Tea Leaves http://tleaves.com Creativity x Technology Mon, 19 Mar 2012 19:03:39 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.3.1 Astro-Physics: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying About the Meridian http://tleaves.com/2012/03/16/astro-physics-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-about-the-meridian/ http://tleaves.com/2012/03/16/astro-physics-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-about-the-meridian/#comments Fri, 16 Mar 2012 15:50:31 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2634 I’m about a year into using my astronomical video camera to view deep-sky objects from the city and capture small and simple pictures of what I see. All things considered the experience has been tremendous, but there was an obvious weak link: the mount that I bought does not track well.

This is not to say that the mount did not perform up to my expectations. In fact, given the relatively small amount of money that I paid the mount has been excellent. Good telescope mounts are hard to build well, and even harder to build cheaply.

That said, you can do better, and about six months in I decided that I would be doing this enough to consider how to do better. After my first investigations, I wrote this about the relationship between cost and quality in a mount:

In general you will find that in terms of mechanics you get what you pay for. There is a direct and linear relationship between how much money you spend and how well the mount will hold weight and smoothly track the sky with the least amount of fuss. When you spend more money you get more reliable machinery that is built to a higher standard of precision. Those gears in the motor drive will be asymptotically closer theoretical perfection. More importantly, by building in small numbers the premium manufacturers can maintain a tight hold on testing and quality control.

What this means to me is that you should start cheap, decide if you are serious, and if you are serious then go and buy your last mount ever. Mounts are like tripods in photography. If you are really serious about photography it’s well known that you will eventually spend $1500 on a carbon fiber tripod and a really good ballhead. The only question is whether you spend $3000 on inferior tripods before finally upgrading to the one you should have bought anyway.

Having started cheap and decided I was serious, the only question now was: which mount is the last one I want to buy. The choices before me were:

1. A more expensive Chinese mount. Here you have the CGEM from Celestron, and the various Synta mounts like the Orion Atlas. All of these have the same basic mechanics and manufacturing quality as the CG-5 that I had bought, but are built larger and heavier so they are more stable. I could not find a convincing case that the performance of this hardware is consistently good enough that I would not want to throw it away in a year. The Atlas and the CGEM also weigh almost 40 pounds. More on this later. iOptron in Taiwan also makes a mount in this class, but which is lighter.

2. Losmandy G-11. By all accounts this is an excellent piece of hardware. Unfortunately they’ve been in a two year death-march updating their control software, which does not fill me with confidence. The G-11 is also relatively large and heavy given the load that it can carry. Finally, there is a lot of Internet literature on do it yourself tweaks to this mount, which brings it down in my mind. But I’m not really being fair.

3. Takahashi EM-11 or EM-200. Here we are finally getting into the “just works and works forever” category. Beautiful fit and finish. Apparently great mechanics. Best polar alignment scheme in the business (more on this later). But, it requires a laptop for doing automatic pointing. And, the main documentation on the entire mount is a 10 page pamphlet poorly translated from Japanese into English. You can also only get service on this mount from a single company that is far away from me.

4. Astro-Physics Mach1. You saw this coming. Since this is the one I picked, I will now ramble on about it at length.

My pre-purchase justification for going with the Mach1 was as follows:

1. Weighs 30% less than the Chinese mounts but carries at least twice the weight.

2. Weighs about the same as the EM-200 but is more stable.

3. Extensive and competently produced documentation and support materials available on their web site.

4. Extensive and competently produced software support on the PC side if I want to go that way.

5. A few clever control features in the mount itself (more on this later).

6. Nearly 100% positive evaluation of the mount on the Internets.

7. Excellent Internet support. The owner of the company can be found doing remote diagnosis of issues on the mailing list. Impressive.

My main pre-purchase worries about the mount were:

1. Complicated to set up and polar align compared to the Tak, where you just point the polar scope and go.

2. Expensive.

3. Maybe a bit too large. The EM-11 is more my size, and would retain my “bring the mount and tripod out in one step” workflow.

4. Expensive.

Still, I had nothing to lose by putting my name on the waiting list (Astro-Physics makes two production runs of the Mach1 per year, one in the spring and one in the fall. So you put your name on a list and wait until the next run) while I deliberated further. By the time my name came up on the list six months later I had decided that $6000 on a mount is expensive, but not as expensive as spending $4000 now and then $6000 later when the first one didn’t work. Two weeks later four large boxes appeared at my house.

Here is what you can say about Astro-Physics, their excellent product photography does not do their products justice. At this point I should include a picture of the mount head, or the polar alignment adjuster knobs, or the keypad, or the wires that go from the control box to the motors or even the knobs that hold everything together. But, I lack the talent and technical ability to create an adequate picture. Every one of these items is built and finished to a degree of polish that I can only describe as good enough to make Apple jealous. I spent five minutes just turning the knobs on the Vixen style saddle. I had never seen machined knobs that were that good. Not even on my Really-Right-Stuff ballheads which until now were my standard for gratuitously expensive pieces of machined aluminum.

I spent the first night with the hardware just putting it together. There were lots of parts and knobs and whatnot. By the time I had it set up it was time to go to bed, even though the sky was clear. This is a hard situation to be in.

Happily over the next two weeks we had enough good weather in Pittsburgh for me to get the mount set up at night. Some impressions from the first setup:

1. Polar alignment was not bad. The polar scope is easy to use, and the clever “quick star drift” scheme outlined in the documentation works well. You can get set up in about 15 or 20min, which is the same time it used to take me with the CG-5′s computer. The adjustment knobs on the mount for altitude and azimuth are incredible. This is still more complicated than the Takahashi mounts with their superbly integrated polar scopes. On those you run a computer program that tells you where in the polar finder to put polaris and you just do it. You are done in five minutes.

2. The mechanics of the mount, in use, are practically perfect and absolutely predictable. With good polar alignment you can calibrate on a single star and afterwards every single GOTO goes exactly where you want. The CG-5′s alignment scheme, while clever, was never consistent. Some nights pointing would be perfect and other nights it would drift around unpredictably. You also have to memorize where six or seven bright stars are in your sky on any given night to make it work. The Mach1 only needs you to find one star.

3. When moving the mount with the keypad there is no apparent backlash in any direction. This is unlike the CG-5 where at slow speeds you’d have to wait a second or two for the gears to wind up before the mount would move.

4. The mount remembers the date and time. Hallelujah.

5. My one and only gripe so far: the clutch knobs can be hard to use because they are so close to the motor boxes. Oh, and the portable pier/tripod is not the easiest thing to fold up or adjust. That’s all I can think of.

I also got to set up with my camera. Here’s a single shot to give you an idea of how well the mount performed:


This is NGC2903 and the picture is a stack of 12 frames shot at 2 minutes exposure for each frame. The telescope was being used at 1000mm focal length. Every one of the 12 frames was perfect enough to use. The object barely moved on the screen after each exposure.

Just last month I shot this object with the old mount using my small refractor at around a 300mm focal length:


This is a stack of 1 minute frames at less than half the focal length as I used above. And the tracking is visibly worse.

“But you should be using a guider” you might say. And you’d be right. I should be using a guider to smooth out the raw tracking error in any mount. But guiders are notoriously finicky devices, and their ease of use, or lack thereof, is pretty much linearly related to the underlying performance of the mount they are guiding. So the way I see it, I’ve finally bought a mount that will be worth guiding, because the guiding will just work.

In my mind, this gets to the core value of this product. This is a product that defines the phrase “just works.” The behavior and performance of the mount is absolutely predictable. And the value of that is hard to measure.

“Value” is one of those buzz-words that makes the rounds of business meetings and marketing materials. I think in most cases it refers to something that a company would like you do believe you are buying, but in general it’s not the case. Most of the time when you spend more money you have just spent more money. It’s not often that you spend more money for something and when that something arrives you can stare at it and see the exact linear relationship between the money that you have spent and the value that you have gained. All I can say about the Astro-Physics Mach1 is that you can see every penny of it. It cost ten times more, and really is ten times better than the cheap mount that it replaced. You can’t say that about too many other products.

Sidebar Note about the Meridian

Only read this if you are a mount dork. By that I mean, stop reading now.

The Mach1 is an example of the so-called “German” equatorial mount. In this design the telescope sits on top of the declination axis and is counterweighted on the other side. Here is a poor schematic:

In this design the telescope and the counterweights are always on opposite sides of the pier. When the mount is properly aligned, the RA axis will point straight north, which means the pier will be right on top of an imaginary line that runs North/South right down the middle of the sky which we call the meridian. Another bad picture:

The issue with German mounts is that as you track closer to the meridian you can end up in one of two bad situations:

1. The weights or scope can hit the pier.

2. The weights can end up above the scope, which is bad for balance.

So avoid these things, the controller forces you to follow some rules. The main rule is that if the scope is pointing East its body should be on the West side of the mount and vice versa. This keeps things from hitting the pier and keeps the weights below the scope.

Which brings us back to the meridian. What the above rule means is that if we want to go from looking at things in the East to looking at things in the West we need to flip the scope over the mount so it’s on the opposite side:

This is a rather drastic and potentially destructive move. Things in your telescope can get out of alignment. You can catch wires on knobs. And, it can throw off your pointing. So, users of German mounts tend to try and avoid flipping at all costs. But, this is annoying since the exact time when you want to look at most objects is when they cross the meridian, because that’s when they are highest.

The Mach1 mount does a few things to make this better. First, the geometry of the mount allows it to track far past the meridian if you want it to. So you can pick up an object on the East side and follow it across its highest position in the sky without needing to flip anything around. Second, the build quality of the mount assures that when you do flip over, all you need to do to restore good pointing is to calibrate with the position of one bright star on the new side. I ended up always needing to do this with the Celestron mount anyway, even with all the fancy alignment software.

Finally, the control software in the mount allows you to shift where the mount thinks the meridian is, and thus delay or force flips when you want to. So, if you want to pick up an object that is 30min East of the meridian and track it until it is low in the West without flipping, you can tell the mount that the meridian is actually one hour further East than it really is. It will then dutifully flip the scope over as if the object is already in the West and then track it for hours without flipping. Just make sure nothing hits the tripod when you start this maneuver. If you are really a mount dork, you can read more about this here or in the AP documentation at their web site.

Astro-Physics even has a clever scheme that uses flips to make sure your polar axis is aligned (if you are aligned, a the mount will point to the same star in the same place from both sides of the meridian. So to fine tune the alignment, you flip the mount over on purpose and then adjust).

OK. I’m done.

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Microsoft Flight http://tleaves.com/2012/03/03/microsoft-flight/ http://tleaves.com/2012/03/03/microsoft-flight/#comments Sat, 03 Mar 2012 16:53:25 +0000 peterb http://tleaves.com/?p=2632 There’s a particular cry that goes out on gaming forums whenever any sort of sequel is released. The cry can be reduced to the phrase “They dumbed it down!” Deconstructing this, what it really means is “They changed some difficult or unforgiving aspect of the game such that more people will want to play it.” It’s the gamer version of “Oh, that band was really awesome until they sold out.” In the music context, “sold out” means “has made music that more people want to listen to.”

With Flight, Microsoft has made a flight simulator that more people are going to want to play. Microsoft has made a flight simulator that more people are going to be able to play. I think this is a great thing.

From a high level, here’s what Microsoft has done with Flight compared to Flight Simulator X.

The graphics engine is completely new. Usually this sort of change is evolutionary, but in Flight’s case, it’s revolutionary. Specifically, rendering has moved into the 21st century by being moved primarily onto the PC’s GPU instead of being CPU-bound. This has a huge number of effects, beginning with “It looks generally better,” continuing through “and runs at higher resolutions on the same hardware” and moving on to “with extremely high frame rates compared to FSX.

Second, where FSX gave you the entire world, with comparatively low detail, to fly around in, Flight has taken another tack: they’ve started with the Big Island of Hawaii for free, and made the entire Hawaiian island chain available for download as a purchase. But the positive side of this tradeoff is that the islands exist in a comparatively fleshed out form. Even flying at extremely low altitudes, the scenery is detailed enough that it looks much better than FSX, to my eyes at least.

LIkewise, where FSX gave you approximately 7,142,528 different models of aircraft to choose from, Flight gives you two (for free), and makes 3 more (at present) available for purchase.

Flight is structured in a very game-like, as compared to sim-like fashion. Yes, you can fly around on your own with no restrictions, or you can run ‘missions’. Some missions require particular aircraft (this, by the way, is what some people complaining about the aircraft choice might not have noticed. The Maule, for example, has a price tag not because of the bitmap of the plane, but because it’s effectively selling access to the cargo missions.) The missions I’ve finished so far have run the gamut and have been fun and engaging – I particularly enjoyed a coast guard Search & Rescue mission to find a lost kayaker, for example.

Furthermore, taking a page from Grand Theft Auto, Flight has a large number of ‘aerocaches’ hidden throughout the islands; finding them awards you with experience points, the occasional achievement, and bragging rights. The aerocaches are a good way to engage in some virtual tourism, since many of them are located at interesting sites around Hawaii.

In what’s an interesting decision for a flight simulator, you can get out of your plane and walk around. The world – at least so far – is fairly sterile, so this is more of a curiosity than a major selling point. But it suggests obvious areas for further expansion if Flight takes off.

The user interface is quite streamlined, working best with a flightstick but also being perhaps the first Microsoft sim to be plausible with a mouse and keyboard. This will no doubt infuriate purists. But they can get off my lawn. Flight also bravely steals the best ideas from non-flightsim games. For example, there is a “Fly to next waypoint” shortcut that jumps you straight to the next interesting thing in a flight. This is not something one would want to use all the time, but it’s nice to have it available when you need it. (Compare this, from a user-interface perspective, with FSX’s pretty-much-unusable time compression feature, and you can see how much more thought went into usability).

Obviously, this usability comes at a price: I seriously doubt that anyone is going to be learning to fly a real airplane by playing Microsoft Flight. But that’s clearly not the market they’re trying to sell to, and as a kibbitzer I can’t say I disagree with their decision.

To those who feel that the existence of Flight is somehow a personal affront, all I can say is
•Microsoft is in the business of selling software.
•The existence of Flight doesn’t take away your functioning Flight Simulator X
•Microsoft doesn’t “owe” you FS XI, XII, or MCMVII.
•No one is forcing you to buy Flight.

“If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” -Henry Ford

Flight is a bold experiment to see if, instead of trying to address the expressed desires of the existing flight sim market, Microsoft can expand it. It’s an attempt to focus on quality over quantity, on accessibility over detail. Microsoft is essentially making a wager. The wager is that by focusing all their efforts on the features that they think 90% of the potential customers of flight sims want, they can safely ignore the 10% of the market that wants more ‘hardcore’ features. My personal opinion is that Microsoft is going to win this wager.

But, of course, only time will tell.

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Dark Souls Ate My Brain http://tleaves.com/2012/02/07/dark-souls-ate-my-brain/ http://tleaves.com/2012/02/07/dark-souls-ate-my-brain/#comments Wed, 08 Feb 2012 01:19:16 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2630 Dark Souls ate my brain. I don’t understand how it happened. I started December a normal, older, jaded gamer who has not seen anything worth playing in most of a year. I ended it about half way through this game and already planning a second run to see if “tuning” my character build would make things better. But here is the worst part. If you write down what people say about this video game it reads like a set of requirements for building a game that I will hate.


1. Insane difficulty and repitition: check.

2. Boss fights: check.

3. Obscure and non-obvious game paths: check.

4. Emphasis on combat and/or physical dexterity: check.

5. Unforgiving failure conditions: check.

6. Ludicrous amounts of useless and tedious expository dia… oh wait. I got mixed up for a second and forgot that I’m not writing about a Bioware or Bethesda game. Never mind. There is hardly any NPC dialog at all and they don’t even try to do lip sync, so they can’t do that badly either. Kudos.

Like Demon’s Souls before it Dark Souls is the whole psu-hating package. Every time you turn around in this game there is more evidence that the developer hates you and wants you to die in a fire. Here are a few basically non-spoilery examples:

1. Levels with lots of cliffs and narrow ledges that you must navigate in the dark.

2. Combat on said cliffs.

3. The one hit kill tutorial boss.

4. Enemies that re-spawn every time you save and regenerate.

5. Forced navigation through areas that will poison/curse/cripple you or set you on fire.

6. Friendly NPCs who are gigantic reptiles. And eat you without warning.

7. Areas with enemies that you not only cannot kill, you can’t even hit them and you have to ask someone, or a walkthrough, why.

I could go on all night, but I’d rather stop and go back downstairs and play some more.

The second to last time I was this confused about a game was when, on the strength of a Penny Arcade cartoon I picked up Shadow Hearts: Covenant on a whim. Here was as hard core J a JRPC as they came and I should have hated it, but it tickled some part of my fancy and I played it all the way to the end.

The last time I was this confused about a video game was when I got into Resident Evil 4. Here was a game where you must shoot zombies with a character who can’t walk and hold a gun at the same time. And yet I played the game through a half dozen times on multiple platforms.

After 50 or 60 hours of Dark Souls I finally figured that what I like about the game is what it has in common from these two previous inscrutable favorites.

From Resident Evil 4 you get both the hordes of hostile undead and a combat system that takes a few simple tactics and forces you to apply them with absolute focus over and over again. Although Dark Souls has multiple spell casting systems, the juicy, meaty center of its combat system is the hand to hand fighting. You will inevitably need to engage enemies at close range and you will find that unless you follow a few very important tactical rules exactly and perfectly, you will be dead. Here is my short list of the rules:

1. Never engage more than one enemy at once unless they are all in front of you.

2. Preserve and regenerate your stamina bar (green) at all costs. Stamina lets you attack. More importantly stamina allows you to block enemy attacks.

3. Don’t spam attack. Patiently wait for the enemy to try and hit you and only then when they are open and vulnerable should you go after them. This is especially true with slower weapons.

4. Go in to new areas cautiously and with enough healing resources. Be careful of the white fog.

Of course, since it’s impossible to always follow the rules exactly and perfectly, you will be dead a lot. This, combined with the fact that the game re-spawns most enemies when you die or otherwise rest provides a good justification for the game’s reputation for unforgiving difficulty.

But, there is more to it than that.

Like most video games, there are a variety of enemies that try to kill you in a variety of ways. The creativity in the enemy design is actually one of the pleasures of the game. There are small ones, big ones, flying ones, running ones, slow ones, fast ones and others that just defy explanation. The design of the enemy A.I. is fascinating in what it does not do. There is no real attempt to simulate a smart enemy. Instead most fight in relatively fixed and predictable patterns. Since you will die a lot and since the enemies will respawn every time you die, you will see any given set of enemies a lot and you will learn how to beat them. Herein is the brilliant conceit of the game:

1. You get better at killing the enemies in real life because you kill them over and over again.

2. You get better at killing the enemies in the game because you increase R and level up.

This is one of the few video games where learning the various skills the game wants you to learn actually feels rewarding instead of like busywork that you need to do so you can beat the next cheap boss fight. The fact that it is also loosely coupled with your virtual progression through the character building system is a neat feedback loop.

So yes, the game is unforgiving and sadistic the first few times through an area. But it gets easier each time you go back through not only because you now have a +8 sword of blenderkilling, but also because you know exactly how to beat every enemy in the place.

This would all be for nothing if the combat itself did not hold up under extreme repetition. But for me it does. It becomes familiar and comfortable. And then you zone out and the 20 foot fall knight crushes you under his shield, and you wake up and start concentrating again.

The connection between RE4 and Dark Souls is, at least to me, fairly direct. The connection to Shadow Hearts is more spiritual than anything else. Both games make great use of their settings to communicate a certain mood and overall design sensibility to the player. What Shadow Hearts says to you is “we are batshit insane!”. What Dark Souls communicates is a sense of being completely alone in a hostile environment, and also that “our creature designers are batshit insane!”.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Dark Souls world is the sheer variety of locales and how they are all tied together. The game has prisons, sewers, prison sewers, ruined castles, gleaming castle cities, gardens, forests, lava pits, stone caves and a godforsaken poison swamp. But all of these disparate locations are connected. In the game’s map they are connected because you can and need to walk from one to the other to progress in the game. This aspect of the level design is actually brilliant because with only a few exceptions all of the connections make spatial sense. You will trek from the opening area up a hill and into a ruined city full of the undead. In this city you will fight your way to a small room with a bonfire in it where you can rest. From there you fight through more of the city and then to the top of a tower and across a long bridge. Under this bridge will be a room with a ladder in it and after you kick ladder out of the wall and climb down, you are back at the fire. Taking the short cut back up to the bridge, you eventually make your way into a church. In the church is an elevator that takes you … back to the original opening area.

When you remap this all out in your head, you realize that both the original routes and the short cuts really do fit together. It’s a tour de force of maze design.

But, the game’s world is also connected in a second, more important way. A lot of video games like to give lip service to a “sense of place” or a singular design sense. But to my mind Dark Souls really delivers. And it delivers not in a shallow way, but in that way where no matter where you are standing in the game, your location is obviously of the game. You could be sitting in a fetid and poisonous sewer full of gigantic frogs that breath cursed gas on you, or you could be strolling down a pristine hallway in a marble castle. All of the locales really feel like they are from a single world, or at least from the vision of a single world designer.

Or maybe it’s all in my head. You spend so much time running through the world that it becomes burned into your brain. I’ve never memorized a map to this extent.

Finally, I can’t let the game go without repeating: the creature designers are batshit insane! I’ll avoid specific examples because you should find out for yourself. You can even do this on youtube if you’d rather not spend the time to play through.

So, to summarize:

1. Insane difficulty: yes, but for once learning how to be good at the game is actually worth it.

2. Boss fights: yes, but none that are too obtuse. Also, you can use the multiplayer system (which I have not described) to get other players to help you with bosses. There is no boss that is hard when you are three on one.

3. Obscure and non-obvious game paths: yes, but that’s what youtube walkthroughs are for. Also the multiplayer system gives you hints.

4. Emphasis on combat and/or physical dexterity: yes, but not too much and also see (1).

5. Unforgiving failure conditions: yes, but for some reason in this case it all works.

6. Ludicrous amounts of useless and tedious expository dia… oh wait. I got mixed up for a second and forgot that I’m not writing about a Bioware or Bethesda game. Never mind. There is hardly any NPC dialog at all and they don’t even try to do lip sync, so they can’t do that badly either. Kudos.

I had to say number (6) over again, because it’s important. The lack of useless narrative is a feature. Video game narrative mostly sucks anyway, you won’t miss it.

Anyway, I should stop now because the only place to go from here would be to make a gratuitous connection between Dark Souls and Madden. If you know me well you can already predict how that would go. I’ll spare you.


A few links to similar thoughts about Dark Souls:

Tom Bissell

The Brainy Gamer

Gamers with Jobs

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Better than Real http://tleaves.com/2012/01/13/better-than-real/ http://tleaves.com/2012/01/13/better-than-real/#comments Sat, 14 Jan 2012 02:32:48 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2629 Today a trailer for a documentary film about a band I have never heard of reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to write down. Since the thought was too long to fit into twitter. Here we go.

First, this band LCD Sound System apparently came into being, published its body of work, and flamed out prematurely before I had even managed to obtain any hint whatsoever of its existence. I think this says more about me than the band, or the music scene, but I found the situation a bit disturbing.

Second, while I was watching the trailer I decided that it didn’t matter that I’d never heard of the band, because this film will inevitably be better than having seen the last show live.

At this point you are saying “that psu, he’s nuts like always.” But bear with me.

In my mind, rock and roll shows are primarily about two things. First, there is the visual and physical spectacle of the stage show itself. Second, there is the auxiliary ritual pleasure of hearing the band play songs you know over again for you, even though you have heard them dozens of times.

I say films do both of these things better.

Consider another concert film from a long time ago about another band that I had barely heard of until I had already lost the opportunity to see them live at their peak. Stop Making Sense, which documents the Talking Heads tour behind the album Speaking in Tongues has become one of the iconic films of the genre. There are two reasons why.

1. The film lays down a visual tapestry that you can only capture by being allowed to carry a camera around on stage and through the crowd. The Heads shows were renowned for a lot of lighting and on-stage effects, but the way they are captured on film and then edited together into pleasing sequences simply destroys anything you’d be able to see while stuck to a single seat in the room.

2. The film sounds better. Let’s be clear: rock and roll shows sound like shit. I have admittedly only been to maybe a dozen shows in my life, but the only one of those dozen that did not sound like shit was put on by They Might Be Giants at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum last year. Why did it not sound like crap? They had to save the kids’ ears, so they did not turn the sound system up so high that the sound actually distorts off the walls of the room.

A year later I saw TMBG live in Downtown Pittsburgh at a show for large children (adults). This time they played full blast, and it sounded like shit. Even the words of songs I’ve heard dozens of times were so frazzled and broken apart by the distortion that I could not really hear them at all. This all served to mask undeniably great musicianship (in particular, the band made Jonathan Coulton sound like a semi-amateur geek dilettante). So it’s sad. Why do they not want to allow me to hear how well they play?

Anyway, I am sort of sad I never heard of LCD Sound System. They sound kind of interesting. But, I’m glad I’ll be able to actually hear what their music sounds like if I see this film. Because I’m pretty sure I’d have missed it seeing them live.

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All I Want for Christmas is a Place to Farm Souls http://tleaves.com/2011/12/30/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-a-place-to-farm-souls/ http://tleaves.com/2011/12/30/all-i-want-for-christmas-is-a-place-to-farm-souls/#comments Sat, 31 Dec 2011 00:11:55 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2628 Dark Souls is the mildly sadistic sequel to the completely sadistic Japanese action RPG Demon’s Souls. I gave up on the latter game a couple of years ago after encountering the second one hit kill boss in the game. The first one hit kill boss in the game was placed at the end of the tutorial, which gives you an idea of what these games are like.

You know from the start that Dark Souls will be easier on you because after getting killed by the tutorial boss you will immediately notice that there is a door that you can use the escape the fight. You then come back to the same fight later after you have an actual chance of winning.

The rest of Dark Souls follows this general pattern. While it is obviously similar to its predecessor in tone and mechanics, the game has a softer edge to it. The combat is still remarkably unforgiving if you lose focus, but it is manageable as long as you keep enemies in front of you and manage your space so that you never get surrounded. Best to fight the undead freaks one at a time, lest they gang up on you.

I find the combat system to be rewarding and, for lack of a better way to describe it, it is easy for me to parse. There are three things you need to control:

1. Your position. This is facilitated through the third-person camera lock.

2. Your health. Even at high levels you can’t take too many hits.

3. Your stamina. In melee combat, this is what allows you to manage how many times you get hit. Blocking requires stamina, and blocking limits melee damage.

Every action RPG combat system boils down to these three areas of control, but I think Dark Souls presents a particularly rewarding system. I found it easier to deal with than Skyrim, for example, where controlling your defensive position was always hard because of the first person perspective. Combat always seemed to boil down to running away backwards and casting spells, which gets tedious.

Of course, you will often lose focus and die. And when you die you still have to trudge all the way back to every fight through hordes of re-spawned enemies. This makes the boss fights more tedious than they should be, but it is balanced to some extent by the fact that the bosses themselves don’t seem as punishing. At least in the early game you have room to maneuver and thus a chance to run away and catch your breath if you need to.

The re-spawning also has something of a hidden bonus. If you die a lot because you suck, every time you make your way back to the boss you can collect experience off the bodies of the easier enemies. This helps you in two ways (OK, it’s really fake help, but bear with me):

1. You can eventually level until the final fight is easier.

2. You get practice at combat, and get better at it, making the final fight easier.

You can also come down with Stockholm syndrome and believe that the game is really helping you by punishing you dearly for losing the boss fight. All of these things happen at once.

Which brings me to my second favorite part of the game. I discovered this thanks to the modern wonder of the video walkthrough. These things are great for when you get stuck. If you watch this video the host shows you how to easily collect around 7,000 souls in 2 minutes of gameplay. You can then return to the save point and make the area respawn and do the whole thing again. This allows you to collect an astounding number of souls fairly quickly.

Souls are the currency of the game, standing in for both experience points and money. You use them to level and upgrade all aspects of your character. This little exploit lets you make your character marginally more powerful more easily. A purist might think that this is a cheap way for players that suck to game the system, as it were, and break the balance. I like to think of it as an explicit design decision that helps to balance out the difficulty of the game. I can run through here a few times and use the resulting “R” to make my life a bit easier. It’s an easy way to compensate for the fact that I will always suck at combat. I find it very considerate of the developers to put this into the game for me, especially since they made so much of the rest of their little world so punishing.

Plus, it’s fun to watch the moronic NPCs leap off that cliff. It makes me giggle.

In any case, after farming for a while I started to leave one or two of the guys alive to practice fighting more powerful enemies. After five or six runs, most of them are actually beatable one-on-one. But there is still one guy in there that’s too hard (because I suck). So then I’d just run away and watch him fall off the cliff again. And giggle.

The result of all of this is that I’ve had a much better time getting killed over and over again in the undead prison of Dark Souls than I had running around in Skyrim‘s pinnacle of high fantasy world design getting mauled by bears. At least the enemies that destroy me here were actually powerful, and not just some freaked out wild life.

Well, except maybe for those giant crows.

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Skyrim: “Blackreach” http://tleaves.com/2011/11/22/skyrim-blackreach/ http://tleaves.com/2011/11/22/skyrim-blackreach/#comments Tue, 22 Nov 2011 23:12:12 +0000 peterb http://tleaves.com/?p=2625 For the past year or so I have been bitching to my friends about how the free Oblivion mod “Nehrim” was more expansive, more epic, and generally more impressive than any game Bethesda had ever made.

In playing Skyrim, it’s been clear that Bethesda has played Nehrim, and shamelessly stole their good ideas, which is something they should be proud of, because it made their game better.

Then, today, I reached the section of Skyrim called “Blackreach”. And, this is what happened:

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Meanwhile, In Skyrim http://tleaves.com/2011/11/16/meanwhile-in-skyrim/ http://tleaves.com/2011/11/16/meanwhile-in-skyrim/#comments Thu, 17 Nov 2011 03:51:26 +0000 peterb http://tleaves.com/?p=2624 DEER ELF AMBASSEDOR:




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Dinner in Half an Hour: Spaghetti Carbonara http://tleaves.com/2011/11/14/dinner-in-half-an-hour-spaghetti-carbonara/ http://tleaves.com/2011/11/14/dinner-in-half-an-hour-spaghetti-carbonara/#comments Tue, 15 Nov 2011 00:11:47 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2623 This one is so easy it’s almost cheating. But I had to put something here so that we didn’t lead the front page with the stupid Internet people anymore. So here we go. This scheme is based on a recipe I have stolen from Marcella Hazan. Buy her book, it’s in there. But I’ve adjusted the flow a bit to make it easier to follow. For me.

First get out 2 six to eight quart pots. Fill the bigger one with water 2/3rds of the way up and put it on high heat to get to a boil. This is the pot that you will use for spaghetti cooking. Set the other pot aside for now.

If you have it chop up some fresh parsley. I don’t always have this.

In a medium sized saute pan, heat up some olive oil while you slice 4 cloves of garlic. Add the garlic to the pan and saute on low heat for five or six minutes. You want to toast but not burn the garlic.

While the garlic is toasting, you have time to cut up the bacon. Gather up six or seven thick slices of bacon. Cut them into thirds and then cut the thirds into thinner strips lengthwise. When the garlic is done, remove just the garlic from the pan and add the bacon to the oil. Cook on medium heat until crispy. Drain off some of the fat, put the bacon back in the pan. Now deglaze with a bit of white wine and reduce for five minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the spaghetti. You should cook around a half a pound to a pound of pasta, give or take.

While the pasta cooks, crack two eggs into a bowl and beat them. Add salt and pepper to taste. This will not take that long, so when you are done grate about a cup or a bit more of Parmesan cheese.

When the pasta is done drain it out and then immediately mix the cheese with the eggs. Dump everything into your second empty pot (the cold one) and mix it up until the “sauce” is all over the noodles. When that it done, toss in the bacon and parsely and mix some more. Now you can gorge yourself. Oh yeah, if you are nervous about raw eggs, be careful where you buy your eggs. Or you could always wuss out and get pasteurized eggs.

I love two things about this dish.

1. You never actually have to cook the sauce, per se. You just have to mix it together.

2. It’s really a bacon and eggs breakfast on top of pasta, with cheese. How brilliant is that?

Finally, if you are more efficient, you can probably do this with only one pot and the saute pan. But this flow is a bit easier.

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The Stupidest People on The Entire Internet? http://tleaves.com/2011/11/10/the-stupidest-people-on-the-entire-internet/ http://tleaves.com/2011/11/10/the-stupidest-people-on-the-entire-internet/#comments Fri, 11 Nov 2011 00:57:19 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2621 Read the comments on this page.


Tell me I’m wrong. For the record, comment 25 was the one that put me over the edge. There is no more foul being in the world than a vegetarian who is also a picky eater.

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Grab and Go http://tleaves.com/2011/10/15/grab-and-go/ http://tleaves.com/2011/10/15/grab-and-go/#comments Sun, 16 Oct 2011 02:12:46 +0000 psu http://tleaves.com/?p=2619 One key to enjoying the telescope hobby is to know how to set up and tear down your equipment quickly. This is especially true around Pittsburgh where the weather can change only instantly from perfect to disastrous. Over the past couple of months I have developed a reasonably systematic routine in the deployment of the telescope. With it I can set up my full video rig with automatic pointing and tracking in about 20 minutes. While not instantaneous, this is pretty quick, and I would say that it approaches what reasonable people can call “grab and go.” The following is my reference checklist and there is no reason in the world for anyone else to read it except to be bored. But I already wrote it down, so I might as well post it. These setup instructions will work for any of the Celestron equatorial mounts. They can work for other mounts too, but a lot of the details will be different.

1. Put the mount outside. I have a spot on the patio behind my house that I use every night. This patio spot gives me a good view of most of the sky to the west and south and a reasonably good view of the north and east. The house and trees behind the house block the lower parts of the eastern sky. A large tree in the yard blocks the northwest. Otherwise things work pretty well.

2. Point the mount roughly north. If it’s already pretty dark, use the hole in the polar axis of the mount to sight Polaris, which sits right over the roof of the house.

3. Set up the Telescope. Go and get the telescope and put it on the mount. Also fetch all the accessories you’ll be using. I use my scope in two general configurations. For visual work I use a 1 1/4″ diagonal and various Televue eyepieces. For video work I use my Mallincam with a light pollution filter and focal reducer on it. In addition I’ve been using the Celestron F6.3 focal reducer on the back of the scope lately. So I attach that as well. The camera goes straight into the telescope without a diagonal. This is more convenient. I attach it with a Televue 2 inch visual back because I had the camera fall out of the crappy Celestron visual back with the tiny little useless hateful set screws. The set screws failed to hold the camera, and it just fell out of the tube an on to my concrete patio. This sucked. The Televue is a 2 inch tube that holds the camera solidly using a compression ring. Highly recommended.

So my setup goes: telescope, F6.3 reducer, 2 inch visual back, a 2 inch to 1 1/4 inch adapter tube, then the camera.

4. Balance the telescope. This takes two steps. Set the mount up so that the right ascension axis is horizontal. Now you release the clutches on the declination axis of the mount. This is the one that points north and south and runs parallel to the axis of the telescope. Then while holding the scope, put it in various positions. Let go slooooowly and make sure that the scope mostly stays in place. I try to balance the scope when it is horizontal and when it is mostly vertical. Tracking and pointing near the zenith is a lot better if you get this right.

5. Now balance on the right ascension axis. This is the one that is orthogonal to the body of the telescope. This is easier. You want to position the weights on the counterweight shaft so that when you release the RA clutch and let go of the telescope (slooooooowly) the scope does not move. This is the simplest mechanical task that there is in astronomy, as far as I can tell.

Some people tell you to purposely set the balance to be a bit heavy on the east side of the mount because it smooths out the behavior of the tracking motors. Depending on what part of the sky you are looking at this means either you want the either the scope side or the counterweight side to be heavier. I have never had any luck trying to do this because it means you need to shift the counterweights whenever the mount flips, and I hate touching the mount in any way after I am done aligning it. Maybe you’ll have better luck with this.

6. Put the scope in its “home” position. For my mount this is the one where the counterweights point straight down and the scope points straight north. Peer into the finder scope and look for Polaris. It should be at least in the field of view. When the scope is in this position I turn the video camera so that later on I know which way north and east will be oriented in the field of view. This turns out to be handy later.

7. Power. Now go get your power supply. I had been using a big 12V battery, but it started to fail recently, so I bought a couple of 12V power supplies that I can plug into an outlet on the outside of my house. This has proven to be more reliable the last few times out.

8. Now wire everything up for video. The camera gets a control cable, an s-video cable and 12V power. The control and video cables go back into the house through a sliding door. The video cable goes into the USB capture widget and the into the laptop. The control cable ends at the big Mallincam control box. The largest box ever built for holding five buttons and a knob.

Then I plug the telescope controller into a 25 foot cable and run the other end out to the mount. Finally, a second 12V power cable goes into the mount itself.

9. Initialize the Mount. Work your way through the Celestron setup menu. Enter the time and date and then tell it you want to do a “two-star” alignment. This alignment will let the hand controller learn how to point at things in your sky. What you will do is pick two stars on one side of the meridian (either the eastern part of the sky or the west) and then 3 or 4 stars on the other side. I tend to start in the west and then move to the east because I tend to be impatient to go and look at things that are still rising. The eastern sky is also somewhat darker than the south and west, since the PIttsburgh light dome is primarily to the west and south of me.

For most of the summer the first star that I’d pick was Arcturus. The scope will attempt to point at the star, but it will usually miss. If the scope were already perfectly polar aligned and set up in exactly the same place as the last time I was on the patio, it might hit perfectly. But, these things are never true. So, it will miss by a bit. Use the arrow keys on the hand controller to point the scope and get the star in your favorite sort of finder. I use a 9×50 optical finder, because I’ve never figured out those red dot things. YMMV.

10. Focus. The start should now be in the field of the camera. If it is not, then that means your finder scope and telescope are not aligned. If that’s the case, remove the camera and put an eyepiece into the telescope to fix that. Assuming it is, I then go inside and fire up the video capture software. If I have not disturbed the focus too much, the star will be in the video feed and mostly in focus. Still, it’s best to go and get your Bahtinov mask to make sure.

The Bahtinov Mask is an insanely clever device that creates a diffraction pattern on bright stars that will tell you exactly when you have them in focus. Just follow the instructions and you can’t miss. After I’m done I remove the make and put on the dew shield. I’ve gotten away with just using a shield, for now. If I were smarter I’d use those heated strips as well but it’s only been an issue twice in a year.

11. Star Align. Having focussed the telescope we’re ready to finish the star align. First grab the camera controller and turn on the cross-hairs. Making the cross-hairs is a bit of a chore that is too complex to describe here. Maybe I’ll make a separate page about that. With the cross-hairs set up, use the mount controller to center the star. It will look like this when you are done:

In this picture the horizontal lines point roughly east/west and the vertical lines indicate north/south. The actual directions might be reversed, but the important thing is that I’ve oriented the camera so that the arrow keys on the controller are predictable. This is a small touch that makes life easier later.

Anyway, when you have centered the star hit “Align” on the hand controller to tell it that you want to go to the next star. The hand controller will suggest another star in the western sky. You can use the menu keys to pick one that you can see that are not too close to the horizon. Center it in the finder then in the video camera, then hit Align.

11. Calibration Stars. Calibration stars refine the pointing model of the mount to compensate for its mechanical limitations. The hand controller will ask if you want to add “calibration” stars. Hit Enter to say yes and it will suggest a star in the east to use for further alignment. Pick a star that is well placed and hit Enter. The mount will then flip around and try and point there. As before, it will miss by a bit. Center and align the first star, and the hand controller will ask you about another calibration star. Hit enter to say yes and repeat. As you add more stars you’ll notice that the pointing will get more and more accurate. Usually the third and fourth stars will be in the field of the view of the camera. If this does not happen, you probably missed with one of the previous stars which means you should just start over.

12. If you have to start over, don’t be frustrated. This happens from time to time especially as the sky changes and you need to pick different stars for alignment because the ones you were using before have moved to the wrong side of the sky or behind a tree. Don’t panic. Just unplug the mount and do the whole routine again. Pretty soon you’ll end up with a new set of stars that you can use for a month or so and everything will run smoothly again.

13. Notes on Pointing. At this point, let’s review. We’ve set up the mount and we’ve told it to point at six points in the sky. Each time we’ve corrected pointing errors by hand, allowing the computer in the hand controller to build a pretty detailed model for how to point at things. My experience is that this pointing model works very well, especially if you avoid meridian flips. This is why I try to stay in the eastern part of the sky after doing all of this. If I cross back over to the west, the mount has to flip over, and this invites the creation of pointing errors. I’ve had it work pretty well, and I’ve also had results that were so bad that I unplugged the mount and started over. In one worst case, I had to wipe reset the firmware in the hand controller after some bug corrupted it. But, these are outliers. In general things work very well at this point and the total time I’ve spent from putting the mount on the patio to having good pointing is about 10 minutes. But, for video good pointing is only half the battle. In order for the mount to track over even short time exposures, we have to make sure the polar alignment is good. Luckily, this is not hard.

13. Polar Alignment. The Celestron hand controller has a wonderful piece of software in it that allows you to use the pointing model that you just worked so hard to build to polar align the mount. First, tell the hand controller to point the telescope at a star that is near the meridian and also near the “celestial equator”. All this means is that the star should not be too far north or too close to zenith. The hand controller will complain if you pick a bad star, so study your planetarium program to find a good one. I used Altair for most of the summer, and have recently switched to Enif in Pegasus after Altair wandered to the western sky. Remember, I try to stay on the eastern side of the meridian for all of this.

Now go into the Align menu and pick Polar Align and then Align mount. Hit Enter and the scope will point back to the star you just picked again. Repeat the center/align dance on the video screen. You’ll get another message from the hand controller about starting the All Star Polar alignment. Hit enter to start. The scope will now point to a different spot in the sky. This is where it thinks the star would be if you were polar aligned. At this point you put the controller down and you use the altitude and azimuth knobs on the mount to re-center the star in the field of view your finder scope and then the camera. When you are done, hit enter. Then find Undo Sync in the Align menu and hit enter on that too.

14. Polar Alignment Notes. There are a few things to keep in mind with this Polar Alignment scheme. First, you always want to end your alignment by moving the altitude of the mount up. You want to do this because the knob in the back that changes the altitude gets tighter when you push the mount up, which means it will stay in place better when you are done. I loosen the knob at the start end give the mount a shove downward so I know I’ll have room to move up later.

Second, it’s really handy to have a remote version of the video feed near the mount while you are playing with the knobs. I use VNC on my iPhone so I can see my laptop screen without needing to run back to the laptop. It’s also handy to use this trick when focussing.

Finally, the Undo Sync is important. The first part of the Polar Align routine “syncs” the mount to the star you picked. This messes up the pointing model to make pointing near the star accurate. But, as you move away from the star the mount points less and less well. Also, if you move the mount a large distance while finishing the alignment you may find that your pointing gets way off. In that case, unplug the mount and redo the star align. In my experience this hardly ever happens. The one time thought I needed to do it, my pointing didn’t really get any better and then it turned out that a cable snag was the reason the mount was pointing half a degree too far south all the time.

15. Final Notes. I’ve just described my setup process in about two thousand words. But you should not be discouraged by this. With practice I can do all of this setup in about 20 minutes. While this seems like a lot of up front work, remember that the guy that just goes in the house and grabs his manual alt-az on a tripod will then probably spend 5 minutes star hopping to each dim deep sky object that he wants to look at. Meanwhile, when this process works well, you can spend the next three or four or five hours with objects that are invisible in the eyepiece hitting the tiny chip in that video camera dead center every time.

Using this setup routine I’ve been able to get the Celestron CG-5 mount to do the two basic things you need an compuerized equatorial mount to do:

1. Point at things accurately.

2. Track objects in the sky for time exposures.

I use two telescopes on the mount, an 8 inch Celestron SCT and a new 85mm Televue refractor. I run the 8 inch scope at a focal length of between 1000mm (F5) and about 700mm (F3.5). On the best nights, the mount will point this scope so that every object I ask for is just about dead center on the Mallincam’s small chip. This means that we are hitting a field of view that is at most half a degree wide and about 22 arc minutes tall every time. That’s similar to the field you would get using a 100x eyepiece, which is pretty good.

The refractor has a native focal length of 600mm and I can also run it with a focal reducer and extension tube to get to about a 400mm focal length. This gives me slightly more than a degree of field of view so I can fit bigger things, like






The main complaint I have about this mount is that it does not track smoothly. I’ll sometimes get 4 frames in a row at one or more minutes that are perfectly sharp and then right after that I’ll get 4 frames in row where the object jumps 3 or 4 pixels to the east or west. I could try using a guider to clean this up, but I get the feeling that the guider will not be able to deal with these large jumps over relatively short exposures.

In the future I plan to spend a ludicrous amount of money on a mount that will track much more smoothly. But I predict that when I do so I’ll miss the relative sophistication of the Celestron software. Being able to use the video camera in the main telescope to do polar alignment can’t be beat. Hopefully the other guys will decide to try and catch up.

At this point I am morally obligated to end this post with yet another picture of M27. So here you go.


Clear skies to you all.

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