Won’t You Sign In, Stranger?

I haven’t been able to sign in much lately, as my trusty old home office computer collapsed after about six years into a pile of confused, trojanized bits of metal and plastic. Which was really stunning, as I am quite diligent and good about computer hygiene, monitoring where I surf, and running AdAware, McAfee and Registry Mechanic to keep things in good functioning order. I’m still puzzled as to how the Trojan got onto my computer (my best guess is that I picked it up while downloading some indie/underground hip-hop music a couple of weeks ago), although after a fair amount of research, I’ve concluded that it was able to deploy by masquerading as a McAfee application, so that I authorized it to make registry changes, and the rest was ka-blooey.

I spent about three days working to recover the system, but it got to a point where it would have required outside assistance, and the cost of that assistance was, in round terms, probably not much less than the cost of a new computer. So I bought my fourth home computer last week since 1993, a Dell PC tower that’s running just fine with my old monitor, printer, and other peripherals. Fortunately, I was also always good about backing up documents to an external hard drive, so I was able to save all of my stuff, including the 6,000 or so songs that had accumulated on the old machine. I’m not real thrilled about having to work with Vista or Office 2007, but I’ve been using both of them at work for the past eight months, so it’s less painful a transition than it would have been otherwise.

With summer finally officially being upon us, I’ve also been spending less time in front of the computer and more time outdoors, more often than not golfing with Marcia. We joined a club this year, so it’s been nice to be able to consistently and predictably play the same course over and over again, really learning the distances and strategies and pitfalls in more detail than we have in the past as we’ve migrated between public courses over the past two summers. This is only my third season of swinging a golf club, and while I’m neither a natural (like Marcia) nor am I particularly anatomically prepared to excel at the game with a completely broke and rebuilt left shoulder, I am feeling some sense of progress with various elements of my game this year. I’m still pleased when I par a hole, and a birdie is a memorable experience, but at least this year I have a sense that both are actually possible when I step up to the tee, and it’s that hope that keeps me moving from hole to hole. Plus, when you get right down to it, here’s what the game entails to me: I get to ride around a beautiful park in an electric scooter with my main girl, while hitting things with a stick. What’s there ever to be unhappy about in such a scenario?

I’ve also been having a nice summer of space nerdery, especially this week as we mark the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, at the very same time that we have more humans in space right now on the combined Shuttle-International Space Station (13 of them!) than we ever have had at one time in the past. And you know what’s even cooler? You can see them! There’s a great website called Heavens Above that allows you to monitor and track all sorts of stuff whizzing by in the sky above you. If you know when and where to look, the ISS-Shuttle combo is generally the brightest object in the sky after the Sun, the Moon and (sometimes) Venus. At Heavens Above, you can input your own location, but since most readers of this blog are presumably in the New York Capital Region, here’s a list of some choice evening viewings hereabouts over the next few nights:

Date Mag Starts Max. altitude Ends
Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az. Time Alt. Az.
19 Jul -1.2 21:42:59 10 NW 21:45:24 22 NNE 21:47:48 10 ENE
19 Jul -1.3 23:17:55 10 WNW 23:19:24 26 WNW 23:19:24 26 WNW
20 Jul -2.5 22:07:05 10 NW 22:09:55 44 NNE 22:11:00 29 E
21 Jul -1.3 20:56:24 10 NW 20:58:50 23 NNE 21:01:14 10 ENE
21 Jul -3.1 22:31:20 10 WNW 22:34:04 60 WSW 22:34:04 60 WSW
22 Jul -2.6 21:20:28 10 NW 21:23:18 45 NNE 21:25:43 13 E
22 Jul -0.8 22:56:07 10 W 22:57:10 16 WSW 22:57:10 16 WSW
23 Jul -3.1 21:44:41 10 WNW 21:47:34 59 SW 21:48:51 28 SSE
24 Jul -2.6 20:33:45 10 NW 20:36:37 47 NNE 20:39:27 10 ESE
24 Jul -1.3 22:09:27 10 W 22:11:36 19 SW 22:12:01 18 SSW
25 Jul -2.9 20:57:57 10 WNW 21:00:50 57 SW 21:03:42 10 SE
26 Jul -1.1 21:22:43 10 W 21:24:49 18 SW 21:26:55 10 S
28 Jul -0.9 20:35:55 10 W 20:37:58 17 SW 20:40:01 10 S

The first column provides the date, obviously. The second is the magnitude, the more negative the number, the brighter the object, so the two brightest passes in the little while are the -3.1 ones on July 21 and July 23. The next three sets of three columns allow you to draw (mentally or literally) a line across the sky describing the visible arc of the ISS-Shuttle. The azimuth columns tell you compass direction, the altitude columns tell you how high above the horizon in that direction the object is (the highest number possible is 90 degree,or directly overhead), and the time columns tell you when it will be there, in military time, so you subtract 12 to go to standard AM/PM notation. You obviously need to be outside at the scheduled times with a sense of your cardinal points to be able to figure out where to look. These days, you can use Google Earth or Mapquest or any other mapping application with overhead photography of your property to help you orient yourself to North, South, East and West, and the gradual increments between them. If you click on the links on the dates, you should get a little chart showing you the line across the sky. Note that in these charts, east and west are reversed from normal maps, because if you lie on your back looking up with your head facing north, west is to your right, and east to your left, opposite road maps, where you are assumed to be looking down on the planet, not up off of it.

So what will you see, if you look in the right place at the right time on a reasonably clear night? An extremely bright, fast-moving “star” that does not have any blinking lights on it. With a pair or decent high-powered binoculars and a steady hand and good eye combo, you can actually discern the relatively square shape of the station, or at least of the solar panels that reflect back most of the sunlight that causes it to glow so brightly. And as you watch it race across the sky, reflect on the fact that there are 13 human beings inside, the only 13 currently living “off world” in the inhospitable environment beyond our planet’s atmosphere. I always find that powerful to ponder, especially knowing that they will orbit the entire Earth in about 90 minutes. If that doesn’t help you appreciate the fact that we live on a tiny planet, where everything is connected to and dependent upon everything else, then nothing else will.

So, if you get out and give it a look-see, let me know what you think. And in closing: hats off to folks who know where I cribbed the title of this post from. You, sirs and madams, have fine taste in music, and have, no doubt, indeed heard about the boom on Mizar Five.

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