Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

In which I learned the importance of a stable telescope mount

Posted by Russell on December 30, 2009 at 9:17 a.m.
Over the summer, my dad decided to buy a nice little go-to scope for looking at the assorted planets and galaxies in our neighborhood. He wanted something relatively simple to operate so he could maximize the number of cool things seen in a given amount of time. He asked me if I could fine something with good optics and a usable go-to system -- the optics to keep him happy, and the go-to system for the assorted small children people keep bringing over and setting loose in his house.

Since I'd been playing with a couple of other Celestron products, I recommended either the Meade LT-6 or the Celestron NexStar 4SE. Honestly, I'd hoped that he would choose the LT-6, but since it costs about twice as much, he opted for the 4SE instead.

I'm out in Nantucket for new years, so I finally got a chance to try out the telescope this evening. The viewing conditions were not ideal (extremely windy and bitterly cold, and my right eye isn't still isn't back normal yet), but I think I can conclude that the telescope itself is pretty nice. I'm a little less impressed with the mount and the NexStar go-to system, though in fairness I haven't given them a fair shake yet.

And shake is indeed the watchword, I'm afraid. This was supposed to be Mars :

Admittedly, there was a bit of wind, but the telescope was planted firmly on a large stone pad and I used the time delay feature on my camera so that I wouldn't be touching anything when the shutter fired. This was only a 1 second exposure, so the shaking is pretty bad. I guess if you are hoping to do some astrophotography, don't bother with NexStar mounts. It feels good and strong, but it vibrates. Your eye can follow along just fine, but it sucks for taking pictures.

The telescope itself might actually be pretty good for basic astrophotography. Like a lot of Cassegrains, the 4SE has two optical ports with a mirror to switch between them. Celestron makes simple T-adapters for several models of SLR cameras, so you can bolt your camera body directly onto the second optical port. If you already have a DSLR, using it with the 4SE is very easy. Experimenting with 4SE and my Nikon D50 body seem fairly promising. Here is a shot I took looking through the window, which is laden with fingerprints, dog-nose-prints, and other assorted examples of encrustation and slobber :

Well, it's kind of easy, if you're comfortable using your DSLR in full manual mode. This is one area where I think the consumer telescope makers are missing a big opportunity. All DSLR camera bodies these days have some sort of interface for talking to the lens bolted onto its adapter ring. This allows for all sorts of nice features to work, like automatic light metering, autofocus, image stabilization, selecting F-stops, and so on. My Nikon D50 even has a little motorized driver to push the focus ring of autofocus lenses that don't have their own motors. There are lots of third-party companies that make lenses that work with various SLR bodies, so the interface standards must be obtainable. Why not make a smart T-adapter? A really basic, non-motorized autofocus lens for most DSLRs can be found for around a hundred bucks. I bet a lot of people would happily pay a hundred bucks for a T-adapter with a light meter and an autofocus driver. You'd have a point-and-shoot telescope, and all the brains to make the image capture work would be in the camera body. Which would be awesome.

I'm going to try again tomorrow night. I'm going to try keeping the tripod legs fully retracted, and hopefully there will be less wind.

Fun with mystery retinal bubbles

Posted by Russell on December 24, 2009 at 5:02 p.m.
About three days ago, I noticed a funny purple splotch in the middle of my right eye's visual field. It looked sort of like the splotch you'd get after seeing a camera flash, so I figured it would go away. Instead of going away, the next day it was bigger and darker. The day after, it was dark enough that I couldn't read with my right eye.

So, I decided it was time to put my health insurance to work -- which was pretty naive of me. Since I'm away from campus, I had to get a referral from an emergency room doctor (Anthem will only accept referrals from the UC Davis campus health center, or from an emergency room MD). Neither the cost of the emergency room visit nor the eye doctor was enough to exceed the deductible, so it all came out of my pocket (and Mimi's pocket). The deductible resets at the end of the year, which is in about a week. Lame.

Anyway, I was worried that it was some sort of retinal detachment, and was relieved to learn that it wasn't. Evidently, I have what amounts to a watter blister under my retina. Here it is :

Evidently, these things are usually stress-induced. Weird.

Also, I thought this was pretty neat. Here's my optic nerve :

Cool, huh?

Update : Well, the bubble got a lot bigger today, but space distortion started to go down. I think that means it's widening and flattening. I read up a bit about this kind of problem, and they are almost stereotypically associated with stress-addicts. I didn't think the last quarter was particularly stressful -- I rather enjoyed it. I've certainly had academic terms where I felt a lot more stress.

Usually, when I notice stress, it means that I'm feeling really unhappy about what I'm doing. The normal effect of that feeling is to make it harder to do whatever it is I'm doing, which I've always vaguely regarded as personal weakness. But if I can push myself hard enough to get blisters under my retina when I'm happily chugging along on my work, that makes my loss of productivity when I'm unhappy seem a lot more rational. I can almost imagine that it's a safety valve to prevent me from burning myself out -- at least on something that sucks.

So, I'm going to take this as a good thing. I've never been able to excel at classes I don't like, even when I found them to be very easy. No matter how motivated I was to "just get it done" (the advice of practically everyone in my life), something always sapped my energy. I'd pile on effort, and find that the effort required for the task seemed jump up just enough to absorb most of the extra effort I put in. But being unhappy and being under stress are not the same thing.

So, if I cheerfully worked myself into a stress-induced retinal blister, that's a pretty good indication that I've found something that bypasses my brain's "this sucks" filter. Now, I suppose I'll have to stop relying on my weirdly strong disgust with things that are boring to protect me from injuring myself. That's not a bad problem to have, actually.

Of course, all of this could be utter hogwash. I might have given myself a mystery eye bubble by reading all of John Scalzi's books in a week.

Kill the bill

Posted by Russell on December 18, 2009 at 2:50 p.m.
The calculus on the health care bill is very simple. If Democrats create a law that forces people to give their money to private insurance companies, and fails to create any sort of publicly administered alternative, the American people will hate it.

Conservatives and libertarians will hate it because it tramples on their freedom of choice and because it costs more than it ought to. Liberals and progressives will hate it because its a giveaway to companies that are widely agreed to be Evil Incarnate. Centrists will hate it because it won't work.

This isn't a "starting point" that can be refined as time goes on. It is a step in the wrong direction -- awarding even greater power and money to the already too-powerful insurance industry. It will give the industry the ability to raise premiums even higher and faster because people will legally have no choice but to pay them.

All major pieces of legislation evolve over time. They tend to do a better job of doing what they were designed to do in the first place. This was true for Social Security, Medicare, and many other social programs. It would be true for this healthcare bill too. The problem is that this healthcare bill doesn't do much of anything for citizens. It simply makes a gift of our freedom and livelihoods to the insurance industry, pure and simple. The bill will indeed evolve over time; the wussy regulations it creates to protect patients will get stripped out the instant the Republican party controls the government again.

I can swallow the idea of paying taxes to support a public service -- if the public service actually works. I cannot swallow the idea of being legally obligated to buy a product from a private party.

It's amazing. The Democrats in the Senate have actually managed to find an arrangement of circumstances that would actually be worse than the status quo. That's quite an accomplishment, given the breathtaking moral bankruptcy of our health insurance system.

Kill the bill. It will sink us.

Microscope shots

Posted by Russell on December 16, 2009 at 11:22 p.m.
My mom is doing some species survey work for the Navy, and got interested in these insanely tiny Chalcid wasps. Some of them are smaller than a grain of sand wingtip-to-wingtip, so it was pretty difficult to identify them under her binocular dissection microscope. I suggested maybe she should try out a consumer digital microscope before trying to get her grant coordinator to spring for anything huge and expensive. She picked up a Celestron microscope on sale from Amazon.

Obviously, it's not going to perform like one of the Nikon or Leica lab scopes, but it cost about one thirtieth as much, and it's humorously easy to use. If she can use it to zero in on the features used to identify these things and easily document what she sees, it'll do.

Here's what I was able to capture with a Chalcid wasp in ethanol with no slip cover. No effort was made to orient the objective, stain it, or improve the contrast. I just focused and hit the capture button.

Hmm... Looks like it might actually be usable with a little practice. The depth of field is not great, though.

I've been curious about the feasibility of making usable lab equipment as mass-produced consumer products. This scope is probably good enough for some specific problems, but not as a piece of generally usable lab equipment. But it's not as far away as I expected, actually.

A review: Sasha's Soup Club

Posted by Russell on December 06, 2009 at 11:05 p.m.
One of the cool things about living in Davis is the amazing number of unique creative enterprises and projects people open up to the public. I suppose Davis is a comfortable place for people to try things out.

If you live in Davis, you should try Sasha's Soup Club. After a few weeks of envying the tasty lunches my labmates were enjoying, I joined the mailing list. I just received my allotment Leek and Potato soup, delivered by Sasha herself.

What can I say? It's damn good soup, exactly as described. The flavor of the potatoes and leeks both stand out nicely. Whatever else is in it, the other flavors are there to make a nice background.

I get nervous about making things with so few flavors. When I aim to make a simple soup, it will usually end up with six or seven different ingredients with strong flavors. If one of them comes out a little weak, you can still enjoy the others.

My general approach to hobbies is massive over-engineering. This is why the computer desk I built for my mother is rated for 7200 pounds (I tested it by stacking dead tractor engine blocks on top of it). I know that I'll never make a living as a chef or as a furniture builder. But if I build something, goddamnit, it's not going to fall down. So, when I make soup, or a sandwich, or a salad, I keep adding ingredients that I'm sure will taste good until something in my head says, "Yup, it'll hold."

It's greatly reassuring to me that there are people who know how to make awesome things with simple economy. I know I can make potato leek soup myself; I made some just last week. It was good, but then again, anything would be good if you loaded it up with enough garlic, onions, cheese, olive oil, peppercorns and sea salt. I wouldn't have had the confidence to make this soup.

Now, the only problem is not eating it all before I have a chance to gloat over it at lunch.