Archives for: "December 2008"

Happy New Year

Another lap of the Sun done so I'd like to wish all my readers a happy new year.

Why do stars have a cross shape through them?

I've been following HST advent images the Boston Globe have been running over the last month, and reading the comments along the way.

I was shocked at the amount of nonsense attributing the universe to a supernatural deity of some kind, around half of what was posted was along these lines. I’m tempted to bring out the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and preach to all how the universe was touched by his noodly appendage.

Anyway aside from the nonsense there were several interesting comments, one of which asked:

I was once told that the cross shape (like the above image) that you see surrounding stars when you look up at the sky at night is actually just the result of scratches in our corneas, and that they don't make that '+' sign thing at all.

Yet looking at your beautiful images, most stars do in fact have the cross running through them. Can you explain? I'm most curious because I don't see any reason for that phenomenon to occur.

Stars don't make a cross shape when looked at with the naked eye - they should appear as points of light. If they're making funny shapes you should probably see an optician.

The cross shape in these images comes about because of the type of telescope used. Most people are familiar with the idea of a refracting telescope - a long tube with a lens at the front, and one at the end. These telescopes typically aren't used for astronomy because of their length, usually they're around fifteen times longer than they are wide - the width, or aperture of a telescope (or the lens or mirror of the telescope) is very important for astronomical work as we need to capture as much light as possible.

Astronomers typically use what's called a reflecting telescope. Instead of using a lens at the front of the telescope to gather light, it uses a mirror at the bottom which then reflects the light to a secondary mirror closer to the front of the telescope which sends it either out of the side or back down the tube to an eyepiece or camera.

The advantage with this design is the tube can be much shorter and easier to manage. Seven times longer than the width is a fairly common figure, and some types of reflectors are even shorter still. Reflectors are also cheaper to manufacture for a given aperture. Meaning we can gather more light for less money, when you're trying to get every last photon to reach your eye or camera, the larger the primary mirror or objective lens the better.

There are some drawbacks however. These cross shapes through bright objects are one of them. These are caused by the support struts (3 are shown in the diagram above, but usually there are four, like with the HST) which hold the secondary mirror into place. Light passing close to them diffract slightly, this creates the cross shaped pattern around the brighter stars.

Words of wisdom from Mr Branson

It's not every day we encounter such brilliance, I think everyone should take the time to read these words of wisdom from Richard Branson.

Hospitals are there to cure people - they are not to kill people.

Incredible. How on Earth did we manage to get along before this guy came along and shared his intellect with us?

He accuses politicians of tinkering with infection controls in hospitals, largely in relation to strains of staphylococcus aureus that have become resistant to a large group of antibiotics, while he himself is doing the same tinkering suggesting all hospital staff be screened for MRSA.

What he, and a great deal of other people don't seem to be able to grasp these efforts can only be temporary. The only solution to permanently deal with this is increase the number of people going into science, and to increase research spending, be it public or private. It is also necessary to tackle religion through solid science education, especially in the United States where it no doubt acts like a colossal break on scientific development - especially in evolution, genetics and going forward bio-engineering, all areas that will become critical in dealing with this going forward.

Probably the most worrying though is that the government accepts advice from non-experts like Richard Branson.

New build of Windows Live Essentials released

The new build of Windows Live Essentials beta has been released, this is part of the Wave 3 rollout.

Quick thoughts...

Windows Live Messenger has had a large overhaul since 8.5. It is much better looking and intergrated better with the web services now.

Windows Live Mail has reached the point where I would recommend people to use this over Outlook Express or Windows Mail, it looks clean and is faster than the Wave 2 release.

Windows Live Photo Gallery has a few new features, the new cleaner look. I don't like the inconsistency with the UI compared with Media Player and Photo Gallery on Windows Vista however.

Windows Live Movie Maker is still much earlier in development and is lacking many of the features of the versions that shipped with Windows.

Windows Live Writer has had an overhaul, a couple of new bits, but largely still seems to function the same way as the Wave 2 release.

Haven't used the Toolbar or Family safety so can't comment on them. In my opinion this is a very near final release, it still has the beta tags but over the last day or so has proved to be stable and usable. You can download the pack from

Thank you Creative - Sound Blaster Audigy drivers on Windows (7) Update

Update: For the Audigy 2 ZS people with garbled sound I was having the same issue, I noticed the Creative driver is pretty old dated 2006. Since installing the 'Daniel_K' drivers he did for Vista I've not had anymore issues.

Update 2: Quick run through on what drivers I'm using and where I got them.

Update 3: New release, fix issues with CMSS that older drivers had.

Update 4: Resolving lower than normal volume compared to Windows XP and Windows Vista.

Audio and game fans will no doubt have many similar stories to tell over the last decade regarding Creative's Soundblaster drivers. Let's just say, not many of those stories will be positive.

It got to the point where I stopped recommending average computer users dedicated sound cards and just advised them to use any onboard sound instead. Why? Because if you get a Soundblaster you had to go to their website, try and navigate around it then try and find the right drivers, put up with the drivers in many cases wanting to install a bunch of other stuff with them. Back in the old Windows XP days Creative's early drivers wanted to even put a Creative splash screen on your machine - which would start with every boot.

Or you could just put up with slightly worse sound, yet a sound card that would just work. Every onboard sound card I've come across has drivers on Windows Update. Creative never wanted their drivers up on there (at least not since Windows XP pre-SP1 days). They'd rather you run through a load of hoops to get them instead and bundle a few additional surprises along with them.

However I just installed Windows 7 build 6801 on my machine again today and was getting ready to hit Creative’s website to get the drivers. As I was doing that Windows was installing all the drivers from Windows Update in the background, things like the display driver, and the TV Tuner drivers, and low and behold it also said it was installing Audigy drivers too.

Hopefully this won't just be for the pre-release versions and shows a new direction Creative is taking with their software and drivers. Thanks Creative you've just saved me 10 minutes of my time.

Windows Live Wave 3 looks good

There I said it – the Wave 3 web stuff looks good. It is a dramatic improvement and really marks a turning point in the Windows Live services. I was originally not going to bother writing about this, I was planning to just cover the software side of the release (rumour has it the release candidates will be made available next week) but I thought this was worthy of some mention and I encourage you to check it out if you haven't already.

Not all parts of it are on the same release, Hotmail, Calendar and People won't be updated to match the rest (there are some subtle differences between them) until early next year.

What's the deal with this release? I suppose I would sum it up as being sort of a Facebook-lite, Spaces has been de-centralised from a lot of the social-networking stuff and the old profiles have been pushed forward instead.

The good:

Looks attractive, well integrated.

When viewing a contacts status on say their profile – it actually changes in real time; you don't need to reload the page. Very nice, lots of fancy AJAX tricks like that used throughout.

Photos taken out of Spaces, stored in SkyDrive now with 25GB of storage (holy moly this web server only has a 13GB drive).

Photo slideshows have no competition if you're using Silverlight.

Spaces actually looks respectable now, hell it actually looks nice, time will tell if they've tackled the comment spam problems though.

Nice to see Profiles being used again, I had a look down my contact list; most haven't been updated in years back when they were integrated tighter with Messenger. Nice to see this being overhauled, previous efforts at social-networking were centred around Spaces and were a complete failure, this is a much better direction to take.

The bad:

Animated graphical ads still around, albeit in better locations. I haven't clicked on an animated ad this millennium. They're annoying, when I'm trying to read something I don't want zero-priority interrupts being sent to my brain thanks. Text ads or at least static graphics please.

Contacts are a bit confusing and how they're handled with regard to Messenger, your Network and so on. I hope that's related to Hotmail being a release behind.

Home has some limited customization options; I'd like to see more. It does have a few nice surprises like being able to see your Office Live Workspaces on there too. which I use as my homepage hasn't been updated. Apparently this is owned by the Live Search team and not the Windows Live team. Guys – update it, hand it over to the Windows Live team if you don't want it, this makes a good home page for power users.

Now I just need to wait for the client-side applications. We'll be relying on these guys for the Windows 7 era applications - let's hope they can bring some dramatic improvements.

For the Alliance!

War rages throughout our lands. Only the bravest heroes dare strike the Horde where it hurts them most. You are among such heroes.

The blows you have delivered to the leadership of the Horde will open the door for our final assault. The Horde will bow down to the might of the Alliance.

Your deeds will not go unrewarded. Ride on proudly!

-- Your King

One Black War Bear for my troubles.

For those wondering - we encountered virtually no Horde resistance, at least none that could slow us down as we stormed through all the Horde capital cities.

Venus and the Moon

The forecast was predicting heavy cloud cover after dark yesterday, but in the afternoon we had a clear spell. I used this opportunity to capture Venus and the Moon before the occultation. The following was taken at 15:34 UTC, a few minutes before the Moon moved in front of Venus.

As predicted the cloud covered the rest of the occulation.