November 2007

Rules and borders

It’s been a while since I posted my blog entry arguing that an organization’s volunteers are rarely the most qualified people available, but rather the most devoted: that groups are run by people full of committment but lacking crucial skills. That entry was meant to be the first of a three-part series on volunteers, hobbies and small-group politics; obviously I’ve been a little sidetracked.

This entry is part two. It asks: If a group’s volunteers have few or no useful skills, what do they end up doing for the group?

In that last entry I said that a club may never reach its full potential, or fall apart, if those in charge aren’t up to the task. In the real world, of course, no volunteer board is ever composed of nothing but fuckups or competent men; most people bring at least something, but not everything, to the table. Some people, however, bring very little, and have to be kept busy — or they bring their massive egos along with whatever else they bring to the table. The problem, you see, isn’t so much the work, it’s the authority — it’s when volunteers use their small duties to transform themselves into little tin gods. And, as I said last time, for many volunteers, the group is an awfully big part of their lives.

What they do is throw their weight around.

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Astronomical catalogues

For future reference, because there are an awful lot of them and because Jennifer will, I think, appreciate having it, here is a list of Wikipedia pages describing the various deep-sky catalogues:

(For all of Wikipedia’s faults, it does astronomy relatively well, I think.)

See also the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada’s Finest NGC Objects List, an illustrated guide to the Sharpless catalogue, and, of course, Wikipedia’s list of astronomical catalogues.

A prime lens for the Nikon D40

Henry’s is bloody fast at delivery: it took less than two days for my order to arrive. And what was it that I ordered? Along with a new external hard drive for Time Machine purposes, I finally broke down and ordered a Sigma 30-mm f/1.4 lens, the rising Canadian dollar having knocked $120 or so off the price.

Sigma 30mm f/1.4 [Sigma Corporation] This lens is essentially the only autofocus fast-prime option for Nikon D40 users. All of Nikon’s lenses in this category are AF, not AF-S: AF lenses use a camera’s autofocus motors, and the D40 doesn’t have any; AF-S lenses have internal motors. Until now, I’ve been making do with manually focusing the Nikkor AF 50-mm f/1.8 lens, but with mixed results: if the main reason for a fast prime is low-light photography, it’s hard to focus manually in low light. And the angle of field is a bit too tight. Though it’s not likely as good a lens as a Nikon, the Sigma lens is wider angle and has two-thirds of an f-stop more aperture, and it’s also got internal autofocus motors.

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A collection update: dying, moving, freaking out

We lost another snake last week, which was unexpected: Jennifer found the male hognose snake dead in his cage. He’d been an inconsistent eater, and had been moved into a separate cage to see if that would help his appetite; he had, however, been eating again. Not sure what got him — clearly the inappetance was a symptom of something — but we discovered it too late to do a necroscopy.

On a happier note, almost every snake (and turtle) that was going to be moved into a new cage is now in their new digs; they all seem to be enjoying the additional room. It took some doing to get enough locks, but, as promised, the boa constrictor, bullsnakes and black pine snakes are now in their new enormous cages. The box turtle is now in the pine snakes’ old cage; the gray rat snake is in the female bullsnake’s cage; and the ball python is in the boa constrictor’s old cage. The male bullsnake’s old cage is now being shared by the male Okeetee corn snake and the Great Plains rat snake; meanwhile, the female blue-striped garter snake has moved in with the female red-sided garter snake. They’re getting along so far. Pretzel, my original female corn snake, is now on her own, away from Trouser’s wayward hemipenes, and the remaining garter snakes previously inhabiting five-gallon tanks are now in larger digs. And the female Cape gopher is now in the gray rat’s old cage. (I think that’s it.)

Moonlight, my male California kingsnake, is even more psycho lately: at his last feeding time, he refused his meal, preferring instead to strike at us through the glass. In the more than eight years I’ve had him, he’s never been this belligerent. (Nibbly, yes, but not angry.) Gonna have to keep an eye on him, in case this is symptomatic of something.

Winter amnesia

Ottawa got snow this morning; from the caterwauling I’ve heard today, you’d think that people here have never seen snow before. It’s as though they’ve completely forgotten that winter comes once a year.

Maybe there’s something to that, at that:

Wednesday’s snow wasn’t deep enough to cover the toes of most people’s boots and it quickly began melting into slush.
Even so, there were over 40 crashes in Ontario east of Napanee by 9 a.m., and Highway 417 was particularly bad, reported provincial police Const. Kevin Davidson.
“We have vehicles driving too fast, going into ditches, off the shoulders, colliding with other ones at intersections, rear-enders — the whole gamut of people trying to rush and hurry when they should be taking their time,” he said.
“It always seems to be this way, that people have to rethink winter driving over again every start of every new year.”

(Emphasis mine.)

Comet Holmes

Last night, I plugged my digital SLR into my telescope (via an adapter), pointed it at Comet Holmes, and tried to take a halfway-decent picture. This was the result:

Comet Holmes

Not the best photo of Holmes by a long shot, but not bad for a first attempt, with limited equipment.

Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield steam train at risk

HCW Steam Train A dispute between the owner of the Hull-Chelsea-Wakefield steam train and the cities of Chelsea and Gatineau may shut the train down at the end of this year, today’s Ottawa Citizen reports. At issue is an engineering study of the rail line that may lead to increased maintenance and improvement costs — costs that the train operator would be obligated to pay, which is why the operator is unwilling to enter into a long-term lease before knowing what they’re getting into.

See my photos of the train, which I took in October 2004.

Snake room update

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Never mind all this telescope shit, Jon — what about your damn snake collection? Tell us something new about that!”

Well, all right then.

New cage unit

Here’s our new — and fricking heavy — cage unit. This has been planned for years, and was ordered months ago. Little Ray’s built it; custom cage construction is one of their side gigs.

Once the paint fumes dissipate a bit, and we install the locks on the sliding glass doors, the unit’s new tenants will be as follows: one boa constrictor, two black pine snakes, and two bullsnakes, all of whom could stand bigger digs than they currently have. Once they’re in their new cages, other snakes will move into their old digs, and so on, and so on, so that even the small snakes who’ve outgrown their small cages will get an upgrade. All part of the plan I made a couple of years ago. It’ll probably take the rest of the month to get everybody moved, though.

And then there’s this, also from Little Ray’s:

New acquisition

We don’t buy very many snakes nowadays, but we made an exception for this young male Cape Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer vertebralis), born earlier this year. We have an older female that we bought last year, and have foolish breeding plans for the two of them. (Foolish in that expecting any success in snake breeding, given our luck lately, is rather foolhardy.)

DIY dew shield

The most important accessory for a Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope — or anything else with glass at the front of a telescope tube, for that matter, including Maksutovs and refractors — is something to prevent dew from accumulating on the glass. There’s nothing more annoying than having your telescope fog up shortly after you start observing. Among the preventative measures are a dew shield, which reduces the glass’s exposure to the outside air, and a dew heater.

The store was fresh out of dew shields of the requisite size, so we decided to improvise one of our own for our first observing session last Friday:

DIY Dew Shield, Part OneDIY Dew Shield, Part Two

The material in question is a Neoprene back wrap. It came with a hot and cold gel pack, of which, thanks to my little disease, I have several. It has Velcro, so all we had to do was wrap it around the telescope and voilà! Instant dew shield. Serviceable, if a little floppy and funny-looking.

Comet Holmes and our first serious night out

The highlight of last night’s observing session — our first serious use of our new telescope — was Comet Holmes. Even in the 10×50 binoculars (another purchase), it presented a round, fuzzy disc that was nevertheless sharply defined; in the telescope, it was huge. (To see what I mean, Astronomy magazine has a collection of submitted photos.) To the naked eye, it’s just another star, though rather a bright one by now.

Otherwise, we ran both the telescope and the binoculars through their paces. I was able to spot not only the comet, but the Andromeda Galaxy and the Double Cluster well enough through the binocs (and the Pleiades were wonderful); the scope was able to pick out M81 and M82 in the same field of view, plus the usual suspects (M13, the Dumbbell Nebula and the Ring Nebula, which was tiny but its shape apparent).

Atmospherics weren’t great, though it was an ostensibly clear night: Altair, Deneb and Vega had halos around them when I looked at them through binocs. There was more ambient light from the town than I was prepared for, too.

And I don’t think we set up the tripod very well: it shook too much — more than it did in our previous test — and I think the fact that it wasn’t level affected the computer’s accuracy. But we had to walk a couple hundred metres to get to our site, and moving the scope was relatively easy: we didn’t even bother separating it from its tripod.

I won’t know for sure what this telescope’s limitations are until I try a higher-magnification eyepiece (say, a 10-mm Plössl for planetary observation) and do it under better skies. But so far, so good.

Telescope first impressions

We could see stars on Wednesday morning, so we decided, spur-of-the-moment, to do a quick test of the telescope before I left for work. I had twenty minutes or so — plenty of time, right?

The computer wanted latitude and longitude in degrees, minutes and seconds, and I’d written down our coordinates in decimal format, so I had to run back up and pump them through an online converter. Filling in the date, time and location was fiddly, mostly because it was my first attempt and I was rushing.

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