27 December 2012

Windows 8 Redux

The last post on this subject was in late October, just before the release of Windows 8, and several weeks before the release of Deep-Sky Planner 6. Now, just eight weeks later, we have a final test report on Deep-Sky Planner 6 running under Windows 8, and an emerging trend with Windows 8 sales.

First the good news

Testing has revealed no problems with Deep-Sky Planner 6 running under Windows 8 64-bit. It seems that the changes made by Microsoft to Windows didn't really affect Deep-Sky Planner. This developer is delighted not to be headed for the kind of new OS woes that occurred with Vista.

Now, the mixed news

Microsoft hasn't released actual sales figures, but Windows marketing/CFO announced in late November that 40 million licenses were sold in the first month of availability, putting it ahead of Windows 7 sales. This figure is the total number of units shipped to end users, computer manufacturers and retailers. That sounds good for MS, except that the press is full of stories of customers buying new computers with Windows 8 and returning them. We don't know how many of those 40 million units will remain sold. Computer manufacturers have been lamenting the lag in end-of-year sales compared to projections, and product reviews seem to be predominately negative or mixed at best.

Bottom line: fourth quarter 2012 sales reports should be illuminating.

Observations and minor gripes

It is blatantly obvious that the GUI design team wanted to make the UI look like that of a mobile device. Slider switches are used in place of check boxes. Live Tiles are used instead of icons. These are just semantic changes that users can deal with. The changes that seem much harder to defend involve widely used features in Windows 7 that have been obscured or removed from Windows 8.

For example, Microsoft Security Essentials (MSE) was available for Windows 7 and did a fine job of scanning, detecting and fixing viruses and malware. MSE is gone in Windows 8. Its capability has been merged into Windows Defender. Ok. Windows Defender gets virus updates and scans for malware, but the scheduler is gone.  If you don't leave your computer on all of the time, it is very likely that your computing time will be interrupted by a Windows Defender security scan. Worse, once you find Windows Defender and run it, you'll find that 'Scheduled scans' is missing from the Settings tab.

The workaround suggested by Microsoft is to use the system task scheduler to set up system scans. Wow. How many average Windows users have ever used the system task scheduler? How did this make it through usability testing? (It wouldn't have passed at Knightware.) You can do scheduled malware scans with Windows 8, but why remove a working scheduler from Windows Defender? Can you remember using any security software that didn't include a scheduling feature? I'd hate to be tech support for that one.

Bonus example: have you figured out how to get Hibernate on your shutdown menu? Mobile devices use Sleep (context saved in RAM, CPU in standby) instead of Hibernate (context saved to storage, storage device powered down, CPU in standby), so there must be no need for Hibernate to be handy. Alas, Hibernate can be configured back into the shutdown menu, but why was it exiled from there by the installer? Another hint that Microsoft really wants the mobile device market, even at the expense of their dominating position in the desktop and laptop market.

The bigger picture: the Start Menu

The trend seen by this author is that users with touch screens find the new Windows 8 UI acceptable, but there is little touchscreen hardware in the Windows user base, and there are very few applications that implement the new capabilities. Most keyboard and mouse users either use a third-party utility (e.g., Start8) to bring the Start Menu back to Windows 8, or they revert back to using Windows 7. Surely some stick with the Windows 8 Start page and learn to deal with it. This author is dealing with it but not liking it.

This suggests that there are 2 very separate high-level use cases for a personal/productivity OSes: the tablet/mobile market, and the desktop/laptop market. This is precisely the model that designers at Apple addressed with two separate products (iOS and Mac OS). Whether Microsoft designers can address these two use cases with a single product remains to be seen. It does raise the very fundamental question of why the Start Menu is not even optional with Windows 8 - it is simply gone.

The market seems to be saying that keyboard and mouse users really want Start Menu back. Touchscreen users can do without. That leaves developers watching carefully to see how this plays out.


The story of Windows 8 will be interesting to watch. If you use Windows, you really should watch the show. In this author's use, Windows 8 rates thusly:

  1. Starts from Sleep almost instantly.
  2. Runs some applications faster.
  3. Start page can be configured so that a very few favorite program tiles are convenient.
  4. Good for children's electronic doodling as shown in a current Windows 8 ad.

  1. UI changes for laptop and desktop installations have made using Windows more clumsy. This affects productivity, and there is not a compelling feature offered in Windows 8 that counteracts the negative impact on productivity. When is Service Pack 1 coming?

22 December 2012

Mobile Astronomy

I continue to be amused at the capabilities emerging for mobile astronomy. While there are several mobile applications available to astronomers with smartphones and tablets, the combination I have at the moment is Deep-Sky Planner on Windows 7 plus either Sky Commander (digital setting circles) or SkySafari Plus (planetarium software) on an Android phone.

I have found that I can use the extensive planning features in Deep-Sky Planner to create observing lists that I can load into Sky Commander or my phone for use with SkySafari. I am working with a push-to telescope (no GoTo).

The Sky Commander option works well for finding asteroids and other objects that aren't in the Sky Commander database. This is actually my favorite option as I have worked in push-to mode for many years with the Sky Commander and printed charts. The greatest drawback with this method is that Sky Commander identifies custom objects with only a sequential ID number. I have to keep track of ID # 1 = asteroid Toutatis, for example. Users of Argo Navis get the text name which is most helpful. Deep-Sky Planner can format custom files for upload into Argo Navis; I just don't have one.

In my use, the SkySafari option is more or less a digital notepad that also shows the sky context in which the object may be found. It works quite well even though I am operating with a few limitations:
  • I am using the intermediate version of SkySafari - not the pro version. The database is not as complete as I sometimes need. Should this become too great a limitation, I can upgrade to Pro.
  • I am using SkySafari on a smartphone. The screen is small, although it is larger than many models (it's a Motorola phone with a 4.3" screen). I don't find that the size of the planetarium view on my phone is sufficient for every target. This may not be a problem at all for others.
  • I do not use telescope control, so I rely on the coordinates given by SkySafari to use with my Sky Commander digital setting circles. I use the same technique when running Deep-Sky Planner on a laptop at the telescope.
Even with these limitations, I am able to take observing lists anywhere, anytime. It doesn't fit my needs for every observing session, but it's so darned handy! I can also log into the Deep-Sky Planner Plan Library and browse hundreds of plans with the browser on my phone. This is a terrific help when the plan prepared for the evening goes awry and a new one would serve better.

If you want to learn more about using a full-featured observing/imaging planner with SkySafari, please see this knowledgebase article on the Knightware website. It walks you through a complete example of using Deep-Sky Planner with SkySafari on an Android phone.

Search menu on SkySafari (Android) shows Custom Observing Lists

Custom list 'RASC Finest NGC Objects' uploaded from Deep-Sky Planner displayed in SkySafari (Android)

16 December 2012

Bernes Bright Nebulae

An observing plan containing Claes Berne's 160 "bright nebulosities in opaque dust clouds" has been uploaded to the Deep-Sky Planner Plan Library. Announcements of new plan uploads are typically made on the Deep-Sky Planner Facebook page, but this plan deserves a little background information.

Dr. Bernes original study appeared in Astronomy and Astrophysics Supplement Series, vol. 29, July 1977, p. 65-70. The study surveyed optical wavelength photographic plates in an effort to list star forming regions. The original article and abstract are available online from SAO/NASA ADS Astronomy Abstract Service.

The 160 entries in  the study contain reflection and emission nebulae, and many Herbig-Haro objects, a special type of emission nebula surrounding young stars. Some of these objects can be observed in moderate sized amateur telescopes, but others require large instruments and/or dedicated CCD imaging equipment. The objects are distributed across the entire sky so that both northern and southern hemisphere observers can observe many of these objects.

The original publication listed positions referred to epoch B1950.0. The uploaded plan includes updated positions (referred to epoch J2000.0), cross references and magnitudes taken from SIMBAD. Object size, relative brightness codes and some cross references are included from the original publication.

These objects are not suitable for novice observers, but they present a nice challenge for observers with moderate to large instruments and deep-sky imagers.

24 October 2012

Windows 8

The big release of Windows 8 looms on Friday. We have been testing Deep-Sky Planner 5 running under Windows 8 Enterprise (RTM) for a few months now, and we haven't found any problems. Fortunately, it seems that compatibility with Windows 7 is a sufficient condition for compatibility with Windows 8. That includes inter-operation with planetarium software and telescope control using ASCOM 6.

Knightware will acquire a retail copy of Windows 8 for internal testing, but Windows 7 will remain the OS of choice for everyday development and other work. We also maintain testbeds running the venerable Windows XP and the much maligned Windows Vista.

Having used Windows 8 a bit, I cannot understand the motivation for burying the desktop UI behind a needlessly awkward tablet UI for desktop users. While I wouldn't underestimate the marketing prowess at Microsoft, it seems like Apple did it right: two separate OSes for desktop and tablet. Time will tell which strategy succeeds.

My discussions with people about Windows 8 have revealed no fans so far. My favorite discussion, with an engineering student, panned it completely. Can you imagine engineering spreadsheets being used productively on a tablet? Well, not with current UI practices, that's for sure!

Windows 8 may sell, or it may flop. I suspect that tablet users may like it, but desktop users will not. Regardless, it appears that Deep-Sky Planner 5 runs well under Windows 8 - if you can determine how to launch it!

21 September 2012

Mobile Astronomy

A poll has been running all summer on Knightware's Deep-Sky Planner web page regarding the use of mobile devices for astronomy. The results are definitely surprising.

The poll asks 'which mobile device do you use for astronomy?' When the poll began, we expected the majority vote-getter would be iOS devices (iPad/iPhone/iPod), followed by Android and None. Mobile astronomy software makers like Southern Stars report that their iOS app sales are far more than their Android app sales. Further, the hoopla surrounding each iPad/iPhone release is a marketing extravaganza, so iOS seemed to be a slam dunk prediction.

Poll results at the time of this writing are different. Surprisingly, Android has the lead at 46%, followed by iOS at 30%, and None at 24%. Android has held the lead for the duration of the poll too.

The poll will remain open for a few more weeks, so please cast a vote if you like. The poll is found on the Deep-Sky Planner product page. Final results will be posted here when the poll concludes.

Another Twist: Windows 8

Knightware has been testing its software products on Windows 8. Fortunately, test results indicate full compatibility so far. Having used Windows 8 for only a short time, it's hard to predict how the public will accept it, although the opinion of it at Knightware is not so good. Perhaps it will become a significant player in the mobile astronomy market, but that seems to be some years away.

18 June 2012

Knightware poll results: What is your favorite sky atlas?

The latest poll running on knightware.biz asked 'What is your favorite sky atlas?' The response tally below was definitely a surprise to me regarding the 1st and 2d place finishers.
  1. Pocket Sky Atlas (Sinnott): 33%
  2. Sky Atlas 2000.0 (Tirion): 30%
  3. Uranometria 2000.0 1st Ed (Tirion, Rappaport and Lovi): 6%
  4. Millennium Star Atlas (Sinnott & Perryman): 6%
  5. Herald-Bobroff AstroAtlas (Herald and Bobroff): 3%
  6. Uranometria 2000 2d Ed. (Tirion, Rappaport, and Remaklus): 3%
  7. Other: 18%
According to the results, Roger Sinnott's Pocket Sky Atlas is repondents' favorite sky atlas, receiving 33% of the votes. I own this atlas and I like it. Frankly I think every observer should have this little atlas due to its handy size and completeness. It isn't a super deep atlas, but it is absolutely the handiest atlas I've ever had. I keep a light wedge with my PSA so that it is ready to go at all times.

Sky Atlas 2000.0 by Wil Tirion had led the poll from the beginning, but it was surpassed in the last few weeks by Pocket Sky Atlas. I've been through a few copies of SA2000, and I suppose that it is my favorite. I learned that even though I take a laptop with planetarium software on it when I observe, I should always have non-electronic charts available. Laptops can fail at inopportune times. Perhaps I've used SA2000 long enough to know the image scale to finderscope translation without thinking much about it. Further, I use it primarily to find deep-sky objects and a very few double stars.

Next comes a tie between Uranometria 2000.0, 1st Ed. and Millennium Star Atlas at 6%. The 2 volume Uranometria set accompanied me out to observe for many years, but now I never use it. I think I stopped using it because it is bulky (2 hardbound volumes), the layout is illogical to me, and the dew here in North Carolina does not agree with its beautifully printed but uncoated pages. Generally I use planetarium software these days to go deep - tiny, dim galaxies and planetaries.

Millennium Star Atlas (also at 6%) never found its way to my bookshelf. I thought many times of getting a set, but it would be for indoor use only and it was a bit expensive. I suspect that those that have this set really like them - after all, it may turn out to be the last great printed atlas.

Finally we have Herald-Bobroff AstroAtlas (HB) and Uranometria 2000.0 2nd Ed. in a tie at 3% each. I am surprised that the HB atlas didn't rate much higher. I borrowed a copy a few years ago and was very impressed. My only problem with it was that some charts were in tiny print and were hard to read (I ain't as young as I used to be!) I think the main reason it received only 3% is that it is out of print. It is a fantastic atlas and I would buy a copy if one came along at a good price. A no-brainer!

Uranometria 2000.0 2nd Ed. never appealed to me because I had the first edition. The second edition cures the illogical layout problem with the first, but it didn't cure the bulkiness and uncoated paper issues. Still, it fills a nice gap between SA2000 and MSA at a competitive price.

The Bottom Line

If I had to recommend an atlas to a new telescope owner, it would be Pocket Sky Atlas. Perhaps that's why it edged out SA2000.

25 May 2012

Spring Cleaning Part 2

Eyepiece Cleaning Supplies
How often do you clean your eyepieces? I haven't cleaned all of mine in ages. I typically clean one that is in obvious need, but rarely do I attack all of them. The greatest need seems to arise after public observing events where 'junior' puts his finger squarely on the eye lens and asks 'is this where I look?' Unlike my male counterparts, I also have the mascara issue. I have a feeling that mascara is really bad on lens coatings so I try to avoid mixing the two, but that doesn't work with the public.

This spring I decided to clean all of my eyepieces - I have a modest collection of early TeleVue Naglers and Widefield eyepieces. For years I've used an air bulb to remove debris, and Kodak lens cleaning solution to get the greasy kidstuff. I haven't been happy with that result, so I consulted my mirror-making friend Jim. He has a real eyepiece collection. His requires a kid's wagon for transporting some 80 eyepieces in the collection. With that many eyepieces, one gains some experience in cleaning.

Jim recommended that I get a new box of cotton swabs (Q-tips), a new can of compressed air, ROR lens cleaner and a new can of acetone. ROR is short for Residual Oil Remover, and I found it in my local camera shop. ROR is also online at http://www.ror.net . Once I gathered my supplies and eyepieces, I headed over to Jim's for some on-the-job-training.

Jim's method is this:
1) Use compressed air (held vertically and not shaken) to blow off debris. I like an air bulb as it doesn't go empty.
2) Use a drop or two of ROR on a swab to clean the lens. Swab all glass surfaces gently. Use the back end of the swab to dry off the ROR. Repeat until the lens surface looks clean, or the ROR is no longer removing gunk.
3) Use a drop or two of acetone on a swab to clean the surface. The acetone dries very quickly so drying with the back side of the swab is probably not needed.
4) Continue alternating steps 2 & 3 until the lens is clean. I mean really clean.
5) Last, a little breath on the lens followed by a very light swabbing reveals any lingering gunk or a pristine lens. In the former case, go back to step 2.

As I worked through my eyepiece collection, I built up a nice pile of dead Q-tips. Although it seems like waste, it really isn't. They are a key component in the cleaning ritual and a dirty Q-tip is a bad Q-tip. Just use 'em.

Since my eyepieces were overdue for cleaning, I repeated the process on the field lenses of each eyepiece. Now the whole collection is ready for photons - at least until the next finger pokes at an eye lens!

21 May 2012

Spring Cleaning

The southeastern US has emerged from pollen season, so it is time for the annual optics cleaning chores. I try not to clean my telescope mirrors more than once per year. They are covered when stored, but dirt finds its way on to my optics during both storage and observing.

For years I have used a cleaning formula passed down from a professional optician (thanks Don!) Generally, I use distilled water + 91% isopropyl alcohol + a drop or two of biodegradeable detergent. I use sterile cotton to gently swab the surface from the center outward, and I rinse very thoroughly with distilled water. Last winter, I washed my 14.5" mirror and I skipped the swabbing step since the coats were new, but some haze was left behind. Lesson learned - do the gentle swabbing.

After debating the use of isopropyl in mirror cleaning with my mirror-making and telescope-building friends, I decided to track down Jeff Decker, owner of Majestic Coatings, while attending NEAF last month. I wanted to get his recommendation since he coated my 14.5" mirror. I wanted a professional opinion on the isopropyl issue.

Fortunately I found Jeff and was able to discuss cleaning at length with him. We talked about the process and materials that he used on my mirror. Jeff recommended using isopropyl wipes (see below) to gently swab the surface of the mirror. He explained that since the overcoat is silicon dioxide (quartz), the isopropyl should not damage the underlying reflective coat (aluminum). I explained that I had made mirrors for years and that seemed very aggressive, but he reassured me by offering to recoat the mirror should any damage arise.

Given the discussion with Jeff, my mirror cleaning ritual has changed a little. I still use an air bulb to blow dust off the mirror first. Next, I rinse with distilled water and then soak in distilled + a tiny amount of biodegradeable detergent. I rinse after the soak with lots of distilled water, and I blow dry with the air bulb. Finally, I swab very gently with the isopropyl wipe. The wipe I used was very saturated, so I did a final rinse with distilled water and blew off all remaining droplets of water with the air bulb. My mirror is as clean as new now (and the air bulb wore out my hand muscles!)

The isopropyl swabs recommended to me by Jeff  are Clearview wipes from CleanTex. You can find them at http://cleantex.com/old/products/presaturated/clearview.htm . If my coats begin to fail over the coming year, I'll take Jeff up on his offer to recoat. Since Majestic has been in business for years, I anticipate no problems. Instead I expect to have a clean, happy mirror.

Next time - eyepiece cleaning.

03 May 2012

The Elusive Implication of Surface Brightness

I saw the following question on CloudyNights.com regarding the visibility of extended objects and surface brightness:
"What I am interested in is finding some way to calibrate surface brightness to the chances of seeing the object in my scope."

This seems to be a popular feature for planning software. I find it a fascinating topic and I have studied it myself. My general feeling is that the ideas described in Roger Clark's Visual Astronomy of the Deep Sky help to address the question, but these alone are insufficient.

I was delighted to see this response to the question above from Sky & Telescope's Tony Flanders:
"Nobody can give you a formula that will accurately predict an object's visibility -- thank heavens!"
He also explains:
"Another way of looking at it is that the aperture of your telescope places a limit on the total magnitude of the objects you can see. And the quality of your skies places a limit on the surface brightness of the objects you can see."
I like Flanders' analogy. Clark's ideas describe the importance of the difference in contrast between the sky and the extended object. My own study has also identified several additional metrics: sky conditions, weather, personal visual acuity and sensitivity. It is indeed hard to fit all of these elements into a mathematical model that accurately predicts whether an object can be observed.

A visibility prediction feature will find its way into Deep-Sky Planner, though I am still studying the problem now. When it is released, I will state plainly that the prediction is only a model that invites further improvement over time. I truly doubt that a completely accurate model will ever be devised, so an adaptable model is probably the best we can do. That is the current requirement in the Deep-Sky Planner development plan.

01 April 2012

A Red Screen Cover for Smartphones

I am relatively new to smartphones but I have already found 2 good astronomy apps that I like to use while observing: SkySafari (sky charts) and Astro Panel (weather). While SkySafari has a night (red) mode, the display seems a bit bright. Astro Panel doesn't offer a night mode. Further, if you need to use the phone for calls, email or such, the screen is really bright.

Enter the Staunton River Star Party and vendor AstroGizmos. I spoke with Jeff of AstroGizmos about my problem and he quickly produced a red acrylic film large enough for my Android phone at the price of $10. While the price seemed high, the phone was a night vision destroyer, so the deal was made.

I carefully trimmed the film to fit my phone with an Exacto knife. The film came in a plastic sleeve but there was some dust on it anyway. Following instructions that came with the film, I washed and dried it to remove dust and oils. This worked well and I applied my new screen protector over the clear one already on my phone. It adhered nicely with no bubbles.

Next came the closet test - off to a pitch black closet with phone and the new red screen protector applied. I found that SkySafari + red film was good, but SkySafari in night mode + red film was best. Astro Panel + red film was a bit bright but ok for a quick weather check. Other phone functions were legible and much more night vision friendly.

Care and feeding...

Removing the film is not difficult at all since it lies on top of a clear screen protector. If the fit is difficult, you can use a toothpick to lift a corner of the film. Washing with soap and water seems to work well for removing gunk. I store mine with a clear film I got with my clear screen protector because the fit and material are made exactly for that purpose.

The acrylic is thicker than the clear screen protector that I use on the phone. I expect that the red acrylic will be durable enough to last quite a while.

The executive summary...

This purchase was a no-brainer. The phone is useable in the field for all its functions without destroying your dark adaptation. It is easy to maintain and install. AstroGizmos sells several sizes - my phone required the $10 size; you may need the $5 size. You can check out these red screen protectors at: http://www.astrogizmos.com/TransVinyl1.htm

22 January 2012

Binocular Observing Poll

For several months the Observers' Poll on knightware.biz has been about binocular observing. The question and results are:

Do you observe with binoculars?

Never: 14%
Occasionally: 48%
Frequently: 37%

The 14% that never observe with binoculars is a little surprising. My first attempt at observing was done with binoculars. I laid on the lawn in the summer of 1969 and aimed the family binoculars at the moon where Apollo 11 was convincing me that some form of science would be my avocation. That childhood dream led to a career in software development in engineering and scientific disciplines, and of course, amateur astronomy.

For many years binoculars have been my tool of choice for observing bright comets and open clusters. I have also learned some really neat applications.

My friend Tom Lorenzin showed me some beautiful sights many years ago at the Winter Star Party using his 8x50 binos with UHC filters in each eyepiece. I particularly remember viewing the planetary nebula Jones 1 on that occasion.

My friend Tatsuo Saitoh from Japan shared his 10x70 Fujinon binoculars with me to observe Comet Hyakutake. That observation was a game changer, and I saved for a pair of 16x70 Fujinons myself.

Binoculars are sometimes the only portable solution for observing. When there was not room for a telescope on a family vacation, I often packed my 16x70s and my T&T mount. Most of my binocular work has been done on these trips. I learned that observing the summer Milky Way from mountain campsites is a terrific way to observe.

To you 14%, I highly recommend giving binoculars a try. If you image, binocular observing while running exposures gives you something fun to do.

To the rest of you, I point you to the growing list of observing plans specifically for binocular observing in the Deep-Sky Planner Community's Plan Library. Plans for Phil Harrington's monthly 'Binocular Universe' articles are there. I am also working on providing plans that accompany his outstanding book, 'Touring the Universe Through Binoculars'.

Jan 2012 Binocular Universe Observing Plan