Saturday, October 07, 2006

A few pictures

We'll be getting back to aviation entries soon, but I shot a few pictures I wanted to upload.

A few days ago, I went out in the backyard and found that a spider had been busy. I'm no big fan of spiders, but their webs are amazing to see. Yes, that's a little bug at the center, haute cuisine for spiders.

Last night (October 5) was an exceptionally beautiful Harvest moon. I took the camera and went to spot near our house. This was a full moon at perigee (closest approach to earth) so it appears in the sky 12% larger than when the moon is at apogee. 300 mm lens.

Same moon, exiting from behind a cloud bank. I zoomed out a bit so the trees were visible. I used Photoshop Elements 4.0, and chose autolevels and it came out with this gorgeous blue sky. I liked it.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Crescent Moon

Very nice crescent moon - September 28, 2006 - 7:30 PM

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Landing Video

Linda took this video of our landing in Sugar Land on our second flight.

More flying pictures

Pre-flight Check

Starting the engine

Taxiing down to the runway

In the Air!


On September 2, 2006, I fulfilled a long-time dream, and became a private pilot. After over two years of flight lessons (a longer time than average, but I was pretty much restricted to flying on weekends) I took my check ride at Sugar Land Airport, under the watchful tutelage of Joe Kapocsi, Chief Flight Instructor at Anson Air. Joe is also a pilot for Continental, and he has over 23,000 hours in the air.

The FAA Practical Exam consists of two parts: the oral examination, where the designated pilot examiner tests the applicant's knowlede of aviation, and the check ride, where he evaluates how the pilot actually flies the aircraft. The oral portion took about and hour and half, and he covered the basics - areodynamics, weather, regulations, navigation, use of charts, etc. I thought that part went all right.

I then pre-flighted the aircraft (N75897, a Cessna 172) while Joe watched and asked questions. We got in the plane, got the ASOS (an automated weather report of conditions at the field), and taxied out to Runway 35. We took off for our planned cross-country flight to Waco. After we cross the Katy Freeway, he announced that Waco was closed, and asked me to divert to another field. I fumbled with charts and plotter, but I eventually got the course and time to our destination.

I won't go into details. We did the basic manuevers I've done a hundred times in lessons - slow flight, stalls, turns around a point, all accompanied by a constant commentary from Joe. During the flight, I thought I was doing terribly, but apparently it satisfied him. I did okay on the most important thing: don't scare the examiner. My airwork was within tolerances.

We did a few landings, then landed to a full stop and parked at the Anson Air ramp. I was dreading the briefing, but it turned out to be quite positive. He told me about some things on the flight to watch out for, and said that I had passed.

I passed. And like the pilots like to say, I had earned my license to learn. I've had a few flights since then as a Private Pilot - Airplane Single Engine Land. Linda went up with me the next day for my inaugural flight carrying a passenger while I was pilot-in-command. (Technically, I was pilot-in-command during the checkride, but I didn't feel that really counted.)

I am looking forward to the flights ahead.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Pictures from Egypt

The Sphinx
Pyramid and Sphinx
Linda and Steve in front of Pyramid
Very big. Very old.

We just keep going and going

The head in our cabin - cozy is one word for it...
Steve resting under a statue in Malta
Cooks preparing food in Sinfonia galley
Resting in our cabin
Our dining room - Il Galeone

And some more

Tent wall

Sinfonia in TobrukGangplanks
Projected image of solar crescent

Another set of photos

Libyan Road Setting up equipment
Some people brought really big telescopes!
A view of the crowd

Saturday, April 15, 2006

More Pictures

Mount Etna
Back deck of Sinfonia
Leptis Magna Theater
Cathedral Floor


Partial Phase
Maltese Kitty
Pompeii Plaster Cast of Victim

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

And this is what the fuss was about


We're back home. Yesterday morning, we left Genoa (fortunately, Linda insisted we rise at 4:30 AM) made it to the airport, and got there soon enough to avoid being tail end of a huge line of eclipse chasers. We got checked in, and even though our little jet left late, we made it to Paris with enough time to get on the 777 (even though we had our carry-on luggage searched twice).

We landed at IAH at 2:00 pm, and driver with the town car was there after we cleared customs and got our luggage. We pulled into our driveway at 3:30, got inside, greeted the cats, and hastily unpacked things.

A nap for me, then checking mail, pizza ordered in, and off to bed at 10.

And now it's back to normal - and hoping that the jet lag is minimal.

It was a great vacation, but it's also great to be back.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Maltese Tourist

Yesterday morning, we sailed into Malta, an island near Italy. Like every other place we've been, it's rich in history. And like every place we've seen in our cruise, it's been settled, occupied, conquered, re-conquered by various empires and kingdoms and the like.

Malta is really lovely, a charming place. I would love to come back here for a few days and see the shops and other attractions. It's hilly, and we walked a few of those hills checking things out.

Our guide this time was not one of the best. She was an older woman who loved the sound of her own voice. She took us first to this arch going into the city, just a kilometer or so away from the ship. We then went into St. John's Co-Cathedral. Linda and I have never been to a cathedral before, and this was a good place to start. Inside, huge religious themed paintings covered the curved ceiling high overhead. The floors were inlaid with tiles with more artwork. There seemed to be a skeleton motif to the floor's paintings, also inscribed with various bits of Latin text. Large paintings were on various walls, good examples of Renaissance art. In the gift shop, I bought a Knights of Malta action figure and a combination cannon/pencil sharpener.

After that, we went to Mdina, another section of the city, narrow streets of sand-colored buildings with various shops and apartments. We saw three cats, fat and happy, and also bunches of pigeons (I guess these were Maltese pigeons). Another cathedral, equally impresive.

Before long, we headed back to the ship. We left Malta at 2 PM, and headed for Salerno. Dinner that night was another gala affair, and at the end of it, the lights dimmed and the waitstaff paraded out with platters of baked Alaska, flames rising like little volcanoes from the dishes. Marvelous stuff.

We met the Haldemans in Le Baroque, one of bars aboard ship, and we watched Los Latinos, two very pretty girls from Paraguay sing pretty Spanish and Mexican songs, accompanied by an older man playing a harp.

After that, we went to the evening's entertainment. The opening act was a really amazing and funny piece. A man covered in white makeup and white clothes posed like a marble statue, and then a head poked from his cloak. So we had a two headed statue (it took a while to realize that the head was a realistic puppet controlled by the man. In mime, he did an act, the two heads alternately arguing and fussing, and trying to control each other. In turns hilarious and ironic, they moved and countermoved.

The ending piece was bad. It was a syrupy rendition of We Are The World, accompanied by people carrying various flags, and moving around the theater. Whatever possessed them to put on such a display of recycled 80's treacle, I'll never know. Bleah. They should have closed with an encore of the statue with two heads.

We left the theater, and while Joe and Gay played blackjack, Linda and I whittled away 20 Euros on the slots.

This is my last post for the trip. Today we see Salerno, and tonight is our last night on board. We spend tomorrow night in Genoa, and on Tuesday we fly back.

It has been a wonderful trip.


Friday, March 31, 2006

This place is falling to pieces

It is really hard to keep track of days on board. It's feels impossible to believe that this is our 11th day on board. Without some of the usual cues of daily routines of work and home, the time seems to blend together into one long stream of now. Pretty cool.

Anyway, day before yesterday we had the show and tell in the San Carlo theater. Beforehand, I went up and gave my one good image and a some video to Alan Dyer. He was set up on Deck 6 with his Mac laptop and people lined up to give him a memory card or transfer some video over a Firewire cable I joined the queue. It took just a couple of minutes to grab the images.

The show and tell was great. Some fantastic imagery and vids, projected on the big screen there. Aside from the idiots who tried to take flash pictures of the presentation (they would get nothing but a blank screen), it was well run. My image of the third contact diamond ring was shown, and my video segment of the last 45 seconds of totality was also displayed to a smattering of applause (he said modestly).

One image was of a vastly overexposed close-up of totality, and it had been processed to show the faint features of the newest moon you can imagine, illuminated solely by the reflected light of the earth. I have never before seen an image like that -- absolutely incredible.

Yesterday we put into the port of Tripoli, and we joined another convoy of buses to see the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. This was a port settlement originally founded by the Phoenecians back in the 6th century BC, then settled by the Romans. Hadrian was there in the first century AD, and he had more buildings and works added there.

The ruins were fantastic. Arches, markets, forums, old Roman baths were all around. The restored theater was beautiful, a big semi-circle of seats and steps with a stage. The weather was getting warmer, but then a sea breeze would blow over the cold marble, cooling us off nicely. Clear blue sky, and the sea was the gorgeous deep blue I've never seen before.

We had a lunch at a restaurant by the sea (our lunches were boxed beforehand at the ship). Interestingly enough, non-alcoholic beer was available if you wanted it. I stuck with bottled water. On the ride back, we saw herds of Libyan goats and sheep, one or two camels (not as prevalent as in Egypt). The countryside reminded me of the Texas hill country - there was even some cactus around.

March is a good time to be here. I can't imagine what it would be like in July. Libya holds the world's record for high temperatures with 136.

Back to the ship, tired, but another nice supper. Today we are in Malta and we go ashore for another excursion. I'll report on that tomorrow.


Thursday, March 30, 2006

Operation Desert Shadow

Okay, another quick one because of the intermittent Internet connectivity.

In a word, the eclipse was magnificent. Could not have asked for better viewing conditions. Clear blue sky, desert sand and rocks all around, and 1500 other eclipse nuts gathered to view the eclipse in the Libyan desert.

I got some good video and and one really spectacular shot of the ending diamond ring. Today there is a show and tell of imagery and video, and I've submitted mine. We'll see if it's deemed good enough to show to the group.

At sea now, heading for Tripoli.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Been there, done that, got the Egyptian Cotton T-Shirt

I'll make this brief - the internet connect connection onboard has been dicy lately.

We did Egypt - saw the pyramids, the Sphinx, the Nile, King Tut. Much too much to go into right now - I'll post more later.

We are in Tobruk, and tomorrow at 6:30 we leave for the eclipse. After we get back, and presuming the connection is better, I'll try for a lengthier update.

All is well -


Sunday, March 26, 2006

Walk like an Egyptian

Or maybe that should be cruise like an Egyptian.

I'm posting this at about 7 AM local time, which is 11:00 PM Texas time, though I've pretty much adapted to the time change. In about an hour we leave for our Cairo day trip. We'll be taking buses from Alexandria (3 hour trip) and see the pyramids and the Sphinx. We'll be having some kind of lunch at a hotel in Cairo, and then we see the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which I'm sure will be amazing. Altogether, it will be a 13 hour day before we're back on board, so that's another reason to do this now.

The port of Alexandria is BIG. Container ships and other cargo vessels all around us. We were up on deck to watch the Sinfonia sail in. Cloudy morning, about 60, though that will get warmer particularly as we head to Cairo.

The Under Nile Skies lecture was interesting. It was delivered by Paul Krupp, a plantarium director from Griffith Observatory. There's been a lot of stuff written about astronomical correlations with the Pyramids and other Egyptian architecture, only some of which is true. There are shafts in the great Pyramid that correspond with the positions of important stars. Because of precession, the pole star back in ancient Egyptian times was not Polaris, but another start in the constellation of Draco. Anyway, there's a shaft in the pyramid that points to that star.

We did some solar obersving on deck with some people who brought telescopes. They had hydrogen alpha filters, which allows you to see prominences in hydrogen alpha light. There was one curl of gas quite clear on the edge of the solar disk. Looked small, but then you realize that the wisp of plasma is bigger than the earth.

We had a before dinner drink with Joe and Gay (well, Joe and I had the drink), and then off to dinner. Made the mistake of ordering a seafood salad for a starter. There were those damn tentacles again. I nibbled at the shrimp and stuff I recognized. Main course was pork medallions and mashed potatoes...very tasty.

Tried to get to sleep early, but my brain kept going. I finally drifted off around midnight. When the alarm went off, Linda grumbled, and said "This had better be worth it." But coffee and breakfast improved our mood.

Anyway, the next report will be tomorrow.


Dancing Girls

Yesterday afternoon, after I published my blog, I had a satisfying nap. Then Linda and I went to the party on Deck 11 (by the pool) that was hosted by Travelquest and Sky & Telescope. A goodly crowd showed up, and we grabbed a table. Joe & Gay Haldeman stopped by and we spent a pleasant hour chatting about science fiction, astronomy, equipment, the cruise, and so forth. I had some champagne and munched on the potato chips and little snacks placed on the tables. Meanwhile, the band started up, and my wife and Gay decided to join about thirty others on deck doing the Macarena. Joe leaned over and said, "Can you believe what our wives are doing?" I grinned and said, "Looks like a photo op." I had my camera and managed a couple of good shots of them dancing.

After the little soiree, we left for dinner, which as usual was great. Pleasant conversation carried out over the din of a few hundred people talking and eating, while the efficient waitstaff (all unfailingly polite and pleasant) managed the intricacies of getting 5 courses of food into the passengers.

Later on I went out on deck (Linda had decided to relax in the cabin), and found that the position forward of the bridge had the lights cut out to enjoy a little amateur astronomy. I had my binoculars with me and enjoyed the sky before it clouded over. I did get a quick view of Saturn through one person's Tele Vue 85 (nice little telescope), so I can now say that I've seen Saturn from the deck of a cruise ship deep in the Mediterranean.

I went back down, and wandered deck 6 for a bit, ran into Gay, and we had an Irish Coffee in one of the bars. Then we wandered over to the Casino where Joe was trying his luck at blackjack. I was content to watch. Meanwhile, Linda had enough of relaxing and came down an joined us.

We had one more go at the deck, and there were some clear spots in the sky. I had a quick look at a faint fuzzy nebula, and then it was time for bed.

Today we might have a go at an afternoon bingo session. I might try to catch one of the lectures - "Under Nile Skies".

Tomorrow we dock at Alexandria, Egypt, and do our day trip to Cairo.


Saturday, March 25, 2006

Water, Water, all around

We are at sea after leaving Sicily, and we will have nothing but water for a horizon for two days. As I write this in the Internet cafe, I can pull back a curtain at watch the waves ( a staggering six inches) go by as the Sinfonia steams along at about 15 knots (I think).

Last night we had the little gala cocktail reception. Who would have thought that a bunch of scruffy eclipse chasers could clean up so good? So we all sat in the San Carlo theater and they handed out champagne and canapes, and then introduced the ship's officers. Each got a round of applause. Meanwhile, Aldo the cabin steward was steering the ship.

Aldo must have done a good job, so we went to dinner. No tentacles showed up, and I had some tasty (if rather small) lamb chops for a main course. Dessert was a nice tiramisu.

Our table companions are interesting. There's one fellow, Elliot, who is a sports photographer, so he's travelled a lot. Another man there has seen 15 eclipses - wow! A nice group of people.

Today we had a presentation about what to expect during the eclipse and how to best image it, both with video and still photography. Rick Feinberg, an editor at Sky & Telescope started out by explaining what happens during an eclipse in these succinct words: "Moon blocks sun. Gets dark." We saw some pictures of what the eclipse viewing area will look like (desolate is a kind word).

It was all very useful information, presented well. We have a very knowledgeable bunch of people organizing this thing, and I'm impressed.

Last night I blew 10 euros at the casino on the slots, so I can safely say I fed my gambling addiction. I don't really do blackjack or craps or anything at a casino that requires thought and skill in addition to luck, so ten minutes in front of a slot machine usually suffices.

It's midafternoon, and a nap beckons. John. D. MacDonald pointed out that there is a satisfying sense of accomplishment with a nap at sea....progress is made and distance is covered. So I think I'm going to go help the ship move along towards Egypt.


Friday, March 24, 2006

Now That's Italian

Last night we had our first encounter with some less than perfect seas. The ship did some light rolling, and it was a little difficult to keep your balance when you walked. Fortunately, there was no motion sickness, but it was a bit peculiar to be lying in bed and feel the slow accelerations and decelerations of the ship.

Anyway, we got up this morning and the ship was docked in Syracuse, a Sicilian city originally founded in 735 BC. We decided not to do a shore excursion, but just enjoyed a nice breakfast buffet, sucking down the coffee in order to jump-start consiousness.

The day is beautiful, clear blue skies with some thin high cirrus clouds, about 60, maybe 65. We retrieved our cameras from our cabin and came back to the high deck and I spent a good half hour shooting images of the harbor, Mount Etna in the background capped with snow. Absolutely charming. Ever so often, tenders would leave the boat for those people who wished to go ashore. (Note: I wish I could attach pictures to these messages, but we can't hook anything up to the computers here in the Internet cafe).

We lay in the sun for awhile, just enjoying the warmth and fresh air, and then it was the hard work of going back to the cabin for a nap.

Tonight is a gala night, with a cocktail reception in the San Carlo theater, followed by our dinner. Gala night means get dressed up, so I will finally wear the suit that I brought.

We're scheduled to leave port at 4 PM, and after that it's two days at sea before we dock in Alexandria, Egypt.

To anyone who has ever entertained the notion of taking a cruise, by all means do so. There is nothing quite like it in the world.

That's all for now -


Thursday, March 23, 2006

Naples, Pompeii, and Magic

Around noon, the Sinfonia pulled into the port of Naples, which I learned later is the third busiest port in Italy. It looked it, with cargo ships and other craft all around. We docked at the cruise ship terminal here, and we looked the city over while having lunch up on the 11th deck.

After lunch, we gathered in the San Carlo theater to await the excursion to Pompeii. They issued us a number (6) to indicate which bus we should board for the trip. After the first couple of groups left, we followed our tour director out, which was a long process because you have to scan your cruise card when you leave. It's kind of a passenger inventory control system - the ship won't leave port unless the system shows that the passenger was scanned back in.

Anyway, our group of 50 boarded the bus, while the cute blonde tour guide (Marta) herded us in. On the way to Pompeii, she told us about the history of Naples (briefly) while we drove through some the less ritzy parts of town. One thing you see a lot of is laundry hanging out of windows in apartment buildings. That's fairly common in Europe, but more prevalent in Italy.

Back in 79 AD, Vesuvius popped a cap on 20,000 souls, burying them in ash from a pyroclastic flow. Before that eruption Vesuvius was about three times as high as it is now. Later settlements rebuilt some of Pompeii, and we learned that city was first a Greek town, later taken over by the Romans.

The ruins are something to see. We only had a couple of hours to view them, but it was fascinating to see the walls of ancient stores and houses, where people lived and worked two millenia ago. They felt safe in the shadow of the montain that eventually destroyed them.

Vesuvius is showing signs of being active again, and if it decides to blow again, Naples could be at risk. Even now, there are villages on the slopes of the volcano.

After the tour, we walked back and eventually boarded the buses. Getting back on the ship, we had to have our bags x-rayed again, and go through a metal detector, and of course scan our cruise card again.

The evening meal was a good (I had the meatballs as a main course) but I did not order the potato and octupus salad as a starter. I try to avoid tentacles.

After dinner, we chatted with Joe and Gay Haldeman. Joe is a fairly well know science fiction writer (among other books, he wrote the award winning novel The Forever War) . Joe and Gay joined us at the interesting and entertaining magic show (lots of smoke and music and pretty girls) in the San Carlo theater. Lots of fun, though I felt like had consumed a pack of Luckies.

Tomorrow is Friday (I think) and we are supposed to be docked in Sicily, but Linda and I will probably just spend some time on the ship and get to know it better.

The jet lag is fading away, we're starting to get our sea legs!


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

At sea, stuffed with food, and jet lagged

The trip over from Houston was good and Air France did their usual good job in the flight from to Paris, which was near freezing and cloudy when we landed. The connecting flight from Paris to Genoa was delayed two hours while they switched out the aircraft. In contrast to the spacious Boeing 777 for the Atlantic crossing, this was a small Canada regional jet.

We did have a nice view of the Alps coming in, covered with snow and half hidden by clouds. Think a plate of Rocky Road ice cream covered by whipped cream.

The weather was clear as we came into Genoa, and the villages and houses nestled in the hills were lovely. After landing in a stiff crosswind at the airport, we got out of customs and joined a bunch of other people trying to get to the Sinfonia at the cruise ship terminal.

More lines, and presenting of passports, and getting the cruise card, and two hours after we landed Linda and I managed to get to our cabin, unpack a few essentials, and grab a nap. Then at 5:30 we had a lifeboat drill so we knew where to go if it ever happened that we need to abandon ship.

Now we were hungry, and fortunately we had asked for first seating, and we joined a congenial group of people at our table and made our way through 5 course, some good, some just average.

But that is done and I am writing this and I am in that peculiar jet lagged state that makes everything a little too real and I am off to bed.

Tomorrow is Naples and Pompeii!

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


Today's the day. We are busy packing everything up and seeing to the last minute preparations. My next post will be from the Sinfonia.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Equipment to record the eclipse

One does not travel a third of the way around the world to see an eclipse and not take some pictures. The entire eclipse will last a couple of hours, but the most dramatic part, totality, will last 4 minutes. So in those 240 seconds, I will be recording using both a camcorder and digital SLR. Plus stealing a moment every so often to just look at it, both naked eye and with binoculars.

In order to save space, I wanted to mount my cameras on one tripod. Houston Camera Exchange ( has just about anything a photographer could want, whether going classic film, digital, or video. I found a nice Manfrotto tripod there, along with an accessory bar to support the two panheads on which the camcorder and Canon EOS 20D will rest.

I also found a right-angle viewfinder for the digicam which will enable me to compose the shots without contorting myself behind the tripod.

Almost any amateur astronomer will tell you that isn't about the gear -- it's the experience that matters. That's true...but the gear is pretty cool. :)

Three days to the trip!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Other Eclipses

This trip to Europe won't be our first view of an eclipse. I've seen numerous lunar eclipses and two total solar eclipses - but that last one in 1999 doesn't count because the frickin' sun was behind the frickin' clouds.

Anyway. here are a couple of photos - one's from the last lunar eclipse in Oct. 2004, and one is from a partial solar eclipse in June 2002.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


For the cruise and the eclipse, I've been having fun getting a few gadgets for the trip. One that came yesterday were some pretty cool binoculars. These are Canon Image Stabilized binoculars, the 10 X 42 model. You press a button and the normally slightly jerky image you get from hand-holding the binocs becomes smooth and stable. Here's a link:

I tried them out last night - they will be great for the eclipse.

19 days to go!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Getting ready for the cruise

According to the eclipse cruise website: the trip is just 30 days away as I write this (it seems a bit off because of February being a shortened month). Things are falling into place. The air travel from Houston to Genoa has been booked. Everything that can be paid for at this point has been paid for.

I'm definitely getting excited about the trip now. I went out yesterday and purchased a tripod and pan head for the camera and camcorder I'll be using to record the event. I considered bringing my little Pronto telescope, but I think I'll leave that at home. If I have to get a telescopic peek at the prominences, I'll just look through someone elses instrument.

There has been news about the avian flu appearing in Egypt, one the places we'll be stopping at. Guess I'll have to stay away from birds.

It's been several years since our last trip out of the country. I'm really looking forward to it.