Saturday, May 15, 2010


Stars in the Palm of my Hand

Before going farther, let me say how much Miss Dorothy and I appreciate the concern expressed by you Dear Readers over her recent medical travails. I am happy to report she is doing much better. The first go at chemotherapy left her sick and weak as a kitten, but it appears the docs have now got that controlled to the extent it can be. Things are so close to normal around the Old Manse now that I’m even contemplating sneaking off to the Chiefland Astronomy Village for a few days! Anyhoo…

If you read one of my fairly recent entries here, “Computin’ in the Country,” you know that, while I don’t claim to be anything more than barely computer literate, I’ve been in on the personal computer revolution almost from the beginning. And I’ve been in on the amateur astronomy computer revolution since the very beginning, moving on from early minimalist programs like Sky Travel for the Commodore 64 and Skyglobe for the PC to modern marvels like SkyTools 3 and Starry Night Pro Plus.

As I intimated in that article, howsomeever, that don’t mean I’ve always used PCs on the observing field. That’s a fairly recent thing for me. I started plunking a laptop down on my observing table maybe six years ago. What took me so long? As most of y’all are aware, I am one cheap, penny-pinching ol’ summabeech. It took until the new century was well underway, and the prices of laptop computers finally began to fall, for me to convince myself that, one, I could afford a laptop, and, two, that I’d be willing to subject one to dewy nights in the sticks. But, you know what? Well before I lugged my good, ol’ Toshiba lappie down to the Chiefland Astronomy Village, I was using a computer at and with my telescopes.

It just wasn’t a full-fledged PC. Yeah, I’m talking one of the mini-puters that came on strong in the mid-1990s, a “PDA,” a personal digital assistant, a Palm Pilot. What drew me to the Palm computer (the “Pilot” name was actually long gone due to a dispute with the Pilot pen folks when I began considering the widgets)? They had kicked things up one huge notch over the original Palm and the similar organizers being sold by Casio and others. The new Palms could run software. There was, it appeared, even astronomy software, some of which looked like it might be pretty darned useful. With Miss D.’s concurrence, I hied myself to the local office supply place to get me a Palm.

And quickly came to a screeching halt. It was immediately obvious the next hurdle would be deciding which Palm. There was a whole rack of the dad-blasted things starin’ me in the face. On the low end was the budget “M” series. These were cute and certainly priced right, with the basic model, the M100, around a hundred twenty-five dineros. Next up was the IIIxe, at 250. Followed by the IIIc which jumped up to 400 big dollars, and the V, for a little more than that.

Some head-scratching and reading of the specs on the little signs that accompanied the gadgets helped me narrow things down. I discarded the M100 right off the bat. Its display was clear enough, but its memory was small, 2 megabytes, too small, I suspected, to allow me to run much astro-ware. I was very much attracted to the Palm IIIc with its big 8 megs of RAM (whoo-hoo!), and its beautiful, bright 160x160 color display. Did not like the price, though. I also looked askance at one aspect of that purty screen. I was fairly sure it would draw considerably more current than a monochrome one, and the Palm IIIc was equipped with a rechargeable, non-removable battery. If it died in the middle of a run, the thing would need charging; I couldn’t just swap batteries on the field.

Which left the Palm V and the Palm IIIxe. The V bit the dust in a right quick hurry. Its main claim to fame was a pretty metal case. I couldn’t tell a single difference between its display and that of the considerably cheaper IIIxe, which my eyes next lit on. The IIIxe had, in addition to an easy-on-the eyes black and white display (actually more green and white) that could be illuminated with a soft blue backlight, and 8mb of memory just like the fancier IIIc and V. It wasn’t easy getting out 200 bucks for a widget I figgered I really had no pressing need for, but I managed somehow and took my new pet home.

My motivation for getting a Palm didn’t have much to do with its utility as a personal organizer, but I soon found it indispensable for keeping disorganized li’l ol’ me organized. The calendar and the to-do list soon were saving my butt on a regular basis. Type your appointments into the Palm Desktop program running on your Win PC, hook Palm to computer with its serial cable, and those events or changes would be squirted into the little guy just like magic. It is true, though, that it was the astro-factor that really excited me.

What did I find in the way of astronomy software? Quite a few useful and free or very inexpensive little programs. A couple I remember well and still occasionally light-off are Jovian, which, as you might expect, shows the current positions of Jupiter’s Gallilean satellites, and Sidereal Time which, yeah, shows Local Sidereal Time. Both of these and several similar small apps proved surprisingly handy, especially when working with my students. But I didn’t get a true whiff of the future till I ran across a plainly titled program, Planetarium for Palm.

Not much has changed with Planetarium in a while, with the last (minor) update having been issued about a year ago. It ain’t dead yet, howsomeever, with plenty of Palm users still favoring it. There’s no doubt there are fewer of those folks than there used to be, I reckon, but at one time Planetarium was the hottest thing since sliced bread. In fact, it’s not too much to say that it was a breakthrough. Until Planetarium came out, there’d been some simple star charting programs for our little “organizers,” but these were more on the order of computerized planispheres than real planetarium programs.

Planetarium changed that, squashing all the stuff programs like Cartes du Ciel and TheSky featured into a Palm. In addition to a couple million stars and about two thousand deep sky objects (you could add more, too), there was Solar System data, a logging module, an observing list maker, and even the facility for sending a computerized scope on go-tos. I know I had a great time with the program. Particularly memorable was trading observing lists with my buddy Tom Wideman at the 2001 Texas Star Party wirelessly. No, the Palm didn’t have wi-fi, but it did have infrared “beaming” that worked well for sending small amounts of data back and forth between Palms. Only bad thing? Tom was sporting a Palm IIIc, and one look at Planetarium running in full color made my IIIxe suddenly look like daddy’s Philco TV set.

Nevertheless, I continued to use my Palm happily for several years. Hell, I liked it so much at the telescope that I started a Yahoogroup, Palmastro, which continues to this day. Eventually, I even tried scope control, hooking my III to my first go-to rig, a Meade ETX 60 I bought in 2001 to use as a travel scope and to test the go-to waters. It took a little tinkering to get the Palm talking to the ETX, since Meade, to save money, had left the RS-232 port off the 494 Autostar that came with the littlest ETX. With the appropriate cable, lots of cussin’, and lots of fiddling around, I finally was able to get the Palm working with my 60, Snoopy, in time for our getaway to Mount Pisgah in the hot August of ‘05.

Having been born and raised down here on our tropical coast, your ol’ Uncle ain’t no stranger to sultry summers. But there comes a point where even he has had enough. August of 2005 was one of those times. Temperatures in the hundreds. High humidity. Don’t even ask about the heat indexes. Miss Beth and Miss Dorothy was suffering even worse than I was, I thought—leastways they offered no objections when I suggested a week’s vacation at the Pisgah Inn.

The Pisgah, in North Carolina up on Skyline drive, in spitting distance of Mount Pisgah, is one of my favorite summer getaways. An old-style sorta resort—no phones, and they’ve only put TVs in the rooms in the last decade—the place is blessed with peace and quiet, an excellent restaurant, and, most of all, cool mountain air. Ain’t no air conditioners in the rooms; you don’t need ‘em. In addition to all that, bein’ smack in the middle of a National Forest, the skies are impressively dark. Now, they don’t call ‘em “The Smoky Mountains” for nothing, and hazes and fogs rollin’ in off them mountains are a near nightly occurrence, but when the skies are clear the summer Milky Way burns with surprising ferocity. That in mind, I tossed the 60 and the Palm in the car. Even if the clouds interfered, it wasn’t like they’d take up much space in the trunk or in the room.

The Pisgah Inn was just as beautiful as I remembered. Unfortunately, the evening skies were every bit as hazy/misty/smoky/cloudy as I remembered, too. I got my chance mid-week, though. Knowing it can get dark up on Skyline Drive is one thing, but experiencing it on a good night is another. Looking south off the balcony of our first-floor room down the mountainside (every single room has a balcony and a mountain view) revealed Sagittarius’ teapot was beginning to boil. I grabbed the ETX and its wooden EQ-1 GEM tripod—the tripod Meade sold for the 60, an extruded aluminum job, was too craptacular for me—and headed for the strip of land between the Inn and the mountainside.

Set Snoopy up on the grass, got him go-to aligned (no finder needed, just pop a 25mm eyepiece into this 60mm f/5 refractor), and fired-up the Palm. The raison d’être of running the little telescope off the littler computer? I have no doubt I’d have wasted plenty of the few dark hours I was given if I’d had to rely on the Autostar’s guided tours mode (which tended to offer up things like quasars to the 60mm) or my fading memories of what looked good in a tiny scope. With Planetarium, I had honest to god observing lists of the best and brightest at the ready and was soon makin’ hay in the dark North Carolina skies.

I won’t make y’all read a long list of the objects I viewed on that evening, but I do wanna mention a few. Beginning with M17, the Swan Nebula. Even without an LPR filter, this ghostly southern bird’s outline was starkly visible in the ETX’s wide, wide field, floating on a sea rich with stars. M13? Sure, I’d look at M13, but I didn’t expect too much. Bright this star-ball may be, but it is tight (Shapley - Sawyer Class V) and hard for small scopes to even begin to resolve. Nevertheless, the Northern Giant looked very good in the wee scope, and when I ran the power up as high as I could, I almost imagined I saw a few cluster stars around its outer periphery. The true gem of the evening? The Eagle/Star Queen Nebula associated with open cluster M16. I’d always considered this an object for large scopes, even with the help of an OIII filter. Amazingly, 60mm of aperture showed this bird very clearly, and I thought I even caught a glimpse of it when I removed the filter.

Takeaway? In addition to the fact that truly dark skies are an aperture multiplier, small as they were, or really because of that, the Palm and the ETX 60 were a perfect combo for on-the-road astronomy, for non-astronomy-centric vacations. Frankly, given the Smoky Mountains’ reputation for, well, smokiness, I’d never have bothered to pack a C8. I wouldn’t have e’en wanted to fool with a Short Tube 80 and its GEM mount. The ETX 60 wasn’t an annoyance, and wouldn’t have been, even if I’d never had the opportunity to use it. What could be better?

A color Palm. I was roundly sick of squinting at the Palm III’s dim monochrome screen. What to do? The price of color Palms had suddenly come way down, and the quality of their displays had improved muchly over Tom’s IIIc, which had impressed me so much. Still I hesitated. I now had a laptop, a big, honkin’ 3.2 gig P4 Toshiba. Did I even need a Palm anymore? I didn’t need one for astronomy, but I was danged sure not gonna give up the calendar/contacts/to-do and go back to my old completely disorganized ways.

Right after we got back from Mount Pisgah, I went hunting at the Office Store again, and snared the right Palm in a hurry, the new Tungsten E2. In addition to a beautiful (if small) color screen, the E2’s display conquered the IIIc’s battery drain problems, making a rechargeable battery really practical. Downchecks? The serial interface was gone, replaced by a USB one, which, I knew, would make interfacing to a scope a more complicated affair. Palm had also changed the shorthand-like characters you used to input data into the Palm with the stylus. Why? When every single Palm user knew the old way by heart? Who the hell knew? Palm, as the years rolled on, appeared to develop a corporate death wish. Nevertheless, I pulled out the credit card and took a new Palm Pilot home.

Which turned out to be a good thing. Mainly because of Katrina. We were without power for quite a long time, and, with the aid of a little folding keyboard I purchased, I was actually able to write a paper for a graduate seminar I was taking (come wind or waves, the groves of academe persevere). Astronomy-wise, Planetarium looked dadgummed beautiful on it. Too bad I didn’t use the program much after I got the E2.

For several years, Planetarium was on the top of the heap, and would probably have remained there if a lot of us hadn’t been seduced away by the More Better Gooder. That More Better Gooder was a Palm (and Windows Pocket PC) program by Cyrille Thieullet, Astromist. Peculiar name, but one hell of a program. At derned near 40 bucks, Astromist was considerably more expensive than I was used to paying for Palm-ware. It was worth it. Not only was the display even more attractive than that of Planetarium, it was extremely smooth in operation. “Hook” and drag with the stylus and the sky moved smooth as silk. Objects? Try the entire NGC and more, for a whopping total of over 18,000 DSOs. That was just the beginning of this amazing soft’s features, which included things like a Lunar chart, DSLR control, scope control, and images of many objects.

I had some good times with Astromist, including a night under the uber dark skies of the Almost Heaven Star Party, where I saw more stuff with a pair of 10x50s and a C5 than I’d have imagined possible. Despite these good times, I must admit I’ve never used the E2 as much (for astronomy) as I did the good old III. Why? Part of it was that I am—horrors!—getting older, and it came to the point where trying to make out objects on the E2’s postage-stamp sized screen was derned near impossible, especially with Astromist’s night-vision mode on. Also, I’d become convinced the Palm has a huge liability for astronomical use: the frickin’ - frackin’ stylus. Too easy to drop or otherwise misplace on a dark field. Oh, sure, you could try to use your finger instead of a stylus, but the Palm wasn’t designed for that, and it didn’t always work very well.

So, howsabout a new and better Palm? Well…remember that corporate death wish I mentioned? Not that the second half of the oughts hadn’t started off promisingly, with the company releasing what I thought ought to be the ultimate Palm for astronomy, the Lifedrive. Not only did it have a considerably larger screen than its sisters, the LD featured 4 gigabytes of memory via a tiny hard drive (five years ago you couldn’t do that with solid state memory for a price folks would be willing to pay). Had built in wi-fi and Bluetooth as well. So why didn’t I get one? A buddy at work showed me a Lifedrive his company had lent him. Pretty, sure. But every time you launched an app, the hard drive had to spin up, and load times seemed a lot like what I got outa my ol’ TRS-80 Model 1 and a cassette tape drive.

The main reason I didn’t try the Lifedrive? And why it failed miserably barely two years after its release? Its price. 500 bucks, which seemed a lot to pay for a Palm Pilot, which, when you really got down to it, was not that different from what we’d seen before. Palm didn’t seem to care much, anyhow, deciding the money was not in PDAs anymore, but in, yes, CELL PHONES running the Palm o/s.

Which ain’t exactly taken the world by storm. Their iPhone killers, the Palm Pre and Pixi seem to be losing steam less than a year after their introdcution, maybe because of the insanely annoying commercials for the Pre that ran incessantly last Christmastime. Even if I had wanted a Palm phone, which I didn’t, that wouldn’t have kept me using Planetarium and Astromist. Palm, in their ever impressive wisdom, made the version of the Palm operating system in these phones totally incompatible with earlier applications. Latest indignity to be suffered by the Palm’s few remaining fans? It was just announced that (rut-ro) Palm has been purchased by HP. Goodnight, Palm.

Which left me where hand-held computing-wise? My E2 still works fine. It’s on charge right now. I even still use it once in a while. That’s likely to be fairly infrequent from now on, though. My personal turn away from the Palm didn’t come because of the company’s missteps, but because of Apple.

To say Unk don’t have much musical talent would be an understatement (I am pretty good at Rockband on the Xbox 360). But I’ve always enjoyed listening to music, all kinds of music, including when I’m observing alone. Knowing that, Miss Dorothy gifted me with an iPod when they came out with the 60gb hard drive model. I enjoyed using it not just when observing, but when working. It became irritating having to keep up with two pocket-size electronic widgets, the Palm and the Pod, though, and I began experimenting with the iPod Classic’s minimalist calendar and contact features, which it turned out, were almost good enough for me.

Only drawbacks were that the iPod’s screen, while clear, was even smaller than the one on my E2, and there was no truly easy way to enter your data. Dern. Then came the new iPod Touch. Not only did it have a large, impressively large, and beautiful screen for a pocket device, it had built-in wi-fi, a built-in internet browser, up to 32gb of solid state memory, it interfaced with Microsoft Outlook, and was blessed with full-featured contacts/calendar apps that made what Palm had look primitive. Oh, and I heard tell there were many, many applications that would run on the Touch, including some impressive ones for astronomy.

Lucky it was near about Christmas, and when Miss D. asked me what she could get me, I piped up like Ralphie in A Christmas Story: “AN-IPOD-TOUCH-WITH-16GB-OF-MEMORY-AND-A-CASE-AND-A-COPY-OF-SKYVOYAGER!” When I finally got to unwrap my toy, I was in hog-heaven. First thing first, of course, was loading up my music and synchronizing with outlook, but then I got on the freakin’ iTunes store and paid for and downloaded the program I’d heard (on the Cloudy Nights) was the premier iPod astro-ware, SkyVoyager.

SkyVoyager is by Carina Software, and while I’d never used their prime product, Voyager, I did know they had always had an excellent reputation among the Macintosh troops, their main audience. Still, when SkyVoyager popped onto my screen I was surprised—more like, “blown away.” It was so beautiful. And so responsive. No stylus, of course, just use your finger to drag the sky around. Pinch and “unpinch” to zoom. In addition to looking good and working good, SkyVoyager does just about anything my previous fave, Astromist, did, and includes more of everything, including near 40,000 deep sky objects.

That’s only part of the story, though. A big part of the goodness of SkyVoyager is that it takes advantage of the peculiar features of the iPod and iPhone. Bring it up for the first time on your phone, and it will get your position from GPS. Got the Pod instead? It can still figure out your location via the Internet. Want to use it like a SkyScout? Hold it up, and it will track the sky on either the iPod or the iPhone. The best thing, though? The clarity of the Apple display. Even my old eyes have little problem making out text and symbols, and the excellent zoom functions mean I can make everything bigger when I need to. Best of all? The company is aggressively supporting the program, havin’ released an “expansion pack” with the Tycho star catalog, and, just the other day, a new version of the main program that supports the iPad!

Y’all might have noticed I didn’t mention telescope control with the iPod/Phone and SkyVoyager. That’s because I ain’t tried it yet. Mostly, I’ve been using it with my 8-inch f/5 Dobbie and its analog setting circles. That don’t mean SkyVoyager ain’t able to interface with go-to rigs. It does that and in Thoroughly Modern Millie Manner (this is alliteration week, ain’t it?). Not through cables, but through wi-fi. Carina offers a little electronics module, the Sky-fi, you hook to your scope’s serial port. Your Apple thingie—Pod, Phone, Pad—then communicates with the scope via wi-fi. No wires at all. Again, I ain’t tried it yet, but there’s little doubt I will. I mean, no wires for your ol’ Unk to trip over, as he always does? YEEHAW!

Yes, SkyVoyager is a great thing, but it ain’t the only thing. There is an ever-growing list of astroware for the little Apples, including a version of one of the oldest planetarium programs around, Distant Suns. Thus far, I’ve only tried the (free) “Lite” version, but I have found that incredibly useful with my students, and I expect the full version will be even moreso. One I ain’t tried yet, but which I hear a lot of very good things about is Starmap Pro, which looks to be every bit the equal of SkyVoyager from what I can tell from the web page and what the folks on CN say. And there are other players waitin’ in the wings. It’s rumored that Software Bisque has given up on its Pocket PC program and is working on a version of TheSky for Pod/Pad/Phone. One thing I know for sure, Cyrille is on the verge of releasing Astromist in an Apple device version. I can hardly wait to try that one.

“Now hold on just a cotton-pickin’ minute, Unk. I want to play pocket astronomy, too, but I ain’t got no iPod or iPhone. I’ve got a smart phone, though. Ain’t there something for me?” I wouldn’t be surprised if there might be eventually, but at this juncture, about all I know of other than old apps that run on the Microsoft PPC o/s (which I believe some phones still use) is Google Sky for the “Android” type phones. As mentioned above, I don’t know of any astro-ware that will work on Palm’s (gag me with a spoon) new operating system.

We’ve come a long way in pocket astronomy in ‘bout a decade, and it looks like things are changing faster lately than ever before, with “pocket” being upsized to something bigger than what you’d normally think would fit in your jeans. The big news in astronomical computing is the iPad, of course, but also the Netbooks. If I can manage to stay gainfully employed, I will seriously think about acquiring a ‘Pad, maybe in the new year. I’ve already got one of them mini-computer Netbooks. iPod or no, iPad or no, I’ve still got to have something to run NexRemote, and I hope the Netbook will allow me to do that without having to tote a 40-pound laptop no more.

What is goin’ on at the old Manse, Chaos Manor South, on this Saturday morn (it’s the 8th of May as I write)? Well, it’s cloudy, but the dadgummed Wunderground is still predictin’ clear for tonight. If so, me and the C8 will head on out to the dark site, and you will get to Read All About It, including not just what I saw, but how my new Netbook computer worked out, nex’ week. Till then, muchachos.

I also use an iPod Touch with SkyVoyager and the SkyFi unit. They work great with my CPC8. I used to use an HP iPaq with The SkyPPC and bluetooth, but when the iPaq died I switched to Apple and won't go back.
Say, Uncle Rod -

Having worked where they tossed Palms by the box, I've got nearly a hundred T2s, Vs and such, most of which only need a battery to work like new. Any suggestions of who might be able to use them for the cost of shipping? It would be great if there are young folks who could use them...
Your local astro-club? A good place to ask around might be my Palmastro Yahoogroup. Very thoughtful, nice idea.
Nice Blog Post !
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