Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Not A Comet Tale (And Two Quotes)

I don’t have much for today, but I’ve got a few little things.


A Comet PanSTARRS Note

Last week I did a couple of posts about Comet PanSTARRS, which is currently visible in the western sky after sunset, if you have dark skies.

About Not Seeing Comet PanSTARRS

A Little More About Comet PanSTARRS

We had clear skies tonight, but typical bright urban Chicago skies, however I think I saw Comet PanSTARRS.

I used the basic method I outlined in my second post last week. I couldn’t find Mars this evening, it was already lost in horizon clutter, but I remembered where I was standing and exactly what the background was when I saw Mars. That let me zero in on the azimuth from last week, and today’s was just a few degrees different. Then I looked up about ten degrees and a little to the right and very quickly I saw a reasonably bright object.

What I saw, however, looked very star-like. It looked very much like a dim variation of Venus when Venus is full. The only hint I got of the object being diffuse is that I had some trouble getting comfortable with a focus. Stars and planets are relatively easy to focus on. Nebula of various kinds can be a little odd, and that difficulty with focus can be one sign that you are looking at something not quite normal.

So I saw a reasonably bright object exactly where Comet PanSTARRS is supposed to be, but what I saw didn’t have any comet-characteristics at all. So I’m pretty sure it was PanSTARRS because there are no reasonably bright stars in that area of the sky (indeed, that has been one problem amateurs have had for estimating the comet’s magnitude, there’s nothing nearby to compare it to) and I had a chance to observe the object with binoculars and a 102mm spotting scope.

What I saw was reasonably bright, but I didn’t observe any irregular shape to the bright object, so I can’t say for sure I was seeing the glowing nucleus of a comet. And I didn’t observe any tail, or even the diffuse glow where a tail would start.

When I observed the object with my 102mm (four inch) spotting scope using averted vision—looking off to the side of the field but staying conscious of the center of the field—I thought I may have seen the hint of a tail off in the right direction, away from the Sun. But I couldn’t say I saw it for sure.

So it was a fun evening, but frustrating. I saw enough to lock down the location in my mind and I’ll be able to check again every clear night. But I didn’t see enough to say with complete assurance that I saw Comet PanSTARRS. There’s just a hint of a nagging doubt in my mind it could have been something like the star Gamma Pegasus or the star Alpha Andromeda, but I don’t really think it was a constellation star. It was brighter than those stars, I think, and I didn’t see any surrounding constellation stars during my observing session.

I had planned—once I saw what I thought was the comet—to try and get a time-lapse photo. That should have shown a tail, or at least an indication of a tail. But this evening it was so darn cold and so darn windy that even with the weight of my spotting scope on its tripod the wind was causing the tripod to shake. I couldn’t have gotten the camera to hold steady even for a one or two minute exposure.

It’s my comet tale but with no tail I can’t really say for sure it was a comet tale.


I have two other things.


A Minskirts, Briefcases And Wreckage Note

Today Redbox got in the second film in the “Atlas Shrugged” trilogy of movies. I watched it already. It’s okay, but it’s not great.

This section of the story starts with the physicist Robert Stadler examining the remains of the motor that draws power from the air itself (a proto-zero point device!) and ends with the plane chase where Dagny tries to catch the young physicist Quentin Daniels after Galt gets to him. Part two ends with Dagny regaining consciousness in the wreckage of her plane and a shadowed figure reaching out his hand, taking her hand, and introducing himself, “I am John Galt.”

It was okay. Not as good as the book, of course, but okay. The filmmakers apparently have made a conscious decision to leave out most of the melodrama and just move the story along. They are staying true to most of the book’s contents, although they are, of course, leaving out tons of stuff. (There is one partial speech by d’Anconia, and there is the famous exchange between Dagny and poor Cherryl at Jim’s wedding, where Cherryl says she’s the woman in the family now, and Dagny just laughs and says she’s the man.)

Of all the things that stood out, I probably was most surprised to see a little cameo by Teller, from Penn and Teller. I believe he’s a Rand fan and he does a small, speaking scene. That was okay.

One other note: The political physicist, Galt’s former teacher, is played by a great actor named Robert Picardo. He’s very good, and I’m looking forward, now, to the scene in the conclusion where Galt asks to see him in the hotel room. Picardo should be very good at losing his mind like that.

Back when Hank and Dagny find the magic motor in the wreckage of the Twentieth Century Motor Company building—it was in part one of the movie—I don’t remember if the film included this bit of dialogue from the book. But this was always one of my favorite exchanges:

They started out, but she stopped for a moment on the threshold. “Hank, that motor was the most valuable thing inside this factory,” she said, her voice low. “It was more valuable than the whole factory and everything it ever contained. Yet it was passed up and left in the refuse. It was the one thing nobody found worth the trouble of taking.”

“That’s what frightens me about this,” he answered.

I love that bit.

Monsters frighten us. Nobody generally considers “Atlas Shrugged” as a monster story. But it really is. And the monster in the story is: Really. Fucking. Scary.


A Philosophy Of Wreckage Note (No Miniskirts)

Since “Atlas Shrugged” is about philosophy and cool technology, I want to include this quote, which I would call about philosophizing and dubious technology:

“We would not have known and have only just learned—perhaps mostly from children from two to five—that a new kind of relationship between people in groups is brought into being by SX-70 when the members of a group are photographing and being photographed and sharing the photographs: it turns out that buried within us—God knows beneath how many pregenital and Freudian and Calvinistic strata—there is latent interest in each other; there is tenderness, curiosity, excitement, affection, companionability and humor; it turns out, in this cold world where man grows distant from man, and even lovers can reach each other only briefly, that we have a yen for and a primordial competence for a quiet good-humored delight in each other: we have a prehistoric tribal competence for a non-physical, non-emotional, non-sexual satisfaction in being partners in the lonely exploration of a once-empty planet.”

Edwin Land
—that’s advertising copy
possibly written by Land himself
that was included in a small book
of photographs Polaroid published,
and it is quoted in,

Instant: The Story of Polaroid
by Christopher Bonanos

That’s a cool quote, isn’t it?

I’m not being snarky—not really. I do think it’s a cool quote and I think the bulk of the quote is very true. I think we all do like to hang out with each other.

However, is this really something none of us knew?

Did we really need a piece of almost ludicrously complicated technology like the Polaroid SX-70 camera to make us realize this sweet bit of common-sense trivia?

When Polaroid cameras were popular—and I know Ansel Adams liked them—I had been developing film and printing photographs for a few years. I could already take pictures and get prints comparatively quickly, if not instantly.

I owned a few Polaroid cameras but I never felt any magic there.

Even as a teenager it bugged me that Polaroid invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the devices (the SX-70 had special chemistry in the film, special batteries in the film packs, non-standard SLR optics in the body, and everything was developed and manufactured specially for the camera) and the devices only generated instant pictures (when all the special components worked correctly, there was a high failure rate). Polaroid cameras—all except the most very expensive—did not help a budding photographer learn about photography. In most Polaroid cameras there were no standard aperture settings, no standard shutter settings, no (by then) reasonably standard match-needle system for assessing the scene’s brightness, and the viewfinder only approximately showed what appeared on the film. (The SX-70, for instance, had such a questionable viewfinder that Land invented ultrasonic autofocusing to try to help get somewhat sharp pictures.)

Polaroid pioneered the so-called “lifestyle” advertising that Apple and others would later copy so successfully.

Advertising built around philosophizing. (But not philosophy.)

I think it was interesting but, basically, wretched technology.

I think it was counter-productive technology. De-humanizing technology.

It did its thing, but it didn’t help anybody really learn anything, get better at anything, develop skills that would be transferable to other technologies.

I think those Polaroid cameras were the shape of things to come.

Those Polaroid cameras—as interesting as they may have been—can be viewed, if a person were inclined to do so, as the start of the endless wreckage that would eventually, today, be piled up around us.

(For instance, here and now in today’s world people interested in photography have noticed that camera phones and endless photo-sharing websites have actually decreased the amount of time people spend together looking at images, because so many photographs are badly taken and trivially conceived, and because there are just so many worthless images out there. Endless awful images are generating something like contempt for images in general.)

Almost all technology has become like that Polaroid technology: Endless junk that may be interesting but almost nothing that helps us learn and get better and develop skills that in any deep way add to our life.

That’s why I love that quote so much, even without snark.

It’s true, so nobody can really just dismiss it. You nod and say, Yeah, that’s cool. It is wonderful to be with people.

But you have to actually stop yourself and say, Wait, that’s not some new and deep wisdom uncovered by insightful and wonderful corporations, it’s stuff everybody knows and treasures to begin with.

The quote helps us by teaching us about: Skillful advertising.

What can we do?

I think all we can do is shrug.

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