Easy for Me to Judge

This is interesting. Here I am hanging out in a coffee shop for the wi fi access during my lunch break, and here’s a lovely young woman hitting on a dude with a Mac. He was sitting there with his ear buds in, watching a video or two. She approached after sitting across the room for a few minutes, and now they’re still talking politics even after he botched her name.
Geez dude, ask her to sit down already.
I can make these kinds of observations because I’m 51 years old, happily married for 22 years, and thankful that I don’t have to do the flirty-dance anymore.
Holy crap dude! She’s leaving! She just wanted to sit down. Man, do I want to knock some sense into him.

Middle School Grant

We got the grant! (Sort of)

Just before the end of the school year last spring, I was able to help social studies teacher David Groce (one of my wife’s co-workers) write a PTSA grant application. We were hoping to buy a telescope for the school and the astronomy club that David helped put together. As it turns out, the PTSA isn’t allowed to offer grants to school clubs that would only be active after school hours. However, an anonymous donor decided the telescope was a good idea.

We still don’t know who offered us the money, but the Northwest Guilford Middle School Astronomy Club is now that proud owner of a computerized 6″ Dobsonian telescope.

David and I built it after it was shipped during the last weeks of school. It’s been sitting in the library ever since, but all that changes this week. The weather is expected to cooperate, and now that daylight saving time is over for the year, it will be nice and dark early in the evening. It looks like this Friday night the mighty Dob will see “first light” (astronomer lingo for using a scope for the first time).




The annual Mid-Atlantic Star Party is about my only opportunity to try any long exposure astrophotography.  I’ll dabble in some 30 – 90 second exposures at my home observation spot in the front yard, but not the three to five minute guided shots I’d like to do.

MASP is held for one week every fall near Robbins, NC.  There are sometimes as many as several hundred amateur astronomers there every year.  I’ve been able to attend every year but one since we moved here in 2003. The last couple of years have seen sparce attendance, but I blame the economy for keeping people away.  Or the weather.  2011’s gathering was clouded out all week long.

When the weather and economy cooperate, MASP is a great time.  Robbins is less than an hour away from home, reasonably dark, and close enough to a great mom-and-pop fried chicken place to make it a must every year if possible.

The people there have been great over the years. The range of expertise is remarkable. I’ve met the most casual observers camped right next to hard-core guys doing spectroscopy of all things.  One of my most memorable encounters was with a Marine who had driven up from Camp Lejune with his astro gear.  His passion was photographing transits. He showed us some jaw-dropping images he had taken of the International Space Station passing in front of the sun and the moon (not on the same pass, of course!).  At the time, he said he had never really tried any long exposure photography with his DSLR and was setting up for his first run.  His first exposures of M101 were awesome right out of the gate (even before processing in the computer). I’ve been shooting with a DSLR on my telescopes for years now, and with film cameras before that.  My stuff still pales in comparison to those pics.

You know, it’s kind of like golf.  You hit one really good shot in a dozen, it’s enough to keep you going.  Astrophotography can be as challenging as you want it to be. I’m not looking to get anything published in Sky & Telescope magazine or anything, but I do want to take a few more shots I can be proud of. I just need to improve my ratio.  I’d like to improve to four or five good shots out of a dozen.

I’m going to post a few of my MASP shots from 2008 since that was the last year I had good luck with conditions, equipment and avoiding silly personal mistakes like leaving a crucial USB cord at home.

Here’s to hoping for clear, steady skies in 2012.

M31 3min x 5 exp f/6

M42 3min x 3 exp at f/6

Sculptor Galaxy 3min x 5 exp at f/6

M33 3min x 5 exp at f/6

Astronomy Weather and Snake Bite

The weather this winter has been really mild temperature-wise, but the skies most open Friday nights have either been cloudy or rainy. My grandfather would say we’ve been “snake bit”. We have yet to get our middle schoolers out under the stars with the new school telescope this year.

Worse, the computer hand-control we received with the scope isn’t working. After setting everything up a few months ago for a trial run, I ended up with a blank screen on the controller. Orion’s customer service was great about it. All we need to do is send it back with the order receipt and they’ll ship us a new one. Actually, Orion did one better. They’ve offered to send us a new controller even before the faulty one gets to them. Very nice.
Meantime, if we could just get the skies and David’s school schedule to line up, we can still get Celeste out under the stars. I think the kids would get a kick out of what’s up there right now. Jupiter is still in a good spot for the next few months, and Mars is coming around for some good viewing this spring. Fingers crossed.

My Greatest Goal in Life

I love teaching in college classrooms. I’ve been fortunate enough to teach communication, news writing and broadcast journalism for a handful of universities over the years in Oklahoma and here in North Carolina.

During the first few days of class, I have always given my students early access to a bonus question they will see on their final exam. (Not that big a deal, I suppose, but it’s worth enough points to save them if they manage to blow an entire essay response on the test.) That question is: “What is the greatest goal in my life?” Not their lives. My life. I spell it out bit by bit early in the course, and eventually just blurt it out after a few days.

This isn’t an ego trip so much as it’s an incentive to show up to class. During the course of our classes, I will offer clues to the answer. Needless to say, I’ve not yet attained this goal, nor do I pursue it with much vigor. I’ve always assumed it as an acquired state of being, this goal. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. The fact that I’m not there yet and obvious reason why make up its pure entertainment value.

No, I’m not telling. A, I don’t have a teaching gig lined up right now, and B, that would be cheating. Go to class.

Personal Branding / Get Over Yourself!

I’m on the verge of throwing myself into the briar patch here, but here goes.

I’m a huge advocate of personal branding, but I’m not doing such a good job of it for myself. It strikes me like that phenomenon where you buy what you think is a unique car in a unique color and suddenly you see the same car everywhere. I see references to “how-to’s” for personal branding all over the place now that I’ve decided to pursue it for myself and act as an advocate for others who are trying to do the same. I also see branding opportunities all over the place for my friends as well as those I hope to call clients or flat-out employers. But I confess that I’ve been asleep at the wheel when it comes to my own needs.

That should be changing though as of this new year. Since I’m making a public declaration here to do better, I figure I’m committed. It’s not like I don’t know what to do, and as ironic as it may seem, I’ve been reluctant to offer my thoughts up to public examination. I mean, I may have been a TV news guy for almost 30 years, but who cares what I think? I think the hold up has been the level of my own sense of self-importance, or lack thereof. Then again, maybe it’s a hold over from a lifetime of journalism. We J-students were conditioned from the get-go to realize that we were not the story. We were observers, interpreters and storytellers, not instigators.

So, this has made me think a lot more about the reluctance of companies and individuals who are also slow to jump into the social media waters. Once you launch yourself into the fray of ideas, it’s sink or swim, right? Well, not really. There are ways to slowly glide into the shallow end of the pool.

The trick is involvement. I spent so much time consuming online information that I neglected offering thoughtful observation to the other side of the equation. Thanks to my buddies at Experience Farm, I’ve learned that a painless (yet effective) way to get your social media toes wet, adds only one step to what you’ve already been doing. If you have a favorite blog or two you like to visit, you only have to be brave enough to offer an opinion or a thank you, or a comment. Be part of the conversation. Brand yourself as a thoughtful, sharing, observant part of the conversation. The rest should follow naturally at your own pace.

For this personal branding thing to work, we all have to think in more than one dimension of communication. Being part of the interaction gives the exchange depth, and the richness it deserves. That’s not to say that whatever I have to offer is wondrous sage advice, but who knows, it just might spur someone else to out there (with more wisdom than most of us) to share.

The Three Dart Rule

First off, let me be up front. This isn’t my idea and I can’t really take credit for it. It comes from a forgotten (to me, anyway) stand up comedian I heard years ago. Despite my lousy memory, I still think it’s a stroke of genius, albeit a completely unworkable idea. It came to mind a day or so ago when the holiday shopping season got started in ernest.

Picture this: What if your state department of motor vehicles issued you a suction cup-dart gun and a dozen darts every year when you renew your tags? You’d keep the dart gun loaded and in your car at all times and use it when you see someone make an egregious traffic violation that could kill you or at least really make you mad. So, if some greaseball cuts you off and makes you swerve off the road, you zap him with a dart. Maybe a vapid, oblivious valley-girl drifts into your lane while she’s texting her BFF. It’s dart time.

The police, meantime, would be on the lookout for cars with a minimum of three darts stuck to them. If somebody’s earned three darts, the police would pull them over, and write them up for being a jerk.

You’d only get 12 darts per year, so you can’t go around darting people willy-nilly, but at least the maniacs out there would have to watch their P’s and Q’s regardless whether there’s a cop around or not.

I love this, but I did admit it’s completely unrealistic. Me, I’d be out of darts in about 15 minutes. I’d also have six or seven dozen darts stuck on my car from my son even if I was sitting still in a parking lot.

Stan Kenton and the Internet

I love instrumental music. Not that I don’t like vocals, I just spent most all of my music-making experience (high school and college) in instrumental groups so it feels closer to me. I’ve been living vicariously through my children lately while their high school marching band has laid waste to most of its competition. They have come through the band program I wish I was in all those years ago. The genre has come a long, long way. These days, a band on a high school football field doesn’t do a bunch of geometric designs to a few pop 40 radio tunes, they put on 10-minute symphonic Broadway-style shows. Check out a high school game sometime and you might see what I mean.

Anyway, I digress. While browsing YouTube just out of curiosity for a few world champion DCI performances (Drum Corp International; they call themselves the “Marching Music’s Major League”), I stumbled on a couple of my favorite big band titles that had been chosen by the DCI groups for their competitions. That, in turn led me to something I had never considered. Live recordings of some of my jazz idols from decades gone by. I of course figured that I’d find videos of contemporary bands playing not so contemporary music online, but not the originals. Duh! Why wouldn’t they be there?

There he was, my favorite big band leader, Stan Kenton and his orchestra (complete with the mellophone section!) playing for a live audience in London. In fact, some of that music was from the very performances that haave been in my collection for years. It was incredible. I burned two hours listening to music that I thought I knew inside and out. But now I had discovered a thousand fresh nuances. I could see who was playing what, how they moved, and how the music moved them. It was awesome.

Kenton and his bands were always special to me. He showed a clear dedication to music education in his later years. During the 70’s his bands would appear at high school and college jazz band competitions around the country offering performance clinics to student musicians during the day and then a concert for the competing schools the end the night. I learned so much from the Kenton trumpet section as we rehearsed our charts the afternoon before the competition. I don’t even remember how well we did in our division. I just remember listening to a professional musician telling us about how he felt the music, felt the drumstick hitting the cymbal from across the stage, and felt the lead sax player taking his next breath. My dad said he was probably stoned.

I also learned that I needed a lot more practice.

Thanks YouTube, and thanks Stan.

A Simple Breakfast

We have a beagle/Labrador mix with a great nose and growing red zone. Ella is about a year and a half old. She’s a sweetie. Very loving and loyal, but with an ornery streak. Not long after realizing that she’s tall enough to reach the top of the kitchen counter with her snout, she’s begun to expand her exploration area. Namely, food left in the six to eight inches nearest the edge of the counter. That’s the red zone.

We’ve gotten a lot better about keeping goodies out of reach, but there are those moments.

This morning, all I wanted for breakfast was a bagel and strawberry cream cheese. My youngest daughter had made herself just that before school. I dropped off everyone at school (my wife teaches), drove home, warmed up my coffee, and popped a fresh bagel in the toaster. I turned to the fridge. No cream cheese. That was irritating. I just bought that stuff a day or so ago, and I watched my daughter use it no more than half an hour ago.

I looked behind all the clutter on the counter, in the pantry, went back to the fridge and looked behind all the leftovers in those little disposable Tupperware-wannabe containers. Nothing.

Ella meantime, was especially bouncy. She wanted to play chase through the house. She grabbed a couple of toys and dropped them at my feet. This isn’t her usual style. She usually climbs on the sofa and curls up on a pillow until about noon. Why would she be so amped up now?

I walked around the kitchen table to pick up an old candy wrapper from the floor, and happened to glance out the patio door to the back porch. There is was. Just inches away from the doggy door was a partially chewed, but completely empty red and white plastic tub that read: “Strawberry Cream Cheese Spread 16 oz”. Clearly, the red zone has been expanded.

I ate some stupid cereal.


The BiOH Revolution

The BiOH Story

I wrote and voiced this for my friends and colleagues at Experience Farm.

Video and editing by Brandon Pierce, Experience Farm Chief Dirt Digger.

This piece was featured at the 2011, Fall High Point Furniture Market to highlight the use of a more environmentally friendly way to produce the foams used in modern furniture.