November 2008

Celestron, Meade and technology

To find out what Celestron and Meade are up to, it looks like you need to go to consumer electronics expos, not amateur astronomy expos like NEAF. Their sights are set on bigger things than the amateur astronomy community — and their focus is on technology.

Celestron’s CGEM mount, announced at Photokina, is a computerized equatorial mount with a twist: the computer allows you to fine-tune the mount’s polar alignment by slewing to a star based on where it thinks it should be, if the mount was properly aligned; the user then uses the mount’s latitude and azimuth adjustment controls to centre the star, at which point polar alignment is presumably perfect. It’s an interesting way to do it and, from what I can tell, it’s all in software. They’re putting this one under their usual line of 8- to 11-inch Schmidt-Cassegrains.

From what we know so far, Meade’s upcoming ETX-LS, which I assume will be a small Maksutov-Cassegrain like the existing ETX line, goes a lot further. To be announced at CES in January, the telescope includes GPS and a built-in CCD sensor, which based on this report sounds like it will be used both for alignment — in which case this thing may be able to centre stars by itself during alignment — and for astrophotography (via Gizmodo). User participation optional.

My concern is that optics and electronics fail at different rates: if one part of my Nexstar 5 SE fails, I can at least put my scope on a different mount, or my mount under a different scope. To say nothing of obsolescence: in 10 years, today’s go-to mounts will look quite rustic, while the optics of the scopes they support might still be good. There’s such a thing as too much integration.


It’s been strange, reconnecting with old friends on Facebook: for the most part, the friends I’ve reconnected with are still friends with the friends they had when I saw them more regularly. It’s an odd feeling, like coming back to the place you grew up after a long absence to discover that not much has changed when you were away. In the past 14 years, I’ve moved a lot — four different provinces. I’ve moved in and out of a lot of people’s lives: new friends I’m happy to meet, old friends I’m sad to have lost.

My five years in Shawville have been the longest stretch of time in one place since I moved out, and yet this place doesn’t seem like “home” to me. But, unlike so many friends from the Maritimes, there isn’t any “back home” waiting for me elsewhere; my family’s moved a lot too. My life does not stand still; I can’t go home again. I’d better get used to the ground moving beneath my feet, and find my groundedness in something other than place.

George the garter snake, plus some gopher snake news


I’ve been tinkering with my home page today, taking care of little things that have lain fallow for too long. In doing so, I’ve noticed that I haven’t said anything about our snake collection since July. High time I rectified that. Let me tell you about George.

George, you may remember, is our male Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix). We got him in February 2004, which means that we’ve had him for nearly five years. Frankly, I didn’t expect him to last this long: I mentioned two years ago this month that he had a subcutaneous lump that I assumed was a roundworm infestation, and he’s had a big lump just past his vent for years. To be honest, I’ve been expecting him to drop dead any day now for the past two years. If I’d had anything to say about him, it would go something like this: “George: still not dead.”

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Beard or no beard?

Me without and with beard

I shaved my beard off for Halloween; it was the first time in seven years that I’d gone beardless. Those who’d never seen me without one — Jennifer, for example — were kind of shocked. So was I: the last time I was clean-shaven, I was about 50 pounds lighter. After I posted a photo to my Facebook profile. friends began calling for me to lose the beard for good. Of course, I’d already begun growing it back: the beard makes me look a little less round-faced (two words: “Commander Riker”) and, well, shaving makes me bleed.

So, compare and contrast: above left, me immediately after I shaved the beard off; above right, me and my beard, two weeks later. (Both immediately after the shower, so my hair is wet and scruffy.) So, what do you think? Beard or no beard?

On LiveJournal

So help me, I actually have a LiveJournal account — not so much for posting entries there, because, you know, I already have a blog or six, but to read and comment on friends’ journals there. If you’re on LiveJournal and I find you — I’m very sneaky that way — you will probably get a friend request from me. Feel free to send me one yourself.

Beethoven interpretations

Paul Wells lists and ranks a half-dozen boxed sets of the Beethoven symphonies, which brings up a point that I’ve only recently figured out: it is not only permissible to have more than one recording of a work of classical music, it can also be desirable to listen to different interpretations of the same work.

Beethoven Piano Sonatas The more I learn about classical music, the more I realize how much this is true. I recently picked up a 10-disc boxed set of the Beethoven piano sonatas performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy; at less than $40, it’s hella cheap, like the Zinman Beethoven symphonies that Wells touts. I’d previously been collecting the John O’Conor performances on Telarc, but they’re now hard to find and I can’t complete the set. Which is a pity: O’Conor appears to be a Beethoven specialist, whereas many other performers recording the sonatas seem to be Romantic specalists like Ashkenazy for whom Beethoven is not the primary focus of their careers.

On balance, I think I prefer O’Conor’s interpretation to Ashkenazy’s. O’Conor is crisper and faster: for example, he plays the second movement of Opus 28 (Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major) in 5:47, whereas Ashkenazy takes more than eight languourous minutes. It’s not consistent: sometimes O’Conor is legato where Ashkenazy is staccato; sometimes it’s vice versa. These are, of course, interpretations: they’re making decisions about how to play these pieces. As I learn more about the sonatas (which, by the way, are my passion and my life and my favouritest music ever), as I pore over the scores and read books like Charles Rosen’s (,, I notice where those decisions are being made. I hope that at some point I’ll have learned enough to understand why they’re being made.

In the meantime, though, I’m giving myself permission to buy more music.