Halloween 2015

Since we moved to a townhouse, we now live in a neighborhood with trick-or-treaters, making this my first Halloween where I’m the adult giving out candies rather than one of the costumed children gathering them. There was a momentous sense of unreality and aloof benevolence to my assuming this role, as I sat on the stoop in a Minecraft creeper box head with a Costco bag of fun size chocolates.

Giving trick or treaters candy in my creeper mask

The mask was far too stuffy with no peripheral vision, however, so I opted instead to set it beside me on the step with a flashlight shining on it, kind of a green 8-bit jack-o-lantern. We got a total of 37 children between 5 and 8 PM, Star Wars costumes most popular. I grossly underestimated the number of kids, and paced my candy output badly, running out at 8PM and having to retreat into the house and shut off the lights in Halloween shame.

(Maybe four or five kids acknowledged the Minecraft mask with glee.)

Space Technology Demo

October 7th saw a sounding rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility — short ballistic trajectory up into space and back down — to test new systems for future launches. Partway through flight the rocket released a cloud of tracer gas into space, 130 miles above the Earth. We watched the launch from North Virginia.

Tracer gas release, Space Technology Demo

I tried to get a long exposure of the first and second stage firings, but the arc, while clearly visible to the naked eye, was lost by the camera to the still-bright twilight. The tracer gas release was definitely visible, however: a rapidly expanding puff of green vapor which reached the size of a full moon before slowly fading away. Not quite as spectacular as the multiple plumes of ATREX, but still impressive.

Feline Non-Recognition Aggression

Our cat Amelia recently got her teeth and gums thoroughly cleaned at the vet (she was developing some gingivitis), and as the procedure is treated as surgical, she was put under general anesthesia (much easier and less traumatic for everyone involved: vet, vet techs, and cat). Turns out the anesthesia left over in her bloodstream changed her scent for a while, so when Amelia came home that afternoon she smelled completely different to her sister Martha, who responded with hisses and deep growls for the rest of the day. The vet tech had warned me about this before I took Amelia home.

And that’s how I learned about feline non-recognition aggression.

Amelia and Martha #cats

Fortunately both cats are fairly non-violent so there were no physical brawls, but Martha kept her distance from Amelia, and anytime she got close she’d give a sniff, then suddenly hiss loudly and dash away from what she perceived as a strange cat who looked like her sister but smelled like a veterinary procedure. Amelia was confused about this and seemed a bit despondent.

The aggression can last from 24 hours to weeks. In our case Martha’s hissing stopped about 3 days later and she is friendly to Amelia again.

Amelia and Martha #cats

(We didn’t even need to resort to locking the aggressive cat in a separate room or dabbing vanilla extract under their noses as some sites suggest, though we did keep their food bowls apart for those 3 days.)


Saturday was Open House Day at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I’d been there for some video work in Heliophysics and the Visitor Center earlier in the week, but I did want to return to see the other facilities which would be open to the public.

Buildings 7 and 29 were the highlight for me: the Spacecraft Integration and Testing Facility with its Space Environment Simulators, acoustic bays, and massive centrifuge; the High Bay Clean Room where the James Webb Space Telescope is being assembled; and the “Cauldron” satellite tech test bed.

Explore@NASAGoddard #throughglass
Explore@NASAGoddard #throughglass

Over in Building 28 were the Flight Dynamics Facility and CAVE — a holodeck-like 3D visualization environment simulating Asteroid Bennu and the OSIRIS-REX mission. The NASA TV control center was there too, and a life-size MMS model and a climate simulation server farm.

Explore@NASAGoddard #throughglass

And of course there was a bouncy space shuttle. Or technically, a bouncy Shuttle External Tank.

Bouncy Space Shuttle

We really only got to see a fraction of what there was to see; the GSFC campus is sprawling and there are many buildings, but I wanted to leave a bit early to beat outgoing traffic. More Explore@NASAGoddard photos here.

Weekend Snaps

Some weekend photos from after our return from Europe, as we squeezed the last of summer out of the month of August.

Hersheypark Comet
At Hersheypark, playing around with the SlowShutter app while waiting in line to ride the Comet.

Hillwood Museum: Library
A panorama of the library at Hillwood, home (now a museum) of DC socialite and heiress Marjorie Merriweather Post.

Mushrooms at Mason Neck
Wild mushrooms on the Bay View Trail, Mason Neck State Park.

Loch Ness Monster Interlocking Loops
At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, the interlocking loops of the Loch Ness Monster roller coaster.


We bought a townhouse. After 6 years in our 1BR condo we wanted to upgrade to a bigger place, but not too much bigger. Moving day was in March, and to this day we still have a few boxes left to unpack. The old condo sold to new owners over the summer, much to our relief.


The cats are happy about this, as now they have more than triple the space to run around.

Amelia #cat amidst moving boxes Martha #cat atop the kitchen cabinets

New home is a 3BR/2.5BA townhouse, near (by car) to various shopping malls and the Beltway, and walking distance from Metro, with a Metro shuttle at rush hour. It’s a good location for the price, though much less walkable than any of our previous residences. That does disappoint me somewhat, as I already suffer some middle-class suburban angst, but the location is an excellent compromise between accessibility and affordability — hard to find in this exorbitant DC-area market — and where we are is much more nature-y.

Forest trail

The cats certainly love sitting at the windows and watching the woods for birds and deer and squirrels.

Martha #cat enjoys her new view

The house is a bit older than our previous condo, but not by too much. There are a few repairs to make, and Amy and I are learning and applying some home DIY skills as we go along.

Townhouse Pano, Kitchen and Living Room

It’s still a bit strange to have things like a deck and a fence and a yard and stairs and more than one bathroom, but we’re getting used to that. More photos here.

Pluto Flyby

On July 14th, the NASA/JHUAPL spacecraft New Horizons flew by Pluto, nine years after its launch. Traveling too fast to slow down into orbit, New Horizons zipped past Pluto and its moons with cameras and sensors intensely trained on them to gather science and imagery, then turned around to beam the data back to earth over weeks and months to come, while piercing farther into deep space to explore the outer solar system.


Pluto, it turns out, is a stranger world than we thought: tinted beige by hydrocarbons, adorned with a giant heart-shaped feature (dubbed Tombaugh Regio after Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh) sporting mountains of frozen methane and carbon monoxide thrusting up from a young, un-cratered surface, all wrapped in an expansive atmosphere of rarefied nitrogen. Pluto and its moon Charon seem geologically active and surprisingly varied, a far-flung cryo-geo-chemical mishmash that is worth additional exploration, along with other potentially more fascinating worlds in the Kuiper Belt and outer solar system.

First Ever High Resolution View of Pluto's Surface
It’s a long, slow trip for the data gathered by New Horizons: 4.5 light-hours at 1-4 Kbps, so new images and observations from that short flyby interval will be trickling down for a while yet.

Stunning Nightside Image Reveals Pluto’s Hazy Skies

Also, Tombaugh Regio might not be a heart.

More from the JHUAPL Pluto site, which will update constantly over the course of the next year or so as more data trickle down from the New Horizons spacecraft.

Also see How Pluto’s most spectacular image was made—and nearly lost, and some commentary from Wired on NASA’s social media strategy for the Pluto Flyby — most notably the exclusive preview on Instagram.

Folklife Festival 2015: Peru

First and foremost: alpacas. Thanks to Andrès for informing me that day.

Hi! We're Alpacas.

Due to National Mall preservation issues, the 2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival was a slightly smaller event than previous ones: limited to one theme, Peru, set at the farther east end of the National Mall, with the Marketplace moved into the American Indian Museum.

2015 Folklife Festival: Peru #throughglass
2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival #throughglass

The reduced festival was by no means lower-key than previous ones, though, and had just as much art and craft and food and song and dance and narrative as any one previous folklife pavilion.

2015 Smithsonian Folklife Festival #throughglass

More Folklife 2015 photos here.