May 2008

When hobbyists aren’t helpful

This thread epitomizes something I’ve seen very often on photography discussion boards: a beginner asks for advice, and receives advice completely inappropriate for beginners. Someone asking for “the top five must-have lenses for a starting SLR photographer” gets recommendations for lenses that even pro photographers would have a hard time affording. Instead of beginners’ lenses, she gets dream lenses.

It’s the same as if someone asked what the best snake for a first-time snake keeper would be. (The correct answer is always “a Corn Snake.”) And it’s often happened that the recommended first snake is something that is not only obscure and expensive, but more difficult to keep. I can’t remember what it was that someone recommended, but I’ve actually seen this happen.

What’s going on here?

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Where the wild things are

As I mentioned two years ago, we get a lot of animals visiting us, and the bird feeder, which Jennifer has reinstated, still doesn’t hurt. So far this spring, we’ve seen a lot of birds, including grackles, woodpeckers and chickadees; and there’s also a groundhog who seems to have made a home between two front porches in our building.

I’ve created a Flickr photoset to document our visitors. For the most part, these photos were taken through our living room window, with my 55-200mm lens, and with pretty good results, considering.


I used to play the oboe. For reasons that will soon be made clear, I recently took a look around to see what a decent intermediate oboe — i.e., a low-end professional instrument or high-end student instrument with all the keys — would cost. The last time I heard a quote was in the mid-1980s; things have gotten much more expensive since. A plastic oboe fulfilling these criteria runs about $4,000. A top-end instrument — grenadilla wood bore, silver keys — runs $5,000 to $7,000. About four times what I thought.

It’ll be a while before I oboe up, I think. Meanwhile, some links.

Oboe manufacturers: Covey; Fox (they also do bassoons and English horns); F. Lorée (they also do weird oboes, i.e., oboes d’amore, piccolo oboes and bass oboes).

God help me, an oboe blog, with plenty of others in the sidebar to look at later.

An NPR story from 2006 about the New York Philharmonic’s new oboist, and what he goes through to make their own reeds. Yes: oboe pros make their own. It’s spooky to think that he spends as much time making reeds as he does practicing.

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Observing report: Mercury, the Moon and some Messier objects

It’s been raining today, but last night it was clear — also, I didn’t have to go to work today — so we spent it at the telescope. It was our first chance to observe from the field this spring; it’s a much better observing site than our parking lot. A few changes to our routine: we brought camp chairs and a table, and set up the telescope with its tripod legs collapsed. This made for a much more comfortable, relaxed and leisurely observing session, though we had our hands full on our walk to the field.

We set up before sunset and waited for the heavenly bodies to appear. The Moon was first, appearing in the blue sky as a young crescent so thin your in-laws will never come back; it was day and a half after New Moon. In the telescope it was ethereal: we were using our new f/6.3 focal reducer; using the 16mm Nagler Type 5 eyepiece, which produced 49× and a 1.6-degree field of view with the focal reducer, we could see the entire disc of the Moon. We also finally saw Mercury for the first time ever: it was nearby, and resolved as a disc in the scope. It would have made a hell of a picture, with trees in the foreground, but I left my camera behind deliberately — I wanted to observe, not fiddle with gear.

We spent a lot of time on Saturn, which was crisper than it had ever been for us — probably because we’d been out long enough for the scope’s optics to stabilize. Lots of little moons. We swapped between our two Tele Vue eyepieces, adding the Barlow lens as required, getting 49×, 79×, 98× or 158× depending on the combination. The Barlow worked well (at last), though adding it required serious refocusing.

The sky didn’t get truly dark for deep-sky observations; the Messier objects I tried for — galaxies in Leo, Hydra and Coma Berenices — were awfully dim, but perceivable. A bit of a jumble since we were poking around galaxy clusters, and I was losing track of which galaxy I was looking at. We’d probably have done better had we stuck around, but it was getting cold as well as late.

All in all, a good dry run with the new equipment. We may get another chance this week, if the weather holds, which will be quite nice. I wonder what we’ll look at next.