Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Shoes and ships and sealing wax...

Guglielmo Marconi (1908)

Not quite about those things, but related. I was thinking about "technology" and it's impact on our lives. In particular I was thinking about the "march" of technology, the way technology develops and changes and the rate at which it does. Modern things like mobile phones and iPods are relatively new conceptually and relatively new in terms of their length of use. I can remember the first time I saw a "mobile" phone. It was 1988 and it was a large installation in the boot of a car. The dialling prefix was 007 I think! How things have changed, and quite rapidly too. Within about 2 years of seeing that I was regularly seeing handheld phones.
Three of the things I use in my daily life date back a relatively long way however in "technology years":
  • The sextant dates back at least 250 years in its present form and longer in concept. Yes the sextant really is not required equipment today but it does a very effective job and it's relatively unchanged over a long period of time;
  • The 35mm camera. Oskar Barnack built the first prototype of the 35mm camera in 1913 and after a delay because of the first world war the camera went into production in 1924. Very little has changed with the 35mm camera in that time - particularly if you still use a Leica.
  • HF radio. Marconi is credited with the invention of HF radio, though there are many challenges to that claim and many contributors. Nevertheless, HF radio has been around for over 100 years. Sure the rigs of today are very different to Marconi's spark gap rigs but the propagation and principles haven't changed. You can hear morse used every day on the bands. Some people use it exclusively and manually key it as well.
The thing that gets me thinking is that although each of those technologies (and Morse as well) is, to some extent, anachronistic they are each viable and effective tools today. Why do some pieces of technology endure and why do some come and go? Will any of the "inventions" of today endure for 100 years or more into the future in a largely unchanged form?
And another thought - why have I used so many inverted commas today?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Solitude and Connectedness

I've been thinking about those two - perhaps polar - concepts recently. Think about undertaking an ocean passage in a small boat. If you're like me, without all the technological gee-gaws, that means a period of enforced disconnection. Except for your fellow crew you are largely cut off from the world.
Contrast that with daily life. Increasingly we are connected everywhere and always. Walking down the street, riding on the tram, we are always able to send and receive email, tweet, or browse the web. We can get the news, indeed we can report the news. Take a snap with the phone, email it to a news gathering organisation or just tweet it. If we wish we are always connected.
I first saw this sort of ubiquity of communication back in 2002. I had been doing business with a guy in the States and he would reply to my emails immediately, whenever I sent them. It seemed strange. When I visited him in the States I found him welded to his Blackberry. He said he responded to email on it whenever it arrived. I was appalled, how can you live like that?
I don't think that I've ever reached that level of obsession, but I do think I'm partly addicted. I feel disconnected if I'm out of contact. I want to "connect" and contact, I want to know, to browse, to read. All good you say. I suspect not. I suspect that it has got "bad" when you don't go to sea, for instance, because you can't bear to be disconnected.
When I finish an ocean passage, however sedate or gruelling it might have been, I always feel refreshed and relaxed. I'm often dog tired with weird sleep patterns, but I'm mentally refreshed. I think that the fact that I've had to disconnect, the fact that I may have had to challenge myself physically and mentally, the fact that I've lived and worked with others in a confined space means that my brain has some peace.
So why does this matter? The bottom line is that the sense of "connectedness" that I get from modern technology is probably false. I think that it leads to disconnectedness at a real level. I don't connect, at a real level, with myself and with those around me. Technology actually gets in the way. My mind buzzes, I can communicate at some level with others all over the world, but ultimately it's not real.
What do you think?

Monday, March 1, 2010

Celestial Navigation - With an iPhone Touch!

How many of you have got one of these? How many of you use it? I'm very fond of my Cassens & Plath. It's both a connection to the past and a thing of today. It's accurate and it doesn't rely on satellites. It also gives me a huge kick every time I reduce a sight and draw a line of position on the chart.
My problem is that I hate paying money to somebody for the tables and the almanac. I keep forgetting to make sure that they are up to date and they always seem to disappear just when I want them.
For some years now I've been using StarPilot for the Texas Instruments TI-89 Calculator. It's simple and robust and has a heap of functionality. But as with most calculator applications it's limited by the calculator interface. The calculator interface is not what you'd call modern!
The solution is at hand however. For the past couple of weeks I've been testing StarPilot for the iPhone and for the iPod Touch. It's brilliant! The functionality is much the same as the calculator version but the interface belongs very much to 2010.
I'm not going to do a detailed review right now. But just a brief run through. A more detailed review will follow.
When you first start StarPilot you need to enter some data in Settings. Things like your DR position, the ZD and Watch Error and the Date. In addition you enter IE for your sextant and Height of Eye. Once you've done that StarPilot is basically ready to go. First step is probably to compute the sky so that you know what sights are available. You can project forward to a future time and indeed you can also compute the sun and the twilights so you have a good feel for the time that you want to compute the sky for.

Having computed the sky you get a plot of the sky with a series of "triads" which you can cycle through. Each triad consists of three sights with suitable azimuths. Touching any of the celestial bodies brings up details - name, Hc and Zn - I've done that for Betelgeuse. In use it makes a very good star finder. You can also list the bodies and their ephemeris data in text form.
Having shot your bodies you then choose Sight Reduction. For each sight you simply need to pick the body from a searchable list and enter the Watch Time from a time picker and the Hs. StarPilot calculates Ho and reduces the sight - it's fast and simple. Once you've entered the first WT StarPilot offers that as the first choice for your next sight.

Once you've entered a set of sights you can use StarPilot to produce a fix - based on your DR and speed/course parameters. Fixes can be arrived at by plotting or by computation.

There are also a bundle of useful utilities in StarPilot for calculating things like the Sailings - either Rhumb Line or great Circle, distance off, set and drift, wind and a range of utilities for things like UTC by Meridian Passage and the one I like: UTC by Lunar Distance.
If you are stuck at home, away from the sea, there's no better test of your skill with the sextant. Shoot a few Lunar Distances and you'll really find out how good you are. This particular process dates from the time before time - at least the time before reliable chronometers. Through a time consuming process of calculation - called "clearing" - you can derive your time from the distance measured between the moon and another celestial body. StarPilot takes the grind out of the calculation. You just have to measure an accurate Lunar with the sextant and enter the data. Great fun and a test of skill.
This is the quickest of overviews of StarPilot on the iPhone/iPod Touch. There is so much more there. What I would urge you is if you are a celestial navigator, a user of StarPilot on the calculator or if you have always hankered to use a sextant then check out StarPilot. It will be in the App Store in the next few days. There is no other application like it as far as I can determine in the App Store. It's brilliant.
When I've a little more time I'll write up the step by step process of using StarPilot. Until then get a copy for yourself and have fun!