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Week of 5 November 2001

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Monday, 5 November 2001

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8:53 - I found out the World Series was on last night. Barbara tuned in to watch The Practice, which had been advertised as a new episode. When she turned it on, they were running an episode from last year. We couldn't figure out what was going on until Barbara started flipping around the channels and noticed that there was a baseball game on another channel. She said something about it being the last game in the World Series. That surprised me, because I thought baseball was over in September or October. I'd never heard of one of the teams playing, the Nevada Rattlesnakes or something like that. 

Does anyone really care about baseball nowadays? When I was a kid, thirty-five or forty years ago, nearly all boys followed baseball religiously. Nowadays, I doubt that one boy in ten could even name all of the professional baseball teams. And professional baseball has only itself to blame. When I was a boy, stars like Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and Bill Mazeroski earned perhaps ten times a factory worker's salary. Nowadays, even mediocre players make 100 times what a factory worker makes, and ticket prices have gone up accordingly. Clemente, Stargell, Mazeroski, and the rest were smart enough to realize who paid their salaries. They spent a lot of time signing autographs for kids, visiting schools, and so on. Nowadays, baseball players act like royalty, too good to mingle with the hoi polloi. And if they're not too busy striking for more money to deign to sign autographs, they charge kids for them. Disgusting. Why would anyone bother to watch?

I read an interesting article that speculates that the sudden disappearance of several civilizations around 2300 BCE may have been caused by the impact of a relatively small meteor. Based on the information provided, the conclusion is by no means certain, but it appears to be a credible possibility. The same thing could happen tomorrow. Near-Earth objects are a lot more common than most people realize, and the likelihood is that we will eventually be struck. A large object striking Earth could destroy all civilizations on the planet, putting us back into the hunter-gatherer stage. Recovery would be more difficult this time around, because we've already exploited all of the readily available resources. There are no longer metal ores or petroleum pools lying around on the surface waiting to be exploited by primitive civilizations. Rather than tens or hundreds of years, it would probably take thousands of years for us to recover, if indeed we ever could.

And we're doing nothing to guard against such a catastrophic impact. We'd know it was going to happen months to perhaps a year or more before the event. And all we could do is wait for it to happen. If we had the boosters, which we don't, we could send a probe to the object while it was still months out. A large thermonuclear device could be detonated in contact with the object, giving it enough delta-v to nudge it out of the earth-intersecting orbit--the direction you add delta-v doesn't matter. But we don't have the boosters to get out there in time to do anything to solve the problem. 

Planetary defenses are yet one more argument in favor of expanding the space program dramatically. I like Pournelle's X-program idea. Get NASA out of the loop, and put things on a competitive basis, both between corporations and between military services. Provide seed money, with the promise of a big payoff for whoever succeeds. If we did as Jerry suggests, we'd soon be going into space routinely, at a cost of perhaps 1% what a Shuttle launch requires. Space flights would soon become as routine as commercial airline flights. We'd have power satellites, real space stations, and before long Lunar and Mars colonies. Even in the early stages, there would be major payoffs. Within ten years we'd be able to defend the planet. And that really is something we need to be able to do.


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Tuesday, 6 November 2001

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9:40 - The Aurora Borealis was visible from Winston-Salem last night, which is extraordinary. The first hint I had was a message on one of my mailing lists from someone in Indiana talking about the spectacular display. I didn't think any more about it, because Aurorae Borealis are almost never visible this far south. When we walked the dogs the second time last night, there was a message on the answering machine when we got back. One of the astronomy club members had called us to say the Aurora was visible. We hadn't noticed anything under our Bortle Class 8 sky during the walk, but Barbara and I went out to the back yard to see what we could see. The Aurora was visible to the northwest as a shimmering, pulsing red curtain. I ran back into the house to call Bonnie Richardson and let her know what was going on. She was able to see it as well.

Last night, observers as far south as Texas reported seeing the Aurora. There's a very good chance the Aurora will be visible tonight as well for people in all but the most southerly parts of the US. If you can get to a location with a relatively dark northern horizon, check it out. If it recurs tonight, the farther north you are the better the display will be. But even from the southern US, it may be visible.

I'm dithering about buying a new monitor. Barbara currently has an OEM Dell 17" monitor with a Sony tube on her main system. She did have an identical Gateway model, but that started pulsing red (much like the Aurora) a year or so back, so I moved it to my office and connected it to the KVM switch that serves some of my supplemental systems. I'd been meaning to replace it, but doing that wasn't very high on my priority list. It works fine for days or weeks on end, and then suddenly stars pulsing red. After a while, it goes back to normal.

The other day, it was pulsing red again, and I decided I'd better look into replacing it. I was going to buy Barbara a 19" Hitachi 715 (which I've already mentioned in the System Guides as her current monitor--I have to "write ahead") but Barbara wasn't thrilled by the idea of a 19" monitor. She's perfectly happy with a 17" and didn't want something larger taking up more desk space. I was thinking about ordering her a Hitachi 615 17" monitor, but then I decided to see what was on offer locally and how much they wanted for it. Computer and Software Outlet is advertising an NEC AS70 17" monitor for $176. That's $15 or so higher than pricing from web sources, but then shipping a monitor is expensive. And web pricing on the Hitachi 615 is $185 or so.

The AS70 is an "entry level" monitor, but for all of that it runs 1024X768 at up to 87Hz, which is more than good enough. It's also a well-built monitor, as evidenced by the 3-year warranty on both parts and labor. I think we'll head over to CS&O and pick one up for her today.

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Wednesday, 7 November 2001

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9:34 - We drove over to Computer & Software Outlet yesterday morning and bought Barbara an NEC AS70 17" monitor. She decided that she really didn't want to give up the desk space a 19" monitor would require, and she also likes the 17" screen size because she can take in the whole screen without moving her eyes around, which causes problems due to her bifocals. We stopped off to vote on the way home and then came home for lunch. Barbara ran some errands after lunch while I installed the monitor. I was surprised to see that out of the the box the brightness was turned up so high that I could see the scan lines. Many monitors, particularly inexpensive ones, don't have much reserve brightness. That's not going to be a problem with this one.

Having had a chance to work with it for a few hours, Barbara is very pleased with her new monitor. She says it's much brighter, contrastier, and sharper than the one it replaced, which will be retired to duty on supplemental systems in my office. I was surprised by just how good the image quality on the NEC is. I'd recommended the AS50 15" model, but for 17" I'd recommended the Hitachi 615. The Hitachi is still an excellent choice, albeit harder to find and a bit more expensive than the AS70, so I'll probably add the AS70 to our recommended list.

As I'd mentioned, one indicator of monitor quality is the length of its warranty. The AS70 has a 3-year parts and labor warranty, which is longer than most. A lot of inexpensive monitors warrant the CRT for 2 or 3 years but have only a 1-year warranty on labor. It's also increasingly common to see inexpensive monitors with a one-year parts and 90-day labor warranty, which is simply too short.

I did discover an interesting fact in talking with the owner of CS&O. I noticed that the only monitors he carried were NEC and Mitsubishi models (which are now actually pretty much the same thing, since the company that makes them is now NEC-Mitsubishi). I mentioned to him that I remembered he used to carry Samsung monitors, some of which have gotten pretty good reviews, and asked him why he no longer carried them. "Returns," he replied. "We sell a ton of NEC and Mitsubishi monitors, and they never come back. We used to sell a lot of Samsung monitors, and they came back all the time."

Which pretty much sums up the reliability issue. As I've been saying for years, if you want a reliable monitor, buy a Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, or Sony model. Sure, some of them will die early deaths, but the chances of that happening are lower than with second- and third-tier brands. Over the years, I've discarded piles of monitors made by Mag, Philips, Princeton, Samsung, Viewsonic, and other second- and third-tier manufacturers. They simply don't last as long as better monitors. They fail completely or (more commonly) the image quality simply becomes unacceptable. First-tier monitors, on the other hand, usually outlive their usefulness. When I've discarded a Hitachi, Mitsubishi, NEC, or Sony monitor, it's almost always been because it was too small or didn't support a high enough resolution to be usable any longer. I expect a first-tier monitor to last for three to five years under constant use with no problems at all, and I've had many last seven years or more. I expect a second- or third-tier monitor to die within a couple years, and I'm not a bit surprised when one dies after a year or 18 months of use.

Product reliability statistics are some of the most closely-guarded secrets in the industry, and those for monitors are no exception. Magazine and web reviewers can't really comment on reliability because they see one or two examples and use them for only a short time. But when someone like the owner of CS&O, who deals with large numbers of the things on a constant basis, tells me that he sells NEC and Mitsubishi monitors because they're reliable, I give a lot of weight to that statement. He knows what stays sold and what comes back.

The forecast last night was for perfect weather, so Barbara and I decided to head up there in the hope that the Aurora Borealis would repeat. I called Bonnie Richardson, who said she couldn't make it because she needed to pick up her sister at work at 10:00. I told her that wasn't a problem. We'd be up there by 6:30 and would probably be ready to pack it in by 9:30 or so. So Bonnie decided to come along. We had a good time, sitting under the stars and talking, and even observing something once in a while. 

I was going to try to bag Comet Linear C/2000 WM1 and the minor planet Vesta, but the only charts I had were those from Sky & Telescope's web site, and those weren't detailed enough. The comet looks like a slightly fuzzy Mag 8 star at this point. I'm sure I had it in the field of the low-power eyepiece, but I'm not sure which one it was. Same thing on Vesta, which is basically just a dim dot. I'll have those nailed in time for the public observation session Saturday night.

We did find lots of other good stuff to look at, including a bunch of Messier Objects, a very bright satellite, and of course Saturn. And Jupiter had just come up over the mountain, but was far too low to provide a satisfying view. Still, it was a magnificent night. Mighty Orion was on the rise as we left, with the full belt visible, but it was still too far down in the muck to view the Great Nebula. Betelgeuse was magnificent, as always. In astronomical terms, Betelgeuse is likely to go supernova any day now, which is to say some time in the next 20,000 years. I keep hoping we'll be lucky and actually see it explode. When it does, it will become by far the brightest object in the sky other than the sun and moon. At its peak, I'd expect it to be visible as a bright daytime object for some months or even a year. After it's settled down, in say five years, the supernova remnant will be a wonderful new object to view. Oh, well. It probably won't happen, but it would certainly be nice if it did.

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Thursday, 8 November 2001

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9:38 - Heh. I may not be as fast as my brother, who can routinely snag flies in mid-air (which is apparently a characteristic he shares with the best snipers), but at age 48 I haven't slowed down as much as I feared. I nailed a fly last night with a bunched up paper towel. 

I wonder how I'd do with the old tennis-ball-on-a-cord, though. Back twenty-five years or so ago when I was studying martial arts, there was this devilish practice device that comprised an ordinary tennis ball suspended from the ceiling by a heavy cord. The goal was to keep the ball a blur by striking it repeatedly, while avoiding being hit by it. Kind of like a punching bag, but it required much faster reactions. It didn't always simply rotate when struck. It would sometimes fly straight out to the end of its cord and then bound straight back at you, sometimes from an off-axis angle. It was kind of amusing to watch people trying it for the first time. They mostly missed it, and it mostly hit them. Or, to quote a Buffy episode, "we pummeled its hands and feet with our faces." Nowadays, I think I could probably hit it every time, as long as it was standing still.

A hero died in Winston-Salem yesterday. We don't know his name yet, but he was the pilot of a twin-engine Cessna 310 airplane that took off from the local airport bound for Tennessee. Apparently he experienced severe problems soon after takeoff, although he never contacted the tower. He found himself at low altitude over a heavily built-up residential area, with no good options. He was still able to guide the aircraft, because witnesses described the twisted course he took to avoid hitting homes and an elementary school that was a block from the crash site. He eventually steered the plane between two rows of homes and intentionally crashed it into a wooded ravine, which was the only place he could have put the plane down that wouldn't have killed people on the ground. He must have known as he aimed the nose of his plane for that ravine that he was signing his own death warrant, but he did it anyway. His plane completely disintegrated into what emergency workers described as "thousands of pieces".

A less courageous man might have attempted an emergency landing on a residential street or the school athletic field, knowing that by doing so he might survive the crash but at the high risk of killing many people on the ground, including children. But this guy decided not to do that. I hope his heroism gives his family at least some comfort.

I am so tired of getting spam from throwaway email addresses that I'm seriously considering automatically deleting all traffic from,, and the other providers of disposable email addresses. There can't be many people I want to hear from that can't use a "real" email address. Actually, I'd like to add to that list, but some people have no other choice of provider. I just got one of those Hunza bread spams from an AOL account, and the message was marked high priority, yet. High priority spam. Now there's an oxymoron.

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Friday, 9 November 2001

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9:52 - I'd mentioned the magnificent Aurora Borealis the other day, but Barbara and I didn't get set up to photograph it. Fortunately, David Morgan, who is a member of the Forsyth Astronomical Society and an expert on astrophotography, did get set up and took some images, two of which are reproduced below. He captured these images (and many others) with a 35mm camera using a 28mm lens at f/4 with approximately 30 second exposures on FujiColor 800 film.

Image Copyright © 2001 by David N. Morgan. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Image Copyright © 2001 by David N. Morgan. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Barbara is catching on to this astronomy thing. Last night while we were walking the dogs, she was looking at Saturn, Jupiter, and the Pleiades in the East, and commented on them. I was facing West, and told Barbara that I was looking at "an ultra-short period multispectral variable with extraordinarily high proper motion."

"You mean a plane," she said without turning around.

And a NAVSPACECOM communications alert about the upcoming Leonid meteor shower:



The information is unclassified.

If the Leonids meteor shower is as intense as expected, it may interfere with both emergency communications and civilian communications, including cell phones. Military Zulu time corresponds to UCT/GMT, and is five hours later than EST. There may be communications problems from midnight through noon EST on Sunday, November 18th.

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Saturday, 10 November 2001

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9:36 - Yet another hideous security hole in IE, this time with cookies. You remember, cookies are those things that everyone said were no security threat. Yeah, right. Microsoft says they have no patch for the problem, and recommend that people turn off Active Scripting. Hell, I've never had Active Scripting turned on since Day One. I also routinely delete cscript.exe and wscript.exe from my systems. Anyone who runs a system with Active Scripting enabled is asking for trouble. You can read Microsoft's take on the problem here.

Here are the Security settings I use (and have been using for years) in the Internet Zone:

Disable - Download signed ActiveX controls
Disable - Download unsigned ActiveX controls
Disable - Initialize and script ActiveX controls not marked as safe
Disable - Run ActiveX controls and plugins
Disable - Script ActiveX controls marked safe for scripting

Disable - Allow cookies that are stored on your computer (disable)
Enable - Allow per-session cookies (not stored)

Enable - File download
Disable - Font Download

Disable Java - Java permissions

Disable - Access data sources across domains
Disable - Drag and drop or copy and paste files
Disable - Installation of desktop items
Disable - Launching programs and files in an IFRAME
Disable - Navigate sub-frames across different domains
High safety - Software channel permissions
Enable - Submit nonencrypted form data
Disable - Userdata persistence

Disable - Active scripting
Disable - Allow paste operations via script
Disable - Scripting of Java applets

Prompt for user name and password - Logon

What's particularly obnoxious about this latest security hole announcement is Microsoft's take on the problem. It's not their fault, no. It's the fault of the person who discovered the problem and made it public. In their FAQ, Microsoft says:

Why isnít there a patch available for this issue?

The person who discovered this vulnerability has chosen to handle it irresponsibly, and has deliberately made this issue public only a few days after reporting it to Microsoft. It is simply not possible to build, test and release a patch within this timeframe and still meet reasonable quality standards.

So, Microsoft's answer to a bug in their software is to kill the messenger. That link is particularly interesting. It leads to an article entitled Itís Time to End Information Anarchy. Interesting term, that. Apparently, Microsoft defines "Information Anarchy" as people disclosing flaws in Microsoft software. Microsoft would much rather that their users remain unaware of such flaws until Microsoft develops a patch for the flaw. The problem with that is that there's no guarantee that Microsoft will ever develop such a patch, or, if they do, that they will do so in a reasonably short time. In the interim, the hole remains wide open and exploitable, and users have absolutely no idea that it's even there. Pity the poor dumb users.

We saw this happen with the disclosure of the hideous security hole in Microsoft Passport. Because that flaw was announced publicly, Microsoft was forced to do what they should have done anyway, which was discontinue use of Passport until a fix could be developed. But if Microsoft had had their druthers, this security hole would never have been announced, and millions of people would have continued using a severely flawed product. It's obvious where Microsoft's priorities lie. Having the flaw made public makes them look like idiots and calls into question the security of Microsoft Passport, which is an integral part of XP and .NET. God forbid that anyone should have doubts about Passport, since Microsoft's business strategy depends on it. From Microsoft's point of view, it would have been much better to keep millions of Passport users in the dark until a fix could be provided. The fact that that would have left millions of people subject to having key personal data pillaged is of no concern to Microsoft.

I once compared the security of Microsoft software to Swiss Cheese, but that's really not fair to Swiss Cheese. Microsoft has gotten tired of the bad press they get for all their security holes, so they've decided to do something about it. Not fix the holes, of course, but prevent people from talking about them. The Register published a good article about this new Microsoft initiative.

Anyone who knows anything at all about computer security knows that security-by-obscurity simply doesn't work. There's no doubt in my mind that Microsoft must be fully aware of this, so the reason for this new policy must lie elsewhere. The obvious answer is that frequent security alerts are damaging the reputation of Microsoft software and it's easier for Microsoft to take action to suppress those frequent alerts than it is for them to fix their software, which is basically unfixable. If your software is a joke, it's easier to censor the jokes than it is to remove the cause of them. Fortunately, a lot of security and antivirus software companies have refused to sign on to Microsoft's self-serving program.

Not enough people will cooperate voluntarily with Microsoft's new program to make it workable, so I expect to see Microsoft use the force of law to gag people who would otherwise disclose security holes in their products. That may sound like a sick joke, but I really do expect it to happen. Under DMCA and its successors, I expect that before long we'll find that it becomes a felony to distribute information about security holes in Microsoft products. They'll justify it on national security and anti-terrorism grounds. Just watch.

As for me, I just downloaded the beta of Redmond Linux.

Tonight is the public observation at Pilot Mountain. We're expecting a large crowd, and hope to have all the club members out their with their scopes. There will also be half a dozen or so scopes owned by the club, so we should have perhaps 40 to 50 scopes set up. The weather is to be perfect, if a bit cool. Just above freezing with a breeze. The traditional advice for observers is to dress for weather 20 degrees F (10C) lower than the actual temperature or wind chill, so Barbara and I will be dressing for weather in the mid-teens F (-10C).

There's lots of good stuff up tonight, and no moon. We should have a good session. I called Chief Meteorologist Lanie Pope at the local TV station to ask if she'd give us a plug during her forecast. She did so last night, not once but two or three times. If even a small percentage of her viewers respond, we should have hundreds of visitors up there tonight. Lanie herself is interested in astronomy, although she said she didn't have a scope yet. I invited her to the next club meeting, and also told her she was welcome to attend the public observation and club observations as our guest. So we hope to see her up there.


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Sunday, 11 November 2001

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11:05 - This ain't good. I downloaded Redmond Linux Personal Edition (Amethyst) and burned the ISO to a CD-R disc. I booted that disc in the Pentium 4 system, and things started out well. The installer displayed a menu screen that gave me three choices: Install Redmond Linux, Safe Mode Install, and Detect Hardware (or words to that effect). 

I chose the option to Install Redmond Linux and got a second menu screen that told me to use the arrow keys to select an item and boot it. The problem was, there were no menu choices available. I tried everything I could think of, including pressing Enter, using the up/down arrow keys and pressing Enter, and just waiting a while to see if it would default to something. No joy. So I restarted the system repeatedly and chose the other options. Same deal. The installer told me to pick an option, and there weren't any options to pick.

At that point, I'd about given up on Redmond Linux, at least on this machine. I thought perhaps it didn't understand the Intel 845 chipset or whatever. I posted a message to that effect on our backchannel mailing list, and Brian Bilbrey gave me a call. He'd downloaded Redmond Linux and it seemed okay to him. Brian suggested trying running the Redmond Linux installer from within Windows, but it was already time to leave for the Public Observation, so I decided to wait until this morning to try that.

This morning, I booted the system into Windows and inserted the Redmond Linux CD. It autoran, and displayed a dialog asking me how I'd like to install Redmond Linux. I accepted the default, which was to install it from the CD. At that point, it shut down and restarted the system. Once again, I got the same installer menu screen, and once again, I didn't have any menu options available to select.

So I powered down the system and restarted it, expecting it to come up in Windows. Instead, it displayed the Redmond Linux Configuration Wizard. There were again several choices, so I accepted the default. This time, it told me it was configuring Windows, and I thought it had locked up again. I was in the process of typing this, and turned around periodically to check progress. One of the times I turned around, it had gotten to 100%, although I'd never seen any intermediate percentages. I was hoping things were moving along, but the 100% complete screen just stayed there unchanging for about 15 minutes. Not good.

I decided to scrub the drive down to bare metal and install Redmond Linux on an empty drive. There was a problem with that, though, which I didn't think about until I had the Windows 98SE Startup Disk in my hand and was preparing to do an fdisk. I didn't bother to install a floppy drive in this system, because floppy drives are obsolete and no one ever needs one. Arrghhh.

Fortunately Windows 2000 still boots, for what good that does me. Note to self. Install an FDD in each system you build, regardless of whether you think you'll need it.

The public observation last night was a success. Thousands, possibly millions, of people showed up. Well, hundreds anyway. The success of the event may or may not have had something to do with Barbara's announcement on her diary page yesterday that we were holding a "pubic observation". I did notice a larger than expected number of teenage boys attending.

There's a rule of thumb in astronomy. If you buy a new scope or eyepiece, you'll have perfect weather until the new equipment arrives. But even if the weather has been perfect every night for weeks, you'll have terrible weather for the next week or three after the equipment arrives. Same thing when there's a rare astronomic event. The weather will be perfect for weeks preceding it and weeks following it, but on the night that matters, the weather will suck. I remember years ago talking to a guy who had been out the previous night to view some rare event, an occultation or something. I commented that he'd had pretty good weather for it. "Yep," he replied, "there was only one cloud in the sky. But guess where that one stinking cloud was?" You guessed it. Right in the way of what he wanted to look at. This is a scientifically recognized phenomenon, called "The Astronomer's Curse".

The Astronomer's Curse struck last night. After a month or so of nearly perfect observing weather every night, we ended up with heavy cloud cover. It was 6/10 or 7/10 when we got up there. Barbara took the following photograph. Pretty sunset, but we'd really rather have had an ugly, cloudless sunset.

sunset-pilot-mountain.jpg (165323 bytes)

Fortunately, it started clearing in the East, which is where all the really good stuff is at the moment. I came prepared with detailed charts of a lot of stuff, including Comet C/2000 WM1 (Linear) and the asteroid 4 Vesta, but last night was not a night for serious observing, even if the weather had been perfect. There were people driving in and out constantly with their headlights on. At one point a little girl walked up to me, pointed her flashlight at my face, and turned it on. So much for night vision. We did get quite a few faint-fuzzies despite all the problems. People are invariably impressed by M31 (Andromeda Galaxy). We also had M13, M81/82, and several others in the eyepiece at various times. 

Barbara was impressed by one little boy. He couldn't have been more than four or five years old. He asked her if it was okay for him to touch the scope, and she said sure. Never having used a telescope before and without any help from Barbara, this kid figured out the Telrad on his own and used it to get Saturn in the eyepiece. Barbara was very impressed. Ordinarily, a 10" Dob would be a bit much for a kid that young to handle. But Saturn was low in the sky at the time, which put everything down at his level.

Later in the evening, I heard a couple of club members shout that someone was looking for me. "He's over there," I heard one of them say. My first inclination was to run, figuring the Revenuers had finally tracked me down. Not this time. It was Michelle Kennedy, weathergirl extraordinaire from the local TV station. I'm surprised that Michelle is still at Channel 12. She's definitely Weather Channel quality. Bright, beautiful, enthusiastic, wonderful voice, and knows her weather. I was surprised to see her up at Pilot Mountain, because Channel 12 has her working weekends now. I expected to see Lanie Pope, who was recently hired by Channel 12 as their Chief Meteorologist, and with whom I'd spoken Friday. Michelle said she was indeed working, and needed to get back in time for the 11:00 News.

So I spent a few minutes showing her Saturn and some other stuff and talking about astronomy in general. She said she'd like to do a feature about astronomy and our club, and I told her that'd be wonderful. I'll call her one evening when we're heading up to Bullington and she's available, and we'll show her some of the sights. At the least, I hope to get Michelle and Lanie involved in the club. At the best, we may get quite a few new members from the resulting publicity.


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