Space Watching

When I decided to get an android phone a few months ago, there were several reasons why I thought it would be a good idea (some of which I wrote about at the time).  However, there was one single app that tipped the balance from “I’d quite like to get an android phone sometime” to “I must have one NOW!!!”.  That was Google Sky Map.

As the name indicates, this is a planetarium app, i.e. one which provides a map of the night sky.  I’ve used several planetarium apps on various computers over the years, since first seeing one demonstrated in the early 1990s and then getting one for my Amiga a couple of years later.  However, what sets Google’s offering apart from the herd is that this one makes use of the position / location detection features on your phone to provide a map that updates in real time as you hold your phone up to the sky and move it round.  This makes it ideal for identifying stars, planets and other astronomical features that you can see (no more guessing whether it’s Venus or Jupiter that you’re looking at).  For those of us who live in cloudy climates, you can also identify where the astronomical features would be visible if the clouds weren’t obscuring them, and you can similarly locate them if hidden behind tall buildings, trees, or even the earth itself (i.e. you can always use it to find Uranus, no matter where you are).

It may not be one of the most practically useful apps on my phone, since I don’t generally find myself needing to navigate by the stars, but it’s certainly one of the most exciting (at least if, like me, you have some interest in astronomy).  It is an example of augmented reality, which until fairly recently was very much in the domain of science fiction.

Very thoughtfully, they have programmed Sky Map with a night viewing mode that renders the map in dull red on a black background and hence preserves your night vision (a moot point if you’re in an area with lots of street-lights, but potentially helpful if you manage to find a nice dark place for stargazing), as well as an ordinary mode that uses a full range of bright colours.  As well as being able to pan the map round the sky and identify what you’re looking at, you can search for a specific feature (by name or by browsing through an image gallery) and it will then give you pointers so that you can line up your phone and your eyes in the right direction to see it;  of course, it can’t do anything about the clouds or terrain features that may be in the way, but it sure beats panning madly round the sky in the hope of being able to spot when M62 shows up on the map.

I haven’t yet tried using Sky Map in conjunction with binoculars (or a telescope, not that I have access to one) for viewing and identifying features that are not visible to the naked eye, but it has enabled me to know what I’m looking at when I stand and gaze up at the night sky on clear nights, or know what I’m missing the other 90% of the time.



Give us this day our daily blog

After 10 posts in a row – probably a new blogging record for me – I decided yesterday that the time had come to establish that my new blog is not going to be a daily thing.  I’m still hoping to keep it updated with greater frequency (if not greater regularity) than my previous blogs and I’m certainly enjoying the flexibility and ease-of-use offered by WordPress (and the fact that I can update my blog from my phone as I did on Saturday).

Sufficient added value

I mentioned the other day that I had got rid of my car, cunningly timed to avoid having to renew my road tax.   The money I thus saved was almost enough to pay for a shiny new android phone (OK, so I could have gone for a cheaper model but I decided it was worth spending an extra bob or two in order to get one with greater capabilities).

Previously I’ve always gone for the cheapest, most basic possible mobile phones I could find, as they have been capable of doing all I wanted on a phone: making and receiving phone calls when out of reach of a landline, sending and receiving text messages, and acting as a clock.  Having recently had a chance to play with a couple of smartphones (both android ones), I have decided that these offer sufficient advantages to make it worth getting one (and to offset the significantly shorter battery life they have).

I am especially keen on being able to access my calendar more easily, since I have been using a Google calendar as my main personal organiser for several years now and it is sometimes inconvenient to have to get to a computer in order to be able to check whether I’m free on a particular date.   Ready access to emails, my twitter stream and other things will also be handy and I think that the increased access potential will transform things like Evernote into extremely useful tools.

It will also be useful to be able to carry a whole raft of devices such as a guitar tuner, a camera, a torch and several shelves worth of books around in a single pocket.  I don’t anticipate getting rid of all my existing gadgets and books just yet, but having the tools available on my phone will be useful for occasions when I need one and don’t have the dedicated item to hand.  In this respect, the phone is a bit like a Swiss army knife – it’s not quite as good as a dedicated screwdriver for driving screws (and similarly for the other tools) but certainly beats trying to use your fingernail!

I did have some teething troubles with getting my existing phone number transferred to my new phone, but that seems to be sorted now.  The only problems now are to resist the temptation of playing with my phone when I’m supposed to be doing something else (such as going to bed) and to get used to my new set of ring tones so that I can recognise my own phone when I hear it.