Category Archives: as above

heaven’s above

A few years back Zofia and I took ourselves off the Carter Observatory – the National Observatory of New Zealand and attended their courses in astronomy. They were great courses although at the front end I seriously misjudged the seriousness of the study involved. You could attend the lectures, and if you wanted, take the assessment at the end. We were study/learning things then and we figured, ‘Sure, bring it on.’

I asked when I registered for us if we needed to take notes. ‘Some people do, others just sit back and go with it.’ We’re both note takers so away we went. I have to say after a full day at work, sitting through a powerpoint in the half dark immediately following a fast dinner isn’t conducive to me staying awake and taking lots of good notes. We were both studying then as well. It’s hard taking notes in the dark anyway. But we soldiered on. And then there was the assessment. Oh dear. Suddenly it became very, very apparent that having taken extremely comprehensive notes would’ve been useful. We shared notes and worked our way through the questions together. I was in a job that permitted extensive web access and I spent several days diverting google’s attention from the usual porn and pipe bombs into the phases of the moon and the inner workings of our solar system. The questions were damn tricky. Things like a drawing of the moon – what is the time? Northern or southern hemisphere? Waxing moon or waning moon? Try and google that. Zofia came out with a B+ (I think) and I got a B.

A B! Pathetic. It was full on after that. We took notes on notes on drawings on notes. We took notes in the dark, in the planetarium, anywhere, everywhere. Next assessment we were prepared. I think I got an A, Zofia an A-. And then things got competitive… The next course we took notes that NASA still references, and we turned down Nobel prizes for note taking in the dark. We would’ve accepted, but we were so busy taking notes we begrudged the time. It got even crazier as the year rolled through Autumn, Winter, and into Spring…

In the end we finished out with a selection of course certificates and we were invited to the grand prize giving to receive our completion certificate. The courses had been well attended, and there were lots of note takers; but very interesting – I was surprised to find there were very few of our peers there, and even fewer stepped forward to receive their diploma. I think there was one other guy, Zofia and myself. I still proudly list my diploma in astronomy on my cv. I was completing my Masters at the time and the work and thinking required for the diploma was significantly more demanding.

One of the things I never really got sorted was the whole where are you/what is your star map thing. It always seemed so averaged out – so best guess, and not only is there no need for that, it’s not how it should be. Today, things have become very accurate and easy. Using two free software packages available online you can get an extremely high degree of accuracy about your position in the universe. First, using flashearth (which uses GoogleMaps) you can find where you are, using the precise latitude and longtitude coordinates. In my case I can zoom in to where I would actually stand to view the stars from. Yep, this is accurate to perhaps 1 -2 metres. Once you’ve found your viewing location, you can then go to Heavens Above, and key in your exact location. You can also just plonk in a general location from their detailed database, but where’s the obsession in that?

Once you’ve located yourself, you can the print out a star map for tonight, and you’re ready boldly go. The other night there was this very bright star – I thought it was an aircraft coming in given that it was on one of the flight paths, and I could hear a plane coming in. I decided it wasn’t moving and perhaps it was simply Venus, or maybe Jupiter – I must find a star map and check. The great thing about the Heavens Above star maps is I could set the location, the date, and the time, and ping, confirm it was Venus, although Saturn is kicking around in that corner of the sky at the moment too. Saturn would appear smaller – it’s much further away. The other option could have been (had it been there then) the International Space Station – Heavens Above does a bang up job on locating where the various bits and bobs of humanity are as well.

If you are interested in doing some study with Carter they offer some distance programmes, and also courses that relate to the National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) – New Zealand’s national secondary school qualification. The material from Carter will be sound, and I would expect that if Richard Hall has had a hand in the student resources they will be visually wonderful as well.

how to make a kite for matariki

image from www.sopwithproductions.comThe ultimate in one-upmanship is to cruise down the park with the kids and have a kite that flies. Or, let me put it another way – Charles Shultz absolutely knew how to show Charlie Brown’s ARGH! moments with a kite that refused to fly. You can buy kites – I’ve even done that myself, however, real oomph comes from making your own. But how do you make a kite that flies, and flies well? Sorry, Charlie, those lozenge shaped kites suck. So how, what kite is better? Ask no more, here is how to make the flying-est kite going – a sled kite. I have made dozens of these, all sizes, and they all have had one fantastic thing in common: they fly, man they FLY!!!

sled-kiteFrom my drawing here you can make them any size, so long as the ratios remain a pretty much constant 4 wide by 3 deep. I’ve made kites out of plastic rubbish bags, black garden polythene, even chip/crisp packets. You’re looking for a fairly strong plastic – cling film is probably too delicate unless the kite is small. Size matters – a large plastic rubbish bag is likely to be too big and scary for a little kid – dangerous in a strong wind with burnt or cut fingers from the string and possibly pulled and dragged along the ground. A sheet of plastic about the size of an A3 sheet of paper is a good starter size.

Cut the plastic in the hexagon shape as drawn, and cut the triangle shape out of the middle – see – that maths stuff does pay off. You need three sticks to act as spreaders – to hold the kite open. They’re not structural as in the traditional rhombus shaped kite. I’ve used bamboo garden stakes, dowelling, willow branches, rolled up sheets of newspaper, kebab sticks (for small kites), and toi-toi sticks; but my favorites have been the long straight stalks from bracken fern. It seemed to have the right amount of springiness. The sticks need to be slightly longer than the height of the kite, so that if/when the kite screams into the earth the sticks hit before the body of the kite does. More about that later.

Once you’ve cut out the kite, tape the sticks to the kite. I’ve usually used a strong waterproof 50mm (2″) wide tape used for taping polythene ‘glasshouses’, but you could use duck/duct tape, sticking plasters, or if you’re desperate, sellotape. It’s not the best though. It doesn’t make that much difference, it’s merely there to stop the sticks falling off. If the sticks are uneven length, put the tallest stick in the middle for balance. Put a couple of layers of tape on the two outside points where the bridles are to be attached, to reinforce the corners.

The length of the bridles needs to be about three times the width of the kite – i.e. a 1 metre wide kite needs bridles 3 metres long. Again, a kite this size is much too big for a little kid, and an adult needs to handle them with care until you get used to them. Attach a bridle to each point, and then (warning: the one trick in the whole exercise) knot the two ends together, making sure both bridles are the same length – the kite must be balanced to fly superbly (it’ll still fly no matter what, but if the bridles are uneven it’ll fly to one side…)

Attach the kite bridles to the cord for flying. Personally I prefer to attach the kite using a heavy duty fishing swivel/safety pin connector so the cord doesn’t get all twisty on me, but you don’t have to. Badda-bing, you’re done. These kites won’t fly inside, but if your kite is small enough and you’re careful to avoid any nasty overhead wires, you can probably fly it in your backyard. I’ve test flown kites out the window (too lazy to go outside) and really had fun flying them from the garage roof. I can remember flying a little kite made from a metallic looking chip bag from the garage roof – it went up so high I eventually lost sight of it – truly, it was speaking to the heavens. I knew it was ok, because I could feel it tugging, fish like, on the end of my line.

Ok – time to fly. Take your kite, cord, a roll of repair tape, and some scissors down to the park. It’s ok – no, it’s cool to arrive with your kite rolled up. Attach your kite to the cord, and let some cord out. Holding the cord in one hand, juggle around and hold your kite open to the wind. If there’s so much as a gentle breeze the kite will lift away like a parachute and fly. Let more cord out. Look cool. How hard can it be? Never run with your kite unless… you’re doing if for exercise purposes.

Ok depending on factors like wind speed and kite size some things can happen and you might need to teach your kite how fly. If your kite takes off like a crazy puppy and then spirals around and around before crashing it’s probably too light for the strength of the wind. Add some weight in the form of a tail hanging from the bottom of the middle stick. I’ve used lengths of plastic, packaging tape, my jandal, my t-shirt, and branches before today. My kites sometimes looked like flying recycling (but mostly to people who didn’t have kites that flew… ;)). Use the scissors and tape to add a tail (or tails – because you can add tails from the side sticks as well), ensuring that the heaviest tail is the middle tail for balance.

I found that if I ran with the kite I could force it into mad spirals and that was fun too – the moment I stopped the kite would right itself and ‘swim’ like a carp upwards. I can remember arriving at the park with my rolled up litter and seeing a guy with a kid and the high tech tetrahedron mylar work a nasa engineer would be stunned by. I unrolled my kite, and kicked it into the air. My kite rose effortlessly. I tied it off against the fence and looked over to the guy. His kid looked at me and my kid. He smiled. The father curled back his lip with a sneer… ‘trailer trash’. Could it have been my mullet? By now I was bored and untied my kite – time to play. I walked out into the field, and then turn and ran as fast as I could, looking over my shoulder. The kite, sensing the game immediately started into the hard spirals, the cord singing under the pressure. Five spirals, and the kite crashed into the ground. I heard the guy choke back a laugh. He didn’t get the game. The kid looked surprised and disappointed. I went back and kicked my kite into the air again, let some cord out, and ran again. Six spirals later, crash! This time the guy didn’t laugh, but the kid did. Walked out even further, let out more cord, ran harder than ever. The kite roared with delight. Seven full spirals, and CRASH – with a kind of snap sound that can only mean one thing. The kid looked at me horrified and the guy laughed out loud. The kite lay on the ground, moving sadly in the breeze. I could see the kid’s sympathy, and feel the guy’s delight at my broken kite. After all, even though his kite hadn’t got off the ground, mine was just a rubbish bag, some sticks and well – litter.

I gave my kite a little tug. A corner lifted… another little tug… a little more lifted… and then slowly my black dragon lifted off the ground shaking a little, but swimming ever upwards. I heard the kid laugh, and the guy say in an amazed tone, ‘It’s just a pile of junk!’ In reply, my kite dropped the broken stick, and having got rid of that little surplus weight, soared on higher. When I turned around there was just my kite and me in the park.

5 sleeps to go…

Saturday 16th is Matariki. Matariki, for regular readers from the northern hemisphere who may not have heard of this before, is a very Aotearoa/New Zealand/Pacific tradition that seems to go from strength to strength – it’s the start of OUR new year.

It’s a bit of a combination of celestial events – the star cluster Pleiades (aka Seven Sisters, Subaru, Messier 45 and – of course – Matariki) reappears above the northeast horizon just before dawn, in combination there’s the first new moon (this year on the 16th) , and this occurs near winter solstice – the shortest day. So it’s a real carnival – Matariki – the summer cluster returns as the first new moon nearest the shortest – cut to the chase: just over the horizon it’s sum-sum-summertime. YAY!

Kiwis wanting to see Matariki need to get out of bed pre-crack of dawn and look to the northeast horizon. If you look up in that direction you should see Mars (yep, it’s red, and like a teeny lcd, it doesn’t flicker). Drop your eyes straight down to the horizon and that’s pretty much where you’ll find this cute little cluster of stars, sparkling like a diamond cluster. Matariki is a real cluster too, by the way, truely seven sisters, and not merely an assemblage of stars like some of those cheap zodiacs – pft – constellations indeed.

So, what to do celebrate the rising of Matariki? It’s a good time to be thinking gardening things – the start of the new seasons. I plan to bring a little of my heritage to the table – garlic – plant it on the shortest day, harvest it on the longest day. I’m writing more on this kind of topic over at Tea Garden. I’m also planning to plant the first of our native garden – in this case one of my favourite trees – a titoki. I’m really looking forward to building a corner of our garden into a celebration of native plants.

A tradition was to fly a kite on Matariki – well, now that works for me too. I’m not 100% sure where my pocket sled kite is, but hopefully I’ll be able to find it in time. Matariki is also a time not unlike the traditional western new year – January 1 – it’s a time for getting together with family – whānau – that fused collection of kindred spirits, celebrating with food and music; of settling differences, and setting new goals – new year’s resolutions – make better health decisions – what to eat, drink, get some exercise, stop smoking etc; make contact with people you haven’t contacted for some time, and maybe learn something new. It’s a time for gift giving, but not in the tacky commercial way that has become xmas, but rather in intangible ways – you gift good things to yourself like taking care of yourself, you gift to others by sharing – by finding something of yourself to give. It’s not about that crass commercialism, thankfully.

So, join us on the 16th (I’m writing this a little early so you’ve got time to make a plan) and launch off into the new year in fine style. By the way, Matariki is like Easter – it’s a moveable feast – and for similar reasons – they’re based on lunar cycles. In 2008, it will be on 5 June. 2009, 24 June. 2010, 14 June. So next year you won’t be caught out – you’ve had heaps of notice.