Post Office of the Future?

January 23rd, 2008

You might want to try this experiment. On selected days around the
year, near Christmas and not, weekdays and weekends, categorize your
U.S. Mail. In one category is “useful”–that includes bills,
Christmas cards, etc. If you are a coupon clipper, it includes coupon
magazines and such, otherwise not. This category includes the mail
you want to be delivered. The second category is “Junk”, where
advertisements and such you have no interest in goes. This category
is “parasite mail”, the stuff you get because you get mail, not
because you want it delivered to you. The third category is parcel
post: packages, but only from the post office, not from UPS or FedEx
or whatever.

Now, take two measurements: count the items in each category, and
weigh the bulk of items in the category. Keep stats and find the
average daily count/weight. Specifically, on a day (for most people,
on most days) you don’t receive a package, you count it as “zero” in
the average.

It is my guess that most people will find that, by count, junk is
in first place, followed by useful mail, followed by packages. By
weight, many will now have packages in first, junk in second, and
useful in third, but some may have junk first still, packages second,
and useful third.

Now, it’s too late to do the same experiment in the past, but think
back–how do you think the statistics would run, say, 10 years ago? 30
years ago?

What we see is a trend, caused largely by the Internet. More and
more bills are received and paid online, more and more magazines are
read online, and of course, hardly anybody sends letters anymore with
e-mail being so much faster and easier. The main uses of the post
office is tending toward delivering packages and delivering junk.

One could argue already that, nobody wants junk and packages can be
delivered by UPS, etc., so get rid of the post office. It’s possible
that is the best solution, and whether it is or not, it might be the
one that happens, unless…

The other possibility is that the post office reinvents itself, and
I mean radically. First, get rid of junk mail delivery–nobody but
the post office and the junk senders want it anyway. Then, become a
package-only delivery service. Yes, if a paper letter must be sent,
one will either send it as a package or find an electronic
alternative–that requires changes in society, but not huge ones.

Now, here is the big change for the post office–planes, trains,
and automobiles are great for intercity mail transport, but at least
within the more densely populated zip codes, there are more efficient
methods. Heinlein wrote about pneumatic tubes for delivering both
letters and packages arond the city in minutes. Even more efficient
and more scalable would be something like miniture mag-lev trains.
You have tubes big enough for say, 90% of the packages currently
shipped today (the rest can go on a truck) connecting every house to
satellite distribution centers, which are themselves connected in,
say, a ring. Every house with a tube connection (and every house will
get one, just like with electric, water, sewer, telephone, internet,
TV, gas, and in some cities, steam, hot water, or whatever else) will
have a numeric address (an IP address even?). If you want to send
someone a package, you need their IP address. The container has a
chip and keypad so you can punch in the address right on the
container. You hit “send” and away it goes, and your account is
charged “postage”.

Now, suppose a package is on the way. You get a notice
electronically–you can accept or reject the package–and of course,
the notice shows where the package comes from (and when you order
something online, of course, they tell you where it will come from!
They’d better…). The sender of course can add a personal message to
the notice like “Here is the widget you ordered etc. etc.”. Packages
are automatically rejected if you take, say, more than a week to
accept, so that storage of packages in the system doesn’t overflow.
Like corporate “shotgun” envelopes, the containers are reused–just
put it back in the system unless you want to use it immediately to get
your small deposit back. The system should have a way of cycling
empty containers through cleaning procedures from time to time, and
the system itself have an automatic tube disinfecting system, so this
doesn’t become a disease vector.

The containers can come in Faraday-shielded varieties if you need
to send something sensitive to magnetic fields.

If the USPS starts now, they can get a trial run of the system in
some dense but not too big in area city, say Manhattan. From that, it
would spread to other cities as problems are worked out. This would
prevent the inevitable demise of the USPS while providing a service
that would continue to be useful for decades.

Here is the procedure I go through for astrophotography of deep sky
objects with a digital SLR. It will be different for different
equipment and situations, but it’s still a basic template of a plan.

Before I go out, I find out basic information for the observing site.
I find latitude and longitude as accurately as possible, and the
magnetic declination (how far true north is from magnetic north) so I
can use a compass to find north. This information can come from
topographic maps, such as at this site. Also, I go to to make
sure my watch is set right, down to the second. You might also want
to consult star maps to see what bright stars are visible at darkness
(for that matter, check sunset time too). Web sites that do this include
US Naval Observatory for sunset and astronomical twilight information, and
Fourmilab for star maps.

You will need to be able to recognize a few bright stars for alignment–at
least two, but have a few backups as well. They should not be too close to
the horizon at the time you align, or they may be lost in the trees, and
should not be too close to the zenith, or the scope can’t reach them. It is
best if they are moderately far apart in the sky.

I have a Celestron C6-R goto doublet refractor scope (6in aperture,
1200mm focal length, f/8) on a CG-5 mount. The first thing I do is
set up the tripod and mount, preferably when it is still day time. I
make sure it points north (I use a compass), and then level it–the
mount has a built-in bubble level. I try to make it as accurately
level as possible, as slight deviations will mess up tracking.

Then, I make finer adjustments to the mount to make sure it is
pointing north–I actually loosen the mount a little so I can move it
clockwise or counterclockwise without unleveling the tripod, and then
tighten it back up (don’t forget that step!). Again, I use a compass,
but this time, I make sure to adjust for “magnetic declination”. The
compass I use is this one. It has a mirror to enhance accurate direction finding.

For example, I was recently at Alpha Ridge Park near Marriottesville,
MD. The coordinates are 39 19 13 N and 76 55 02 W, with magnetic
declination of 11 degrees West. Sine it is West, I rotate the bezel
of the compass 11 degrees counterclockwise, so that the “forward”
marker on the case points to 11 degrees “East” (backward from what you
might think–you want “north” on the bezel to be 11 degrees west of

Then, I site exactly along the latitude-adjustment bolt of the mount,
and hold the compass between my eye and that bolt. I have the case
open about 15 degrees and the bottom of the case (where the compass
is) as level as I can get it. I then rotate the case till I see in
the mirror that the needle is exactly on the north indicator of the
twistable bezel, and at the same time, the marker on the case closest
to me is exactly on the center line (again in the mirror). This
prevents errors due to parallax. Instructions on how to use the
compass mirror are included with the compass.

From this, I see how far off the mount is from where I want it to be,
so I loosen it, move it, and tighten it. Then I repeat the compass
check. I keep doing this (patience is required to get it right!)
until I have it aimed to the north.

Finally, I finish putting the scope together and wait for darkness. I
do a final check–sight with compass–is it exactly north? check the
bubble level–did I knock it out of level doing all this?

When it is dark enough, I align the goto mount. Even with all I’ve
done, there are still some errors in the mount to deal with. With the
CG-5 goto mount, you turn it on and it asks you to align. You hit
“undo” because you want to align to take photos (hit Enter if you
don’t, say you’re using the scope to starhop but want to be able to
nudge it electrically or something). You set the scope to index
position (there are arrows on the mount to show you where this is),
then enter longitude, latitude, and current time, but enter it a few
seconds after what it actually is, then wait for the time to catch up
with what you entered, THEN press ENTER.

Next, it will ask your alignment method–select two-star alignment.
Then, select from the list of stars (using the “rate” or “menu” key to
switch between eastern and western sky stars) one that you recognize.
It will slew to that star, give or take a couple degrees. Use the
arrow buttons on the hand controller to center it (a Telrad makes this
easier). Use the Telrad first, if you have one, then the finder if
you have a separate finder, and then finally the eyepiece. Get it as
exactly centered as you can. You hit Enter, then it will switch to a
slower fine-adjustment rate and you can make sure the centering is
precise, then hit “align”. Now, repeat for a second star.

Next, I select “Polar Align” from the menu. It slews to Polaris, and I adjust the mount itself, NOT the arrow buttons, using the latitude bolt and by loosening, moving, and retightening the mount. I use the Telrad first, then the finder, then the eyepiece. When this is done, I do the two alignment stars again. This results in better tracking.

I usually skip the “add calib stars” at first. As it darkens, you can
do some visual observation through the eyepiece. When you use the
hand paddle to goto an object, if you know what it is supposed to look
like, you can use the arrow buttons to center the object precisely,
then hit undo as many times as needed to get out to the main menu, and
hit “align”. Use up/down (not the arrows, the words “up” and “down”)
to select “add calib star”, and follow the instructions to add this
object (it doesn’t really have to be a star) as a calib star. You can
easily add the four calibration stars this way.

Now, it’s fully dark and you want to photograph something. Choose an
object a bit above the horizon to reduce distortion and skyglow. If
the object is on your hand paddle’s list, just goto it, adjust the
arrow keys to center it exactly, and add it as a calib star (it will
replace something already added). If not, find an object close to it
and do the same. It tracks better if one calib star is close to what you are tracking.

Here is where I take the lens off my Canon Digital Rebel XTi, a
digital SLR. I replace it with a T-adapter made for the Digital
Rebel, attached to a 2in tube threaded for the T-adapter at one end,
and made to fit the 2in focuser. Both are available from Celestron.
I then put the camera body onto the telescope, and rotate it to the
orientation I want.

Now, I focus. I look through the viewfinder and try to focus on the
object. If the object is too faint, I just goto a bright star. In
any case, I get as good a focus as possible by eye, then adjust the
diopter for the camera’s viewfinder (I’ve found this a necessary step
for good focus), and refocus as good as possible by eye. I take my
time on this, as an accurate focus makes a huge difference.

Finally, I center the scope on the object I want to photograph, using
the arrow keys to make fine adjustments so the field of view, as seen
in the camera’s viewfinder, is what I want.

Now, I crank the ISO speed all the way to 1600, make sure automatic
noise correction is on, and take a test photo, 10 seconds for brighter
objects, 30 seconds for dimmer objects. I adjust as needed.

Finally, I set the timer for 30 seconds (10 seconds if the object is
so bright it overexposes, but that’s rare for deep sky) and use a
remote switch to lock the camera into repeated exposures, and let it
take pictures for a while, at least 10 pictures, sometimes more. It
is very important not to touch the scope or camera or do anything to
vibrate it–that will cause streaks in the image.

After all photography is done, I use ImagePlus to stack the photos. I
basically do “automatic file processing” using “sigma clipped average
(s=1.0)” for the stacking algorithm. It is here that I see that even with all I did, there are slight errors in tracking. Then, I use “digital
development” under the “color” menu, and adjust the settings to bring
out a bright image with as much contrast on the features I want to see
as I can get. Depending on the situation, I may use other ImagePlus
features, like color correction (turning the yellow cast to a bluer
one), halo reduction, and maybe others. I then save a copy as .jpg
and exit. Sometimes I finish with Photoshop, to crop, rotate, reduce
skyglow even more, adjust contrast and color, etc.

Here are some
of my results
. Note sometimes instead of photographing through
the scope, I put the camera on top of the scope (piggyback) with a
lens to take wider-field photos. Otherwise, the procedure is the

Binoculars for Astronomy

November 16th, 2007

It is said that “binoculars are halfway to a telescope” for observing
the night sky. Not only this, but they are easier to use than a
telescope and far less than half the cost. So, binoculars make the
ideal “first scope” for someone newly interested in amateur

So, which binoculars should you buy?

First of all, if you already have a pair, go ahead and use them! Very
few pairs of binoculars are so bad as to be useless, and this way you
can start tonight (if it’s clear). If you have a starmap (you can see
one online at Sky and
or download a 55-page .pdf of a full sky atlas for free
at Guide to Backyard
) take it outside and start finding things. Depending on
the time of year, good objects to look at are M42 (the Great Orion
Nebula) in Orion, the Double Cluster in Perseus, the Coathanger
Cluster in Vulpecula (between Altair and Vega), M13 (the Great
Hercules Cluster) in Hercules, M31 (the Andromeda Galaxy) in
Andromeda, M44 (the Beehive Cluster) in Cancer (Between Leo and
Gemini), MEL 111 (the Coma Star Cluster) in Coma Berenices at Leo’s
tail, or if you can see the Milky Way, just scan that for lots of good

If you wish to purchase a pair of binoculars, there are several things
to consider. Holding them steady can be a challenge, particularly if
they are heavy. High magnification amplifies the shaking, so that is
a consideration. To start with (especially a child) one would want to
limit himself to about 10x magnification and about 50mm for lens
diameter (written 10×50 in a binocular’s specs). In fact, 7×45 or
10×50 is an ideal place to start for most people. If you can handle
it, 11×70 is a good size that lets you see a bit more. (I most often
observe with my Oberwerk 11×70 binoculars). If possible, borrow a
pair of binoculars and try them to see what you can handle.

If you wear eyeglasses, you need at least 10mm, and preferably 15mm,
of eye relief (sometimes called “exit pupil distance”). This is how
far you hold your eye from the eyepiece lens to see the best image.
If you wear glasses, you need that extra distance. Many binoculars
have foldable eyecups–leave them unfolded if you do not wear glasses,
or fold them in if you do, to properly place your eyes.

Any type prism would work, but BAK4 is the best for astronomy. There are
differences of opinion on whether Porro prisms is better than Roof
prisms, but the difference seems slight to me. Roof prisms mean more
compact binoculars, while Porro prisms cost less.

You will want a pair with a focusing control. Fixed-focus or
focus-free binoculars are usually a little out of focus for

Either separate focusing knobs for each eyepiece, or a single focusing
knob and a diopter adjustment knob are helpful if one eye focuses
differently from the other.

Also, “zoom binoculars” often leave something to be desired in
performance, and add to the price.

Now, you generally want bright, high-contrast images, subject to
constraints above and to what you are willing to pay. Higher
magnification for a given lens size means better contrast for stars
(but not for extended objects like galaxies or nebulae–they get
larger but dimmer with higher magnification). Larger lens size for a
given magnification means brighter images.

You can get a feel for the brightness of an image through “exit pupil
diameter”. If not printed in the specs, you can compute this by
dividing the lens diameter, in millimeters, by the magnifcation. So
for 10×50 binoculars, the exit pupil diameter is 5mm. A child’s
pupils dilate to about 9mm, and an adults to 7mm, or maybe only 5mm
with old age. Generally, larger exit pupil means brighter
images…until the exit pupil is the size of your pupils. After that,
more exit pupil diameter doesn’t help.

If you do get big binoculars, you may want a tripod. Many find they
need a tripod for 11×70 binoculars. Most people would want one for
20×80 binoculars, and everybody would want one for 25×100 binoculars.
Make sure the tripod is sturdy enough for the weight of the
binoculars. A tripod made for a tiny video camera would probably be
insufficient. Also, check that the binoculars have a standard
mounting thread. You might have to purchase an L-shaped mounting
bracket separately depending on the type of tripod or where the
mounting thread is on the binoculars. Nearly all giant binoculars
have the mounting thread.

For (lots) more money, you can get electronic stabilizing binoculars,
but I have never tried them myself. In theory, they should allow you
to use larger binoculars while still getting a steady image.

Then, there are high-end brands that cost several thousand and give
really clear images. These are for the serious binocular astronomer.
But then by that time, you might be wanting a telescope instead.

Torroidal Cells

November 3rd, 2007

(originally posted at

Ok–Cells on Earth-based life are deformed spheres (genus 0, i.e. no “holes” like a donut). That seems reasonable, as I figure it is easier for a spherical cell to form randomly than anything more complex. A spherical cell might have evolved when, for some reason, self-replicating molecules got other molecules attached to them to protect them.

Still, it’s certainly imaginable that by some random chance, a toroidal cell developed–nuclear material in a ring shape, with an inner-tube-like membrane surrounding it. It is not necessary that the DNA or equivalent actually be a ring–it could still be a thread with ends unconnected. The only thing is, would such a cell have any kind of survival advantage in some alien environment? If so, there would be a lot more and they would evolve.

There is more than one way you could split a donut–they might reproduce by becoming first, a two-holed figure-eight shaped donut, then breaking apart into two donuts, or perhaps it is simpler if a ridge forms on the equator and on the inner equator and the two ridges then squeeze together, so the final result looks like a donut sitting on top of a donut, both horizontal, and then they split into two.

Now, at some point, by mutation and/or accident, some donut will split in such a way that the two resulting donuts are linked. If this were to provide a survival advantage, it would be the start of a multi-cellular life form. Two different donut species getting linked somehow (I’m not sure how, but I’m sure it could happen) could become symbiosis.

Fast forward several billion years….multicellular macroscopic life forms with toroidal cells linked up like chains, mesh armor, or the like. If there is a survival advantage for toroidal cells, the aliens might have trouble imagining an alien species could possibly survive with spheroidal cells–with no way for cells to link together, they would just fall apart into dust, wouldn’t they?

Now, if I could figure out how a cell could have a Mobius strip membrane so it mixes its outside with its inside….not so likely I guess.

Mason Dixon Star Party

July 14th, 2007

The 2007 Mason Dixon Star Party was held on the grass runway and taxiway of the Shreveport North Airport near Wellsville, PA (near York and Harrisburg) from Wednesday, July 11, through Sunday, July 15. Given the dismal weather report for Wednesday, I showed up and set up my tent and scope Thursday, stayed two nights, and had my fill of camping for now and returned home Saturday (today).

I didn’t actually count, but there were at least 50-75 trailers/tents set up on each side of the taxiway, some with one or two people, some with an entire family. Across from me was a 24-inch “short tube” reflector (f/4.5) and a ladder to access the eyepiece about 8 feet or so off the ground. He was selling it for $6,000.00, quite a bargain. Now if I lived in the country where I could fully use such a device at home, I might have bought it.

Thursday night, I observed from dark till about 1am before getting tired and hitting the canvas. Even though it’s July, by about 4am I was shiverring! So, I went to my truck and ran the heater, snoozing till the sun came out and began warming the tent, where I finished my sleeping.

Friday night started out fully cloudy. I took a snooze and looked out one of the tent’s apertures at midnight and saw that the stars finally were out. So, I got out and observed till about 4am this time, before again getting the chills and heading to the heated truck for warmth.

I was observing with my Celestron C6-R, a 6-inch achromatic f/8 refractor on a CG-5 (goto) mount. (Having spent a year starhopping, I decided to relax and let the goto do it–and it made for a good tracking motor as well). Mostly I observed with a Meade QX 68-degree AFOV 36mm eyepiece, giving me 33.3x magnification and a 2.6 degree field of view (enough for all of the Pleiades and the whole coathanger asterism, just barely). When that didn’t suffice, I used a Zuhmell 15mm 50-degree AFOV eyepiece that came with an eyepiece kit–this was only helpful on the Ring Nebula, Wild Duck Cluster, and Jupiter.

I used a PowerTank 17, which held out both nights without needing a recharge, as well as providing power for my portable DVD player (portable–I was roughing it) in the daytime. Too bad my camera batteries didn’t last so long–I used 1 1/2 batteries a night ( I had two, and recharged one in a (1/4 mile away) bathroom outlet Friday afternoon). My camera is a Cannon Digital Rebel XTi, and for astrophotography, this time I used a 100mm–300mm zoom lens at F/5.6.

I also used 20×80 Zuhmell binoculars, 3.6 degree field of view. Of course, I also did some naked eye observing.

At first, on Thursday, I was disappointed because, while I could see the washed-out Milky Way, I could see no structure. However, after midnight, that changed–the Milky Way was higher in the sky (Cygnus close to zenith) and there were fewer lights from cars and houses in the surrounding area.

Friday, from midnight to 4am, the Milky Way was pretty nice–not like the photos from the Arizona desert, but still good. The Great Rift was obvious through Cygnus and Aquilla, as was the Great Cygnus Star Cloud and the Sagittarius Star Cloud.

It wasn’t till about 3am or so that Andromeda Galaxy rose high enough to be spotted with the naked eye; same with the Double Cluster. I’m pretty sure I saw M13 when I looked hard at the keystone of Hercules. At the end of the night, Pleiades, normally a winter cluster, was just rising–still in the horizon skyglow and impending sunrise, but still nice in the scope. Also, as Perseus rose, the Alpha Persei association became a brilliant piece broken off the Milky Way.

All 7 stars were visible in the little dipper, but four of them were faint.

Herman’s Cross (the Terabellum in Sagittarius) was a naked eye asterism.

Among the objects viewed:

M13, the old standard Hercules Globular Cluster.

M31, the Andromeda Galaxy–quality varied, depending on whether it was low or not, or whether dew was collecting (an off-and-on problem Friday night). With the 36mm lens, at its best, I clearly saw M32 and M110 in the same field of view. This may be the first time I’ve seen M110; it’s a tough one from my more usual observation locations.

M4, a globular cluster in Scorpius, was easy to see (it is almost not there in suburbia). M5, another globular in Ophiuchus, was brilliant.

M51, the whirlpool galaxy, wasn’t too spectacular–too low on the horizon. Still, I saw the satellite galaxy and part of a spiral wisp.

I saw one that the Goto hand controller called the “Pinwheel Galaxy”–I forget which one that is; it was a faint fuzzy ellipse, no detectable spiral arms.

The double cluster was brilliant in the 36mm lens–I counted 80 stars in the two clusters, not counting lots of outliers in the field of view. Among the individually-resolved stars I saw apparent nebulosity (no doubt an optical illusion).

The Wild Duck cluster really looked like a flying duck. Before, I thought it was called such because I could barely make out a “V” shape, like birds flying in formation.

I spent some time with binoculars just scanning the Milky Way (kind of a “spacewalk” experience) lying on the ground, as Cygnus was near the Zenith.

Very close to the Zenith was this interesting (no doubt chance occurrence) asterism–a string of stars about two degrees long (reminiscent of Kimble’s Cascade). It is a slightly-wandering line of 13 bright (in binoculars) stars (15 really, since two were doubles just split by binoculars). It was just northwest of Chi Cygni. In fact, look at the cross. With the naked eye in the Mason Dixon Star Party skies, picture the cross as upright, Deneb at the top. The next star down is Sadr, the crosspiece star. The next (faint) star down is not Chi Cygni, I forget what it is, but the variable star Chi Cygni (or is it Xi Cygni? the one that brightened to 3rd magnitude last year, normally 6 or 7) is right next to it, so close enough. In these dark skies, I could see three stars to the left (same orientation) of this forming an obtuse triangle. To the right of it, this time in binoculars, is the cascade.

Sadr, in fact, looks great in binoculars, being surrounded by many stars, Milky Way marbling, and the open cluster M29, all in the same field of view.

I also saw the Ring Nebula (M57), a definite white ring in the scope.

The Dumbbell Nebula (M27) was brilliant. It looked like two star-like bright points, each surrounded by a disk of nebulosity (like globular clusters), and the whole boxed in with a rectangle of fainter nebulosity, all a bluish-green color.

M8 (The Lagoon Nebula) was a cluster next to a nebula. M24 was an awful lot of stars. M39 in Cygnus was a fairly loose open cluster, all its stars being individually-resolved bright points.

A failure was the Helix Nebula–I could not see it at all. It may have been too low in the sky.

For planets, I observed Jupiter multiple times, and Mars briefly. Mars was just an orange disk with a dark blemish in the center, but with no other structure evident. Jupiter showed the four Galilean moons and one prominent brownish band, a less-prominent white band (brighter than the surrounding yellow surface), and two faint yellowish bands (darker than the surrounding surface). The innermost moon was very close when I looked, I estimate 1/8 a Jupiter-disk-diameter from Jupiter.

It was a good two nights, but I was ready to go home after the cold lumpy ground and all.

Galactic Colonies

June 24th, 2007

What is in store for the future of humanity? The usual way to answer
this question is to attempt to take things to their logical
conclusion. The “Bookworm” phenomenon has given way to couch
potatoes, video game addiction, and more recently, internet addiction.
This was partly addressed in Fahrenheit 451, where the citizens were
glued to their TV sets most of the time. Virtual reality (VR), of
various forms, seems to be a good diversion from real reality.

Another trend has been a moving away from physical labor to more
mental kinds of work, particularly as machines are better and better
able to do the dull, the dirty, and the dangerous. This was partly
addressed in War of the Worlds, where the Martians were almost all
brain but depended on machines for locomotion and anything else

Combine the two and what do you get? Remember the Red Dwarf novel,
Better than Life? Addicts of an immersive VR game would
waste away with their hunger and other drives being masked by the
entertainment. In the Ringworld novels, electric stimulation of a
pleasure center in the brain would cause people to die of thirst
instead of getting up off the chair, removing the plug, and getting a
glass of water.

I think our own future will be somewhat less bleak than that. A
VR system, though used for entertainment at first for
short periods of time, will becomes more and more immersive to the
point one would forget the normal drives that sustain life. At this
point, robots can take care of keeping you fed, watered, and
generally, alive.

Since people who design these robots are probably not replaced
completely by thinking machines yet, and since this design work could
be done within a VR environment (letting the robots do the
manufacturing), immersing in the VR environment is no longer just
leisure, but part of the work day, just like with the Internet today.
At some point we will have the first person to become immersed for 24
hours a day, 7 days a week–giving up their real life for a (more
flexible) virtual one. There will be plenty of reasons to do
this–with the robotic help, one no longer needs to be in the real
world; the virtual world can be manipulated to a user’s wishes more
easily than the real world–you can commune with a crowd or be
completely alone at will, visit (virtually) a friend on the other side
of the world instantly, or make your environment pretty much anything
you like–with high-end antique virtual furniture, for example,
costing little more than virtual milk crates (but see below).

At first, perhaps only those who can work in the VR environment will
do this, along with the occasional rich kid. But, as physical-labor
type jobs are replaced with robot automation, it will become more and
more possible for society to support those who do not work at all (and
can no longer get the high-end technical jobs that are all that are
left). A tempting solution is for these people to plug in to the VR
system and live their fantasies. Some may even find work in the VR

There still will be currency; it will not be green pieces of paper,
but things like processing power and memory (or credits to represent
these). After all, those with the greatest access to processing power
and memory will be the most able to live in a virtual world of their
choosing. There will be rich and poor, with the rich living in
virtual mansions and the poor having the basic entertainment choices.
And the poor can get rich, if they can make a better design to improve
the VR system, or if they are artists who can design beautiful virtual
furniture in high demand, or can provide any virtual service to others that can’t be
done so well by the computer system.

The world will become two worlds–a virtual world and the real
world–and no doubt there will be communication between the two. But,
more and more of the world will go virtual for all the reasons touched
on above.

Some VR inhabitants will unplug and revisit the real world–those who
can do so anyway. Stay on too long and your body atrophies and you no
longer have the strength to walk out of your house. This can be
prevented by having robots that, along with sustaining you, maintain
your muscles, perhaps with some new exerciser technology.

Some VR inhabitants will unplug and then go steal other people’s
computing equipment, or kill them so there is more power available (or
because they do not like them). A VR police force, with robots
working the “outside”, will emerge to deal with this, as well as with
internal cyber crime (hackers? hacking wars?). At first the penalty might be permanent
disconnection from the VR, but past some critical point, that may
become “cruel and unusual punishment” and virtual jails will emerge.

Yet another reason to unplug would be for reproduction, though
eventually infants will be plugged in at birth and never know the real
world. Ultimately, even (normal) reproduction will go away. Will the human race die
out as a result? Maybe not.

Technology will continue to improve. As VR inhabitants need less and
less of their bodies, with robot help they will become more and more
integrated into the machinery. Ultimately, all that is left of a
person would be the mind in the computer equipment. At the same time,
artificial intelligence (AI) will develop, with help of the VR workers
who design those algorithms and hardware. The line between AI and
minds of people will blur.

Reproduction would now be a cloning of a mind (or AI), or some kind of
merging of (copies of) two (or more) minds (or AIs or AIs and minds).
Note, minds are essentially immortal by now, barring disaster of some
sort. Note that copying the minds before merging them is
optional–one could literally merge with another person and two
individuals will literally become one. This will change the nature of
humanity even more than the giving up of human bodies. It is even
possible (not that it would happen) that Nirvana would be realized,
with all minds melding together into one supermind. Or, the minds
could create a virtual God by making copies of all minds and melding
the copies–though they might be hesitant; this might not be a
benevolent god.

While this goes on, more and more physical and energy resources are
used to keep up the VR system. It is unlikely it would shrink–that
would involve minds dying or perhaps involuntarily merging or
shrinking. Over time, all of Earth will support the VR system. Then
what? It is still expanding….

Well, there is the moon, the 9 or 8 or 10 planets, the asteroids and
comets, and the sun itself. The VR system surely could make
spacecraft and build pieces of itself off of the earth. A “Dyson
” may emerge from this to fully utilize the Sun’s energy.

Note, the various VR systems in the swarm compete with each other, for
matter in the Solar System and for the Sun’s energy. Eventually, one
or more will advance enough to actually be able to dive into the sun
itself and begin consuming it. It will reproduce and other outer
solar system VR systems will dive in and join the party too. The sun
will be consumed, both for matter and energy.

Of course, VR systems might not reproduce, but some will, and all it
takes is some–they will have a survival advantage over those which
don’t, just like Earth’s life under Darwin’s theory. By this time, it
is hard to consider the VR systems to be artificial anymore–they are
almost a natural emergence of intelligent life. They ARE intelligent
life, competing for Solar System resources (and, quite literally, eating each other too).
They will evolve.

When the Solar System and its Oort cloud are used up, what then?
Interstellar travel of course! There is a whole galaxy out there
waiting to be consumed.

Alien intelligences in the galaxy will likely produce their own VR
systems that become “new formerly-artificial space-borne life”, which
I shall call “Starseeds” henceforth. There will be many different
(both incompatible and compatible) Starseeds in the galaxy. The
strongest will survive. A percentage (perhaps small) may very well
become a Nirvana or create their virtual God, and those may likely
have an evolutionary advantage over those that only contain lots of
small intelligences. The galaxy is thus populated with big,
intelligent Starseeds, some of which are filled with smaller

This may have happened in the universe already in other galaxies–if
we were to find them, we would look for “dark galaxies” with most of
their stars consumed.

Eventually, of course, the galaxy is consumed, and some survivers will
head out to the next galaxy.

The universe is 13.8 billion years old. Assuming it takes 5 billion
years to develop life that becomes “Starseed”, and assuming they
travel, say, 1/10 the speed of light, Starseed populations out there
may have expanded to spheres of radius 1 billion lightyears. There
are certainly 2-billion-lightyear in diameter “empty areas” in the
universe without much in the way of galaxies and stars, and this could
possibly explain part of the “dark matter”.

Now, the ultimate question might not be “Will the universe stop expanding and contract?” so much as, “Will the Starseed populations expand faster than the universe?”

in West Virginia last night.

(Originally posted on the Howard Astronomical League’s newsgroup May 7, 2007)

The Milky Way wasn’t very visible, as
it is low in the sky to the West this time of year, but I could see
the “marble” in binoculars. I went out to my uncle’s hayfield,
braving the smell of freshly-scattered fertilizer, to avoid the two
streetlights at my parents’ house 3 miles north of Moorefield, WV on
US 220 (nearest clear sky clock: Mountain Meadows) in the green
(rural-suburban transition) zone of the Bortle scale. Moorefield’s
lights were visible to the south, and when my eyes adjusted, I could
still see faint glow all around the horizon despite being away from
the cities.

I observed for an hour and a half (9pm till 10:30pm) last night [May 6].
Directly overhead, Coma Berenices was clearly visible to the naked
eye, normally at best faint haze in Bowie, and really a binocular
object there. I showed it to my sister, who thought it looked like
the letter “N”. I also told her the story of Bernice’s Hair–that
Queen Bernice cut her hair off to give it to Zeus as an offering and
left it in the temple. The next day, the hair was gone and she was
upset that it had been stolen. Not wanting there to be commotion
over the matter, her sycophants told her that Zeus himself accepted
the offering and put it in the sky, and showed her what was then
considered to be part of Leo, particularly, the puffy tail of the
lion. She apparently believed it was her hair and of course,
eventually the IAU made it an official constellation. It is
actually an open star cluster.

In addition, the Beehive (M44 in Cancer) was an easy naked eye
object. Again at best in Bowie, it’s faint haze I’m not sure is
real or imagined. Here, I saw it clearly, wondered what it was,
looked in binoculars, and recognized it then–I saw M44 before I
picked out fainter Cancer!

In binoculars (20×80), several medium to difficult galaxies should
be classified as “Easy” in West Virginia–M51 was easier to find
than the pattern of stars I usually use to find M51 from Bowie. I
could see its satelite galaxy easily, as well as the wisp connecting
the two. Even at Alpha Ridge in my telescope, I need to photograph
it to detect the satelite and the connecting wisp.

M81-M82 was both easy to see and easy to find in WV–look at the
bowl of the Big Dipper, form a diagonal line with the two bowl stars
making the handle connection and the bottom of the bowl diagonally
across from the handle, and continue in that direction for about the
same distance as the length of that diagonal, and land on a star
that’s naked eye in WV, the only one in that position. Point the
binoculars there and M81 and M82 are definite ovals sharing the
field of view with the star, and I thought I saw some of the spiral
structure of M81 too.

Then, M104, the Sombrero, still didn’t look like a Sombrero in WV,
but it was very easy to see in binoculars. Find Corvus, the oddly-
shaped square crow, to the south under Spica. The top left star is
a double star (naked eye optical double in WV). Continue away from
Corvus following the diagonal of the sqaure formed by that double
and the opposite corner (the “beak” of the crow, I think) and pass
by three stars that look like a smile and then three more straight
stars that point down-left at the galaxy. A bright oval in
binoculars in WV.

Other Messier objects were more brilliant than back in Bowie–M13,
the great Hercules cluster, as well as M35, M36, M37, and M38 in
Gemini and Auriga, despite the fact that both constellations were

It’s nice to see the full little dipper–can’t do that in Bowie.
Even the colors of the different stars of the little dipper are
apparent. My sister found Corvus easily, but she thought it was the
little dipper.

It’s also good to see Corona Borealis as a steady, obvious
constellation, unlike in Bowie where I see Arcturus, deduce the
position of Corona Borealis from that, then stare and see how many
stars of the crown are visible that night, often the answer being
one or even none. Same with Bootes.

Toward the end I saw Lyra rising–well, Vega first, and later the
dimmer stars popped out. That means Summer is coming and the Summer
Triangle (and the Summer Milky Way which goes through it) are on the
way. Sure enough, in binoculars, the sky was marbled near the
horizon in the northeast. The Milky Way is coming back.

Speaking of my sister, she only joined me for 5 minutes, it being
too cold and smelly in the field for her. She came at the end of my
session–I admit I ended at 10:30 largely because she turned on the
user-controlled streetlight installed near that field. When I
returned to my parents’ house, my mom said she turned it on for my
benefit, worrying about me being out there in the dark! Sometime I’ll
tell her how astronomers prefer it to be dark.

I did plot the naked-eye stars of the big dipper (not the whole Ursa
Major), so when I return to Bowie on or about Thursday, I can
compare with Starry Night and estimate the limiting magnitude
(probably limited by my eyes as much as by the sky!). [edit: I plotted
stars down to magnitude 5.53].

Mizar and Alcor in the middle of the handle of the Big Dipper were
visible as separate stars, but not easily.

The really bright galaxies–M31 and M33–were on or below the

[Edit--a lot of globulars were clear in binoculars too--M4, M80, M14, M10, M12, M92, M22. In Bowie, M80 is nearly invisible, and M92 is faint.]

Originally posted on the Bad Astronomy blog:

Remember “Close Encounters of the Third Kind“? The aliens “sang” to
the humans…ths “song” being “re mi do (down octave) do sol”. A
common question is, what characteristics would an alien likely share
with humans? e.g. they probably would not be mammals–but perhaps
would take care of their young (a trait that helped mammals evolve to
intelligent humans). So, how about “alien music”? The question
interests me as I am an amateur musician.

One of those times when a science fiction movie didn’t completely miss
the mark is this Close Encounters motif. First–in an atmosphere of
density not far from Earth’s atmosphere, sound would be too good a way
to communicate for some form of “speaking” and “hearing” to not
develop. Music is not all that far from speech (or even bird songs,
for that matter). I conclude that some form of music is likely among
alien intelligences.

Now–no doubt Spielberg or someone working with him chose a major
scale motif (or a pentatonic, or many other modes actually share these
notes) was that it would “sound like music” to audience members, but
would an alien likely recognize the major scale, or would it be
completely different?

Well, it turns out, Pythagoras discovered that the intervals in a
major scale (using the so-called “just” intonation that the human ear
seems to find pleasing) are small-integer ratios of frequencies. An
octave is a factor of 2 (2/1) in frequency. do to sol is a “perfect
fifth” interval, and is a factor of 3/2 in frequency. All notes of
the major scale arise from small-integer ratios of frequencies.

I claim, therefore, that the system is simple enough to be a natural
way for an alien ear to develop as well–I believe many alien
intelligences will have major-scale-based music. (Some might find our
minor scale, or 12-tone pieces, to be weird…of course many humans
find 12-tone pieces to be weird too….)

Now, speaking of 12-tone–how about the “chromatic scale” c c# d d# e
f f# g g# a a# b c (12 notes, 13 if you count the repeated first
note). Well, if a society has music, they will want an effective way
to “play” it–hence the development of instruments. The
small-integer-ratio “just” intonation I mentioned above is fine for
things like violins or trombones, where you can match any pitch fairly
easily, but a piano would require something like 70 keys per octave to
be able to represent the just scale in the key of c, d, f, g, etc., or
only 7 (8 counting repeated first note) keys per octave if you never
change key, which really limits your music.

Thus, the “well-tempered clavier” was invented, using an
equal-tempered scale that is a compromise between the perfectly
ear-pleasing “just” scale, and something that wouldn’t require too
many keys on a keyboard to make playing in a lot of keys possible.
The way the equal-tempered scale works is the frequency of c# is
exactly the 12-th root of 2 times the frequency of c, and the
frequency of d is the 12-th root of 2 times the frequency of c#, and
so on. The “g” you get is then not exactly a perfect fifth with ratio
3/2 of the “c” frequency, but is “close enough” (a difference of 1/10
of a percent in frequency, to be precise). Most ears cannot tell the
difference. Well-trained musician’s ears don’t find the difference
enough to destroy the music. And you can transpose to any of 12 keys.

So, will the aliens invent a well-tempered clavier or something
similar? I believe the answer is “something similar”. They will also
wish to be able to “play” the music, and with more than with trombone
or violin-type instruments. They will come up with some kind of
compromise. It might not be a 12-note compromise, though.

There are other values besides the 12-th root of 2 that can serve as
the fundamental interval. 12 is the smallest that includes the
perfect fifth and perfect fourth, both of which are particularly-good
ratios (3/2 and 4/3) that are unlikely to be left out–so it might be
the most common. But to an alien species with finer
frequency-resolution ears, more notes in the scale would be better–the
41-tone scale and the 53-tone scale are slightly more accurate.

Of course, 53 is getting close to that 70 keys per octave needed to
use just intonation on a keyboard. It probably won’t be more than

My conclusion is, if we hear alien music, it might not be all that
alien! At least in terms of harmonies. Now, for other elements of
music–motifs, counterpoint, etc., I don’t know.

This link is both to an observation of Sadr, AKA Gamma Cygni, from tonight, and to an image from Starry Night software for comparisson.  This is a particularly good area for binoculars, being in the milky way.  Sadr has always been a favorite of mine for binocular observation.  It is also good for testing the clarity of the skies, as I am familiar with how the area looks in binoculars for various observation conditions.


September 22nd, 2006

Here is observation #50.  I have now submitted my Binocular Messier list for approval for the Binocular Messier Certificate.

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