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The Zeta Beam is busted again, so I'm stuck on Earth for the time being. I've ordered two vacuum tubes (valves) which I hope will fix the problem. One is from a manufacturer in the Peoples Republic of China, the other from Russia. This is whom you must do business with if you want top-quality audiophile-grade vacuum tubes in 2010.
(For screwy batteries of screwy sizes, shapes and voltages, Cuba is the go-to place because the USA trade embargo has effectively prevented Cubans from entering the Solid-State Age of transistors and chips, and the ancient vacuum-tube portable radios Cubans still use required really screwy batteries to generate the high voltages vacuum tubes need.)
The Soviet Union's military had made itself the world leader in vacuum tubes, but not for gizmo hobbyists with $3000 stereo tube amplifiers. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Top-Secret Soviet Military Vacuum Tube Factory went looking for cash customers, and realized that Western Europe and North America were populated by Strange People -- mostly, but not entirely, Male People -- who hate music which is brutally yanked through Solid State electronics, and only want to listen to music gently and lovingly guided through Vacuum Tubes, because transistors block music's higher harmonics, while vacuum tubes let all the higher harmonics pass, from source through tubes, out the speaker or Sennheiser headphones, and into the music-lover's ear.
This magical property of vacuum-tube stereo equipment is best appreciated by German Shepherds, Weimaraners and Basenjis, but audiophiles (who keep warm in winter by burning piles of money in the wood stove) insist their ears can perceive the difference almost as well as Fido and Rex, and will not listen to music unless it floats through vacuum tubes.
Last-Gen military tech also positioned the PRC as a Player in high-quality vacuum tubes. So it's China and Russia you deal with to keep your $3000 tube amp, or your vintage Dynaco tube amp alive. There are also a shitload of Yen-incinerating Japanese audiophiles who keep the vacuum-tube manufacturers prosperous.
But until the tubes get here from Vladivostok and the International Trade Zone adjacent to Hong Kong -- and I pray that at the end of their journey, FedEx Todd doesn't hurl them on to my wood porch or brick walkway -- I am stuck on Earth and must make the best of it.
As The B52s sang: This planet's a mess.
I have much to say about the mess, and the shame, and the embarrassment, and the dysfunctional failure, the unecessary suffering, the stupidity and hatred, and the human-made meltdowns of Earth circa 2010 -- the reasons I keep paying through the nose to keep the Zeta Beam working so I can get the fuck off this Vile Rock and spend time in my holiday condo in Ciudad Vleeptron, in the Dwingeloo-2 Galaxy. And catch some great live music.
Honestly, Earth Music 2010 just sucks. It's horrible. It's a torment. It's not even music. It's whining and artless and synthetic, and a lot of it is people shouting about popping a cap and slapping women around. Earth Music 2010 is like fingernails on a blackboard.
On Vleeptron I can catch some really terrific acts, like Sick Of It All and The Dead Milkmen, and the wonderful McGarrigle Sisters, both of them. Next month Flaco Jimenez AND Astor Piazzolla will be playing Club Drek -- probably the most spectacular Accordian Festival in the Universe -- at the Fudge Tunnel Underway stop. (There's a rumor Weird Al Yankovich will play his notorious polka cover of NIN's "Closer," but no promises.)
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On my wonderful voyage on The MV Northern Ranger up and down the coast of Labrador -- as far north as Nain, find THAT on a map -- there was this horrible nasty woman who found out I was a newspaper journalist, and kept demanding to know why we only print the Bad News, and never print the Happy Nice Good News -- by which she specifically meant big puffy group hug stories about Promise Keepers, the wonderful society of Christian Husbands Who Have Sworn to Jesus to Be Good, Honest, Dependable, Loving Husbands to their Decent, Upstanding Christian Wives, and not get blowjobs from truck stop prostitutes, or keep a gf named Randi Lou across town. (Finally I just yelled at her: "Lady, buy an ad!")
(On Talent Show Night, I went up to the microphone and sang a special song just for her, and she stroked out and had to be medivac choppered to Goose Bay.)
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So what is the Good News on Earth, for those like me who are stuck here waiting for vacuum tubes from China and Russia?
Well, it's not exactly On Earth.
You go outside at night, and if the skies are clear, you look up. And see wonderful things, beautiful things, amazing things.
Free things. They belong to you. They're yours. If you notice, and make a little effort.
Earlier this month, Earth travelled in its orbit through a swarm of rocks which we see emanating from the Constellation Perseus,
[ <-- scroll down to see nifty old sky map]
so the swarm of rocks -- which appear to us as Shooting Stars -- are called the Perseids. We careen through them every year at the same time.
The Shooting Stars are rocks which plunge into Earth's atmosphere and blaze into fire from the friction. Depending on size and entry angle, some of the rocks actually reach the ground, and can be collected and studied. We're here, but we can touch and inspect Rocks From Out There (specifically from the band of space rubble between Mars and Jupiter), and see what the solid objects of Out There are made of.
I think they're mostly iron, with a surprisingly large amount of nickel. But they have lots of rare stuff in them that there's not much of on Earth. The scientists who believe in Panspermia think that life or the organic molecules of pre-life hitchhikes between the planets aboard these little rocks, and in comets, too, so Life On Earth may have arrived from Somewhere Else on one of these Shooting Stars. About 3 hours' drive north of me, up Interstate 91, there is an undistinguished Appalachian mountain called Breezy Hill, on whose 1270 foot / 381 meter (above sea level) summit is Stellafane.
Since the early 1920s, Stellafane has been the USA's most prestigious campground and camp and school for amateur astronomers, largely focused on introducing astronomy to kids, but all kinds of geezers and grumps are there, too, as teachers and mentors.
On top of Breezy Hill, mostly at night, children and adults have something in common. They teach each other how to observe the Heavens, and specifically Stellafane teaches the rare, almost vanished craft of precisely polishing glass lenses to make first-class telescopes by hand. Stellafane ("shrine to the stars") was founded and is still run by the Springfield (Vermont) Telescope Makers -- not a private for-profit company, but a society of amateur telescope makers.
My skies were cloudy when we flew through the Perseids, but here is a photograph of one Perseid blazing down through our atmosphere above Stellafane. It was taken by Dennis di Cicco, senior editor of Sky & Telescope magazine; a brief sketch of Mr. di Cicco and his achievements in amateur (ama = love of) astronomy is below. He is credited with discovering 54 minor planets.
Stellafane is the Nursery which nurtures and inspires the Rocket Scientists and Space Dreamers of the future. Stellafane has been acquainting children with The First Science, and steering children toward careers in the Sciences, since the 1920s.
This beautiful photograph makes me especially happy, because there was some Bad News hovering over Stellafane a few years ago, which threatened to degrade or entirely ruin Breezy Hill's clear night skies, and thus extinguish 90 years of Stellafane's remarkable activities. But it appears that a series of last-minute changes and compromises saved Stellafane's night skies -- that photo looks pretty damn clear to me. Maybe even photometric.
I just don't want to talk about Bad Earth News tonight. I'll write about the Bad News that threatened Stellafane, and the fuckheads who made the Bad News, some other time. For tonight, I am content to know that, as soon as they croak, they will be plummeted immediately to a Really Bad Neighborhood in Hell, and will remain there eternally, suffering the torment and pain they asked for.
But this is Good News, Wonderful News, Beautiful News. Stellafane is still healthy and active and its skies are beautifully clear. Some people on Earth know what's important, and generation after generation, they keep doing it with excellence and love.
I took the daytime photograph of Stellafane. Notice that Zero, Nada, Bupkis, Zilch goes on at Stellafane during the daytime.
(Well, okay, I'll bet there's a regular midday riot when there's a total solar eclipse.)
But when the Sun goes down, that little mountaintop is crawling with hundreds of people and their telescopes and binoculars and cameras and tents and red-light flashlights (which don't degrade your sky-watching night vision).
Stellafane just might be The Best Place On Earth to look up at the Heavens. You can see the stars and the Moon and the planets and the Milky Way from just about anywhere.
But at Stellafane, if you have any questions about what you're seeing or trying to see, you're in the middle of scores of amateur, expert astronomers who have all the answers and are happy to give them away. And if you don't have a telescope, at Stellafane, they'll show you how to polish glass lenses and make your own telescope.
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Dennis di Cicco (born 1950) is an American amateur astronomer who lives in New England. He has discovered numerous asteroids from his backyard observatory in Sudbury, Massachusetts (IAU code 817). He is also the senior editor of Sky and Telescope magazine, where he has been a member of the editorial staff since 1974  . His special interests include astronomical photography and the history of astronomical photography, telescope making, and astronomical observing. During 1978-79 he was the first person to successfully photograph the analemma, making 48 separate exposures on a single piece of film during a 12-month period. The project is described in the June 1979 issue of "Sky & Telescope."
Labels: Perseids Stellafane Dennis di Cicco Zeta Beam vacuum tube Dynaco Astor Piazzolla Flaco Jimenez NIN Club Drek