Monday, November 30, 2015

The Dark Side to Cyber Monday

Last Friday was Black Friday for brick and mortar retailers. The nickname comes from the fact that this one day will often put unprofitable stores into the black (profit) for the year. Next up: Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, which is traditionally the busiest day of the year for online shoppers. While the Internet is undoubtedly convenient for shopping and many online stores offer lower prices than can be found in real stores, there are some things worth considering before clicking on the “buy” button.


The most obvious, potentially irritating problem with online buying is returning something should a product be defective. For brick and mortar stores, the return policies for cameras and other high tech electronics is often shorter than for other merchandise. The same is often true online. Unlike a regular retail store, returning something to an online vendor is not as simple as taking the product back. Online retailers often have specific instructions for returning an item in regards to packing and shipping. Sometimes the customer must gain prior approval beforehand as well. So if you buy something online and then have to make a return, be sure to follow the directions carefully.


After the returning process should something go wrong, the fact that there is no hands-on with your prospective buy is the second main drawback of buying online. Generally, cameras should be a safe bet. However, SLR lenses can be a different story. While most lenses work as they should right out of the box, there is always a small percentage that have bugs, often amounting to focusing inaccuracy where the lens will front or back focus in relation to the intended subject. This is most common (although still rare) in third party lenses, but it can occur on manufacturer optics as well. While newer mid to high-end digital SLRs have a feature to compensate for this, older and entry level models do not, which means having to return the lens. In a brick and mortar store, the salesman will often allow you to bring your camera and try out the lens before buying.


Lastly, for people wishing to avoid sales taxes brought about by buying in-store, consider this: shipping charges. While you may save on the taxes, the savings there will probably be wiped out by the cost of getting the bought online item to your front door. The good news is that some online retailers offer free shipping on some items. Also, with the shopping officially season upon us, many online retailers are more likely to sweeten the deal with free shipping this time of year. Back to taxes, you may or may not have to pay. Generally speaking, if your product ships from a different state, you're off the hook to Uncle Sam.


Yes, online stores are great for convenience and saving money. Millions of satisfied shoppers will attest to this fact. However, it is only fair to point out the down sides to online shopping.


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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Moon to Occult Aldebaran Thanksgiving Morning


Be Thankful because tomorrow morning, the Moon will occult (eclipse) Aldebaran around 5:45am EST. While lunar occultations of stars are not overly rare, an occultation of such a bright star is a bit of a rarity. To see the show, go out about 5:30am and train your telescope on the Moon. To get exact time Aldebaran will suddenly blink off as the Moon moves in front of the star (there being no atmosphere on the Moon, there will be no dimming, only an abrupt disappearance) go to this website and plug in your latitude and longitude. As the time approaches, stare into the eyepiece and wait for the eye of Taurus to abruptly vanish. Another idea: hook up a video recording device to the telescope and record the event as it happens! Yes, it comes at anything but a convenient hour for most people but this is an event worth getting up early for!

Clear skies and good luck!


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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

How to Avoid Sales Gimmicks

The goal of any salesman, or woman, is to sell products in order to get an extra, per sale commission for each item sold. So the more things you sell, the more you make. Now that we know why store workers can be sometimes rather pushy in trying to sell a product, we will delve into ways that people can often be coerced into buying a camera.

1. The megapixel myth. Often sharing real estate on the front of a camera right with the manufacturer's name is the megapixel count. This is most often seen on compact point and shoots. The aim is this: trick beginners into thinking that lots of pixels are good. Wrong! In fact, more pixels are often worse for image quality. Why? Because when it comes to pixels,
pixel density is what really counts. Take any sensor of a given size. If you want to cram more pixels onto that particular sensor without increasing its size, there is only one thing to do: decrease pixel size. Small pixels gather less light, which offers less signal to drown out any background noise. The result: crappy pictures.
Nowadays, it's hard to find even a cheap camera under 14Mp. I've made great 8”x11” prints with 3Mp images. For most of us, giving some room to crop, 5-6Mp should be sufficient. Fortunately, the megapixel madness seems to be ending, as many manufacturers are now taking a different approach to pixel counts, either holding steady or even reducing them.
2. Tons of file size options. Today's cameras come with all kinds of options for your picture files. Beyond file formats, there are the “quality” settings, which are basically the image sizes. Think about it: who needs half a dozen picture sizes? I always find myself using one or two: full size or smallest size. Why? If you care about your images, you want all the flexibility of RAW and none of the limitations of JPEGs, which truly stink when it comes to retaining detail at high sensitivity. Then, if you want to resize your images, you can always do that later. If you want convenience and room on your memory card/hard drive, shoot low quality JPEG. A 2Mp image will fill most computer screens with room to spare and will be plenty to make your less photographically inclined friends/family happy when you decide to share the pictures.
3. Shooting modes by the truckload. Again, this is another compact point and shoot transgression. In an effort to make the cameras as user friendly as possibly, manufacturers load them with shooting modes that anyone who actually bothers to learn a little about photography will ever need. Portrait, landscape, macro, sports, night, dusk, kids, fireworks, group photo, smile detection, indoor, beach, snow, back lighting, and panorama, plus the traditional time value, aperture value, and full manual. Talk about information overload! Some cameras have a dozen or more shooting modes, all of which can just be intimidating because, after all, who wants to use the wrong setting? My advice: get a camera that allows for traditional aperture and time priority, plus full manual control, learn about achieving proper exposure, then take some pictures.
4. Magnification mania. Again, this is a point and shoot problem. Some cameras will boast zooming powers of over 50, or even 100x magnification! Sounds good until you consider the major catch: most of this is what is called “digital zoom,” which basically crops off the edges of the images, leaving a tiny, low resolution center that appears to be greatly magnified since the edges of the picture are gone. Besides the huge loss of resolution, there is also the problem of avoiding camera shake, which, like the subject, will also be greatly magnified at such extreme telephoto focal lengths.
5. Electronic image stabilization. In an effort to suppress camera shake (mentioned above), good cameras will utilize sensor or lens based stabilization. To cut costs, manufactures employ another type of stabilization, which is called electronic stabilization. In fact, electronic stabilization is not stabilization at all, it is in-camera sharpening. This is the same thing you can do yourself in even the most basic photo editing software. The problem with electronic stabilization is that it can only work effectively on the shots with the slightest blur to sharpen up the edges while sensor and lens based stabilization will prevent blur altogether, but only to a point that depends on how steady your hands are.
6. Stratospheric ISO settings. While the megapixel race was the chief marketing ploy of digital's first decade, the focus seems to have shifted to insanely high ISO settings for low light/action shooting. Just a few years ago, point and shoots usually stopped at ISO 400. Simultaneously, most digital SLRs maxed out at ISO 3200. Then came Nikon's D3 in 2007 with the then astounding ISO 25,600 setting. Needless to say, with everyone maxed out at ISO 3200, the cameras following the D3, both P&S and SLR, upped their ISO levels, with SLRs seeking to break the ISO 10,000 barrier and P&S models entering ISO 3200 territory, formerly the SLR realm. Now, we're up over ISO 200,000! Any camera regardless of type is going to be noisy at its top ISO settings, so don't be suckered in to buying a camera for it's “class-leading” ISO settings, which will just give you a grainy, color splotched mess. To be safe, consider the ISO setting 2 f-stops down from maximum as the highest usable, but even this may be generous on some models.
Extended warranties. Last but not least, don't get suckered into buying an extended warranty. Cameras come with manufacturer warranties, typically of year's duration. With all their complexities, if a digital camera is going to break, there's a very good chance that it will do so by the time the year is up. This is what is sometimes referred to as “infant mortality” because a camera, if it's going to break, will often break within days of coming out of the box. And if your camera is still working good after a year, there's a good chance that it will enjoy a long, productive life. Back to the warranties, unless the warranty offers accidental damage protection, skip it. Warranty providers will look for any sign of “abuse”to get out of fixing your camera because fixing a camera at their expense costs money and thus adversely impacts their profits. Preaching great customer service is one thing, practicing it is another.

Now that you have some tips for camera buying this
Christmas season, go out into the hostile world of retail can use this wisdom to your advantage!


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Why Extended Warranties are a Scam

Millions of people will head to stores on busiest shopping day of the year. Many of them will return home as victims of a scam. Forget calling the police, they can't do anything about it, as the con you and millions of others have fallen for was perfectly legal. So what is this con job being legally perpetrated against Americans all over the country? Two words: extended warranties.
Extended warranties are undeniably good for two parties: the retailer and the salesman. The retailer gets more money. The salesman gets an extra commission. These are the reasons stores and salesmen push extended warranties for cameras and other electronic devices so much. They want their money first thing, any concern for you probably comes in a distant second. Extended warranties give stores and salesmen money, and consumers a lighter wallet. So why are extended warranties a con job?
Extended warranties are a scam because, chances are, you'll never need them. Manufacturers offer full warranties for their products, provided they're factory sealed and have entered the country of destination via the designated courier. Obviously, gray market and refurbished items don't get a manufacturer's warranty. The lower cost comes at a price. Back onto warranties. The manufacturer's warranty will normally cover any repairs needed because of “normal wear and tear” within a given time frame from the date of purchase. The good news is that things as complex as today's electronics, if faulty, will probably break within a year, if not much sooner. Chances are, if your camera works fine for a year, it will keep right on working for a long time to come.
Besides cost consideration comes what the warranty will and will not cover. Most extended warranties will only cover repairs from “normal wear and tear,” which leaves a lot of room for interpretation. Companies may brag about great customer service, but fixing a product at their own expense costs the repair company money. Because of this, the company may refuse to repair your equipment if, in their eyes, the equipment shows signs of “abuse,” which could be as minor as paint wearing off from regular usage or as major as being waterlogged after being caught in a sudden rainstorm. Unless it is a warranty that specifically covers accidental damage, almost anything can warrant repair service being denied. The warranty company gets your money and you get your broken camera back.
So, when that salesperson offers you an extended warranty, think carefully. Unless the warranty specifically covers accidental damage, skip it. A much more encompassing alternative to an extended warranty is insurance, which should protect against damage and even theft, which no warranty will cover. Check with your home insurance company to see if it is possible to get a rider policy for photo gear attached to the main policy. Having done this myself and knowing other people who have also done so, I can safely say that this is a lot cheaper than any warranty and offers complete protection and piece of mind that warranties don't.


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How to Avoid Buying a Junk Telescope

The year is already winding to a close, which means that Christmas, the time for gift giving, is just around the corner. So, if you're looking to buy a telescope for someone else or yourself, quality should be a prime consideration. So, how can one go about staying clear of the junk telescope blues?

It's easy by following these simple suggestions.

First, the source. Generally speaking, stores that don't specialize in telescopes/optics are not the best source to buy telescopes, or at least high-quality ones. Yes, while deals are a-plenty in those 'mart' stores, one should avoid the telescopes as the low prices are inherent of low quality. Instead, buy from a specialty optics store. Many camera stores also deal in telescopes, too.

Second, look at the box. Generally speaking, screaming advertising ploys of “see Pluto” and “600 power” are there to take advantage of consumer ignorance, as are colorful images. First, as a general rule of optics, 1 inch of aperture is good for 50x power so, to get 600x, one would need a 12 inch scope. The pictures? Many people new to astronomy assume that they will be able to see such things through scopes, which is completely untrue.

Size matters. In telescopes, 1 ¼ inch is the standard size for eyepieces. These same scopes, through adapters, can also be made to use 2 inch eyepieces, too. On the other hand, junk telescopes come with .965” inch eyepieces. Besides being similar to looking through peepholes (not easy), the small eyepieces are a red flag announcing that the telescope is junk.

Build quality/attention to detail. If there is a display model telescope set up, look at it. If either the scope or mount has a lot of plastic, skip it. Low build quality denotes junk. Also, if the scope is on a alt.-az. or equatorial mount, if it doesn't come with fine adjustment knobs, looking elsewhere is probably a good idea as high-quality scopes include these very useful items.

Computers are costly. Going to show that technology isn't always good, there are cheap telescope setups with computerization selling for around $250. Avoid these toys at all cost! A good computerized mount along (no scope included) will sell for around $600. When it comes to computer-controlled scopes, this is one case where you always get what you pay for.

As a last tip, trust the above tips, not manufacturer nameplate. At one time, the big three of American astronomy, Orion, Celestron, and Meade, were synonymous with quality. Not anymore. Everyone is selling cheap, sub $100 scopes targeted toward buyers who don't want to pay much. The companies get their money and the ignorant buyers get the shaft, showing the importance of doing your research.

Yes, there are a lot of telescopes and companies selling them but, with a little reading, avoiding the junk scope blues is an easy thing to do.

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Monday, November 23, 2015

Shop Till You Drop Week Smart Buying Advice

It's the unofficial shop till you drop week as, starting on Thursday, formerly a national holiday called Thanksgiving, stores will be seriously slashing the prices on goods in order to lure in shoppers and kick off the Christmas spending spree season. So, with the pressure on to buy, buy, buy, a voice of reason is needed to counter all of those screaming advertisements. To that end, look for a series of smart shopping articles to appear this week and next. Hopefully, one of them could save you a little money or just serve to expose the tactics merchants and manufacturers use in order to induce people into buying a product or service.

Specific Advice:
How to Avoid Buying a Junk Telescope
Why Extended Warranties are a Scam
Avoiding Sales Gimmicks


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Monday, November 9, 2015

United States Seeks to Protect the Grid, Unveils National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan


The United States government has just announced the framework for a plan to protect the power grid from a major solar storm. The two documents, officially known as National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan, detail a 6-part plan details preparations that need to be made in 6 areas to better protect the grid. For people in the know (many people don't even know that solar and space weather exists at all), this comes as belated but welcome news considering that the government's previous strategy was one of keeping its fingers crossed and hoping the run of good luck would continue.

So, why should you care about space weather and the grid?

First up, space weather. For anyone who didn't know that space weather even existed, here's proof that it does in a form that just about everyone has heard about: the aurora, also known as the Northern Lights.

The aurora are caused when the energized particles from the Sun come into contact with Earth's upper atmosphere. When the charged particles hit Earth, they react with the atoms in Earth's upper atmosphere, which become energized themselves and then give off the photons we see as the Northern Lights. Why are the lights different colors? Each individual type of atom gives off a different glow when energized.

Needless to say, no harm can come because of the aurora, which represent a gentle shower on the scale of space weather severity. But what about a solar hurricane? What would one of those look like?

Answer: the Carrington Event.

The year was 1859 and it was during this year that the Earth was subjected to the strongest solar storm ever recorded. Named after Richard Carrington, the astronomer first to discover the storm's origin was a series of sunspots, the storm was so strong that aurora were visible over Hawaii and telegraph lines caught fire around the Sun-facing side of the world. Needless to say, 1859 electronic technology was limited to the telegraph as even the incandescent light bulb was still 2 decades in the future. So, in the case of 1859 electronics vs. the solar superstorm, the storm literally fried the only electronics we had at the time.

In the event of a power blackout today, for ordinary people, having to do without a cell phone, satellite TV, and GPS would be an annoyance. For policymakers, who have finally seen the light in regards to taking action to keep us out of the dark, the real worry is the nation's electrical grid, which flawlessly (most of the time) supplies power to 360+ million Americans every day. Do you take your electricity for granted? Most of us do. Do you ever have to worry about whether that light will come to life when you flip the switch? Probably not. Needless to say, we are lucky to live in a modern nation where such luxuries are seen as necessities and taken as just being part of the way the world works.

As for what could happen if a Carrington-magnitude event hit today, things wouldn't be pretty.

Worst case scenario: transformers, power lines, and capacitors all across the nation get fried, the grid goes down, and power could be out for months, putting us back to a largely preindustrial way of life until the power eventually gets restored. Total cost: up to $2.5 billion on the high range of the estimates.

Next up, our nation's electric supply system, commonly known as 'the grid.'

For all of our wealth and technology, some analysts warn that our power grid is both out-dated and severely lacking in safety measures designed to prevent a rolling blackout. The grid was not built with a master plan, rather it was added to and modified as our appetite for electricity increased, the service area expanded, and technology improved. Result: an electrical hodgepodge of sorts supplying power all across the nation. Why the mix of old and new? Money. It would be simply too expensive for the power companies to update their service areas all at once and the customers? The call center lines would probably be alight with angry customers over any service disruptions (probably only in the hours) brought about by the updating. End result: leave things be and fix them when something goes wrong. It doesn't take an engineer to see that our nation as a whole has been rather neglectful of its power supply system, without which we would be transported over 100 years back into time.

Well, now things may be starting to change.

In the new The White House documents, these specific actions are what are called for: 1) Establish benchmarks showing how commonly severe space-weather events occur; 2) Improve the ability to respond to, and recover from, such events; 3) Reduce or eliminate vulnerabilities to flares and geomagnetic storms; 4) Improve predictions about impacts on critical infrastructure; 5) Improve forecasts of space-weather events, and knowledge of space weather more generally; and 6) Increase international cooperation (because impacts of extreme events will likely be felt across the globe).

Now, while it is good that our leaders are finally starting to take the much overdue task of insulating the grid seriously, one must remember that the White House proposal is just that, a proposal. As with all government spending, any bill authorizing money for fortifying the grid must originate in the House of Representatives.

Hopefully those in Washington DC, the town that can't agree on anything, will come to their senses and set aside the funding to protect the grid, which is something anyone with any common sense would agree is a good idea.


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