Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Dr. Electro hosts a Tea (Episode 2)

 Letters from Josh

  Grandpa Urban   9/28/20                                                                           Letter 25

  Howdy, folks!  How’s everyone doing over there?  Well, I feel like a darn grandpa.  Or, how I’d expect it to feel, at least in a musical sense.  Earlier this afternoon, my phone buzzed, and it wasn’t a mundane Monday message about political causes I never signed up for, or other trivialities.  No, it was a message from a former guitar student turned buddy.  “My debut album is online.”  We need to go back to a hot July Thursday afternoon a decade ago to get the full picture here.  Anthony had stopped by for his first lesson with his dad.  A beginner’s electric guitar emerged from a gig bag, and I showed him how to play what so many others have learned...Black Sabbath’s Iron Man.  He quietly mastered that song, and then another, and another . The summer faded into Autumn, like it always does, but Anthony defied the trends, and kept practicing.  The winter sleets fell, we both walked through good times and bad, and Anthony kept practicing.  And writing - and listening - and growing.  The years passed, we played shows together, recorded collaborations, and the day came when we “switched chairs”, and the student became the teacher, although we had become friends long before that.  And now, today, I sat down in my purple room, put on some headphones, and did some listening myself.  Wow.  Check it out on Spotify.  I couldn’t be more impressed. 

Two themes jump to the forefront:  1. The process is just as important as the finished product.  I’m so grateful I got to be involved a bit with the journey back in the day, and see him take it to fruition.  2.  One needn’t wait for an exotic locale, or the blessings of a famous record producer.  Start today, and see what happens.  A good work is undeniable, or, at the very least, a heck of a lot of fun to build.  Anthony, as I love to say...For those about to rock - we salute you!  Or rather, for those already rockin’, we salute you! 

  And now, folks, are you ready for the second installment of Dr. Electro?  "Previously on Dr. Electro - the Doc labors on a stormy night and watches his language, answering a surprise knock at the window.  His slightly-cracked friend Rutherford has come to call, with an entreaty to help “the Orphans”, whatever that means…”

Dr. Electro - Episode 2 - The Windows and the Orphans  

  Rutherford was a piece of work on a dry day, when he was calm, not caffeinated, with the sun shining, literally or metaphorically.  Cast him into a tempest, and well, the Doctor was reminded of his aunt from California...minus the bandana. It seemed unwise to offer coffee in his present state, so chamomile tea was procured from behind a giant battery.  “Calm yourself, man!”  “CALM?!” roared Rutherford in reply.  “CALM?  How can you request tranquility when Outrage is afoot?  Dare you relinquish a tizzy when Travesty scrawls abomination with an icy hand?”  His teacup rattled in the grimy saucer with such vengeance that Dr. Electro pulled up a chair. Resigning himself to whatever rants Rutherford brought with him, Electro settled in to listen, as an ill wind hunted misgivings in the corners. “Kingsley’s got to ‘em...I just know it.  When Sister Agnes went to the third floor last Wednesday, it was fine . Just fine.  A normal evening.  But then she thought she saw the books.”  “Books?”  “Yes, books.  For starters, kids these days don’t read.  They shoot each other with slingshots, or chase about like squirrels during a bumper crop of acorns, old chap, but never read!”  Rutherford was positively beside himself, and the Doctor had to blink to make sure there weren’t two Rutherfords waving their arms at him, sideburns quivering like the very squirrels he was referencing.  “They’ve been reading all week.  Nary a slingshot to be found, even among the rascals.  They just sit quietly, and are suddenly taking orders well - the nuns don’t even have to use rulers.  In fact, on Saturday evening, one reminded Sister Loretta not to be late with the baths.  Don’t you see what this means, man?” cried Rutherford, leaping up, and sending his teacup crashing on the floor.  “No” replied Electro, feeling the blood rush to his face in annoyance at the melodrama, leaning over to collect the shards.  “Well...I don’t, either.  I had hoped you would, old chap!”  “What’s in the books anyway?”  “Nobody knows!  They hide them and the sisters aren’t even sure that they exist.  But they keep catching glimpses.  And Monday night, Timmy went missing. A window was broken, too.”  Electro felt his curiosity begrudgingly replace ire, along with a dash of charity.  “A window?”  Maybe the kids needed some help.  At least it would answer the problem of Rutherford’s tizzy. 

As the rain fell, across town, a single lamp burned in a room of echoes, plus one…  (To be continued.)

Monday, September 21, 2020

Introducing Dr. Electro

 Letters from Josh

  Introducing Dr. Electro 9/21/20                                                                           Letter 24

Hey there, folks!  How’s everyone over there?  As COVID drags on and you’re surely growing tired of it all, remember, the CDC gives much guidance on masks, but has neglected to mention pants.  Make of that what you will (and you didn’t hear it here.)  Greetings and bad influence from...Professor Plum’s Library!  It’s DONE!  It’s DONE!  The room remodel is FINISHED!  Well - almost - is anything ever done? There’s a clock from 1896 that belonged to my great Grandmother ticking away, the classical radio station plays on a unit from 1962, and the dark wood floors catch the last of the evening’s light.  It’s fun to hear that everyone has been following along with the progress, so I thought it would be fitting to have the first dispatch from this room be a Letters from Josh.  All aboard!

  One time when I was playing my broom guitar in New York City (more about that another time), I heard a pure sound drifting up from the filthy subway entrance to the West 4th street station. Following the strains of baroque violin, I wandered below ground to find someone who would become a friend.  Alex was playing Bach and Vivaldi for the New Yorkers, a talented cricket in a concrete jungle.  He saw the photo of the Professor Plum room I posted online, and he commented “What is this?  Are you writing a sequel to The Raven?”  (The room intentionally looks old fashioned and mysterious.)  Bopping down the halls at work today, that question kept rattling around in my head, like the last few scraps of coffee in the can. 

  Why YES, this could be fun!  What if we embarked on a voyage of serial fiction?  A little nugget, a bit of a tale each week, something to look forward to?  I haven’t the faintest idea of what’s going to happen, both with the success of the format or the direction of the story, so I guess we’ll all be surprised!  And so, I’m pleased to introduce to you a man who arrived unannounced (in my head) this afternoon and is known as..

Dr. Electro  (Episode 1 - Rutherford Calling)

It was a dark and stormy night, although Dr. Electro would have preferred it to rain harder.  The rockstar Prince famously requested the same when the heavens opened on his Superbowl halftime performance in 2007, but Dr. Electro wouldn’t have known on this Jazz Age evening, eighty or ninety years prior.  He hadn’t built a time machine - yet.  The coils and wires gleamed in the gloom, and the four bulbs were understaffed in lighting a cluttered workbench.  A smell of ozone bit the air, unrelated to the thunderstorm in the distance.  Dr. Electro was thinking out loud, the electrons in his neurons seeming to pace the electricity in the massive strands of copper on the bench. 

“Where’s the damn..err..darn screwdriver?”  he muttered, rummaging around, checking his language.  His girlfriend was trying to clean him up a bit before her parents were introduced. Dr. E was smart enough to dream up fantastical dynamos and revolutionary circuits.  Unlike the ten thousand volts on the bench, though, he wasn’t exactly sure about the subtleties of Mabel, and his confidence was uncharastically shaky.  “Ah, there it is!”  Leaning in, carefully, carefully, around the glowing vacuum tubes, singeing three arm hairs, he turned a small screw, sweat beading on his forehead as the voltmeter started to climb.  “8,753  8,824  9,210 9,317” when...there was a knock.  At his window. 

What the Devil is that?” he barked to himself, head snapping up, almost dropping the screwdriver into disaster, and then wondering if Mabel’s parents would frown on mention of Lucifer in non-theological discourse, and then, remembering the knock at the window?  Squinting through the rain streaks was to no avail, so a grumpy creaking and sliding up of the pane matched the equally grumpy Dr. Electro.  “Who the heck is there?”  (Ah, he was getting better at this.)  “Shh!  They’ll hear you!” “Who?  What?  Who’s there?”  The azaleas rustled, and an oilskin hat popped up like a seafaring groundhog.  It was Rutherford, the eccentric, paranoid, well-meaning Englishman who had spent a bit too much time in a boiler room.  “The orphans need us, old chap!”  “Come in, come in, Rutherford”, Dr. Electro sighed.  The rickety workshop door slammed a gust of night rain out, and the Englishman dripped his way into the laboratory, waving his arms wildly.  “My good man!  The orphans!”  

(To be continued next week….)  

- Josh

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Spirits and Sawdust - Letters from Josh, Vol. 23

 Letters from Josh

  Spirts and Sawdust 9/15/20                                                                           Letter 23

  Hey there, crew!  How’s everyone doing over there?  If you’re having knee pain today - I can relate.  I’m stiff, sore, and achy.  Lyme disease?  COVID?  Nope, just...flooring!  That’s right, the floors are half down in the new room!  Remember the Professor Plum fiasco from last week?  I had painted the walls a stately admiral blue and then, upon getting a new gallon mixed to put a final coat on...somehow PURPLE ended up on the walls!  I went back to Home Depot, and said “Umm….”  They looked at the cans, figured out the date code on the label, and said “oh YEAH, that’s the day someone put purple in the blue machine!”  WHAT?  They tried to match the color, to no avail.  It was right then and there I fell in love with the shade.  Talk about super rare and obscure.  “Like my paint, man?  TOO BAD, you can’t get it!”  

  So, the walls a peculiar share of purplish blue, the flooring install has commenced.  My brothers stopped by last night, and gave me some mighty help.  We had the music going, the hammers were ringing, and I ran out of the room to go over to the garage saw to cut a piece to size.  Suddenly, the memories that had been flitting in and out of view all night snapped into view.  

  It must have been the table that I write from - a massive walnut slab dining room table we had built when I was 23 with my dad.  I glanced at it as I ran by, building yet another thing, and suddenly thought of all of the memories, efforts, and spirit embodied in these tools.  Back in the room was the nail punch I had learned to use when I was 9.  I remember struggling to get clean cuts and, well...do anything.  The air compressor kicked on, like a telephone call from a long-ago neighbor who had given it to us kid brothers.  I hadn’t thought of Georgia in forever. She used to buy generic grape soda for us grimy barefoot boys, and give us an ice cold can on a blazing July day, the condensation half-rinsing the dirt off our hands.  How I’d like to stop by her back porch and sit in one of those plastic lawn chairs now.   

  My great-Grandfather’s rip saw hung patiently on the pegboard, a grizzled veteran of the Oak battles, waiting for another century of service.  I had it out for a spin the other night, it’s gruff voice patiently grinding through the fragrant pine board.  It was a contrast of the yippy yap of the little dovetail saw from my 7th birthday (I always liked strange gifts) that nipped around the trim of the doorframe, much like the neighbor’s toy dog that always tries to bite me.  

   “Brrrrrr!” whined the miter saw, as I brought the blade down, slicing cleanly through the hard oak board.  My stepdad gave me this years ago, when he was fairly new on the scene, and generously making sure I could install the first floor I’d ever done in my brand new house many years ago.  He really had gone above and beyond with it, and not only did I get a saw, but a philosophy that things were possible to do, and they might as well be done right.    

  Flipping on the bandsaw, there was the generosity of a buddy named Jim thrumming in the noise of the motor, making the difficult cuts possible, one kind deed continuing it’s ripple across my life.  Something that would take a half hour (with grave risk to a hand) now was safely done in five minutes.    

  The hammers rang, and the ghosts of the projects past watched and smiled.  One day, I’ll have built everything that I need to, and these tools can go on to the next craftsman, working at speed on a crisp September evening, using steel and wood to create something a little better, and make the world slightly less jumbled.  I’ll sit and smile, knowing that although the tools may be long gone, I’ll still have the recollections of the sawdust and spirits.  

  I’m sure every one of you has done some hard work in your life.  Let me know, I’d love to hear the stories!

  • Josh   

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Now Boarding at Gate 3

Heya folks!

  I was hunting around for what to write this morning, when I remembered that a friend had asked the fatal question.  "Hey Josh, what telescope should I get?"

  So, here's a post that's actually useful to the world at large, my buddy Pam specifically, and hopefully, you too.  

  "What telescope should I get?"  Oh MAN, you're about to buy both a starship and a time machine.  I'm gonna do the opposite of a recipe blog, and tell you the info FIRST, and then the details.

What a telescope does;

It magnifies things, but this is less important than gathering light.  Your eye, fully dark adapted, opens to about 7 mm.  The smallest telescope below is 76 mm.  That's a lot more light!  Once you've scooped up those photons, you magnify them.  Generally speaking, you'll be more concerned with the objective lens/mirror size than the actual magnification.  (Which is changed with the eyepiece.  So, in a telescope, you'll be able to swap out eyepieces, and even buy new ones.  The eyepieces are what determine the mags, but again, don't worry about that too much at the moment.)  

What you're looking for

  When I shop for a telescope, I look at two things:  1. The optical design, and 2. The Mount.  

The optical design roughly falls into three categories - the first is the classic Telescope telescope that's long, pirate-looking, and uses lenses to gather more light than your eye does.  That's called a refractor, using lenses to refract the light (bend it.)  

  The second is my favorite - the reflector.  Invented by Sir Issac Newton way back in the day, and still bears his name - the Newtonian Reflector, which uses mirrors to gather more light than your eye can, and then focus it for you using curved (parabolic) mirrors.  

  The third is a combination of the two, usually in a Schmidt-Cassegrain or Maksutov-Cassegrain design.  These are a little pricier, and frankly, I don't like them as much.  

The Mount also falls into three categories:  Altitude-Azimuth (up and down) on a tripod, Equatorial on a tripod (this tracks the motion of the Earth), and Dobsonian, which is a plywood version of the Alt-Az mount.  

  John Dobson created the Dobsonian style, and it's currently my favorite.  It allows for a great-moving scope made out of particle board and stovepipes, making sure all of the money is spent on the biggest and best optics possible.  Think of it as an old pickup truck with a big ol' race motor crammed under the hood.  Sure, it's not fancy, but MAN it's fast!  

  Dobs can also be home-built, to nice specs with nice materials and premium views. Here's a picture of one of my dobs - hand built by a buddy, actually, and SIGNED by John Dobson himself!  

  And they can get REALLY fancy.  I also have a variant of a dob design that costs more than several old pickup trucks, to reference that analogy again. 

Top Choice 
A 6" "dob" is an iconic configuration, and rightly so.  This one has a 2" focuser, too, allowing future upgrades for fancy eyepieces. It's portable, manageable, and will show you many things in the universe.  Now, they'll be small and faint - no color photos here, BUT - to actually see the rings of Saturn, or a star cluster that's billions of years old...now that's cool!

A Good Place to Start
A drawback of the hobby that almost did me in was the high cost of admission.  Although I haven't used this exact model, my first telescope was an 80mm Celestron similar to this one.  Things are small in the eyepiece - and you'll want to add some accessories.  But, this is a simple platform that can open up the skies for your inquiring mind to visit.  (Saturn will BARELY have rings with the included eyepiece, but the Moon will be awesome.)  

For a Few Dollars More
Yeah BUDDY!  This 8" dob is quite a "serious" telescope, and for under $500, you can see far, far away.  I regularly observe with an 8", and love it.  

Don't forget

 (And my brother got a $12 pair off eBay that gave my fancy ones a run for their money!)

What I recommend

  If you've got some money to burn, a 6" "dob" (Newtonian reflector mounted on a Dobsonian base) is an excellent scope to buy.  Another nice thing about reflectors - they avoid the bane of inexpensive refractors, which is chromatic aberration.  This is when a lens focuses red and blue light slightly differently, resulting in a halo of color around bright objects.  Mirrors don't have that problem.  

    If you don't, or are still wondering if astronomy is for you, a small refractor, or even a little tabletop "dob" would be a good choice.  Now, I haven't personally used this one, but it sure looks intriguing:  https://optcorp.com/products/celestron-cometron-firstscope-telescope

For sixty bucks, it seems worth a gamble.  

What I would avoid

Wobbly, spindly mounts, especially of the "EQ" (Equatorial) variety.  I love EQ mounts, but they have to be big, expensive, and heavy to work right.  Here's a video where I review a rig that costs about $800.  I use it all the time, and love it, but I wouldn't recommend it as a first scope.  

  I'm not a big fan of Newtonian reflectors mounted on tripods in this price range, but....more on that in a moment.  

What to expect

TEENY tiny "dots" and smudges.  Even through my premium gear, with the exception of the Moon, most things are gray smudges, and the scale of things is tiny.  Now, the light has been traveling since before the age of the Dinosaurs, and THAT'S cool.  But, you won't see color, you won't see (much) detail, and you'll have to learn the sky to figure out where you're looking.  It can be frustrating, but it's SO SO COOL.   

A word about binoculars

  A nice pair of binoculars should be in every observer's toolkit, be it your primary instrument or another horse in the stable.  Their effortless wide fields, and cruising along the Milky Way...wow!  Plus, their lenses gather much more light than your eyes can, so you'll see more, and farther.  Generally, stick to 10 power or below, and a range of 35-50 mm is a good target for the lens.  (A 10x50 model is ideal, and a 7x35 is excellent as well.)  

In closing

The best telescope is the one you have!  (Or the one you can afford.)  The sky can be enjoyed in so many ways, so definitely get out there and do some stargazing!  Keep in mind that the cheaper scopes can require a little more patience, and a $100 pair of binoculars will be much higher quality than a $100 scope.  That being said, the priority is to look at the sky.  

  Let me know if you have any questions, and of course, check out my YouTube channel, Astronomy with Josh!

Clear skies,

Monday, September 7, 2020

Professor Plum

Letters from Josh

Professor Plum     9/7/20                                                                           Letter 22

  Hey there, folks, and Happy Labor Day!  Josh here - if you’re just “tuning in”, I’m a fellow who, pre-COVID, went around and brought you music and eclectic lectures.  Nowadays, it’s letters with a variety of tales.  

  This week, it’s the answer to CLUE:  Professor Plum killed the Home Depot Paint Lady in the Library with the Lead Pipe.  Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

 Life has a strange way of cutting me down to size - repeatedly.  I’m actually grateful for this, because like the Zoysia grass in the front yard, I’d get out of control without a regular leveling.  Moreover, I’m learning when to expect one of these reality checks.  If I’m walking along, the sky is blue, and I really think I’ve got my act together...expect lighting.  

  Cut to today.  I’ve been renovating a room in my house, turning it into a library and study.  I’ve replaced rotten beams, patched soft floor, ordered new hardwood and a nailer (I’ll be installing it, too), replaced drywall (with the huge help of my stepdad), am going to build floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, mill my own crown molding, and, of course, am repainting.  

  Aiming for the 1930’s study vibe, the ceiling is a beautiful dark teal green, and the walls are “Admiral Blue”, a deep shade of the ocean, dignified and stately.  With endless prep work, the dust must have gotten into my thinking.  Hours and hours of sanding and painting found me thinking the fatal thought:  Oh wow, I’m really something.  I’ll think big thoughts in here.  

  In the interest of doing it right, it seemed prudent to get one more gallon of Admiral Blue - just to make sure the coat was nice and thick.  The sun smiled down as I made my way back to Home Depot, taking forever to get another gallon of paint.  Man, were they busy there.  A little too busy, apparently.  

  Back home, I rolled the Admiral Blue on the walls, and touched up the corners.  “Boy, look how cool I am.  I’m going to think the important stuff in my new Library.”  

  “Huh, that’s funny, it looks like a different color.  Well, the paint must just have to dry.”  

  Still, this morning, the finish was...patchy.  I start to touch it up, and when, standing in the middle of my big boy library/study in which I’ll be SO cool and think the big thoughts and do re-search (emphasis on the last syllable)...

  I realized I was painting my wall  PURPLE.  It’s like I’m living inside a grape.  So much for dignity.  Ha!  Ohhh, Life, you ol’ scoundrel, ya really got me again!  I am...Professor PLUM!  This is my library. Yeah yeah, forget James in the Giant Peach - I’m Josh in the Giant Grape.  As for the Home Depot lady - don’t worry, I’ll forgo the lead pipe for polite questions and kindness, and we’ll get it sorted in a way that works for everyone.  I actually kind of like it, and might keep it this way.  

  The purple walls echoed with chuckles of sudden realization this morning.  Bet the guy who actually ordered the purple paint is saying “HEY!  This is Blue!” 


  In parting, I hope your Labor Day is relaxing, enjoyable...and just a little unpredictable.  Eat some grapes, and think of me!  

Yours Truly,

Josh...aka Professor Plum  

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Sunbeams and Uncle Charlie

Remember great-great-great-great (10 x whatever) Uncle Charlie?

  I don't, either, but I can just picture him, our distant ancestor, a hundred thousand years ago, snorting, eyes flickering open with a jolt.  "Ah, morning!"  (In fact, in the morning, sometimes my mirror is mean, and says I resemble him.)  

  And, just like Great Uncle Charlie, I too sit there, staring groggily at the beautiful morning.  The Cedar Waxwings grace the yard with a surprise visit to the Pokeberry.  Their sleek gray wings are tipped with brilliant yellow, like they got too close to God's paint bucket.  The birds' masked faces are some I don't mind, a jet band around their eyes, robbers of berries.  

  And there's ol' Mister Sun, getting ready for another shift of rolling around Heaven and smiling down at us all all day.  His beams are creeping through the forest, suddenly illuminating a spider's unbelievably perfect handiwork.  "HEY EVERBODY!  LOOK AT THIS SPIDER WEB!"  Well, the spotlight is absolutely silent, but if it could talk... 

  When Uncle Charlie was surveying the ancient scenery at the dawn of Humanity, ol' Mister Sun was busily at work, too, fusing hydrogen into helium, a giant factory of everything, for, if it wasn't for him and his light, we wouldn't have anything.  

  Deep in the core, four hydrogen atoms got squished into two helium atoms, the reaction releasing a bit of light (photons.)  The photon immediately encountered a morning phenomenon and...ran into traffic. ("Ga, Monday rush hour, man.")  Slamming into another particle, it got absorbed, and that particle re-emitted a photon, and THAT one got "stuck in traffic", and so on, for...a hundred thousand years.  It takes  that long for the light to work its way out of the core!  (As far as they know.)  

  Finally, the photons reach the "surface" of the Sun, and are greeted with the sight that gladdens every commuter's frazzled heart - the open road.  And, just like the drivers on Rt. 210 once they clear Old Fort Road, boy do they gun it, traveling almost 93 million miles in...8 minutes.  

  So, as I huff and puff on my morning run, and smile up at the sunbeams smiling back at me, just think:  The light illuminating that spider web in a dewy delight first got cookin' when...Great Great Great (etc) Uncle Charlie was going about his morning, doubtless grumbling about the politicians and their ineffectual plans regarding the Saber-tooth problem.   Or something like that.   

  Boy, if he could just see me now.  Bet he'd like these wheels!  

- Josh