August 30, 2010

A Last Look From Home

This morning I took my last shot of the lovely Wasatch mountain range from the balcony of my condo. It had been an extraordinarily cold and stormy morning and a powdery layer of snow had even graced the highest mountain peaks...

By about noon my dad, Steve (one of the guys who's been fixing up my condo), and I had loaded the budget moving truck and I had made my last rounds through my soon-to-be former home cleaning and making sure I'd collected all of my belongings. It was incredibly difficult to take the house and mail keys off my key ring and lock the door behind me. I ADORED that little condo. So many great things have happened there. It was a refuge for me. I hope that whoever moves in next finds as much to love about the place as I did...especially now that it's been so fixed up!

I am now at a hotel in Rawlins Wyoming with my dad. After a brief practice session for me and a surprisingly satisfying dinner at a quiet little chinese place across the street, we've just been chilling out back at our dad reading "Cheyenne Autumn" while I check the latest astro-news from SLAS and type this quick blog entry. There's a long day of driving ahead of us so I should probably get to bed.

August 28, 2010

El Cid

I am now officially (by blood) an aunt...

My sister Malorie and her Husband Ryan welcomed Cid Emerson Laukat into the world yesterday afternoon after a very short, but according to Mal not entirely painless (to put it mildly), labor. "El Cid" (the master) got a health rating of 9 out of 10 and has a full head of long curly white-blonde white in fact that one of the nurses asked if they'd checked his eyes to see if he's an albino! He's teensy tiny and I was much too skittish to accept an offer to hold him when I came by for a visit this morning. Anyone who knows me well knows I'm not much of a kid or baby person, (and I'll definitely have to thank Cid later for being totally chill and not crying at all while I was there), but I have to admit he's a rather handsome little guy and you can see that the three of them make a lovely family.

I stayed for 15 minutes or so and got a bit of a lump in my throat as I said goodbye...a little because of the baby, but mostly because I won't see Mal and Ryan again for quite a while...sigh.

August 25, 2010

What a Mess!

Some of you might be wondering why I haven't posted for the past few days, especially considering there has been plenty I could've written about. Two reasons for my absence: 1...I've admittedly been on a downswing mood-wise and the depression has kept me from wanting to communicate much, and house is being torn apart in a mad dash to make it presentable for sale before I leave ON MONDAY!!!'s really coming up.

Anyway, to give you an idea of what I've been living in for the last couple days (without a toilet by the way! Thank goodness for the library next door!) here are some pictures of my previously lovely condo...

If all goes as planned, the finished product will be utterly beautiful and it will sell on the first day it's listed...cross your fingers for me!

August 21, 2010

More Fun With Mirrors...AND a Green Laser!!!

Man...I should start a fun house or something!

To see where the idea for this wild set of photos got started, check out my previous August post "Fun With Mirrors". I wonder if I could get a red laser in there too...hmmm...

August 17, 2010

Family Fun

Last night I was fortunate to play 2nd trumpet in one of the Utah Symphony's summer programs at Orem's outdoor performance venue, the Scera Shell. The repertoire was predictable enough: A few John Williams favorites (selections from "Star Wars", "Harry Potter", and "E.T."), a suite from Bizet's "Carmen", some up-beat Americana ("Yankee Doodle", "Strike up the Band", and Sousa's "Liberty Bell"), and a few other cheerful classical fillers (Brahms "Hungarian March", Smetana's "Overture to the Bartered Bride", and "Russlan and Ludmilla").

It was yet another beautiful evening and the mood in the orchestra was very laid back. I on the other hand was just a little on edge. Trumpets generally feature prominently in concerts like this and though the music was all fairly familiar and fun to play, I was only given 2 days to practice and had just one rehearsal with the rest of the ensemble. Also, on a couple of pieces at the rehearsal our conductor David Cho only went over the first 16 measures or so before saying "Ok. Good enough. You guys know this one fine." Which is certainly a fair statement for most of the players in the group, but it meant that I'd be playing through some of the music for the very first time in concert...welcome to the life of a freelance musician!

The performance went fairly well. We had a decent audience and despite minimal rehearsal and the less-than-desirable acoustic of outdoor performance most everything came together without issue. However, I would rate my personal performance as about a B- as there were a few things I certainly did better in the practice room than on stage last night. Most listeners probably didn't notice my mistakes, but I'm guessing the rest of the brass section would've heard them. One in particular was (in my opinion) an unforgivable mental slip during a piece I've known and practiced for years...the prelude from "Carmen". I had a brain freeze right before the infamous low F and stopped playing. ((Aggghhhh!!!!)) Fortunately, my part doubles trumpet 1 as well as the entire cello section, so the error was likely not audible. Still...that's a major excerpt that I've practiced a ton! I am a real perfectionist about this kind of thing and it can be a challenge for me to move on after I've made such an annoying mistake. Oh well...I guess it's something to learn from and improve for next time.

On the bright side, I think the trumpet section...which last night was Jeff Luke, me, and Joe Reardon...sounded particularly brilliant during the John Williams pieces. There were a lot of little trumpet trio licks throughout that really came together nicely and were a gas to play! "E.T." in particular brought back a ton of childhood memories for me. As we played the iconic music that accompanies the boy and his alien as they fly through the air on a bicycle, the contagious exhilaration almost made me want to jump out of my seat and dance around the stage! Ok, I know I'm a sentimental goof ball, but that exciting sensation is part of why I love performance so much. I'm glad I still feel it from time to time.

As I wandered back to the symphony buses after the concert, a number of people came up to wish me "good luck" with my fast-approaching move to Evanston. As I get ready to start my life in grad school I know I will miss the many wonderful musicians I've come to know over the years in Salt Lake...a surprising number of whom have connections to NU or Chicago as well. Many have given me some excellent advice about approaching my education and a few survival tips I'm hoping will help during the city's infamously frigid winters. Thank you to all!

August 15, 2010

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Noodles

Actually, when I was young that sentence would have ended with "Nine Pickles". It was the memorization tool we were taught to help us remember the planets, and back then we all still thought that Pluto was the ninth. Today however I am using this blog's title sentence as an observation log because last night out at SPOC a good number of us were able to observe all eight planets in a single night! Though maybe I should come up with a new sentence like, "Even My Very Small Mutt (Mabel) Hates Jumping Next (to) Unicorns." to represent the correct order of objects I viewed:

Earth (Quite certainly the easiest planet to observe)
the Moon (No, not a planet, but how could we resist looking at its lovely crescent?!)
Hercules cluster (Again, not a planet, but at this point in the night we were still waiting for the rest of the lumbering gas giants to get high enough in the night sky to be nicely observable.)
Jupiter (Yay! it finally cleared the Oquirrhs!)
(triton?) (well, Dave Bernson thought he could make out Neptune's tiny moon, but I'm afraid none of the rest of us were so lucky. I needed another word for my sentence anyway...that's why I put it in parentheses.)

Over at one of the other telescopes (I believe at the 32 inch Grimm scope pictured at left) it was claimed that one of the operators also found Pluto (now...along with Ceres, Makemake, Eris, Quaoar, and others...considered a "dwarf planet"), but the word was that no one quite knew which faint speck in the field of view was the elusive icy world. Unfortunately, I never made it over to see for myself. We didn't get Uranus with the refractor until well past midnight and I had an early morning coming up, so I left Patrick to close up the refractor house without me.

It was an excellent night for a star party. We'd been having a number of mild cloudless days and as evening came on and telescopes were set up, people came out in droves to take advantage of the pleasant weather and the promise of fascinating astronomical sights. I had volunteered to run the refractor with Patrick, and as the crowds assembled, helped him align the scope using setting circles in order to find Venus and Mercury in the fading daylight even before either was visible to the naked eye.

Mercury proved to be a particular challenge and we only located it after many failed attempts and repeated resettings of the coordinates (You can see Patrick at right frustratedly double checking things on his laptop). Mercury was (and usually is) so low on the horizon that it was necessary to capture it as soon after sunset as possible, otherwise our planet tally would've come up one short. Even after we found it and rushed as many people as we could up the stairs and to the eyepiece, there were still a good number who missed out on the winged messenger entirely.

Amid all this planet fever, you might be surprised to learn that the highlight of the night for me was not a planet but a shadow...

Jupiter is one of my favorite targets. I tell people that it looks like "a party in the sky!" The huge striped disk floats across the sky flanked by four obvious satellites who's positions change noticeably to a patient observer over the course of any given night. Even to those who only view it occasionally, the configuration of its minions from night to night is always a surprise. Last night, three of the galilean moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, were on one side, while the Io was alone on the other. As people climbed up to take their views Patrick or I would explain a bit about what they should expect to see and then entertain the rest in line with little tidbits like: "The light you're seeing coming from Jupiter now left the planet 35 minutes if you really want to see what the planet looks like right this second, you'll have to come back in about a half an hour!"

As the minutes wore on, it became harder and harder to see Io. It continued to move ever closer towards its planet's disk till eventually someone at the scope commented that the little moon was hanging right onto the edge. Patrick and I thought we'd have to start telling people they'd only be able to see three moons in the eyepiece because neither of us was sure whether or not the moon would be moving in front of or behind Jupiter. Then someone at the scope said excitedly "I think I can still see the fourth moon on top of the planet...and a shadow too!" I was now itching to get a peek at the spectacle myself as I had never personally observed a transiting moon and when a lull in line opened up I ran up the stairs and looked through the eyepiece.

Sure enough, almost smack dab in the middle of the colorful giant was a bold black pinprick: the shadow of Io! Because Jupiter was still fairly low above the mountainous horizon, the view wasn't pristine. Just as if I were trying to look at a penny at the bottom of a swimming pool, distortions caused by heat and other atmospheric turbulence made the image shimmer ever so slightly. Io's tiny round shadow would pop in and out of view during moments of incredible detail and clarity parsed in between the image's general fuzzy wiggliness. I wish I could have watched it all night! But...sigh...there were planets yet to be seen and many people still waiting for their turn at the eyepiece, so I relished my 15 seconds or so and then stepped down the ladder...the unforgettable picture of Io's shadow still lingering in my minds eye.

August 13, 2010

Seeing Green

Last night I participated in my final night of astronomy volunteering at Bryce Canyon National least for a long while. Though I was quite sad to bid farewell to that amazing dark sky, the show we were given yesterday evening could not have been more spectacular and I left with a smile on my face and a thrill in my heart.

As telescopes were set up and our ceiling darkened, I and the other park volunteers watched as the lovely thin crescent moon hovered underneath a trio of planets: brilliant Venus flanked closely on the right by Saturn and on the left by Mars. The quartet followed the sun slowly down into a tree-framed dusk and as night gradually took over, the shadowed part of the moon was lit by earthshine to create an illusion of dim fullness.

There were 8 scopes set up last night and a few people there I had not previously met. I particularly enjoyed chatting with Meredith (yay! another female!) who had just completed her phd in astronomy and was off to start a postdoc position at UC Berkeley. She had decided to spend a month doing astronomy outreach at Bryce and seemed to have fallen in love with the Utah landscape in general. I wish I'd had more time to get to know her.

By the time the public arrived after having attended Patrick's presentation at the Lodge, the moon and three accompanying planets had gotten too low in the sky for any good views to be had, so instead the rest of us telescope operators were assigned (fought over) various dark-sky spectacles. There were simply so many people that it would have been impractical to do much moving around from object to object. I was happy to be given the ring nebula which was near zenith and in a perfect position for my scope to get a nice clear shot while simultaneously placing the eyepiece at an agreeable angle for any smaller visitors who came by. A few of my tall guests had to crouch down a bit, but I only had to pull out a step ladder once for a child...I think people feel much better when they don't have to climb stairs in the dark! Many of the other scopes were so big that viewers had no choice but to climb to the top of a ladder in order to reach the eyepiece. One of the volunteers had an excellent solution to this: he lined the steps of his ladder with glow-in-the-dark tape and then lit it all up with a UV flashlight!

The major event of the night was the Perseid meteor shower which was predicted to peak from midnight till 3:00 am. Even before the last light of the sun disappeared over the horizon we were treated to some incredible giant green perseids streaking across the sky...a couple that even left trains behind them that glowed an amazing green long after the meteor had burned itself out. Even though Patrick and I left before the shower's peak, I had personally never seen so many meteors in my life. Some were big and bright enough that they streaked across the the whole milky way from north to south, and I happened to catch an amazing little flurry of at least 3 quick streamers falling simultaneously right in front of the heart of Sagittarius!

With all the fireworks overhead, it was difficult at times to pay attention to the guests at my scope. It often seemed that just as I'd direct someone to the eyepiece and begin to explain what they were seeing, a giant "OooooAahhhh!!!" would erupt from the rest of the crowd as another green fireball shot across the sky. I missed a lot of good ones that way.

We had a great (and huge) crowd and ended up staying quite late. Patrick had initially wanted to leave early to try to make it back to Stansbury Park for the official SLAS meteor watch from 12 to 3 am, but even he ended up having so much fun that, though we were still the first of the volunteers to take off, we basically stuck around till most of the public had left. Personally, I was glad to stay and take full advantage of my last night at Bryce...though again I must add: my last night for a while...I certainly hope to be back again someday.

Before the stargazing programs began last night, Patrick and I had arrived at Bryce fairly early and both agreed it was a good opportunity to take a walk along the canyon rim just behind the lodge. It could not have been a more beautiful evening and as we strolled along the trail we passed through larger-than-typical crowds of other spectators who'd come to watch the last rays of the summer sun set the distant cliffs afire. I commented to Patrick that I hadn't heard anyone speaking English since we'd started walking...and it was a good 2 or 3 minutes more before either of us heard a familiar word. What an incredible opportunity it has been for me to work for a program where I've been able to interact so many different people from across the globe. Though I have often had issues with social anxiety, something happens when daylight disappears and I'm standing behind a telescope underneath a sky speckled with stars. Judgements evaporate, superficial barriers come down, and wonder takes over.

August 10, 2010

Trumpet Summit

Yesterday evening, an obscene number of Utah (as well as one Idaho and one Alaska) trumpet players convened in Libby Gardner Hall for some performance, ensemble playing, and socialization. With so many giant egos in one room it's a wonder we didn't blow the place up!

The catalyzing event that brought us all together was the temporary visit of Rich McMaster. He is a Utah native who attended the University of Utah for a few years before going off and joining the Air Force Band. He's now stationed in Anchorage Alaska and seemingly having a great time tooting his horn and, with his wife, raising three young daughters. The Air force paid for him to come to Salt Lake for a week and take a few lessons with Nick Norton, and before he was to take off back to the frozen north, we all got together to catch up and play some trumpet.

I remember when I was a freshman at the U and first met Rich. We played in the Philharmonia, Wind Symphony, and Marching Bands together and very soon after the school year began, Rich and I started playing duets nearly every day. Rich was a few years my senior and a substantially better player technically. As I was just learning to transpose and otherwise play at a much higher level, playing with Rich REALLY pushed me to learn quickly. He would say stuff like, "Ok, let's play this Vizzutti etude in canon...and transpose it into E flat...and let's do it fast!" Those duet sessions really made me sweat, but I had a great time as well!

In my opinion, playing duets is one of the most effective ways to improve and learn. While reading through music, two players can usually keep each other going through the rough spots...if one person screws something up, it's likely that the other guy (or girl) is still playing, so together you push each other to read well and respond quickly. It is also a great way to improve your listening skills as learning to precisely match the sound and style of the other player hones the ear's ability to turn on and tune in to something other than what's coming out of your own bell. In my case, having a much more polished player to listen to and keep up with on a regular basis was a huge benefit, and I felt that between the excellent lessons I got from Nick, the great new ensembles I was playing in, and Rich's and my daily duet sessions, I made more improvement that first year than perhaps at any other time before or since. I hadn't seen Rich in...well, probably about 8 years...maybe more, and it was great fun to sit next to him in a section again!

At the start of the "Summit", we played a quartet version (5 or or 6 players on each of the 4 parts) of the "Triumphal March" from Aida, conducted by another great trumpeter/director of bands at the U of U, Scott Hagan. Rich then got up to play a solo and answer questions about his life in the Air Force Band. Following Rich's performance, we played another large ensemble piece, and then I got up to perform the Charlier #6: one of the etudes that will be required for my placement audition at Northwestern. I didn't play flawlessly, but overall I was quite pleased. My only problems were a couple of mental transposition hiccups after which I kept right on going as if nothing had happened (which is a VERY good thing!..especially for me). Overall I played musically and got through the tricky parts well. It may have in fact been my best performance of the piece so far.

For the rest of the time we played a few more ensemble pieces, some great Baroque standards that Nick conducted (and on which we were joined by a timpanist), and finished off with a version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". One of the highlights for me was a rousing attempt at "Bugler's Holiday" on which I played the bottom hand of the piano part while Sereta Hart, a doctoral student at the U and a great local trumpeter, played the top hand. We were accompanied (Ha!) by a whole roomful of double-tounguing trumpeters and more or less made it through with only a few bumps and bruises:)

Afterwards, Nick invited the lot of us over for pizza and drinks at his home. It was all in all an excellent time. Who'd have thought a bunch of trumpeters could get along so well!?

August 7, 2010

Fun With Mirrors

I have a guy over today doing some patching of the walls in preparation for painting my condo, and I've been putting around the place while he's worked trying to make myself feel useful. I have two gigantic mirrors that I'd stacked front-to-front in my second bedroom and was moving them around again today to make the wall more easily accessible. While doing this, I noticed that the reflections created in between them were rather cool, so I played around for a while seeing what effects I could come up with.

Here are the results...

August 4, 2010

Yard Art

Ta Daaa! My parents' front yard, that I've been working on for about a month, is finally done!!!

This has been the biggest bit of physical labor I've ever participated in. Towards the end of the project I did finally get some additional help, but the bulk of labor was mine alone.

It started with a sketch...heavily battered at this point...

Then I dug up the ENTIRE front yard BY MYSELF! This was a HUGE job. The yard doesn't seem that big when you walk by, but the ground was ROCK hard and dried weedy root balls, large tree roots just below the surface, rocky soil to begin with, and temperatures soaring into the upper 90s and 100s made the job quite taxing. I wish I'd thought to take a picture of the yard before I got started. My parents had stopped watering years ago (we live in a desert...what sense does it make to have a lawn?) and, much to the chagrin of our neighbors, dirt and weeds took over.

Next, we (my cousin Chester had arrived to help by this point) covered the ground with a layer of black tarp-like fabric. You secure this stuff to the earth with giant 5 inch staples!

Next, we staked out my design with landscaping edging, and after my mom picked up a collection of flagstones, I arranged them into a sunburst...

A few days later, we received 4 shipments of rocks...10,000 pounds total!

...and in one day Chester, my mom, and I worked feverishly through the hottest part of the day to lay the white stone...

...and get started with the red.

Today, Chester and I worked in between rain showers to lay down more red,

but we ran out of stone with only a few more square yards to go, so my mom ordered another half of a ton and late in the afternoon, Rod, Mom, Chester and I all worked like mad when it arrived to shovel, screen, and arrange the remaining stones and complete the design.

Ain't it gorgeous!!!

Whew! This is definitely the largest canvas I've ever worked on...and it feels great to be done!

August 3, 2010

Listening Session

Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar speaking at the America's Great Outdoors listening session in Salt Lake City.

Today I participated in a local listening session dealing with the "America's Great Outdoors Initiative" proposed by president Obama. The initiative is meant to enhance all people's ability to venture into and enjoy the outdoors, and senior members of the Obama Administration have been touring the country listening to local ideas for how the initiative's goals might be accomplished.

When I heard there was to be a listening session in Salt Lake I got a wild hair in my brain and immediately signed up as a representative of SLAS to promote the protection of our nation's quickly-disappearing dark skies. I felt that the mission and activities of our astronomy club fit perfectly with the goals stated in the president's proposal, and in online forums I didn't see a single other person who was advocating for dark skies...I guess you could call the natural skyscape our great forgotten wilderness!

I talked with other SLAS members, met with our club president Dave Bernson, and wrote an essay outlining my ideas. I had no idea what the format of the listening session might be, but I practiced my talking points and hoped I'd have maybe 5 minutes or so to present my ideas.

This morning Dave and I showed up at the downtown Radisson, registered and found a seat in the crowded meeting hall. Governor Gary Herbert, SLC Mayor Ralph Becker, one lady I can't remember (I'll try to add her name later) and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar were seated on the stand and each gave short speeches before inviting members of the audience to step up to one of three microphones at the front of the room to ask questions of Secretary Salazar. After a couple minutes of nervous hesitation, I stepped into the lineup of questioners and tried to figure out what I'd say. Dave had come up with a very nicely worded question...something like, "Do the American People realize the value to scientific and environmental education provided by easy access to a dark sky?" I decided to use it as my point of departure and add a couple thoughts on my own that would draw attention to the ability of astronomy programs to draw people, and especially youth, into the great outdoors.

I was a tad nervous at the mic and would give myself perhaps a B- for the final minute-long result, but I was still glad to have been proactive and that my thoughts were heard.

After the general session, we all split off into several small groups meant to give more people a chance at in-depth comment. Dave and I both got to contribute more during this session, though it occasionally seemed a bit awkward to steer the conversation to efficient street lighting when everyone else in the room seemed to want to focus on "YES ATVs!" or "NO ATVs!" Well, I'm simplifying a bit. It was very interesting to hear a civil discussion about wilderness issues in a setting where all ideas were given their fair due. Each time someone was speaking the rest of the participants were silent--even when it was clear that some people's opinions were in stark oposition to others.

Dave and I both felt the session was worthwhile and informative even though we were oddballs in the group. Even on the main webpage devoted to the America's Great Outdoors Initiative, I am so far the ONLY one who has posted an idea relating to dark sky preservation. I posted my entire essay here: AGO homepage (and if you like what I stand for in the essay, give me a positive vote!). As I write this, my essay is still on the front page of "most recent" submissions, but if it's since moved down the list, you can search "Kelly Ricks" at the top right of the page...or you can just try searching "Kelly Ricks and America's Great Outdoors" on Google and my posting should show up.

Anyway...I am still a little buzzed by the whole experience...and I heard from Dave that another club member heard my question broadcast on KUER! I haven't found a recording of that yet...maybe it will be up on their site tomorrow. Yikes! It has been an interesting day to say the least!

August 2, 2010

Picture of the Month: August 2010

I took this month's picture during my last trip to Ithaca. It was swelteringly hot and humid during the days so it was most enjoyable to wander the area at night--though because I'm such a nut, there were a few times I got us out during the worst part of the afternoon (sorry Rob...).

Cornell has a beautiful old campus. The most recognizable feature is perhaps an enormous bell tower sitting atop a hill that looks out over the entire valley below. It is from this vantage that I snapped the can even see a bit of Cayuga Lake reflecting the last rays of summer sun through the trees.

Another evening, we walked down to the lake shore itself and watched a lovely sunset while feeding the few ducks still congregated around the shoreline. When it got too dark to safely linger, we strolled home through blinking roadside congregations of fireflies. Rob reminded me that different types of fireflies blink for vastly different reasons. In one variety, males fly around using flashing patterns meant to impress a female. The females then respond with their own bioluminescent displays in order to accept a mate. Another species mimics the previous female's "body language", but instead of a roll in the hay, she's just after some dinner! Male fireflies in the first species have no way to discern the difference! Love can certainly be a dangerous game in the insect world.

August 1, 2010

Astronomy Wear: M13

Last night I got an image in my head of a possible art project I could attempt on a rather cute but non-descript jean jacket I've had for a few years. I got online to look up photos of my subject (M13: the great globular star cluster in the constellation Hercules), made some sketches on graph paper, purchased some variously sized and colored rhinestones and a type of glue specifically meant to attach them permanently to fabric, filled up a shot glass with bleach, pulled out my favorite old Sharpie "Rub-a-Dubs" and set to work.

M13 is made up of several hundred thousand stars--of which many are some of the oldest in the universe. It is the brightest star cluster in the northern hemisphere and at a really dark location you can just make it out with the unaided eye. Through a telescope it is glorious! Let your eyes adapt for a few seconds at the eyepiece and many blue and gold stars pop out and seem to shimmer against a glowing background of innumerable tiny points of white light.

I did my best to accurately represent the position of orange-tinted and blue-tinted stars in the cluster from photos I looked up online, though in practice, I was only able to make a rough approximation of the cluster's appearance. Still, I think that those who've viewed many different globular star clusters should still be able to recognize a couple key patterns unique to M13 in the finished product.

I can't wait to wear it around town...or at least to the next star party! I think that besides being a cool astronomical "image", it also looks pretty stylish...of course I've never been known for my fashion sense.