September 2009

Precisely polar aligned

Last Friday’s observing session was the first at our new location in the field behind Jennifer’s high school. It was notable for two things. One was the sheer amount of dew that accumulated in a short period of time: everything was soaked, and even the eyepieces were getting fogged. Temperatures dropped quickly that night, and even I was cold at the end of it.

The other was that it was the first time I used the HEQ5 Pro’s polar axis scope to attempt a more precise polar alignment. With a polar axis scope, you make your equatorial mount’s polar alignment more precise by lining up Polaris inside its circle in the reticle. First you have to get Polaris in the field of view, then approximate the positions of Ursa Major and Cassiopeia in the sky (they’re in the reticle, but you look outside the scope to see where they are) and use the mount’s altitude and azimuth adjustments to get the star where it should be. It was, in the end, easier than I thought.

Computer alignment misfired on the first attempt (it kept wanting to point the telescope toward the ground), but succeeded when I reversed the telescope in the mount (screws on the right this time) and started with it pointing north. After that, the mount was scary accurate, putting everything I wanted to look at dead-centre in the eyepiece (admittedly, I was using a 30mm eyepiece, which provided a wide field of view and would therefore forgive slight tracking errors, but still) and, more importantly, keeping it there for long periods of time. I honestly could have done some astrophotography with that alignment, but Friday was more for testing out the new location and working on my polar alignment — both of which were a great success.

Of course, I also saw a few things in the telescope, which was nice too.

Talking about my drugs

My drugs. Clockwise from top left: naproxen, acetaminophen, codeine, pantoprazole

I’ve had ankylosing spondylitis for more than 12 years. In all that time, why didn’t anyone tell me that I could take other analgesics on top of my anti-inflammatory medications?

Some background. I first started showing the symptoms of AS in the spring of 1997, and was diagnosed at the end of the year. Before my diagnosis, I made do with ibuprofen; after my diagnosis, I went on high-dose naproxen, which made the symptoms — the pain, stiffness and inflammation — manageable most of the time. From mid-2000 to early 2001, feeling experimental, I tried a few other NSAIDscelecoxib, indomethacin, diclofenac — as well as sulfasalazine, but they were less effective: celecoxib wasn’t nearly strong enough; indomethacin did funny things to my head; diclofenac did funny things to my liver. So I went back to naproxen, the side effects of which — heartburn and ringing in the ears — were tolerable. In 2003, my doctor added pantoprazole, a proton pump inhibitor that practically eliminated the heartburn (something the misoprostol I’d been taking prior to that never could do).

So things stood until last week. If the naproxen didn’t always vanquish the pain and inflammation, it worked well enough most of the time. Flares came, frequently in the spring and fall, and they were frequently awful, but I managed to manage. I kept telling myself that while the dosage is constant, the disease isn’t.

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A Patrick Swayze Christmas


I assert that the absolute best way to remember Patrick Swayze is through Mystery Science Theater 3000’s classic Christmas carol, “Let’s Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas,” which was first performed during their broadcast of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians:

(MST3K did love them their Road House. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is an annual event at my house. It’s available on DVD on the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials two-disc set:,

The high cost of deep space astrophotography

Jason Kottke notes the winners of the Royal Observatory’s Astronomy Photography of the Year 2009 contest, which was conducted on Flickr (here’s the group). “I had no idea that images this sharp and detailed could be taken with non-pro ground telescopes,” Jason writes. It’s worth mentioning, though, that “non-pro” doesn’t necessarily mean inexpensive.

True, photos in the Earth and Space and Our Solar System categories were taken with off-the-shelf equipment like digital SLRs and commercially available, mass-produced telescopes, but deep space astrophotography (i.e., galaxies and nebulæ) has become the realm of mind-bogglingly expensive equipment — much to the dismay and discouragement of tyros with merely above-average amounts of disposable income.

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On teen curfews

Oh, here we go again: another small-town mayor — this time it’s Rick Pauls of Killarney, Manitoba — trying to impose a curfew on kids out after 1 AM. I’ve seen things like this come up again and again since I was a teenager; I’ve never understood this municipal obsession with teen curfews.

They’re unconstitutional, for one thing: discrimination on the basis of age is just as much a no-no under the Charter as race, religion or sex. Imagine the uproar if a mayor were to impose a curfew on women, aboriginals or Catholics. Even though curtailing the Charter rights of children does not seem to be the career-limiting move it ought to be, no teen curfew by-law has ever survived a Charter challenge. It also turns out that curfews are beyond a municipality’s purview, but in my experience that’s never been something that stopped municipal councils before.

I live in a small town, and can say that the problem at three in the morning is as much drunks leaving the bars as it is teens joyriding on ATVs. For some reason, though, I never see small towns trying to close the bars or ban alcohol (unless, for example, they’re dry reserves or Mennonite communities).

Town councils are generally composed of older members of the community; teen curfews come from a certain “get off my lawn”/“kids these days” mindset, in which teenagers are the Other, objectivized as the Problem. Conveniently, they’re an Other that can’t vote — and, in the case of small towns, an Other that can’t wait to get the fuck out of there. For some strange reason.

And then town leaders wonder why their kids move away and don’t come back.

There’s an adapter for that

I should not have been surprised that more than one mount exists to attach a Garmin nüvi to a bicycle’s handlebars. There’s an adapter for everything.

It definitely applies in amateur astronomy, where I’ve been wondering about this sort of thing lately. I asked about attaching a camera to an equatorial mount and was told to drill a hole in a standard dovetail saddle for the ¼"-20 screw. Nope: Orion sells a dovetail with a screw already installed; it costs seventeen bucks. I was told I could make a side-by-side telescope mount with a little work. Nope: Losmandy sells one — granted, it’s a Losmandy dovetail, whereas a Sky-Watcher mount uses the narrower Vixen-compatible system, but yes, there’s an adapter for that too. Sky and Telescope’s February 2009 review of the previous version of Orion’s six-megapixel StarShoot Pro camera bemoaned the lack of an adapter to connect SLR lenses to it. Guess what? Adapters are now available.

I’m not physically handy; I’m unlikely to ever have a workshop in my garage, and I’m not about to start machining things. It will always be easier for me to buy something with the money I’ve made doing something I’m actually good at. So it’s heartening to discover that for most things I can see a need for, I’m not alone, and someone who actually is handy is filling that need.

From the Earth to the Moon

From the Earth to the Moon (box) is having a sale on DVDs right now, and I notice that one of my favourite TV miniseries, From the Earth to the Moon, is now on sale for a paltry $30. (In the U.S., it’s even cheaper: it’s only $13 on If you have any interest in NASA, the Apollo program, or manned spaceflight in general, and you haven’t seen this thing, you owe it to yourself to remedy that forthwith. (Preferably via one of these links, because then I get an affiliate-program kickback. Maybe even a whole dollar! But lay hands on it one way or another.)

From the Earth to the Moon isn’t without its flaws: the near-ubiquity of Frank Borman (played by David Andrews), who appears in five episodes but flew only one Apollo mission (not for nothing do I jokingly call this series The Frank Borman Show); the near-invisibility of John Young (played by John Posey), reduced to bit parts on the sidelines despite flying two Apollo missions; a couple of overly sentimental episodes; and a tendency to omit some of the touchier points of the Apollo astronauts’ biographies (e.g., the Apollo 7 crew’s backtalk, the Apollo 15 stamp incident).

But the production values and writing are excellent. Each episode focuses not only on a specific Apollo mission, but also on one aspect of the Apollo program: the development of the lunar module for Apollo 9, the return of Alan Shepard to flight status for Apollo 14. Apollo 8’s episode places it in the context of the very bad year of 1968; Apollo 15’s episode (our favourite) dramatizes the training of astronauts as field geologists. It doesn’t hurt that the spacecraft dialogue is often taken verbatim from the actual missions. There’s plenty to gush about.

From the Earth to the Moon basically takes us from The Right Stuff to Apollo 13 and beyond, and fills in the blanks for the rest of the Apollo program. With all the recent hubbub about the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, it’s worth pointing out that the Apollo 11 mission does not serve as the series’s climax; in fact, it’s only dramatized in the sixth episode — halfway through. From the Earth to the Moon dramatizes the whole picture — not just the triumph of 11 and the near-tragedy of 13 — and makes it all interesting.

Previously: Lee Silver; The passing of the moon walkers.