Saturday, April 16, 2016

Note to Readers

The weekend is, well, the weekend. So expect posting to be spotty at best. Here's just a few pics to let you know that Spring is just about here:

Some Grape Hyacinths(?)

And A Robin


Friday, April 15, 2016

Astrophotography Adventure (cont'd)

In my prior post, I discussed the telescopic equipment that I decided upon in order to do some astrophotography on the cheap.  As in regular photography, both film and digital, there is a lot you can do with an image via post-processing.  The de-facto standard these days seems to be Photoshop. But I've never been a big Adobe fan and I really am not a fan of their new cloud-based application; and, face it, I'm doing this project on the cheap and there is nothing much cheaper than free. So for image processing, I have downloaded GIMP.  It may not be as intuitive or as glitzy as Photoshop but it should do the basics that I'm looking to get done. And that's all I'm looking for.  There are lots of people out there who know all the tools that these imaging manipulation programs provide and who could probably improve any of my images by about 100%.  But I'm just looking to get something that looks pretty good without a ton of post-processing effort. So GIMP it will be.

Before the Hubble Space Telescope and all these incredible pictures from various JPL programs, most people were totally amazed by their first view of the moon or planets through a telescope.  And I still get that buzz even today. But, more recently, some people's reaction is "it doesn't look like what I expected from the pictures I've seen". And that is absolutely true.  Most visual observations will never have the clarity and detail of a good image of the same object. This is especially true of deep space objects (DSOs) such as galaxies and nebulae. For most visual observers, these are just fuzzy patches in the sky with none of the color and detail that you see in professional images. For example, you might recognize this iconic image of the Horsehead Nebula in Orion:

The fact is that most visual astronomers, even professional astronomers, have never even glimpsed this nebula with their own eyes. And, even the ones who have can not possibly see the range of colors and detail of the image above, which was probably a stack of multiple images taken with multiple filters and then heavily post-processed .  It is only in photographs that the details like gaseous clouds and spiral arms can be captured. And the reason for this is quite simple. Our eyes receive a continuous stream of light that our brain continually translates into an image.  Photographic sensors, on the hand, collect that light and accumulate it. And the accumulated light is what makes for such detailed pictures.  That is also why, in the days of film, astrophotography required tracking for such long periods of time - because the film needed to accumulate as much light as possible.

These days, however, we can cheat a little bit.  Rather than having to track these objects as they rotate across the sky for hours, we can take short videos or multiple 15-30 second exposures and "stack" these images together, basically accumulating almost the same amount of light and, therefore, detail as an equivalent longer exposure.  This stacking technique is also what will allow me to use the alt-azimuth tracking mount for astrophotography as opposed to the typical equatorial mount needed for tracking objects for longer periods as the exposures I will be making will be short enough to avoid any field rotation (essentially the stars seeming rotation around the Earth's polar axis as opposed to directly east to west across the sky).

Happily, the two stacking programs I am going to use are both free - who could have guessed!  Registax is a program that takes video files, picks out the best individual frames from that video, and then stacks those individual frames into an image.  Even if the object travels a bit within the video, the program will still be able to align and stack the individual frames. Registax is particularly useful for imaging planets as it is difficult to take an individual photo of a bright object like a planet at exactly the right moment of least atmospheric disturbance. (The quantity of atmospheric disturbance is known by the highly scientific term "seeing" and usually limits most earth-based telescopes to magnifications under 300x.) Instead, we take a short video and hope that there are enough quality, clear frames to create a good image. Deep Sky Stacker is appropriately named as it is more useful for images of DSOs like nebulae, galaxies, and clusters.  The program takes the individual multiple second exposures you have selected, identifies and aligns a star map of those images, and then stacks them together to produce a final image.  This also allows you take multiple images that are not 100% aligned - the program will do that for you.

Finally, I need to be able to optimize the iPhone camera. For brighter objects, I will need a low ISO and short exposure times. For fainter DSOs, I need high ISO and the ability to take 15-30 second exposures.  To do this, I have installed NightCap Pro at a cost of $1.99 from the App Store. NightCap Pro gives me the ability to control ISO, exposure, focus, light boost, and noise reduction.  It also allows me to set up a series of photos with long exposure times and also has the option for TIFF image quality that is virtually lossless. It is the perfect app for iPhone astrophotography.

With these four programs installed, I'm finally ready to go out and actually take some pictures! I'll keep you updated as the adventure continues...

End of an Era at Metropolitan Opera

James Levine, the music director at the Metropolitan Opera, is stepping down after 45 years with the company.  Whatever you may have thought of him, (he was always a fan favorite), there is no doubt that he was determined force that helped build and maintain the reputation of the orchestra and of the Metropolitan Opera itself throughout his tenure. If you have never been to an opera and/or only seen it on TV, do yourself a favor and try it.  You don't have to pay a fortune for nosebleed seats at the Met itself; just try the Metropolitan Opera in HD which shows live opera in HD at movie theatres through the US and, indeed, all over the world. The camera work, behind the scenes interviews during intermissions, and superb production are all well worth the $25 or so for a ticket. And you will never go wrong if you try any opera by Mozart - the music will transport you.  Where else can you see some of the world's best artists perform for over 3 hours for 25 bucks! Try it.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Going to (the) Church

Saturday night, the Church, an Australian band that's been around since 1980, will be playing at FTC Stage One. Stage One is a truly intimate venue and a great place to see a show.  I know the Church from the new-wave era with their big hit in the 80s, Under the Milky Way, which you can enjoy below.  But, apparently, the band, which has largely remained intact and has continued to put out successful albums for the last 35 years, has come "to feature slower tempos and surreal soundscapes reminiscent of dream pop and post-rock", according to Wikipedia.  So it should be an interesting show. 

How Do You Solve a Problem Like TBTF?

Surprise, surprise - the oligopoly of big banks in the US are still too big to fail. This report, along with the recent comments by Neel Kashkari about the need to possibly break up the big banks, will certainly give a boost to Bernie Sanders' campaign right before the critical New York primary.  Neel Kashkari is the current president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis and an archetypical Wall Street insider - a Goldman Sachs alumnus who went on to run TARP for Treasury Secretary Paulson under George Bush and then ran an unsuccessful race for governor of California as a Republican.  Not the type of guy you would be expecting to recommend breaking up the big banks. The other point of view, which is reflected in the Clinton campaign, is that this is simply part of the process that Dodd-Frank put in place.  Certainly, increased capital requirements and the resulting reduction in leverage has made the banks much safer and has forced some banks to shed portions of their business. Other non-bank financial institutions have spun off their financial subsidiaries like GE Capital simply to avoid being regulated by Dodd-Frank.  And in order to pass the "living will" test that Dodd-Frank demands, the banks may have to, in essence, break themselves up. Certainly, they are going to be under increasing political and now, it seems, regulatory pressure to do just that. And, of course, we haven't even touched on the distinct lack of competition there is when the six biggest banks control so much of the US financial activity. But that's for a later post about the oligopolies/monopolies in so many sectors of our economy.

Inky Escapes!

As anyone who has ever had a pet knows, animals certainly do exhibit emotion and intelligence; and are usually incredibly adept at getting us to do their bidding! We have all heard about Washoe or the stories on cetacean intelligence or perhaps the wonderful video of Christian reuniting with his trainers. But the natural tendency has been to brush animal emotion and intelligence off as rare or not absolutely scientifically valid.  Of course, there has been no scientific way to understand what is in any animal's mind at any one time, even for humans. And emotion is also not a value that science can measure either - you just know it when you see it.  And, of course, denying animal emotion and intelligence makes it all the easier for humans to continue to exploit and exterminate many other species, either by direct action (overfishing, poaching, etc.) or by eliminating or poisoning habitat. And the biblical command to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth" provided moral approval for these actions for centuries. But there is ever increasing evidence showing that animals of all kinds, from ants to crows to elephants, have incredible abilities to communicate, socialize, and problem solve, much more than humans ever give them credit for.  There is a fascinating yet, in the end, troubling book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel, by Carl Safina who sets out to simply learn about the experiences of a variety of animals and came to want to know "who" these animals are by observing them in their natural element. In doing so, he came to recognize the same broad range of emotions and social dependencies in other species that humans have. And that only makes sense, as all animals, ourselves included, are pretty much made up of the basic cellular structure. I will simply mention one of the other incredible insights in this must-read book - namely that most humans are just another domesticated animal.  Most of us totally rely on others (in our case, usually other humans) to provide food and shelter, the basic elements of our existence.  In this sense, I am no different than our cat - though I do get a lot less sleep than he does!

In this vein, it was fun to read about the great escape of Inky the octopus from an aquarium in New Zealand.  Apparently Inky "slipped through a small gap at the top of his tank. Octopus tracks suggest he then scampered eight feet across the floor and slid down a 164-foot-long drainpipe that dropped him into Hawke’s Bay, on the east coast of North Island". I wonder how long he had been planning his escape route? Had he already left his tank and gone on reconnaissance missions before the big night? As the article indicates, octopuses have been know to leave their tank for nighttime snacks - so why not check out your escape route.  In any case, Houdini would be proud!!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Stanley Cup Playoffs Begin

Much to my wife's chagrin, the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin tonight.  The pundits pretty much agree that the best three teams in the league are all unfortunately in the Western Conference - LA Kings, Anaheim Ducks, and the perennial contenders Chicago Blackhawks.  The class of the Eastern Conference all year long has been the Washington Capitals. The Blackhawks are looking to repeat and make it 4 Cups in 7 years and the Kings are currently on the 2 year plan - winning the Cup in 2012 and 2014. But all it takes is one hot goalie and he can carry a team all the way to the Finals - my favorite being Bernie Parent taking the Flyers all the way in 1975.  Just last year, Ben Bishop was spectacular getting the Tampa Bay Lightning to the Finals before being hampered by injury. So goaltending is probably the biggest ingredient to playoff success.

With that being said, here are the matchups and my picks.  Those that know me will rush out and bet the house on the teams I pick to lose - so you are forewarned:
  • Washington Capitals over the Philadelphia Flyers - Holtby has been probably the best goalie in the league this year and the Capitals are loaded with talent.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning over Detroit Red Wings - This is Detroit's 25th year in a row making the playoffs - a tribute to their great organization.  The Lightning are hobbled by injuries to key players.  This is a tight one but Tampa has a little more firepower and I think Ben Bishop just outplays Detroit's Jimmy Howard/Petr Mrazek duo.
  • Florida Panthers over New York Islanders - Islanders have some key injuries, especially with Jiro Halak out in goal.  Florida has been improving all season. And who doesn't want to see 44 year old Jaromir Jagr keep on playing - what a horse!
  • New York Rangers over Pittsburgh Penguins - Another tight series. Both teams limping into the playoffs with injuries.  Rangers are without key defenseman Ryan McDonough and Penguins possibly without the talented Evgeny Malkin and their goalie Marc Andre Fleury.  Ranger's goalie Henrik Lundqvist knows time is running out for him to win a Cup. Think Lundqvist and Ranger depth will prevail.
  • Dallas Stars over Minnesota Wild - Stars have a prolific offense and a porous defense. But they will be able to outscore the Wild in this series.
  • Chicago Blackhawks over the St. Louis Blues - The Blues have won just one first round playoff series since 2002 and, sadly, this year will be no different. Chicago is just too tough for another talented Blues team that won't go anywhere.  It's too bad they are in the brutal Western Conference.
  • Anaheim Ducks over the Nashville Predators - The Ducks had an abysmal start to the season and have been the hottest team since the new year began.  Nashville won't be able to match the Duck's scoring in this tight checking contest.
  • LA Kings over the San Jose Sharks - Another series that promises to be tough and tight. But, like the Blues, the Sharks are a notoriously under achieving team in the playoffs.  LA is too tough and has more balance, especially with Jonathan Quick in net.

Well, I promise to revisit these predictions when the first round ends. And then I'll take a stab at Round 2. Go and take the NHL Bracket Challenge and see how your picks stack up against mine.

Ospreys Are Back

A couple of weeks ago, the ospreys returned to our neck of the woods.  It was a sure sign that Spring was on its way. After being decimated by DDT and habitat loss, ospreys are returning to Connecticut in numbers.  According to the Connecticut Audubon Society, as of 2014, there were 414 nests and a minimum of 78 young ospreys were fledged.  Be sure to check out their Osprey Cam to get a marvelous view of this sentinel creature.

My pictures can't top that Osprey Cam, but here are my two neighbors:

Trump Sets Up for the Grift

Apropos of my earlier post about understanding Trump, it is interesting to note that he is already starting on the "I wuz robbed" meme. There is much more in it for the Trump Brand to have the nomination "stolen" from him - speaking fees, book tours, perhaps another TV show.  But it does not bode well for whoever the Republican nominee will be, as I'm sure Trump will constantly be sniping from the sidelines.  And, assuming Trump does win the most delegates but does not win the nomination, it will be another example of the establishment Republican Party once again gaming the system to their own advantage. We see it in the constant disenfranchisement of voters through aggressive gerrymandering, restrictive voter ID laws, and even the reduction of polling sites on election day. Of course, the Democratic Party's use of  large numbers of superdelegates in its nominating process is hardly (small "d") democratic either. But with a shrinking demographic base, this is the Republican Party's short term vision of how to retain their grip on power.  As always in these cases, in the long run this will not end well.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Adventure in Astrophotography Begins

So, now that I don't have to get up before dawn every morning and have a little free time on my hands, I feel like it is time to back into astronomy.  My interest was kindled way back when I was 6 or 7 years old and my parents gave me one of those early Tasco telescopes (it was a 60mm refractor with a focal length of 700mm - a great little scope!) and I've been hooked ever since.  I still have that Tasco and its .965 lenses and I still pull it out every so often.  But every visual astronomer always gets aperture envy, so my wife was kind enough to get me an 8-inch Celestron back in the mid-90s. But, due to all the trees around the our house and a hectic work schedule, I probably never get the use out of it that I should. And when it came time for us to downsize, it was clear that the Celestron was just not going to make the cut - it took up too much room and it was getting a little bit too heavy for me to lug around and set up. So it was time to sell the Celestron and pick up a small grab-and-go scope that took up as little space as possible. After a fair amount of agony and research, I knew that I was going to get a table-top and I eventually settled on the 4.5 inch (114mm) Starblast from Orion, as a number of reviewers raved about its optics. I was torn about whether to get the 6 inch, which is the de-facto standard for a "real" scope, but I really wanted the tracking mount that comes with the 4.5 inch because I wanted to try my hand at a little astrophotography. 

Back in the ancient history of my youth, astrophotography was an incredibly complex and expensive venture and you really had to know what you were doing.  Imaging with film required special equipment and hours of pinpoint tracking with equatorial mounts, sometimes over multiple nights. This was definitely for the hardcore! But about 10 or 15 years ago, the manufacture of new image sensors allowed for the development of the DSLR and phone camera and that has revolutionized astrophotography. You can still spend in the tens of thousands of dollars on astrophotography if you are really into it, but now you can get more than decent images with your DSLR or even your iPhone using prime focus or afocal methods. And with free "stacking" software, you can even use an alt-azimuth mount with limited exposure times to get some fine pictures.

Now, I know I will not be getting images that match what you see from the Hubble Space Telescope or the fly-bys of Jupiter or Saturn.  But I wanted to see what I could do without spending an excessive amount of money.  With the short focal length of the Starblast and the pretty light weight limit of the tracking mount, I was a little concerned about the results I might get attempting the prime focus method with my DSLR.  And after looking at what Andrew Symes and Mike Weasner had been able to do using the afocal method with their iPhone, I decided that was the way to go.

So here is the equipment I ended up with for a total cost of under 500 dollars:
  • Orion Starblast 114mm with AutoTracker Mount and Beginner Barlow (2x) Kit with 10mm and 25MM eypieces
  • Orion SteadyPix Universal Smartphone Telescope Photo Mount
  • 1.25" Orion Variable Polarizing Filter
  • Orion Tri-Mag 1.25" 3x Barlow Lens
In addition, I already owned two Celestron eyepiecs that I did not sell - a 7.25mm and a 6.5-18MM Zoom. All this equipment should allow me to be able to get decent views of the planets as well as the brighter Deep Sky Objects, both visually and (hopefully) photographically.

This will truly be astrophotography on the cheap! So, I hope you will follow me on this little adventure and perhaps we can learn a thing or two along the way. I will be posting my various attempts and failures as they occur in the near future.

Understanding Trump

Sadly, in this Presidential election year, being interested in politics means having to write about the train wreck that is called the Republican primaries and specifically the phenomenon that is Donald Trump.  Trump's resonance with a certain segment of the electorate is something I will explore in a later post, but, for now, the question I have is whether the Donald really wants to win the nomination. Many pundits are still seemingly baffled by Trump's clear lack of interest in any policy details (see Kevin Drum); his apparent decision not to moderate his tone and pivot toward the center when he had a commanding lead in delegates and where a win in Wisconsin would almost guarantee the nomination; but, instead, managing to alienate an even greater segment of the electorate with his abortion comments and insulting the very voters he needs to woo. It is almost like he was intent on sabotaging his own campaign. And that may well be what he was trying to do. Stephanie Cegielski was the former Communications Director for the Make America Great Again SuperPAC and has now penned an open letter repudiating Trump.  It makes for interesting reading and you should read the whole thing but the big takeaway was this:

"Even Trump's most trusted advisors didn't expect him to fare this well.
Almost a year ago, recruited for my public relations and public policy expertise, I sat in Trump Tower being told that the goal was to get The Donald to poll in double digits and come in second in delegate count. That was it.
The Trump camp would have been satisfied to see him polling at 12% and taking second place to a candidate who might hold 50%. His candidacy was a protest candidacy."
I doubt that it was even a protest candidacy - it was solely intended to aid and promote the Trump Brand. There was no thought and certainly no interest in winning - that would mean having to do real work. Trump has always been playing with house money starting with the $1 million dollar "loan" he got from his father to get it started.  And after he nearly lost everything with his bankruptcy in 1991, he simply became a front man for various sales and development schemes. He is simply a salesman and, despite his claims of great deal-making, has never shown any interest in the details and minutiae that it takes to actually accomplish things.  And being President is hard work. His lack of attention to detail is apparent in the way he is allowing Cruz to line up the delegate slate in states where Trump has won the caucus or the primary, solely due to lack of organization. But perhaps nothing could be better for Brand Trump than winning the majority of the delegates but having the nomination "stolen" from him on the second ballot of an open convention. With no nomination, he would have no responsibilities; but he would have a platform to demagogue and promote the Trump Brand at the same time. Think of the speaking engagements, the book tours, and all the other perks of the Republican grift machine. Stephanie Cegielski thinks that Trump's ego has taken over and that he really wants to win. After all, he is a winner! But I'm betting that there is more money for the Trump Brand and less work for Trump himself if he actually loses the nomination. And that will trump even the Donald's enormous ego.

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Best Time of the Year...

For sports fans, that is.  Yes, Spring is pretty nice but the three months between mid-March and mid-June is a paradise for sports fans. For baseball fans, the first sign of Spring is when pitchers and catchers report and their teams begin to take shape in spring training.  By the time June comes, the season will be in full swing. And March Madness culminates in late March with the NCAA basketball tournament for men and women and this year both tournaments were special.  Villanova won the men's in the greatest finish ever in the tournament final.  And the UConn women won their 4th straight title and went undefeated the entire season - winning all their games by a margin greater than 10 points. Just total domination all year long. And the Husky senior class, led by Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson, and Morgan Tuck, went 151-5 in their stellar college career!

And then, this weekend, the NCAA hockey season culminated with perennial powerhouse North Dakota downing the up-and-coming powerhouse Quinnipiac 5-1 in the championship game, winning their 8th national championship. And, of course, there was also this little golf tournament called the Masters. Poor Jordan Spieth, attempting to become only the fourth man to repeat as Masters champion and in command of the tournament with a 5 shot lead, had an unbelievable, incredible, total, epic collapse on the par 3 12th hole, taking a quadruple bogey 7, and opening the door for a relatively unknown Englishman, Danny Willett, to shoot a 5 under par 67 and take the hideous green jacket by 3 strokes. More surprisingly, Willett did not plan to enter the tournament because his wife was about to give birth. But the baby came early and Danny became the last man to enter the tournament.

And now we have the NHL and NBA playoffs to look forward to - both bruising marathons that will end sometime in June.  For the runners out there, we can't forget the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day in Mass. And, in mid May, tennis fans get two weeks of the French Open. Will Serena rebound to win it again? Will Djokovic finally be able to win on clay, complete his career Grand Slam, and set himself up to win all four majors this year - the season Grand Slam?  For horse lovers, the first Saturday in May brings us the Kentucky Derby and another quest for the Triple Crown. And after the Belmont Stakes in early June, it's time for more golf with the US Open. 

There really is no time of year that has more important events in so many sports at the same time. It's a wonder I get out of the house at all to enjoy these beautiful Spring days!

Reality Check

Monday's Reality Check - a weekly presentation of facts and figures to help us all discuss important issues with some degree of understanding. Because, despite living in this post-modern, post-truth world, the fact remains that facts still remain.

Today's Reality Check involves the US Federal Budget.  Below are four pie charts showing the details of the 2015 Federal budget.  The first shows a breakdown of the various large sectors that comprise the total Federal budget:

Another way to look at the budget is by breaking it down into mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending is primarily composed of entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid.  This entitlement spending is required by existing law:

With mandatory spending including interest on the national debt taking up over 70% of all government spending, it is easy to see why some consider this an area to focus on to reduce the annual deficit.  On the other hand, it should be noted that the interest on the national debt is over 50% of the 2015 annual deficit of $438 billion - and that is in an historically low interest rate environment. But all this mandatory spending is required by existing law and Congress can not change the amount spent on these programs without changing the existing law that creates these programs. These programs tend to be very popular which is why any attempts to modify them have become know as "the third rail" of American politics.

The two pie charts below provide a more detailed breakdown of mandatory and discretionary spending into their various component parts.

On the other hand, Congress can and does change the amounts spent on these discretionary programs on an annual basis.  With military expenditures taking up over 50% of total discretionary spending, it is easy to see why people point to that are as a potential source of savings to reduce the deficit.

So the next time someone tells you that the annual deficit could be eliminated by getting rid of all that foreign aid, you'll be able to point out that all non-military spending on international affairs, of which foreign aid is only a subset, is only $50 billion versus an annual deficit of $438 billion. Or that we could eliminate the deficit by cutting back on the military budget, you'll be able to point out that in order to eliminate the $438 billion deficit, we would have to reduce the $598 billion military budget by nearly 75%. 

That's just reality...

But remember, spending is only one part of the equation; revenue is the other.  But that will wait for another Reality Check.