Black Eye galaxy

M64 -- the "Black Eye Galaxy"
M64 – The Black Eye Galaxy

Here is a small target for my telescope. The “black eye” is discernible, but only on close examination can any other structure be seen. It’s sometimes called the “Evil Eye” galaxy; this Hubble View makes that case very well. The idea that there are two counter-rotating stellar populations is mind-boggling.

Memories of Big Red

In my early 20s, I purchased a used car from a friend for $300, a red ’59 Chevrolet Impala with faded paint and many dents that he had named “Big Red”. Big Red ran well, and gas was cheap back then.

Big Red served me well, but one day it wouldn’t start, and instead of paying for a repair, I bought another cheap car. Big Red sat unnoticed on a Stanford parking lot while I moved a couple of times, traveled some, and got a job at a Pizza Parlor in Palo Alto.

It was part of a chain, “Straw Hat Pizza” — we wore styrofoam versions of a traditional boater straw hat as part of our uniform. As of this moment, Straw Hat is still in business, with, according to Google, 23 outlets. I haven’t been in one for maybe 35 years.

The kitchen was in the northwest corner, with large windows on either face. During the day, we could watch the parking lot and the street while we made pizzas. At night the glare from the interior lights blocked the view, and only passing headlights were discernible from inside.

Some nights we played old silent movies with a jangly piano soundtrack — mainly Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. We saw them a thousand times, and the soundtrack became a low-grade annoyance of the job.

One evening the parlor was quiet; everything was clean, there were no to-go orders, the dining area was empty. The movies were off.

Through the window, I watched a pair of car headlights circle the parking lot and come to a stop. The entrance door flew open. Two young men rushed to the counter, where my co-worker leaned on the cash register.

But they were, as it turned out, looking for ME.

Brief introductions, then one of the young men asks:

“Do you own a red ’59 Chevrolet Impala”?

Images of unpaid parking tickets, towing charges, and other potential liabilities flooded my brain. But it’s public record; I couldn’t lie.


The Stanford Police, it seems, caught him late at night removing parts from Big Red. Taking parts from a parked car is illegal unless you own the vehicle. Hence, if he didn’t want to go to jail, he had to produce evidence of ownership, even though it was currently registered to me. A bill of sale would do.

He pulled out a bill of sale form and placed it on the counter.

“You want to buy my car??”

“Yes. How much do you want for it?”

He was at my mercy. But also, he was relieving me of a tedious burden. I thought for a minute.


Relief flooded his face. “Deal!”

I never saw Big Red again.

Different views of M33

M33 — pollution filter, half an hour total, good seeing
M33 — nebula filter, two hours total, medium seeing

The sky here at Songbird Central suffers heavy pollution, both light pollution and chemical pollution. Astrophotography would be unsatisfying without filters to reduce the effects of that pollution.

I’ve forgotten exactly which filter it was I used with the first photo — I think the “Optolong L-eNhance”. A good general purpose filter. The image is dim, but if you look closely and carefully, there’s lots of sharp detail.  A stack of 30 one minute exposures, for half an hour total.

The second photo was taken with the “Triad Ultra” filter, which emphasizes the light from nebulae, a stack of 13 three minute exposures and 17 five minute exposures — a little over two hours total. In this image the white light from the stars has been reduced, while the red light from the glowing gas areas is emphasized. The image is redder, overall, and there are many tiny reddish fuzzy blotches, which are nebulae within M33.

How does M33 really look?   Photos are stories, not truth. If you were a lucky human with opportunity to look at M33 through a big enough telescope, you might see something like the first picture, but not the colors in the second.  If you really got into it, you would recognize the overall shape of the galaxy, and you might even recognize details in the patterns of the stars.

[Edited to adjust the scale and other corrections.]

Snob Photography

Sometimes I look through the viewfinder, and I am overwhelmed with pure aesthetics. I follow the light where it takes me.  This mood is relatively rare, and the results in retrospect are not always great. In fact, frequently the results are just trite.

But sometimes they aren’t.

I have never understood the contempt some photographers have for digital. I save almost all the photos I’ve ever taken.  Pre-digital photos sit in boxes, slowly fading, but the digital photos look just the same as when I first took them. It is quite possible they could look the same ten thousand years from now.

But honestly, much of the time I take pictures as memos.  Pictures out bus windows, just to remember what I saw.  Pictures of something on an ad, pictures of the wifi password at a hotel. These pictures are useful, rather than beautiful or interesting.

Here’s a picture of the almost dry Li River in China.  A memory:

Li River


I recently acquired a monochrome astro camera with somewhat higher resolution.  Here are a few attempts:

M42 - Orion Nebula
The tight cluster of 4 stars at dead center is known as the “Trapezium Cluster”. It’s barely resolved in this image.
M33 in Triangulum
M33. Low surface brightness, but if you look closely, there is a lot of detail.
Horsehead-Flame nebulae
Horsehead Nebula — I like this image. The Horsehead is an object I find intrinsically beautiful.
The Heart Nebula
The Heart Nebula. Upside down from the usual view.
Wide view of Orion, processed for low brightness
Fairly dim view of the Orion Nebula. Looks like a landing bird, or maybe a falling angel. The Trapezium is discernible on zooming in.
The Pleiades
The Pleiades. Light reflecting off a dust cloud, usually a beautiful blue.

Veil Nebula wide view

Veil Nebule wide view
Both the Eastern and Western portions of the Veil Nebula

Remains of an exploded star. This is over an hour exposure total, through a 61mm telescope, in not so great suburban skies.

Old Coffee Beans

A couple of days ago I found a 12 oz bag of Peet’s ‘Cafe Domingo’ beans by the coffee grinder.  I assumed that daughter Sara bought them, opened the bag, and dumped them in the hopper.

Later I asked her. She said no, she found them in the kitchen cabinet along with some other beans.  She showed me — there was also a bag of ‘Major Dickason’s Blend’. Both bags were almost a year old.  In the spirit of inquiry, I made a cup for me (espresso) and a cup for CF (Aeropress).

In all honesty, I cannot recommend it, and, despite being averse to waste, I am seriously contemplating dumping the beans.  (CF, on the other hand, said “I like it.” But she is famous for drinking almost anything, coffeewise.)

It is drinkable in the strictly literal sense, but the flavor has one note: harsh.  No coffee aroma.  Sad.

Fire across the Bay

Looking across South San Francisco Bay at an out of control wildfire.

This photo was taken from our balcony.  Our development abuts canyonland that could turn into an inferno like this.

The final frontier?


If we establish a permanent human presence off the shoulder of Orion we will necessarily take an ecosystem with us.  It won’t be humanity colonizing space, it will be Earth’s biosphere colonizing space. Life, in general, has an intrinsic property of opportunistic expansion, and we are life.