Sit upon the ground and weep….

A few days ago I found a copy of the second volume of Robert Burnham’s Celestial Handbook, which is a three volume work giving a personal view of the sky and its features. It was first self-published by the author as a two volume set and subsequently, after it became well known, expanded by him and published by Dover in the three volume enlarged edition.

Like many I had assumed that it was prepared by the Robert Burnham who was the editor of Astronomy magazine, but on the spur of the moment I decided to check out what else he had written. I was both surprised and saddened to find that the Robert Burnham Jr. who wrote the Celestial Handbook was a different individual, and that he had died in poverty in 1993. The Phoenix New Times has the story.

In many ways Burnham sounds like the quintessial technical geek — shy, introverted, dedicated to his interests, and somewhat unworldly and unrealistic. I think we all have elements of this personality within us, but in Burnham’s case it was expressed to an extreme. For many years he was given focus by his work for the Lowell Observatory, but once that work was done he had no structure to his life, and ultimately wound up as a sad derelict figure, dying alone and largely unmourned. He deserved better.

White Nights

Looking back at the October calendar I see that I haven’t added much recently. Weekend weather has been lousy, and I haven’t been able to take advantage of the occasional parting of the clouds during the week – I’m too busy collapsing after work. I’m seeing my doctor shortly so we’ll see if there’s any need to adjust my meds to let me stay awake longer.

Meanwhile there’s been some entertainment value in a brush between Damian Peach and Jim Forde over on the digital-astro group and also on the Mars observing group. Damian claimed that Forde had plagiarised one of his images. Forde denied it, but refused to post any source images to back up his own claims, and withdrew in a huff, loudly proclaiming his innocence. Forde has posted extensively on his prize-winning ‘planetary rail’ scope on Cloudy Nights so it’s not as though he doesn’t have the right equipment. I can’t decide if he was genuinely offended that his word was doubted or really did fake the shot, but he has removed all images, picked up his bat and ball, and gone home. It was an impressive image, and to my untrained eye was superior to Peach’s image. However, there were a couple of dubious points, not least of which was the extremely high quality of the DSLR image, which conventional wisdom says isn’t capable of beating webcam images. Forde claimed to have summed 53 images to create his final image, and I really wish he had seen fit to prove his final image was genuine. Of course, if he’s anything like me he may not have bothered to keep the source images, or on the other hand, if he’s feeling litigious and his image is genuine I would think he’s in a good position to sue Damian Peach for libel, and showing a source image might prejudice the claim. And on the gripping hand, I’m not a lawyer, don’t play one on TV, and haven’t a clue where the rights and wrongs of the case really lie. I just wish I did.

Telco madness! A (long) rant of woe, woe, and thrice woe.

I took last week off from work, hoping to do some observing. Unfortunately the last thing I saw was Mars on Friday night a week ago – in poor conditions as the clouds rolled in. For the rest of the week the cloud cover was total at night, though a couple of hours during the day looked promising towards the end of the week. Finally last Saturday seemed to be improving and I went downtown in the afternoon for a book buying session at BakkaPhoenix, had dinner at the Green Mango – the fast food version rather than the fancier restaurant across the street, and bumbled back home expecting to open up the skyshed and do some observing.

It didn’t work out that way.

The first sign of trouble was the sound of the alarm system beeping quietly to tell me there was a problem. I assumed there had been a power failure which had drained the batteries, but when I checked around I couldn’t find anything wrong. I went looking for the manual, and noticed the phone was showing a red light – but no-one was using the phone. Looking closer, I found the phone display read “Check phone cord.” Oh-oh. Not a Good Thing.

After plugging and unplugging in every phone in the house, the phone system was still showing the same message. I used my cell phone to call Bell Canada and reported the problem. It was after six by this time, and the technicians were all off duty. “Off-duty” isn’t a concept recognised at my 24/7 place of business, but Bell Canada apparently only works from 8-6. At least they schedule work every day. I was promised service (at a minimum $65 if the problem was traced to a source inside the house) the next day, Sunday. By this time the clouds were rolling through, and I closed up the SkyShed.

On Sunday I stayed home to wait for a service call or at least to see the phone lights change. I waited all day, but by 6.30 Sunday I had received no call from a technician and tried to call Bell again. The original number – 905-310-BELL – no longer worked (and it had on Saturday according to my cell phone log), so I had to make contact through a different area code. After a bit of effort the operator tracked down my records and I was told the call was logged as a ‘missed appointment’ with no explanation. I asked for and got a reschedule for Monday – again from 8 to 6.

Early on Monday I phoned in (cell-phone again – time mounting up) to work to let them know I wouldn’t be in, and settled down to wait again. Around 10 am I got a call from Bell and was told the problem was not theirs, but that I was now a Sprint customer, and Sprint would have to make the fix. I’ve been waiting to switch from Bell to Sprint, but haven’t had any notification when it would happen. When I called Sprint, I found that they had no idea that I was switching over on the weekend. Lots of discussion, considering whom to sue….

A little after that, Bell called back to say they now recognised there was a problem with the line, and that they would look into it. Somewhat mollified – God knows why since I was still unable to do anything worthwhile – I settled in to wait again. Around 1.30 my alarm system started to beep again. Apparently the phone was connected for an instant and the alarm system reset, then started beeping when the phone line went down again. Next, around 2.35 the phone line apparently came up working. I started to retrieve my email, but by 3.30 the phone was dead again. Then at 4 pm I once more got a working phone, and this time the phone technician called me to tell me that the phone was fixed.

I asked him what the problem was, and he said the line was on the wrong line pair – how long had I had my phone? – Eight years [though now I think, it’s more like seven]. A puzzlement – with the arrangement I had, the phone should never have connected properly. All the tech could suggest was that the line had been tampered with.

As I rolled off to work on Tuesday morning I noticed a swarm (well, two) of Bell trucks around the Bell junction box, so I assume there were a lot of lines to sort out. On previous occasions I’ve noticed that the box has a loose cover, so I suppose it’s possible someone got into the box and tried to change (or fix) a connection and did it wrong. That, or CSIS is after me….

Now, I’m glad to be once more tied into the web, but the way this incident unfolded is disturbing. We give the various telcos a nearly-complete monopoly on phone service — another company can break into the market, but it’s not easy. In return, we should be — and once were — able to expect a level of service which is a cut above that for the more usual grubby item. That level of service is apparently no more. Tis true, ’tis pity, and pity ’tis, tis true.

First view of Saturn for this apparition

This was the first time I had an opportunity to view Saturn since I lost it in the sun early in the summer. Last time I had very little luck because I wasn’t ready to capture images, but this time I was able to peer through the early morning murk and grab a few hundred frames. This is the average of about 200 out of 500, captured around 5.50 am EDT, October 2:

Saturn 2 October

As usual I had a hellish time getting Saturn onto the chip. I probably had it centered quite nicely a number of times, but the focus is critical in recognising this – if the focus is only slightly off, the image is too diffuse to see. This is less of a problem at prime focus, but once I throw on the 5x Powermate it becomes very difficult to locate anything unless the scope is prefocused. Even when the focus is approximately right, focusing manually is difficult – the attempt frequently moves the image off the chip because it is very difficult to adjust the focus without changing the scope position very slightly. Generally once the new focus point has been chosen, releasing the focus knobs allows the scope to regain its old position, but the process is tedious – adjust, wait for a stable image, adjust, wait for a stable image, and so on. Ack!

Meanwhile, work on Mars imaging continues, with this capture about 1.35 am EDT on October 2 averaged from about 200 out of 1000 images:

Mars October 2

Seeing was slightly under average for this location, but by far the biggest problem was achieving colour balance. Both the Saturn and Mars images were affected by local pollution, and I’ve guessed the amount of correction needed, with undercorrection of yellow in the case of Saturn, and probably towards red in the Mars image. South is approximately at the top in both images.