May 2012

I started my blog back in December 2010 and it's still going strong. I've posted at least once post a month since then, so feel free to browse through the archives.

Astronomy Photos in May 2012

Last weekend I went to see the York Astronomical Society to hang out and do some astronomy. This time of year the days are starting to get long and it doesn’t get dark until very late, but there are still plenty of things to see.

Here’s Venus just poking out near where the Sun had set. It’s much dimmer than it was a couple of months ago, due the amount of sun light that’s actually reflecting from the surface.

You can even make out the crescent shape of Venus with this photograph, though it looked much better through a telescope.

I also took my first ever photographs (and video) of the Sun through a telescope.

Plane Crossing The Sun

Last weekend I had my first play with taking photographs of our closest star through fellow astronomer Martin Whipp’s telescope *. After I’d taken a load of photographs I thought I’d just start off a video and see what happens.

Coincidently an aeroplane ‘photobombed‘ the shot by flying between me and the Sun. Here it is slowed down to one quarter speed. Pretty cool, right?

* Never point any kind of optical equipment at the sun unless you have a special filter! It’s very dangerous and could damage your camera, or worse – your eyes.

Using the Xbox 360

I recently decided to get an Xbox 360 to replace my ageing desktop computer, and here are my initial thoughts after running with it for a couple of weeks.

Music and Video

The main reason I got the Xbox 360 is not for games, its primary purpose is to replace my old desktop computer with a new way to access entertainment:

  • Streaming music from my laptop using the built in Xbox media player
  • Zune Music and Video through Zune Pass
  • Lovefilm streaming for films and TV shows
  • iPlayer and 4oD for on demand television

Watching programs like Red Dwarf on Lovefilm has been very cool, as well as using Zune Pass to quickly find new albums and music videos. It’s generally a lot nicer to be able to run these entertainment experiences on the Xbox verses the PC.

Installing and Playing games

One of the things that the Xbox lets me do is install games directly onto the system – much like you can on a PC. This means that the software can load faster and the machine itself can be a lot quieter, as it does not need to spin up the optical media to load assets. I got the Xbox 360 256 GB * which is the newer Xbox 360 S design. This is already pretty quiet, so having a game installed like this makes the whole experience a lot nicer for a living room. As playing each game has its own personality, so I won’t be going into any at this point. In this case I’m going to focus on more of the interface and apps.

The ‘Metro’ Dashboard

Yup, Microsoft are making some amazing strides in their user interface unification. By crafting all of their major operating systems on the new Metro design language, they’re creating a consistent experience for users to interact with their electronics. The Xbox 360′s latest dashboard update included a large amount of these Metro principles – though I believe the transformation is not yet complete (at time of writing, naturally). This is due to the ‘Metro style‘ philosophy only going as far as the design language of the main home screen, most of the operating system is the same as it was before, including the pop-up ‘Blade style’ guide, to ‘NXE style’ menus.

Launching and running other Apps

Apps like Facebook and Twitter are lacking the integration that applications like Windows Phone and Windows 8 are capable of. You don’t notice so much with single tasked apps like iPlayer because the main focus is to single task – watching something. Social applications require more multitasking. I would love to see Facebook chat work like the Messenger integration, and the ability to pin apps (or deep links from apps) directly to the dashboard is a must.

* Note that they refer to the consoles by size now, rather than calling one Arcade or Elite like they did with the early Xbox 360 units. That’s better if you ask me.

Computers for 2012 and beyond

Because I got all my computers around the same time, they seem to have aged at same time. This year I plan on replacing all of the general purpose computers in one fell swoop that should keep me going until then next generation.

Here’s what I had at the start of the year:

  • Desktop – a 2008 beasty Dell XPS with two graphics cards and lots of fans
  • MacBook – a 2008 MacBook running Windows 7
  • Phone – a Windows Phone
  • Tablet PC – a 2007 Toshiba Tablet PC running Windows 7 that didn’t get much use

Here’s what I have planned for the end of the year:

  • Xbox – a living room entertainment system, mostly for music and video
  • Laptop – a Windows 8 laptop, probably around the 13 inch mark
  • Phone – a Windows Phone
  • Tablet – a Windows RT* tablet

I hadn’t really used my Toshiba Tablet PC a great deal in the last couple of years, mostly due to the fact I started using Windows 7 full time on my MacBook and the Tablet PC was only really used for drawing with the Wacom screen. Thankfully, I’ve already handed this computer on to a friend of mine who will no doubt make much better use of its capabilities.

Replacing what was essentially a laptop with a general purpose tablet will definitely be beneficial. As well as enabling new forms of mobility I haven’t really had before (yes, I’m totally jealous of my fellow astronomers with their iPads), it will also sync with my Windows laptop so that all the Metro-style applications are ready to go on either machine. I’ll probably go for whatever tablet most takes my fancy before the Windows 8 launch, but to be considered they’d have to be capable of having mobile broadband, GPS and sensors including accelerometer and compass enabling some of the more exciting Metro-style apps that are expected.

Picking a Windows 8 laptop might be a little bit harder, as I have been spoilt by the excellent craftsmanship in the MacBook. I know that manufacturers like HP and Dell should be capable of making such a machine, but deciding which one is a lot harder than simply choosing another Apple. But – Apple are not going to be an option, unless they include all the new Windows 8 goodness like touchscreen and sensors mentioned above – and going by Apple’s history of ‘quality’ Windows drivers, I’m not holding my breath.

As for right now – the Xbox has been a good replacement from my old, loud desktop computer. People who know me will know that I don’t watch television, so getting a TV screen and an Xbox in the living room is not probably not going to make me start wasting vast amounts of time by sitting in front of the screen, it’s more about simplifying what I was doing on my desktop computer: Surfing the web, doing emails, listening to music and watching video. Surfing the web and doing email can be done on either a laptop or a tablet just as well as on the desktop, so it made much more sense for the entertainment uses to take primary focus.

The Xbox is more than capable of looking after the music and video in my flat, and I’ll write up some of my thoughts about this shortly.

As with everything, I’m always trying to simplify. This solution is definitely simpler than previous setups, thought we’ll see if the numbers will eventually go down. I wouldn’t be shocked to be rocking a tablet/laptop hybrid with a docking station in a few years, reducing the number of computers even further.

* Windows RT is the name of what was previously known as WOA or Windows on Arm. Not to be confused with the WinRT development platform. Or something.

Full Moon in May 2012

There was plenty of talk in the news of the “supermoon” phenomenon, which meant that the full moon appeared to be visually larger and brighter in the sky than usual. Here’s a picture of the moon taken on Saturday night in Thorner just outside of Leeds.

As you can see there was just enough cloud to stop a clear shot, and on Sunday night it wasn’t much better.

Though to be honest I didn’t mind the cloud, as I really like these pictures of the full moon rising through them in the distance, as taken from The York Astronomical Society‘s observatory just outside of York.

The problem with the moon being so bright (and orange when rising) is that you don’t get much detail, but by putting the shutter speed down you can pick up much more detail on the surface.

While I was at it, I also directed my camera towards Venus to take this rather cool photo of it directly below Alpha Arietis.

The York Astronomical Society 40th Anniversary

This last weekend marked the 40th anniversary of The York Astronomical Society, and what a weekend it was – action packed with no less than six talks and plenty of fun.

On Friday night we had the company of Dr. Allan Chapman talking about Johannes Hevelius which was absolutely fascinating, then on Saturday morning we had Prof. Monica Grady, talking about how science analyses the materials brought to earth via meteorites to build models on the creation of the solar system, then Martin Dawson shared a brief history of YAS which included lots of information about previous observatories.

Saturday afternoon included cutting of the cake, and three more talks including Paul Money on his favourite images of The Space Shuttle, Nik Syzmanek with some amazing astrophotography and Dame Professor Jocelyn Bell-Burnell on the story of gold. As a space flight fan, my favourite talk had to be Paul’s, however I found all of them extremely interesting.

To finish off the weekend, the faithful returned to the observatory on the Sunday night to do some real astronomy in the cold. I took the opportunity to capture a few photographs of a very impressive looking moon like the one shown above (and more to come!)

I’ve been a member of The York Astronomical Society for a few years now, and I thoroughly enjoyed the celebrations.

Many thanks to everyone who was involved in making it all happen.