Amateur backyard astronomy

I’ve been wanting one for years, but a few weeks ago I finally went out and bought myself a telescope :)

Some assembly required. (This is a Celestron Astromaster 130EQ, by the way.)

Sadly, I haven’t had the chance to do much star gazing these last few weeks — partly because I’ve been busy and partly because it’s been cloudy on almost Every. Single. Night. that I’ve been free.

To look at the stars your best bet is to go to a place with minimal light pollution (ie away from a big city) on a dark night (ie when there’s no moon). So far the most I’ve been able to do is the exact opposite: set the telescope up in my front yard on a full moon night. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Photo taken with my Google Pixel phone’s ‘night sight’ feature.

That might be worst set-up for looking at stars and nebulae, but it’s excellent if you want to look closely at the moon :)

Photo taken with my smartphone placed over the telescope’s eyepiece.

So while I haven’t yet made the most of my intermediate-level telescope, at least I’ve been able to a good look at the moon.

It’s a start.

Online content & services worth paying for

I get a lot of ‘free’ stuff from the Internet – everything from news and entertainment to email and online storage.

By 'free', of course, I mean ad-supported (in most cases) so while I do technically pay for these services with my time, attention, and user profile data I don't directly pay for them in cash.

There are, however, a bunch of online services that I do explicitly pay for with my own money.

Paid Services

These include services you can't access without a subscription, such as:

I only recently signed up with MOG, by the way, and chose to pay them over their competitors for two main reasons: they stream high quality music (320kbps over WiFi and 4G) and, since they’re a Telstra partner, streaming music from them doesn’t count toward your mobile data bandwidth. Being both an audiophile who values high quality music and a Telstra mobile customer both of these are excellent reasons.

Payment Optional & Freemium Services

The other online services I pay for/contribute to are the kind that you can access for free but can also support financially if you so choose.

These include the news, information, and editorial services like:

With the exception of Wikipedia, to which I donate annually, the rest I support through automatic monthly micropayments.

The freemium services (products, really) that I pay for include:

  • Online information management from Evernote
  • Online photo storage from Flickr

Oh, and depending on how Fairfax rolls things out, I’ll probably subscribe to The Age Online, too, once they set up their paywall. And, speaking of news outlets, I also used to subscribe to the Economist but, much as I loved their content and editorial, I wasn’t getting enough of a return on my investment.

So that’s my list. What online services – content services or products – do you pay for?

My Bridge Authors

In the November 2012 episode of the ‘First Tuesday Book Club’ Jennifer Byrne and her guests discussed the ‘The Chrysalids’ by John Wyndham.

Author Monica McInerney had this to say about it:

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham was what I call my bridge book. It was my first book to read that wasn't Enid Blyton, Trixie Belden, you know, like children's books. And it was the book that introduced me to a whole world of adult fiction. So it was the one that I walked across into a big, wider world of books. [Read the full transcript on the ABC website]

To a certain extent ‘The Chrysalids’ was my bridge book, too.

However I took my first steps into the world of adult fiction with the help of a number of authors, including (in no particular order):

My proper love of adult fantasy fiction didn’t kick in till later. Not till I’d read things like the ‘Duncton Wood’ series by William Horwood and, of course, the J.R.R. Tolkien canon.

What These Authors Did For Me

Of all those books, I think the ones that really opened my mind were Wyndham’s ‘The Day of the Triffids’ and ‘The Chrysalids’. I suspect that’s because they were among the first adult-level first person narratives I’d read. And, as someone who has a younger sister, David and Petra’s relationship in ‘The Chrysalids’ was something I related very strongly to. 

The stories that inspired me the most were probably the Clarke and Asimov short stories. I both wanted to be and had a huge crush on Susan Calvin and was generally looking forward a world in which Multivac existed.

Finally, the books that got me thinking the most about people, society, and politics were the ones by McCaffrey, Christie, and MacLean. Also, I think the first few books I ever read in which people simply lived and worked in space – as opposed to went exploring in space – were McCaffrey’s.

Newer Bridges to Cross

In more recent years (the last fifteen or so) the latest literary “bridge” I’ve crossed has been into Young Adult (YA) fiction. And the authors that have led the charge in that crossing have (so far) been J.K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and Philip Pullman.

What were your bridge books and who were your bridge authors?

Use the Web to Be a Better Skeptic

Lifehacker recently published a skepticism-for-beginners type article called 'How To Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True':

Every day, we’re confronted with claims that others present as fact. Some are easily debunked, some are clearly true, but some are particularly difficult to get to the bottom of. So how do you determine if a controversial statement is scientifically true? It can be tricky, but it’s not too difficult to get to the truth.

The article features advice from Phil Plait (Bad Astronomy) and David McRaney (You Are Not So Smart) and, even though it's a little long, it makes for a good read.

tl;dr for Lifehacker article: Search the web (Google, Snopes, Wikipedia, Science Daily,, search scientific journals (Google, Google Scholar), and ask science advocates. Also, beware of confirmation bias and don't forget to think critically.


Stellarium Is Awesome

I recently downloaded Stellarium, which is free and open source planetarium software for your computer. It’s awesome.

For example, according to Stellarium, here is what I’d see if I was to look due west at the sky in Melbourne, Australia just before midnight on 4 May, 2009:

Stellarium 1

That’s gorgeous, isn’t it? Now let’s add some labels (planets, nebulae, and constellations) and some lines (constellations):

Stellarium 2

But that’s not all – zoom into a bit of the sky and add a grid to see so much more (and you can zoom in much farther than that):

Stellarium 3

But if that’s too much information, you can instead stick to the star lore section with its associated constellation art (which you can turn on and off, of course):

Stellarium 4

And if you don’t want Western constellation star lore, you can always switch to Chinese, Egyptian, Inuit, Korean, Lakota, Maori, Navajo, Norse, Polynesian, or Tupi-Guarani (though not all of them have constellation art associated with them).

All in all, this is a fabulous bit of software that I highly recommend.

Skeptical Resources

My previous blog post was the story of how I set off on my skeptical journey. Here are some resources to help you along yours:

These are some organizations whose websites you should explore:

Here are some good blogs to read:

There are many, many more out there and they’re very easy to find.

You need to listen to the following podcasts:

Also check out Hunting Humbug, Skepticality, and the Pseudo Scientists.

The following are excellent resources on critical thinking and logical fallacies:

Here are some excellent general resources on skepticism:

These are a few good YouTube channels to subscribe to:

Here are some magazines worth subscribing to:

And, finally, here are a list of books worth reading (all but one as suggested by Dunning in Here be Dragons):

If you can think of any other resources that are worth adding to this list, please let me know. Thanks.

How I Became a Skeptic

I knew from an early age that I was going to be some sort of scientist. Inspired in the mid 80s by Carl Sagan and his television show Cosmos – and with both a genuine interest and an aptitude for the field – I went and studied physics and chemistry in both my O’ and A’ Levels. Around the same time I was also introduced to computers, starting with the Apple IIe in 1984 and an IBM Portable PC soon after. So when it came time to go to college I basically had to pick an area of science – pure or otherwise – that I wanted to pursue further. In the end, computer sciences won out over my second choice of electronic engineering.

My first foray into skepticism, meanwhile, came with the advent of the Internet to Pakistan in the mid 90s. I spent countless hours researching and then debunking myths, urban legends, conspiracy theories, phishing scams, and all the other crap that found its way – and still finds its way – into our inboxes. Indeed, during this time, the fast-growing Urban Legend Reference Pages on became one of my favourite and most-quoted websites.

Outside of my life on the Internet, however, I wasn’t skeptical at all: I was religious; I believed in ghosts; I was a proponent of homeopathy and energy healing; I was all for the ‘scientific’ healing techniques of acupuncture, acupressure, and reflexology; and I was quite happy to believe in all the ‘ancient’ treatments, cures, and healing methodologies advocated by ‘experts’ or ‘healers’. I didn’t know back then that ‘experts’ and ‘healers’ meant people who had a vested interest – financial or emotional – in promoting that type of healing.

That said, there were a few things I was skeptical about and these included astrology; transcendental meditation type stuff; pyramid schemes that sold healing pills and devices; and blanket claims like “these are things that large pharmaceutical companies don’t want you to know about” – all of which neither made sense nor were supported by any evidence.

Why Did I Believe in all that Other Crap?

I think the main reason I was so gullible was simply because I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe that there were exciting ideas on the fringe of established and tested science that would one day become real and widely-accepted science if only someone would take the time to investigate them properly. I didn’t know at the time that scientists had done exactly that before rejecting almost all of those ideas as crap.

I was also operating under a very dangerous assumption: I didn’t think I was particularly gullible. In fact, the reason I supported things like homeopathy and Reiki was because I had actually seen them work. What had happened was that, back in the mid 90s, my family was looking after my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s disease. We were treating her with real medicine but also, as an experiment, with homeopathic medicine.

Now the way homeopathy works in complex disease situations is that the ‘doctor’ tries out different ‘medicines’ and combinations of medicines till he finds the most suitable combination for treating and, eventually, curing the underlying problem. As a result, the medication keeps changing in order to treat and cure whatever needs to be treated and cured at the time. I understand now the brilliance of this treatment-with-no-end setup but, at the time, all I saw was that my grandmother’s illness varied from week to week and that the doctor gave her different medicines to treat her as she progressed through it. It was because the manifestation of her disease changed every week that I thought it was the homeopathic medication that had caused that change. I know now, of course, that was a case of false cause or a situation in which I confused correlation with causation. That is, just because my grandmother’s homeopathic medicines and mental state changed every week, didn’t mean that one was caused – at all – by the other. Nor did I realize that it was the medicines that were being changed as a result of her existing mental state...and not the other way round.

My point is that, as far as I knew, homeopathic medicine was science because I could see the treatment working (or not working) in front of my own eyes. In other words, this was a case of observational selection or confirmation bias on my part. Further, the doctor was a great authority figure and all the homeopathic medication that we bought was from a large, multinational company – that too, a German one – so naturally I saw it as real, proper, established medical science.

What I didn’t know at that time, however, was what homeopathy actually was. Had I known that the underlying concepts behind it were water memory, increasing the potency of medication via dilution, and the idea of like-cures-like, I would probably have laughed. Instead, all I saw were medicines that had dosages just like other, real medicines did and so I didn’t even bother to question how it all worked and, importantly, whether it worked at all. [For more, download the Skeptic’s Guide to Homeopathy pamphlet (88kB PDF file) from the Australian Skeptics]

In other words, I expected a result – as you would of any real medication – and so I saw one. The sad fact is that, thanks to the confirmation bias that I was operating under, I’m pretty sure I would have seen a ‘result’ regardless of what happened or how my grandmother’s disease progressed over the years that we were looking after her.

This pattern of confusing correlation with causation and seeing results because I expected to see results continued over the next few years. During those years I picked up some new bits of quackery and dropped others. I wasn’t particularly passionate about or really even interested in ‘alternative medicine’ but I did easily accept that there might be something in it and that it might be worth investigating further.

Things Change

My ideas about pseudoscience, quackery, woo, and religion all began to change over the last year or so. This happened for a number of reasons that, funnily enough, started with three fantastic courses that I took during my MBA:

Consumer Behaviour was the MBA-equivalent of Carl Sagan’s fantastic book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It was all about consumer psychology and influence and it taught me about human perception, cognition, and decision-making. In it we covered topics such as subliminal influence and Pavlovian conditioning, creating and changing people’s attitudes, how people are influenced (both consciously and unconsciously) by their environment, how culture plays a role in consumer behaviour, and what the ethical concerns around influencing people are. It was awesome.

Brand Management took that a step further and taught me how loyalty to brands, concepts, and ideas works in the real world. I learnt how brands are created, constructed, maintained, and killed and, as promised by our professor, I have never seen brands or the world of marketing the same way since.

Finally, Leadership taught me how to take a long, hard, honest look at myself and it gave me the capacity to analyze and then, assuming I wanted to do so, change what I saw.

Enter the Skeptical Movement

Around the time I was taking those courses, I really got into blogging and listening to podcasts. My primary areas of interest were technology and science (including astronomy) so, as you would expect, I eventually came across Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy Blog. In June 2008, Plait linked to Brian Dunning’s excellent video on critical thinking called Here Be Dragons. That video blew me away and I spent the next few weeks listening to all the episodes of Dunning’s brilliant Skeptoid podcast.

Then, from July onwards, Australia’s Channel 7 broadcast a show called The One: The Search for Australia’s Most Gifted Psychic (which you can find on YouTube) and it featured as one of its judges Richard Saunders, Vice President of Australian Skeptics. With all that I’d learnt during my MBA and my interest in film and television – because of which I know how TV shows are made, edited, and marketed – I had a pretty good idea of what was going behind the scenes in this show. So when, despite all the show’s obvious biases, the psychics proved themselves to be incredibly poor performers under even minimally reasonable scientific conditions things started to fall into place a little quicker than they had before. (There’s nothing like the power of television, huh? Funnily enough, I doubt the producers of The One expected it to have a de-converting effect on even one of its viewers!)

After some basic research into logical fallacies and cognitive biases – with Skeptoid episodes 73 and 74 as my starting point – I spent the next couple of months going over my entire life and analyzing everything I’d ever believed in, assumed to be trued, presumed to be true, or simply not thought about all that much. I remember having discussions with my wife during which I would try to come up with non-pseudoscientific explanations for whatever had been happening and finding that, as expected, the pseudoscientific explanation seemed incredibly unlikely and, in most cases, quite silly. Oh, and there were many, many more cases in which I had confused correlation and causation.

I also started listening to two awesome podcasts: the New England Skeptical Society’s Skeptics Guide to the Universe (SGU) and the Australian Skeptic’s The Skeptic Zone. Meanwhile, I started subscribing to The Skeptic magazine and, as suggested in Here be Dragons, bought and read Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World. I also read and watched all I could about James Randi – who I’d always known about but had never really looked into – and the James Randi Education Foundation. All this research was, of course, supplemented by reading lots of skeptical blogs (there will be a whole list of them in a subsequent blog post).

With all that going on in my life and in my head, it wasn’t long before the deal was sealed and I could safely say that I was a proper Skeptic (complete with a capital ‘S’ and the letter ‘k’).

Since then I have started to see the world through a completely different filter – a clear one this time – and boy is there a lot of crap out there. Just knowing a handful of logical fallacies, for example, has helped me unravel stupid arguments, see through cheap tricks (particularly marketing-related ones), and call people out when they’ve needed to be called out (even in unrelated situations).

I’ve also started to learn a lot more about science, skepticism, argumentation techniques, cognitive biases, and all the other things that help perpetuate and sustain quackery and pseudoscience throughout the world and across the generations.

Overall, my life has changed dramatically and the world now makes much more sense. I am also much happier and much more settled than I have ever been before.

So What Next?

Where I’ll go from here, I’m not sure. I know I have a lot more learning to do and, in the near term, I intend to attend the next Skeptics Cafe with the Victorian Skeptics. I’m also going through the list of things in the book What Do I Do Next: 105 Ways to Promote Skeptical Activism (edited by Daniel Loxton) to see where that can lead.

I have started to talk to other people about skepticism and why it makes so much sense but that’s going slowly. I’ll ramp it up once I’m more confident about my abilities to counter pseudoscience in real time as opposed to via e-mail and after a round of detailed Internet-based research!

In the meantime, I’ll start being much more skeptically active on my blog. (I’ve even created a new category called ‘Skepticism’ for doing just that.) The first step in that direction was writing this blog post. The next step will be listing a whole bunch of skeptical resources that are really useful regardless of whether you’re already into skepticism or are just starting down that path. I might go ahead and make that into a separate page on my blog as well.

Whatever happens, though, I’ll keep you updated.

BBC Radio Programme on Carl Sagan

During the late 1980s – when I was 11 or 12 years old – there were only two TV shows that I was allowed to stay up beyond my bedtime to watch: Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek: The Next Generation and a re-broadcast of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Both were hugely inspiring and, ultimately, led me to study the sciences. (I finally settled on computer science, by the way.)

And over the last year, it was Sagan’s book The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark – as recommended by Brian Dunning in Here Be Dragons – that sped me down the path of skepticism (much more on this in a later blog post).

So I owe a lot to Dr. Carl Sagan and count him as one of my few heroes and people I aspire to be like.

Coming to the point of this blog post, though: Phil Plait writing on the Skepticblog just alerted us to a radio programme that physicist Brian Cox made for BBC Radio 4 called Carl Sagan – A Personal Voyage. The programme is about Sagan, the impact he had on people (indeed, a whole generation of scientists), and the messages he was trying to get across in everything that he did. It’s awesome and I highly recommend you take a listen.

Modern-Day Sagans

Following on from that, it is my opinion that both Cox and Plait – as well as a whole bunch of others, particularly those in the skeptical community – are modern-day equivalents of Carl Sagan.

Take, for example, Plait’s two books:

And two of Cox’s media appearances:

There’s more to come from these two, I’m sure, and it’s awesome to have others carrying from where Sagan left off.

More to Come…

By the way, I’ll give you many more science-education related links when I do finally write the blog post on skepticism that I’ve been meaning to write for a long time now. For now, though, check out:

(FYI: I first heard of Here be Dragons via Plait as well!)

Science in Film & Television

USA Today’s Dan Vergano has written a good article, called ‘TV, Films Boldly Go Down Scientific Path’, on how film makers and television producers are making an effort to get the science that they put into their films and TV shows to be as accurate – or at least as internally logically consistent – as possible.

Naturally, what you’ll see in films and television shows isn’t practical science because real, practical science is long and arduous and sometimes boring. Films and TV shows, meanwhile, are entertainment so at the most you’ll get a montage of a scientist (or a team of scientists) hard at work. And these montages will range from the suit-construction-in-the-cave montage from Iron Man to the working-by-the-window-as-the-seasons-change montage from A Beautiful Mind to the evidence-collecting-and-processing montages that you see on CSI all the time.

On most films and TV shows, though, the actual scientific process gets skipped and you only get to hear the results (e.g. “the lab tests are in”, “forensics has shown”, and so on). Unless, of course, the scientific investigative process itself is part of the storyline like it is on shows like CSI, Numb3rs, Lie to Me, and House – all of which feature real science with only a few liberties taken to make the plot more interesting. All four of those are awesome shows, by the way.

Anyway, Vergano has written a good article and I highly recommend you read it. It even quotes Phil Plait! :)

Why is Science Important?

Why is science important?

Physics teacher and film-maker Alom Shaha decided to ask a whole bunch of scientists and educators that question, the answers to which he compiled on the ‘Why is Science Important?’ website that he had created for this purpose.

He then put all those answers – including, of course, his own – into an awesome video that is now available online:

Why is Science Important? from Alom Shaha on Vimeo.

Enjoy :)

[Via the Bad Astronomer]

Tips on Napping

Lifehacker’s Adam Pash recently blogged about a new article in the Guardian called Napping: The Expert’s Guide which is a text-based re-hash of an older Boston Globe guide called How to Nap (this was published on the web as an image file).

As you would expect, the article gives some pretty useful tips on how to nap. For example, it suggests you limit your afternoon nap to 45 minutes or less. Unless, of course, you don’t get enough sleep at night in which case it might be good to nap for more than 90 minutes.

The sleep science behind these tips also helps explain my own heuristics around napping. For example, I’ve always likened afternoon naps to charging mobile device batteries:

  • If all you need is a quick recharge, either sleep for 10-15 minutes to clear your head or for 20-30 minutes to get a more useful recharge (that will help you function for a few hours longer that a 10-minute nap would).
  • If you’re tired, do a full recharge which takes about 2 hours – but make sure you don’t do it too late in the afternoon (like 4-6pm) otherwise you’ll wake up feeling groggy and goggle-eyed.
  • Make sure you’re in a quiet and dimly lit (or dark) location to get your nap.
  • Don’t let anyone interrupt you because getting woken up 5 minutes into your nap is the worst thing that can happen.

I also have a few heuristics for night time sleeping – some which I have collected over the years (from other news articles or research on sleep) and some of which I’ve come up with myself:

  • Never sleep for less than 3 hours at a stretch. Indeed, it’s almost better to not sleep at all (or take a quick 30-minute nap) than it is to sleep for only 1-2 hours at night. This tends to happen when, say, you need to pick someone up from the airport at 2am and you figure you should get an hour’s worth of sleep from midnight to 1am. No! Either go to sleep at 10:30 PM and wake up at 1:30 AM or don’t sleep at all. Trust me on this one.
  • If you’re a college student, the previous rule changes to never sleep for less than 2 hours at a stretch. The 2-hour rule was actually my original sleep rule and, as you can guess, I came up with it while I was in college. Once I graduated, developed a more regular sleeping pattern, and (basically) got older, the 2-hour rule became the 3-hour rule.
  • Make sure you get 6 hours of uninterrupted sleep at some point during the night. This is important.
  • If you and your partner sleep in the same bed (or you have a room mate), make sure you take their sleeping pattern into account when planning your own. For example, you don’t want one partner interrupting the other when the latter is deep in the middle of a sleep cycle.
  • If you’re not getting enough sleep (i.e. 7-8 hours every night), at the very least sleep in on weekends or nap in the afternoons. However, doing just that is not sufficient to completely repay your sleep debt. What you have to do is sleep a little extra every night till your natural sleep cycle is restored. That is, sleep for 9-10 hours every night till your body tells you its time to go back to your regular 7-8 hour sleep schedule.
  • Don’t drink too much liquid before going to sleep otherwise your 5-7am sleep will be disturbed by your need to go to the bathroom.
  • One good way of waking yourself up – especially if you’re feeling tired or groggy – is to start breathing deeply while still in bed. This increases your heart rate and will pump more oxygen into your blood, both of which will help make you more alert which, in turn, will make it easier for you get up and out of bed. Also, force open your eyes to let the daylight in. Your body reacts to environmental light and using your eyes to acknowledge that, “yes, indeed it is morning” helps wake you up.

If you have any napping or sleeping tips of your own, please do let me know. I’m always looking for ways to do things better.

TEDx Melbourne Details

There are ten days to go to TEDx Melbourne marathon! Thanks to Monash University entry to the event is now free and there are already over sixty confirmed guests :)

Here are the basics:

Date: 17 January, 2008
Time: 10am to 7pm
Location: Lecture Theatre H1.25, Building H, Monash Caulfield campus

For more details visit:

There’s still time to nominate your favourite TED talk on the TED Facebook app (there’s a link on the Facebook group page) so make sure you do that soon.

See you there :)

Biases in Communities - Even the Scientific One

Awesome blog post by Lee Kottner on the Cocktail Party Physics blog on the “old guard” or “old boys’ club” attitude that tends to permeate through religious or specialist knowledge communities. In this case, of course, she’s writing about the scientific community:

…Richard Dawkins' selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd, if not downright insulting. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists…

…And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise…

Make sure you check it out.