The crazy storms in the midwest that messed up half the country’s work, school, and flight schedules did not disrupt the trek of my telescope from California to North Carolina via UPS, so as far as I’m concerned, that storm was of no real consequence. It arrived Monday. Therefore I spent Monday evening putting it together. I had a chance to get outside Thursday and had a little bit of good viewing. I’m definitely excited about it, and obviously that’s the whole reason I got the thing. However, more on that soon, with some pictures of the assembly process. First, I had some leftover thoughts about the decision-making process and what went into this particular purchase.

Stuff I knew already (I did learn SOMETHING with my astronomy degree, although that’s yellowing and the emphasis was definitely not practical observational stuff):

  • The obvious telescope buying tips. There are two big things here. First, people have a common perception about what telescopes look like, and those kinds further turn out to be relatively inexpensive and available in any department store, but those telescopes (i.e., refractors) are generally terrible for astronomy and should not even be in a serious purchasing discussion. Second, for whatever reason, “magnification” is a specification that sounds important, but actually isn’t. Cheap scopes can easily do things to boost magnification, but that’s actually not what’s important when doing astronomy. Magnification necessarily reduces the brightness of what you’re seeing. Rather…
  • The number one factor in seeing a lot and seeing it well is aperture diameter. The bigger it is, the more light-gathering power. I’ve spent time looking through 8-inch diameter telescopes, as well as an observatory-quality 16-inch. There’s a big difference there, but things get expensive fast. I knew I wouldn’t consider going less than 8, and I probably wanted more.
  • The decision came down to a Dobsonian-style scope, which gives you a huge aperture per dollar but are more unwieldy, or a more classic Schmidt-Cassegrain or something similar, which were a bit more expensive for a similar size, only the overall design was more compact.
  • I was going to be mostly backyard observing. It would be unrealistic to make bold plans to spend a lot of time driving out to dark spots and setting up for long nights of telescoping.

Stuff I learned whilst doing research:

  • Back to the “obvious tips” point above, I was pleasantly surprised to find that this kind of thing was easily found online. Someone with an interest but without experience would learn these things quickly if they were paying any attention at all. It occurs to me that if someone bought a telescope without doing a lick of reading they would probably get themselves in trouble by what they thought they knew. So for any other major purchases I may make in the future in which I don’t know much about the topic (this includes nearly everything else on Earth) I should remember this and know that I can probably improve my standing even with just the most basic research.
  • Good optics are also very important. Some companies have a better reputation for high-quality lenses and mirrors than others.
  • Internets have lots of personal telescope-review websites, only they were built in 1997 or so. Finding articles in Sky and Telescope or Astronomy or another actual publication is a better route. Fortunately I am a science librarian and have access to such things.
  • If you’re mostly just hanging out in your backyard in suburbia, mirrors beyond about 12 inches supposedly don’t add much extra versus the cost.
  • There is a decision to be made about whether you’re going to be mostly just looking at stuff, or trying to take pictures (meaning you need better optics and have to spend more).

Decision points:

  • Had to be honest about my expected behavior. I loved staying up observing when I was 20. Now I am 34 and when it’s 10pm I generally want to be in my bed where it is warm and where my wife is comfortably sleeping. Often I do not even have a choice in the matter. Most weeknights I’m tired enough by 10 to be nonfunctional. Also this sometimes turns out to be true on weekends, too. Being up until 2am or later is out of the question probably 362 days a year. Packing the scope up and driving somewhere dark is less unlikely, but still rare. Unless I come home soon to find a giant pile of cash in my driveway, doing away with my need to continue full-time employment, or start aging backwards, none of this is likely to change.
  • My backyard isn’t great. It’s in the ‘burbs so there’s a fair amount of ambient light. There are a number of tall trees so I don’t have any view to the north (though that’s the boring direction, stargazing-wise). Nevertheless, it can be acceptably dark and it has the advantage of being, you know, MY backyard.
  • I was willing to spend some good money, but (a) there is diminishing rate of returns beyond a certain level of quality, (b) I’m not planning on doing any astrophotography.
  • I have no issue with having to set the scope up or do some manual work, because assembling a telescope is a very nerd thing that I like.

In the end:

I ended up going with this one, which is kind of a monster but high on the aperture-per-dollar scale. It has about the biggest mirror you can get. I sacrificed a bit on ease of use here. The other one I thought a lot about would have had a lot less setup time and effort. I had a feeling the latter would have left me feeling underutilized. I would have wanted a bigger scope and would have been willing to do more work to get it up and running. That would have been a good purchase if I thought I’d be more interested in driving myself to a dark location or if I didn’t want to spend a lot of time tinkering with it.

Amazon went out of their way to e-mail me this important product recommendation:

I...what?

I didn’t even buy that bird guide from them. I just rated it because I am the kind of person that has opinions on bird field guides. (The Stokes guides are easily the best organized and have the best pictures, says me.) So…therefore I want a phone?

Do the thing with your fingers56. Spock’s Brain. Somewhere I read about how, after a vigorous letter-writing campaign to extend TOS into a third season, and the first episode shown was “Spock’s Brain,” everyone must have wondered just why they’d bothered to put so much effort in. Because, wow, this is some kind of sorry episode. It’s widely considered to be one of the worst, if not the absolute worst, of the series, and as with my watching of TNG the internet was absolutely right about which episodes I can anticipate being bad. So that was a long way of saying that the internet has something knowledgeable to say about Star Trek. Here is where I should probably just get on with it. The basic plot is that some aliens appear on the Enterprise and knock everyone out, and when they come to, Spock has been deposited in sick bay…but is missing his brain! Oh no! This is a thing that can happen in space! Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty set to tracking down the missing part, which mostly consists of Kirk barking angrily at the brainless aliens until he gets what he wants. They don’t have much to tell him because they’re all pretty vapid, mostly being kept sentient by their supercomputer. There are a lot of holes in the story, at least I think there are, upon reflection. Maybe I missed these details and I’d look them up just to make sure they didn’t omit some major explanations, but let’s not kid ourselves. It really doesn’t matter. The end sequence is so corny there is nothing that can save this one. I’m not sure how adults could write this stuff, so I must conclude that they didn’t. This is the 1960s version of Axe Cop. It starts with McCoy subjecting himself to a computer procedure where a bunch of information on how to re-implant a brain is zapped into his head. Then he becomes a surgical genius (observing him work, Scotty yells, “I’ve never seen anything like it! He’s operating at warp speed!” Ha-ha, WARP SPEED! That means fast!). Only the effect is temporary, and the process wears off, in an effort to both create suspense and make sure no one ever speaks of this ridiculous procedure again. But it’s OK because he’s far enough into the surgery that Spock is conscious again and talks McCoy through the rest of his own brain surgery. I’m necessarily leaving out the dozen other insane things here, but what else can I say? Maybe the thing that I’m most bothered by is the completely amateur view of science: complex knowledge is treated like learning it is just a matter of procedure. Not, say, a mixture of deep systemic knowledge combined with experience. Nope: just learn these simple steps and you too can perform brain surgery. Killer Spock line: “While I might trust the Doctor to remove a splinter or lance a boil, I do not believe he has the knowledge to restore a brain.” Overall: Just totally out of character for the show. The actors were trying their best, but the writing and direction here are just abysmal. This is like, Roger Corman and Michael Bay teaming up. 0 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Strange probe encountered in space (4)
  • Badger alien until you get what you want (2)
  • Even in interstellar space, the best way to resolve problems is with your fists (4)
  • Highly experimental plan with low probability of success somehow works anyway (5)
  • Lighthearted banter to close episode (6)

57. The Enterprise Incident. Wait, one last dig at “Spock’s Brain”: one of the episode write-ups plagiarized by Wikipedia mentioned that Leonard Nimoy felt embarrassed during the episode, and would go on to feel that way more often in the third season. But we’re not there yet, and “The Enterprise Incident” isn’t without flaws but really turns things around. The premise is pretty intriguing, and keeps up a high level of suspense throughout. Kirk is clearly engaging in some sort of ruse even with his crew.  He’s ordering them to do all sorts of strange things, and having a pretty snotty attitude to boot. It turns out to be a cunning plan to steal some Romulan technology, and the episode gets to be “the one where Kirk is disguised as a Romulan.” Two stories are intertwined here, something TOS doesn’t often do and do well, and both tread a fine line of believability, but ultimately I dug them both. Kirk is able to engage some pretty good tricks to get his hands on the Romulan cloaking device, while Spock is keeping their female captain busy by just being his usual irresistible self. So I guess both were a little odd but I bought it. The suspenseful Kirk stuff is fun but mostly it ends up being a good Spock episode; he reveals a lot about his Vulcan/Human conflict sort of because he has to to keep the Romulan captain busy, but sort of because you feel like he’s made very comfortable by her. Somehow she understands his plight as a Vulcan surrounded by gross humans. Killer Spock line: “What is your present form of execution?” Overall: solid. 5 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Highly experimental plan with low probability of success somehow works anyway (7)
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (5) [debatable, actually; they leave it a little fuzzy whether he really has a Vulcan death grip or it’s a fake]

58. The Paradise Syndrome. This is “the Native American one” and you know it’s going to be dicey the instant that’s established. TOS tries really hard to be a progressive show, it does. I think everyone involved wanted to break through stale cultural stereotypes on gender and race. Sometimes they were brilliant and years ahead of their time. Other times…not so much. The Enterprise crew frequently encounter primitive civilizations in the series – it’s one of the standard setups. Most of the time these races are sort of like cavemen. Race is irrelevant. But TOS and TNG always seem to get in a little trouble when the people are, in fact, not white. Since the people here are like Native Americans (obviously they aren’t Native Americans, being that they aren’t on Earth and all, but you wouldn’t know it from their wardrobe and customs) there is some criticism that the episode doesn’t portray them very admirably. See also, the widely criticized TNG episode “Code of Honor“. Wil Wheaton is quoted about “Code of Honor” that if the people hadn’t arbitrarily been cast as African-Americans, there would be no issue. Exactly. There’s little doubt the episodes couldn’t be better, but I think it’s missing the point to focus on race. It’s not like the producers in either case ever thought, “Hey, let’s make sure to cast it as [race] because we want to make a statement about what those people are like.” That’s pretty ridiculous. Instead, let’s judge “The Paradise Syndrome” on its merits rather than casting choices. Well, turns out we won’t get far going that direction either. Because there is some definite cheese here. Without rehashing the whole plot, it is set up that Kirk is stranded on a planet of very Native American-like people and has lost his memory, while the Enterprise is trying (and failing) to destroy an asteroid headed right at that planet. Things are further set up that several weeks pass during the episode, so Kirk has enough time to develop a whole relationship with an alien woman (and marry her, and she gets pregnant) while a damaged Enterprise is trying to get back. There are a few interesting things going on, I think the problem is more in execution. The love story with Kirk is a little unbelievable, it relies on some native mysticism to get going, and generally seems about as serious as one’s junior high dance date. There is a scene with Kirk and his wife chasing each other around and frolicking in the woods, to give you some indication of its portrayal. The idea is actually interesting as we really see a detour in Kirk’s life (the idea that he’d love to just get back to nature is seen several times in the Trek movies), but compare it to another TNG episode, The Inner Light, which had a similar idea for Picard, but was much more effective. We do at least have the positive of an unusual show structure, which for TOS is a novelty. Meanwhile, on the Enterprise, Spock battles both McCoy and Scotty with his decisions every step of the way in the old endless logic versus emotion game. This part of the show works a lot better, and while it had its weirdnesses, it makes for an interesting portrayal of what leaders have to deal with all the time, namely a bunch of dopes who think they know best and want their opinions heard when they are just that: opinions. Spock has to make some tough, logical decisions, and they turn out not to work. But he did make the right decisions. Killer Spock line: (after a mind-meld with Kirk) “He is an extremely dynamic individual.” Overall: a strange one. Doesn’t do a lot well but has some good ideas. 2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Recent Earth history will always be relevant (9)
  • Spock displays Vulcan superpower never really seen again (6)
  • Kirk hits it off with alien babe (6)
  • The Enterprise is the only ship within range (4? I should have been tracking this one from the start)

59. And the Children Shall Lead. I thought I’d seen an episode like this before, with superkids, and I did: the first season’s “Miri.” But it’s been a while and I’ll have to get back around to it for a full comparison. Memory Alpha reports something I’ll have to come back to when I do get there, at which point the third season will be fully behind me. It says that Fred Freiberger, producer of the third season, implied “And the Children Shall Lead” was a great episode while “Miri” was trash, which seems to be exactly the opposite of popular opinion. So right now Freiberger is on the hook for me. The first disc of season three has been a strange one and Freiberger’s name is prominently placed over the final shot of every episode. Is this what I can expect from him all season? Anyway, ATCSL has some good moments (the part where the kids all see their parents and it hits home that they’ve been killed is effective, if mean), but is not too memorable, and was often a little sloppy. Ultimately a lot hinges on the group of kids’ inability to get Kirk to succumb to their powers. While the rest of the crew is immobilized or tricked, Kirk is free to run around and set things right. It seems like they just inexplicably never tried to get him. But there are also hints that they did, only he is Kirk and is able to fight off those kinds of things. So which is it? Also, somehow Kirk knows the identity of the evil force behind the kids, referring to it by name, even though he never actually hears the name. (Memory Alpha reports that this was an editing mistake, but even without the mistake it didn’t quite make sense.) Also McCoy likes it when children are sad. Also other than the part where they cry, the kids spend a lot of time being sort of annoying and pretty poorly developed (ice cream and “Ring Around The Rosie?”…sheesh). Killer Spock line: none.  Overall: hit and miss, mostly miss. 2 out of 5.

Trek tropes (number of instances encountered in series so far in parentheses):

  • Anonymous redshirt killed (6) [two of them accidentally beamed out into space – whoops!]
  • Shatner showcase (4)
  • Only Kirk can truly make command decisions (6)

(Edit: just read Tor’s reviews of the last few episodes. Regarding #58, I missed some bits about how the Native American-like people were in fact Native Americans, explained the same way that a lot of other human-like races are explained, in that an ancient race called the Preservers actually brought humans to other planets. Sure it’s ridiculous, but that’s the deal. Regarding #59, man. There really was a lot of goofy, inexplicable stuff. I won’t revise my rating but it’s definitely generous.)

Over the weekend I decided that instead of a substantive amount of money, I would like to have a ridiculously awesome telescope. Actually this was not an impulsive decision, but the culmination of several years of longing and the internet’s remarkable ability to let you spend as much money as you have as quickly as possible.

Some background. Once upon a time I was an astronomy major, trading in the lucrative and highly employable field of computer science for something cooler that I thought I’d like better that I would ultimately bail on just one year into a PhD program, leaving myself floundering for an adult identity for years and years. In fairness, astronomy’s lack of an appealing career path was not the fault of the HR diagrams and globular clusters I was studying, but the fault of an oppressive and fiercely competitive academic environment I didn’t dig nearly as much as the diagrams and clusters. So I didn’t stick with it, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it or wouldn’t miss it.

I certainly wanted to have a good telescope even when it had some tenuous relation to my field of study (yes, tenuous: modern professional astronomers don’t exactly spend their nights in the backyard with flimsy paperboard star charts). Only, as a college student, it was a few thousand dollars out of my grasp. Instead of the necessary $1200 or so, I had more like $12. In astronomy courses, they teach you about orders of magnitude. A worthwhile telescope was two orders of magnitude too expensive for the likes of me. The mindset of “this will happen some day” was established.

So: years later, I have a house and a real job. Despite a rigorous morning routine of grousing and whining about having to get up and go to work, I understand I am lucky to have navigated a recession and have a job to go to, and I want to keep it, so I go. A result of such is that I had accumulated a bit of savings. The financial barrier to telescope ownership was broken down. And…nothing happened. Because the “some day” mindset persisted. A number of times this winter, K and I have gone for our evening walk and I would say something like how great a night it would be to have a telescope. She would contrast staying up late and standing out in the cold to use it with not having it and getting to be in a warm bed inside and shrug, but at least give me the supportive wifely, “Yeah.” Then for some reason last week it just clicked. What the heck am I waiting for? This could happen!

I had enough residual knowledge of telescopes to narrow the search quickly. I generally knew I wanted something of pretty high quality and had some basic specifications in mind. It was just a matter of deciding how much I was willing to spend and to do some research. With the obsession switch kicked on, this took relatively little time.

BEHOLD!

Excitedness has achieved CONDITION RED. Here is a brief rundown of the conditions:

  • Blue: You are surprised when it was delivered because you forgot you even ordered it.
  • Green: You know it’s coming at least but aren’t too worried about it. It’ll get here eventually.
  • Yellow: You are aware of the scheduled delivery date and are on the lookout for it. You would be mildly disappointed if it doesn’t show on time.
  • Orange: You leave work a few minutes early hoping to be home for delivery. If you miss it, you are willing to go pick it up from UPS/FedEx during the 30 minute opportunity window in the middle of the night.
  • Red: You refresh the tracking site hourly. You take the whole day off on the scheduled delivery date and sleep by the door the night before just in case of early arrival.

Condition Red has been achieved only twice before: when I bought a particularly exciting new computer once, and when I got the drum kit for Guitar Hero (I dunno, I just got really wound up after playing around with it at Best Buy). UPS currently reports that a shipping label has been created but they do not yet have possession of my shipment. So I’m guessing I’ll see it Friday or Monday.

Anyway, this has gone on long enough but I’ll keep you posted. Next time: scope specifics.

I just finished a re-read of Don DeLillo’s White Noise and my rambling about him got too long for a reasonably-sized Goodreads review. So, some more general thoughts about DeLillo’s style.

There are a number of Goodreads reviews complaining about his style in a very literal way, like how the dialogue fails to be realistic. Which to me is sort of like going to a rock concert and being upset that they’re not playing any of your favorite Beethoven pieces. Such reviewers are certainly free to not like how he handles dialogue, but they’re also sort of missing the point, I think. He’s not a literal writer. His dialogue is really an internal one, but to make it into interesting writing he has some characters saying these things out loud as conversations, and that’s how things work and people talk in the DeLillo universe.

In White Noise, DeLillo is trying to describe the dread and anxiety inherent in modern life. We’re all trapped in an overwhelmingly complex system and rely on the system to provide for our health and well-being. For food, we go to the supermarket where the fundamental choice is between a colorful familiar product you think you know well (thanks to ultra-ubiquitous advertising) or a bland generic you don’t (even though it’s largely the same thing). Either way, you don’t know the origin of the products. You don’t know what’s in them really. For your health, you go to doctors who know more than you about your own body in an objective way, but they’re also separate people with their own communication issues, so how can they really get to know you and every risk factor you encounter? For safety, we rely on governments that we can’t entirely trust, and they are made up of uncertain mortal people just like us.

So, something about DeLillo’s style particularly rings true in White Noise, I think, because the book is so much about how your own internal thoughts find no reconciliation with the outside forces of commercialism and authority and government that affect you.  The same is true for another book of his I liked, Mao II. But it doesn’t always work, especially when the story is more plot-driven and less about what people are thinking.  It was good and bad in Libra and in the film Game 6. And I thought it was largely a miss in Running Dog, which I think was something of an attempt to write a kind of spy-thriller, and didn’t click at all with his style and became a slog. (I have yet to attempt the ambitious [read: long] Underworld.)

Here is where I remind you I am no literary scholar. Thank you.