Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
An uncatalogued nebula in Monoceros
Autoguiding under Linux
Uncatalogued nebula
Orion in twilight
NGC 2343 and surrounding nebulosity
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NGC 2343 and surrounding nebulosity

The star cluster NGC 2343 (center) is adjacent to a large emission nebula known as the Seagull Nebula, which looks a bit like a bird flying out of the picture toward the right. This stack of five 3-minute exposures was made while testing the autoguiding software described below. Canon 60Da, AT65EDQ 6.5-cm f/6.5 apo refractor, Celestron AVX mount, guidescope and autoguider.

Autoguiding under Linux achieved

Because of Windows updates that have temporarily disrupted video functionality in the past, I've been putting together a non-Microsoft alternative for astronomical imaging and autoguiding. Here I do not give complete instructions because I'm still experimenting, but I'll sketch what I've learned. See also the discussion here.

(1) Instead of ASCOM, Linux uses INDI drivers. You will also need INDI Starter, an interactive program to start the drivers and make settings, although some application software can use the INDI drivers without it. You will need to set up drivers for your camera and your mount. Here is INDI Starter in action:

Settings are under "INDI Client" at the bottom, and you can make them after starting the server, before connecting to the devices. Connecting to the devices will be done in PHD2.

I am told that a good alternative is to download and install KStars, a planetarium program that includes camera control, a full INDI setup, and controls for launching INDI. I have not (yet) taken that route.

(2) The goal is obviously to use the Linux version of PHD2 Guiding, maintained by Patrick Chevalley, whom I thank for his help.

(3) If you have an ASI120MM camera, you have it easy because PHD2 supports it natively. I, however, am using an early model DMK camera from The Imaging Source. It is basically a webcam and operates through the V4L2 (Video for Linux) driver system. That's where my story got interesting.

(4) To acquire V4L2 drivers, the easiest way to proceed is to acquire and set up oaCapture, which I wrote about recently. Get it working before proceeding with PHD2. And never mind my quibbles about video codecs; if you can record video and play it back under Linux, you have everything you need. Presumably, setting up KStars with the same camera would do just as well.

(5) For my camera to work with PHD2 Guiding, I had to tell it that the camera does not support long exposures (with its INDI driver; it does under Windows) and make other settings as follows:

On my computer, /dev/video1 is the external camera; /dev/video0 is the one built into the computer, and I was quite startled to see my own face when I was trying to capture a star image!

And here's the result: success! PHD2 works much the same way as under Windows. The only important UI difference I noticed is that I had to tell PHD2 to display each of the sub-windows one by one, under View; initially it displayed only the captured image.


Against twice-yearly clock changes

Florida has just voted to stop changing its clocks twice yearly and move to year-round Daylight Saving Time instead. At their latitude, this makes a certain amount of sense, though I would have preferred year-round Standard Time, as is already the practice in Arizona and Hawaii.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts is agitating to move to year-round Daylight Saving Time (or, as they phrase it, move from Eastern Standard Time to year-round Atlantic Standard Time — same thing), and if they do, Maine and New Hampshire want to join them.

I've written about this many times before. My key points:

  • Changing the clocks twice a year is quite a chore now that every house has ten or twenty clocks in it. We're not talking about one big grandfather clock that needs to be set every week anyhow.
  • The change every spring costs lives. People lose sleep and have car crashes. This is well established.
  • There is no real difference in energy consumption between standard time and DST. One or the other of them was supposed to "save energy" but doesn't.
  • There is no longer strong pressure to keep everything in sync with one of the big north-south railroads. Airlines are accustomed to dealing with different time zones. They'd have it easier if every place stayed in the same zone, whatever it might be, all year.
  • If children are having to go to school before dawn, that may be the concern of the schools, not the sun. It doesn't make a lot of sense to choose inconvenient times for things and then complain that the sun is rising too late.
  • The days are longer in the summer and shorter in the winter by nature, regardless of what we do to the clocks. We need to keep mentioning this because I've run into people who aren't fully aware of it. About two thirds of the lengthening of summer evenings would be there even without DST.

I would prefer year-round standard time, but year-round DST is about equally convenient, or even a compromise between the two (add half an hour to standard time); just choose one and stop making us switch twice a year!

Short notes

Not only fake news, but fake history: There is a story going around about how the American Revolution started over a gun confiscation incident on April 20, 1775. It didn't, and there was no such incident. The story was supposedly "satire" but I maintain that it's not satire if it's not humorous. Spreading plain misinformation and calling it "satire" is a tiresome tactic. (More about this is in Snopes.)

Is an unattended, loaded gun dangerous? A graduate student at the IAI found one at a campus bus stop and called the police last Saturday night. I know of no further developments, but in online conversation today I described this as a "disconcerting incident" and was asked (presumably with a straight face) why it's disconcerting. If you have to ask, you're never going to know.


Orion as I first saw it

To anyone wanting to learn the constellations, I recommend starting out in twilight, before the sky is completely dark. At that time there aren't so many stars to confuse you, and the brightest ones stand out. Here is what I saw in the sky fifty years ago this month:

In March, 1968, during twilight on several consecutive days, a group of three stars in a row caught my eye. They were the belt of Orion, the first part of any constellation that I had ever successfully recognized. Of course, Orion is the key to several others, so I quickly matched up the rest of the sky with the maps I had.

(My recollection is that I had a planisphere, and Sam Brown's All About Telescopes, and some books out of the library, but not yet a star atlas. I got Norton's later that year.)

The picture shows Orion in twilight, as I photographed it this evening (March 7). The view that I recall from 1968 matches how the sky looked with the sun 10 degrees below the horizon, but the photographs that best capture the view were taken a bit earlier, with the sun higher. This was a two-second exposure, Canon 40D at ISO 400, Canon 28/2.8 lens at f/5.6.

My first reaction to recognizing Orion in 1968 had also been to try to photograph it, but with no tripod to hold the camera steady, I was unsuccessful.


An uncatalogued nebula in Monoceros

Let me offer this to you as an observing challenge. The nebula just above center here is an object I've written about before. It is the visual counterpart of the a radio source listed in SIMBAD as GAL201.6+01.6 (which is just a positional designation). As far as I know the visible object is not catalogued at all. It is probably comparable to a 12th to 14th-magnitude galaxy in visibility, but I haven't tried to see it, only photograph it.

The star cluster at the upper left is NGC 2259. Then there's the 6th-magnitude star SAO 95914, and then the nebula.

I am working on getting better photographs of this object. This one was taken in town with an AT65EDQ 6.5-cm refractor, Canon 60Da, and Astronomik CLS filter. Stack of eleven 3-minute exposures. Even so, I seem to have gotten more in my photograph than the Digitized Sky Survey did. Has the object brightened over the years, I wonder?


The big thing wrong with computer security

In Computing Edge for February 2017 (yes, I'm that far behind reading magazines), Bruce Schneier of Harvard has an opinion piece whose title says it all: Stop Trying to Fix the User.

If you step back and look at it from a distance, computer security is a strange business because ordinary people are burdened with so many strange responsibilities. Memorize a hundred passwords and never write them down. Don't click on links in e-mail. Don't open files that are sent to you. And so on.

No other machine is dangerous to use in ways that seem totally normal. Unique about networked computers is the fact that if you use the technology the way it's obviously meant to work (such as clicking on a link), you put yourself in danger. The human user bears a great burden of remembering not to use the machine the way the machine wants to be used until additional checks have been made.

This is almost the only area of human activity where we have to caution people not to follow instructions.

Why is all this the case? Because the Internet was invented in research labs, where everyone was trustworthy and no one believed in universal human sinfulness. This naïveté persisted and became entrenched in computer culture. Networked computing as we know it today seems to be designed to be dangerous. And new dangers were added long after it left the research labs — look at the mischief that came from somebody's bright idea of letting web browsers run software supplied by the web site (ActiveX).

How to fix it? No single change will solve the problem, but the biggest thing we need to do is acknowledge how far we are from the ideal. Networked computing as it exists today is deeply wrongheaded in more ways than we immediately recognize. Deep changes will be needed to make it safer. Good virus-proofing may require going all the way down to CPU architecture. Plastering minor layers of protection onto wrongheaded systems is not the solution, although under present conditions we can't do without it.


Where is hobby electronics heading?

[Updates in blue type.]

The slight lull in activity has given me time to look at some other interests, and I get a strange feeling about a trend in hobby electronics. Make has a Morse-code communication device that uses the Internet, and Nuts & Volts has an extremely elaborate analog-face clock made out of LEDs.

Somehow, neither of these has the appeal of thousands of hobby projects I've read about (or dozens I've authored) since I started reading electronics magazines more than 50 years ago.

They strike me as hard ways to do easy things. For Morse code, you don't need two Raspberry Pi computers, even if they're cheap. All you need is a key, a buzzer, a battery, and some wire (or, for communication, two keys and two buzzers). As for an analog clock face...

I'm not saying there's anything wrong with these projects, only that they don't appeal to me; they cause a vague sense of unease.

And I think I have a name for the unease: faux retro.

I like genuine "retro" technology, using and keeping alive the technology of the past.

I like genuinely new, modern technology.

I even like useful combinations of the two, such as digital current meters on a tube guitar amplifier, or red LED safelights in a traditional darkroom. (They're nearly monochromatic and are the best safelights we ever had!)

What leaves me uneasy is superficial imitation of old technology using new. You end up with a worst of both worlds situation. When a digital camera simulates grainy film, not only is the result unappealing, it does not exploit any advantage of either digital photography or film. When you send Morse code by Internet, you have neither the simplicity of the telegraph nor the power of the Internet.

[Update:] Digging deeper I see that it was a coincidence that I saw two "faux retro" projects in succession and overestimated their commonness. There is much healthy creativity in hobby electronics nowadays. I'm surprised to learn that for $5 I can buy a microcontroller board that will put all my software skills to the test — such things run Linux and can run any kind of software I know how to develop. But for security reasons I'm inclined to stick with Arduino, without WiFi, for simple things. I'd rather not run Linux (which outsiders might hack) if a single hard-coded program will do the job.

Where should hobby electronics be going? That's what I need to think about. A lot of the things we used to do, such as listening to foreign radio broadcasts, are now excessively easy due to the Internet; no gadgetry is needed. More importantly, modern manufacturing has made it easier to buy things whole than build them, such as video door intercoms, high-precision clocks, and so forth.

What should electronics enthusiasts and project authors be looking at these days? I'm not sure, but here are some vague ideas.

  • Interfacing to useful but unusual devices. Why can't my computer know how long my washing machine has been running, and signal me when it stops?
  • Environmental sensing. Has today's mail been delivered? Is there lightning in the area?
  • Simple solutions to out-of-the-way power problems. We all need to know more about lithium batteries. For that matter, lead-acid isn't dead... For several years I've been meaning to design and build an amp-hour battery capacity tester.
  • Making software a first-class citizen. For thirty years, too many "electronics" projects have involved secret software, something magical that you download that makes it work. Now that almost everything electronic has software in it, let's talk and write about for-loops, not just op-amps. (Python helps; for the first time in a while, we can write useful programs that are short enough for people to read.)
  • No job too simple. For example, I want to devise a simple, low-power way to make an LED come on at the touch of a button, and then go off about 2 minutes later. This is very useful for things like illuminated eyepiece reticles, and with a big white LED, could be useful in any closet. The trick is to keep it tiny and low-power, and make sure it's really "off" when it's off.

That last one brings up another theme: Any fool can do it with a microprocessor, but I can do it with a handful of cheap, discrete components (I think!). I'm thinking of a Darlington pair with a resistor added to prevent leakage... The challenge is to have the "off" current be extremely low (well under 1 microamp) so that the battery doesn't run down.

The point is, control and decision-making don't necessarily require digital circuitry.

That kind of thing excites me. Faux retro gadgeteering doesn't, but to each their own.

One other thing. The projects I have most enjoyed designing, or building, or reading about always involved a concept, some kind of key insight or interesting thing to learn. Satisfying projects are not just assemblies of lots of little things piled together to make a big whole.

[Further note:] Back in the 1990s I gave a talk about the future of hobby electronics. I predicted at the time that modification would come to outweigh building equipment from scratch. Buy something close to what you want, then adapt it.

I also predicted a greater role for breakout boards, which contain an IC together with the necessary or common support components. There was a wave of consumer-electronics ICs that all seemed to require 20 capacitors externally. Fortunately, those seem to have gone away. But an excellent example of a breakout board is Adafruit's FTDI Friend, which is a USB-to-serial adapter. (Yes, I know USB is serial; I mean old-fashioned serial, RS-232 but at logic levels.)

Unduly attentive readers will note that the type on this page has gotten a bit smaller again. I'm still experimenting... This isn't a magazine, and I don't have to keep the format the same every month.

If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months .