Sunday, March 15, 2009


This and Every Season II

Last week I addressed the less than controversial subject “What You Gonna Bring?” (to a star party); this time we shall talk over the stickier subject of “How You Gonna Act?” Bottom line, muchachos? Everybody wants to have a good time at the Hoot Owl Star Party, and the secret to everybody having one, as with most other things, is practicing the good ol’ Golden Rule: treat your fellow amateurs like you want to be treated. Laughably simple and easy to abide by. Which mostly it is for most of us most of the time, I reckon. Not always, though. Occasionally we do things that make our fellows enjoy a star party less than they should. These things are done not out of malice (usually), but out of ignorance or forgetfulness. What kinda of things? Glad you axed.


I reckon it’s a good sign concerning the health and growth of our avocation that almost every star party I go to of late is so well attended that the observing field is about to burst at the seams. This occasionally leads to a bit of friction, since prime real estate (lots of folks like the west side of a field, for example, to catch the “new stuff” coming up in the east) gets snapped up in a hurry.

If you arrive late, don’t whine. Just because you’ve been coming to the Raccoon Flats Star Gaze since Hector was a pup don’t mean you get a reserved spot. If you arrive late, you take what you can find. And don’t get the idea that you can spread your junk over two spots in order to reserve room for your buddy Elmer who can’t get away from The Plant till Saturday. The star party bosses don’t like that kind of thing (or shouldn’t). You can’t always expect a lot of elbow room at the popular events, either. Yeah, it would be nice to have more space between setups, but, when somebody pulls into the spot next to you, just grit your teeth and say “Welcome;” don’t scowl at ‘em like you think they are plague carriers.

Frankly, the only times I’ve really been ticked off about the setup situation had nothing to do with me being relegated to the south end of the field on a slope. I can accept getting a less than optimum spot; first come first served, and I always have a great time anyway. I’m only perturbed when the playing field ain’t level. That was the case at a popular southern star party I used to attend each year. The rules spelled it out clearly: “No one will be allowed to set up on the field before the gates open at noon.” Which was cool. But, invariably, when I arrived at noon the prime spots were taken and the field was already derned near half full. Seemed as the star party staff didn’t believe the “not before noon” applied to them. And, naturally, shouldn’t apply to their buddies, either. Don’t bother guessing which event I’m talkin’ about; they are long-since under new management in a new location. I may even consider going back some time.

Light Rules


I think we purty much put this subject to bed last time: you want a flashlight that is really red (not a standard flashlight covered with a layer of brown paper bag paper) and not too bright. Be careful with the thing, too—your “not very bright” may be “blinding” if you shine it in someone's eyes. Keep your lights pointed at your charts or at the ground. There are various other red lights amateurs (including me) tend to accumulate and use on the field. Same considerations apply: if you’re gonna fashion a red table lamp out of one of them LED lanterns you get at Academy, fine, but make sure it is plenty red, dim enough, and keep it shielded from the direct view of your neighbors.

Most of the complaints I’ve heard recently concerning “utility” type red lights have to do with the little red LED blinkers some folks attach to their tripods with abandon. The purpose of these is to prevent passerby from bumping into the tripod. Blinkers may accomplish that, but I believe most of the folks who use ‘em just like ‘em because they are cool. They may have some utility at the local public star gaze, but at a real star party, where everybody is gonna be carrying a red light and will know to be reasonably careful on a field full of scopes, there ain’t much need for them. If you feel moved to use these blinkers, consider just pasting one on your tripod, not five or six; that should be enough to warn folks away but less distracting for your neighbors than a Christmas tree display.

Computers and Other Electronic Devices

This has become an important enough issue that I devoted half a blog to the subject not long back. To summarize: if you are using a laptop on the observing field, you must take steps to prevent the display from disturbing other observers. As was touched on last week, you will need a piece of red filter material over the screen. I don’t care how good the night vision feature of your PC or Mac program works, it still ain’t gonna be red enough or dim enough, even with the brightness down real low.

The addition of a sheet of Rubylith red transparency film (available, from the good folks at or, what I use, a SightSaver, makes the difference. Personally, I find a filtered laptop display easier to read than I do one that has been turned way down in brightness. The difference is that the filter material makes the display colors really red and easier on the dark adaptation without having to turn the brightness down too low. As described in last week’s screed, you may also want to place the laptop in some kind of a small enclosure.

As I’ve said before, you’ve got to think about more than flashlights and laptops these days when it comes to light rules. All the little devices we’ve come to take for granted and which are always at our beck and call—cell phones, PDAs, iPods, CD players, cameras, yadda-yadda-yadda—are invariably equipped with displays that have two things in common: they are big and they are bright. Treat them as you would a computer, applying Rubylith as needed. With DSLRs being ever more popular for celestial imaging, they are becoming prime offenders in this regard. If you use your DSLR with a laptop, you won’t need to look at the camera’s screen at all. You can get little plastic flip-down/pop-up covers for DSLR displays at the camera store (which also come in handy for shading the read-out from the Sun during the day). You use the DSLR barefoot and gotta look at its screen? Rubylith, Rubylith, Rubylith.

Green Lasers

Green laser pointers, which some amateurs like to use for pointing out objects in the sky and as “finders” on their scopes, threatened to become a severe problem on observing fields a few years back when their prices began to drop precipitously. I did, in fact, go to a star party or three where they were a problem. Not only were their owners zipping them across the sky in lightsaber fashion, they just could not keep them pointed at the sky, illuminating the tree line on the opposite side of the field, or their buddies’ tent canopies proving irresistible.

The harm being many people found the lasers ugly and distracting and light polluting when used on the sky, and potentially dangerous when pointed near the ground and people. Some imagers also worried about their pictures being spoiled. Ground truth? A normal (5-milliwatt) green laser adds absolutely nothing to a site’s light pollution burden, probably wouldn't cause permanent damage even if shined into somebody’s eye by accident, and is unlikely to interfere with CCD images.

So I think green lasers should be allowed at star parties? No. They are ugly and bother lots of people, and that is reason enough for them to be banned in my opinion. I have used a green laser at star parties, but only as part of pre-planned naked-eye sky-tours I conduct as a speaker. I am careful to do my presentations on a sparsely populated part of the observing field, and always do ‘em early in the evening before hard-core imaging and observing get rolling. Yep, green lasers threatened to become a problem at star parties--but never did. Most events were quick to ban most use of ‘em, and most green laser wielding amateurs seem to have accepted that with good grace.


Cars and trucks are a constant source of friction at star parties where they are allowed on or near the field. How’s that? Their owners simply cannot stay out of them. At some point the desire for something left in the passenger compartment or in the trunk becomes overwhelming and Johnny Amateur opens door or trunk and, on a field full of dark adapted folks, stuns everybody with interior, door, and trunk lights.

It don’t have to be that way. Any modern automobile I have seen has a switch for the dome light. Set her in the middle, usually, and the doors can be opened all night long if that’s how you get your jollies. If your jalopy has warning/courtesy lights positioned on the lower inside of the doors, you’ll need to deal with those, too. Since there is rarely any way to switch them off, and it is difficult to get at the bulbs, a piece of cardboard taped over the fixtures will have to serve. Trunk lights usually cannot be easily disabled, either, but the bulbs can be unscrewed and squirreled away in a baggie for replacement when it is time to go home.

What’s more annoying than somebody opening car doors and trunks? That goober who seems to go to each and every star party I go to and who sometime during the night will inevitably set off his car alarm. His hooting horn and flashing headlights inspire the meekest on the field to murder. Why does this happen? I have no clue. The cure would seem simple: either turn off the car alarm (the owner’s manual likely has instructions for that) or, if that is impossible, mercy sakes alive, just leave the car unlocked. You are right there with your vehicle, and it is unlikely any of your fellow amateurs will be so blinded with envy as to try to steal your prized Ford Focus.

Then there are the characters who decide they need to leave the site via car in the middle of the night. If it were an emergency, everybody would understand. But it never is. Jimmy-Joe just wants to call it a night and drive back to cabin or motel. Look, if you think you might want to leave before dawn, park your car somewhere where it will be as unobtrusive as humanly possible. And, even then, try to put some distance between you and the site before engaging headlights. I know that can be difficult with modern vehicles that insist on deciding when their lights should be on, and that also insist on flashing their lights when they are unlocked. Read the manual and do the best you can in this regard. But if you’ve positioned your car an appropriate distance away, your departure shouldn’t bother anybody no matter how much Nellie Belle beeps and flashes.

When all is said and done, the only way to eliminate this and other vehicle light problems is for star party organizers to mandate “no vehicles on or near the field.” If cars and trucks are at hand, their lights will get turned on before the evening is out. And there are always gonna be the worthies who think the rules simply do not apply to them. One star party I have attended for years used to offer a couple of “windows” during the night when vehicles could be driven away from the field periphery. Not a good thing in my opinion, but not a huge problem either. Or it wouldn’t have been if folks had followed the rules. All some heard was “OK to drive off the field,” which they proceeded to do all freaking night long whenever the fancy struck ‘em.

What’s worse—more disruptive—than the light rules violators, whether it be million candlepower pickup truck fog lights or flashlights or camp stoves or anything else? The members of the Greek Chorus who erupt in screams of “DOUSE THAT LIGHT” whenever so much as a cigarette lighter flame is shown. Guys, I want the light rules adhered to, too, but you bother me considerably more than Sissy trying to light up her Marlboro does. Leave light rule enforcement to star party staff. If they are not doing their job, bring that up with them, but no more hollering, please. Second place? Folks who have fits about white lights or headlights when it is cloudy and will obviously remain cloudy for quite some time to come. Wouldn’t think anybody would raise a fuss in those circumstances, but they do.


Yeah, I know. The supper spread down to the Mount Pilot SP ain’t exactly what you call “haute cuisine,” but I have never been to a star party where meals were furnished where the food was not at least acceptable. Never. Oh, it might be simple, but it’s always been edible, if occasionally barely edible. Many events publish their menus ahead of time. Don’t like it? Roll your own. As I said last time, a Coleman stove is a good alternative if there ain’t no Hardee’s or Mickey D’s at hand. What shouldn’t you do? Order and eat the meals but complain about ‘em between every mouthful. Your fellow diners will get tired of hearing that in a right quick hurry. Meals are often cooked and served by volunteers. How would you like to be tasked with serving 100 meals out in the middle of nowhere? On a shoestring? Think you can do better? By all means, volunteer your services for next year.

If you are far from home, expect to encounter food with which you are not familiar. Be polite. That white stuff next to your piece of catfish is grits. It’s made from corn. Yes, we eat it. We like it. Yes, we have heard all the jokes about grits a time or two. One other no-no? Since most star party meals are done on a shoestring, usually with little money and no food leftover, don’t expect to arrive onsite, see the food looks good, even the grits, and decide you’d like to participate in the meal plan after all. Oh, it don’t hurt to ask; somebody may have cancelled-out. Just don’t expect to be accommodated and don’t whine if the answer is “no.”


Many of us are acquainted with communal living from having once resided in a college dorm or a military barracks or both. But some folks have never experienced the joys of such a lifestyle, and some who have have forgotten. Cabin behavior can be summed up simply and easily: be considerate and clean up after yourself. You like to sleep with the window open when it is 50 degrees outside? Your cabin-mates may feel different. Ask ‘em before you crack a window. You go to bed at midnight, star party or no? Fine, but if you wake up at 7 am and need to get up and get out, be quiet doing it. Many of your buddies will have gone till dawn, and will not appreciate your off-key shower-stall rendition of  "Hippity Hop to the Barber Shop." And last, but far from least, if you make a mess, especially in the bathroom, clean it up. I ain’t yore mama.

Miscellaneous Issues

Smoking and Drinking

Smoking-wise, lots has changed in the 44 years since I entered our avocation. Back then, almost everybody smoked cigarettes. Now, not so much. Smokers, those who are left, sometimes, justly or unjustly, feel put out and put upon. Truth is, people are just more conscious of the dangers, real or imagined, of second-hand smoke. I don’t care if you have concrete proof (you saw it on the Interwebs) that second-hand smoke is harmless. Most of the people on the field do not want to breathe it or have their optics exposed to it. It makes them unhappy, so you should not do it.

Need a cig? Step off the field, downwind of the field, and enjoy. I know you will. I smoked for many a year meself and will readily proclaim the only bad thing about cigs is that they kill you. Shield your lighter, or invest in on of them flameless jobs. Cigars your thing? I won’t naysay your savoring a good stogie, but your friends out on the field are gonna like it (and you) e’en less than they do cigarette smoke. Get off the field with yer cheroot, way off. Oh, I shouldn’t have to tell all y’all to dispose of butts somewhere other than on the ground.

When it is cloudy or dawn has arrived, I will be the last person to turn down a drink. I don’t like to drink before/while observing, but I think anybody who wants to should. We are (mostly) all adults, and as long as nobody gets drunk and makes a nuisance or a hazard of themselves, have at it. There are some events where (often ostensibly for insurance reasons) drinkin’ ain’t allowed, period. Yikes! My solution? Depending on the circumstances, the answer is usually “be discreet.” Don’t advertise and usually nobody will care. I’ve yet to be somewhere where the Beer Police came through searching ice chests. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be told whether I can drink a consarned Michelob or not as long as I ain't drunk and running amok. In all my years of star partying I can think of maybe one instance where somebody caused anything approaching a real problem on the field because of Demon Rum.


Everybody likes star party raffles; even your old Uncle, who rarely wins a thing. I’m not sure how much I like raffles as they are usually run, though. The problem, if there is one, is there is often some joker who decides he can “buy” the prize he wants by purchasing two or three hundred dollars worth of tickets in order to win (they hope) that Dogpatch Optics 88-mm ED. This is good and bad. Star party organizers/sponsors may like it. If two or three “buyers” are onsite, they don’t have to worry too much about selling tickets. Not at first, anyhow.

Eventually, though, word gets out to the star party rank and file, and they get mad (“What chance do I have to win a thing with my two tickets? Bubba’s got two hundred!”) and will stop buying. So, tickets, maybe more than before, go unsold. My suggestion to star party organizers? You’ll do much better PR wise if you either limit the number of chances that can be purchased, or do away with raffles completely, sticking with door prizes. Course, then it may be necessary to raise registration prices to make up for lost ticket sales revenue. Which will P.O. (“put out,” of course) some of your audience. And so it goes.


Not much to be said here. If’n you don’t wanna have to listen to my In Memory of Elizabeth Reed, don’t make me listen to your Pachelbel’s Canon. Seriously, everybody just use headphones, day or night. Course, some folks simply cannot seem to do that. What do you do then? Corral a star party staff person and let them take care of the problem; almost all events have formal rules that cover this situation.


Now we come to a game I know intimately, having spoken at star parties without number in the last decade. As always, it’s a two way street. You (attendees and organizers) should expect your speakers to be prompt, professional, and reliable. And they should expect you to be the same. Frankly, most of the problems with speakers are not with the professionals. Most of us, who are mostly astronomy writers used to deadlines, know what is expected of us. Come hell or high water we will make the date and will deliver a professional quality presentation.

The trouble comes when star party organizers want to skimp. They want quality speakers for the event, but they don’t want to pay for them. Frankly, I have recently cut back on the freebies to the tune of only doing that for one local star party anymore--and I'm getting tired of that. The problem? People tend to value something based on what they've paid for it.

Many’s the time I’ve been asked to do freebies. I don’t mind that occasionally, depending on the circumstances, but star party organizers should understand that this is a business. Yeah, we may sell a few books at the star party or because of our exposure at your event, but a modest “honorarium” helps keep most of us going. If you like what we do, don’t carp about paying a modest amount for it. If you don’t want to pay, by all means enlist amateurs from the local club as speakers. I have seen some fantastic presentations done by “civilians.” Just accept that someone who speaks at one star party a year and has been in the hobby five years will not be able to deliver a presentation comparable to that of somebody who does a dozen events a year, has been in the avocation for 30 or 40 years, and writes for the newsstand astro-mags.

Actually, I have very little to complain about when it comes to how I’ve been treated at star parties. I can’t think of a single one where I’ve got less than stellar treatment. The only complaint I can muster is that occasionally a local speaker goes on-and-on-and-on, pushing my presentation back fifteen minutes or half an hour. Not usually a huge deal (though it can be if it is pushing up against supper or sundown), but star party staffs should understand that we want to do the very best job we can for you. If I am rushed or annoyed, I cannot do that. I will be on-site on time, and, barring the unforeseen I expect to be allowed to go on on-time.

Attendees? If you want to see someone’s presentation, please be on time. If you don’t think you can stay for the entire thing, stay away. Nothing is more disheartening for a speaker than people drifting out midway through. Your departure may have nuttin’ to do with how well you like the speaker, but that’s not what the person onstage will think.

One great thing about the star party speaking business? I don’t know of any prima donnas. Sure, we expect to be treated professionally and courteously, but don’t expect to be treated like kings or queens, and none of us that I know of act like kings or queens. One of the greatest things about the pros doing the star party circuit is that we are all still “just” amateur astronomers. I haven’t met anybody who didn’t still like to get out on the field and observe with the troops—or sit under a picnic canopy and schmooze with ‘em when the skies are cloudy. We are happy to spend time with y’all enjoying the skies and the comradery. That is why we are all—to a man or woman—in the business.


Alas and alack, fun is fun, but done is done. Even if it was cloudy, you had a great time. But the “be good” is not over. On the field, make sure every scrap of your trash is disposed of properly. If the dumpster is full, pack the garbage bag in the car and dispose of it at home. Your goal should be to make your spot look as close to the way it looked when you arrived as humanly possible. Same goes for your cabin. Who will have to do the cleanin’ up if you don’t? Usually the star party staff. If they have to do that too many times, they may decide putting on the Hogswaller Star Gaze is just too much trouble—something we most assuredly do not want. When everything is cool, just before pulling out, take the time to find a staff person and say “Thanks.” It will be appreciated.

So, a few things for y’all to ruminate on before your next expedition. Believe me, I am not trying to take the fun out of star partying with a bunch of blamed rules. I don’t like rules anymore’n any of y’all do. Here’s the deal: if everybody is polite and considerate, there will not be much need for rules. If you are like me, you have not met many fellow amateurs you don’t like, and that fact alone should be enough to ensure you treat ‘em right. I keep comin’ back to the Golden Rule: every body practices that and everybody will have a good time and everything will be OK.

Good article. On the matter of lights, my Toyota Highlander has these running lights. They come on, they're bright, they're white. Duct tape and cardboard will help. Thanks.

On car alarms - my bet is that people are carrying the remote in a pocket, bend over, and accidentally hit the panic button. I've never done that, but I have (to the disgust of all my neighbors) repeatedly accidentally locked or unlocked the car - beep sounds, headlights flash. ARGHHH. Put the remote somewhere safe - not in your pocket.
Great post, as always. I'm a total newbie as far as start parties go and have a basic question about logistics. Since I prefer to "camp" in a hotel off site, what do I do with my equipment during the day? Leave it set up? Put it in my car (but it gets *hot* in there)? Take it back to my hotel room? I'm worried about heat and dirt during the day, plus the (unlikely?) possibility of crime or accidental damage... Thanks.
Leave your scope set up. That's never been a problem anywhere I've been in over thirty years. You will want a cover (like aluminized Mylar, AKA "desert storm cover" to keep your scope cool during the day.

Hey Rod,
Once again great stuff. One thing that about the car lights. I have an older Honda and I just pull the fuse on the "curtesy lights". Then all the interior lights including the door kick lights and trunk are out period. It is the first thing I do when I get to the site - even before cooling the SCT.
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