Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Obama has a 'Sputnik Moment,' yet Fails to Address Space Exploration in State of the Union Address

President Obama addresses a joint session of Congress, and the American people, in the State of the Union Address.

Last night marked the annual State of the Union Address, during which the president, acting as the face of the country, opines on the current state of America and proposes new ideas to take the country into the future. Facing a divided Congress and a highly skeptical nation, President Obama called for unity and self-betterment to maker America a global leader in technology again.

In doing do, he harkened back top the space race.

Speaking on the need to step up efforts to become globally competitive, Obama stated that “half a century ago, when the Soviets beat us into space with the launch of a satellite called Sputnik, we had no idea how we'd beat them to the moon."The science wasn't there yet. NASA didn't even exist. But after investing in better research and education, we didn't just surpass the Soviets; we unleashed a wave of innovation that created new industries and millions of new jobs.”

Fast forwarding to the present, Obama called the present time “our generation's Sputnik moment."
Unfortunately, rather than calling for advances in space exploration as America's future in space flounders amid the imminent retirement of the space shuttle fleet and a lack of a long-term vision, the President called for investments in biomedical research, information and clean energy technology, a major let-down to the millions of space exploration enthusiasts, myself among them, who were hoping for a renewed effort on expanding into the Final Frontier.

However, NASA does fit into one area of the President's speech: jobs.

Right now, NASA operates nearly two dozen facilities all across the nation, all of which provide a lot of jobs to the local communities in which they reside and the closing of any NASA center as a way to cut budget would be bad news to the economy of any given city.

Of course, the NASA employees, the rocket scientists if you will, get all the limelight. However, there are undoubtedly a large number of non-science jobs at the NASA centers across the nation. First off, if you operate a building, maintenance workers will be needed, the bigger the building, the more people will be needed to keep the facilities in top running order. Next, with any endeavor involving high technology, there is a need for technicians to keep the computers working. With any workplace, there is always a need for record keepers, accountants, and secretaries to ensure that the flow of information goes smoothly and that the person-to-person meetings can be organized. Of course, a NASA center being a government building housing expensive equipment, a security force is an absolute must. As a last note, there are always the outside consultants who, while it need not be their principal job, nonetheless work for NASA on an as-needed basis for think-tank purposes. Now, to cover myself, there are probably even more occupations at any given NASA site that I didn't mention but that are still vital to the center's daily functioning.

Now, as you can see, there is a lot more to a NASA center than rocket scientists. In the past, NASA centers have been targeted for layoffs. If a NASA center were to close, it could take hundreds of American jobs with it, an especially devastating loss given the economy's current, precarious state, not to mention putting another blow to America's teetering, once grand space agency.

However, it will remain up to the new House of Representatives to decide NASA's future as it is the House alone that crafts the budget-related legislation. In the end, only time will tell what will come to pass, but it is the hope of space exploration advocates that Congress can spare some cash and invest in the future of America in space as, in time, the survival of our species will depend on our ability to journey to the stars.
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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Who Needs A Stinkin' Tripod for Astrophotography?

Yes, I haven't forgot about reviewing my “new” Nikon D700, but ever since I've got it, there's not been anything really worth shooting. Basically, Northeast Ohio has been stuck in a rut of ugly winter days characterized by clouds and old, no longer white show that isn't worth venturing out in the 20 degree temperatures for. Nights? Well, they've been cloud-outs through and through.

However, I got lucky yesterday with some momentarily clear skies that allowed for a few minutes of playing around in the dark. Result: if you have a fast lens (as in 50 f1.4 fast) and don't mind cranking up the ISO to 6400, you can leave the tripod inside for astrophotography! Yes, that's right, forget the tripod! Sure, the images when viewed in full won't be as pretty as ISO 100 shots but, for small web files like the ones below, it won't matter much.

The D700 truly does open new photographic possibilities that were unimaginable was the last generation of cameras.

 Big Dipper, 1/4 second hand-held with D700 and 50 f1.4 D wide open

Cloud shrouded Moon, 1/25th second hand-held with D700 and 50 f1.4 D wide open

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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Take Awesome Deep Sky Astrophotos Without Breaking the Bank

M13: the Great Hercules cluster. With a little know-how (and not a ton of cash), you can take photos just like this one!

For anyone who was visiting this website from its early days, it was obvious that I started this whole online endeavor as merely a way to backup all of my astrophotos should my computer crash. Since then, I've expanded into other things photography and astronomy, but have kept up with the monthly astrophoto galleries. So, as the photos keep coming online, you may be asking yourself: what does he use to take those pictures?
Answer: surprisingly little. In fact, you may only need 4 things to do it: a dSLR, a telescope mount with a R.A. Drive, a T-ring, and a universal T-adapter. Depending on your camera, you may or may not need a programmable remote, too.
So, exactly what does he use and how much does it cost?

The Canon 30D (with Tokina 28-70 f2.8): an oldie, but a goody

Camera: Canon EOS 30D
Launched way back in February, 2006, the Canon 30D is a digital dinosaur by today's standards in terms of feature set. However, in image quality, though, only the current generation of dSLRs can clearly beat it. Unlike most of today's digital cameras, it uses the big CF cards. Want one? Expect to pay around $400, give or take $50 based on condition, for one. Too expensive? The EOS 20D from fall, 2004, essentially the same thing but with a smaller LCD screen, can be had for about $100 less.

The Meade LXD-55: plenty good for "short" exposures and small scopes

Mount: Meade LXD-55
Another out of production item that serves me perfectly well, the LXD-55 has long-since been replaced in Meade's lineup by the often considered superior LXD-75 thanks to its steel 2” tubular legs and a reportedly better drive motors. However, when it comes to short exposure (30-60 sec) photography with a short focal length telescope (400-600mm), the LXD-55 serves its purpose perfectly well. Fully assembled with the ED80 on top, the whole rig weighs about 50 lbs. Looking to pick up a LXD-55? Well, price can vary, but they typically go in the $400 range.

Except for having a sleep mode rather than on/off, a knock-off remote is just as good as the manufacturer version, but at a fraction of the cost.

Canon Remote: Knock-Off Canon TC80-N3
Unfortunately, no Canon dSLRs, not even the $7,000 1Ds Mark III, have a programmable remote function built in the camera, which means you need to buy an external one and plug it into the camera should you wish to make life really easy on yourself. Fortunately, instead of dumping $200 on the Canon version, you can be like me and snag a knock-off that does the exact same thing for $30! Catch: you're buying on Ebay from Hong Kong. Want to stay USA? Well, there are domestically-sold third-party versions out there for around $75.

The first step to get your camera onto your scope is to get a camera manufacturer specific T-ring, which will lock into the mount just like a lens. With something like this, don't go for nice, buy used or a second and save yourself some money, hopefully keeping the cost under $10.

Universal T-Adapter
You have your ring, but now you need the adapter that the ring threads onto in order to attach the camera to the scope. Unlike with the ring, the adapter is universal in that any ring, whether Canon, Nikon, or any other brand will thread on to the rear of it. Ring/adapter together, stick the whole thing into the back of the scope to turn it into a giant lens. Like with the ring, buy used or a second to try and stay below the $10 mark.

Thread the T-adapter and ring together, attach like a lens, then stick the camera into the scope's focuser.
So, there they are, the five (or four if your camera has a built in programmable remote function) things money can buy that you need to be an astrophotographer. Unfortunately, no amount of cash can buy skill and dedication required to start catching the stars. That you'll need to learn on your own.
Good luck!

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Carl Sagan, Earth Politics, and Humanity's Future in Space

Space shuttle Discovery on the launch pad, a perfect symbol for America's wayward space agency.

It is the year 2011 and, when it comes to space exploration, NASA is in some serious trouble as the government wrangles over how to both fund the space agency and then how to apply the money to future missions. In short, with the surging government debt, it seems more and more likely that space missions in the grand styles of the twin Mars rovers, Cassini, and Deep Impact may soon be a thing of the past as we Earthlings, despite our capability to explore space and perhaps even colonize other worlds.

Just think of it: in the span of 12 years, humans went from being an Earth-bound species to explorers on another world, our Moon. Now, in the 42 years since Apollo 11 and Neil Armstrong's "giant leap for mankind," what have we done when it comes to human spaceflight? Answer: not much. Sure, we've launched three major space stations, (Skylab, Mir, and the ISS)  and made spaceflight an almost routine event via the space shuttles, but have we gone anywhere? No. Why not? Politics.

The space race was a product of the Cold War, during which America and the USSR fought a series of battles in many areas but not in actual combat. First, there was the race to build atomic bombs, then the race for space, which was, in reality, a glorified way to test weapon delivery systems. It was no coincidence that many Americans went into a state of panic upon the launch of Sputnik, not because of the little satellite itself, but of the implication that the Soviets could fill Earth's orbit with nuclear weapons and then dive them onto America in a technological rain of fire and brimstone. Well, if the Soviets could launch satellites into orbit, America had to answer, and it did in short order. After that, both nations focused on developing bigger and bigger rockets capable of launching ever larger nuclear warheads.

Then came 1961.

With the dawning of a new decade, newly-elected president John F. Kennedy laid the gauntlet: America was going to the Moon by decade's end. Determined to fulfill the president's pledge and one-up the Soviets, American science set to work to develop all the technology needed to land men on the Moon and return them to Earth. Finally, after a decade of mostly triumphs but a few tragedies, Americans won the space race when Apollo 11's Eagle landed on the lunar surface. America had won the space race, so what was left to do?

Answer according to the politicians: cut back on space exploration. By the early 1970s, the obsession of going to the Moon that had gripped the public's imagination just a few years ago was seen as a waste of money and, after Apollo 17, given the ax in what is probably the darkest day for space exploration.

With the money cut off, the somewhat 'routine' lunar landings were a thing of the past. When America was in
a perfect position to colonize another world, we turned our backs on on the science and desire to explore that took us to the Moon in the first place, a self-prescribed lobotomy if you will, one that has set us back several steps in technological development. Now, ironically, we in 2011 find ourselves unable to do what we did over 40 years ago. Think of it: if we had stayed on our course towards rapid advancement of the space sciences, where would we be today? Moon bases? Our first colonies on Mars? Cities in floating in space? If you ask me, the answer is 'probably.'

Of all people associated with space exploration in the 20th century, the late Carl Sagan stands out among the rest for his ability to reach out to the public, explain things that would ordinarily be incomprehensible in a manner that anyone could understand, and his great concern for our world, Earth, and the direction it was going. In the below video by Michael Marantz, Sagan himself reads from one of his final books, Pale Blue Dot, the narration speaking volumes about humanity's unique nature, endless potential for exploration, and avenues for self-betterment, which are under great threat by the unwillingness of politicians to put the proper emphasis on space exploration.

After all, nothing, not even the Earth, is forever and if we are to survive as a species, we must journey back to the stars from which we came.

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Saturday, January 15, 2011

Examiner for Weeks of 1/2 and 1/9

I missed a week, but I'm making up for it here with two weeks worth of links to my most recent Examiner articles. So, if you missed anything, here you go.

Featured sight for the week of 1/2: Jupiter and Uranus at their closest
Proof positive people will always believe stupid things
Partial Solar eclipse
Naked eye astronomy for January
The January Sky
January featured sight: seeing double
The future for NASA, American jobs, is uncertain
Featured sight for week of 1/9: low temps, high Mercury
Rep. Giffords shootings brings more uncertainty to NASA

2010 predictions revisited
2011 predictions
Photography's best of 2010
Photography's worst of 2010

Tuesday's solar eclipse in photos
D7000 vs. big brother Nikons
CES 2011 is underway
 Debunking dead bird craziness
CES 2011 in review
Lady Gaga's camera glasses: a voyeur's dream come true?
Sony aims to 'change the world'
Will Lady Gaga's camera glasses be banned?
Get cash for your old cameras
Will photo get start to get shoddy?
Restocking fees: soon to be a thing of the past?


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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

December 2010 Astrophotos

Well, here they are, the last astrophotos of 2010. Needless to say, December was almost a wall-to-wall cloud-out where I live. There were 2 clear nights and (of course) they fell on nights when I had to work! Fortunately, at least there were a few clear breaks during the eclipse, but not during totality. Oh well, it's winter in Ohio.  As an interesting note, the top picture was taken with my just about fully automated pocket P&S while the bottom (the middle one was shot through thin clouds, hence the glow and lack of clarity) were with my dSLR. Sure, the dSLR images win hands-down, but the little pocket cam is still not all that bad . . .


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Saturday, January 8, 2011

The D700 Gets A Lens

The D700 with the 50 f1.4 AF-D Nikkor lens.

First thing, my lens arrived yesterday, which means that, if time weren't an issue, I'd have all the time in the world to take pictures. Unfortunately, this isn't the case, which means that I haven't been able to do all the picture taking I would have liked. However, from playing around with the lens, I can still draw some quick impressions.

The 50mm f1.4 Nikkor lets in four times as much light as my Tokina 28-70 f2.8, but is only a fraction of the zoom's size. Go figure. . .

The Nikkor 50 f1.4 AF-D is a solid little lens. In fact, when looking at the 50 f1.4 and my giant 28-70 f2.8 zoom, I truly wonder why slower zooms are just so freaking huge/how opticians can cram so much open aperture into such a tiny package. Anyway, until I get a second lens, probably an ultrawide or a macro (whichever I come across a deal on first), the wonderfully versatile 50 will be living on the camera.

As to performance, the AF on the D700 is dead-on, almost silent, and just about instantaneous. Personally, I think it's funny how people are willing to spend $100 more for the newer AF-S version just to get full time manual focus (and almost universally recognized slower AF!).

The 50 f1.4 is acceptably sharp in the center right from the get go, but there is some CA at f1.4. Fortunately, stop down to f2 (or post-process aw I did), and you can make it disappear (and make the lens sharper, too).

Optically, the lens is very sharp in the center straight from f1.4 and the sweet spot spreads out stopped down. Unfortunately, I haven't had the time to do any proper sharpness tests with it so far. In terms of vignetting, there is definite shading in the corners in FX mode when shot wide open. Looking at the shading, though, there should be no such problems on a crop cam.

Look in the top and bottom left corners to see some obvious vignetting.

Fortunately, I should have some free time in the coming days to play around more with the D700 and start getting into its trick features (double exposure, in-camera editing, etc.) so, expect something of a running review in the coming days. Some of the things to be addressed will be:

12 vs. 14 bit and sRGB vs. Adobe RGB
Live view capabilities
Vignetting correction
CA correction
Multiple exposure
Image overlay
White Balance Performance
Active D-Lighting (boost DR)\
In-Camera Retouching

In all, there's a lot to look at with the D700 and even that list doesn't address all that the camera is capable of doing. Believe me, when your digital camera has a 443 page instruction book, you know that you've got quite an imaging machine in your hands!

Now, how about a real picture?

Tree tunnel with D700 and 50 f1.4 stopped down to f8. More to come soon!

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Thursday, January 6, 2011

D700 Day Is Here!

My "new" Nikon D700.
Well, it's here: my new (to me) Nikon D700 arrived yesterday evening. In a way, it's still surreal that I have this camera sitting in front of me as I type this, but it's here. Frankly, if it weren't for my lens focusing problems (1 Sigma and 2 Canons, yes, 2 Canons) and inability to fix them thanks to a lack of AF microadjust capability, I'd still be perfectly happy with my trusty Canon 30D, which has never let me down and is still, other than lacking AF microadjust, a perfectly good camera.

 It's here!

 Opening the box.

 I've struck gold!

 D700 box opened (top protective shield removed from camera)

The complete kit.

So, what of the D700?
At first glance, the D700 looks just like any of the crop-frame Dx00 line cameras except for the large viewfinder chamber, which is noticeably taller than on the croppers. However, for the real impact of the larger viewfinder, one must look through it.

Crop frame 30D next to full frame D700, note how much taller the 700's viewfinder chamber is.

First off, all I can mange to say after looking through the viewfinder is “holy $^#% that thing is big!” To compare, look through a throw-away film camera's viewfinder and then through that of your sub-frame dSLR. See the difference? Now, imagine another step-up in size just as big when moving from a crop to a FF dSLR. Frankly, you feel as though you could just about step into the picture you're about to take.

Onto the other things.
Next up: the LCD screen. For anyone used to the previous generation of LCDs (namely the 230,000 dot, 2.5” inch ones everyone was using), moving up to a 920,000 dot (yes, that's almost 1Mp on the screen alone!) is quite an experience. Believe me, if you're even the slightest bit out of focus, you'll know it!

The D700 is about the same width as crop-frame Nikon Dx00 cameras as well as the canon xxD models, but it is obviously taller thanks to the giant viewfinder FF allows.

In terms of in-hand feel, the camera is pretty hefty, but not huge (at least to me with my long fingers). In terms of density, the D700 is solid. It makes my 30D and the D200 I got to play with awhile back feel like toys in comparison.

Controls? If you've ever shot with a Dx00-series Nikon before, you'll be familiar with the D700. Sure, a few buttons have been moved/changed, but the overall layout is identical. No learning curve here.
Pictures? Well, I got to snap a few last night with a borrowed lens (my 50 f1.4 AF-D should come today) and all I can say is that the image quality is simply stunning. As good a the D7000 I played with last month was, the D700 is still far better in terms of producing clean images in poor lighting conditions. Here's a sample (I don't think the eagle sculpture would mind) as many of the others were candids of fellow Black River Astronomical Society members.

Eagle sculpture at ISO 6400, standard JPEG settings.

Why do FF cameras produce such low-noise images and cost so much? It's the big sensor!

Needless to say, the next few days should be fun!
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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

CES 2011 Looks to be Underwhelming

The new year just started but the camera makers are already rolling out new products as the first big camera/electronics show of 2011, the Consumer Electronics Show, is set to start tomorrow. At the show, new electronic devices of all sorts will be on display before they start finding their way onto store shelves in the coming weeks. So, how are things looking for photo enthusiasts?

Answer: not too good.

Like last year, CES is characterized by the launch of mostly consumer-grade cameras, although Samsung did bring a new dSLR-like camera. For the most part, the launches are many, but the innovations are few. To see just how much stuff is being released, go to Digital Photography Review's home page for all the manufacturer announcements.

In summary, most of the cameras being announced are merely mild updates of models already on the shelves and merely serve as a reason for the manufacturers to charge you the buyer more for something that's essentially yesterday's lunch reheated in the technological microwave. A few more pixels here, a slightly wider/longer end to zoom ranges there, and a few new features (mostly gimmick, non picture improving ones) sprinkled around for hood measure.

However, the one bright spot comes from Kodak, which has launched its first rugged point and shoot pocket cam. For even better news, there's the price: a very reasonable $79.95, which is even less than what I paid for my then cheapest thing going (at the time) Olympus Stylus 550WP. Hopefully, the new Kodak will be able to deliver on the performance end.

Now, don't get too dismayed, CES runs through the 9th, which leaves more room for announcements.  For serious shooters, PMA 2011, which is next month, should bring a slew of new toys more to your liking.

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Monday, January 3, 2011

Examiner for Weeks of 12/19 and 12/26, More

Well, a lot of my Examiner stuff from these two weeks is already out-dated as the photography column was dominated by Christmas related buying advice and sale announcements and the astro column was all about the eclipse for pretty much that whole week. So, what we have left is posted below.

New Zealand releases 60 years of UFO files
Featured sight for week of 12/26: Mercury rising
The Christmas blizzard from space
See Jupiter and Uranus tonight
Jennifer Aniston compared to Crab Nebula
Celebrate the new year with the Dog Star
Featured sight for the week of 1/2: Jupiter and Uranus at their closest

Facebook now using face scanning software to find pics of you
More racy pictures of Miley Cyrus hit the web
HTC Thunderbolt photos leaked?
2010 predictions revisited
2011 predictions

Coming up:
December 2010 astrophotos: don't get too excited, 29 of 31 nights were cloudy!

D700 on its way: snagged an unbelievable deal, camera and lens (50 f1.4D) should arrive sometime this week, expect some random musings onthe Canon to Nikon and APS-C to FF switch.

Can't Believe This:
People are still stupid: "2011 Horoscope" was still #6 on Yahoo's trending list this morning. Will people ever learn that astrology is complete nonsense?

Thanks For Reading
Well, I must be doing something right with my Examiner columns as I had over half a million hits last year! Thanks to everyone for reading, you've made me richer and I sincerely hope I've made you more informed on events photographic and/or astronomical in nature.

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Saturday, January 1, 2011

Things I Learned Last Year

The Nikon D7000 and Tokina 16-28: proof positive that we're being screwed over.

Retail Markup = Rip-Off
If people want something bad enough, they'll be willing to pay whatever a manufacturer chooses to charge for it. Basically, that's an open secret of the business world that allows manufacturers to set whatever prices they like to maximize their profit margins, which is fine as, since we live in a free market, no one can force us to buy anything we don't want (unless that someone is the government and that thing is health insurance). However, 2 new pieces of photo gear (the Nikon D7000 and Tokina 16-28 f2.8) released last year really went to show how much we the customers are paying through the nose for some stuff. Basically, the D7000 is 95% of the D300s for a third less the cash! Gee? In retrospect, does anyone else think Nikon was charging us a bit too much for the Dx00 series cams? Now the lens, the new Tokina 16-28 f2.8 is everything and perhaps more than the equivalent Canon, Nikon, and Sony models are, but for half the cost! Basically, the manufacturers are charging is an extra $800 for the prestige of having 'Canon,' 'Nikon,' or 'Sony' printed on the lens. Feeling ripped off yet?

He has a camera, call the police!

You Are a Terrorist if You Take Pictures of Planes

Last fall, the Transportation Security Administration released a poster that said, “don't let our planes get into the wrong hands.” The picture on the poster: a man photographing a plane.

Oh waiter! A little arsenic with old lace, please!

A Little Arsenic Can be Good for Your Health

In December, NASA stunned the world and turned the whole field of biology upside down when it announced the discovery of a bacteria that uses arsenic as a main parts in its biological makeup. Basically, while this doesn't prove anything (other than the fact that some organisms thrive off of an element that is poison to everything else), it goes a long way in expanding our search for alien life in that it opens the door to possibilities that life can thrive in places and on materials that were previously thought to be incompatible with living things and that there is no magic formula for biological potential in that life has the possibility to evolve wherever and based on whatever materials are present at the given location.

Is this really 2011?

People Like to Believe Really Stupid Things

If you can't read the picture, click on it for a bigger version to see what was the most searched for item on Yahoo on the morning of January 1, 2011. I don't know whether to find this funny or sad.

Hey, Bozo, mug up for the self-portrait!

People Like to Buy Really Stupid Things

By looking at all the things making their way into cameras these days, it is obvious that a lot of people love gimmick features that do nothing to better the pictures or make taking them easier (if this wasn't the case, manufacturers wouldn't be providing them). Want some examples of stupid camera features? Well, here goes: face detection, front-side LCDs for self portraits, touch screens (and thus no buttons except on/off), GPS, geo-tagging, MP3 players, more colors than a bag of Skittles, ostrich skin grips (not making this up!), wi-fi capability, and the list can go on and on but I want to spare myself the carpal tunnel so I'm stopping this now.

Shuttle Discovery on the launch pad, before it was removed a few weeks ago.

The Space Shuttles Probably Do Need to be Retired

Right now, space shuttle Discovery is sitting in a maintenance building at NASA's Kennedy Space Center over 2 months after it was supposed to have flown its 39th and final mission. The reason: cracks in the fuel tanks and more being discovered, seemingly by the minute. Result: NASA has no idea when Discovery will get off the ground as launch dates have been pushed back over a dozen times in the last 2 months. With all this, even someone as hopeful for the American space program as myself must admit that the shuttles are indeed getting old.

Light dome from a city of 8,000 from about 10 miles away.

Not Just Astronomers Hate Artificial Lighting

Light pollution: those two words might as well be dirty words to anyone who enjoys looking at the night sky. However, a recent study has implied that humans are not the only living things to hate all the unnatural lighting. Basically, the research found that all the artificial lighting in cities is tricking wild animals into thinking that it is day when it is really night. With this comes extended waking hours (and thus less sleep, resulting in tired, poorly-thinking prey species), interrupted mating patterns, and animals thinking night is really day. So, if you're out for a walk in the woods and see a bird with a watch around its neck, now you know the reason.

Frosty is getting blown to pieces!

Winter Stinks

Well, I didn't really learn this but, after months of reasonably good skies, December really reiterated the point that, at least in Northeast Ohio, winter stinks! First of all, winter here means snow, which in turn means that my “observatory” is buried and is unsuitable for imaging. Second, of all 31 nights, I only counted 2 dusk to dawn clear ones.

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