Monday, July 24, 2006

House Project: Another Disappointing Towel Rack

My wife noticed that a towel ring in the bathroom was a little loose--so she decided to see why. Instead of using a molybolt or something similar--the screws were just turned into the wallboard. There was a stud all of three inches away--and it would have been centered between the wall edge and the mirror if they had used the stud.

It didn't take long for us to fix it--but this is inexcusable sloppiness.

Last house project entry.

Friday, July 21, 2006

House Project: Water Testing, Concrete Color

The builder came up with someone from another concrete company--not the guy who washed his hands of the project (but not of the money he received) and we did some color testing with a particular strategy for getting a reasonably consistent color. I think we have a solution. The builder needs to power wash everything before they do this, so probably next week.

The water test I submitted a couple of weeks ago came back. Iron: 0.17 ppm; lead: <0.002 ppm (none detectable); coliform bacteria: none. I guess I won't worry about this. I'll re-check it in six months.

Last house project entry.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Dark Skies

At the encouragement of my wife, I am resuming astrophotography. Big Bertha gathers so much light that even without a clock drive on it, it should be possible to get decent pictures of the Moon and perhaps of Jupiter and Saturn with it. With 800 speed film, 1/1000th of a second is a long enough exposure for a quarter Moon--and there's not much motion in 1/1000th of a second. (There's a very nice calculator for this here.)

Film? Why so primitive? Unfortunately, consumer digital cameras really aren't well suited to this, because the lens can't be removed to do prime focus or eyepiece projection astrophotography. In prime focus photography, you use the telescope objective as the lens, so Big Bertha is properly understood as a 2000mm f/4.5 telephoto lens. In eyepiece projection, you put one of the telescope eyepieces between the objective and the camera, substantially increasing the focal length and f-ratio. For example, with an 18mm eyepiece in Big Bertha, it becomes a 11,227mm lens at f/29.5.

It is possible to use a consumer digital camera in what is called "afocal" mode, where you focus the camera on the image in the eyepiece, but I haven't found that to work too well.

There are considerably higher end digital cameras with removable lenses, the digital equivalent to a 35mm SLR, but these were priced in the $800 to $1000 range until recently. (I just checked, and I was startled to see the Pentax body only version now offered for $342, after rebates.) Certainly when the old house in Boise sells, this is on my list of things to get!

Why Pentax? I have a number of Pentax lens from my ME Super that will fit, and I have an adapter for the telescope that is also made for the Pentax lens mount.

Anyway, away from astrophotography, and to dark skies. I was outside last night do star trails, where you aim the camera at the North Star, and set various exposure times: 5 minutes, 10, 20, and 40. As the stars rotate around the North Star, you get photographs like this.

My wife shared my amazement at how dark the sky was at our house. The Moon had not risen yet, and the Milky Way stretched across the entire sky, from north to south. Even the skyglow of Boise wasn't enough to drown it out. I couldn't find the constellation Hercules at first, because it was overwhelmed by all the other stars.

There's a big development going in about ten miles from us, just across the county line, called Avimor. I guess that I better write them a letter, asking them to think about preserving the dark sky when they are picking out light fixtures.

UPDATE: I located the Governmental Affairs guy at Avimor. Yes, preserving dark skies is on their list of objectives, and they will be picking exterior lighting with this in mind. While he has not yet joined the Boise Astronomical Society, he has attended at least one of our events, with his telescope. It's nice to have allies in important places!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

TWA 800: Ten Years Ago

I must confess that while I find it almost impossible to believe that the Clinton Administration could have persuaded so many people to cover up a missle attack, I have never been comfortable with the official conclusions about what caused TWA 800 to explode and crash. Why? Because there were so many eyewitnesses who reported seeing a streak from the surface headed up to TWA 800 just before it exploded.

I take most things that I see published in WorldNetDaily with a grain of salt (often two grains of salt), but I do know Jack Cashill, and I respect him. That's what makes this ten part series of his about TWA 800 so disturbing.

From part 1
Lahr’s persistence, however, has finally paid off. In response to his petition, the CIA sent to Lahr in March 2006 tabular listings of the primary radar returns of the doomed airplane. This data lacked title, annotation or any sense of its importance. Those who released it may not have known what they were releasing. Glen Schulze did. Lahr turned the data over to this “engineer and researcher extraordinaire,” and Schulze went to work.

Some years ago, at the behest of certain family members of the crash victims, Schulze analyzed the flight data recorder (FDR). After much painstaking research of the timing blocks in the recording sequence, Schulze determined that the four seconds following the initial explosion had been eliminated from the FDR. In Lahr’s opinion, this was a deliberate attempt to hide an initial break-up sequence that differed from the one offered by the authorities.

Schulze and one of the family members, Don Nibert, presented his FDR findings to NTSB Chairman Jim Hall in a closed-door meeting. Although challenged to do so, the NTSB has never refuted those findings.
Part 2 gives the accounts of some of the 270 people who saw what sounds like a missle streaking skyward towards TWA 800--and why it was in the interests of the Clinton Administration to cover it up, if that's what happened:
The evening of July 17 was not as peaceful as it appeared to be. Not nearly so. In Iraq, July 17 just happened to be National Liberation Day, Saddam's evil 4th of July. To celebrate, Saddam had made some of his most serious threats yet against the United States. Iran was restless as well. The White House believed it responsible for the lethal bombing of Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia three weeks earlier that killed 19 American servicemen.

On that fateful eve, just two days before the start of the Atlanta Olympics, the United States military was on its highest state of home-front alert since the Cuban missile crisis.

Shortly before noon, Washington time, on July 17, the Islamic Change Movement sent a fax to Al-Hayah in London, the most prestigious Arabic language newspaper. The warning came one day after the group had taken responsibility for the destruction of Khobar Towers. It was as serious as a truck bomb:

The mujahedeen will give their harshest reply to the threats of the foolish U.S. president. Everybody will be surprised by the magnitude of the reply, the date and time of which will be determined by the mujahedeen. The invaders must be prepared to leave, either dead or alive. Their time is at the morning-dawn. Is not the morning-dawn near?

As the sun was about to rise on the Arabian Peninsula, it was about to set on Long Island.
In part 3, Cashill examines Richard Clarke's description of events, and makes a case that Clarke played some part in creating the cover-up:
In his book "Against All Enemies," Richard Clarke offers the only published inside account of the demise of TWA Flight 800, much of it transparently false, but all of it entirely revealing. At that time Clarke served as chairman of the Coordinating Security Group on terrorism.

Within 30 minutes of the plane's crash, Clarke tells us, he had convened a meeting of the Coordinating Security Group in the White House situation room. This is not something he had done for the ValuJet 592 crash in Florida two months prior or for any other crash.

"The FAA," Clarke reports, "was at a total loss for an explanation. The flight path and the cockpit communications were normal. The aircraft had climbed to 17,000 feet, then there was no aircraft." In fact, the FAA did have an explanation. Its radar operators in New York had seen on their screens an unknown object "merging" with TWA 800 in the seconds before the crash and rushed the radar data to Washington. This is why Clarke called the meeting.

In fact, the last altitude the FAA actually recorded was about 13,800 feet. This is easily verified and beyond debate. There is a reason here for Clarke's dissembling. He needs to lift the aircraft – even if just in the retelling – above the reach of a shoulder-fired missile.

About four weeks after the crash, Clarke met with the late FBI terrorist expert, John O'Neill, who told Clarke that the eyewitness interviews "were pointing to a missile attack, a Stinger." For the record, no eyewitness ever mentioned a "Stinger." But by this time some 270 eyewitnesses had described to the FBI something looking very much like a missile attack. Many of them had provided detailed drawings.

"[TWA 800] was at 15,000 feet," Clarke reportedly answered O'Neill, who died at the World Trade Center on September 11 and can no longer correct the record. "No Stinger or any other missile like it can go that high." One would think that on so sensitive and contentious a point, Clarke would have made an effort to get the altitude of TWA 800 right or even consistently wrong. He does neither. The real altitude is not 15,000 feet or 17,000 feet, but 13,800 feet – an altitude at which the Stinger could be effective. In a book of this importance, such mistakes and omissions shock the knowing reader.
In part 4, he discusses how the New York Times, the lion of full disclosure and openness in government, first published news reports that suggested the government knew that there was a missle involved--and then mysteriously started taking the government line:
On July 17, 1996, TWA Flight 800 exploded on a beautiful summer night only 12 minutes out of JFK. Had the plane crashed in Kalamazoo or Keokuk or Kansas City, chances are the American people would have known the cause of the crash almost immediately.

But it didn't. It crashed in the New York Times' backyard. The Times' reporters owned the story from day one.

On July 18, the last day of official honesty, Times reporters were all over the place, and they were pressing for the truth. On that day, unnamed "government officials" – most likely the FBI – told the New York Times that air traffic controllers had "picked up a mysterious radar blip that appeared to move rapidly toward the plane just before the explosion."

These officials and the Times unequivocally linked the radar to the multiple eyewitness sightings and the sightings to a missile attack.

According to the Times' sources, "The eyewitnesses had described a bright light, like a flash, moving toward the plane just before the initial explosion, and that the flash had been followed by a huge blast – a chain of events consistent with a missile impact and the blast produced by an aircraft heavily laden with fuel." As one federal official told the Times that first morning, "It doesn't look good," with the clear implication of a missile strike.

This was the last day these officials were open with the media about the possibility of a missile. Once they changed the story, so did an oddly quiescent Times. The words "radar" and "eyewitness" would all but disappear from the Times' reporting after the first day. Nor, inexplicably, would the Times investigate the possible role of the military in the downing of TWA 800 – not one paragraph – and not one word about satellites and what they might have captured.


In due time, the FBI would acknowledge that 270 eyewitnesses saw not just the white flash, but streaks of light in the sky converging on TWA Flight 800 before the flash. The New York Times would interview not a single one of them.

For all its misdirection, the FBI seemed to have been struggling against the White House throughout August. The Aug. 23 Times headline story – "Prime Evidence Found That Device Exploded in Cabin of Flight 800" – stole the thunder from Clinton's election-driven approval of welfare reform in that same day's paper and threatened to undermine the peace and prosperity message of the next week's Democratic convention.

"Investigators have finally found scientific evidence that an explosive device was detonated inside the passenger cabin of Trans World Airlines Flight 800," reported the Times authoritatively on the 23rd. The paper referred specifically to the traces of PETN, first identified by a bomb-sniffing dog more than two weeks before.

These investigators told the Times that PETN is commonly found in bombs and surface-to-air missiles, "making it impossible, for now, to know for sure which type of explosive device destroyed the Boeing 747." The Times reminded its readers that 10 days prior the FBI had said that ''one positive result'' in the forensic tests would cause them to declare the explosion a crime.

Now, however, senior investigators "were not ready to declare that the crash was the result of a criminal act in part because they did not yet know whether the explosion was caused by a bomb or a missile."

But there was a speed bump ahead. On the 25th, for the first time, the New York Times published a story with a "missile" lead. "The discovery of PETN," claimed the article, "has kept alive the fearsome though remote possibility that the airliner was brought down by a surface-to-air missile."

On Aug. 30, the FBI announced that it had discovered additional traces of explosive residue "on a piece of wreckage from inside the Boeing 747 near where the right wing meets the fuselage." The location is critical. This is exactly where the first explosion seemed to be centered. At the briefing, the FBI did not identify the type of chemical, but "senior investigators" tipped off the Times that the substance was RDX. One agent told the Times that finding the two ingredients together, RDX and PETN, was ''virtually synonymous with Semtex.''

The Times, which prided itself on its sources, was now being steered by the FBI agents exactly where they wanted this investigation to go – away from the "missile" and back towards the bomb, even if it meant revealing more information. If PETN alone allowed for the possibility of a missile, PETN and RDX together argued much more strongly for a bomb.
The shrapnel in the bodies is the subject of part 6:
In the intense crucible of an explosion, the debris and shrapnel created usually retain residues and mechanical and physical characteristics that define the precise nature of that explosion. The different types of explosions have unique characteristics of temperature, pressure and duration, which create recognizable "signatures" of chemical residues, fragment size and composition. Thus, if a fuel tank explosion had destroyed the plane, its artifacts – low temperature, low energy, low velocity, no significant metal fragmentation – could be confidently identified and distinguished from the high velocity artifacts caused by a bomb or missile. These could be corroborated with certainty from the residues and the smaller and shattered fragments.

In contrast to all the evidentiary debris pulled out of the ocean, the autopsy-derived evidence is also the least likely to be randomly contaminated by ocean and sludge or have any explosive residues abraded or dissolved away. Many explosive residues are known to be soluble in ocean water.

And what did the foreign object evidence reveal? One of the many peculiarities of the investigation was that the FBI never released, nor even shared inside the investigation, any of those related details.

According to the county coroner, Dr. Charles Wetli, the FBI never provided him with any of those specific forensic details. That in itself constitutes a serious irregularity in the investigation and yet its very weirdness typified much of the probe. Dr. Wetli was obliged by federal law to relinquish the autopsy evidence items to the FBI. That makes sense because of the vast and sophisticated forensic explosive expertise the FBI had at its disposal and available on-site. But Dr. Wetli also has the statutory responsibility and obligation as the chief county medical officer to determine the cause and manner of death. The FBI, by law and by convention, is required to provide such forensic evidence to the coroner. Even 10 years after the event, he cannot conclude an adequate inquest without those very pertinent facts of the case.

Even more surprisingly, the FBI did not share those particular forensic results with the National Transportation Safety Board, either. In 1998, the NTSB responded to a FOIA request about the foreign object evidence by stating that the FBI had eventually transferred all of those actual objects to them, but without any forensic or descriptive details or documentation whatsoever. The NTSB probably still has this evidence, still with no clue as to what it all signifies.
There's a lot of material in this series, and it raises enough questions that as much as I hate bizarre conspiracy theories, I do find myself wondering about TWA 800.

Some years back, I saw an interview (I think with CBS) with President Lyndon B. Johnson about the Warren Commission report. This was very shortly before LBJ's death, when he had let his hair grow long, and looked like the world's oldest hippie. In that interview, he admitted that he encouraged the Warren Commission to not look too closely into Lee Harvey Oswald's involvement with the Soviet Union, out of fear that if they found a connection, it could lead to World War III. It was a startling statement, and it ran completely contrary to everything that I thought about the Warren Commission. I am surprised that I have seen no mention of those statements over the years--but it would certainly explain a great deal about the many, many discrepancies in John Kennedy's autopsy and lingering questions about who shot him, and the curious connections between Jack Ruby and the Mafia. (The Mafia had strong reasons to want to get rid of John Kennedy, and Kennedy's CIA had paid the Mafia to assassinate Castro.)

I don't know what to think about TWA 800. It is pretty clear that the Clinton Administration was doing everything it could to avoid confronting Iraqi involvement in other terrorist attacks. I've mentioned before (and here) that there are disturbing coincidences involving Iraqis and the 1993 World Trade Center and 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Clinton had a strong interest in avoiding going to war, since that tends to be bad for the economy--and in 1995, it was certainly in Clinton's political interest to pin the Oklahoma City bombing entirely on someone whom he could use to smear Republicans. (McVeigh did eventually admit that he did it.)

I can see why Clinton's people would have wanted TWA 800 turned into a mechanical failure, not a terrorist attack. I find the official explanation wildly inconsistent with the eyewitness accounts that suggest a missle attack. I just can't believe that so many people working for the FBI would engage in a cover-up so massive when there was no federal government criminal action that needed covering (unlike Waco).

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Pirates of the Carribbean: Dead Man's Chest

I saw this a few days ago. I had very high hopes, because I so much enjoyed the first movie in the series with its mixture of clever dialog, interesting story, entertainingly amusing physical action, and Johnny Depp's "I'm not taking this too seriously, and neither should you" sly grin. As an historian, I was pleased to see a few nods to the actual situation of the British possessions. Look at a lot of older pirate movies--there are no blacks in them at all.

As I mentioned three years ago:
There are some pretty awesome special effects, but unlike certain other recent films, they didn't spend so much money on them that they needed to fire the scriptwriters.
Alas, that does not seem to be case with Dead Man's Chest. They clearly spent a lot more money on special effects--as well as making a full-sized pirate vessel (built on a modern frame)--and a lot less on the witty, often intentionally anachronistic dialog of the first movie. I laughed far less.

There are a few fight sequences in Dead Man's Chest that remind you of the great sequence in the blacksmith's shop in the first movie--but not enough to carry a film this long. I never found the first movie dragging; this one felt like it could have lost 20 minutes, and it would have been the better for it. I fear that once the director paid the very sizeable upfront costs to design some of these special effects, he figured, "Hey, it's only another million dollars to put in a few more minutes of this sea creature!"

The first movie, once you accepted its one supernatural premise, was consistent, and logical. I never find myself saying, "How does that work?" Dead Man's Chest has a couple of supernatural premises, but there were clearly a few explanations that never get made--or perhaps the voodoo priestess's accent was just too thick for me to catch it. What, exactly, is packing a certain piece of meat in dirt going to do? I didn't understand, and it bothered me.

The first movie was a bit dark, and I observed at the time that it probably wasn't suitable for most children under 10 because of the macabre aspects of the pirate ship's crew. I think this is even more true for Dead Man's Chest, which has an even more disturbing dead ship's crew. The cannibal sequence is played for laughs, and certain aspects of this might be a bit too disturbing for the very young.

By the way, after the credits, there is a brief gag clip. It isn't bloopers--but it does explain what happens to the dog!
House Project: Backup Generator Worked, But There's Some Minor Issues

We lost power last night about 10:30 PM--and so did everyone in Horseshoe Bend. From our commanding position on the mountain, we can see every house. We were watching something on History Channel about Caribbean pirate technology, and sudden darkness. My wife says, "Okay, where's the backup generator?" Sure enough, it started, but as I think I have mentioned in the past, there wasn't enough capacity to run every circuit in the house from it, because it is only seven kilowatts, so only the kitchen appliances, the furnace/air conditioning system, and the well and pressurization pumps remained powered. The rest of the house was dark.

Now, at any given time, I'm sure that we are not using seven kilowatts in the whole house. The problem, at least as the electrician who wired the house and installed the generator explained it, is that the backup generator is set up to power circuits based on their maximum capacity.

When I went out today and counted up the capacity of all the circuits that the backup generator protects, I counted 145 amps--which at 120 volts, would be 17.4 kilowatts--quite a bit above the seven kilowatt capacity of the generator. So why can't it spread its capacity across more circuits? I've called the electrician to ask what we can do about this.

I have an idea--and that's to buy a large storage battery and inverter such as would be used with a photovoltaic system or wind generator that can feed all the circuits in the house, and have both the backup generator and the grid keep it fully charged. If we lose grid power, the battery feeds the house, and the backup generator recharges the battery. That way, we have full power for the house, and it would take a very long outage to discharge the battery sufficiently that we would have to start shutting off unnecessary circuits. It also makes it easier to add a wind generator to feed the battery.

Alternatively, we might use the storage battery and inverter to feed all the other circuits, figuring that these are less essential, and only a long outage would cause us to lose the luxuries of computers, televisions, and lights.

If I understand the math on this unit, it supplies 258 amp-hours at 12 volts, which would be 3.096 kilowatt-hours. There's some loss from running it through an inverter to get it back to 110 VAC, but still, that would run at 20 to 25 100 watt light bulbs for an hour. It's about $447 (plus shipping, which might be expensive for something this heavy). Unfortunately, the inverters end up well above $1000, so it turns into an expensive investment.

Last house project entry.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Can't Sleep

I've been fighting a virus for several days, which is, as these things go, not so bad. It causes waves of fatigue, muscle aches, and some headaches. I've slept enough today that I am having trouble sleeping. Adding to the excitement, the wind is blowing quite impressively outside--enough so that even if there weren't clouds blowing in and out, I would be reluctant to roll Big Bertha out to observe, for fear of it landing in another county. These are the nights that wind turbines to generate electricity start to seem sensible.
House Project: Outstanding Issues

1. There's a bit of paint overspray on the windows, both inside and out. My wife has taken care of most of this, but there's a couple of spots that we are going to point out to the builder when he comes up here this week.

2. The front door leaks--and not just when my wife sprays a hose at it. There's actually dirt blowing in at times at the base of the door, at the two edges. Surprisingly, there's no wind whistle--even when the wind is blowing something dreadful, as it is now.

3. The kitchen faucet needs tightening.

4. Concrete, of course, needs painting before the rainy season starts.

5. We have a loose panel that we found on the porch, that is painted our exterior color, and looks like the wood was literally broken in half by the wind. We don't see where it came from, and I can see just about the entire roof of the house from the water tower hill, but we will have the builder look over the house carefully and figure out where it came from--assuming that it isn't just scrap that blew in from somewhere else.

6. At least the master bedrooim closet crawl space (and perhaps the one in bedroom four) should have at least edge beveled to make it easier to get these back in place.

7. The pantry door has a ghost problem, and once open part-way, goes all the way open.

8. The window east of the slider in the family room is extremely stiff--something that my wife can't even open or close, and that takes a lot of effort for me.

9. There is a badly bent screen on my east facing office window--enough so that it is letting bugs in if I open that window.

Last house project entry.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

An Innovative New Telescope Mount Design

The biggest expense and weight for most telescopes is the mount--not the optical tube. Building an equatorial mount (one that tracks objects across the sky as the Earth rotates) that is sufficiently rigid to hold a telescope--and not vibrate or shake--is a daunting task. There are a variety of designs: the German equatorial mount (here's a beautiful example at Parallax Instruments); the fork mount (here's a Meade fork mounted Schmidt-Cassegrain); the yoke mount (in this case, the Mount Wilson 100 inch reflector).

Here's a description of a new design for an equatorial mount that looks to be very simple, lightweight, and probably quite rigid. I'm getting tempted for Big Bertha...

Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Big Bertha Improvements

I mentioned a few days ago that Big Bertha's optical quality problems was at least partly because of non-repeatability--that moving it across the sky would cause the primary mirror to move because of the rather approximate way in which the mirror was held in place.

Here's a picture of the gate hasp that the original builder used to hold the "tailgate" in place--and you can see one of the studs that now helps hold it in position.

Click to enlarge

This helped a lot; image quality improved, and more importantly, it was repeatable. Since I already had the mirror out of the tube, I decided to remove the diagonal mirror as well, vacuumed out all the spider webs, bugs, and dirt, and applied a fresh coat of flat black spray paint to the interior of the tube, to suppress internal reflections.

While I had the diagonal mirror out, I found myself looking at the gadget that was holding the diagonal mirror in place. It was clever, but not exactly right. Traditionally, good diagonal mirror holders use three spring-loaded screws so that you can adjust the diagonal mirror's angle relative to the primary mirror and eyepiece focuser. (Really good diagonal holders have an additional screw that lets you move the entire mirror up and down in the tube.) Here's a picture; it isn't really covered in dust. That's an artifact of trying to adjust the contrast and brightness of the image to bring out detail.

Click to enlarge

This adjustment process of part of what is called collimation--and for Newtonian reflectors, it is absolutely critical. I can't count the number of Newtonians that I have looked through that had a serious collimation problem severely impairing the telescope's performance.

Anyway, I decided to disassemble the diagonal holder's three screw adjustment scheme to find out why it was so clumsy. It turned out that there were no springs in between the screws and the piece of metal to which the diagonal is glued. This has probably been a contributor to the poor performance of Big Bertha, because without springs between the mirror holder, and the part that screws into the spider, gravity can cause minor movements of the mirror holder against those screws--destroying the collimation.

I dug around and found appropriate sized springs--and it certainly makes a difference. Last night was pretty clear, although there was a little turbulence, but I was able to crank Big Bertha up to 400x on the Moon, with the image just starting to get soft. I couldn't decide if this was a limitation of the optics, or because of turbulence. I could certainly see the image quivering a bit. Jupiter was limited to about 222x, but this may have been because a quarter Moon puts out a lot of light. I'll try this again when I don't have tht pesky natural streetlight in the sky.

Partly because of all the rearrangement I made to the primary mirror's mounting method when I first bought this telescope, it has always been a bit tail heavy. One solution has to been to hang the bungee cords that hold the dust cover in place off the front of the tube. I decided to relocate the finderscope bracket a little closer to the front end of the tube, partly to rebalance the tube assembly, and partly because where it was before made it clumsy to sight along the bracket to get the finder aimed properly. (Because it is an 8x finderscope, you often have to do a very coarse aiming of the entire telescope to get an object in the finderscope.)

You can see the old bracket holes in the picture:

Click to enlarge