Sunday, May 05, 2013


On the Road Again

One of the many things that are great about being retired from my daytime engineering job, muchachos? It allows more time for what really matters: practicing, writing about, and talking about amateur astronomy. When Phyllis Lang, author of Deep Sky Planner and an officer of the Raleigh Astronomy Club of Raleigh, North Carolina, enquired as to whether I’d be available to give a presentation for them, I was happy to reply that I dern sure would be.

Which presentation would that be? My Herschel show, “In the Footsteps of William and Caroline.” That’s my current one, and turned out to be what the folks up yonder in Raleigh wanted to hear, anyway. I am at work on a new talk about video astronomy, and the Mallincam in particular, but I likely won’t have that ready till time for this year’s Almost Heaven Star Party in September, where I plan to debut it.

Anyhoo, deciding to do a gig is easy. Getting there is tougher. I don’t have to tell y’all about the state of the U.S. air travel system. Combine the TSA with the money-hungry deregulated airlines and you do not have a recipe for pleasant air travel. Pretty fur piece from the 70s when Unk was regularly flying the Pan Am Champagne Clipper to the West Coast.

Two things made the trip to North Carolina bearable. First was Phyllis getting me on the second flight to Atlanta Friday morning instead of the way-too-early first one. Even better was my realization that all I had to do was get to Raleigh in time to give my presentation and make it back to The Swamp “sometime.” In the past, I’ve always been stressed-out juggling the demands of that engineering job (YOU WANT A DAY OFF? HELL, ROD, YOU JUST HAD ONE LAST YEAR!”) with what I really wanted to be doing. Now there’s no need to beg for a day off. No business calls during my trip. No crises to worry about. That was enough to make traveling to Raleigh almost fun.

Almost. When you are flying out of Possum Swamp and headed for the East Coast, there are two realities of Airline travel:  you will stop in Atlanta (a little old lady of my acquaintance says that when you die and are on your way to the Great Beyond, you still have to stop in Atlanta), and you will fly Delta. Last time I’d been on one of their aircraft, last year, I was somewhat impressed. This time, following their recent merger with Northwest? Good and bad. At least the Friday flight out was on a full-sized jet instead of a puddle jumper, but Delta’s boarding system ticks me off.

I understand them boarding First Class first. You ought to get a few perks for them extra bucks. But instead of boarding the rest of the plane after that, Delta has an endless variety of classes they board next:  “Business Elite,” “Gold, Silver, and Diamond Medallion,” “Skymiles Cardholders” and on and on and on. It’s terribly inefficient and time-consuming. At least they didn’t try to charge me five bucks for a bag of peanuts like one U.S. airline did last year. Sure makes me long for British Airways.

Another gold star for Ms. Phyllis:  she got me aisle seats all the way and arranged my flights so I had plenty of time between planes in Atlanta. That can be a problem, since my connection is usually at the extreme other end of that giant airport. Wonder of wonders, not this time. We were wheels-down in “A” and my Raleigh flight was in “B.” Sat at the gate and read the book I’d brought with me, Stephen King’s Black House, for somewhat less than an hour before it was boarding time and I was off on the last leg.

My impressions walking into the Raleigh – Durham airport? “Nice. Sure a lot bigger than Possum Swamp’s pitiful aerodrome.” While Raleigh and The Swamp are comparable in population, Raleigh is the state capital and has much more industry, including high-tech industry, than we do, so it’s not surprising their airport is a couple of clicks (at least) up from ours.

Next step was retrieving my checked bag. Since the Atlanta flight out of The Swamp is usually a small jet that requires you do a planeside baggage check, I don’t do a carryon. No point to it. I have my laptop (this time my Asus netbook) with me on the plane and that is it. I found baggage claim and my suitcase without too much wandering around. Didn’t see anyone who looked like they might be Ms. Phyllis, so I rang her cell phone. Turned out we were in sight of each other and didn’t know it.

Shortly, Phyllis and hubby Mark were delivering me to the airport Embassy Suites, where, after just a little confusion on the part of a desk clerk who was a good example of the Peter Principle (“Oh, you had a RESERVATION? I DON’T SEE ONE FOR YOU. WHAT WAS YOUR NAME AGAIN?”), I had a room in which to relax for a few hours.

This Embassy Suites appeared to be an older member of the chain, a lot like the one Miss D. and I stayed in in Nashville for ALCON 2003, and that was fine. Nice big bed, LG TV in the bedroom, little sitting room with another LG and a couch. I thought I’d check my email, connected to the wi-fi, and immediately got a demand for $$$. Seems the Embassy Suites fancies themselves a hotel, and believes that means they can and should charge for Internet. Not this little black duck. Since I’d only be in the room briefly, I said “NUH-UH, YOU SUCKAS,” and proceeded to check my mail with the iPhone.

Good thing I did, since there was a missive from astronomy-dealer extraordinaire Bob Black of Skies Unlimited. He was letting me know my NEW TELESCOPE would be on its way to Chaos Manor South shortly. New telescope? Yep. A new C8. “Dagnabbit! A new C8, Unk? How many cotton-picking C8s do you have already?” Three. The C8 is my favorite telescope of all time. I’ve never loved a scope like I’ve loved the C8, but why did I need yet anudder one?

There was actually some logic behind my acquiring another C8—as much logic as Unk ever displays, anyhow. It was really more about a mount than a telescope. As y’all know, one of my most-used telescope mounts has been the humble Celestron CG5 go-to GEM. It’s done more than its share of the work of the Herschel Project. I’ve put a lot of miles on the mount in the eight years I’ve had it. Not that it doesn’t work as well as it ever did—it does—but when Celestron recently came out with an improved CG5, the VX, I thought it might be a good time to relegate the high-mileage CG5 to backup status.

So where did another C8 OTA come in? Why not just slap my 20-year-old Ultima OTA, Celeste, on the VX and keep on trucking? Certainly, I could do that. Celeste continues to amaze with how deep she can go with the aid of a Mallincam Xtreme. But… I’d been thinking it might be cool to have an OTA with modern coatings—Celeste is my youngest C8—and the scopes are mighty cheap when bought paired with mounts. The question was “Which C8?”

A while back, I’d been thinking idly about the Celestron Edge OTAs. Mighty purty with their white/blue-gray tubes. And that beauty is not just skin deep. An onboard corrector in the baffle tube reduces both coma and field curvature. Would I want one? From the first look I had through a Meade RCX in ’06, I knew there was something to this “improved SCT” bidness. Using my buddy Mike Harvey’s LX200 ACF just reinforced that. The views through the eyepiece were simply better. And… The Meades only correct for coma, not field curvature. The Celestron Edge ought to be even more better gooder. I decided that if time came to buy a new SCT OTA I’d be foolish not to get an Edge.

As I was ruminating on the above, I happened to open the then-current Sky and Telescope. What was staring me in the face in a full-page ad? A beautiful Edge 800 C8 on a VX mount. Well, I did need to replace that mount, and shouldn’t pore ol’ Unk get a retirement gift of some kind? Shortly, Mr. Bob had my credit card number. By the time you read this, there should be a new SCT at Chaos Manor South and you will hear a lot about it over the coming months, I’m sure.

I was excited my new scope was on her way to me, but I was also tuckered. I turned on the TV, collapsed on the couch, set the alarm on my iPhone for 4:00 p.m., and proceeded to doze the rest of the afternoon away, visions of Edge HDs dancing in my head as CNN droned on unheeded.

Seemed as Unk had barely closed his peepers when the iPhone began emitting the full volume klaxon that is the only thing that will wake him up on occasions like this. Dressed, it was time to prepare for the big show. Netbook operational? Check. PowerPoint file still working? Check. Backup copy on my flash drive still there? Check. Black cowboy hat on head? Check. I was out the door.

My hosts knew I needed a little supper before going on, and spirited me off to a nearby pub, “Tripps.” It was a local chain in the Ruby Tuesday’s/Applebee’s/TGI Friday’s mold, but a cut above those in quality, Unk thought. What caught my eye in the menu was the prime rib sandwich. That and a couple of Kolorado Kool Aids, but only a couple, and I was ready to go on. Rarin’ to go on in fact.

I’ve done my little shows (“presentation” doesn’t really describe Unk’s usual shenanigans) at some good venues over the years. Portland’s Kendall Planetarium comes to mind. The North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences took the cake and the prize, though, y’all. Big theatre with a powerful LCD projector at the back, excellent P.A. system—I prefer to work with a mic whenever possible—and, most of all, expert assistance from the RAC’s AV person. What a treat it was to see my PowerPoints giant size.

Getting my computer slides ready was as easy as it’s ever been, so I had a little time to wander the museum’s exhibit area. Since Raleigh is home to the Research Triangle and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is nearby, I was not surprised they had a high-quality science museum, but it was still a surprisingly wonderful place. I hope the residents appreciate it and their kids love it.

Then it was showtime. Starting with Unk’s usual corny jokes and other foolishness:  “Before we get started, I want a show of hands; how many of y’all have ever owned a Lynyrd Skynyrd Album?” From there, I was on to the story of the Herschels and the Herschel Project for somewhat over an hour. The audience was responsive, and there was a good turnout considering the somewhat esoteric subject, observing all 2500 Herschel objects. Another twenty minutes or so of questions, and it was back to Tripps.

This excellent club always repairs to a local restaurant for their “meeting after the meeting.” Phyllis asked me whether I was up for another visit to Tripps. I said I was dang sure not hungry after the prime rib sammich, but that if drinks might be involved I would dang sure be happy to attend. She assured me they would be, and I spent a couple of hours having fun and drinking draft Blue Moons (the perfect beer for astronomers, natch). I talked everything from the cost of a good eyepiece to the minutiae of the Sherlock Holmes stories and had a Real Good Time with the big RAC group.

One thing I took note of? Many of the questions I was asked during the Q&A after the talk and at the restaurant had to do with video astronomy. Naturally, I talk about deep sky video cameras in “In the Footsteps of William and Caroline,” since the Mallincam and the Stellacam were such a big part of The Project. Even those folks who obviously didn’t care pea-turkey about tackling the H2500 were eager to hear about video. Seems to me it is catching on in a big way and is spreading way beyond the borders of the Billy Dodd Field at the Chiefland Astronomy Village.

And so it went for quite some time. I beat my turns-into-a-pumpkin time of midnight, but just barely—maybe. Leaving Tripps, I glanced at my watch. I believe it read “11:30,” and I had not set it to Eastern Time. Oh, well, I’d had a splendid evening with a big bunch of friends, and my nap earlier stood me in good stead. Still, as soon as my head hit the Embassy Suite’s pillow, I was off to night-night land with barely a glance at American Pickers, which I’d dialed up on the fracking cable TV.

At nine the next morning, Phyllis and Mark picked me up and delivered me back to the airport. My flight wouldn’t board till 10:30, but I like to have plenty of time to clear security and find my gate. On Saturday morning, the airport wasn’t busy and I more or less breezed through and was soon back to reading Black House and waiting to board for the return to The Swamp.

The trip home was uneventful, with the only real tiresome part being the last, the flight from Atlanta to The Swamp. Unlike Friday, I was on a puddle-jumper jet, the ride was rough, and the cabin was hot. That was OK, though. Almost there. When I finally walked through the portals of The Old Manse, I was surprised at how rested I felt. Not having to face the start of a workweek at the dadgum shipyard did indeed make a big difference.

I was famished, though. I’d had nothing since a modest breakfast at the Embassy Suites. I’d planned to fill up on junk at the Atlanta Airport, Popeye’s chicken or Checkers burgers, but had had to go without lunch. The concourse where my gate was was being remodeled, and the only restaurant other than sit-at-the-table-and-a-waitress-comes bars and grills was a freaking Quiznos. No thanks. Since I didn’t feel tired, I eschewed my usual after-splashdown supper of Chef Boyardee and hustled Miss D. off to Buffalo Wild Wings, where I ordered a dozen boneless wings (wild) and gobbled every one of them suckers right up.

Back home, I still wasn’t ready to call it a night. There was that DVD. Before I’d got out of the Langs’ van, Phyllis had handed me a disk containing version 6 of her famous astronomy program, Deep Sky Planner. Deep Sky Planner 5 was one of two programs, along with SkyTools 3, that got me through The Herschel Project. Frankly, without those two softs I’m guessing I still wouldn’t be done.

As y’all know if you read my blog entry on DSP or my review of Version 5 in Astronomy Technology Today, I liked Phyllis’ program a lot. You also know what a nit-picking old fuddy-duddy I can be, and there were two things I did not like about the program. Most irritatingly, when you wanted to download Digitized Sky Survey images of list objects, you had to do them one at a time. That’s OK for a 50 DSO list, but 2500 fuzzies? No way. I also found the import utility lacking, and wished for a way to easily convert ascii files of deep sky objects to observing plans. Would those two minuses be turned into pluses in 6? I wanted to find out.

One thing I was happy to learn about DSP 6 once I had it installed and running? It don’t look much different from 5. It was obvious I wouldn’t have to learn the program from scratch. I was also pleased it loaded my DSP 5 observing plans without complaint or need for conversion. How about that import routine? Would it be any better?

To find out, I exported a SkyTools 3 list, “Best of the Herschel 2500,” as a text file. Opened the import widget, told it the file name to import, what to call the output file, where to put it, and mashed the “go” button. In just a few seconds, I had a DSP 6 plan. Every one of the objects had been squirted into DSP format. It was so easy, I couldn’t resist converting a longer list of 250 “H2500 Objects Left to Image” to DSP format. Again, the import facility worked flawlessly.

OK, I was willing to concede DSP’s import utility was now world-class. How about the dadgum image retrieval? With just a little fumbling and bumbling  (What? Me read a help file?) I found a button that would download images for all the “left to image” list’s DSOs at once. No fuss, no muss. In just a few minutes, pictures for all 250 Herschels were saved and ready for use. Not only did the image retrieval work, it worked fast.

What else? I am sure there is much other New Good Stuff in DSP 6, but other than the above, what impressed me was that the program’s performance seems better. Maybe it’s just me, but everything seemed a little zippier in 6. One of the big draws of the new version according to Ms. Lang is that she has put a lot of work into improving the accuracy of the program’s catalogs. Which is good to hear. To some extent, planner programs live or die by the accuracy of the data in their huge databases.

‘Course what really matters is how a program does on a dark observing field, and DSP will get its chance Real Soon Now. I’ve decided that it will be “DSP 6 only” at the upcoming Deep South Regional Star Gaze Spring Scrimmage, which kicks off shortly. Yep, Unk will be using a new planning program, a new telescope, and a new mount for the star party. Is he brave or just crazy? Time will tell muchachos, time will tell.

As usual, you-all can see a lot more pictures from ol' Unk's trip on his pea-picking Facebook page...

Next Time:  Still More Herschel Fun…

Glad to hear you will debut your new presentation at AHSP! See you there.
If I recall correctly, and I might not, Atlanta had those automated train-cars quite some time ago with the synthesized voice was the spittin' image of the Old Cylon "toasters" from the 70's Battle Star Galactica series. I called them The Cylon Trains. Worked but had me worried that a blaster bolt from the blue might not be far behind.

That was indeed an excellent auditorium, Uncle Rod! By coincidence I just gave my first amateur astronomy talk - to my own club. People who on go to a scientific or quasi-scientific lecture voluntarily on a Friday night are amazing audience.
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