Sunday, December 22, 2013

It's Christmas Time...what about it?

It's Christmas time.  I bet you didn't know that.  NOT!  This should be a time for PEACE, LOVE and JOY for all.   AND I mean ALL.  Whether folks celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday or observance or a secular one, the time should be full of goodwill.  In 2013, for some it certainly is.

Gift giving has become traditional, of course.  Many little ones are raised with some sort of "Santa" tradition including Santa Claus characters of many names including Sintor Klaas (Belgium), Papai Noel (Brazil), Hotei-osho (Japan)  Saint Nicholas (UK and many others), Nisse (Denmark), Babuska (Russia) and on and on.

There are also the traditions which honor the truly pagan roots of Christmas...such as the Roman and many northern European cultures that celebrate the Winter Solstice--the day of the least light and the longest night of the year.  The Canadian "mummers" find their roots in Roman times (entertainers who go from house to house during time of Solstice).  The yule log (celebration of the sun), mistletoe (fertility rite) and the Christmas tree (symbolic of good luck and fertility as well).

It was in 350 AD that the Roman Catholic pope Julius I decreed that Christmas or the celebration of Christ's birth would be on the 25th of December- an unlikely date for a birth as described in the New Testament - probably to make it less painless for the Roman pagans to be converted to Christianity.  In the 1500's the celebration of Christ-Mass as we know it today began in Germany either by the Catholics or the Lutherans - no one really knows for sure.

There is no doubt, however, that Christmas has become a universal festival, celebrated by people of different cultures in their own unique way. 
Our Christmas is very Christian based, echoing my wife's and my Anglican and Catholic upbringing.  The centerpiece of our Christmas and the most lasting symbol is the Nativity creche that was passed down from Maryann's parents.  

This is one of many Christmas Nativities that my wife and I own.  We have always had a love for the Holy Family and the Madonna and Child so our "focus decor" is all about that and for most of the year.  Here's an example of one of the "permanent collection." This Madonna and Child (or Peasant Woman and Babe) measures about 18 inches tall and 14 inches wide.  It was one of the first very special pieces we purchased many years is a Lladro gres piece. which we love dearly.

And here's our most recent acquisition which was gifted to us by a dear friend, Diann, because she and her husband are beginning to downsize.

I could go on and on with pics of Nativity Scenes but I'll stop here.

The above, of course, are just symbols but ones that some find objectionable and have gone to court to have removed based on public policy.  How silly.  Just as silly as this:

As I said in my opening, Christmas, which is a traditional holiday, can and is celebrated by many from different faiths and beliefs...and non-believers as well. It is celebrated by billions of people throughout the world both as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus as well as a cultural holiday of many different beliefs.  The one thing all have in common is what I generally respond to folks whom I wish a Merry Christmas privately...and I will say it to all of you.  This year I wish you a Christmas holiday full of PEACE and LOVE and JOY for this time and throughout 2014.

Merry Christmas

Saturday, November 9, 2013

FANTASTIC HYPE or just FANTASTIC? Comet ISON in the waning days of 2013

Are we in for a spectacular stellar show?   We're going to be seeing and reading a lot of hype on social media pages, newspapers and on television really soon. 

Over a year ago a tiny speck of moving light was discovered in the far reaches of our solar system.  This was a brand new comet hurtling through space towards our sun.  This was given the name C/2012 S1 or, more commonly, COMET ISON. 

Comet Ison November 4, 2013 by Damien Peach

Ison was on track and IS on track to reach our sun the end of November on the 28th.    Early reports and speculation have labeled ISON  "the Comet of the Century."  In the photo below, ISON is visible in the dead center, looking like a star with a tiny tail aimed to the right.  It's also (if this photo works right) the only thing in the image that is moving. This photo was taken early this year.
Some astronomers (especially amateur ones) have great hopes for ISON.  ISON is a "virgin" comet, meaning that this is its first pass around the sun.  Tracking estimates that it will make a swing around the sun that will bring it less than 800,000 miles from the very hot surface (in excess of 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit).  Because it is a "virgin" comet, there has been a lot of excitement AND hype in the astronomy community.  If it survives that encounter, as it swings around the Sun, it MAY develop a very bright tail and possibly be visible to the naked eye.  Unfortunately, comets are HIGHLY unpredictable.

Since I'm writing this for folks who are not generally "astronomy geeks" I suppose I should give a little background.

ISON and all other comets are often referred to as "dirty snowballs."  That's because they are made up of ice, dust, gasses, and rocks left over from the formation of the stars and planets millions of years ago.  They reside in a part of our Solar System, called the Oort Cloud which is located at the fringes of our Solar System (some measurements say it is nearly a light year away from us--about 6 trillion miles).  Nothing in space sits still and occasionally the balls of rock and ice are "grabbed" by our (and its) Sun's gravity and pulled out of the Oort Cloud towards the sun.  There are a number of regular comets that make their journey from deep space to our sun and back again, the most famous is likely Halley's Comet, last seen in our neighborhood in 1986.
NASA photo of ISON from a land-based telescope in September, 2013

As the "dirty snowball" begins to melt from the heat of the sun (and this begins to occur very far from the sun), it creates a "tail" of vaporized gas which  is ionized by the sunlight and solar wind (yes, the sun creates a type of "wind") and those condensed ions are illuminated.  Some comets' tails can be hundreds of thousands or millions of miles long depending on the size of the comet and how close it gets to the sun (this is a short explanation of a long, complicated process).
Photo by Hubble Space Telescope
Now Comet ISON is a big comet, at least that's what I've been reading.  As I mentioned above, early hope was that ISON would be one of the "wonder" comets that all on our Earth will be able to see in the twilight skies of dusk and dawn.  Several of the Astronomy publications were shouting that fact.  Unfortunately, ISON is not living up to its reputation and this might be "much ado about nothing" for the general public.

In early August, 2013, ISON emerged from behind the Sun from our orbital perspective.  It wasn't nearly as bright as astronomers calculated it should be (about 2 magnitudes dimmer in fact).  We really only know when ISON is going to graze the sun.  We also know when we should begin to see it as it leaves the sun behind.  That's all we really know now.  As it gets close to the sun, it may break up into small pieces, many falling into the sun and disintegrating and leaving some astro folks pretty red-faced as they stand with their friends waiting in the wee hours for a show that won't occur.  It may emerge from its sun-grazing orbit still in one  huge piece and fill the eastern sky at dusk with a tail that covers half the sky, brightly outshining most, if not all, night sky objects. That would be magical to say the least!  OR it may be something in between, a "yawner" for many but still exciting for those of us who have binoculars or a telescope and know where to look to see it.

Only time will tell.  In recent years, many of the predicted "great comets" have been nothing more than a fizzle for most. BUT there is a chance, and according to comet expert John Bortle, likely the best show ISON will give us will be the end of December (because of the brightness of the moon prior to this time) and ISON may be its most spectacular on the nights of December 24 and December 25.   A comet for Christmas, how magical is that?

I will update this, hopefully weekly, from this point on and give some tips on how to observe ISON as well as where to look to find it.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

All about Bri...

Yesterday I spent the day with my 16 year old daughter.  I mean, I spent just about the WHOLE day.  And it was good. 

I often realize that the time I spend with her is not quality time.  I don't mean to do that, it just happens.  Life is "just too busy" or she's doing things I don't approve of.  Usually when she wants to do something with me, it costs money and like so many others, we're short of that.  Because of the costs that always seem to be involved, I don't do a lot with my daughter...but yesterday, it was different!

About two weeks ago she asked if I'd want to be a judge in a drama festival at her school.  Having considerable experience in the past with teaching and being a part of drama, I agreed--even though I knew it would mean that I'd have to give up an entire day and that day would probably be beautiful (something that  has been a rarity these past few weeks).  And, of course, it was.

She needed some money for the group she was with--to buy pizza and drinks.  Naturally.  As a judge, I was given all sorts of perks--like snacks and drinks--so the only cost to me was the fuel to get to the festival. Most of the youngsters involved (and there were like 325 of them) came from schools all around our state--some traveling several hundreds of miles to get there.  The majority of Bri's drama group were working as "gophers" since the school she attends was the host for the festival.  The other kids likely had a stipend from their schools.  Bri and her friends had to provide for themselves.

The festival involved breaking up students into groups and each group being given a "prompt."  Most groups were made up of six to eight kids.  From the prompt and a "prop," each group had to develop an original skit that followed the rules of dramatics that they had learned and experienced.   As one would expect, with the random groupings of youngsters, the talent varied a great deal in the groups.  Each group had to learn each member's strengths and weaknesses as well as incorporate those into the skit.  This all had to be conceived, composed, developed and produced in about 2 1/2 hours!   The twelve groups I judged  were surprisingly homogenous and in most cases, their skits worked!

This missive is more about Bri than the vehicle that brought it about.  She somehow managed to become my personal slave during the festival.  That meant she was my runner and touch point for locations, paperwork, and information.  It also meant she was with me during all the performances and participated in the warm-up exercises that I had each group do.  It was the first time I saw her reacting with and collaborating with groups of kids out of her personal space here on the ranch.  I liked what I saw.  She has talent that should be nurtured.  She's a leader.  And she's a ham. This wasn't about "boyfriends" or teenage "drama" (which is mostly what she brings home to us).  This was about her growing to become the person she's going to be.  AND I liked what I saw. 

During the lunch break, she had a slice of pizza with her friends and then came into the teachers' room--and remained glued to my side.  She interacted with several people I was visiting with and, at times, took control of the conversation.  I wasn't surprised at all at that.  She has always gotten along well with adults.  The folks I was with engaged her and made all the right noises.  I'm not sure Bri should have been there but since she was, I ran with it.   She certainly came across as a mature, caring sixteen year old girl.  I liked what I saw. Naturally I know a lot about the "other" Bri that we deal with day-to-day but I was impressed with who she was throughout the day. 

I contrast Bri and her behavior with that of a young gal who is living with us for a time...a young gal who has a dysfunctional family and has come to my wife and me for many years to escape, to be comforted, to blow off steam.   I'm not sure what her "fathers" have been like.  The little I know, it doesn't sound like there was much interaction and especially positive interaction.  Maryann and I have always tried to be there for Bri...and yesterday I was glad I was.

I've made a personal commitment to try and be more connected to Bri's life during these last two years of high school.  If what I saw yesterday is anything like what's coming down the road, I like it.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A review...The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

“…one morning long ago in the quiet of the world, when there was less noise and more green, and the hobbits were still numerous and prosperous, and Bilbo Baggins was standing at his door after breakfast…Gandalf came by.”

My 15 year old daughter and I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey last night.  It was a long awaited and put off trek to the movie theater where we watched J.R.R. Tolkien's classic children's story in regular 2-D format by choice and it was an unfortunate one.

Being a Tolkien afficionado, I've read multiple reviews of this film.  They have been all over the board from simply stunning to pure and total garbage.  Peter Jackson has chosen to make a film that likely won't have the rabid Tolkien fan base froth at the mouth nearly as much as we did because of what he left out.  The Hobbit is nineteen chapters long.  This first installment of three films ran right about 2 hours and forty minutes (not counting credits).  No one but Jackson and his crew know how long the last two parts will be but the figure of a total of nine hours isn't far off the mark.  I can read The Hobbit aloud easily in that amount of time and discuss it as well!  No, no one should complain about what he left out.  Many complaints I'm hearing are about what Jackson put IN IT!.

One complaint was about the dwarf songs...Jackson included several songs sung by the company of Dwarves in Bibo's home at Bag End.  I remember distinctly reading these songs (or not depending on how closely I was reading the book==which has been read many multiple times).   These were not padding.  Tolkien put the songs (and there are many in his tales of Middle Earth) into his books to help share some of the history and give insight into the characters doing the singing.   Jackson brilliantly adapted those songs along with delightful antics by the Dwarf members of the troop.  Th songs did their jobs well and WORKED.

Jackson pulled story lines from the appendices of Lord of the Rings.  He also created content from the "throwaway lines" of the original text.  There is a sub plot of the Necromancer in the "Green Wood"  and a significant plot line of a chief orc, Azog the Defiler.

One friend said that Jackson created a new character with Azog--but no, he worked (likely) for Sauron and was in the original trilogy - the "King of Moria", the mines what Thorin's grandfather attempted to inhabit after being driven from the Lonely Mountain. I think Azog was a goblin in the original.  In this film Azog was the chief antagonist and gave the film the movement and focus necessary to keep the Dwarves and the Hobbit from just wandering aimlessly toward their goal of retaking the Lonely Mountain.  This and other "padding" by Jackson was thoughtfully and beautifully done and provide plenty of action sequences.

The character, Radagast the Brown, is greatly expanded by Jackson.  Radagast is one of the wizards in Gandalf's circle (there are only five and two have gone missing).  He is an eccentric wizard and Jackson seized upon that to make a character who is likeable and certainly helpful to the cause although he is dismissed by Saruman as less than dependable.  If only Saruman knew.

In the novel, Bilbo Baggins is a relatively lazy, affable and incredibly likeable little hobbit.  In Jackson's movie, Bilbo becomes a much misunderstood hero.  He is much more the hero than in the novel and his actions make him stand out.  Nowhere is that more evident than in the "Riddle Game" sequence between Bilbo and Andy Serkis' Gollum.   This part of the film (in the last 45 minutes) has been proclaimed the "best" part of the entire film.   Gollum is amazing.  Bilbo is steadfast and heroic only gives a minor descriptor of his actions.  It was brilliant.

There are battles, there is running, there are scenes a' la Indiana Jones in the depths of the earth.  Throughout the film we are treated to breath-taking New Zealand scenery and views of Imladris or Rivendell.  This is all cemented together by the outstanding performance of Ian McKellan playing once again his imposing Gandalf the Grey.   We are treated to visuals that are startling.  We see intimate details one wouldn't expect (who knew Gandalf's fingernails are so dirty?).  This film was worth the trip.

I'll be going back to see this again in 3-D although not at the 48 frame per second filming that is touted as being so wonderful (closest theater that can do this is 150 miles away).  As I left the theater last night at about 12:10am, I felt exactly what I heard someone leaving ahead of me: " It sux that we have to wait a year for the next one."