Saturday, November 28, 2009

Playing Classic Board and Card Games With a Six-Year-Old

I've been pulling a few classic games from the closet and playing them with my 6-year old son, Isaac. Turns out they hold up well!

We've played Uno off and on over the past year. It's a pretty good game for a 5 or 6 year old. My son tends to hoard the Wild and Wild Draw Four cards and play them at the very end, I guess due a fear of using a "good" card. Surprisingly, this stragegy works fairly well. In the mid-game, rather than using a Wild to avoid taking a card, he'll take a card for a few turns instead. If he lucks out and gets the card he needs relatively quickly, then the extra cards don't hurt too much, and he's then unbeatable when he gets down to his last few cards that are all Wilds, especially if they are Wild Draw Fours. Uno is also a great game for Isaac to play along with Mom and Dad, because Mom and Dad tend to battle between themselves and let the little guy get rid of all his cards.

Since Uno went well, a few weeks ago I taught him Mille Bornes (actually, a slightly simplified version of the real game where the goal is to get to exactly 1000 kilometers rather than play for points, and we don't use the coup fourré rule). The game requires some math skills when adding up the mileage cards, and also some association skills between remedy, hazard and safety cards. He was able to remember which remedy cards fixed which hazard cards pretty easily, and was very good at adding up all the mileage cards. The only mileage card that usually trips him up is the 75 kilometer card. I remember that one was tough for me to add up as well when I played as a child (and I was older than 6!). He had a harder time remembering which safety card prevents which hazards, probably because the safety cards don't come up often enough. He did know to hold onto remedy cards, and quickly understood that they were more valuable than mileage cards. The real learning and thinking occurs when he has to discard because he can't play anything and he has to choose which card he needs the least.

Earlier in the week we played Sorry! (the Nostalgia Edition) for the first time. We had played Trouble several months ago, so he knew the basic concept of moving your pawns around from a Start to a Home base. I hadn't played Sorry! in a very long time, and in my mind it was equivalent to Trouble, but it actually has involves more strategy due to cards like 4 (move a pawn four spaces backward), 7 (split your move between two pawns), 10 (move 10 spaces forward OR 1 backward), and 11 (move 11 spaces forward or switch one of your pawns with one of your opponents). It is interesting seeing how he chooses which of my pawns to switch with his own when he draws a Sorry! card or an 11 card. He even sometimes used the 4 card (move backwards 4 spaces) strategically after starting a pawn, after watching me do it once and asking about it. I'd recommend starting with Trouble at age 4-5 since the dice are self-contained within the center bubble, and then moving on to Sorry! at age 5-6.

So... earlier today when we were driving around, Isaac said he wanted to "try a game where there's BOMBS". Well, Stratego has bombs, so I decided to give it a try, not knowing if it would be too advanced for him or not (the box says "Age 8+"). I described the rules to him, which are actually fairly simple (goal is to get your opponent's Flag, Bombs and Flags cannot move, lower number pieces beat higher, both pieces lose in a tie, bombs blow up all pieces except Miners (8s), Scouts (9s) can move more than one square if it is open, and Spies (S) beat the Marshal (1) if it attacks first). What surprised me is on his own volition without prompting he set up his pieces so that his Flag was in the back, surrounded by Bombs. He was also good at moving a Miner around to destroy one of my Bombs once he found it. He was only so-so at this age at remembering which of my pieces were what (other than Bombs) after they were revealed, and he also did not take advantage of one of his low-number pieces creating maximum destruction through my pieces once he knew my own low-numbered pieces were gone. Oh, and he thought the Bombs were the bomb! Maybe a few years from now when he's good at Stratego I can spring The Generals on him.

All in all, though, not bad for age 6, I thought.

My hope, of course, is that he learns that board games can be fun to play before his friends influence him to play only video games or computer games, and board games suddenly become "booorring!"


Tuesday, November 17, 2009

11/17/09 Observing Log

Near a new moon tonight (2% waxing according to my iPhone Moon Atlas app), and the sky was clear, so I took out the scope tonight.

One other thing to mention is that the iPhone Starmap app is awesome on the iPhone 3GS since it uses the compass to detect which way you are facing and thus gives you a representation of your sky view in the exact direction you are facing. Sweet!

I was hoping to take a look at Jupiter again, but by the time I took out the scope and let it acclimate to the outside temp, Jupiter was below the tree line, so I decided to look for some more Messier objects instead.

As I have written about before, I primarily use Ken Graun's The Next Step: Finding and Viewing the Messier Objects and the Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas.

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M15 - First sighting. Small globular cluster near Pegasus. Easy to stop hop to: Markab to Homam to Biham to Enif to M15. Smaller than M13, but still nice to see. Best view was through my 16mm Orion Edge-On eyepiece.

  • M31 - Andromeda Galaxy. I'm always disppointed with the Andromeda Galaxy at my suburban location because the light pollution here washes out all the fine detail that I should be able to see if I was looking at it under truly dark skies.

  • M33 - FAILED to see M33 even though I'm sure I was looking right at it. Gives you an idea of the light pollution here. Graun's book says "Can be difficult because it is very faint, including the core. It needs dark skies, and easily gets washed out in light polluted skies". Yup.

  • M34 - Small open cluster in Perseus. Star hopped from Almach in Andromeda across towards Algol, which was slightly challenging because there are no bright stars between Almach and Algol, at my location at least. Can see the cluster in my finderscope as well as in the telescope.

  • M103 - First sighting. An open cluster in Cassiopeia, very close to Ruchbah. The view through my main telescope is not as impressive as the picture of M103 in the Graun book, though the difference between the amount of background Milky Way stars visible in the Graun book photograph for M103 and the amount of background stars I can here gives you a very clear idea of the amount of light pollution here.

  • M45 - Pleiades. Quick look at them in finderscope and main telescope.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed in the seeing tonight. It seemed that a faint haze covered the sky and prevented me from excellent seeing conditions.

I'll try for Jupiter tomorrow if the sky stays clear.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

8/25/09 Observing Log

It rained for a few minutes in the early evening, so I thought it might be a good time to go out and finally take a look at Jupiter. I haven't used the scope in about 6 months due to timing with cloud cover when the moon has been new and full moon when it has been clear. This is the first time I've viewed Jupiter through the new scope. Crescent moon tonight (36.7% waxing according to my iPhone Moon Phase app).

Observed these objects tonight:

  • Jupiter - First sighting. Tried a few eyepieces: 16mm Orion Edge-On, 13mm Orion Stratus, 8mm Orion Stratus, 5mm Orion Stratus. The 8mm Stratus, which gives a mag of 150x, gave the best combination of magnification and detail tonight. Enough to sketch the view through the telescope below. Fair amount of atmospheric turbulence, so you had to watch it for a while to see detail crisp up and pop out from time to time.

  • M57 - Ring Nebula. First sighting through the new scope. Pretty easy to find. Central "hole" very faintly visible. I remember seeing this 23 years ago with my brother-in-law's high school's 8-inch Celestron that I was able to borrow during one summer.

  • M27 - Dumbbell Nebula. First sighting. Star-hopped from Beta Cygni (Albireo) towards 13 Vulpecula to M27. Looks better with UltraBlock filter on the eyepiece. Actually a bit more bright than I might have expected given my urban setting, but not really distinctly dumbbell-shaped either.

According to my August 2009 issue of Sky & Telescope, Io will transit Jupiter Thursday night, so hopefully the sky will be clear and I've have another chance to go out and see that. Couldn't make out any Great Red Spot, though nowadays I understand it is pretty dim. Sky & Telescope calculates that the Spot will transit the meridian around 00:08 this morning, so presumbly I should be able to see it now.

UPDATE: Yeah, I can see the Great Red Spot, but only by putting in the 5mm Stratus, which gives 240x mag. It's very faint, and you have to watch it for a while to pick it out from the South Equatorial Belt (which is the top belt in the updated sketch below). Io is also getting closer to Jupiter and will begin transit within the hour.


Monday, July 13, 2009

Can I Have Some Time To Think About This?

Shortly after our son was born, I purchased a 30-year term life insurance policy for myself, and a 20-year term policy for my wife. My wife's policy is through USAA Life Insurance.

Today, I received this great personalized letter from USAA in the mail:

Did you know that your policy allows you to change your coverage to permanent status without getting a medical exam? [... blah blah...] To change your coverage, please call us... before October 7, 2021.

Either they need to work on their personalized custom form fields a bit, or they really, really know me far more than I realized, because, you know, I just hate being rushed into decisions.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Isaac's Pre-K Graduation Today

Today, Isaac graduated from Pre-K school. Pretty special day for him.


Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Show Was So-So, But I Liked The Music

I happened to be channel surfing tonight and came across the series finale of ER. I had seen articles about the finale over the past week or so, but had forgotten it was tonight.

I have never been a regular viewer of the show. For some reason, hospital dramas have never grabbed my interest, although I do remember episodes of St. Elsewhere that were outstanding. And of course the St. Elsewhere series finale spawned its own metafictional universe.

I watched the last 20 minutes or so to see if anything cool happened. Nope. Just some doctors yammering, some important call to be made by Noah Wyle that was left unresolved, and a sudden final inrush of trauma patients - though it's always fun to see Ernest Borgnine still working.

Then the final backwards tracking shot of the hospital played, and I realized the one thing I did like about the show.

The theme song.

It was created by James Newton Howard, who most recently scored the soundtrack for the blockbuster movie The Dark Knight along with Hans Zimmer.

To me, it's a song written in the 1990's as a throwback to the electronic music of the 1980's, reminicent of mid-1980's Tangerine Dream, and perhaps Jean-Michel Jarre, some Vangelis albums, Boards of Canada, Kitaro, and Edgar Froese. It's a song that catches your attention nowadays because it seems so out of place with today's television music and themes, and, as someone who is always interested in hearing interesting new electronic music, it never fails to enthrall me for a few minutes when it plays on television.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

2/19/09 Observing Log

No moon visible, so the sky only washed out from normal Austin light pollution.

The book I have been using to determine which Messier objects to try to locate is Ken Graun's The Next Step: Finding and Viewing the Messier Objects. It is a great book with a lot of history about Charles Messier, as well as information and photos of the 110 Messier objects. I also like the fact that all the photos in the book are taken with the same field of view, so you can get an standardized idea of how large each object is compared to others.

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M78 - First sighting. Extremely faint due to light pollution - I could really only see it with averted vision. UltraBlock filter did not help much.

  • M41 - Interesting to compare with actual picture in Graun book. Light pollution seemed a bit worse this evening.

  • M35 - Easy find this time.

  • M36 - First sighting. Star-hopped from Beta Tauri to Chi Aurigae to M36. Small open cluster in Auriga.

  • M38 - First sighting. Easy to star-hop from M36. Another sparse open cluster in Auriga.

  • M37 - First sighting. Star-hopped again from M36. Open cluster in Auriga.

  • Saturn - Quick look. Could see 3 moons along the ring plane tonight.

  • M40 - First sighting. Decided to attempt to find this since the Big Dipper had risen high enough over the trees in my back yard. Star-hopped from Megrez in Ursa Major (the star where the handle connects to the pot of the Big Dipper). This unusual Messier object is simply two faint stars next to each other.
I also attempted to see M1 (Crab Nebula), but there is too much light pollution from my location to this faint object. I'm sure I was looking right at it in my main scope. I'll have to try again at some site that has darker skies.


Thursday, February 5, 2009

2/5/09 Observing Log

Moon is 5/6 full, so there was a lot of wash-out due to moonlight.

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M93 - First sighting. Star-hopped from Aludra to Epsilon Puppi to M93. Not visible in finder. Nice little open cluster.

  • M47 - Noticed nice Trapezium-like star arrangement in center.

  • M46 - Very washed out from moon light. Definitely found it though. More faint than M47, but many more stars. More interesting than M47.

  • M48 - First sighting. Star hopped from Alpha Monocerotis to Zeta Monocerotis to M48. Fairly wide open cluster.

  • M34 - First sighting. Star hopped from Algol. Sparse cluster under moonlit sky.
I also attempted to find the Leo Triplet (M65, M66, NGC 3628) but the sky was too washed out from light pollution and the moon to detect anything. I'll give it another shot in two weeks when the moon is new.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

2/4/09 Observing Log

One final new eyepiece arrived today, a 35mm Orion Ultrascopic (gives 34x with my scope).

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - First light through 35mm Orion Ultrascopic. The eyepiece has a huge exit pupil that takes some getting used-to. Very sharp view though.

  • Moon - Looked a bit at the half-moon (last quarter) using 35mm, first unfiltered and then through variable moon filter.

  • M41 - Nice views through new 35mm. Also tried out 19mm Orion Edge-On and 16mm Orion Edge-On.

  • NGC 2360 - First sighting. Could see this by star-hopping from Sirius to Gamma and Iota Canis majoris. Nice view.

  • M47 - First sighting. Used 16mm Orion Edge-On and 13mm Orion Stratus.

  • M46 - First sighting. Same eyepieces as above.

  • NGC 2374 - First sighting. Same eyepieces as above.

  • M50 - First sighting. Same eyepieces as above. Nice open cluster.

  • M45 - Observed using new 35mm eyepiece. Very sharp views, but washed out a bit from moonlight.

  • Saturn - Faint moon to left of rings, much brighter moon farther left.


Friday, January 23, 2009

1/23/09 Observing Log

New eyepieces arrived today! Orion 8mm Stratus (gives 150x with my scope) and Orion 5mm Stratus (gives 240x with my scope).

The Sky & Telescope Pocket Sky Atlas is great for star-hopping for me at this location, since the limiting magnitude in the atlas is close to the limiting magnitude I see through my finderscope. I also really like that the book is sipral-bound, so it opens flat on a table and can be easily opened to a particular page and held within my left hand while I'm looking through the telescope, comparing star fields, and adjusting the focuser with my right hand.

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - Observed with new eyepieces and also with UltraBlock filter.
  • Rigel - Observed with new eyepieces.
  • M44 - First sighting. Easy star-hop from Aldebaran
  • M67 - First sighting. Had to carefully star-hop from stars in the head of Hydra. Pretty happy I was able to find it.
  • Saturn - Nice view using new eyepieces. but the eyepieces are so big and heavy in the focuser, they drag the telescope down. I'll have to rig up a counterweight for the other side. Saw three moons: Tethys, Titan, Rhea.


Wednesday, January 21, 2009

1/21/09 Observing Log

New variable polarizing moon filter arrived today. I also installed the free Cartes du Ciel software program a few days ago and used it to print out a chart of where the planet Uranus is located, in an attempt to see it tonight.

Observed these objects tonight:

  • Venus - Saw half-crescent Venus. Very bright - bright enough to ruin night vision! Used the new polarizing filter to cut down the brightness a bit.

  • Uranus - First sighting ever of Uranus. Using the Cartes du Ciel star chart, was able to star-hop to it from Venus. Needed 100x magnification to resolve into a tiny disc.

  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - Quick view of this nebula again.

  • M45 - Observed Pleiades again using various eyepieces.

  • Castor - Split Castor again.

  • M31 - First sighting. Not as impressive when viewing visually as the amazing Hubble pictures always show it. Uniformly grey "splotch" without much hint of center brightness.

  • M32 - First sighting. Small hazy patch near M31. Could see easily through low power eyepieces.


Monday, January 19, 2009

1/19/09 Observing Log

Observed these objects tonight:

  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - Spent some time looking closely at wispy detail.
  • Rigel - Just a quick look to align laser, finder, and main scope.
  • M79 - First sighting. Star hopped to it. I'd describe it as a "smudge" when viewing under moderate power using 27mm Orion Edge-On (44x). Very faint and no detail really visible from my location. I was pleased that I could find it at all.
  • M41 - Quickly caught another look.
  • Saturn - First time seeing this planet again in my own scope since the mid-1980's. Rings close to edge-on, so less impressive than 20 years ago. Could see a few faint small moons along the ring plane.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

1/8/09 Observing Log

Observed these objects tonight:

  • Moon - Near full moon. Good view of Copernicus crater at 200x.
  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - Less wispy detail this time due to full moon.
  • Rigel - Split this double for the first time using 13mm Orion Stratus (92x) and 6mm Celestron Plossl (200x).

I also attempted to find M93 but clouds intervened.


Saturday, January 3, 2009

1/3/09 Observing Log

Observed these objects tonight:

  • Moon - Half-moon in low power, good views of terminator in high power
  • Venus - Half-moon crescent
  • Rigel - Used this to align laser pointer with main scope
  • M42, M43 (Orion Nebula) - First sighting. Can easily see Trapezium in high power.
  • M41 - Open cluster. Stars are nice points of light.
  • M35 - Open cluster.
  • Castor - Split double star under high power. Got to 300x using 4mm eyepiece


New Telescope Arrived

Back in grade school, when someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied "an astronomer". That usually got some interesting looks from the questioner, since not many 8-year-olds want to go into that line of work. And of course there were always the people that thought that meant that I wanted to read people's Zodiac signs and forecast their future, and I had to clarify the difference between astronomy and astrology.

When Carl Sagan came out with the "Cosmos" series, I watched it avidly, of course. My family did not have a VCR at the time, so I would tape the audio of all the episodes on a cassette recorder, so that I could play them back later. I especially recall all the great music in that series, much of it early electronic music by Vangelis, Larry Fast/Synergy, and Isao Tomita.

Eventually, when I was about 9 or so, I got a Montgomery Ward 60mm (2.3 inch) alt-azimuth refracting telescope. It was one of those infamous poorly constructed telescopes with a weak tripod, very cheap eyepieces, and low quality main optics. It was good for moon viewing and that's about it. It was mostly useless. As I got older, I dreamed of getting a Real Telescope.

When I was in my teens, my brother-in-law worked at a high school in a district with wealthy families. The high school had a 8-inch Celestron equatorial Schmidt-Cassegrain with a couple of eyepieces and good tripod, and he was able to borrow it for a few months during the summers and lend it to me. That was a Real Telescope, and through it I was able to see the planets well for the first time. Seeing Saturn for the first time through a Real Telescope is a memorable sight. When Halley's Comet came around in 1986, I spent many nights trying to find it from my northern Indiana location using the borrowed Celestron, but was never successful - though I did learn a lot about the constellations in the process. The Comet was a bit too far south and there was too much light pollution along the horizon from my location. I continued to dream about getting a Real Telescope of my own.

Job and family and other priorities intervened for many years. I eventually got interested in computers and went into software engineering instead of astronomy, but astronomy still remained an important hobby of mine. I joined various astronomy clubs over the years, and for many years this page was how long lost friends found me on the Internet.

This past Christmas, I decided to get a close family friend a "beginner" Orion StarBlast Astro 4.5-inch telescope as a gift, and finally decided to get a Real Telescope for myself at the same time.

On January 3, 2009, my Real Telescope arrived. It is an Orion Skyquest XT8 8-inch Dobsonian. Great scope! Quite portable, and excellent optics for the price.

The scope was around $350. In January, I took advantage of Orion's 20%-off-all-accessories sale to pick up some additional quality eyepieces, eyepiece filters, Barlows and an eyepiece case, for about an additional $1000 or so. So, for a total of around $1500, I now have my first Real Telescope.

Things are looking up!


Thursday, January 1, 2009

New Year's Eve Traditions

One of my New Year's Eve traditions is watching the Marx Brothers classic movie Duck Soup.

I'm grew up in Portage, Indiana, which I consider to be a suburb of Chicago. Portage is in northern Indiana along the Lake Michigan lakefront. On clear days, in fact, you can stand on the beach in Ogden Dunes or the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and look across Lake Michigan to see the Chicago skyline rising above the waves like Atlantis.

And because Portage was close to Chicago, all of the over-the-air TV stations back in the 1970's were broadcast out of Chicago. One of those stations was WGN, Channel 9. And every year in the late 1970's and early 1980's, shortly after midnight on New Year's Day, WGN would broadcast Duck Soup. Over the years, watching Duck Soup became a yearly tradition for me.

It did not make a lot of revenue when it was first released in 1933, but now it is considered to be the Marx Brothers greatest movie and a superb satire. It gained a resurgence in the 1960's and 1970's as it began to be rebroadcast on TV. Robert Ebert now lists it as one of his Great Movies.

I have watched it many times now, but I still find myself picking up new little things even now, when I see it again


Creating JoePeartree's Blog

As a New Year's resolution, I decided to finally create a blog. No better time than the first day of the year! That led to deciding which blogging system to use:

After reading up a bit, I think installing the WordPress software onto your own domain seems to be the best system, but I didn't feel like going through those extra steps right now. I just wanted something quick.

After Googling a bit on the pros and cons of all the above choices, I tried out the hosted Blogger, LiveJournal and WordPress versions a bit over the past few days, and I decided to settle on Blogger for now.

There were many more built-in templates to choose from on LiveJournal as compared to Blogger or WordPress, especially if you pay a bit extra ($20/year) for a LiveJournal "Paid" account. But for most of the templates there, you can't easily override individual portions of the template. On Blogger, everything is editable if you choose to hack the template itself.

I finally settled on a Blogger template that I felt matched my aesthetics for readability and minimalism. I'm still messing around with getting the custom header image to show up exactly right, though.

I also liked the "LJ-cut" facility on LiveJournal that easily allows you to hide sections of a long post with a "Read more..." style link that expands the article when you click on it. I've been influenced by I guess. Luckily, I found a webpage that describes how to set up the same functionality in Blogger.

Blogger has a lot of widgets you can easily add to your site, though. And of course since it is ran by Google, it is easy to get stats and add context-sensitive ads later, if I ever decide to go that far.

I'm going to mess around with Blogger and LiveJournal a bit more, and perhaps someday I'll move over to an installed WordPress configuration. But at least I'm up and running for now.

So there you have it.

My first blog post.