy catch The FOV stretched from M84 all the way over to 4473 in one go -- five galaxies (may have been more, but my notes don't record it; must revisit this again) all in one look, 50-60 million light years away. Amazing.

I switched up to M87 for a closer look; since tripping over it in 2013, I've had a chart from Cartes du Ciel ready for a return visit. M87 was obvious, of course, but so was NGC 4478 in the 17mm. Throwing in the 6mm Radian brought out NGC 4476 was well; after that, I tried for it in the 17mm again, but couldn't see it.

M89 was an easy find, just by panning over. M90 was easy as well, but very faint.

Over to M66 and M67, which surprised me with how obvious they were -- they've given me problems in the past (though not at Boundary Bay...I need to re-read my posts more often). NGC 3628 was barely visible in the 18mm -- very faint. But hey, got the triplet!

At this point I decided to pull out the list of Messiers I haven't observed yet, and start going through them. I got to M105 without problems and picked up NGC 3384 as well; no sign of 3389. I sketched them and used my new blending stump. (Everything I sketch is now a faint, featureless blur.) M95 and M96 were nearby, so why not? They were both obvious in the 17mm.

Back over to M49 -- quite obvious. I picked up NGC 4469 (though it was quite faint) and NGC 4526; no sign of 4535.

M53 was a change -- a glob rather than a faint fuzzy. Not that I could tell it from a faint fuzzy in the 12mm -- there was maybe a hint of resolution with AV, but honestly it felt like another Virgo elliptical. But oh, when I put in the 6mm, there was that beautiful sparkling around the edges that I love in globs. It looked like maybe there was a brighter star, or a detached section, in the NE corner.

I switched back to Jupiter, briefly trying the 6mm with the TeleVue Barlow. It was too much; Jupiter wouldn't come into focus, but Ganymede and Callisto seemed to be obvious disks.

One more before packing up: either M61 or M64. I labelled it in my notebook as 61, but the sketch I did resembles 64, the Black Eye Galaxy, more -- and it was on a page in TL@O that I was looking at earlier.

Obviously I was getting quite tired. Clouds were starting to seriously roll in, and I decided to pack it in at 1.20am; an hour later, I was home, reviewing my notes and nodding off on the couch.

Post-mortem:

  • I'm really, really glad I went out. The forecast had been all over the map all week, and I wasn't sure it would be worth going out. But the clouds held out 'til about 1am, and it was an amazingly fun night.

  • I don't think I want to hang on to the Meade; it's time to pass it on to someone else. I'm sure I'll reconsider a Cat at some point in the future, but for right now I'm happy with the Dob. (Might trade for a refractor...we'll see.)

  • OMG the Radian. That is one sweet eyepiece. I stuck to that, the 17mm and the 30mm Erfle pretty much the whole night.

  • Met all my goals, hurrah!

  • New Messiers: M49, M53, M61, M90, M95, M96 and M105. Total is now 78.

  • Having the printed charts from Cartes du Ciel really, really helps. The best part is being able to download photos from the ESO's Digital Sky Survey; this helps immensely when looking at a particular area -- 1 x 2 degrees, say, or 2 x 2.5. Even with the C-series of the TriAtlas pages for (say) the Virgo cluster, it is just immensely crowded, and really hard to pick out everything I can see in the eyepice. I love the Triatlas series -- I've got the B series and bring it with me when I observe. But I would seriously consider bringing along a cheap laptop (this Chromebook, say), and using it out in the field to fetch images for things I'm looking at. Hm. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

All in all, a fun, fun night. I'm immensely happy with how this all worked out.

Tags: astronomy housiversary

What I Saw

Last night, I didn't sleep well; this morning, I decided to change my usual routine and go for a walk around Queen's Park. Here's what I saw:

  • twilight
  • a racoon climb a try to get away from me
  • a jogger
  • a construction worker heading to the SkyTrain
  • the FOV of the Kepler Telescope
  • two planets: Mars and Saturn
  • the moon, half lit
  • Antares and Arcturus, two names I always get mixed up
  • Spica
  • M11
  • the plane of the galaxy
  • the plane of the ecliptic

Not bad for a 3km walk.

Tags:

Observing Report -- March 25, 2016

OMG, at last a clear night! It has been a ridiculously long time since I went out with the scope -- October 3, in fact, when I went to Seymour Mountain. I've set up on the front porch a few times, but it was really, really nice to be able to go out. Even if it's just to the local park, it's an enormous difference from the house, and wonderful because of that.

So yeah, out to the park with the wheels for the first time. They worked wonderfully, and I was able to zip around with very little difficulty. It would have been nice to have some kind of clip for the dust cover, and handles on the side of the scope would also be good -- but other than that, everything is very, very nice.

So how was the observing? In one sense, something of a failure; I came up with a big list of targets and barely hit any of them. But for having fun, it was great.

  • Jupiter and its moons were wonderful to see. Even when clouds well, high haze rolled in, it was still worth looking because of hte steadiness of the view. This is the first time I've ever seen the moons as disks, not points -- and I swear, at times Callisto looked grey and mottled. Wonderful.

  • 200X was not out of line when it was still; neither was 400X. But the 6mm I've got one of the Owl line is definitely on its way out; too much CA. Even if it's got a narrower FOV, a 6mm Plossl is in my future.

  • Dialed in M51, but between a suburban location and haze all I saw were two disconnected, extremely faint points of light.

  • M81 and M82, though, were great. Faint but obvious, and I was able to see them both in one FOV with the 18mm eyepiece. I might have seen a dust lane in M82 before the clouds rolled in?

All in all, a great time.

Tags: astronomy

I feel sick

The Trump is at it again:

During the past week, in a series of interviews and events, Trump has articulated a loose, but expansive set of principles that, if enacted, would mark a fundamental shift in the strategy the Obama administration has employed to fight violent extremism. In addition to arguing in favour of reinstating waterboarding, a technique that mimics the sensation of drowning, and "much more than that," Trump has advocated the killing of militants' wives and children, which appears in violation of international law.

"We have to play the game the way they’re playing the game," Trump said in an interview on CBS’s "Face the Nation" Sunday, one day after he told an audience in Florida that he would fight to expand and broaden the laws that regulate interrogation.

"I would like to strengthen the laws," he added Sunday, "so that we can better compete."

[snip]

Former CIA Director Michael Hayden and others also have weighed in, saying military officials would refuse to carry out any Trump order that violated the law.

During the last GOP debate, Trump insisted that U.S. military officials would obey any orders he gave them, saying, "They're not going to refuse me. Believe me."

So help me, I'm left wondering which would be worse: a Trump presidency, or a military coup against a Trump presidency.

Tags: politics

Watch All The Movies, Part 8:Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet

"Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet" is a Roger Corman-produced remix of a Soviet Union film; given the times, I'm really quite curious how this happened. Basil Rathbone and Faith Domergue make an appearance, but other than them it's five Soviet actors and a robot that (as my wife pointed out) sounds like David Byrne does in "Burning Down The House".

I'm just going to come out and say that this is a much, much better review than anything I can write.

Tags: watchallthemovies

Awkward times

Tonight was Eli's last soccer practice of the season, and the coach declared that it was going to be Kids vs. Parents. Clara has writing class this week, so I went along; I took Arlo with me, who had homework to do. We sat on the front steps of the school by the soccer field, staring at math problems and waiting for the game to start, then joined in when it became apparent that all the other parents were eager to go.

The kids had fun, but I was out of my element. Not just because it was sports but because many of the parents were really good at soccer and really cared. (That's not a dig; I care about Emacs and rocket ships, so what the hell do I know?) I found myself looking around, staring at the sky (cloudy but maybe there would be some stars? nope) and checking out in a way I've recognized in myself since I was 18, and see a little bit of in Arlo.

Eventually it was over; I let in the winning goal, and the kids won. The parents talked about strategies for next time, and promised to see each other at the pizza party on Sunday. I'll be there; and doubtless I'll be looking around, seeing what there is to look at.

Tags: geekdad

I'm in Emacs! (Kinda...)

About a year ago I read Lars Ingrebritsen's blog post welcoming new Emacs developers, which gave step-by-step instructions on submitting Emacs patches, and decided to give it a go. I tackled bug #96, seven years old at that point, which asked for the grep commands to prompt to save buffers before running. A bit of digging around showed that there was a function ready for copy-pasta, so I submitted it. I got asked for a couple of improvements, which I'm ashamed to say I never submitted, and after a while it dropped off my radar.

Well, what do I find in my mailbox today but a note from Lars his own bad self saying that the patch had been committed (Github mirror; easier to link to than the official repo), along with the improvements requested. So, in a minor and somewhat undeserved way, I've added a small brick to that edifice of human knowledge, Emacs. (It would be possible for me to be more grandiose, but not easy.)

Tags: emacs

Watch All The Movies, Part 7:Three The Hard Way

"Three The Hard Way" is a 1974 film that came in a four-pack of "Urban Action" films. I've watched the other three already, and of all the cheap films I've bought these are the ones I've enjoyed the most.

Three The Hard Way

For an entertaining film, the plot is pretty dark: a group of white supremicists have come up with a plague that kills black people. Before they can unleash it, though, three supremely bad-ass brothers are on the case: a record producer producer, a Chicago businessman, and a kung-fu master. (They're also backed up, at least for one scene by three equally bad-ass sisters who for some reason enjoy torturing bad guys while topless.) There are explosions, really odd slo-mo kung fu puctuated by drawn-out groans, gun fights, crooked cops, and bad guys who sneaking into a hospital room to kill a witness using a cherry picker. (Er, the sneaking is done with the cherry picker, not the killing.)

This movie is way, way above the others I've watched so far. It may be cheesy and full of it's time, but it's well made and entertaining. It had a budget and it shows.

Random things:

  • There's a long, drawn-out Wikipedia article on the film, its stars, its director, and its role in black cinema.
  • The number of machine-gun wielding bad guys taken out by wonderfully accurate pistol shots is, um, suspicious.
  • All the 70s action film cliches are here: kung fu, vehicles that catch on fire and explode for no discernable reason, dynamite, stunt men wearing what look like parkas as they catch fire and roll around on the ground, cars rolling off cliffs, shrieks and cries of people falling off roofs...about the only thing not here is quicksand.
  • The racists celebrate the (supposed) success of their plan by throwing a party, which features Budweiser, waltzes and buffets (ambrosia salad has a starring role). Speaking as a white person, I can attest to the accuracy of this depiction.
  • I started this movie last week, then put it aside in favour of more sleep; thus, it's a coincidence that I'm finishing this on the night of the 2016 Oscars. Not sure what to make of that, but there you go.

Tags: watchallthemovies

Watch All The Movies, Part 6:This Is Channel Zero

I picked this up years ago at, I think, HMV in Vancouver back when there were still record stores (ask your parents); apparently the release date was 1997. It was a "video magazine", and I've got it on the original VHS, baby. It starts with a (sigh) couple of bicycle couriers robbing a office that apparently is run by A LARGE AND EVIL MULTI-NATIONAL CORPORATION:

CORPORATIONS

The half-time show, "99 Year Phone Call", is a, um, performance piece? --wait, sorry, "post-modern culture jam" about the Y2K bug as a metaphor for, uh, fear and video editing and stuff; it's like watching a community theatre production of a William Gibson novel.

But these are the easy targets. There are a lot of interviews with people discussing corporate ownership of media, economic fairness and the FCC (among lots of other things). It wanders, but I suppose reflects the magazine format. Overall, a lot of this reminds me of the essays I wrote for English class in high school: they wander, they dance around, and they bring up lots of questions, but come to few conclusions. They don't like TV, but maybe it can be used as a way to, you know, liberate the people. (That is, as long as they believe the right things....one of the talking heads points out that giving people video cameras to make their own media is all well and good, but they're likely to only remake what they've already seen.) There are lots of Chomsky and MacLuhan quotes, painful-to-watch skits (op cit.), and gratuitous scrolling text, jump cuts and repetition of the words "control", "corporations" and "governments."

I would have been all over this once upon a time. (Obviously not enough to actually watch this, since I never made it past the first twenty minutes until now...) I'm still broadly sympathetic to the concerns outlined here. But I have such little patience anymore for the cliches they wallow in, and the lack of citations for anything they assert. (Yes, I know it's video. I don't care: sources or GTFO.)

Amusingly, the name Channel Zero is now being used by a Canadian media company that owns Bloomberg TV Canada and several adult film channels. Also, at least a few of the people involved in this are listed in LinkedIn.

Like so much of what I suspect I'll end up watching this year, it's available on archive.org

Tags: watchallthemovies

Watch All The Movies, Part 5:Bloodlust

This week's movie is 1961's "Bloodlust", written/directed/produced by Ralph Brooke. It's yet another adaptation of "The Most Dangerous Game" by Richard Connell, which is the great-grandaddy of all those hunting humans tropes.

Four young people, while out on a boat, go to an island they shouldn't; one falls into a pit, and they're rescued by Dr. Balleau, the be-goateed, be-smoking-jacketed owner of the island, and his be-striped-shirted henchmen (who resemble rather tough French mimes). Back at his mansion he explains that he's developed a taste for trophy hunting, and brings exotic animals to the island with his pots of cash.

But are animals enough? No, they are not. Case in point: his wife and a drunken friend make an appearance during this explanation, and of course it turns out that they're having an affair. Knowing that their host knows that they know he knows they know, they decide to help the kids escape. Hijinks (by which I mean MAN HUNTING) ensue, but not before Dr. Balleau displays -- rather ostentatiously, I might add -- his human trophies, set up in an underground cave, to his horrified visitors. They get a chance to leave the island...if they can avoid being MAN HUNTED by Dr. Balleau. I won't spoil the ending, but that's because I did not finish it. Sue me.

Robert Reed, better known as the father from the original "Brady Bunch" series, plays one of the kids trapped the island. Wilton Graff played the be-smoking-jacketed hunter of humans; he did a crapton of TV roles as a character actor. Ralph Brooke did more than a dozen bit parts in movies, mostly uncredited, in 1945-1946; after that, he broke into B movies as a writer, producer, production manager, and finally director...then died at the age of 43, just two years after "Bloodlust" was released.

The DVD is from the good folks at Digiview Productions, which has a Tripod fan page (remember Tripod?) and a slightly more informative page on Wikia. Like a lot of other budget DVD producers, they released a lot of movies that were in the public domain...but they screwed up, and released a copy of the 1954 animated version of "Animal Farm", which was not in the public domain. They got sued, lost and promptly filed for bankruptcy.

Like I said, I didn't finish this -- but that's not reason for you not to give it a try! The Internet Archive has generously made this available to you; they do lots of good things, so please consider making a donation to support them.)

Tags: watchallthemovies

Watch All The Movies, Part 4: Ants

This week's feature is "Ants", a 70s movie-of-the-week:

ANTS!

It had that feel when it started up...the music (that SEVENTIES OMINOUS SYNTH haunts me from my childhood. I'm not kidding about that. There was a movie I saw when I was a kid about mind-controlled people that I thought starred Michael York but now I can't track down; anyway, it was freaky as hell and had THAT SEVENTIES SYNTH. ...Wait, where was I? Right...the music), sure, but also Suzanne Somers, who I don't think I've ever seen outside of televsion. It's also got Brian Dennehy, Myrna Loy (!) and Brian Casey, a character actor I recognize from about a thousand different angry-figure-of-authority roles.

The movie leads off with a hard-working construction worker, working on an expansion to a century-old resort hotel, getting attacked by ants that are drunk on industrial-strength pesticides. ("Modern poisons are so complicated," sighs a lab worker.)Then there's the hitchiker sleeping rough on a nearby beach, who convinces the blond, muscled lifeguard to let her grab a quick shower. Then there's the hotel owner who doesn't want to sell the hotel, being pursued by the greedy developer who wants to knock the place down to build a casino. Then there's the uppity hotel manager who likes rough trade with the bearded construction foreman, who in turn is trying to figure out why his employee died. Then the super-ants come back, attacking a tow-headed kid who's collecting bottles for the money, because he needs to take care of his divorced mom; they jump him in a dumpster (no, really). I think the only plot element missed was a hooker with a heart of gold.

The ants go FULL-ON METAL ATTACK at this point ("The ants are climbing fast! Call the police, the fire department, anybody! We need as much help as we can get!"). Suzanne Somers gets eaten by ants, or something. Everyone holes up on the top floor of the hotel, while the lab tech advises them to dig a trench, fill it with gasoline and ignite it ("Containment by fire! Tell them I'm on my way!"). Brian Dennehy finally shows up as the local fire chief who bears the terrible responsibility of LARPing Leiningen Versus the Ants while horrified townspeople watch.

The finale: we're down to the last three survivors (two good buys and one bad guy, so you know who's gonna flip out). They're holed up in the attic of the hotel, staying perfectly still and trying not to provoke the ants. ("They're basically non-aggressive!" says the lab tech over a radio. That's right, it's just like every airplane disaster movie ever, and they're being talked down to the ground.) In order to keep still, no matter how much the ants climb over them, they breathe through rolled up cones of wallpaper held to their mouths. It looks for all the world like they're smoking the world's biggest, most amateurishly-made joints, particularly when the room is flooded with insecticide by hazmat-suit wearing rescuers.

The executive producer was Alan Landsburg, who not only had > 50 movies-of-the-week to his name, but produced a biography of the Kennedys that got a standing ovation at the '64 Democratic National Convention. Interesting career path....

The DVD was made by Direct Source Special Products, which a) sounds like either a mail-order sex toy business or a CIA front, and b) apparently went bankrupt in 2009. Court paperwork offers this snapshot:

The Company's business consists primarily in selling and distributing music CDs, DVDs and videos and focuses on a market niche within the music industry selling as well as repackaging low or modest priced motion pictures and non major labels music discs. In the past year, the Company has experienced a sharp and long term decline of their sales and reported significant losses. Management attributes this declient in sales volume to various factors, in particular to both legal and illegal downloads of music and movies....

Fifteen employees were laid off, and the company "pursued negotiation efforts to recover inventory located in the United States". Guess selling Kids Mix Sing The Hits of Elvis wasn't viable in the long run.

This film was also known as "It Happaned At Lakewood Manor" and was filmed in Qualicum Beach, BC. (I look forward to a future pilgrimage to Qualicum College, which stands in for the resort hotel.) Huzzah for the BC Film Credit!

Tags: watchallthemovies

Watch All The Movies, Part 3: Crash of the Moons

"Crash of the Moons" was released in 1954 as three parts of a long-running serial; it has since fallen into the public domain. I picked it up years ago on VHS, but now it's available from the Internet Archive. Since I like cheating, I watched it that way.

Crash!

It's not bad for a 1954 SciFi serial, but it definitely ticks all the boxes: handsome lead, vaguely Einstein-ish scientist, pretty actresses in short skirts as haughty Space Queens, aliens with names like Cleolanthe (the haughty Space Queen in question) that look exactly like humans, a tow-headed child actor, and incomprehensible SciFi gibberish (the phrase "atmosphere chain" gets repeated about 23 times during the film.)

Fun facts:

  • The film was skewered by the good folks at MST3K.
  • The director, Hollingsworth Morse, went on to direct episodes of the Dukes of Hazzard and Daughters of Satan.
  • Sally Mansfield, who played spaceship navigator Vena Ray, was obliged by her contract for the series to not marry; lead actor Richard Crane was obliged not to divorce his wife. (At least, so says Wikipedia, which we know is never wrong.)
  • Scotty Beckett, who played sidekick Winky, went through the canonical child actor parabola.
  • The VHS copy I have was made by the good folks at Madacy Entertainment; we also have an album of cover songs by The Countdown Singers, their in-house cover band.

Tags: watchallthemovies

Watch All The Movies,Part 2: Ninja Death II

"Ninja Death II" and "Ninja Death III", packaged by EastWestDVD.com, were picked up long ago at a dollar store for $1.99, and remained unwatched until today. There are lots of reviews of these films, but this one is mine.

"Ninja Death II" starts off with wonderful cheesy 70s music playing while ninjas bounce on a trampoline in front of a spotlight. Then there's a ninja in -- no word of a lie -- a gold lame suit:

Oh, it's gold all right.

He's apparently named Tiger Y. Then there's another ninja wearing a metal mask:

I think he's a Power Ranger.

...fighting another ninja whose main skill appears to be sweating:

Gonna make you sweat

Then there's a flute player, who I can't find a picture of but who rounds out the 70s theme nicely. A guy practices Kung Fu by a waterfall, then he swims with a woman and writhes in pain while the woman laughs merrily. There's a brothel, because brothels maybe? There's a mother who dies to save her son but then isn't dead after all. There's a chicken-eating scene that is positively obscene. And it goes on from there.

If that sounds half-assed and disjoined, it's because it is. At a rough guess, this appears to be at least two and possibly as many as twelve separate movies edited together incoherently. IMDB claims this was directed by Jospeh Kuo, who seems to have made a ton of movies and been a pretty major figure in Taiwanese cinema. (Among other things, he directed Mystery of Chessboxing, from whom the Wu-Tang Clan got the name for the song of the same name.)

Top quote: "Just keep your concentration on your mind."

I don't have Part I around, but fortunately you can watch all three online c/o the good folks at Archive.org. Having gone through Part II, though, I honestly don't know how much difference this would have made to the story. I will be honest: I did not finish Part II, and will not be watching Part III; this is heading straight to the Sally Ann.

Tags: watchallthemovies

Observing Report -- January 9, 2016

Another night out on the front porch, but unlike last time the clouds did not roll in. Hurrah for that!

First up was M78. I think I tracked this down, but it's hard to be sure; the nebulosity, if any, was very faint. Not a good one to track down from Suburbia, I guess.

Next up was M42. This was my first good look at it through the 10" Dob, and OH. MY. GOD. I saw a ton more detail than I've seen before. Dark lanes & dark spots, a big swooping curve to the south, and actual nebulosity with AV for M43 rather than just "Yeah, I think it's there". The 6mm eyepiece really brought out the dark lanes. Just amazing.

I looked up HD 34445. Why? Because it's got an exoplanet, that's why; 0.8 Jupiter masses, a 1049-day period and about a 2AU orbital radius. The star is 152 +/- 5 light years away, meaning the light started off around 1855. Neat...but the fun was in knowing what it was. Nearby, there was an asterism that was almost shaped like an E, but seemed to have one member running away...this amused me.

Searched for OC NGC 2194, an entry on the NGC Finest list, but that was a bust -- simply could not find any sign of it. Looked in the atlas and saw that OC NGC 2169 was nearby, so checked it out -- and it was absolutely charming. It's known as the 37 Cluster (though I hadn't known this or heard of this OC before), but I immediately thought of the Greek letters Delta and Sigma. It's only 8 million years old, and seems bright for being 3700 light years away.n Very nice.

Picked another random OC, NGC 2129 in Gemini. About 18 suns were visible in the 6mm. It kind of reminded me of the Lunar Module -- something about the sort-of-triangular shape. The sketch on this page matched what I saw pretty closely. It's young (10 million years) and relatively far (7000 light years). NGC 1664 in Auriga however, reminded me of a dandelion on its side. Faint, but still easily picked out. It's about 3900 light years away; not sure about the much brighter star right by it, but I'm guessing that one's much closer.

Took a brief look at the Double CLuster (again, wonderful through the 10") and then called it a night. Not terribly long -- 2 hours all told -- but completely enjoyable. And ZOMG is the Intelliscope ever wonderful; there's no way I could have looked at as much as I did without it.

Tags: astronomy

Double-u Double-u Two

It is a strange thing to be watching "The Longest Day" on Netflix. When it was made, D-Day was only 18 years in the past. From right now, that's 1998; according to Wikipedia, that includes a shocking number of wars I didn't know about, but also the Kosovo War and the Civil War in Afghanistan. It's not that long ago.

When I was a kid I played with toy soldiers, and enacted imagined battle scenes not too different from what I see play out in this movie. It's not so much that it was wrong to play like that; it's more that I was so grossly ignorant of what that really meant. Trouble is, there's no way to convey that to a nine year-old. There's little that could have been different then, and little that could be different now.

Tags:

Watch all the movies, Part 1: Black Rage

I have a habit of buying movies, the cheesier the better. But I also have this habit of never, ever watching them. I've decided to fix that this year. My plan is to watch them once a week, and write 'em up here...and then give them away to clear space on the shelf.

First up is "Black Rage", which according to IMDB is also known as "Charcoal Black." I picked this up years ago in a Value Village, or maybe Army & Navy. It's a VHS tape (ask your parents, kids) from the good folks at Front Row Entertainment.

Black Rage!

Side note: I'm pretty certain Front Row Entertainment shot their own photo for the cover; the folks on the cover does not in any way resemble any of the actors in this film.

Other side note: This film was also released as "Charcoal Black" and, in Australia, "Catch the Black Sunshine":

Catch the Black Sunshine

The plot is simple enough: Two slave brothers, one black (played by Chauncey "Lord" Westbrook, a jazz guitarist) and one black albino named Sunshine (geddit?) (played by a Rutger Hauer lookalike, which is basically the whitest sort of person you could possibly find), find a treasure map. The overseer (played by Lurch!) tries to steal it from them. They run away, so Lurch hires a drunken, rage-filled bartender to help catch them. Hijinks ensue.

Memorable bits? Not many. The theme song, "Catch the Black Sunshine" sounds like Nina Simone in an echo chamber if you squint (ear squint?) but is apparently Mel Carter. During the chase scenes, disco kicks in -- but with a harmonica and somehow a polka feel. There's an extended scene in a backwoods moonshine joint with more insane cackling than I've ever heard outside a Russ Meyer film. (My wife's comment on this film: "It's like a low-budget Russ Meyer, but with pretensions.") At one point the runaway slaves, hungry and exhausted, spend ten minutes stealing a chicken and a bicycle, then lose both in the swamp; the music, obviously sourced from Movie-Music-4-Cheap, switches to something out of Benny Hill.

This tape (I said ASK YOUR PARENTS) has waited, stuffed in a milk crate in the corner of our bedroom, for a long, long time to be viewed in its entirety. It will now be set free. Fly free, Black Rage. Fly free.

External links:

Tags: watchallthemovies

Observing report - January 1, 2016

It has been a rare bout of mid-winter clear weather here. I couldn't head out somewhere dark like Boundary Bay 'cos I'm on call at the moment, but I could set up on the front porch. Sure, it's filled with lights and isn't terribly private, but it does have the advantage of being as close to home as you can be while still asserting that you're outside. Plus, the Intelliscope makes it, like, really really easy to find things.

First up was NGC 1514, a planetary nebula in Taurus that's either 600 ly or 4300 ly or some other distance away. This took a bit of tracking down, since it was not immediately obvious -- but once I started panning aroudn with a 15mm Plossl and an O3 filter, it didn't take long to find. (Incidentally, I'm coming to love that Plossl. Plossls 4eva!) Confirmed that I got it by looking at some other folks' sketches. The Wikipedia entry says that William Herschel discovered this (as he & Caroline discovered so very much), and it changed his mind about the nature of the universe; it made him doubt his own theory that all nebulosity was just distant, unresolved stars. Neat!

Next up was NGC 1931, an emission/reflection nebula in Auriga. This took even more tracking down, not least because M38 was right close by and who doesn't want to look at M38? But at last I found it (confirmed with this image from Deepskypedia.com), and it was neat. Barlowed 15mm showed 2 stars; Barlowed 6mm showed three. No sign of the extensive nebulosity other folks seem to see.

These two were on the Finest NGC list from the RASC, which means I'm starting another list now. (4, maybe 5, out of 110 since you're asking.) I also got in looks at M36/37/38/35 (no sign of that nearby NGC cluster) and M42 briefly briefly briefly just as the verdammt fog was rolling in. Boo for that! But yay for just five steps to bring everything in and sit down.

Tags: astronomy