Monday, July 07, 2014

Commas: An Enigma Wrapped Up In Phrases, Clauses and Parenthetical Expressions

This post is the direct result of a brief and furious discussion of the vicissitudes of proper punctuation on one of my writer's group. I fastened on the great comma conundrum: "Do you put a comma before the final "or", "and" or "but" in a series. As you probably noticed, I do not.

Commas are tough. I used APA style in grad school, AP style in my journalism work and Chicago Style in ghost-writing. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the "no comma before and/or/but" habit.  I do not feel comfortable writing a series of nouns, verbs, adjectives and phrases with a final comma before the final "and" in the series. It just doesn't look right to write "ifs, ands, or buts." It makes more sense for the commas to replace an implied conjunction. If you have the conjunction, why do you need the comma? And yes. I know about the great "mac and cheese" paradox.

The rationale, in using a comma between all words in a series, is to simplify (i.e. dumb down) the rules of grammar. Unfortunately, for me, as a practicing poet, punctuation is too important a part of my poetic arsenal for me to give up perfectly good punctuational tricks because some people have weak verbal skills.
I don't dumb down mathematical symbols to make it simpler for me to do calculus. I just don't do calculus. I ask the same courtesy from the mathematical community.

Commas, especially, tell the reader where I want them to pause to take a breath.  In the last sentence, I didn't want the reader to pause at "where", although a case can be made for placing a comma there. Commas tend to separate ideas into more or less discreet linguistic packages. What I wanted to do, was connect "tell the reader" and "where I want them to pause" as a single thought in the reader's mind. In normal speech, I wouldn't pause there, as I just did after I wrote "In normal speech".  See what I mean.

Writing should reflect our speech patterns and punctuation helps do that.
For a while they were teaching us that that the comma before the "and" was unnecessary. It is, especially if you are a good writer and in firm control of your writing. 

As I said, there is the macaroni and cheese conundrum, against which, the dumbed down version of the commas-in-a-series rule was deployed to prevent.  If I said something like, "We're going to have potato salad, beans, macaroni and cheese," then, things get confusing, especially if you have never heard of mac and cheese and don't know that mac and cheese is a single dish.  Duh!

If I redistributed the words and wrote that, "We're going to have potato salad, beans, and macaroni and cheese it doesn't look much better, but the mathematical analyst with an ironclad rule might just be able to suss it out. I do use a comma, however, when connecting two clauses with unequal weight, as I did in the last sentence where "but the mathematical analyst" didn't feel like it had the same "weight"  as the main thesis of my sentence. But, I digress.

Instead of throwing a comma in to rigidly mark out the elements of a confusing "mac & cheese" series, the competent writer simply rearranges the list as necessary to make it easy for the reader to comprehend.
The writer, with full command of language, simply creates a multi-faceted menu like this: "pork and beans, potato salad, macaroni and cheese, peas and carrots, pot roast and apple pie". No confusion there except, of course, whether the period goes inside the quotation marks or outside.

The rigid mathematical grammarian always places the period inside the quotes. If I am using quotes to set off a word for "emphasis", then I put the comma outside the quotes; thoroughly infuriating my grammatical betters.

I won't even start on semi-colons, whose very name sounds like a digestive ailment.

The word processor is a gift from God to the professional writer.
It allows us to fix what we write, in any way that we like, without penalty.  There may have been some excuse in the old typewriter days, when you had to retype the whole page if you wanted to rearrange things in a list or move commas around. With the modern word processor, you have absolutely no excuse for not taking firm command of the written page.

The final comma—the one between the word "and" and the preceding word—is often called the serial comma or the Oxford comma. In newspaper writing, you will seldom find a serial comma, but that is not necessarily a sign that it should be omitted in academic prose. As far as I'm concerned, academics are welcome to dumb down their grammar, if they wish, in the interest of not confusing each other. I have noticed that people with Ph.D.'s tend to be easily confused. I suppose that's why they need to have iron grammatical rules in order to submit more or less intelligible papers to "noted scientific journals". 

I find iron grammatical rules to impose a rather less than human quality to one's writing. Like the rule about complete sentences.

My personal rule of thumb is to insert the appropriate punctuation mark wherever it feels like one belongs. Especially, as a would-be fiction author, I think about what kind of cues the guy, who reads the audiobook version of my book, needs in order to make the narration sound real and not wooden.

I find that people, whose reading sounds wooden, hate nebulous grammar rules. I believe they need them because they don't understand how to emote when they are reading someone else's writing. Unfortunately, such folks don't make good audiobook readers in any case and in many cases make their own writing sound wooden when they read it.

So, in the end, I write as I wish, punctuate deliberately and leave the more egregious of my errors to my editor to fuss over. After all, what else does he get paid for?

Just sayin'.

Tom King
*Excerpt from © 2014 by Tom King

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Emergency Barbecue Sauce Bottle Bird Feeder

BBQ bottle bird feeder - mounted
Our dark-eyed juncos are building a second nest this year in our creeping Charlie planter out on the catwalk.  They look exhausted and we've been talking about putting out a feeder for the birds. I dug around in the recycling and came up with an old barbecue sauce bottle.

I scrubbed it our and cut it as shown below with an Exacto knife and a pair of scissors.  It makes an L-shaped feeder when turned on its side. The remaining side of the bottle makes a shallow bowl/perch at the bottom. 

To mount it, I drilled a hole in the cap and screwed it to the deck post.  Then screwed the bottle on tight, twisting it around till the bottle was turned in the position shown. The all you have to do is pour a little seed in the tray part. I also put leftover greens, bread crumbs and such. The feeder is right outside the kitchen window, so I am constantly reminded to add goodies for the birds.

That's all there is to it. When the birds find it, I'll get some pictures of the feeder in use.

Cut the bottle along the lines shown. Don't forget to pour out the
barbecue sauce first, of course.
© 2014 by Tom King

Monday, June 23, 2014

Building A Really Great Homemade Reflector Telescope: Part 2 - The Newtonian Telescope

In part one we covered how to build John Dobson's low-cost, non-equatorial plywood telescope mount. Dobson's clever invention makes it possible for astronomers on a budget to build some pretty spectacular homemade reflector telescopes. Instead of spending as much or more on the mount, you can put your money into the optics of your scope. A fancy clock-driven equatorial mount is all well and good, but the cost of one can force you to buy a scope that's smaller than you really wanted - and who doesn't want a giant instrument?  


Dobson's invention lets us spend our cash on stuff for the biggest, light-sucking telescope you ever saw. To go with the mount in part 1 of this series, we will give measurements for a 10-inch telescope of the relatively simple Newtonian design. 


Sonotubes painted black
  • 12 inch Sonotube 8 feet long (available at a concrete supply store)
  • 10 inch primary telescope mirror
  • 10 inch mirror mounting cell
  • 10 inch Spider mount for the secondary mirror
  • Secondary mirror
  • 2 inch focuser
  • Eyepiece
  • Saber Saw
  • Drill and bits
  • Hole saw
  • Screwdrivers
  • 1-inch screws, 1 box
  • Wood glue
Building the Scope:

Mounted cell and eyepiece

Step 1
First we mount the mirror onto the mirror mounting cell. It should come with instructions unless you've cannibalized a mirror from an old telescope and then, it's probably already mounted on the cell.  Follow the instructions that come with the mounting cell.  Test fit the mirror mounting cell in the lower end of the sonotube and mark the tube where the screw holes go for the mount. Drill the holes, fit the mounted mirror into the end of the tube with the mirror facing inward.
Mount the telescope mirror on the mirror-mounting cell following instructions that came with the cell.  Drill holes in the lower end of the Sonotube to match the mounting screws and screw the mount into the end of the tube. Use flat washers to protect the integrity of the tube around the holes.

Step 2
Check your mirror specifications (comes with the mirror). Subtract 6 inches plus the length of the focuser from the focal length of the mirror.  Measure from the center of the mirror and mark the side of the Sonotube at that distance.  The six inches is for the radius of the tube. Added to the length of the fully partially retracted focuser (right) it shows you where the secondary mirror needs to be in order to put the focal point of the mirror within the eyepiece when it's mounted in the focuser.  When you've marked the spot, then  measure an additional 4 inches and cut off the rest of the Sonotube at that point.  Be careful to hold the sonotube upside down with the mirror on top while cutting. That way you don't get dust on the primary mirror. 

Step 3
Drill a 2-inch hole in the side of the tube with the hole saw. the center of the hole will be where marked the adjusted focal length. Don't forget to hold the sonotube upside down to carry off the dust. When you are finished wipe the inside of the tube with a damp cloth to get up any extra dust particles. Dust is the enemy of the astronomer.

Step 4
Next you'll mount the secondary mirror in the spider mount (right shown assembled). I bought my already assembled. You can hand build them, but that's a whole other blog.  Mount the spider across the open upper end of the tube so that the secondary mirror is directly below the 2-inch hole with its center exactly at the adjusted focal length (focal length minus 6 inches plus half the length of the focuser half extended. Once I figure out where the legs of the secondary spider will attach to the side of the sonotube, I drill holes for the screws. Then I cut a bit above and below the holes in line with the tube so it makes a slot so that I can adjust the legs of the secondary slightly. You'll need that later he you collimate the mirror, secondary and eyepiece. Also, this spider doesn't show it, but I use flat washers to protect the integrity of the tube around the drilled and enlarged holes.

Step 5
Screw the focuser assembly into the tube directly over the 2 inch hole. You'll need to collimate or align the three main optical elements - the primary mirror, the secondary mirror and the eyepiece. Again, that's a whole other blog, but when the three elements are mounted, it will look like this:
Alignment of the primary, secondary and eyepiece.
Step 6
Mirror cell mount and adjusting screws.
The body of the focuser will align the eyepiece. When you remove the eyepiece and look down through the focuser, you should be able to see an image of the primary mirror in the secondary mirror. If you don't see the primary and the shape of the open end of the scope centered there, adjust the secondary's mounting screws up or down to align the image. Once it looks right in the focuser hole, the image will center in the eyepiece. If you did your measurements correctly, the focus point should be findable in your eyepiece by adjusting the focuser up or down. If the primary is out of whack, you'll have to twiddle with the collimating screws on the bottom of the mirror cell mount. Don't force the screws. Let off very gently on the screws on the side you need to tilt the image toward and very very gently tighten the screws on the opposite side. Do this in very small increments. If you tighten a screw too tightly, you can crack your very expensive mirror.

Step 7
Handy right angle
finder scope
shown without mount.
Mount the finder scope. You want to put it about a quarter of the way around the tube from the focuser. Far enough that you don't bump into it with your head, but no so far that looking through it requires you to circumnavigate the telescope every time you move the scope to reacquire the image. With Dobs, you do have to move the scope by hand, so you want to be able to switch easily between the finder scope and the eyepiece.

Step 8
Calibrate the finder scope. It may have instructions, but if not, here's how I do it. Note, I'm giving you this before you mount the scope on the Dobson mount. Really it's kind of pointless to adjust the finder till the telescope is mounted, but it's kind of a logical step in setting up the optics so here goes.

In daylight, point the telescope at a distant building or object (Mt. Ranier works up here in my neck of the woods because you can see it from everywhere).  Adjust the telescope so the object is in the center. Look through the finder scope and see where the object is. There are adjustment screws on the side of the finder scope mount that can be tightened or loosened. Carefully so as not to move the telescope off target, adjust the mount screws on the finder scope till the object is centered on the cross-hairs of the finder. The telescope image should be centered on the exact spot. That way, when you are looking for something at night, you can push the tube around till the finder scope is lined up on what you see and then the same thing will be in the eyepiece of the telescope.

That's pretty much it. It's really not hard except for getting your measurements right.  Having that focal length right is the key.  If for some reason you don't have the focal length for your primary, try the method for calculating the focal length described at this link.

Mother Earth News: A Homemade Telescope

Larry Brown: Homemade Astronomy

Scopemaking:  Plans for a Homemade Dobsonian Telescope

Howdy Ya Dewit:  A Homemade Telescope: A Quick Run-Through