My new toy

Well, over the last month I have acquired a new toy – a telescope. This is the first scope I have owned in many years (since the 70s actually), and the first one I have used since my university days of the early 1980’s. Needless to say, things have change significantly in that time. I actually spent a considerable length of time debating what I actually wanted to buy – a large Dobsonian vs a small portable refractor which would be great for imaging vs. a fancy computerized Schmidt Cassegrain (or similar).

Instead of going through all my internal debates, I will just jump to the end result. I ended up buying a Celestron CPC 1100, which is an 11 inch, fork-mounted, computerized Schmidt Cassegrain, and is pictured below. I purchased the scope from Astromechanics in Barrie, ON. Despite some adventures with the shipping company, who “misplaced” the tripod for a few days, I must say dealing with Dave with Astromechanics has been a pleasure.

 telescope3 The telescope itself is, to say the least, really cool. As an astronomer/physicist-turned-software guy, there are many things on this scope to draw my attention. Mechanically, the scope, mount, and tripod are all very good. I have not seen any marks or blemishes, everything fits together cleanly, and is extremely steady.

The optics seem extremely good as well. Last night was my first real night of observing. The sky was very transparent, but there was a fair amount of instability in the atmosphere (really only noticeable when looking at the moon and Saturn, though). I was very impressed with the views. My first target was M42 (the Great Nebula in Orion). While I have seen this many, many times before, it remains one of my favourites, and was no disappointment in my new scope. Using a Baader Planetarium Hyperion 21 mm eyepiece (giving a magnification of 133x and a field of view of about half a degree), the view was breathtaking. A great deal of detail was visible, with tendrils and wisps extending pretty much across the field.

Observing Saturn next, I was impressed with the detail which could be seen in the rings during occasional moments of steadiness, along with hints of detail on Saturn’s cloud tops.

I also spent quite a bit of time looking at various open clusters (M36, M37, M38, M41). I could sit and stare all night at this sparkling collections (except of course I was freezing various body parts off!).

What impresses me most right now, though, is the alignment and GoTo software in this scope. For those not familiar with these products, this is a truly amazing piece of programming. All you have to do it level the tripod, set up the scope, wait for it to lock on the GPS signals, then point it at any three bright objects (stars, planets, or the moon), and the telescope figures out all the details it needs to be able to automatically go to any of ~40K objects in its database. The first couple of nights I was out, my tripod was still missing, so I had the scope set up on a folding portable workbench. I could not level it very well, and used three stars in the same part of the sky for alignment. Even with this, the go to consistently centred all of the objects I selected. Having now set the scope up on its tripod, and used stars more “distributed” around the sky to align, go to seems to be perfect. I have yet to see any problems, hiccups or glitches (and those of you who know me, know I can break almost any computer!).

Given the amount of stuff out there which you have to fight with to make work, it is refreshing to use something that just works!

Over the next few months, I hope to get into doing some imaging. I will post the results if I am in any way successful.

Confessions of an airline executive – CNN.com

Confessions of an airline executive – CNN.com

This is an interesting article. unfortunately it does not address the main outstanding question I have – why does the airline industry (and this includes not just the airlines, but the airport authorities, government agencies and all others involved in this continuously worsening mess) believe that it is acceptable to provide atrocious customer service, disrespect their customers, and generally perform badly in all aspects of their operations, and yet feel they should stay in business. Quite honestly, most business that were run this badly would be dead in months.

As a side note, a couple of weeks ago I had written a post (more of a rant than a post) about my recent experiences flying. I saved it, but did not post it, as I was not online (I was on a plane). Unfortunately it seemed to disappear from my saved drafts. I took this a s I sign that I should not post it! To summarize, though, I was on my 4th trip in two weeks – one to Toronto, and three to other endpoints, but going through Toronto. So, a total of 14 flights. The “on time” performance on these 14 flights was somewhat less than 50% (and this is considering anything within an hour of on time as “on time”). What was disturbing to me was that none of the delays were due to whether, air traffic congestion, or any cause “outside of the airline’s control”. In all cases, the cause airline mismanagement. For example, 2 cases of “the plane is not working”, because the flight segments between Toronto and Moncton are all crappy, old, small planes. Another case, we could not leave Moncton because the incoming plane from Toronto had not arrived. Why? Because no ground crew had been assigned in Toronto to the departure gate, and so they could not load the plane. Yet another case, we sat on the plane for 45 minutes after having landed at Toronto because no ground crew was available at our gate (what, they were not expecting us?).

All of this reflects the fact that this airline (and almost all others with whom I have travelled in the last 5 years) accept that lousy service and disrespect for passengers and their time should be the norm. And they will continue to think this way as long as it costs them more to fix the problem than accept it.

So, how do we make it cost them more to be incompetent? Well, how about every time they are late due to their own incompetence, everyone on the flight gets a partial refund. Say, $50/half hour delay? Make it cost them money, and they will fix the problem. 

Of course, this will only partially address the problem, since we still have to deal with airports, security, and other aspects of the experience which are designed without any consideration for the customer.

New laptop & Another try at Ubuntu

Well, as I dicussed in a previous post, I have been in the market for a new laptop. I have finally bought one. I decided to go for a Dell XPS rather than Apple (mostly due to cost). Such is life – maybe I will try a Mac next year. It is my intent on my new laptop to either dual boot Vista and Ubuntu, or (if I have a good enough experience with Ubuntu), just run Ubuntu and do all of my Windows stuff in hosted virtual machines.

So, last night I take my brand new laptop, and my newly burned Ubuntu CD, and set out. Ubuntu boots up from the CD just fine, but the screen resolution sucks because Ubuntu is philosophically opposed to loading the drivers for my video card. No big deal, I can live with 800×600 until I get a proper install done. So, I click on the install icon, and away I go. Or, actually, I don’t. It seems the Installer UI is not expecting 800×600 resolution, and the buttons to let me proceed through the installation are lost off the bottom of the screen. I also do not seem to be allow to resize this window. It being midnight and all, I gave up. I am sure there is some way around this, but I did not feel like screwing with it.

I will probably have another shot at trying to set up Ubuntu or some other Linux distro this weekend. Maybe I will have better luck and not just give up on Linux (sorry folks – this is stuff that should just work!)

PS – Vista is working fine on my new laptop. Transfered my files and settings from my old machine using “Windows Easy Transfer” – not a problem.

Is Vista as bad as they say?

Over the last few months (or the last year or more), it has become extremely fashionable to beat up on Vista. Heck, it is a great way to generate hits on you site or blog, maybe get Dugg, whether you have anything useful to say or not. I am talking about posts like this, or this, or this whole blog.

Personally, I run Vista on several machines, and have few problems which were not related to the failure of third parties to provide updated drivers, or updated versions of software for Vista (sometimes makes me wonder if there has been a conspiracy on the part of other vendors to purposely sabotage Vista – but it is more likely just not bothering to provide what customers pay for). I also still run XP on a couple of boxes, and Win2K3. On my main development box, I also run a number of operating systems in VMWare, including WinXP, Win 2K3, Fedora, Ubuntu, and several “minimalist” Linux distros for playing around with.

An unfortunate fact of life is that all operating systems available right now suck, at least in some aspect or another. Linux suffers from many driver limitations (though this is getting better), and a wannabe user interface that spends far too much time trying to look like Windows, while missing the point of usability altogether. Windows (all versions) suffer from security issues, and from performance and stability issues inherent in trying to be all things to all people. I will not comment on Mac OSX, because I have not run it. It is also kind of irrelevant, since I cannot run it unless I buy Apple’s hardware.

Vista has its own usability issues. Some that are pointed out are valid. The UAC implementation is moronic. The UI path you have to follow to connect to a wireless network is annoying. Here is one I discovered today – disk defragmentation. When you defragment you hard drive you get this useful dialog:

defrag

Isn’t that helpful? No progress indication. No estimated time to completion. Just a statement that it could take anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours. Gee, thanks.

The problem is, this kind of thing is not just a problem in Vista, or Windows in general. It is pervasive in all operating systems, and almost all software written to run on them. Most software is filled with minor little usability gaps like this.

So stop beating up on Vista (unless you need the traffic), and start thinking about how to make the whole situation better.

Usability – interesting analysis of WordPress

I just had a look at the results of this interesting usability analysis of WordPress.

While I do not necessarily agree with all of it, it is a very good analysis, and most of it makes sense. The biggest thing I liked in it was the concept of “not getting noticed”. As much as I love slick new UI models, and lots of graphics and animation, in reality the best software in the world is software you do not even think about. As a user, I should be focusing on what I am trying to do, not how I am going to make the software do it. Especially for any activity which requires any level of focus, having to constantly context switch from thinking about your work to thinking about whether the software will let you do it is extremely invasive.

I had not really thought before about the design of WordPress (hey, I started using it because it is free!), but overall it seems pretty good. Goodness knows, if it had done things to annoy me, I would have whined about it on my blog somewhere!

Usability Rant – Searching the Web for Documents, and saving them locally

I spent much of the morning (as I frequently do on weekends) doing research on a topic which has caught my interest through the week. I use a number of sources – sometimes just a web search, often a more targeted search like ACM’s or IEEE’s digital libraries. Usually, I do not read the documents I find right away. I like to search, find a significant number of interesting papers, and then I transfer the documents to my Tablet where I can read them, mark them up, and take notes.

This morning I was searching one of the digital libraries (I will not say which one, because I do not think my issue is with a specific library, as much as with the whole web), and saving the documents out to a sub-folder in my Documents folder under Windows Vista. So, the sequence of actions was like this:

  1. Perform a keyword search on the topic of interest
  2. Start looking at the list of hits presented 10 at a time (like almost all web search – I have already talked about how much I hate this model)
  3. I click on the available PDF to view it, which opens another browser window (Rant #1: I cannot right-click and save this document because the link does not point at the actual PDF, but to some sort of delivery system).
  4. In the new window, I am asked to authenticate myself for this content, even though I have already authenticated when signing in to the document library site (this is Rant #2).
  5. Having re-authenticated, I finally get to see the document (in the latest Abobe Reader UI – which I am not too fond of either – maybe it will grow on me).
  6. I click the button to save a copy of this PDF, and a File Save dialog pops up. (Rant #3: Every time I go to save, it defaults to my Documents folder, as opposed to remembering where I saved the last dozen or so documents. Rant #4: Where ever the focus is in the File Save dialog, it is NOT in the list of documents and folders – so I start spinning my mouse wheel to scroll down and find the folder it should have defaulted to in the first place, only to notice nothing is moving, so I have to click in the list box, and then start scrolling. Rant #5: Wouldn’t be nice to have a button somewhere, similar to the Save and Save As buttons, but which allowed you to “Save this to the last place I saved stuff and where I have been saving stuff for an hour”, in one click?) 
  7. About once every 5 or 6 saves, for some reason it DOES remember what folder I was saving to, which is a good thing, but because it is not consistent, it further interrupts the rhythm of my work. (this is Rant #6)
  8. Periodically as I am going through the search results (in that annoying “10 at a time” list), I will click to view a document and once again be prompted to authenticate, presumably because my session has expired or something. (Rant #7: This should not happen. I have not been away from my keyboard, and I have not paused my work in anyway. The session time-out should detect that I have been active all this time, and should reset. I should not have to repeatedly re-authenticate.)

Admittedly, these are all minor issues. Individually, they would seem not even worth talking about. Together, however, they destroy the overall experience of what I am doing. The destroy my train of thought. They force me to break out of thinking about WHAT I am doing, and think about HOW I am doing it. They waste my time, a fraction of a second at a time. And they annoy the crap out of me!

The sad thing is that this is not an isolated experience. This is the norm, rather than the exception. The computers and software upon which we have come to depend, and which are supposed to make our lives easier, on a frequent and consistent basis, rudely interrupt us with stupid questions and inconsistent behaviour.

There is constant talk in the technology world about “the next big thing”. I, personally, would be thrilled if the “next big thing” were a concerted effort by the technology community to make the current big thing WORK PROPERLY!

Vista Flops? I beg to differ….

I have been reading posts (blogs and in more traditional press) since Vista came out (well, since long before it came out, actually) about how bad it is, how unstable it is, about how nothing works, about how disappointing it is, and so on, blah blah blah….

Today, I came across this post Vista Flops, Users “Upgrading” to XP (there are number of similar posts in the same place, I will not link to them all).

I am rapidly coming ot the conclusion that people in the computer industry are the biggest whiners in existence – even worse then Canadians (just kidding – I AM CANADIAN). I have been using Vista as my primary OS since before the first release candidate. I use it on 5 computers (3 laptops, 1 desktop, and 1 Tablet). I have found it to be at least as stable as Windows XP (and more stable than many other versions of Windows in similar stages of their lifecycle). Performance is as good as I had under XP for most things. Overall, I have found it to be pretty good.

Are there things which I would like to have seen? Sure. Are there things that were in the original preview of Longhorn I saw at PDC 2003 that I wish were in the final version. Absolutely. I also recognize that features get cut and modified over the course of development, usually driven by the marketing department and feedback from those same whiny users.

The biggest complaint I have had about Vista is not against Microsoft so much as it is against the hardware and software community surrounding it. The availability and quality of updates to drivers and applications has been abysmal. A fair number of the devices I use (especially on my Tablet) were not supported when Vista was released, and some still are not and probably never will be. What happened – you guys get surprised by the release of Vista? Didn’t know it was coming. Come on – get with it. The same can be said for products from Apple (iTunes) and Adobe (Reader – the number one crashing product I have under Vista).

Get off it people – if you do not like Vista – do not use it. But please, stop whining about it!

Things that should just work – my smart phone

Ok – so I got a new toy this week: a Palm Treo 700wx smart phone. I have never been a really big fan of the whole smart phone/blackberry kind of thing, mostly because I am rarely away from a computer long enough to need another eMail device. But, the company was upgrading our cell phones, and since I do not really use a phone much (I think I get about 4 calls/year), I decided to go for something that could do something other than talk. I also figured it would give me a chance to do some Windows Mobile development experiments. I have had the device for 3 days now, and I really like the form factor/engineering of it. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to do much else with it, other than look at it.

Our provider has not yet figured out how to hook it in to either their voice or data network (even though they supplied the phone).

So, while I was waiting for that to work, I decided to play with it from the local side, by hooking it up to my PC. That is when I hit another problem. The install kit for the phone does not recognize Windows Vista (which I am running). After a bit of digging, I realized that I do not need to install the ActiveSync software, as Vista has the Windows Mobile Device Center. So, I download that, get it installed, and plug my phone into the USB port. Windows recognizes the new device on the port and proceeds to install the drivers. All seems happy. I launch the Mobile Device Center. Unfortunately, my phone does not show up as connected. I spent a significant amount of time playing with it yesterday – working through various troubleshooting guides I have found. Still no luck.

This should not be this hard. To me, this is in the category of “things that should just work” – especially since both devices are running versions of Windows. Maybe I expect too much.

I will repeat myself on this…

This should just work!

PS – anybody who has made this work, please leave me a comment with any suggestions you might have!

 PPS – why are data plans so insanely expensive in Canada, compared to the US? It cannot just be market size – is it just because they can get away with it?