The Sadness of the Hobby Telescope

The hobby telescope is one of the saddest purchases a person can make. It’s even more pathetic than the NordicTrack ski machine that no one ever uses. Telescopes look cool, and after you’ve seen a few Hubble Space Telescope pictures, you think to yourself: Oh man, I’d like to cook up a few shots like that.

The Hubble can do this. You will never ever do this.

But you’re dreaming. You don’t want to own a telescope. You want to be the kind of person who owns a telescope. You want to talk knowledgeably at parties about owning a telescope. Actually owning a telescope kind of sucks. Here’s the thing about a hobby telescope.

  1. If it’s cheap, it’s terrible. If it’s expensive, it’s… expensive.
  2. If it’s small, the image is terrible. If it’s big, it’s so heavy and awkward that you’ll never take it out. It will suck up half your garage and stare at you every day, mocking you.
  3. Getting good images means staying up late or waking up early, driving someplace inconvenient, and then standing around in frigid darkness for long stretches of time. If you don’t like doing any of these things, owning a telescope won’t change that.
  4. You will be amazed to learn that even finding the thing you want to take a picture of is hard.
  5. Even when everything’s in place and the view is lined up, it’s going to cramp your neck to get into the right position to view the object.
  6. And the ultimate insult: the image you see is likely to be a small smudge of light.

So there you have it. You stay up late. You drive to a dark location. You get the object in your scope. You look at it. And you think: all for this little smudge? More to the point, for every conceivable thing you can look at, somebody else has already taken a picture that is impossibly better than you will ever capture. Stars don’t change that much, it turns out. Somebody else already took a better picture of the Eiffel Tower than you, and they sure as hell took a better picture of the Triangulum Galaxy than you.

I am confident you’ll soon be taking quality pictures like this.

Here is the key point about stargazing of any kind: It’s not a visual activity. It’s a cerebral activity. If it genuinely makes your heart sing to look at a smudge of light and say “Wow! That’s it! That’s the lenticular galaxy M84!” then you may be the right person to buy a telescope after all. If it doesn’t, then hey, I know a quick way to save yourself $1600.

But for all my gloom, there are some exciting new developments in this market for us mere mortals. I was impressed with this review of the Unistellar eVscope (which was originally a Kickstarter project). I don’t own one, so don’t take this for a review. But the eVscope makes some smart choices for your typical lazy wannabe astrophotographer. First of all, this is not a telescope so much as a camera attachment for your phone. So it avoids the neck-cramping nonsense of wedging yourself behind an eyepiece. It’s not too big, so you might actually take it outside every now and again. It helps you find things automatically. And most of all, it’s got modern software that will assemble an image that’s much better than your eye can see. How? By taking many pictures in rapid succession and then combining them into one superior image. Finally, it can automatically participate in data-gathering campaigns for honest-to-goodness scientists. You get to feel useful instead of just cold and bored!

Like a lot of things these days, software is what’s making all the difference. The old hobby telescope market is trying to graft modern software onto an ancient chassis. It’s an uphill struggle. This new model starts with the software and builds up from there. As such, they’ve been able to banish the major headaches and user-experience flaws of hobby telescopes.

Hmm… maybe it’s time to sell my old NordicTrack and make room for something new.

Ode to a Calculator

Engineers are fond of their calculating gear. Nostalgia, so they tell us, derives from the Greek word for pain. There is certainly a bond formed in pain across many late nights, many problem sets, and many many wrong answers.

The generation before mine cherished their favorite slide rule. I know many of my contemporaries who swear by their trusty Reverse Polish Notation HP calculators. But this was the machine that saw me through college and graduate school. This one was mine.

Behold, the Sharp EL-5100S Scientific Calculator. Isn’t she a beauty?

I bought it at 42nd Street Photo in New York when I was a freshman in college. I enjoyed the adventure of going to a special store to buy a special machine. And I never saw another one like it. You had to know exactly what you wanted when you walked into 42nd Street Photo, because the store staff would yell at you and dismiss you if you were uncertain. “What do you want?!” I forget where I got the recommendation, but I knew what to ask for and they had it.

What made it great? It had a super wide pixelated display. This meant you could not only enter (and see) long expressions, but also that all the text was more legible more capable than a typical seven-segment digital display. Press the Pi button, and you saw the dapper Greek letter itself, not some bastard numeric approximation. It had backspace and delete keys, so it felt more like computing with a small screen than calculating with a big screen. I could type in lavish, extravagant expressions and survey their stately architecture before pressing the equals key. Then, if the result smelled sour, I could press the PB button (for “playback”) and review my input for mistakes. Backspace backspace fix fix fix, and off I went. Luxury! That playback button saved me so much time.

It’s been twenty five years since I used my 5100S in anger. Atop a bookshelf in my study, it’s had time to ponder its fate. Periodically I’d pull it out and consider either throwing it away or rehabilitating it. I couldn’t bear to do the former, and I couldn’t be bothered to do the latter. But this virus-enforced home stay has had me snooping and tidying in every room in the house. It was time to make a decision: I decided to see if the old girl could still dance. I bought some Duracell 76As and plugged them in.

No dice. Sadly, my little friend wasn’t going to come back to life. I wonder what happens deep in the circuitry of a solid state device to make it stop working? Is it sad? Is it angry? It’s probably something simple, like a bad resistor. But I’ll never know. It was an exercise of pure nostalgia.

But I can still slide it out of its case and see possibilities and power, pain and perseverance. The keys still spring under my touch. The calculator is the engineer’s wand, or it was before still more powerful machines displaced it. With it, you felt the ability to summon, to penetrate the unseen, to conjure great things into existence. Not that those things necessarily happened, but it felt that way at times. Other times, of course, it felt like an anchor, shackling you to the desk even as your English major friends went out for beers and laughter and late-night liaisons. It’s all there for me, those memories of thermodynamics and aircraft control theory and convergent-divergent rocket nozzles. Memories of things lost and gained. A bargain of time and sweat for… what? I never built an actual rocket. But I did come to understand the made world. I remain grateful for that. And I remain grateful for this little helper, my familiar, my companion.

Thanks, old friend!

Muybridge 2.0: Atlas Jogged

You know the story: One night over whiskey, Leland Stanford and Eadweard Muybridge were having an argument about the Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics. The question: does Atlas always have one foot on the ground while he’s moving?

The primitive photographic technology of the time had no way of telling if the robotic wonder was ever truly airborne. But Muybridge kept at it, and eventually came up with this.

Case closed! Robots can fly.

MetaMensa and Your IQTQ

I am going to found an organization called MetaMensa. Admission is based on your IQTQ. That’s your Intelligence Quotient Test Quotient. It measures how good you are at taking IQ tests relative to how good you could possibly be at taking IQ tests. So if you get 8 out of 10 questions correct, then you have an IQTQ of 80. You must have a positive IQTQ to join MetaMensa. There’s some controversy regarding how well IQ tests do measuring your intelligence. But MetaMensa sidesteps all that: we have a rock-solid way to test your IQTQ. By the way, we make no claims about the relationship of the IQTQ to your intelligence. Just to your ability to take IQ tests.

If you multiply your IQTQ by your age and divide by 100, you will get your IQTQ Age Factor (IQTQAF), a number that is equal to or less than your age. What this value (measured in years) signifies isn’t yet clear, but the arithmetic is not difficult to perform. People with an IQTQAF greater than their age are immediately disqualified from MetaMensa, because somewhere their math has gone badly wrong, and that’s not the sort of person we want parading around as the sort of person who parades around as someone who they believe is believed to be smart because of how they score on a culturally biased and academically bankrupt test of perceived but not actual intelligence. Not by a long shot.

At the MetaMensa Gift Shop we sell t-shirts that say “Say what you will about my intelligence, but I’m very good at taking IQ tests.” On the back it says “I joined MetaMensa and among other things I got this t-shirt. It’s not lousy. ‘Lousy’ actually means ‘full of lice’, and this t-shirt does not fit that description. At least not at the time it was purchased. And by the way, it’s just a myth that highly intelligent people are pedantic assholes.” We also sell novelty pants that say “These are actual smarty-pants.” They’re novelty pants because they’re not actually smart.

MetaMensa holds monthly dinners in which the seating is strictly stratified by IQTQ scores. If you have an odd IQTQ score, you are required to sit next to someone with an even IQTQ score. That way, you can see how the other half lives.

So have you got what it takes to join MetaMensa? Look in the mirror and ask yourself this question: “Do I have $35 for the admission fee?” If the answer is yes, then the answer is yes. You’re our kind of person.

My New Sonos Bricks

See these? These are Sonos speakers, and they used to sit in my kitchen and living room. But I’m done with them now. I’d offer them to you, but they’re worthless. Incapable of functioning. They will never sing again.

I’m replacing these speakers with the latest model from Sonos. But usually when I upgrade, I can pass along my old hardware. I can give you my old television or DVD player or whatever. But when I looked at these old units sitting on the floor of my basement, they had a particularly forlorn look. They’re good for nothing but scrap.

We don’t expect things to last forever. We’re used to the value of things decreasing steadily over time. But my speakers experienced a step function, going from useful to useless as quickly as if they’d been dropped into a blender. Increasingly, hardware is only as good as its software, and increasingly that software is a cloud-only service provided at the whim of a far off firm. 

Here’s what happened.

I bought the speakers ten years ago, and they served me well. But recently Sonos offered me a good deal on new equipment — a 30% discount on brand new speakers if I would just get rid of my old ones. I could see where this was headed. Old hardware is a pain to support, and Sonos wants to be rid of these old boxes. They were offering me a carrot to upgrade now. But I had no doubt that behind their back they also carried a stick. At some point they will unilaterally withdraw support. I took the offer. Once I got my new speakers, Sonos headquarters sent a bullet down the wire that euthanized the old ones. They let me know, in no uncertain terms, that they would never work again for my account or anyone else’s.

I like my new speakers. I’m glad I upgaded. But Sonos, it occurred to me, has a lot more leverage over my inclination to upgrade than, say, the company that made my DVD player.

Soon enough, software will enter and enliven every object under the sun. Door knobs and dishwashers, toothbrushes and table tops, eyeglasses and egg cartons, mirrors and refrigerator magnets. They will all acquire amazing new skills. But if for some reason the software is voided, the objects must die. And it’s difficult to opt out. Software-enabled hardware is truly better. But you need to stay up-to-date, which means you need to be a customer in good standing with a healthy, trustworthy company. Otherwise your device will become a doorstop. You own the object, but you don’t own the soul. It’s an animal that you rent. It can die. It can turn on you. Mostly it will be a good deal, but it can go away at any time. Get used to it!

My wife drives a Ford Fusion hybrid. It’s packed with plenty of software, but she’s never updated it. As far as I can tell, that’s not something that Ford ever planned for. This is a snapshot from a simpler world. I drive a Tesla, and it gives you a sense of where the industry (not to mention the world) is headed. The car receives regular over-the-air updates. It’s great to have the car’s functionality constantly updated. But if the company went out of business, I can imagine the car becoming a large and expensive brick. I don’t mean to pick on Ford or Tesla. It’s just an example, along with Sonos, of the coming world. Live by the wire, die by the wire.

Related reading: My Jibo Is Dying and It’s Breaking My Heart | WIRED

Alexa Can’t See Air Quotes

The following is a true story. Including the part where Alexa rolls her eyes at me.

ME: Hey Alexa, play the Yes Album by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing Yes by Yes.

 yes

ME: Wait, what? No. Alexa, play “The Yes Album” by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing Yes by Yes.

 yes

ME: Dammit, I know there’s a… Oh, I see what’s going on.

ME: Alexa, play “The Yes Album” album by Yes.

ALEXA: Playing the Yes Album by Yes.

 yes_album

ME: Yes. That’s the one. *smug chuckle*

ALEXA: *rolls eyes*