Archive for October 2008

Plans on ice

Posted by on October 31st 2008 in Great Escapes, Just for fun

Events have conspired to force the cancellation of this weekend's intended wildcamping trip. Mike Bell was going to accompany me on a leisurely round of the Coniston Fells (from Dow Crag round to a pub in Coniston via Holme Fell) but he's got a bad back and needs to rest up. I was going to do the route with or without him, but there are things I need to get done here this weekend, things that I should have got done during the week but never did. It's a shame, because the weather up there's going to be excellent, according to the forecasts. Never mind, the route (and hopefully the snow) will still be there next month.

I'll leave you with something for Halloween, courtesy of Colonel Blimp:


Observing Report 27th-28th October 2008 (Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!)

Posted by on October 28th 2008 in Observing Reports

The recent change in the weather's been bad for some, but good for others. Last night it provided an opportunity that I wasn't going to miss - the two previous evenings had started dark and clear, but were affected by fast-moving patches of cloud by the time I was free to observe. This time I figured that it would be better - the forecast sub-zero temperatures would only be achieved without the insulating layer of cloud, and so it proved to be - nice and clear except for an intermittent haloing of the brightest stars due to high-altitude conditions, probably ice-crystal formation.

I managed to give the scope only one hour or so to cool down before pressing it into service, but I wasn't going to be doing any high-mag work so it didn't matter that much. I took more time than usual getting a good polar-alignment, so by the time I'd got properly set up, it was quite late.

As usual, there's always something new to try, this time I was trying out the camera-control features of MaxIm DL, another nice bit of software that I want to get to grips with. This software will happily run a USB connection between the laptop and my Nikon D50, allowing me to set up a complete series of exposures (darks, lights etc) and then let the lappy do the rest, including downloading and saving direct from the camera instead of writing to the SD card. The only restriction that affected me was the 30-second maximum exposure time allowed by the kit that I have - the Nikon D50 needs IR shutter-control for exposures longer than that, USB will only work up to that limit. Never mind, what I've got will suffice until I acquire said USB-IR controller.

Anyway, back to the sky...

The prime target was M45, The Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, call it what you will. It's a distinctive pattern in Taurus, and one that I've observed visually many times. After locating it visually with the scope, I checked that the mount was tracking it OK then exchanged the eyepiece for the dSLR body. After taking a few shots to verify the focus was good, I set the software to take 100 x 30s dark frames then 100 x 30s light frames (all ISO 200 NEFs), set it running and retired to the kitchen to warm up with a strong cuppa (the temperature outside was down to +1C by then).

After donning my Alpkit down jacket, I went back outside with the binoculars to have a look around while waiting for the lappy and camera to finish their business. The Hyades (Melotte 25, or Collinder 50, or Caldwell 41) were an impressive sight in Taurus, and I spent more than a few minutes looking at the Orion Nebula (M42, NGC 1976). I spotted a few other "fuzzies" which I noted for future observing sessions.

By the time the M45 frames were finished, the temperature had dropped below freezing, and the outside of the scope tube was iced up. Fearing that this meant the end of the session, I checked the mirrors and the camera, and was pleasantly surprised to see that they were unaffected. Looking at the watch I realised that I didn't have enough time for another objective that would require a 200-frame batch, but I wasn't about to pack up in such good conditions, so I picked a secondary target that wouldn't need as many exposures.

M36 (NGC 1960), a neat open cluster in Auriga, seemed to fit the bill, so I programmed-in a 50 dark / 50 light sequence and let the software do the rest while I sat watching through the binos.

As usual, the packing away afterwards was a moist affair, with the iced-up kit forming puddles on the kitchen floor and the other seemingly-clear gear (such as the lappy) acquiring an alarming layer of condensation as soon as it was taken into the warm.

Anyway, here are the fruits of my labours, after giving the raw frames a right good seeing-to with DSS, Photoshop, Noel's Actions and a few cups of Assam-flavoured caffeine, and with the help of my two trusty manservants, Benson and Hedges:


M45 - The Pleiades

(Nikon D50 at prime-focus on C8-N, ISO 200, no filters, 100 x 30s light frames + 100 x 30s dark frame stacked with DSS, processed in PS CS3 with Noel's Actions)

M36 - an open cluster in Auriga

(Nikon D50 at prime-focus on C8-N, ISO 200, no filters, 50 x 30s light frames + 50 x 30s dark frame stacked with DSS, processed in PS CS3 with Noel's Actions)

I might re-stack them in MaxIm DL later, to see if they come out any better. If they do, I'll post the results.

Why "Scooby" in the title? You work it out.


Special Forces #2

Posted by on October 23rd 2008 in A bit of a rant
Tags: ,

Every year we have a bonfire party which is well-attended by family and friends. We provide lashings of food and drink (no alcohol), there's shelter with seating and background music, all we ask in return is that folk bring a few fireworks, behave safely and sensibly, and have themselves a good time. It's our only chance to entertain such large groups of people - it's a "big garden, small house" thing.

Of course, the focal point is the bonfire itself. In years past we've had substantial piles of wood to burn, mainly due to the bits that either fall from or are pruned from our large Salix babylonica. Neighbours also contribute their unwanted bits of wood, so there's usually a sufficient supply of fuel to keep the fire blazing for a few hours.

This year, it's a bit different. The party format's the same, but the bonfire could be a biggy. The reason for this is simple - we've had the tree reduced considerably (cheers, Mick, I owe you one), quite a few main branches have been lopped and all of the dead wood has been removed. Consequently, the pyre is now 12ft in diameter and 15 ft high, with another two huge piles of wood and sticks waiting in the wings for their chance to be returned to the atmosphere from whence they came. This is what the scene looks like at the moment:



Now safety is paramount - the danger area is fenced off, there are always at least three adults on duty looking after the kids, another one dispensing fireworks from a safe steel box, and two others letting them off at a safe distance. We take all reasonable precautions to minimise the risks of damage to property and injury to people, and we're as prepared as possible should any accidents happen, but we were concerned about the size and siting of the bonfire so I decided to ask for the opinion of the experts. I called the County Fire and Rescue Service. The conversation was interesting, it went something like this:

Hello, this is the Fire and Rescue Service. Can I help you?

Hello. I'd like to talk to somebody about bonfires at domestic fireworks parties, please.

I can probably help you with that, what do you want to know?

Oh, just the basic things, such as: are there any size restrictions, and are there any recommended minimum distances from outbuildings, sheds, fences, trees, hedges, boundaries and the like. We're a bit concerned that the fire that we're building might be too big.

Ah. I'll just put you through to a colleague who may be able to help.

Through I went...

Hello, I understand that you want advice about bonfires.

Yes, please. Size, positioning etc.

We don't have any guidelines for domestic bonfires. We do publish documents about firework safety, but they don't cover bonfires.

OK. I'd probably have to get somebody to come have a look then. Please could you let me have the phone number for our local Fire Safety or Fire Prevention Officer? We're only five minutes from the local fire station, hopefully the Officer can nip over here at a time to suit himself and have a quick look, it won't take more than a quarter of an hour. I'll even put the kettle on for him.

No, he won't. They don't provide a service for domestic premises.

Say again?

They won't come to your home.

But this is fire prevention and safety. Part of the job remit, I would have thought.

(awkward silence at the other end)

But they will come around when the shed's on fire, or when the neighbour's house is alight, won't they?

Oh yes.

But then it'll be too late. I'm trying to prevent that.

(awkward pause at the other end)

Sorry. Is there anything else that I can help with?

Anything else? You can't exactly help with this matter, let alone anything else. Goodbye.

Special Forces #1

Posted by on October 23rd 2008 in A bit of a rant, LMAO!
Tags: ,

Here's the scene...

The kids have been hyperactive during the day and it's been a thankless task getting them to settle down to sleep, but at 11 p.m. they relented and are now tucked up in bed. Relieved to be off-duty, you have a bit of "me time" with a cuppa and the love of a good woman before going to bed for some well-deserved sleep after the exertions of the day.

Skip forward to 2 a.m. and you're wide awake again, and so are your kids. Your peace has been shattered by untimely noises and impromtu lightshows around the village - yes, the cider-fuelled underage ne'er-do-wells are having their own bit of fun at the expense of the good citizens of the area, they're in the streets letting off fireworks... big fireworks.

How does that make you feel?

Well, here we can be sure that the authorities are doing their utmost to deal with the situation. Forget traditional policing methods such as actually having personnel on the ground to apprehend the noisy selfish b@stards. Forget the fact that we've paid taxes for the law to be upheld, the law that says that it's an offence "if you are under 18 and buy fireworks or possess them in a public place", and "if you let off fireworks between the hours of 11 p.m. and 7 a.m." Forget that it's likely that our kids will have to go to school the next morning, and if they're lucky the adults might still have jobs to go to themselves.

Forget all of that...

we have this:

Yes, we can all stay in bed, confident that the authorities are dealing with the matter by employing such kick-ass methodology. And in the morning, after clearing away the ashes from accidentally-torched garden sheds etc. and after failing to polish out any burn-marks on our cars' bodywork, we can all be thankful that the ASBO-collecting yobs aren't knocking on our front doors trying to sell us the poisoned cookies that they were intending to bake.


Posted by on October 19th 2008 in Rambling on...

It's taken me a week to figure out what's not quite right with the pics from last weekend at Buttermere... they're too green. It's not a problem with the camera, or an excess of photoshopping, it's to do with the trees - they're nearly all in full green leaf, hardly any have turned that autumnal brown that lends contrast to the scenery.

Looking around the garden, there are signs of a seasonal mismatch there too...

After having dropped all of its flowers and buds three weeks ago, our hardy Fuchsia has come into bloom again, and is busy throwing out a new growth of lighter-coloured leaves.

The wild Foxgloves in the front garden died back over a month ago after providing an excellent riot of colour for the previous few months, but at least one has decided to have another go, and is adding a late splash of brightness to the borders.

The seemingly-immortal Clematis that occasionally climbs the north-facing wall of the house is really going for it - it flowered in April, then died back and dried out so much that I cut it back hard to the root. After that it started growing again and put on an unprecedented display during July, August and September, after which it wilted, losing all of its flowers and most of its leaves. It was pleasing to note that yesterday it was flowering yet again, and it's loaded with new buds that really shouldn't be there at this time of year.

Maybe it's not a mismatch, it could be that they just like playing extra-time.



Our Weekend at Buttermere – Part 2

Posted by on October 16th 2008 in Great Escapes, YHA

Click on any of the pics to open up a bigger version in a lightbox thingy, you'll need to wait until the page has finished loading.

Sunday morning was dry and even brighter than Saturday. I was up and about well before breakfast, outside with the camera taking some pics in the low rays of the early sunlight:

After another satisfying breakfast we packed our gear, cleared the dorm and said our farewells to the hostel staff. We would have only a half-day to walk the fells, so I opted to take our party up onto one of my favourite places, High Snockrigg, to see the impressive views into the Buttermere Valley. We parked up at Newlands Hause, where there is a fine view down Keskadale and the Newlands Valley towards Keswick:

The Hause was strangely quiet except for the sound of Moss Force:

The view to the north of the Hause included Knott Rigg and Ard Crags:

The track up the fellside is steep but eventually reaches the relative flatness of Buttermere Moss, where the view starts to open out a bit more:

A short while later we reached the top, and we sat there for a while surveying the scenery before us. I rattled off a few shots with the 18-55mm kit lens:

before changing to the 70-300mm for a few more:

Chris and Anna stayed at the summit for a while longer:

while the others went off to worry some sheep:

Soon it was time to head back down the long and winding road to the car:

On the way back down, Anna said that she could see a big man on the hillside over the valley. It took us some time to figure out what she meant:

Back at the car we packed away the gear and made ready for our reluctant return home. Just after setting off, I managed to delay proceedings for a few minutes more while nabbing the last shot of the weekend:

The drive back was interrupted by a couple of shopping sessions at Windermere and a bucket of KFC at one of the M6 service-stations, but was otherwise uneventful.

So, to sum up, it was another great weekend. One fellwalking novice introduced to the hills, two reintroduced after a half-year lay-off, two more Wainwrights ticked off the to-do list and a favourite place revisited for the umpteenth time - all that and good weather to boot. Brilliant stuff!

Our Weekend at Buttermere – Part 1

Posted by on October 15th 2008 in Great Escapes, YHA

Click on any of the pics to open up a bigger version in a lightbox thingy, you'll need to wait until the page has finished loading.

Just for once the Friday dash up the M6 wasn't as dull as usual - there were decisions to be made. The usual plan is to leave at J36, head into Keswick then drive through Borrowdale to reach Buttermere via Honister Pass. The weather had been fine until we reached J30, then the heavens opened as per the forecast. Flooding of the road to Keswick was a probability, so I changed the plan - drive right up to J40, then reach Keswick by taking the A66.

After half an hour of battling through spray and dodging artics, I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and decided to leave at J36 and to risk any floods, it seemed safer than losing control on the motorway, or being downed by any of the madcap motorway drivers who care only for themselves. A quick call to Buttermere YHA was neccessary to tell them that we would be late, and we were advised that we should approach via the Newlands Valley, as Borrowdale was flooded.

We arrived at about 22:45, after six hours on the road, to find the hostel car-park full. I dropped the others at the hostel then had to park up by the church and carry the gear from there. Brilliant - I was utterly soaked before the weekend had begun. Eventually we were booked in and could get some rest. We slept well that night.

Saturday morning dawned dry and bright with some scattered cloud - there was a wonderful play of light in the valley. After a hearty 3-course breakfast we kitted up and headed to the car, where I couldn't resist taking a couple of pics in the early sunshine:

We were soon on the road, driving along the side of Crummock Water. The kids wanted a photo-stop, so I pulled up at the base of Rannerdale Knotts and got a few pics myself as well:

A bit further along the road I noticed this view in the RVM, it just had to be snapped:

We stopped again at the turning for Thackthwaite:

where we got a closer view of the Loweswater Fells and of an old favourite, Mellbreak:

From there we could see a flat-topped tree and the flooding alongside the River Cocker:

We parked up just beyond Thackthwaite, hoisted our packs and set off up the footpath to the drove-road. Anna set a cracking pace up the grassy slope:

... while the other two girls lagged behind:

... and we stood in the middle, waiting and taking pics, like this one of Broadmoor Hill:

At the start of the drove-road the view opens out towards the Vale of Lorton:

This is the view back down the drove-road, looking towards Buttermere:

Eventually we reached the top of Fellbarrow, where we had lunch, posed for a group photo and enjoyed the views:

... like this one towards Low Fell and the middle of the Lake district:

We headed south and soon reached Low Fell:

which has great views out over Crummock Water :

After a brew we set off towards Watching Crag and the route back to the car:

On the drive back to the hostel, we took heed of the warning-signs:

Back at the hostel it was business as usual - no car-parking space. We had to leave the car on the other side of the village and walk the rest of the way - no great hardship for me, but the kids complained (as you would expect). After watching a glorious sunset we had an excellent evening meal at the hostel before rounding off a fine day with a few drinks at that fine establishment, The Fish.

To be continued...

Why IE7 is rubbish for blogging

Posted by on October 13th 2008 in A bit of a rant

So many folk ask me why I refuse to use IE7 as the default browser on my laptop, and why I've tried to optimise this blog for Firefox.

Well, it's been said that a picture's worth a thousand words, so here are 3000 such words for those folk; a set of three screenshots of the sidebar here as seen by three common browsers, only one of which insists on reading the page-code while wearing a blindfold.

NOW try telling me that IE7 is brilliant!

It's not. It's clearly crap. If you can't see that, there's no hope for you.

Left to right: Firefox 3.0.3, Safari 3.1.2, IE7

Andromeda reworked #3

Posted by on October 13th 2008 in Astrostuff, Observing Reports, Pics
Tags: ,

Click on the pic to open up a bigger version in a lightbox thingy, you'll need to wait until the page has finished loading.

I went back to the stacked output from original set of frames and then applied a load of Photoshop Actions from the Astronomy Tools package available from Noel Carboni. It's amazing what detail can be strained out of what seems to be a dull picture. I've probably overcooked it, so this'll be the final edit unless I find more tools to play with:

M31/NGC 224 Andromeda Galaxy, reworked with Noel's Actions

Don’t say you weren’t warned!

Posted by on October 13th 2008 in Great Escapes, LMAO!

We're back from our weekend away in Buttermere, there'll be a report and some pics available soon.

While you're waiting, here's something to ponder:

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