Monday, October 29, 2007

The Dark Arts 5

As British summer time gives way to GMT again I bet that a few of you out there in the interwebby spaces between my life and yours were pleased with the extra hour in bed. Probably unable to see any obvious downside to the prolonged snooze. Pity then the poor amateur astrophotographer. When all the others are grabbing shuteye and being smug, I have to get up an hour earlier than usual to get the same shot as the day before. I preferred the darker mornings.
So at four a.m. today I leapt like a salmon from the stream of unconsciousness. Dashing to the window it was with a special joy that I noticed that yesterday evenings rain had washed the sky to crystal perfection, leaving stars laser sharp. Mars and Venus both hung like exotic diamonds and the three quarter moon, hung high, was providing the perfect lighting for landscapes with stars. All this I observed aloud as a special treat for She Of The Townhouse, who shared the special joy of the hour with a hippopotamine grunt from the pit of those less fortunate than the early riser. Not that she is like a hippo you understand, its just the sounds.
I skipped lightfoot to the car. Loaded the ‘special equipment’ and left hot hooved for a mountain rendevous. It constantly amazes me how few others are around at that time of day, the roads were clear all the way to Tryfan but as I progressed deeper in to the mountains it became increasingly clear that thick cloud was going to blight the photographic prospect.
I am trying to build up a small portfolio of pictures for an exhibition you see. Constellations with a mountain backdrop, perhaps a noteworthy building or two. But these are tricky blighters to take. To get the shot you need a mountain in the right position in front of you, a constellation that you want to photograph and a reasonable amount of moonlight. The moonlight, if you are lucky, will illuminate the landscape. Being far weaker than sunshine it will allow you to take a long exposure (say 10 to 20 seconds) and have bright shiny stars as well as a clearly recognisable scene.
If you are lucky the conditions for this are right on three or four nights a month.
This morning though the cloud messed up the whole thing.
Giving up on the mountains I drove around for a while and eventually noticed a clearing sky over Llyn Gerionydd, a lake above the Conwy valley. Quite by chance I snapped this.
The cloud at the end of the lake has a little dispersed light from the valley town of Trefriw the only other light is moonlight.
I shall certainly be staking this spot out again.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Feed Me More Seymour

From top to tail the Old Walled Town is filled with men fiddling with shining white erections. Gentle reader, save for that elegant googletrap I shall stray no more into the unsavoury side. Unless of course the un of savoury is sweet, in which case you may still read on unperturbed by unwholesome appetites. Take care though if you are on a diet, then it might still be a good idea to avert your eyes. I appeal not to the baser lust today but rather to the would be glutton.
You see its
food fest time again.
Last year the Old Walled Town played host to a food festival that swelled its population from half a dozen spinsters, the other bloke from the pub, me, and the dog to a seething mass of tens of thousands of visitors. I had never seen the streets so full, or indeed the traffic at such a standstill.
I fondly imagine that buffalodickdy would be impressed, even with his far grander experiences of humungous chilli cook offs.
Every corner, every car park and every nook and cranny will be filled with things to eat and drink, most of them exceptionally good. Nearly all, save alas for the beer tent, will be generous with free samples and the skilled freeloader that I have become in these situations, is hoping to waddle home after undoing a notch or two on the belt.
There will be cold meats and hot roasts. Cheeses and pickles to tickle. Dishes of fishes and muscles for sure. Sausages from Edwards grilling. Thai, Indian, Malaysian, Burgers in baps, medieval authenticity in root vegetable form, and sweets from around the world. All this and demonstrations of culinary buffoonery that would make Nigella cringe (serves her right for the sheer awfulness of what she gets away with on the television).
A town that is running down for the winter will be alive in every quarter from the crack of dawn until the last drunk passes out in the street, and so on for the whole weekend.
I shall be sweeping back and forward through this bounty. A Homer Simpson like cross between a Dyson and a lawnmower.
Let battle commence.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Dark Arts 4

I really must try and come up with a few more original names.
Right then, this weeks Astro Experiment is a photograph of the central region of the great nebula. If you want to see this yourself then the naked observer (it happens, what can I say…) will need to be standing facing south at around 5 in the morning with a decent pair of binoculars. Find Orion’s Belt and the fuzzy patch half way down his sword will reward you well if you look at it for a few minutes.
A dark southern sky will help. You might also prefer to wait until January when you can see the same thing as you come out of the pub, but at a far more reasonable hour.
The photograph I have taken of course relies on a few hundred quids worth of telescope and camera as well as a little experience setting the whole thing up.
So what is it? This is a region of far away (and long ago) where we can see the great Moo Moo making stars. A stellar nursery if you like. Gravity squashes huge clumps of Hydrogen together until they eventually ignite and stars are born. We see the clouds lit up from the inside by the magic of nuclear fire. Okay that’s a little simplistic as an explanation but if you are interested beyond this then Google knows far more than I (look up M42 Great Nebula).The picture has had the red element pushed up a bit to bring out more detail.
Now I know that there are plenty of perfectly good and far better focussed photos of this nebula all over the net but this is the one I took. And, I might add, froze myself to the bone doing it. Still, its tremendous fun even with your clothes on…..

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Hells Angel 1 (A Note From Ordinary Life)

I am still rummaging in my drawers for a picture!

Stepping way out of sequence I am going back to the first half of the 1970’s again.
john.g and kev ( who you probably can’t read..) both have recently written great posts full of biker nostalgia that put me in mind of my own life as one of the Brothers.
My earliest bike was an old BSA Bantam that my father left behind. I think we got it working once but I was only about eight at the time and my mother was never really going to let me die so young. I think that Melissa and I probably filled the oil tank with plaster before it was pronounced dead.
It wasn’t until I was able to race from house to lake, through the vineyards of the Entre Deux Mers that the bug truly bit me.
In the summer following I did a deal with my grandfather, who foolishly promised me the sum of ten pounds for every O’level that I passed, little realising that this would leave him out of pocket enough to purchase a brand new moped.

Paul and I had joined a local boxing club. I can’t imagine what possessed me, as far as I remember there were no girls there. The idea of being hit by someone else and having to connect with them in return, or rather more preferably first, meant that it was a very short lived affair. I think I enjoyed the training and the running round the hills in the dark. I might have done it as a favour to a friend to make a viable number for the trainer. Anyway…
Paul came down from Kingswood on his Puch MS50 moped, I hopped on the back, and we both went back up to Longwell Green for practice in pugilism.
And then, when I was able to cash in my grandfathers obscene generosity, Paul was ready to pass on his moped. So I bought it, thereby saving myself enough money to also go hitch hiking round northern France.

Placed on the centre stand, you pedalled like mad for a few seconds and then the angry wasp of an engine burst in to life. Burning a petrol and oil mixture that you had to blend yourself at around 35p a gallon. Helmet on, though the law was still a little lax on this point I think, and then push forward use the hand gear change on the left, throttle on the right and off in to the clear blue exhaust smoke. Pedal backwards if you really needed to brake and fingers crossed that nothing fell off.
Ah the joys of two stroke motoring. That bike and I covered a few thousand miles but I was never able to get the fuel oil mixture quite right. I stripped the head and everything downwind several times to clean sticky filthy black carbon deposits from the pipes leading out. I learned that cheap electrics vibrated themselves to death so the police would pull me time and again if I went out at night. I never could get the back light to last more than about half an hour and always had a handful of bulbs in my pocket. I found out about chains and tyres and the dangers of stripping your splines (a very nasty business madam). The mechanical skills that I, by the necessity born of poverty, acquired fixing that bike have served me well ever since.
We whizzed around Bristol and Bath. We climbed and descended the Cotswold escarpment getting metal pinging hot on the way up, catching flies in our headlamps on the way down. We travelled over the Severn Bridge to university together, though the seventy mile journey was a little unrealistic for such a small bike. We went in the guards van to London and traced the capital in times when you could still swing over and park at the side of the road.
I also had the first of two biking accidents. A true ‘sorry mate I didn’t see you’ in which I sailed over the bonnet of a complete tosser chap who pulled out without really looking.
After about three years we parted company as I forsook mopeds for a proper motorcycle with real foot change gears. The last I remember it was stashed somewhere in a barn by Dick who thought at the time that his wife Jean might like it. It may well still be gathering dust there. I know she never rode it.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Couch Potato

Two things before I turn to my topic of the day. First the post contains images of nudity. In fact lets get that out of the way straight away, I am so warm here on Halletts mountain that I am at present typing to you both in the garden and in the buff. Second, yes the picture that I hope is above this note is of the rear end of a dog. Without going in for the kind of hands on experience that leads a fellow into hot water it’s the best picture of a dogs arse that can muster. I could have provided a snap of ‘mist coloured mountains’ as you will see this would be just as appropriate, but that Knofler fellow used it once and ….look if you had paid attention years ago you would know why it chokes me to be reminded of that song.
You see it all started with a brief moment of inattention on my part. As I went to open the gate leading up the last quarter mile to the house (and by the way, check out the squarey little picture thing, I got a couple of good pics of the house last week…ummm Sal..I’m going Corbett again…) I left the car window open. Well it’s a warm day here and I was trying to keep cool.
Asbo, perhaps not the best behaved dog in the world, spotted an opportunity to express his inner wolf. Followed by the debris of a carrier bag and vegetables that I am hoping to use for a feast later on he exited the car at high speed through the window. Neglecting to pay any attention to the difference in shape between he and it ( I fear here for the dogs bollocks (claim googletrap)), with a mighty high pitched yelp, he set off towards the upper slopes of Hallett’s Mountain, leaving me dumfounded. His quarry, to whom he devotes many waking hours of thought, are the sheep that continue to decorate the wilderness until the first frosts bring them back down to valley farms. So as the dogs arse disappears into low cloud I am forced, admittedly by my own stupidity, to pursue.
We rush over the fence. We clear hummocks of fell grass over the big field. We hurdle a stone wall that must be nearly a metre and a half high, and we set of in earnest over the open ground. After about twenty minutes I have been up to my thighs in a sticky bog, my clothes are filthy, I am covered from head to foot in peat and slime, and I am cursing the ancestors of the dog back several generations.
High on Craig Celynin the sheep are far from worried. They have a fair idea of our relative strengths and weaknesses. They are judging the curses and barks from the mist below them, and are running a book on the likely outcome.
And then a minor miracle. The dog and I burst out of the low cloud somewhere above Maen Pen Ddu into golden sunshine. Asbo looks back at my filth ridden form and throws in his paw. He sits down, rolls over in a submissive gesture and grins. We laugh at each other.
On the way back to collect the car and the shopping, I am secretly very pleased. I have just run nearly two miles through a vertical distance of at least 500 feet. I have also run the dog to ground in the process. Okay it was adrenaline fuelled, but its better than I thought it would feel.
By the time we get back to the house all those little endorphins are making me feel quite mellow, and without a qualm I have discarded my clothes in a heap. As I cool down at the end of the day the mist is breaking up and I sit preparing for our next adventure in warm sunshine and a birthday suit.
Later tonight Asbo and I will be joining the crowd in Paris for the rugby. We will be joining it from a comfy chair, well provided with beer and salty snacks of course. Attending via the magic of television. But its nice to know that we aren’t a pair of couch potatoes.
Bring on the dancing girls…..

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Dark Arts 3

I do have moments of doubt. five o’clock in the morning is a pretty unforgiving hour when there is no need to get out of a warm bed at all. Still, the celestial wheels are turning and the next chance I get to see this one I will be a decade hence facing sixty. Not to say that sixty is a great age you understand, I shall look forward to it as I have every decade, and so until the great Moo Moo embraces me.
So. Its five o’clock and I am stumbling around my kitchen, scratching my arse, connecting equipment, and making a cup of tea. Asbo grunts and gives me the lazy eye. Blind pugh grunts.
Outside it is cloudy. Bugger!
But as I look to the west I can see stars through the thin cloud and figure I might get lucky.
Tonight my target is a grazing occultation.
Regulus, The Little King, Principal star of the constellation Leo, is going to play its own game of kiss chase with the moon.
If this cloud clears I should see it disappear as the moon crosses its line of sight, and then reappear a few minutes later. Unlike the childhood games of kiss chase where I was too shy to pursue golden haired Gail, I have now learnt that if you stick at it, in astronomy at least, you can get lucky eventually.
Fingers crossed then, I set up my camera on a tripod. Switch on a computer next to it and start exposing. Ooer… No the point here is that I want to photograph three, arguably four different objects. The light face of the moon, very bright. The shadowed face of the moon from which I hope to see faint detail of the grey seas. The star Regulus which is the faintest object I expect to see, and also Venus which I hope to be just inside the rectangle.
Even without the cloud, realizing them all in a picture is optimistic.
As the moon creeps through the ecliptic the cloud gives tantalising windows on the dance. The blinding moon, massive in perspective to the star, eventually swallows its light, occluding.
And now it’s a nail biting wait for the photo that I really want. I want to catch the star as it comes over the darkened limb of the moon. To catch the exact moment that it reappears. I want to see the tiny dot of light as it blinks over the lunar mountains.
The interval drags. I ought to be able to figure it to the exact second but there are so many factors. In fact even with an accurate clock, a precise location and altitude there would be an interval of uncertainty. One that can be used to measure the gap between crags on the moons horizon. Oh heck, I am not that good. But I really do want to catch the moment. And then suddenly the cloud thins right out. The moon is hanging in a crystal sky and Venus is as bright as I have ever seen it. Its in the frame.
Using binoculars on a second tripod I watch the faint new moon, cupped in the brightness of the old. Afraid to blink even.
All of a sudden its there! Click. A laser sharp pinpoint of alien fire sweeps across unimaginable billions of miles, trips a light fantastic over the arid mountains and photons that left on their journey in 1930 spark a synapse and a small piece of digital magic. My imagination outraces Einstein’s speed limit and in an instant retraces the path.
I didn’t expect it to feel this good!

Saturday, October 06, 2007

A Proposal

So following on from that, I propose to honour my old friend by promoting "Mucky Minnie Night"
Sort of like 'speak like a pirate day'. All you have to do is don the ears and bow, go out to the pub / club / etc and pronounce the words;
"Gee Mickey you're so big"
using the appropriate accent.
Get a photo or a video of course and stick it on a website, blogspot, youtube...
Hmm I wonder what day of the year would be best.
I have a hankering for the 31st of January myself.
I put the motion to the house....

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Too Good To Miss

I feel that now that he is dead (and I shall leave Cath the young lady concerned anonymous) I can reveal that my mate Dave once persuaded his girlfriend to don a pair of Minnie Mouse ears with the spotty headband.
His ultimate aim was to have her stand in the bedroom and in a high squeaky voice proclaim..
"Gee Mickey , you're so big!"
What this did for either of them, or ultimately thier relationship, I don't know; but he was fooloish enough to spill the beans to just a few of us one night in the pub....

Apologies to Stephanie