Med man

“Call me Fishmeal. Some months ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my wallet, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to sign up for a cruise as soon as I can.”

And so it was on a bleak and dreary day before the winter’s blast had yet chilled my blood or cracked the trees in their loamy beds that I joined a dissolute and depraved crew in planning for a swing around the ports of the Mediterranean – to make no further bones about it – in planning a cruise of Princesses to ten tourist ravaged cities before finally coming to rest on the docks at Barcelona. This is my story, my way of reliving a time of adventure and mystery.

I acknowledge a blatant adaptive borrowing from Mr Melville’s little musing on how to hunt white whales. If Mr. Melville objects he should let me know forthwith. No others need apply.

Up the hills and down again!

I’m a long way from my scopes right now, and missing them dreadfully. Meanwhile, I’ve run into another aspect of travel, namely totally new experiences.

I’m a flatlander. A hill to me is a couple of hundred metres high, and while it may be a pain to climb, it doesn’t pose any problem for your vehicle. Traveling through mountains was thus a trip into another world.

I had had a taste of mountain driving while traveling from the LA area to the RTMC site at Big Bear, CA. The route passed through Onyx Summit, which is the highest point on the the California Highway system, and there were a number of sharp turns, steep ascents, and scary (to me) descents. I can’t say I enjoyed it, and I found some of the loops around the mountains rather nerve-racking – I suppose I have a touch of acrophobia. On the whole, though, I figured mountain driving was a matter of watching for hairpin turns on narrow roads. I was wrong.

Driving from Toronto to LA meant I had to travel through the Rockies, and I followed my GPS’ recommendation and travelled along the I-70 through Denver and on to Las Vegas and ultimately California via the I-15. That route took me through the Vail Pass, and I found it a very scary drive indeed. There’s a long climb out of Denver followed by steep descents which stretch for miles and often incorporate sharp curves and narrowed sections where the engineers ran out of mountainside. From the summit at 10,660 feet there’s a long drop down to the valleys below, and those are followed by further climbs and descents. It was the length of the descents which I found verve-racking, particularly as some of those descents incorporated breath-taking views into the valleys far below.

Eventually you make your way through the pass, and you’re on to sections which continue to resemble a roller-coaster, but don’t generally present you with a thousand foot drop when you look over the side of the road. The views are still stunning, and you’re still climbing up and braking your way down some pretty steep roads, often in very hot weather, despite it being the end of summer. Nevertheless, you breathe a little easier (though signs advising “no service for 100 miles” are a little daunting).

Las Vegas comes as something of a relief, but once again to get to the next point do interest you have to climb a mountain range. This one presents no scary curves, but there is a long climb with many sections where slow vehicles have a dedicated lane, and eventually there is a long slow descent, where once again there are dedicated lanes for slower vehicles. And it’s hot – you’re heading towards Death Valley.

Regular travelers through the region generally know what to expect, and the majority of traffic throughout these mountain areas will push the speed envelope a little. So did I, at least when the curves were easy. It was a mistake.

Sometime traveling down the 18-mile 6% – 7% grade leading toward Baker CA my much abused fan belt (did I mention it was hot?) let go, and when I stopped for gas in Baker, it was dangling close to the ground. Fortunately there was a truck repair station open on a Sunday, and I was able to limp into the yard, which was littered with cars of various makes and ages, all in obvious I’ll-health. The mechanic on duty felt around a little and pronounced the fan belt dead, and the fan clutch and associated parts were not in good shape either. He’d have to order parts, but it’s a Dodge, right? Well, actually, no, it’s a Mercedes Benz diesel, badged as a Dodge from the era when Dodge and MB were allies. Hmm. Oh, and it’s Sunday.

He phoned around, and couldn’t get parts. He let me park on his lot and spend the night there (no hardship as the van has been converted to an RV), and next morning began phoning around again. No parts, and the nearest Dodge dealer was in Barstow, about 60 miles away. A tow was needed (the value of pre-planning – I had joined an auto club just in case of such a need). In Barstow the Dodge dealership was a little dubious. The Sprinter has a high roof, and they had no hoists able to handle it. The nearest Dodge van dealership was at least 40 miles further down the road. They had a mechanic who thought he could deal with the problem though, but I would have to leave the van for a couple of days. No, you can’t park in the lot and spend the night. We’ll call when your van is ready… Bring your checkbook!

I took a rental car to my destination, and picked up the van a few days later. Lighter of pocket, I’m planning a less arduous route back to Toronto, and will travel more carefully through the high desert sections. I’m looking forward to getting back to the flatlands again!


Travel is said to be broadening, but that’s unfortunately less true now than it used to be.

At one time, traveling was an arduous task, an experience which underlined the distance between your familiar environment and whatever new environment into which you were plunging. Depending on the mode of transport, this feature of travel has become much less prominent. Air travel in particular whisks us almost painlessly (save perhaps at the airport itself) from one place to another. We enter a box, sit for a few hours, and are in another place. When that other place is integrated into the Western monoculture there is little to distinguish it from any other place in the monoculture. A few differences in vegetation, perhaps, or possibly a local preference for a particular housing style. The stores are the same, or virtually so, and even the museums and art galleries share exhibits, so one may see the same displays in many cities around the monoculture.

It is in the interstitial places that travel’s broadening occurs, in the small towns and villages between the airports and the mono cultural centers. If we do not pass through these interstitial places, how well can we appreciate the differences between locations? We live in City, and each individual city becomes a mere neighborhood.

The point was underlined to me recently after driving from my home in Toronto to visit my daughter in California. All previous visits were by air, so the intervening spaces were never encountered save as scenery seen from 30,000 feet. Traveling by car placed us in the America of small towns and bustling metropoli, of mountains and deserts, of vast plains and deep valleys, of poverty and wealth. These were intellectually known and appreciated, but never before felt in the gut, the heart. A photograph reveals much, but is not the experience of standing in the midst.

And it is that experience, that “standing in the midst” which makes travel broadening, so that even the act of passing through in a car fails to provide the true broadening effect of travel. One must walk through, hear the sounds, smell the odors, taste the foods, and feel the grit and grime under one’s feet in order to fully appreciate the broadening that is travel. And for that reason, on my return journey I shall try to take things more slowly, to stop and experience the differences between places. The monoculture is slowly engulfing many of those differences, but cannot destroy all. I hope to appreciate what remains, what lasts.

Another ramble

I love coffee. I hate most coffee from restaurants and coffee shops.

What I want is a reliable single-serve coffee-maker I can use on the road so that I can continue to enjoy the benefits of making my own coffee to my own taste. I took a while to research readily available units (as I failed to do when I bought my Keurig) and settled on a Bunn MyCafe as the van coffee-maker. The keurig was the only real competition, but unless the mini-Keurig was heavily discounted it was too expensive for a unit which was restricted to K-cups, while the Bunn, for just a little more, could handle K-cups, pods, and ground coffee (although I may pack a little pre-ground, I won’t be taking my coffee mill with me). So I wandered down to Cultured Coffee Bean, my local supplier of choice, to pick up more coffee and see what deal I could make for a Bunn MyCafe with four drawers (you swap out drawers to make particular types of coffee, and even plain hot water needs a drawer).

The answer was no deal at all, because Bunn in Canada doesn’t offer a bundle with all four drawers and charges an arm and a leg for the individual drawers. I could get a Bunn in the US for less than Cultured Coffee Bean’s dealer cost. Bunn Canada is not doing the Bunn line any favours – I suppose they are more interested in corporate sales than in individual consumers (Bunn should find a new Canadian distributor, or just ship from the US).

In the meantime, I still need a 12V fridge, and the best one appears to be a tiny unit made by Engel. That turned out not to be locally available in Canada, but might be available in New York State. I wanted to do another test run on the van, so I loaded up and set out across the border.

I left late, and didn’t reach the border until sunset. In the growing darkness I drove to Amherst, a few miles from Niagara Falls, and into the parking lot at Lowe’s, where I bought the Bunn at, according to the shelf label, $20 below MSRP. I also picked up a box of Green Mountain Breakfast Blend K-cups in order to try out the new machine.

But I had to sleep, and while I had intended to park at a nearby Wal-Mart (which as a matter of corporate policy allows overnight parking for RVs unless there’s a local ordnance or some other reason preventing it), I couldn’t face the prospect of going back on the road right away. I asked the checkout operator if it would be ok to park overnight. “I’ll have to ask my manager.” Fair enough, and she called the manager over quickly, and we repeated the question. “Hm. I’ll have to check with the store manager.” The assistant manager duly came by, and his response was “I don’t think there’s any problem, but … ” he had to check with his manager. Finally I got permission, and I’d like to express my thanks to all four individuals for their consideration. It would have been very easy for any one of them to have said no, but they took the time to consider it and pass it up the chain of command. I just wish Lowe’s would follow Wal-Mart’s lead and make it a policy to allow it where possible – I think they do a lot of business with RVers, as do other large stores such as Home Depot.

The following day I checked with West Marine, the store which might have carried the Engels unit I was interested in. Unfortunately, while they had Engels coolers in stock, they didn’t have Engels upright fridges (it’s a different mechanism, and a different orientation) and would have to order it, so I left disappointed, and figure on ordering the fridge while I’m in California – I can survive for a while without it. After a brief rummage through the nearby Harbour Freight store (always fun), a large lunch at Chipotle’s, and a couple of cups of coffee (heh!), I headed home.

I hit the border with almost no cash left, only to find that every border crossing back into Canada required a toll (very strange – enter the US for free, but pay to get out). Luckily I had enough for a non-commercial vehicle, so up to the booth I went, cash in hand — but the collector wanted more: “You’re a bus.” I explained that I was a non-commercial vehicle, an RV. “You’re a 10-passenger bus.” No, I said, I’m a 2-passenger RV. “How many seats you got?” Two, I said. “How many seats can you have?” I told him my insurance only allowed five. “Hmph.” He took my cash and let me drive across the bridge.

On the other side were customs booths, and a sign pointing off to the side marked ‘Buses & RVs’ so I headed in the indicated direction. Buses and RVs stood idling in front of me, so I took my place in line. Eventually an officer came over. “Why are you here?” I said there was a sign telling me to head in this direction. “You’re not a bus.” No, I said, I’m an RV. “No, you’re a passenger vehicle.” Apparently they were only interested in me as an RV if I was carrying people they had to check, and since I had my passport and wasn’t carrying paying passengers, I was neither a bus nor an RV for their purposes. The officer took my passport, asked a few questions, and after checking my passport inside the building, gave it back and sent me on my way. From now on, I expect the van to be either beast or fowl depending on how the other guy feels.

Oh, the coffee maker? Does a great job, but pulls so much power from the battery pack that the 3000W inverter complains about low voltage, sounding an annoying alarm. As soon as the coffee is made, the alarm shuts off, and everything – including the battery voltage – goes back to normal. The coffee’s good, takes a minute or two to make, and all is well on that front. I think I want a workspace to make food on, but that’s a topic for another day.

Post-Starfest, I’m charged up!

Starfest is an event hosted by the NYAA early in August of each year around a weekend close to new moon at a site close to Mount Forest, Ontario. Several hundred (at least!) amateur astronomers and their families show up, and some of the kids who attended with their parents in the eighties are now showing up with their own kids. It’s a great event, but for most attendees it involves spending a few nights under canvas, and that’s one of the motivations behind my van conversion – I don’t mind putting up a tent, but I certainly don’t love it, and my wife hates it to the extent that last year she refused to come.

While I’ve been dithering over design details and waiting for engine repairs I’ve also been acquiring things (new mount, new OTA, new astrocamera) which were appropriate to Starfest, as well as appliances (power inverters, a microwave, a drip coffee maker, an induction cooker, a propane stove) which could be tested there. This last Thursday I more or less threw everything into the van and headed off to see how everything worked together (and I consider myself to be one of the components in the mix – things can work perfectly together, and I may still feel uncomfortable with them.

Now, first of all, Starfest as an event was excellent. The skies weren’t cooperative, in the sense that we got only one all-nighter out of it. Thursday night it was cloudy, Friday night it rained before clearing up well after midnight, and Saturday night, the one clear night, was distressingly cold for August. The various daytime talks were good, though I missed a couple which I had wanted to catch because my internal clock was awry after I stayed up talking with friends late into the night. The vendors had lots of interesting stuff, and some of it was quite drool worthy – but I’ve been spending on the van recently, and spare cash is there only if I am delusional (I must be though, since I bought things, and had some difficulty remembering details when the bills came in).

I did run into problems with my electrical setup, though. The microwave is billed as a 700 W device. Which it is. Sort of. It delivers 700 watts to whatever food I am cooking, but it unfortunately draws well over 1000 watts from the wall socket, wasting the rest in heat, a turntable, and internal electronics. In consequence, my 1000W inverter shut down rather than supply the power, and I had no working microwave. On the other hand, I did have a 3000W inverter supplying modified-sine-wave power, so with some trepidation, I tried that. I say trepidation because modified sine wave power contains a lot of transient frequencies which can make electronics unhappy, but in this case the microwave seems to have been able to handle them (though time may reveal that the life of the micro has been reduced).

I had my hot oatmeal, but something was bubbling at the back of the van. It turned out that the micro had pulled the battery voltage low enough to trigger the EFOY fuel cell, which was merrily dumping power into the battery pack. Not a great concern, but something of a surprise, and rather unwelcome because the cooler was pumping along keeping my food and pills cold and drawing about as much power as the fuel cell was putting out. I can’t run the cooler from the battery pack because the EFOY can’t keep up – I need a more efficient fridge. That night I pulled the plug on the cooler, and eventually the EFOY got ahead of the point where the battery had started out. Every time I used the micro the EFOY lost ground, but a couple of hours running brought the battery pack back. Had I started from a truly fully charged point and never used the cooler, I might have survived the first couple of days without triggering the fuel cell at all.

I still needed to cook, but in my hurry to leave I had left the propane fuel behind, and given the power problem (I still needed to cool my food and meds during the heat of the day), I was reluctant to even try the induction cooker (and I still haven’t). I called Daniella at home, and she brought up a small bottle of propane when she came up on Friday afternoon. After that, the propane stove worked just fine for cooking purposes,and I’ll happily use it in future outings.

The only other disappointment was again due to my haste in leaving – I came up with only one of the counterweights for my scope, having fooled myself into believing everything was balanced when in fact I had not released the clutch properly on the RA axis. The scope was therefore unbalanced in operation and I decided to limit the usage as much as possible. I did wind up learning more about my new mount, though, and I count that as a plus – and as an added bonus I got to look through a number of other people’s scopes, including a monster made by Normand Fullum’s company (36″ f/3.5. Wow!)

There are a number of changes to make (real fridge, designed for 12V operations, just as one example) but all in all I happy with the setup and I think I could leave for the Great California Trip anytime (but I’ll see how much more I can fix up before we actually leave).

Testing the fit

The van conversion is moving along. Due to insurance requirements I had to pull seats from the passenger compartment, so this was the starting position:

The intent is to lift the bed high enough to allow for storage underneath, but I’m nervous about stability. Here’s the first attempt:
Unfortunately by the time I got the unit set up a storm was rolling in, so the image is a little dark, but I think the main idea is clear. The base is over 30″ high, with a further 6″ for the foam mattress, so I will need to provide a step or two in order for Daniella to climb aboard (I’ll need a little help myself!).

I will have to raise the mattress another inch or so – it’s a double, and is just slightly longer than the inside of the van is wide, so I can either raise the mattress so that it encroaches on the window “sill” area very slightly or cut the mattress to fit the limited space available. Cutting is irreversible, so that isn’t really an option.

This part of the project allowed me to give my router table a workout, and it worked out quite well, along with the Porter & Cable 1 1/4 HP router. I can’t say the same for the Bosch palm router I used for other parts of the project, as the collet came loose a couple of times, allowing the bit to drop slightly while I was cutting a slot. Perhaps the bit’s shank was a little undersized so that the collet couldn’t tighten properly. In any case, the net result was a ragged cut, and I’ll have to do a little work to smooth it out.

So far I’ve managed to keep everything removable, so in a pinch the van can be restored to its original condition with the exception of one row of passenger seating. That will change once I start adding electrical connections, but I will continue trying to keep changes minimal.

If it matters, construction is in 1×2 maple and 12mm maple plywood, and is currently held together entirely by glue and friction fitting in slots routed into the 1x2s. The mattress base is built from 1×4 maple spanned by a set of slats from IKEA. I’ll peg everything later, and probably reinforce the interior corners with further bracing.

Stay tuned…there will be more!

Increasing mobility

When I first moved to my present house skies were typical for an outer suburb – not very dark, but acceptable. After a while I built an observatory because I was having difficulty seeing Polaris and setting up and aligning was taking longer and longer. My thinking was that with a permanently aligned scope I would be able to do more on shorter notice.

As a notion it wasn’t totally wrong, but I forgot the astronomer’s curse, and no sooner had I committed to a permanent observatory than construction of a major shopping mall began a couple of miles away – to match the searchlights that sprang up from a flying-saucer-shaped cineplex a couple of miles to the south. Skies have gone downhill even more since then, and I’m looking at other options – specifically, at ways to get to distant observing sites, spend the night (or a couple), and return home in daylight.

So far, I’ve decided that a modified Sprinter van will fit the requirements. The van has been purchased – see the picture below – and I am fumbling for a design which will work. I’m building a preliminary version which will become the end design if things work out, or be further modified if they don’t.

My new-to-me 2007 Dodge Sprinter 144-inch wheelbase passenger van

The design will have to have storage sufficient for loading up at least one scope, mount, and associated cameras and accessories, sleeping space for two people (Daniella will be with me occasionally, and the van won’t be exclusively for astronomy), and enough ancilliary support to allow independent living for a day or two. Some of the sites I am considering have food, power, and washrooms available, some do not – so I will try to prepare for those which do not. Few (none, really) of the sites are happy with noisy generators, so any power I bring with me will have to be very quiet (ruling out the relatively inexpensive diesel and gasoline generators I have seen). Space is limited in the van, so the full washrooms (shower and toilet facility combined into one enclosure) seen in commercial conversions will be tough to squeeze in. And finally, Daniella wants to accommodate two or even three additional passengers for times when we are using the van to visit other family members around the continent. Oh, and I want to minimize the number of times I have to punch a hole in the outside of the van. I think these are tough specs, and I not at all sure I can meet them all. More later….

New scope blues (I am so sorry!)

It is a phenomenon universally acknowledged that when an amateur astronomer acquires a new telescope or major scientific instrument the local observing weather goes sour. And so with a heavy heart I announce the repair of my G11 mount and the purchase and delivery of a Mallincam Universe, a Celestron Edge HD C9.25, and a further mount, a Skywatcher AZ-EQ6. The current sky is clear, but tonight will be cloudy, or at best partly clear with a bright moon close to full. So I extend my apologies to all who would otherwise be taking an interest in the spring parade of galaxies. I will endeavor to do less in the future, and to continue to be properly grateful to my beautiful, gracious, and sylph-like spouse. Amen.

Well, here’s a fine mess!

I’ve been unable to observe the stars visually for some time as a result of Fuchs’ Dystrophy, and I’ve been considering other ways to look through my ‘scopes for quite a while. One of the main paths I’ve been following is that of Video Astronomy, which essentially involves pointing a low-light video camera through the ‘scope and directing the output to a TV screen. There are several companies serving this line of astronomy, but the company which has always appealed to me the most is Rock Mallin’s Mallincam. The problem I have always had with any of the videocams, from Mallin or anyone else, is that the pixel resolution of the cameras generally falls in the NTSC or PAL ranges – for NTSC that’s 640×480 – which is a little too low for my taste.

Recently Mallin came out with t;he Mallincam Universe, a 6.1 mp camera which has a lot in common with the DSLR cameras I have been using. Its sensor is roughly the same size, but the software supplied with the camera gives a near-video experience – not live, but close to it. So I bought one.

It’s been cold out there, though, and I generally don’t observe in the cold. First light consisted of a brief look through the camera, hooked up to a tiny SV70 scope mounted on a photographic tripod. I successfully viewed the Moon – wheeee! Then I retreated back indoors, chilled to the bone. Real observing would require a bigger scope on a real astronomical mount. And that’s when my troubles really began…

I admit, I was eager to get started. Temperatures were finally above zero. The night was clear, and though I hadn’t prepared much, I didn’t expect any problems. The mount was tried and true, the camera was new but performed well on first light, and I had watched a number of videos explaining what to do with the camera and software. All I had to do was point the camera at Orion and grab a view of M42. What could go wrong?

As it turned out, very little actually went wrong, but it went wrong in a big way. Possibly as a result of the cold (it cooled down rapidly after sunset) the mount began to report a lag in RA motion, and eventually stalled. I fiddled a little. I fiddled a lot. The mount seemed fine. The cables were firm in their sockets and I had almost 14V of power, more than enough I turned everything back on and went through the startup process. Suddenly the mount took off in one direction, and wouldn’t stop until I pulled the power. I now have a runaway motor. Oops!

That’s about a $250 fix (new motor), and I could have gone ahead with that, but instead I decided to buy a new and lighter mount and trade in the old one in its current condition. I wouldn’t get full trade-in, but I could accept a small loss somewhere above the cost of repair. While I was at it I would sidegrade the ‘scope – same aperture, but with a flatter field and the opportunity to use Hyperstar. I took down the scope and mount and set off to Khan’s in Toronto, where I had just bought the camera.

When I got there, I was told I would have to order a mount before their technician would look at the scope, or pay for a couple of hours of the technician’s time – about $180. Before committing to the trade-in I wanted to know what they considered the mount and scope were worth – it would have affected what I would purchase, so I couldn’t order ahead of time. Considering I had just spent a couple of grand in the store for the camera, I was seriously annoyed, and decided instead to fix the mount and buy a new scope somewhere else. I may still replace the new mount, but not at Khan’s, and I’ll sell the old mount elsewhere. Send me a note if you have any interest in a Losmandy G11 with Gemini I controller.

Right now, though, I’m left without a fully-working mount, so it’ll be a while before I post any review of the Mallincam Universe. Ain’t this a fine mess I’ve put myself in? Hrrrmph!