#MarsWalk Day 470, 2724.0 km

#MarsWalk Day 470, 2724.0 km

I finally did it. Laundered my pedometer.It still turns on, except for a few dead LCD segments, but what it doesn’t seem to do any more is count steps, which is a drawback for a pedometer. Remind me not to toss it out without extracting the nearly-new battery.

I have a backup pedometer, the one that I lost in my back yard and then found again a week or so later. It has dead LCD segments too, but does count steps. I’m not sure it counts them accurately. It read quite a lot more steps today than Google Fit on my phone did. For now I’ll assume the lower number is correct.

No bike ride this rainy week.

I’m right in the middle of the lumpy stuff on Mars, which I am assuming is Gale Crater ejecta. Sixty km to my west:


MarsWalk spreadsheet

MarsWalk kmz file (for Google Earth — View >> Explore >> Mars)

Apollo 8 by Jeffrey Kluger

On Feb. 15, 2017, people paying attention to the US human space flight program were startled to learn NASA was considering putting a crew aboard the first flight of the SLS rocket system. Plans had been to send an uncrewed Orion capsule on a circumlunar flight in late 2018, but now doing it with a crew in 2019 or 2020 is being studied.

In fact this parallels a development from the early Apollo program. In 1968 the plan had been to shake down the Apollo Command and Service modules in Earth orbit with Apollo 7, add the Lunar Module but stay in Earth orbit for Apollos 8 and 9, and after that head toward the Moon. The LEM was facing delays, though, and in August George Low proposed a reshuffling of the schedule, sending Apollo 8 without a LEM on a circumlunar flight. Big difference: this wasn’t a mission three years in the future. It was sixteen weeks away. It was the 1960s, the Cold War was on, and NASA could and did improvise and take risks like that.

So Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders went to the moon and back.

Kluger’s book about the mission is a prequel of sorts to the book he and Lovell wrote, Lost Moon, about Lovell’s next, less successful flight: Apollo 13. Apollo 8 makes for a more problematic subject, because it went so damn well; I can’t see this book becoming a successful movie the way Lost Moon did. Never mind that people gave this crew no better than a 2 in 3 chance of coming back alive. You don’t build a blockbuster around waiting to see if the Service Module rocket fired or not.

Apollo 8 had one of the space program’s most poetic moments, on Christmas Eve, 1968, when the astronauts sent home video of the Earth above the Moon and read the opening verses of Genesis. You won’t find much else poetic in this book. Kluger writes competently but rather woodenly, giving a matter of fact recitation of the events. The first hundred or so pages look like a book titled Frank Borman rather than Apollo 8, describing his career from West Point to the Air Force to NASA. Then there’s the Apollo 1 fire and its aftermath, the problems with the Apollo spacecraft and the Saturn V rocket, the decision to go to the moon, the training and Apollo 7. Not until page 158 does Apollo 8 launch, and its mission occupies the rest of the book.

Space enthusiasts will want to read this book, not necessarily for any revelations but for a beginning to end compilation of the story. I’m not sure who else will. Apollo 8 was the first time humans left this planet to visit another world, a remarkable milestone in human history. By rights it should inspire stirring and compelling epics. Apollo 8 isn’t one.

#MarsWalk Day 463, 2687.6 km

#MarsWalk Day 463, 2687.6 km

The pedometer seems to be behaving lately.

The past week’s 49 km wasn’t spectacular but was better than most recent weeks, thanks in part to Sunday’s good weather during which I went out on my first bike ride of the year. That and some walking the rest of the week put me in more interesting terrain than I’ve seen in a long time, and about 25 km east of this HiRISE image of some oddly lumpy geography.

“Landforms of Southern Elysium Planitia North of Gale Crater”. It’s official, I’m approaching Gale!

MarsWalk spreadsheet

MarsWalk kmz file (for Google Earth — View >> Explore >> Mars)

Full house

Full house

Sadly unmentioned on this blog so far is Salt City Ukulele. This is a group which is what the former Greater Syracuse School of Music’s ukulele class has morphed into since Jean shut GSSM down and retired to Mexico. The rebranding took place in February and we began to plan activity for this spring, including a new series of lessons for beginners. We kicked off with an open house last night.

Going into the open house, I figured I’d be reasonably happy if five guests showed up. We got twenty-two. “Only” twenty actually signed in so maybe two were just along for moral support or something… but in any case we were blown away by the response. Add the five current members who were there and it was a crowd.

Two of the guests were friends from SyraUke, one of whom is technically a GSSM veteran, having come to several lessons back in our Cafe Kubal days, and the other is a former morris dancer I’ve known for a long time. Another was the sister of one of our current members. The rest, well, new friends. Looks like about a third of them found out about us from a prominent mention in the Sunday newspaper.

I brought all my ukuleles (seven of them) and Kristine brought a lot, which was good, because we needed to loan just about all of them out for people to take a mini lesson.

Actual one hour lessons begin next Thursday. How many people will be back? Who knows? Enough to give us a significant boost, I expect. Maybe enough to make us think about finding a bigger room. We’ve booked the Jamesville train station through May and are trying to get it through June, and we’ll be able to play outdoors pretty soon, and July and August we’ll be singing out at ice cream stands again, but come Fall we might need more space. SyraUke also is feeling crowded — they had 26 show up last Saturday (and I wasn’t one of them). So they’re talking about looking for a new venue. If you’re going to have a problem it’s a nice one to have.


#MarsWalk Day 456, 2638.6 km

#MarsWalk Day 456, 2638.6 km

I appear to have worn out the battery on my pedometer. Several times the past week or so I’ve gone to check it at the end of the day and found it reading 0 steps, or something nearly as implausible. Tonight I pulled the battery and it had 2.8 V compared to the nominal 3 V or the 3.2 V of the new battery I put in. I hope that fixes it.

I usually have my phone in my pocket when I’m walking, though, and I have Google Fit working, and it usually reports something moderately consistent with the pedometer when the latter’s working, so I’ve gone by that on the whacko pedometer days.

It’s been several weeks since I last checked in but there’s been nothing really notable on my walks nor on the Mars counterparts. I’m past most of the plenitude of Mars InSight candidate landing sites as imaged by HiRISE.It was this bunch of images that led me to think I was heading into interesting terrain before I looked more closely to discover what they were. But now things really are about to get more interesting. You can see in a week I’ll be among… what? They’re the size of hills but they look more like chunks of debris. Then I’ll thread between some even more rugged features before entering (drum roll please) Gale Crater, wherein the end of this #MarsWalk lies. Probably around the beginning of June.

And I should be able to cover distance a little faster starting soon. My bike just came back from its spring tuneup, and while today we had snow flurries, Monday it’s supposed to get into the 70s Fahrenheit.

MarsWalk spreadsheet

MarsWalk kmz file (for Google Earth — View >> Explore >> Mars)


Today, April 4, 2017, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kenneth Owen Holmes.

Kenneth Holmes. Ca. 1944.

Ken was born in Schodack Center, NY and grew up in Nassau, NY, near Albany.

“Kenneth’s ‘Jersey Giants'”. Kenneth Holmes.

He was the youngest of the six children (one of whom died in infancy) of Clarence and Alice Holmes.

“North West Corner of living room at 41 Elm St.” “’37–’40?”
Back row: Ken Holmes, Ruth Holmes, Caroline Kosegarten Holmes, Mary Fitzpatrick Holmes, Lynn Holmes
Front: Lawrence Holmes, Viola Holmes, Alice Belden Holmes, Clarence Holmes, Paul Holmes.

In 1940 he married Norma Hanson.

Norma Hanson Holmes & Kenneth Holmes
Wedding, 23 June 1940

During World War II he joined the Navy and served in the Pacific as a radar officer with Patrol Bombing Squadron 106.

“Sampson’s Unexpendables”
Ken Holmes on left (with bow and “GUNNER” sign)

After the war he and Norma had three kids.

Pat Holmes, Richard Holmes, Janet Holmes

Ken worked as an electronics engineer, first at the Air Force Cambridge (MA) Research Laboratory, then at Melpar, and finally from 1959 to 1982 at General Electric in Syracuse, NY.

Ken and Norma were married for 48 years.

Norma Holmes and Kenneth Holmes, 1985

After Ken’s retirement they moved to North Carolina, where he died in 1988.

I miss him.

Snowshoe weather at last

Back yard:

About 17″ on the ground — higher or lower depending on drifting but this was about average. Depth isn’t really the right metric for snow, though. It’s relevant but so’s the weight of the snow. A foot of very fluffy snow and a foot of wet slushy snow are two different things. This is dense snow — very small flakes, as you maybe can see against the yardstick — but dry, so medium weight. My little electric snowblower (used twice yesterday and once this morning) was able to cope with all but the end of the driveway, and there I just had to shovel the top half off the bottom half and then snowblow everything.

Then I put on the snowshoes for the first time this winter to rake the roof.

There’s still some snow falling, but not much.

21.6″ at the airport as of this morning. (Total snowfall for the storm, which is not the same as depth on the ground: snow compresses.) 26″ in Marcellus. 31.9″ in Binghamton, a record. 40″ in some places in New York.


#MarsWalk Day 428, 2518.6 km

#MarsWalk Day 428, 2518.6 km

I spent much of Saturday and Monday flying places, and Sunday and earlier Monday in a meeting, so the weekend wasn’t great for walking, though I did get some steps around the lab in between meeting and flying on Monday. This guy went flying too, a few seconds after this photo:

There was some decent weather during the week for walks on campus. Next several days not looking so favorable though.

On Mars, remember my long spell of nothing to mention? No nearby HiRISE pictures for instance? Well, I’m getting out of that situation.

Though it’s not quite as exciting as it looks, maybe, because it seems nearly all those pictures are labeled something like “Possible Future Landing Site for InSight Mission”. OK, landing on Mars, that’s exciting, but the terrain they pick tends not to be all that dramatic. Here’s the one twenty or so km west of me:

Okay then.

InSight? A NASA/JPL spacecraft, originally intended to be launched last year for a September 2016 landing. But there were problems with a vacuum leak in its seismometer experiment, so the mission was postponed to 2018. Apparently the site they ended up selecting was one about 50 km further west. Should I take a detour and visit it? Hm, naah. If it had actually landed last Fall, yeah, I would’ve, but not while it’s only a potential landing site.

MarsWalk spreadsheet

MarsWalk kmz file (for Google Earth — View >> Explore >> Mars)

Ukulele accessories

Ukulele accessories

Along with your first ukulele, you will probably want a few other things. None of them is particularly necessary; you can play your uke without any of them, but some accessories will make it easier and better for you.


Item one, a case or gig bag. Even if you never take your ukulele anywhere (and why wouldn’t you?), your household might contain kids or pets an instrument should be protected against.

There are hard shell cases, which provide the best protection but are heavy and expensive. There are rigid foam cases, less protective, lighter, cheaper. There are gig bags or soft cases, minimally protective, lightest, cheapest.

I wouldn’t check a uke on an airplane without a hard shell case. Not that I’ve ever checked a uke on an airplane. They do fit in overhead racks pretty well. For not too stressful travels and home environments a good padded gig bag works well enough. But my two best ukes do have rigid foam cases, brand name Uke Crazy (from Kala, I’m pretty sure). They each have an internal compartment, an external compartment, and a strap for carrying. They’re both basic black. So are the gig bags for my concert (which came with it) and sopranino (from Caramel). You can get cases and gig bags in fun colors and prints… for a price. (My Phitz baritone soft case is blue.) Or you can make a gig bag, if you’re into that sort of thing.

If you have a tenor ukulele you need a tenor ukulele size case or bag, of course, and likewise for other sizes. But even among tenor ukuleles there’s some variation in size, and what that means is, if you’re buying online, you need to either check with someone who knows whether a xxx case will fit your yyy ukulele, or be prepared to find out it doesn’t and you need to return it. Gig bags are probably less likely to suffer this problem, being non rigid, but there are no guarantees.


This time I mean the electronic device to assist in putting your ukulele in tune. You can get away without one. If you’re not playing with anyone else you can just put one string at what sounds like a reasonable pitch — obviously requiring a certain amount of experience — and tune the other three strings to that. No one will get upset at you for playing solo in D quarter flat tuning. Or, if you want to be at a specific absolute pitch, you can compare against an instrument known to be in tune, if you have one; there also are tuner smartphone apps available. But a clip on tuner is inexpensive, easy to use, and very handy. Because it hears vibrations through contact rather than through the air, you can use one to tune up while all around you are playing and talking. Of the two I have I like one better because of its clear and bright display; the one down side is it has only ukulele and chromatic modes so is harder to use for tuning a baritone ukulele. For that I prefer my other tuner, which has a guitar mode — baritones are tuned like the first four strings of a guitar, so that works. I haven’t named names here because the tuners I have aren’t on the market any more and my comments don’t really apply to their successors, but some good brand names are Kala, Lanikai, Fishman, Snark, Korg, and Planet Waves.

The batteries on these wear out eventually, so toss some spares in that case pocket, and for heaven’s sake don’t buy them at a drugstore or a mall watch repair booth that’ll soak you for five dollars each. Look around online for battery packs of 5 or so for a similar price or even less. (And look around for advice on avoiding counterfeit batteries, because there’s a lot of them.)


A wood, acoustic, soprano uke is a lot smaller and lighter than a guitar. Traditionally it’s played more or less hugged to the chest with the right forearm, and if that works for you, do it. Some people find this awkward, especially with larger and heavier ukuleles, more so with ones that have geared tuners and a correspondingly greater tendency for the head to sag if the left hand isn’t constantly supporting it. I prefer a lower playing position, with the right arm more relaxed and neither hand trying to support the instrument and play at the same time. So I usually use a strap.

Few ukes come with strap buttons installed. They’re cheap to buy, though, and easy to put on. Your music store will do it for you, or you can do it yourself if you have the nerve to take a drill to your uke. You can put one button on the tail and one on or near the heel of the neck, and use a guitar strap with button holes on both ends. Or you can just put one on the tail and use a strap with laces on one end which tie around the headstock. (My preference, for support at the head.) Then there are straps made for ukuleles that don’t require buttons. Some fasten around the waist of the uke body and others hook into the sound hole.

Music stand

Propping your song sheets up on a chair gets old quickly, and a folding music stand can be yours for under ten bucks. These are lightweight and compact, which is good for carrying, but not so good if you’re dealing with large heavy music books under which they tend to fall over easily. The groups I play with make use of the Daily Ukulele book and a locally produced book of songs both of which are a couple hundred pages, so I’ve moved beyond these stands. For transport I have a stand made by Hamilton and rebranded Stage Rocker. The legs fold up and the rigid desk detaches, and I got a bag to transport it in. It’s kind of a pain to carry around, but it’s way more sturdy and stable than a lightweight folding stand. Also you can get accessories like a drink holder that’ll mount on the post, which in our more beer-oriented group prevents a lot of spills. For home I have a Manhasset stand, not very portable but very sturdy. Manhassets are the standard stands, if you will; if you ever were in the band in school, you probably used Manhassets. They’re also not cheap. Unless you get them used from someone moving to Mexico.


If your uke came with decent strings, they shouldn’t need changing for… well, a while. Some people like to change strings every few months. Some let them stay on for years. It depends on how sensitive your ears and fingers are to their rate of degradation. Or, of course, on how much you want to try different strings to find some you like. I’m not much of a string changer myself; I have an extra set or two around in case of emergency but emergency string changes are pretty rare.


Particularly if you have a solid wood (not laminate) uke, you should take care it doesn’t get dried out in low humidity conditions. The number I’ve heard to stay above is 45%, though I don’t think there’s anything especially hard and fast about that. If you live in a warm and humid environment, or if you have an effective whole-house or room humidifier, that may not be a problem. In the winter in Syracuse, outside the basement, it is. If there’s a question, invest in a good hygrometer to be sure. Emphasis on “good”. I’ve found a lot of low cost hygrometers, including ones specifically marketed to owners of reptiles and wood clarinets (both of which can suffer expensive and heartbreaking deaths if subjected to the wrong humidity), are completely unreliable. If you can’t keep your ukes’ environment above 45%, you can build or adapt a cabinet to be a higher humidity storage area. Or you can keep your ukes in their cases and get a low cost case humidifier to keep the inside the case humidified — or you can make one.

Another uke

A ukulele gets bored and lonely if left on its own. You may want to get another to keep it company. Maybe several more.