You can’t get there from here…

I had to drive into Buffalo to pick up my daughter, who was flying in to Buffalo International at short notice. I didn’t know exactly where in Buffalo the airport was situated, but it didn’t worry me because I have my trusty GPS unit. I punched in the location, chose the ‘fastest route’ option, and the GPS unit figured out a route and steered me right through the city to the airport door. Wonderful!

Of course, the plane was late, so it was dark when we were ready to drive back. I hate driving in the dark, but still, my trusty GPS would get me home. Again I selected the ‘fastest route’ option, and the GPS unit did its thing. And kept right on doing it. And doing it. After several minutes of telling me that it was 100% done (but without displaying anything but the Calculating symbol) the unit restarted the search.

It never did show me the way home, and I eventually retraced my path, in the dark, from memory of the highways I had used to travel from the Peace Bridge to the airport. Very scary. Once beyond the Peace Bridge, the GPS found a way home (but I could have found my way from there as well – it’s one highway most of the way), but for a while, Buffalo was a town where you could check in, but never leave.

I figured out later that all local routes across the border were toll routes from the US to Canada (not true in the other direction), and my GPS unit had ‘Avoid Toll Roads’ set as one of the options, so it could figure out three different ways to get home, but all three were marked as forbidden routes.

Starfest – a grab-bag of impressions

I used to travel in August to the MacWorld shows in Boston, and this always cut me out of the Starfest events held in early August near Mount Forest, Ontario. That always made me feel a little guilty, particularly as the August MacWorld events were increasingly free of significant content, and so for the past few years I’ve been saving early-to-mid August for Starfest.

This year’s Starfest had considerably better skies than last year (hard not to — last year was characterised by torrential rains and thunderstorms loud enough to drown out the speakers). I am told that Wednesday night was clear, but I can only speak for Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. I had delayed my arrival until Thursday in order to go to the Tilley Endurables Seconds Sale which began on Thursday morning, but even after returning from the sale I was still debating whether or not to go to Starfest at all this year since the weather forecasts were not promising. However, about 1 pm I received a note from another NYAA member telling me that Wednesday had been a good night despite the forecast, so I decided to head off and try my luck.

I dawdled along the way and didn’t start to set up at Starfest until about 7 pm on Thursday, but conditions that night were poor. There has been very little rain this year and the ground was very dry and dusty, which made setting up the tent more of a chore than usual – pegs often wouldn’t hold in the dry earth, or (in my location particularly) bent against the gravel and stone underlying much of the field.

Though we expected the sky to clear overnight on Thursday, instead of clearing at midnight the sky remained mostly cloudy until shortly before dawn. Friday night was clear, however, while Saturday night was mostly clear from about 10 pm onwards. Skies both nights were dark to about 21.4 magnitude/sq.arcsec and the Milky Way was clearly defined with obvious dark lanes.

Talks centered around the idea of motion this year, and were generally pretty good – Starfest established a high standard early in its history, and has maintained the standard through the years. I missed the Friday afternoon talks, however, since I decided to wait by the entrance for my wife and another friend to arrive. Temperatures under the main tent were very high and were a big factor in my decision to sit under the shade of the trees by the park entrance.

Wayne Parker (of SkyShed and Glass Tiger) showed his SkyPod product with four units assembled near the main tent – three at one end and one on the vendor side. I watched the assembly of one pod, which was put up by a single man (except for the dome itself, which required a two-man lift) in the dark. Well, not entirely in the dark. While two of the pods were standard plastic, the singleton pod and one of the pods at the other end of the main tent were rather… special. The plastic for those two pods had been doped with a luminescent material, and both of them glowed in the dark. The glow was faint, sufficient that you could see your hands if you held them up but not strong enough to overcome the glow of a red LED flashlight. It’s not something I would want for my observatory, but Wayne said that he has received a number of orders for them. Initially the glowing domes were intended to be an advertising stunt, but then orders started coming in….

I didn’t do any imaging this year. Though I set up, I didn’t try to align the scope on Friday, and on Saturday I aligned but the “mostly clear” conditions didn’t inspire me to go further — I kept expecting any object I chose to be covered by clouds at any time. I did visit a couple of other observers and was able to compare my 4-inch views of M13 and other objects with those of much larger ‘scopes. For the objects themselves the comparisons went as one might expect from the scope sizes, but the wider field of the 110 mm scope provide a context for the objects which the larger scopes did not retain, so I remain satisfied with the trade-off. I wouldn’t turn down a larger scope to serve as an supplement to the refractor, but for the moment I won’t be looking for another OTA [or is that just a rationalization?].

The Perseids put on a fine show each clear — or mostly clear — night, with a number of bright sporadics to beef up the show as well. There were several bright bolides which left glowing trails for a second or so, and, as seems to be usual at these events, Daniella missed catching just about every major event (“Omigod, lookit that!” “Where, whatdidImiss?”). She might have accused us of making them up, but the oohs and ahhs of the crowd were confirmation enough.

This was a good year, making up for the horrendous weather (but otherwise wonderful content) of last year. The next Starfest will be August 7-9, 2008, timed to miss the total solar eclipse of August 1.