Day 73 and 74: Calculated Risk

I’ve got a couple of days of heads-down work now, to finish Secret Plan 161 (or at least get it over the first major hurdle). There’s also a lot of work to do on the telescope software for SP174.

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I’ve discovered a new desk downtown. It’s tall, so you stand while you work, which is a pleasant change. Starting at the Ferry Building in San Francisco, walk to the intersection of Market and Pine, and you’re standing right on top of the place.

About 40 feet below you (under the street), you’ll find it.

It’s Peet’s, which means the coffee is good and the staff is playful and friendly. And they have cookies.

I received two surprises from thoughtful colleagues this week. The first was a stunt double, whom I’ve named Hugo.

He’s a little shorter than me, but from the back we look almost the same.

That’s just awesome, because usually I’m the stunt double. I’ve only had my own once before (an amazing man named Bobby, during a job where I was getting shot in the back). Even then, we were both wearing detonators.

Hugo is great. When I’m not certain I’ll survive something, I send him. (“Wow, that looks dangerous. Hugo first.”) Thanks Brett!

Nick sent the second surprise.  It’s an equation for calculating Sidereal Time for astronomy.

This will save me so much time on Secret Plan 174 that I’ve decided to go have several naps on the beach.

…and since this code is already in use in other systems, it also means that the telescope’s accuracy will enjoy benefits which only come with years of experience and extensive testing.

…and it lowers the chance that Dad and I will be called into the observatory at 2am to come fix a calculation error.

Thanks guys!

Random assertion: Toys are usually labeled with a minimum age, but not a maximum age. Adults sometimes forget this. Brett Douville

Steganographic data: 1828/9.3

Published in: on August 1, 2008 at 10:20 am  Comments (1)  
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Day 60: Observatory

You know Dad, but you might not know Chuck. He’s one of Mom & Dad’s best and smartest friends. Chuck is an engineer who makes aircraft navigation systems for Northrop Grumman, and is also a volunteer rescue guy for Sierra Madre Search and Rescue. As you might imagine, when he tells stories, they’re excellent.

Today, the three of us are beginning a special project.

In the San Gabriel mountains near Pasadena is the Mount Wilson Observatory.

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The sign says “Authorized Vehicles Only” but today that’s us.

When the Mt. Wilson Observatory’s 60-inch telescope was built, it was the largest telescope in the world. This upcoming December, it will be 100 years old, and still in daily operation.

One of the controlling computers, the Encoder Server, needs to be replaced, which is why Dad and Chuck and I are here. We’ve volunteered to build them a new one. This is Secret Plan 174.

The project involves hardware and software work for the system which tracks the telescope’s position, the dome position, the timers, and then calculates the telescope’s direction in space adjusted for the Earth’s rotation, and allows the astronomer to offset it if necessary.

The telescope is managed, maintained, and constantly improved by William Leflang and Gale Gant. We are meeting with both of them today.

Gale meets us at the telescope, and takes us inside.


This isn’t just a private tour; this is a “see every single system, understand how it works so you can write one of the control systems for it” mega-goosebump-orama.


Oh. My. God.

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The telescope itself weighs 44,000 pounds. For reference, a Boeing 737-100 jetliner is about 62,000 pounds.

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There are lockers downstairs for telescope users, and one is permanently marked “Hubble.” Einstein used this telescope. Zwicky used this telescope. Instead of being paid for this job, Dad and Chuck and I will be allowed to use this telescope.


The tour covers every system, mechanical and electrical. Note to self: Bring the muse here for sure.
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All of the electronics were recently rebuilt by Gale and Bill, our hosts. They’re beautiful.
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…so when Gale says “Let’s power it up and acquire a target” we don’t offer any objections. Watching such a large object move with such accuracy is very impressive.


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After a few hours, we’ve got all the information we need, as well as goofy ear-to-ear grins.

After our time at the telescope, the three of us hold a meeting over tacos and margaritas to plan the operation, and to talk about the different female characters in A Knight’s Tale.


The result is a pretty good plan for the first few weeks, and a general agreement that the blacksmith is much hotter than the princess.

Random assertion: Some things are done for love, others for money. Working on a hundred-year-old telescope only offers one option, and it’s a good one.

Steganographic data: 1834/2.1

Published in: on July 18, 2008 at 11:06 am  Comments (4)  
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Day 31: Planets and Light Bulbs

Today I found out that you can have a cruddy day-where-nothing-goes-right even when you’re not at work.

I tried to do a bunch of things, and was thwarted in every single one. Grr. After a few hours, just to get back in control, I headed home and started fixing things. Just everything. Light bulbs, paint, garden sprinklers, bills, dishes, whatever looked unthwartable.

That was the turning point. After that, even things which had gone wrong earlier started resolving themselves.

I didn’t take any pictures hardware stores and light bulbs (you’re welcome), so here are some more telescope pictures.

The cat likes astronomy too, if it doesn’t interrupt his nap.

These were taken last year, with the same telescope (gift from my muse). They were shot from the middle of San Francisco on a clear night. This was my first attempt at capturing a planet:

…and then I refined & improved for the second attempt a few months later…

…and then the big guy.

Tomorrow: Off to Vegas.

Random assertion: You can do anything, as long as you choose the right thing.

Steganographic data: 1840/4.8

Published in: on June 17, 2008 at 8:00 am  Leave a Comment  
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