One of Katie’s very first words was “Moon.”  She’s been fascinated with the moon, and now Jupiter, Saturn, Venus and Mars, since she could point up at the sky and point out that there were holes up there through which light passes.  We figured she was old enough to understand basic instructions, so we were bad and bought her a present.

We bought Katie her very first piece of serious scientific equipment, the Orion SkyQuest XT4.5 Dobsonian telescope. It’s an interesting scope because Orion advertises it as their starter/kids pack to get kids started.  It costs just as much as a crappy refractor from the Mall but it’s a real scope that can do real scope-like things. And sure, she’s only 4, but one cannot be too little to have a telescope!

Here’s what we have learned in the whole 6 hours from owning this scope:

– It is an awesome scope for the price.  The scope is only $200.  Because a Dob is just a light bucket, Dobs are cheap.  They have high mirrors – cost ratios.  The one doesn’t have any electronics, but it is exceptionally well built, sturdy, and all the gears work like they have been greased with butter.

– It was easy to lift, easy to set up, and took about 5 minutes to get going and shooting things.

– Even without the mirrors properly aligned, I took it out, put it on the driveway, got it pointed at the Moon (in daylight!) and let Katie see the Moon through the eyepiece.  This was a moment of extreme excitement.  It wasn’t even a full Moon, or in the dark, or with one of our high-quality eyepieces.

– If I had this Dob, even without electronics, when I was a kid I would still be in the backyard.

– This is seriously making me consider one of the big Dobs with all the electronics and gears. We have a Mak-Cass and it is awesome but it is mostly for planetary viewing.  The big Dobs will get you the best Hercules Globular Cluster you’ve ever seen where you can make out about 10,000 stars.

If you have a little kid and you want to get out and look at the planets and the Moon and some real easy to find deep field objects, this is a hell of a piece of starter equipment.  It’s a ton of telescope for the price, and it’s good for Mom and Dad, too.

Review: Blackberry Storm

I am not a gadget nerd.  In fact, I am oddly gadget adverse — unless it works out of the box and works easily, I will put the gadget down and never pick it back up again.  This is odd considering what I do for a living but there it is: I generally don’t do gadgets because they have terrible UI design and they annoy me.  I love my iPod, I put up with my Palm Tungsten because I need a checkbook, and everything else gets on my nerves.

I have, up until now, avoided the Blackberry addiction.  What I wanted originally out of a phone was a phone that made phone calls.  Then I wanted a phone that made phone calls and got me football scores when I could not be watching football.  But as my parents, and my entire family, moved off into gadgetland and away from actual phone calls, simply having a phone that made phone calls became more and more challenging.  Over Christmas, I had weird arguments with my Mom because I couldn’t get to my regular email until 8pm at night and there was Mass Panic.

Something generally needed to be done, so I gave in and got a Blackberry.  And, because I will carry it for the next two years, I got the Latest and Greatest, the Storm.  Keep in mind that I don’t have an iPhone, so I am not comparing it to any Apple devices. It has also been updated to the newest service packs.


– It does what I want it to do!  It gets my mail!  It runs twitterberry!  It will get me into Facebook if I am feeling masocist.  It generally gets on the net and grabs news and my feedreader!  Google mobile apps are a real lifesaver and I became very happy after I discovered the LJ mobile interface.

– I have been very happy with the Gmail support.  It deals with my email flawlessly.  It is not difficult to send or respond to mail, and it has really nice Gmail — Contact book integration. It doesn’t crash and support for reading email is very smooth and very clear.  Considering that Gmail with push mail integration was my #1 feature request, this makes me quite happy.

– Google Talk is very good.  It will run multiple conversations at once and thread them. It will alert when someone has responded so you don’t need to stare at the Blackberry.

– The web browser works well in landscape mode with zoom.  I found I could read Washington Post, NY Times, CNN, etc. without any real problems.

– I can type about 30 words/minute when the keyboard is in QWERTY landscape mode.  This is actually very good — and I like that it lights up the letter it thinks I want under my fingers before I push it.  Granted I type normally at around 90 words/minute, but this is really so much better than the terrible SMS I was stuck with before.

– The contact book and calendaring systems are very powerful, which is expected from a Blackberry.

– I actually like the size.  It is smaller than I expected and very thin.  It fits in my hand comfortably.

– Post a full day of use, it was down 1/2 a battery.  This is, of course, after the service packs were applied.  Before that, it drained 1/4th the battery in an hour of use.  Apply the patches!


– The tilt sensor is a little bit quirky.  Sometimes it doesn’t respond, and sometimes it tilts when you don’t want it to.  I get that it’s like that for all these sorts of devices.

– It gets confused where you want to click sometimes.  You have to click away and click back where you want before it will respond to the click.

– When typing on the QWERTY keyboard, sometimes it pops up and suggests some strange characters.  I’m not sure how to turn that off, but I really don’t need anything outside the main ANSI set.

– I couldn’t… figure out… how to make a phone call.  And it’s a phone!  Nominally!  I did figure it out, but then I had to navigate a voice mail system, and I got lost trying to get the button pad up.  Not the most intuitive interface in the universe.

– When using the browser, it likes to zoom in/zoom out when what you really want to do is scroll.  I’m sure that’s easily controllable, but I’m not sure how.

– Twitterberry has a deeply goofy interface.

– You do have to really press on the screen to get it to do anything, and I worry about two years of wear and tear on the device.  I can see that breaking.


– The interace for setting an alarm is terrible.  Just terrible.

– The screen gets gunky fast.  As in, a half an hour of use fast.  I found micro-fiber cloths clean it pretty well, but it desperately needs a cover.  It has to have a cover.

– The lock button is in an awful place and it is not obvious in the least.

– The “say a command” button gets pushed every time I try to put it back in its little case.  Gah.

Overall, I can see how people get hooked on these devices.  Just being able to get my email without being plunked in front of a computer is a fantastic thing indeed.  In general, using it is a real positive experience.  It does occasionally do some inexplicably strange things on me, but in general I have walked through everything I want it to do (read RSS feeds, leave a comment on LJ, get twitter, read my mail, launch google talk, send an SMS, organize contacts) and it does all of this pretty well.

If you have an iPhone, don’t bother.  But if you have Verizon and you’re eyeing one yeah, go ahead and get it.

Whitehouse.gov and other stories

whitehouse.gov went off the air at around 11:45am this morning and came back up at noon. Other than now it has blogs, twitter feeds, RSS feeds, hosting for videos, and eventually the forums from change.gov. (I have already requested my username for the forums so I can complain about technology issues.)

But the big thing is this: the site is now indexable by regular search engines.

Under Bush, no web sites attached to the White House could be indexed by anything. There were 2400 exclusion rules to keep all index engines out which have now been lifted. I’m not sure why I feel this is such a momentous event, since it is just a web site. Clearly the tech team came in, unplugged the ancient Windows 2000 server running the old website, slapped in the new machine, turned it on, got all the systems booted, and were good to go. But it feels like, the first major event of the brand new Inauguration was to welcome the Administrative Branch to the 21st Century by sticking it online.

Obama vs. George Bush’s Computers

I read this morning on Politico (sorry, I misplaced the link) that the Obama staffers have been informed that they are no longer allowed to use IM.  Obama himself won his fight of Treasury Department vs. Blackberry (although they are making him move to one of the Blackberries approved by the NSA and armored for in theater combat which, as a security nerd, I find totally cool but everyone else finds abhorrent) but now they cannot use IM.  For reasons that absolutely are beyond me, they apparently don’t have Microsoft Communicator IM server hooked up internally to their Outlook server, likely because no one knew they could do that.

But it’s worse than that.  Apparently, leaking out of the White House through disgusted Obama staffers, is that the machines themselves have not been upgraded since Bill Clinton left office.  The machines are largely running Windows 2000 and pre-2000 OSes that Microsoft no longer supports.

This actually explains an awful lot about the Bush Administration.  At their core, they were anti-science, anti-engineering, anti-technology, anti-21st century.  A complete Faith-based Administration.  They hated smart people, and smart people use computers, so they hated computers, too.  Thus the entire system is running on a creaky edifice.

I am looking forward to reports over the next month of the Obama people vs. the White House tech staffers and the new mandates for upgrades.  I can understand why, perhaps, they don’t let people get on external AIM but really, this is a new world and for god’s sake, let these people have their internal IM.  And yes I know there are issues with the Presidential Records Act but that is why the White House has lawyers.  It collects logs!  Automatically!  Sheesh.

Frankly, when I read this factoid this morning I laughed and laughed.  I look forward to battles over hardware acquisition and upgrades to *gasp* Windows XP.  The next few months are going to be delightful from a pure technology perspective.