Way too much fun

January 5th, 2009 by webmaster

So, after a month of brutal clouds, I get a few clear nights in a row to run th enew scope throught it’s paces. I am really enjoying the sharp, contrasty image this little scope throws. I was able to easily resolve the four main trapezium stars - at 23x! when boosted to 140x I was impressed by the colour variation in the four stars, something I had never noted before in my newtonian or SCT scopes.

At 140x the scope still had plenty of headroom, though the effects of seeing were impacting the views. I think under good conditions this scope could exceed 200x. At least, I am looking forward to giving it a try!

Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »


December 16th, 2008 by webmaster

In my last post I mentioned, ever so subtly, that I had a want-on for the WO Anniversary scope. Well, as luck would have it, one came up for sale in time for an early christmas present!


Since I name all my scopes, I think I will call this one Ruby, for obvious reasons (though my family wanted me to call it Rudolph). This little baby has a fluorite doublet objective, providing views as lovely as the scope itself. On a Porta Mount, this will be an ultimate grab and go scope!

Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »

The end of an era

November 5th, 2008 by webmaster

It has been a while since I have posted on this blog, and much has changed - apart from yesterday’s US election. I have installed an HEQ5 mount in the POD, and have the C8 mounted on that, allowing for computer control, go-to and autoguiding. In the city, the trees are growing up around my house, limiting the view. As a result, almost all of my observing and imaging is from the POD at the SMO. Meanwhile, my Dob, aka “Beast” has been collecting dust, which is no way to treat a telescope. So I sold my dob to someone looking for a good quality starter scope, as I was when I got it almost six years ago, so that it can be used and loved again.

Of course, since selling the scope I have bought a new house, with fewer trees, and southern exposure. It’s closer in to the city. but still, a grab and go scope would be nice. I’m thinking compact refractor on alt-az mount, with good quality optics. In fact, I am thinking of a specific scope:


Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »

Unleashing the Inner Child

March 6th, 2008 by webmaster

Unleashing the Inner Child

Who doesn’t love kindergarten. Crafts, colouring, and learning new things makes for an enjoyable time, what’s not to love?
Now, replace “kindergarten” with “glycolysis”, and you have a conversation killer.
The process of cellular respiration - glycolysis, the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation - has been glazing eyes of stunned Biology students for decades. And yet, if approached carefully, it is quite straightforward - thare is just a lot of pieces to the puzzle. So in order to pull my senior Biology students away from the brink of the memorizing abyss, I decided to bring them back to kindergarten. I stopped in at the dollar store and purchased a set of bingo markers (also called daubers, dobbers or dabbers - tubes of brightly coloured ink with spongy tops), and a roll of paper from the art department. The students’ task was simply to draw cellular respiration. To draw it big, and draw it bold.
At first, the students began reproducing the diagrams from their text. When I suggested that perhaps fun and whimzy should play a part in their work - after all, we were using bingo markers - they became genuinely excited. Enzymes became hearts and hats and stars. Sugar molecules became faces with one hair for each carbon, and ATP became magical.
Instead of copying the diagrams from the text, they began interpreting them. Identifying what was important, why they were presented in a particular way, and how they related to each other.  A few of them made mistakes - drawing arrows or molecules where there were none - which forced them to observe the diagrams more carefully, and recognize why there wasn’t an arrow there. It also forced them to make decisions - how do I fix this?  In short, learning happened.
The lesson, of course, does not stop there. I will be posting images of the work, and will be asking the students to provide critique and feedback, which will force them to analyze the interpretations, and compare them with their understanding.
The class wasn’t entirely without incident. There was some misbehaviour with the markers, and there was one boy who decided (after doing some good work) that doing Art in Bio class was not worth his full attention.
But then, if I could have all but one student fully engaged in my class every day, I think I would be getting somewhere. 
   IMG_6996.jpg IMG_6995.jpg IMG_6994.jpg

Posted in Education | No Comments »

So close, and yet so far

March 2nd, 2008 by webmaster

I recently heard about Wubi - the windows installer for Ubuntu. This utility is listed as a beta release, but it seems fully functional. The very special thing about Wubi is that it allows one to install Ubuntu Linux onto an existing Windows partition. The end result is a dual-boot configuration, without the need for separate partitions. And, since Wubi is installed through windows, it can be uninstalled just as easily. This sounded like something I needed to try.

I have an old, but trusty Dell C800 laptop that I use for deep-space and planetary image aquisition and processing. Since there are many applications for these tasks under Linux, I though this machine would be the perfect platform for such an installation. I have long been an admirer of Linux - power, beauty, stability, and tons of free software. And I really REALLY want to be a convert. My Knoppix boot CD has saved my keester on a number of occasions, but I have never had full-time (or even dual-boot) Linux box. Wubi was the nudge I was waiting for.

Wubi downloaded and installed flawlessly. The Wubi installer is compact, but the full Ubuntu download is a full CD’s worth, so takes a while to download. But download it did. And then it installed itself, and then let me reboot into Ubuntu, where it went through the process of autoconfiguration, and finally launching a fully functional Ubuntu desktop.

But here’s the rub.

Ubuntu did not recognize my wireless card. This, in and of itself, should not have been a problem. Lord knows I have configured enough hardware and OS’s to sink a ship, how hard could it be? I have worked with CP/M, VAX, DOS, OS/2, and several flavours of Windows, and for each of them making configurations was a straightforward case of following the instructions.

Not so with Ubuntu, I’m afraid.

The help files, online forums (accessed from a different machine), and Ubuntu documentation Wiki were completely unhelpful, for a simple reason. All of these expected me to be completely familiar with Linux. The instructions were not written for someone unfamiliar with the particulars of Linux. Yes, Linux is a geek OS, but Ubuntu is targetted at a broader audience. Something straightforward and basic such as “here’s how you check hardwarde configuration, and here’s how you install drivers” would be nice. But following troubleshooting steps from a variety of sources usually lost me on the second step. Either they would suggest an action without any information on how to perform that action, or they would give very specific instructions for utilities that did not seem to exist on my install.

As far as I could tell, the correct driver was in fact installed, but beyond that I was lost. After a frustrating day of getting nowhere, I came to the conclusion that either I am not quite ready for Linux, or it is not quite ready for me. I still have great hopes that Dell’s move to sell new systems preloaded with Ubuntu will bolster this OS with manufacturers and users alike. Even though it has a strong base of command-line power-users, if this OS is going to break into the mainstream it has to be simple enough that my mother could use it. And then maybe Linux and I will get along. I really hope that time comes soon, because I really dislike Vista. 

Posted in Big Ideas | No Comments »

Shhhh! Don’t tell them they’re learning…

January 27th, 2008 by webmaster

My son is writing a novel. The amusing part is that he doesn’t know it.

At some point a couple of years ago, when my son was 11 or 12, he was introduced to lego fan forums by one of his friends (who, by the way, he plays with every night, even though they live in different countries. The power of Skype.). In the forums, he discovered a medium known as “RPGs”. Now, if you are my generation you may recognize the term Role Playing Game from such classics as Dungeons and Dragons. These involve rules, and dice, and little lead figures, and maps, and funny hats, and more dice. Forum RPGs, in contrast, involve none of these. As a game, it’s closest “classic” comparison would be what we called “Dark and Stormy Night” or simply “The Story Game”. It is a campfire game where one person begins a story, and the next person continues.

In the Forum RPG version, the rules of the “game” -  setting, character attributes, time period and so on - are established by the creator. When a person joins the game, they create a character and join in the fun. Each player then submits a blurb in response to the previous blurbs, and a storyline develops. The creator of the “game”, as well as any designated moderators, make sure that submissions fall within the guidelines, and ask for corrections if necessary. The players, in addition to storyline posts (referred to as In Character, or IC), post questions, comments, background information under the heading of Out Of Character (OOC).

My son - then 12 - created one of these games, based on a theme inspired by the very popular Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and this has been a staple of his online time ever since. He spends more time “RPGing” than he does on Homestar Runner. And that’s saying something. As a dutiful parent, I check periodically to see that my children’s activities online are appropriate. This is known as “spying”. A recent bit of espionage turned up something interesting - this RPG has been running for over a year, with almost six hundred individual posts, each of which is on the order of 100 words of storyline (many with half that again in OOC comments). Of course, my son, like many a young teen, if asked to produce a piece of creative writing for school, would whine “I don’t know what to wriiiiiiiite.” And yet he, along with like minded collaborators from around the world, has created a grand serial adventure novel that sits currently at 60 000 words, with no end in sight.

It occurs to me, as it probably has to you by now, that if we could harness this energy and enthusiasm for education, it could be a very powerful tool indeed. Imagine children wanting to write. Wanting to rush home and “play my RPG”, and at the same time building their creative skills and writing ability. I know many frontline educators who would think to themselves, and even mutter aloud, that no administrator at their school would allow Role Playing Games as a means of education. No siree, we don’t DO games at this institution, it’s all about hard work. So, for these people, I propose a new name, one that hints at all that is good in 21st century learning, one that sounds like a new wave in pedagogical philosphy that a stick-in-the-mud administrator would love to soak up. So for these people, I give you Asynchronous Collaborative Online Storytelling (ACOS).

At it’s simplest, ACOS provides practice in writing skills, something that is much needed at all grade levels. More subtly, it involves the process of production or creation, which I feel is fundamental to the learning process. The process of producing information, rather than simply consuming it, builds knowledge, understanding, and critical thinking skills. It could have any number of roles in a classroom, from “just for fun” to part of the backbone of a literature or language unit or course. And how about this for an idea - the students begin an ACOS storyline - or maybe two or three different ones - and contribute for several months. At some point, the students can be directed to bring their story to a close through discussion during class time. Each storyline could be compiled and edited, and finally the stories could be submitted for publication. At the end of the year each student would receive a print copy of the book they helped to create, complete with their name on the author list, and student artwork on the cover. How’s that for a souvenir of Grade 7 English class?

I think this is an idea with definite potential. I would love to hear from anyone who has done anything like ACOS, would like to try this, or has any suggestions for how to do something like ACOS most effectively.

Posted in Big Ideas, Education | No Comments »

Some nights are better than others…

November 4th, 2007 by webmaster

… and Friday was one of those nights! I got up to my dark sky site near Meaford for the first time since labour day, and the sky was clear and dark, and the waning crescent moon stayed out of sight. On the “how dark was it” scale, it was dark enough that M33 was visible naked eye, and could be M31 easily seen to span more than a degree. It wasn’t quite one of those nights where you can’t find the constellations amid the stars, but it was good enough.

I spend an enjoyable night in my POD banging off the last of my Finest NGC targets, as well as some old favourites, and of course Comet Holmes. Following my previous attempts, I made yet another digital sketch (one of these days I will get my imaging computer up and running again!).

 Holmes nov 2 

Note the outer faint coma, and the blurred SW margin of the brighter coma. Or whatevery you want to call it. Which brings up an interesting point - most comets have recognizable parts - nucleus, coma and tail(s). This comet has four concentric areas of differing brightness - what do you call them? I have been using terms like nucleus, core, coma, outer coma, for lack of a better vocabulary.

Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »

Comet Holmes keeps up the show

October 29th, 2007 by webmaster

To those unacustomed to the wonders of astronomy, it is a little speck of light. But this comet is really remarkable, and has the amateur astronopmy community abuzz. The puff of gas and dust is spreading out rapidly, so the appearance is changing nightly, if not hourly. Some have reported rapid fluctuations in the light from the nucleus, and imagers have captured a green halo of CO gas along with internal structure in the bright central core. It is significantly larger now, and though still bright, it is losing surface brightness, and the central bright region is considerably less yellow to the eye.

Last night Holmes passed in front of a background star, so it temporarily looked as though it had a double nucleus. To me it looked like a negative image of a cell - normally you would have a dark nucleus with even darker nucleoli - here it is a bright
nucleus with brighter points!

 Digital sketch of holmes, Oct 28

(click for full size image)

Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »

17p/Holmes - the Holy Crap! comet

October 26th, 2007 by webmaster


Comet 17p/Holmes was an unassuming, minor short period comet until a few days ago. At magnitude 17 it was invisible even in large amateur scopes. This comet has an orbit that brings it no closer to the sun than Mars, and no farther than Jupiter. Although discovered in 1891, it was lost in 1906, and not re-aquired until 1964. When first observed, the discoverer (Holmes, of course) noted a significant brightening over a brief time span, which was largely discounted until observed independently.

Well, 17p/Holmes has repeated this little trick. And how.

Over the span of a few hours, this little invisible dot brightened to naked eye visibility! Now, when a comet is described as “naked eye visibility”, the term often refers to ”visible to a dark adapted eye in a dark sky location” - but this comet soard to magnitude 2, and is easily visible to the naked eye in a light-polluted city during a full moon! The comet, currently in Perseus, is conveniently placed in the eastern evening sky. It’s distance means that it is point-like to the unaided eye, but shows its true form - and colours - with binoculars or a small scope. 

This thing is really unique. Perhaps because of it’s position nearly opposite the sun as seen from Earth, we may be watching a tail form, from the head end of the comet. Even in binoculars, Holmes displays a bright core, slightly offset from the centre of a fuzzy disk or coma. While most comets I have seen display some colour, often green or blue-hued, Holmes is distinctly yellow. The result is an eary resemblance to an eyeball.

At this distance, and several months after perihelion,  there is still a mystery surrounding the sudden outburst. In all, a very exciting object. I look froward to watching its progress over the coming months, or as long as it remains visible!


digital “sketch” of 17p/Holmes

Posted in Astronomy | No Comments »

Google Sky hits the streets

August 22nd, 2007 by webmaster

Adding to its popular Google Earth, the search engine and software giant has turned its gaze skyward with Google Sky. Accessed from within the Google Earth desktop application, Sky allows users to peruse the night sky, identify stars, constellations, and a variety of deep sky objects. An information bubble pops up when you mouse over any object, and for many of the identified objects a telescopic image is available.

Although this feature is in its infancy and is not (yet?) a threat to applications such as Starry Night and The Sky, it is nevertheless more than just a fun distraction. A variety of features (particularly the Layers) make it a useful resource for amateur astronomers, and its ease of use and free availability make it attractive for students and educators - many of whom already make use of Google Earth.

From the perspective of both an astronomer and an educator, any free tool that helps people learn astronomy and spread an appreciation of the night sky is a worthy one. Go check it out.

Of course, I should also mention, that for those who don’t want to download and install Google Earth, there is still the earlier, but less well known, Sky-Map.org.


Posted in Education, Astronomy | No Comments »

« Previous Entries