Star Party on Mauna Kea

m42My just-purchased SV102ED is my first “real” telescope and is a purchase I’ve put off for decades (ever since I realized what a huge $ gap there was between a mall-store telescope and a decent one). After a lot of research, I went for the SV102ED “clearance special” with the M1 mount, a star diagonal, and a 23mm eyepiece.

I was excited by what little I could see from my backyard in the past two weeks — M42, phases of Venus, and Uranus-is-in-the-center-of-the-FOV-so-that-must-be-it. But last night was the new moon star party at the Visitor Center at the 9000′ elevation of Mauna Kea.

Ho-ho-holy cow! According to the more experienced it was a “better than average” night with the temps in the mid 30s and very still air. The Milky Way, especially south of the Ecliptic, was phenomenal — I can’t wait to see it from there in the Summer!

Much of the first hour was spent with people volunteering to help me with my gear (thanks Ray!). Almost everything needed tightening, especially the clamshell. Initially, the scope would slide in the clamshell when pointing vertically no matter how tight the screws were; a fellow happened to have a patch of flocking material and scissors and that fixed that problem. I had screwed up my red dot royally and that took some time to get right.

By the time I got everything in order it was fully dark and I REALLY experienced the SV102ED for the first time — M42, Andromeda, Perseus Double Clusterngc884: all much better than I’d ever seen them. The first huge thrill, though, was getting the Sculptor Galaxy by star hopping. Then the Owl Cluster, which looked absolutely FANTASTIC in the SV.

The big “get” for the more experienced viewers was the Tarantula Nebula which was just barely up, skimming the slopes of Mauna Loa. I guess I don’t have the most refined tastes, but it wasn’t a highlight of the evening for me.

To me the highlight was M81 & M82 in the same FOV. Awesome! That blew my mind, daddy-o, and several people thought the view through my telescope was the most striking.m81

I picked up the Crab and Horsehead nebulas (nebulae?) but, again with unrefined tastes, was happy to move onto M38 or just to point the 102 into the Milky Way and be dazzled.

Saturn rose around 10 and, as soon as it got up 15 degrees or so, I had to take a look. I was not expecting to see anything more than a disk, but the 23mm clearly showed the side-on rings! (Small but sharp!) Like any newbie, I spent a LOT of time on Saturn. I borrowed Nagler’s that were 13mm, a 9mm with a Powervue, and a 6-3mm zoom. I absolutely LOVED the view of Saturn in the 13 and the zoom at its lower-powers. All the way zoomed in or with the 9mm+Powervue, Saturn transited so quickly that the telescope didn’t settle down in between adjustments.

That was the only piece of the equipment that didn’t exceed my expectations. “Alt-az is fine,” said several people when I was researching, but especially at high magnifications it was frustrating to slew it and lose several seconds of the transit through the FOV to vibrations.

Around midnight the wind started coming up and turned the FOV into a field of apostrophes. Plus, I’d accidentally re-misaligned my red dot (trying to remember where the dimmer was) and I’d run out of hot chocolate. So down through the cloud layer anc back home.

I had gone up very much thinking in terms of a “shake down” and had low expectations for actually seeing stuff. Instead, I was repeatedly blown away by the quality of the optics of the 102: everything that I could find (or have someone point to with a laser or find for me…) was MUCH better than I expected it to be. Although the purchase was a
major decision, I’m absolutely convinced that I made the right decision to invest what I did. Now, of course, the problem is that I want a set of equally good eyepieces! (Which will have to wait for a LONG time!)

What a great night!

Politically Correct

This from a reader of a newsletter sent out by one of my publishers:

First, quit being political by having garbage like this:

In the spirit of new U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for service 
in our communities, we offer up this e-mail from SPTechReport reader 
Ted Tyree:

I didn’t vote for that moron and it lowers your credibility and 
questions your intelligence by including this kind of stuff.

Once upon a time when I was a magazine editor, we used the phrase “politically correct.” A natural desire on the part of an editor is to avoid writing that unintentionally offends (when you offend, you want it to be intentional and precise). “PC” was used when writing sloppily or unknowingly promulgated racism or sexism. It was generally used with an ironic tone to acknowledge the arbitrariness of language and sensibilities — “That’s not PC! Rugs are ‘Oriental,’ people are ‘Asian'” ? to which the appropriate response was “Thank you for raising my awareness.”)

As is often case, the irony was lost on the feverishly sincere. On the Right, “PC” became an epithet that allowed one to pretend that offense was solely the responsibility of the listener, not something engendered by the speaker. On the Left, I think it’s now universally acknowledged that the fear of offense has been counterproductive to effective dialogue (who am I, a white male, to offer a perspective on race or gender?).

Now, we get this, true “political correctness.” True, it is a political statement (“of or relating to your views about social relationships involving authority or power“) and I suppose that a thin-skinned Objectivist might find a “call for service in our communities” repellant, but I doubt that is what is at work with the letter-writer (anyone who labels Obama a “moron” fails the “grounded in reality” part of Randian philosophy).

Instead, we see exactly what both candidates in the last election decried; the knee-jerk reaction that anything “they” say is imbecilic and anything “we” say is self-evident and stirring. We have to move beyond that.

Especially because in this post-W age, a conservatism based on anti-intellectual ideology is a losing position for at least a generation.

Star hopping : Goto Scope :: vi : IDE. Thinking about payoff curves.

I have a brand new 4″ refractor which is my first “real” telescope (as a kid I had a let’s-say-3″ Newtonian, your typical shopping-mall refractor, and I’ve had some decent binos and spotting scopes since then).

The world of amateur astronomy has vastly changed since I was a kid. Alan Zeichick called something “the greatest innovation since the big dob, the go to scope, and the SC.” All innovations which post-date my childhood! (Well, I think Schmidt-Cassegrain’s were hitting the scene?)

One of the options when buying a telescope today is a “go to” computer which knows the orientation of your tripod and your latitude. You type in what object you want to look at (Jupiter, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Wild Duck star cluster), move your scope around until the numbers on the computer read “0” and then look through the eyepiece (“Wow, there it is.”)

Such computers aren’t cheap and when researching your purchase, you’ll get a lot of “computers are all well and good, but ultimately, star-hopping is both effective and satisfying.” So, like me, you might decide to kick it old school, especially if, like me, you think “Gee, I know several constellations and can pick out Andromeda if I can see Cassiopeia.”

What I’ve concluded, after two nights of abject failure, is that (a) I’m an idiot and (b) star hopping is like programming without an IDE. The “I’m an idiot” aspect is simply reinforcing data that’s been accumulating for some time, so let’s skip over that.

It’s very difficult for an expert to anticipate what will baffle a newcomer. In the case of star-hopping, an expert won’t blink at “look 2 degrees SW of a hook-shaped formation found 5 degrees along a line defined by Alpha and Theta.” In the case of programming, an expert doesn’t need a tree of user-defined objects and methods taking up screen space. And the challenge to the expert is compounded because it’s not remembering what was hard that’s the problem ? “Go To” scopes have only come along recently, IDEs have been around for 25 years but it’s only been about a decade since I think they surpassed the command-line (the breakthrough, I think, was the refactoring IDE).

For the cost of a “go to” mount, I could get two or three high-quality eyepieces. For the cost of an IDE (even if it’s just the time spent mastering an OS IDE) you could learn a different language or library.

As a newcomer, you face two different payoff curves (n.b.: not the same as a learning curve!):

IDE vs. Command-Line

The expert might say “Oh, eventually, you’ll appreciate the work of the slower, more ‘full-bodied’ learning curve:”

expert satisfaction

But even if you accept that curve, the issue of what to do is still difficult. You actually have to integrate under the curve:


There’s some period of time when the “easy” approach is more satisfactory. During that time, you are accumulating a surplus of satisfaction (the area ‘A’ in the above illustration). Ultimately, the “hard” approach may provide more satisfaction at a given moment, but there’s still a “catch up” period (‘B’) where your total satisfaction is still less than the total satisfaction with the “easy” approach (in a sense, you have to pay off a debt you’ve incurred).  It’s only when you get to ‘C’ that the slower, harder approach really pays off.

To a professional, who moved through the ‘A’ and ‘B’ periods at a young age, ‘C’ dominates the curve and it seems natural to say “Slow and steady wins the race.” But if you don’t spend a long time in ‘C’ then the “easy” route is ultimately smarter. And, relevant to software developers, you are unlikely to be writing code at 65. If you’re a developer in the first world, you’re unlikely to be writing code at 45 or maybe even 35. The salary pressure from the BRIC economies is too great. The finish line is closer than you think.

As to “go to” mount I still don’t know what to do.

Awesome pilot, no miracle

I’m as thankful as anyone that everyone got off the plane that went down in the Hudson, but I’m kind of ticked that all the news sites are calling it “The Miracle on the Hudson,” or “Miracle Landing.” That cheapens the tens of thousands of hours the pilot spent flying, the Lord-knows-how-many training and simulation sessions he’s been through, and his general awesomeness. (I don’t know much about aviation, but I know that water-ditching an A320 with both engines out and only 3,000′ of altitude to start with is not easy.)


Chelsea “Kick-Ass” Sullenberger (the Third). 

2009: Slow Boot

For much of the past week, I’ve been doing a bunch of accounting stuff. I am incorporating (as “Faster Programmer LLC” ? as in “Faster can mean both higher productivity and higher performance,” but actually as in “Faster, Programmer! Code! Code!”) and trying to get monetary things (new bank account, credit card, tax situation) as clean as possible.

Unfortunately, that’s meant not getting any work done for either my clients, the Jolt Awards (in full swing, although I have to wonder if this is not the last time), or my recreational programming.

Meanwhile, I got myself a present for my recently-passed 45th birthday, a StellarVue 102ED. I got first light through it last night (not a very dark night, but M42 was spectacular, of course), an astronomy club meeting is tonight, and then on Thursday there’s a star party up on Mauna Kea (How cool is that? Assuming, that is, by “cool” you mean “geeky.” Which I do). All of which means sleep deprivation.

A Word To Big Island Bloggers

I’ve been writing this blog since 2002, which I’m fairly sure makes me the graybeard among the Big Island’s small blogging family. For what it’s worth, I also was a magazine editor for 7 years (and won a few awards). So I’m going to shake my finger at the trio of Big Island bloggers who have been spending the past week time criticizing each other: Stop it right now. Don’t make me stop this car!

D: You had every right to take those photographs in a public place and you had every right to write what you did. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

T: As a journalist yourself, you should know to be extra careful about labeling someone’s writing as “irresponsible” on the basis of a differing account coming from a government official.

A: Don’t get caught up between D&T.

ResolverOne: Best Spreadsheet Wins $17K

ResolverOne is one of my favorite applications in the past few years. It’s a spreadsheet powered by IronPython. Spreadsheets are among the most powerful intellectual tools ever developed: if you can solve your problem with a spreadsheet, a spreadsheet is probably the fastest way to solve it. Yet there are certain things that spreadsheets don’t do well: recursion, branching, etc.

Python is a clean, modern programming language with a large and still-growing community. It’s a language which works well for writing 10 lines of code or 1,000 lines of code. (ResolverOne itself is more than 100K of Python, so I guess it works at that level, too!)

From now (Dec 2008) to May 2009, Resolver Systems is giving away $2K per month to the best spreadsheet built in ResolverOne. The best spreadsheet received during the competition gets the grand prize of an additional $15K.

Personally, it seems to me that the great advantage of the spreadsheet paradigm is a very screen-dense way of visualizing a large amount of data and very easy access to input parameters. Meanwhile, Python can be used to create arbitrarily-complex core algorithms. The combination seems ideal for tinkering in areas such as machine learning and simulation.

I try to do some recreational programming every year between Christmas and New Year. I’m not sure I’ll have the time this year, but if I do, I may well use ResolverOne and Python to do something.