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The Laser and Laptop Wars: Star Party Etiquette for Modern Times

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Until just a little while ago, formulatin’ and enforcing light rules at the average star party was a pretty easy thing to do. You made sure everybody understood and adhered to a simple stricture: no white light. Flashlights had to be covered with red cellophane, car interior lights had to be disabled if vehicles were allowed on the field and would be opened after twilight, and trunk lights had to be disconnected as well if the jalopy’s trunk were gone into before sunrise (where the hail are them Jack Links, Clem?) Oh, there was always somethin’ to be dealt with—some joker cookin’ a burger on the field with a Coleman camp stove (which can emit a surprising amount of light), blinding everybody in a 10-meter radius and, adding insult to injury, not sharing them good smellin’ sliders—but the basic Rules and how to adhere to ‘em was clear.

The simple life for star party attendees and organizers began to change as the last century ran out with the introduction of cars that sported “running” lights. What that basically meant was that the vehicle had an extra set of headlights that were often automatically controlled, coming on when the vehicle was started. On many newer vehicles there wasn’t even an easy way to disable this “feature.” Oh, there were some tricks, like putting the vehicle in drive with the emergency brake engaged one “click,” but all too many people were not able to do that or similar workarounds successfully, and the result was star parties that had not just allowed vehicles on the field, but had allowed them to be driven off via parking lights (sometimes during specified “windows” during the evening), discontinued this practice. Not that that has always helped. Almost every star party I’ve been to of late where cars are parked on the field has featured some goober creeping into his/her vehicle to get warm, cranking the engine to get the heater going, and illuminating scores of hard core imagers and deep sky observers with the equivalent of a magnesium flare.

The above is pure thoughtlessness, sure, but some folks just don’t get it; they are focused on what they want, and the possible results of their foolishness for their fellow observers never registers. One dude, for example, nearly asphyxiated me and the folks on my end of the field when he decided to hole up in the car and warm up. I will say he was reasonably careful light-rules-wise. Oh, there was some flashing of parking lights and interior lights, but only for two or three minutes. Then, however, this gomer let his engine idle for half an hour till his toes was good and toasty warm. Naturally, his exhaust soon covered the entire field in a noxious blanket that didn’t do any good for optics--much less lungs. We was all about to die, till Unk, who’s not usually rude, but ain’t no shrinkin’ violet in these situations, neither, Had Enough. I went, tapped on this character’s window, and asked “Do you know what you are doing to us with your exhaust?” Naturally I was met with a surprised “Moi?” The guy did shut her down, but I couldn’t believe he hadn’t given the rest of us an instant’s consideration. I did have the satisfaction of hearing him, once he emerged from his warm cocoon, lapse into a coughin’ fit bad enough to make us wonder if he’d hacked up a lung in the carbon monoxide atmosphere. The meaning of this parable? The secret to a good star party experience for everybody, not just yourself, is to think before you do something silly (or otherwise) that is gonna make things less fun for your fellows.

Not that folks don’t sometimes go a little overboard in the other direction concerning vehicles and their lights. At a star party I attended last year, I left my vehicle out on the access road. I wanted to be able to make a quick getaway back to the motel before dawn if the weather, which didn’t look promising, took a turn for the worse. Sure enough, that is just what happened. I gave it a couple of hours after we was totally socked in, but when mama and daddy clouds began givin’ birth to healthy lookin’ baby clouds, me and my buddy Pat lit out. Yeah, I’ll admit we did engage the headlights before we was in the next county, but, again, we was completely clouded-out. As you might have guessed, we were called down by the powers that be the next mornin’: “Did y’all drive off the field with your headlights on?” Why no, we didn’t drive off the field, and it was cloudy anyway. Sheesh! Along the same lines, I’ve got tired of the entire field lapsing into screams of “Douse that &*^%*&! light.” When Beaudreaux opens a lighted trunk by mistake. Don’t get me wrong: I think light rules should be enforced strictly (and kindly), but let star party staff do it. Most of us are more distracted by the howls of dismay than we are by Bunny Rabbit’s trunk or interior light. Above all, use commonsense. If it’s cloudy, been cloudy, and will be cloudy, what is it gonna hurt for somebody to turn on a light?

At least it’s easy to decide somebody’s doin’ a Bad Thing when they show a white light on the field. What makes light rules enforcement tough these days is the electronic marvels that are gracin’ every star party in creation. Mainly laptop computer screens and green lasers, though there is a host of other devices which, in the manner of many modern things, feature bright color LCD displays: cellphones, Palm Pilots, iPods, radios—hell, I wouldn’t be surprised to find the Chinese puttin’ high resolution video screens on bottle openers. Is the screen red? Is it red enough? Can a green laser be used, even briefly as a finder on a telescope? Do any of these things even “belong” at big, organized dark-site events? Star party organizers have to find ways to deal with these artifacts of Modern Times without offending that (large) part of their audience who wants to use ‘em while keeping these folks from offending that other large part of their audience who wants the field absolutely dark—and sometimes is philosophically opposed to the gadgetization of amateur astronomy.

There is no doubt at all the most serious concern at today’s star party is the laptop computer. The displays on these things are bigger than ever and brighter than ever. Heck, these things light up the observin’ field with more ease than Rod’s first TV, a black-and-white Admiral CRT monster, lit up his livin’ room. For a long stretch, all through the 1990s, laptops were not a “problem” at star parties. Mainly because they were too expensive for the run-of-the-mill amateur astronomer to think about subjecting to a dew soaked observing field. That began to change with the death of film. Astrophotographers were ponying up three or four grand for a CCD camera, and had no choice but to give up another couple or so for a laptop if’n they wanted to image from a dark site instead o’ the **** backyard. As more imagers turned from film to silicon, slowly, ever so slowly, laptop screens began to multiply on observing fields. With the new century, the Laptop Problem became a lot worse. Prices plummeted, go-to scopes proliferated, and many of the folks totin’ them LX200s and NexStars wanted to send ‘em on slews with the aid of TheSky or Cartes du Ciel.

Problem was, they was killin’ us—our dark adaptation, anyway. Typically, Mr. CCDer or Miss go-toer would select a program’s “night vision” setting to turn the display a supposedly night-friendly red, and think nothing more of it. Truth was, this red display was affecting everybody in the immediate area—anybody who had the misfortune to glance the computer’s way. First of all, the night vision modes of most software are neither red enough nor dim enough to help much. Computer displays need to have their brightness reduced almost to a minimum; not just turned red—bright red light is just as harmful as bright white light. Unfortunately, many laptops then and now cannot be dimmed sufficiently to both preserve night vision and remain legible. Also, most Windows night-vision settings cannot turn everything red. Something--like the task bar or the screen borders--is almost always left in normal colors no matter which Windows “theme” is applied.

Solution to laptop light pollution? Some star parties have toyed with the idea of “ghettoization.” Make anybody who’s gonna use a PC set up on a particular and designated portion of the field. This may have worked at some events, but I don’t like the idea. Not only does this have the potential for making computer users feel like pariahs (and you do want ALL your attendees back next year, right?), it’s becoming an impractical solution since more and more amateurs want the good things a computer can bring to the observing field—not just imagers and go-toers anymore; many, many Dob users are now sportin’ laptops too.

The real solution is two-fold. Firstly, their users must understand that most laptop displays will be unworkable on a dark observing field no matter how much they are dimmed or what’s done to their color scheme. What works and works well is a red filter used in conjunction with a program’s night setting. Some laptop wielders are covering their screens with a red film, Rubylith, a durable and very red transparency originally used in the graphic arts industry. This inexpensive material is reasonably durable and quite effective. Me? I ran across a little product called the Sightsaver, which has worked very well. It is a piece of red Plexiglas in a frame that slips over the PC’s display, effectively reddening it, dimming it, and preventing light leaks via foam strips positioned around its edges. Many astro-dealers are selling pieces of red Plexiglas with frames and without that will allow laptop users to read their displays with ease and keep their fellow star party attendees from forming a mob of maddened torch-bearing villagers straight out of Frankenstein (“I tell you, he’s doing things Man Was Not Meant To Do!”).

Red filters work, but some of us are taking an extra step and placing the laptop in a small enclosure of some kind. Yeah, a red filtered display will not harm you or your buddies’ dark adaptation if it is adjusted correctly, but some folks get right unhappy if there is a laptop a few feet away staring them in the face, even if it is not really doing anything to bother their night vision. Some guys ‘n gals are just bothered by what they see as an intrusion into the peaceful natural setting of a star party and into their enjoyment of it. I understand this mindset and even agree with it to some extent (e’en if, strangely, these are sometimes the same folks who think nothin’ of firing up a stogie and fumigating the whole field). How to keep everybody happy? Fabricate a little house for Miss Laptop. The one in the image above took only a few dollars and a few minutes to make and is very effective.

The most important consideration is using a material that is light but waterproof. I tried foamcore posterboard from an office store first. This worked, but rising humidity tended to make the “walls” of my enclosure bow-in and deform even though I’d sealed ‘em with some spray stuff I got from a craft store. I was thinkin’ over the problem one afternoon when Joe Spit the Ragman, who was runnin’ for city councilman, delivered a yard sign in hopes we’d display it on Chaos Manor South’s front lawn. I was not overly impressed as to the viability of Ol’ Joe’s candidacy, but I liked the material his sign was made from, a corrugated vinyl. A little mousin’ around on the ‘Web turned up a supplier of sheets of this stuff, which is available in colors, and which costs less than 20 bucks for 10 sheets, enough to make one for you and one for Beaudreaux and his Cousins, too. A few pieces of Velcro, some tape, and a plastic garbage bag, and I was in bidness. Why the garbage bag? I attached that to the open end of the enclosure with Velcro so the computer can be hidden from view when not in use so as not to offend any Luddites with the sight of—shudder—Microsoft Windows. In addition to preserving the sensibilities of my fellow partiers, the enclosure keeps dew off the computer and any small items I place in there with it. So the Laptop Wars are finally over? I suspect not. No matter what I or anybody else says, some folks won’t adequately shield their computers, and other folks will still object to the presence of laptops on the field no matter how well shielded they are.

Let us now visit the next arena in the high-tech conflict: lasers. As was the case with laptops, the greenies had been around for a while before they began to make their impact felt on the observing field. In case you’ve been hidin’ in a cave the last decade, I’m a-talkin’ about laser pointers that project a green beam rather than a red one. Wut good’s they-at? This more intense beam will create a visible “light saber” effect in dark skies under almost any conditions. The utility of these devices for educators was immediately obvious. If you’ve tried to show a group of students Zuben Elgenubi, for example, you understand what a godsend a “sky pointer” can be: “No, not that one, the brighter one just to the left of that other one.”

Some relatively wealthy university astronomy/physics departments were using green lasers a decade or so ago with their “descriptive”/introductory astronomy courses, but most of us had to wait for the price to come down. Which it did, suddenly and steeply, beginning three or four annums ago. All of a sudden any Bubba or Bubbette could have a green laser pointer for a hundred bucks—about half that now or even less. Since the light saber beams, especially those of the lower-powered el cheapos, show up best under dark skies, it seemed natural for the proud new owners to want to take them to the next star party to show off. Some enterprising souls also figgered-out that these things could make good finders. Place one in a set of 30mm finderscope rings, tape down the “on” switch and point your way to the objects of your desire. Before long greenie makers and astronomy merchants alike began selling lasers and mounts ‘specially for this purpose. It looked like lasers would be the next big thing at star parties. Till some of us said “whoa.”

As is the case with vehicle lights and laptops, there’s a radical opposition to lasers and a more reasoned one. The radical viewpoint offers fearsome scenarios of black helicopters that have been painted by Cousin Elmo’s green laser swooping down and packin’ off everybody at the Posum Holler Star Party for a nice vacation down to Gitmo. In truth, this is farfetched to put it mildly. Unless your site lies in the glide path of a nearby airport, the chance of anybody accidentally painting an aircraft with a green laser pointer is slim to none. The chance of anyone aboard an aircraft actually seeing said laser, identifying it as such, and being bothered by it is even less.

Then there’s the astrophotography angle. Supposedly, a green laser beam will ruin any long exposure image being taken anywhere on the field. While this seems plausible, kinda-sorta (the beams can be visible in a telescope; you can point a scope by observing the beam of a nearby handheld laser placed on the target), I have no evidence that this has ever actually happened. Unless you are using the latest powerhouse from them Kool Kats at Wicked Lasers, it is unlikely in my opinion. Not convinced? Stand a dozen yards off axis from the average laser, and its beam becomes far less impressive than it was when you were looking straight up it. I would also guess the beam would have to be held on target for an appreciable length of time even when the laser is positioned near a scope takin’ an image before it would register in the frame. Verdict? Unproven if conceivably possible under just the right circumstances.

So I’m all in favor of green lasers at star parties? Uh-uh. Nossir buddy. Oh, I have used them at star parties in the past, but only as part of a scheduled “sky tour” to be given by me (as a speaker) at a particular time (early) and in a particular part of the field (as far away from CCDers as possible). But, in general, I oppose ‘em. Why? Two reasons: the Pollution Factor and the Foolishness Factor. By “pollution,” I mean light pollution, but not in the sense that looking up at a laser beam will wreck your dark adaptation. What I mean is that you get three, or four, or five, or six green lasers moving around the sky and you get something that looks like Las Vegas’ violated skies at your formerly pristine site. I don’t think this is an improvement on the night sky, and can’t believe anyone would think it is.

Then there is the Foolishness Factor. If folks would use their lasers for their intended purposes, pointing out objects and pointing telescopes to objects, they would not be so consarned annoyin’. But one thing you can always depend on: put a greenie in the hands of a sizable percentage of folks and they will not be able to resist playin’ light saber games, swishin’ the **** thing around the sky constantly. Also, and almost unbelieveably, some worthies simply cannot keep their beams pointed at the sky. They just have to illuminate the treeline on the edge of the field, or, more disturbingly, and dangerously, accidentally (or not) get their lasers pointed at their fellow partiers. “Jus’ a joke on ol’ Bubba.” Not much of a joke, Pinhead. Aside from at least a potential for injury if the beam strikes somebody in the eye, it is just plain childish and unfriendly. I haven’t seen somebody punched in the nose for playin’ these kinds of games, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Because of these very real and reasoned concerns about green lasers, most organized star parties have banned them. If you need a laser “fix,” wait till you’re observing alone or with a few local buddies—many smaller clubs still put up with them at their dark sites if they are used reasonably and carefully.

Now we come to the Palm computers, cellphones, iPods and other gadgets mentioned earlier. Yep, everyone of ‘em has a bright screen that becomes blindingly bright at a dark site. Rules concerning these are fairly straightforward—they are like flashlights or computer screens—no red means no good. The approach to making them star party friendly is the same as with laptops: red filters. Yes, I know Palm (and PPC) astronomy programs have “night vision” settings, but these are no more effective in my experience than those of laptop software. For example, the excellent program Astromist allows you to not just turn your Palm display red, but to dim it to an acceptable level. Unfortunately, as with Windows, some elements of the screen are left white/color on many Palms. To fix, just get a small square of Rubylith and place it over the screen. Simple. Same goes for the cellphone and the iPod. The biggest problem these devices pose at star parties is not that it is difficult to make them dark sky friendly, but that people forget to. The cell or ‘Pod is so much a part of some folks’ life, I reckon, that they don’t imagine their use could disturb anybody anywhere. Obviously they can, and not just from a light pollution perspective—I won’t even go into the effect your loud cell conversation with Aunt Lulu about your digestive problems has on my contemplation of the Realm of the Galaxies.

You know, when you really get down to it, not much has changed in the star party game despite the coming of computers and lasers and other tech gimcracks. Preserving the dark sky experience is still about being considerate of your fellow observers. Yeah, I know many of you are, like me, into go-to and CCD and every technological advance you can haul onto a star party field without being forced to drag along your own nuclear reactor to power everything. Remember, though, not everybody wants to enjoy the sky that way. Some folks just want the sky, just with their eyes and nothing more than a pair of binoculars or a Dob inbetween. I think it would do every astro-tech maven good to do as I sometimes do: just leave all that junk behind and grab a copy of Sky Atlas 2000 and a push-to Dob once in a while. Consideration goes both ways, of course. If you are Just Right Put Out with the imagers and the go-toers that show up at the star party in greater and greater numbers, stop and ask yourself whether it’s really the light generated by the gear (or the grinding of slewing motors) that’s bothering you, or it’s really that you simply don’t like this stuff, that the presence of a PC on an observing field seems wrong in the very depths of your soul.

Luckily, almost every single amateur astronomer I have met over the last 40 plus years has been smart and nice. There have been a few exceptions—there are always a few casualties in any war, and we all make mistakes once in a while and fools of ourselves on occasion--but my guess is that we’ll have this latest round of technological advancement (if that is what it is) sorted out directly, and that we will be able to go back to enjoyin’ the night sky and each other’s company as we always have.


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