Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Signs and portents

I haven't been paying attention to the astronomy websites recently so it took Alex's mentioning it for me to realize that Jupiter is not only very bright in the sky right now but it's actually brighter than it has been since 1968. Checking a couple of astronomy websites just now I found that Jupiter will reach opposition tonight (September 21st) at midnight. "Opposition" is when an outer planet is closest to Earth. Jupiter comes into opposition with Earth about every 13 months (as Earth catches up with Jupiter since it goes around the Sun much quicker). This is an especially close opposition because Jupiter is just now getting toward the closest it ever comes to the Sun in it's oval orbit.

So, if you want to see Jupiter shining brighter than you will see it for a very long time, go out after 9:00 PM or so and look in the Southeastern sky anytime over the next few weeks. Because Jupiter is so far away it's brightness won't change very fast as it moves away from it's closest approach.

Keep this in perspective. Jupiter will seem to be a very bright star (brighter than anything else that's ever in the sky except the Sun, the Moon and Venus); but it will not be anywhere near as bright as the Moon. As an added treat, tomorrow (September 22nd) the full moon will be very close to Jupiter in the sky, and, as an added treat Uranus (I just learned at space.com) will be even closer to Jupiter than the Moon will be (just above it in the sky). If you have a good pair of binoculars this is one of the (very few) easy times to find Uranus since it's so close to Jupiter in the sky.

Enough of astronomy stuff. I have a lot of other stuff to write about our trip up to the Peoples Republic of Massachusetts this past weekend; but I'm typing this on our old home computer because my laptop is acting up and I'm not very patient when writing at this computer, so I'll just present the highlights:

We spent a good bit of time with Alex and Christina, of course. And we met an Indian fellow who is now an Australian. The Indian fellow wore a bad wig; but he was interesting because he's at Harvard right now finishing up his second Ph. D. in International Relations, specializing in the Law of War. I found it surprising that he seemed to be so lacking in technical knowledge about nuclear weapons technology even though nuclear proliferation is a big deal in International Relations, perhaps the biggest deal of all in the long run.

At church on Sunday with Alex and Christina we met a soon to be Harvard Professor of BioPhysics and his wife. If we hadn't talked to them I would have guessed them both to be high school students of perhaps college freshmen. Increasingly everybody under about forty looks like a child to me. They were really nice folks.

We stayed at a nice bed and breakfast place in Cambridge called the Bed and Muffin. Go figure, the place laid out a workable continental style breakfast; but surprisingly there were no muffins. It should perhaps more accurately be named the Bed and No Muffin.

If Seinfeld was still doing his show he could make a nice half hour comedy about that, and the Australian Indian fellow with the bad wig, and the stereotypical New England Liberal woman who was at the no muffin breakfast when we met him. To help us understand where in the world he was from he mentioned that we might have heard of Crocodile Dundee. She in her turn (or perhaps it was her husband) mentioned Rupert Murdoch after breathlessly relating that she thinks Sarah Palin may be becoming less popular with all but the Fox News set. I thought about mentioning that Linda and I watch Bill O'Reilly fairly regularly; but I didn't want to court the risk of having the woman drop dead of apoplexy.

After taking leave of Alex and Christina on Sunday afternoon we drove to western Massachusetts where we had a very nice walk around Stockbridge which is a very picturesque town that happens to have the tallest wood framed church steeple in New England, or so it claims. It was a pretty tall steeple, if a bit warped, on top of a very large United Church of Christ built in the 1880's. The church, all made of wood, badly needs scraping and painting. I'll bet that's going to be a very expensive job.

After staying at a Super 8 motel in Stockbridge, which did have muffins as part of it's continental breakfast, we headed off to tour Naum Keag, a large summer cottage built by a lawyer named Choate who led the successful fight against the first attempt to implement an Income Tax in the 1911 or so. According to the tour guide this Choate correctly predicted that the original Income Tax would be ruled unconstitutional and that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to implement an income tax. That amendment, the 19th was eventually passed and ratified in 1919 (I think). A valuable man. If it hadn't been for Choate and his holding back of the "progressive" tide, the country might well be ten more years advanced toward a state of utter perdition.

Choate built a modest little 49 room summer cottage with his law earnings. After he died his daughter spent the next forty or so years spending her inheritance on very nice gardens around it. An interesting place, sort of a time capsule of upper upper middle class life in the Gilded Age when the glitterati summered in the Berkshires to get away from the heat of the cities.

According to the tour guide, Choate's oldest son died of apoplexy when he was in his late teens. He was home from college for the summer and mentioned one evening at dinner that he had a headache. Fifteen minutes later he was dead. Choate's second son attended a couple of years of college and then went off his rocker and ended up institutionalized for the rest of his life. His oldest daughter died of some sort of intestinal problem in her late 20's.

Linda wonders if the maiden daughter, the tour guide called her Miss Mabel, poisoned her three older siblings to get the house. If so Miss Mabel missed on the youngest son, who lived to go on and have a law career himself, according to the tour guide. Maybe Miss Mabel could never get him to try her muffins.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Heading into the tunnel

I'm trying to understand why the upstairs thermometer is reading 70.3 and the downstairs thermostat is reading 71. That seems a curious situation. Perhaps the heat given off by the refrigerator is slightly raising the downstairs temperature. Or it may be that the upstairs radiated away more heat overnight while it was serving to insulate the downstairs.

I'm thinking on this subject because we're clearly approaching the turnover point where we have to turn on the heat and/or begin running the woodstove. We usually resist that until the night-time fall in temperature gets the house down into the low 60's. At this time of year a battle is going on. The sun is now travelling low enough in the sky to shine half way into the dining living rooms under the overhangs, which raises the daytime temperature into the high 70's on a calm day. Later, as the sun travels still lower, it will be capable of raising the temperatures into the 80's during the day; but the steady drop of outside night-time temperatures results in more and more heat radiated away.

Yesterday I had a semi-competent seeming chimney sweep here to check and clean out the flue. I also had him install a new stainless steel chimney cap to replace the one that blew off twice during it's twenty or so years of service. The screw clamps that are designed to secure the new cap onto the top of the chimney don't look very robust to me; but he assured me that he'll replace the cap if it blows off and he wrote that as a guarantee on his very reasonable bill.

Meanwhile, the squirrels are plentiful and very busy, carrying black walnuts thither and yon to bury them. Yesterday one of those squirrels left a chewed acorn on the patio bench, which was somewhat of a surprise. The nearby trees include black oaks, pin oaks and one solitary post oak none of which produced many acorns this year. That acorn may have been one of the last of his hoarded stock from last year's banner crop, or he may have gotten it from the woods across the creek where there is an overcup oak. That latter shouldn't be the case since I understand that all oak species talk to one another with chemical signals and come to an agreement on whether to produce acorns in any given year. I need to go across the creek and see if any of the oaks over there have produced acorns.

Those squirrels had better be careful out there. This year I've seen more middle sized hawks near the house than ever before. A few weeks ago two juvenile Cooper's Hawks (I think), were working together clumsily to try to catch a squirrel that had hidden under the back door landing. They failed in that case, and at one point the squirrel even turned the tables and ran out to startle one of them and drive it off; but I bet those two have learned a thing or two about squirrel hunting in the past few weeks. And, if there are juvenile Cooper's Hawks about, their parents must also be around.

In other news, I cleaned out the frog's bowl last week and found him surprisingly frisky and agile for a 24 or 25 year old. It was downright difficult to collect him from the sink and get him back into the bowl after I scrubbed off his rocks and changed the water. I was tempted to give him the run of the house for a couple of hours to see if he can still broad jump as far as he used to; but I resisted the temptation. There are too many ways he can cause trouble by hiding under furniture and such.

How does he stay in shape living in that little bowl? Is he doing isometric exercises while he appears to be placidly hanging out under his rocks? He occasionally gets into a mood and moves the rocks around quite vigorously but not often enough to qualify as an exercise program.

Moving on to consider news of the wider world, I read that the stork has delivered 43 new baby Komodo Dragons to the Los Angeles Zoo. Cute little 6 inch long tykes they are; but the one being held by the zoo curator has much longer claws than my frog, and, of course, he has teeth which the frog thankfully lacks.

The zoo news set me to wondering how many reptile afficionados across the country have managed to import baby Komodo Dragons as pets. And how many of them are going to turn those cute little babies loose in a few years after they've grown into not so cute five or six foot long drooling beasties.

A couple of months ago Linda and I watched a Discovery Channel show that claimed there are now estimated to be a hundred thousand or more Burmese Pythons in Florida some of them growing quite large. I imagine a big enough python will eat a Komodo Dragon if given the chance; and I'm sure that works the other way around as well. Both of them, I'm sure, will quite happily eat a jogger; but I doubt that a python could catch one of those, unless it got very lucky.

Ah, the great circle of life.