March 2009

Nikon GPS unit reviewed

Nikon GP-1 GPS unit Because I write a lot about digital photography and camera gear on this here blog, I want to draw your attention to a lengthy 1,500-word review of the Nikon GP-1 GPS unit that I just posted on The Map Room. I’ve been writing about the GP-1 for some time, but only on The Map Room; if you’re wondering what it is, it’s a specialized GPS that embeds geographic coordinate data in digital image files as you take each photo.

There are several ways of geotagging photos: using a separate GPS logger and syncing up the GPS tracks with the time stamps of your photos (which is kind of kludgy); tagging them manually (which is what I’ve been doing for years, using Flickr’s drag-and-drop map interface); using a camera with a built-in GPS (there are a few of these, notably some cameraphones); or using a GPS accessory like this one. This last option has been around for a while, but only for digital SLRs with PC sync terminals; this is the first one for a consumer SLR — it works with the D90 as well as higher-end cameras.

Now, why would you want to geotag your photos? It’s another bit of metadata: knowing where your photo was taken can be as useful as knowing when it was taken. I imagine it’s extremely useful in field work, whether biological or criminological. But for whatever reason, quite a few people are geotagging their photos, and when a photo sharing service like Flickr supports it, as it has for years, it’s quite interesting to look at a map of a place and see what photos have been taken there.

I think I’m going about this snake-breeding thing all wrong

Don’t get your hopes up: we haven’t had snakes breed successfully since 2005. But this afternoon we introduced our albino male checkered garter snake to the larger of our two females, in hopes of some ophidian bouncy-bouncy. So far there is no bad news: his flick rate went through the roof and he began courtship behaviour; she, for her part, has not yet killed and eaten him. Garter snake courtship can take a while — weeks, even — so it’s too early to tell if it’s successful. And even post-copulation, it will depend on the viability of his sperm, whether she’s ovulating, and so forth. If all goes well, we should have a small litter of albino and normal checkered garters some time in the summer; the trick is that a lot of things have to go well for that to happen. Cross your fingers.

Holiday photos

My grandfather's 90th

What does it say about me that I’m only now posting photos from our trip to Calgary over the holidays? (It’s even worse when you consider that in my case, three months actually isn’t that bad.) Anyway, here they are: 30 photos of my family, all wrapped up in a nice, tidy Flickr photoset. (I’m not in them, as usual: the side benefit of being the photographer.) The photos fall into three categories: Christmas morning at my grandparents’ condo; my grandfather’s 90th birthday party the following day; and a few shots at my brother’s place the evening before we left. That my niece features prominently in these photos should not be a surprise.

(We also visited the Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller during that trip; the photos from that visit are in a separate photoset.)

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Recovering lunar history

Earthrise 1966 - Lunar Orbiter 1

Earthrise as seen by Lunar Orbiter 1 in August 1966, more than two years before Apollo 8 (NASA/LOIRP).

The Los Angeles Times has the fascinating story of the effort to recover data from the Lunar Orbiter program of the 1960s, during which 2,000 photographs were taken by five unmanned probes. The data sat, all but forgotten on obsolete tapes, for decades, while a NASA archivist struggled to find the funding and hardware to get them transcribed. Neither was found until recently, after her retirement; now, they’re trying to digitized the old analog data stored on those tapes. So far, two images have been released: this awesome Earthrise, taken more than two years before the more famous Earthrise photograph by the crew of Apollo 8; and this grand shot of Copernicus crater. More at the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project page; MoonViews is the associated blog. Via MetaFilter.

British Columbia’s new exotic animal restrictions

The Province reported last week that the British Columbia government has announced new restrictions on the keeping of exotic animals deemed dangerous to the public. Here is the list of banned species. The list of mammals is lengthy: primates, foxes and wolves, wild cats, bears, hyenas, elephants, rhinos, hippos, giraffes, and African buffalo. As for birds, they’re banning cassowaries, which attack (and have killed) people. Three species of poison frog are also banned, none from the commonly kept genus Dendrobates. The reptiles that are banned are exactly the ones that are banned in Toronto: all venomous reptiles, all crocodilians, boas and pythons over three metres and monitor lizards over two metres.

It’s very hard to argue against this list. It’s been my position that keeping exotic animals in captivity should be permitted so long as the following criteria can be met:

  1. Keeping the animal does not pose a risk to public safety or to the health and safety of the keeper or their family.
  2. The keeper is able to provide proper care for the animal (this covers both individual competence and whether it’s even possible to keep this thing alive in captivity).
  3. The animal is not an endangered or threatened species; the survival of the species is not adversely affected by its popularity as an exotic pet.

The animals the B.C. government is prohibiting fail criteria number one, which is kind of fundamental. We’ve so often had to deal with arbitrary restrictions on exotic pets that seem to defy logic, bans on animals that are harmless, gentle, easy to care for and prolific in the wild, but that happen to be reptiles, so they’re out. This is not one of those times, and I’m not going to the barricades over this one.

The Map Room’s new design

A new design for The Map Room went live today. If you think the design looks familiar, you’re right. The resemblance to this site is no accident. Call it a a failure of imagination on my part (or, to be more charitable, going with what works), but I think a text-based design works when talking about an inherently visual medium like maps. Best to get out of the way of your subject.

A telescope twosome

Last night’s observing session was a two-telescope affair. The NexStar 5 SE, our computerized 125mm Schmidt-Cassegrain, was set up for the first time since November alongside our 80mm apochromatic refractor, the Sky-Watcher Equinox 80, which continues to work tolerably on my camera tripod. Jennifer really enjoyed the fact that each of us could look through a telescope at the same time, and was amused when we switched to the other scope, or swapped our eyepieces. (Note to self: we need more eyepieces.)

So, what did we see? We caught Venus before it disappeared below the horizon, its crescent so thin your in-laws will never come back, even at the relatively low powers we observed it with. Saturn’s rings were nearly edge-on, but still visible, and we caught a couple of its moons (probably Dione and Rhea).

Jennifer enjoyed the wide, 2½° view afforded by the refractor combined with the 16mm Nagler, which made observing open clusters like M41, M44 and the Pleiades a joy. It was also abundantly clear that the Equinox is an extremely sharp scope: the Trapezium in M42 was tiny, but all four stars were resolved. Stars were generally more pleasing in the Equinox than they were in the NexStar despite the latter’s greater aperture, but the NexStar’s greater aperture made M42’s nebulosity much more impressive. Suffice to say I’m beginning to understand why the refractor guys go on and on about their tiny and expensive scopes.

Both scopes were fitted with dielectric star diagonals — I picked up a used two-inch William Optics dielectric for the refractor earlier this week — which definitely made an impact. Using the 1¼-inch Orion dielectric on the NexStar was a noticeable improvement over the scope’s stock diagonal.

It’s been a very cold winter, too cold to do much observing. I’ve missed it.

Lee Silver

After watching From the Earth to the Moon (see previous entry), I decided to do some digging into Lee Silver, the Caltech geologist who spent several years teaching geology to the Apollo crews. Played by David Clennon in the series, he appears in two episodes: Galileo Was Right and Le voyage dans la lune.

Lee Silver, Dave Scott and James Irwin Now in his mid-eighties, Leon T. Silver retired from Caltech in 1996, where he remains W. M. Keck Foundation Professor for Resource Geology, Emeritus. This older page summarizes his research. He remains quite well known for his work on the Apollo program; when the HBO series came out, Silver talked about the differences between the series and real life (see also here). This contemporary article (1.5 MB PDF), which I presume is from a Caltech publication, profiles his work with the Apollo 15 crew, though in fact his work with the astronauts began with the Apollo 13 crew. Finally, Silver sat for a series of interviews about his life and career between 1994 and 2000; go to session 3 for his work on Apollo (he’s quite candid).

The passing of the moon walkers

Charles Duke Apollo 16

Lunar module pilot Charles M. Duke Jr. collecting samples during the Apollo 16 mission on April 21, 1972. Duke, the youngest person to walk on the Moon, is now 73 years old. (Photo information)

Jennifer and I finished watching the 1998 HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon last night. If you’ve seen it, you know how good it is; if you haven’t, and you have any interest in human spaceflight, what the hell is wrong with you? Get it right now:,

Anyway, it’s triggered (or rather, reawakened) a fairly passionate interest in the history of NASA, so expect a few posts in this vein in the near future. (Consider yourself warned.) Including this one:

Of the 24 astronauts who have travelled to the moon,1 six have since died:

  1. Jack Swigert (Apollo 13) died in 1982 from bone cancer shortly after being elected to Congress; he was 51.
  2. Ronald Evans (Apollo 17) died of a heart attack in 1990 at the age of 56.
  3. James Irwin (Apollo 15) died in 1991 at the age of 61. He had developed arrhythmia during the mission, and died after a series of heart attacks. He was the eighth person to walk on the Moon.
  4. Stuart Roosa (Apollo 14) died in 1994 due to complications from pancreatitis; he was 61.
  5. Alan Shepard (Apollo 14) — the first American in space — died in 1998 from leukemia at the age of 74. He was the fifth person to walk on the Moon.
  6. Pete Conrad (Apollo 12) died in 1999 at the age of 69, after a road accident. He was the third person to walk on the Moon.

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My new iMac


I’m writing this entry from my new iMac, which I bought at Carbon Computing on Tuesday. I’d gone there intending to poke around; my plans changed dramatically once I realized they had the new iMacs in stock.

In the end, I decided to go with a stock configuration, on the grounds that dithering over the build-to-order options was taking up too much time, and the options I was dithering over were ones I could easily live without. Paying extra for a wireless Mighty Mouse is silly when I realize that I hate the Mighty Mouse; better to get a stock, wired Mighty Mouse and replace it at some point in the future. Whether or not I need the extended keyboard is something I will discover in practice. And paying $180 for a more powerful graphics card is foolish if I don’t need it: I need dedicated graphics for digital photography, not high-framerate games.

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Caturday: It’s tussle time!

Tussling cats 3

I know what you’re thinking: “Enough with the astronomy bullshit, Jon. Give us some goddamn cat pictures!” Well, okay. I took a bunch of pictures yesterday of our gruesome twosome, who decided to have fun wrestling on the kitchen floor. They tussle all the time — it’s one reason why there are clumps of cat hair all over the house — but I hadn’t had my camera ready to catch them in the act. I wonder why they looked so guilty afterward.

The eclipse of 1979

1979 eclipse (photo by Matthew Cole) My first major astronomical experience took place 30 years ago: the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979. Some people spend thousands of dollars to see a solar eclipse; I was lucky: the eclipse came to me. But to see it, I had to stay home from school that morning. My father’s recollection is that for some nonsensical reason or other, the schools were going to keep the kids inside during totality. Screw that, said my parents, who had three science degrees between them. So I saw the last few seconds of totality from my front porch.

Meanwhile, a lot of people came to Winnipeg in February to see it, which as an expatriate Winnipegger I will admit is not the best time of year to visit: see recollections at Behind Blue Skies and Regenaxe. Here’s the April 1979 issue of the newsletter of the Kingston chapter of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, which contained several eclipse reports, including one by David Levy.

(Photo of the 1979 eclipse by Matthew Cole.)

The Moon again

The Moon

Took another try at photographing the Moon last night, when it was almost full. This one is better than the last one, I think.

This time I shot without the focal reducer, which presented a larger image to the camera, and tried focusing with the D90’s Live View. This didn’t work so well, because a nearly full Moon is very, very bright: it was washed out in the LCD. Because it was so bright, this shot was 1/1600 second at f/6.25 (although I ended up increasing the exposure in Aperture on this one, even shots taken at 1/4000 weren’t bad).


Deimos (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Deimos, the smaller of Mars’s two moons, is a tiny speck of a thing, with a mean radius of only 6.2 km. (Small for a moon.) But the HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took two pictures of Deimos, 5½ hours apart, last month.

(The same camera nabbed Phobos, the larger moon, in March 2008, and also caught an avalanche in progress on the Martian surface, to say nothing of the Phoenix lander’s arrival. HiRISE is made of awesome.)

Via Bad Astronomy.

(Image credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.)

Site updates

I’ve been working on updates to this site over the past couple of weeks. Major changes are now complete:

  • A new astronomy section that collects all the astronomy, astrophotography and space material I seem to be putting out at a furious rate lately.
  • In the reptiles section, I’ve added to or updated the existing information, added some new photos and icons to most pages, and created a book store for reptile-related books, in and flavours.
  • The trails section gets new maps (including a main map page), redesigned trail main pages, and improved individual photo pages.

That’s it for major changes (which to be honest aren’t all that major); all that’s left is probably a few minor tweaks to the templates and stylesheet.

Photographing the Moon

The Moon

Last night, I spent some time taking pictures of the Moon. I think I managed to get a pretty good shot, don’t you? (Click through for some boring technical details.)

This was my first attempt at astrophotography with a bunch of new equipment, including the camera (my Nikon D90) and the telescope (my Sky-Watcher Equinox 80), but also my first attempt at connecting the camera to the telescope via a prime focus adapter (thanks for the machining, Nathan), and my first attempt at focusing through the camera’s right-angle finder. All things considered, it turned out well; the only drawback was that when the focal reducer is added to the mix (a necessity with the adapter), the Moon is pretty small in a short-focal-length refractor, which made for a lot of cropping on the computer.

About the new iMacs

So, along with a number of other products, Apple finally refreshed its iMac line yesterday. I’ll be buying one; I’ve had money set aside for a new Mac desktop for some time, and have been waiting for this refresh to pull the trigger. But I haven’t quite figured out how to spec out my iMac yet; the two main questions are the keyboard and the graphics chipset.

A smaller keyboard that lacks the numeric keypad is now standard — it’s essentially the same keyboard as Apple’s wireless keyboard, except that it’s not wireless (and has USB ports). If I want, I can swap out a full keyboard with numeric keyboard, as a BTO option, and it doesn’t even cost anything. I’m not sure whether I need to. I don’t use the number pad, but I would miss the page up and page down keys. And there is one frequently used application that does use the number pad: Civilization IV. I guess I’ve just answered my own question.

The 24-inch iMac comes with a dizzying selection of graphics chipset options: the integrated Nvidia 9400M on the low-end model, and either the Nvidia GeForce GT 120, the Nvidia GeForce GT 130, or the ATI Radeon HD 4850 on the higher-end models. I’m sure that any of these options is an improvement over the ATI Radeon X1600 on my current machine; the question is, how much more do I need? If I were just writing and blogging, I’d opt for the base model, but photography software — i.e., Aperture and Adobe CS4 Design Premium, in my case — is kind of demanding. I don’t want to over-buy, but I don’t want to end up with the false economy of an underpowered system. Decisions, decisions.

Other observations:

  • Unlike the 24-inch LED Cinema Display, the LCD is not LED-backlit; it still uses CCFL backlights, for what I imagine are cost or supply reasons.
  • There’s one extra USB port and only one FireWire 800 port. This does not strike me as a problem; most of us have far more USB devices than FireWire devices, and you can always daisy-chain FireWire.
  • The drop in the Canadian dollar made these machines more expensive than their predecessors — $200 more expensive, in the case of the price point I was looking at.

Comet Lulin

Spotted Comet Lulin tonight after much searching with the 80mm apo refractor; I started from M44 and began my search from there, working backward along what I guestimated was the comet’s path from the Sky and Telescope finder charts (star-hopping isn’t my forte). It was awfully faint, barely visible against the background sky — my back porch isn’t exactly a dark-sky preserve — which explains why my first attempt Saturday night, using 10×50 binoculars, didn’t go well. I needed more aperture (the 80mm apo) and more magnification (my 16mm type 5 Nagler gives 31½× on the apo).

This was my third comet. My second was Holmes, which was much easier to spot (and photograph). My first was Hale-Bopp, an experience I don’t expect will ever be surpassed in my lifetime.

I mounted the refractor on my camera tripod; I tried it a different way this time and it worked much better. I may yet be able to avoid buying an alt-az mount for this telescope, which is handy since, as I said earlier today, I have to watch my pennies nowadays.

Also looked around the neighbourhood of Orion tonight. The Moon looked wonderful; should have spent some more time looking at it at higher magnifications.

Shrinking ad revenues redux

I’ve been crunching the numbers since this post. In terms of Google AdSense revenues, February 2009 was my worst month since May 2005. I’m now making about half as much as I did two years ago.

My average daily income from AdSense declined while I worked for Health Canada full-time beginning in the summer of 2007, stabilized a bit when I went part-time in January 2008, and rebounded during the summer of 2008. Since last fall, it’s absolutely plummeted — a function not so much of my posting frequency, I think, but of the recession’s impact on the online advertising market.

Looks like I’m going to have to watch my pennies a little more closely from here on in, to make sure I stay out of debt. That, or I’m going to have to take on another contract sooner rather than later.

What I can do to improve my sites’ revenues is something I’m still working on.