Nova Cir 2018 Gamma-ray Space Telescope observations

February 3, 2018

AAVSO alert notice 613 for the nova in Circinus requests visual, DSLR, CCD and spectroscopic observations, with multiple observations each night if possible, in support of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope’s observations that are currently underway:




Target-of-opportunity observations requested by Dr. Mukai are taking place now through February 6 UT with the NASA Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. To support these observations, observers are asked to make several observations per night.

I’m processing DSLR observations of the nova from last night and plan to continue observing over the next few nights. Its visual magnitude is currently at around 7.2.

Here’s a spectrum taken by Rob Kaufman on January 31:


Total Lunar Eclipse from Adelaide

February 1, 2018

Adelaide was largely clouded out for the eclipse but the cloud thinned at times well enough to get some reasonable images, especially after midnight. Taking more than 100 images also helped.

I used a Canon 1100D at the prime focus of my 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain Alt-Az (Meade LX-90) telescope.

Here are some images I thought were interesting enough to show. These are straight off the camera with no processing except RAW to JPEG conversion.


Pre-totality umbral shadow through cloud. ISO 100, 1/10 second.


Totality. ISO 800, 2 seconds.


Not long before end of totality. ISO 800, 2 seconds.


Soon after end of totality. ISO 800, 1 second.


What counts as good belief?

January 29, 2018

We watched Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus over the Christmas break. I’d never seen much of it and Karen’s interest in watching it again after a long hiatus encouraged me to sit down and watch it with her. Thanks Karen, it was well worth watching.



The true story and the TV adaptation we saw are both positive, moving tales. Eight year old Virginia’s friends tell her there is no Santa Claus so she writes a letter to the editor of The New York Sun asking for advice, since as her father tells her: “if you see it in the The Sun, it’s so”.



The author of the editorial: Francis Church, an atheist and cynic, having seen his share of suffering, writes an enduring letter that has inspired many since the editorial was first published in 1897. Here’s an excerpt (italics are mine):

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

There is something beautiful in encouraging kids to imagine.

I admit to some internal conflict when our kids were young regarding what to tell them about Santa, the Easter bunny, the Tooth Fairy and so on. In the end we encouraged such beliefs for as long as the kids were willing to imagine playfully with us.

Interestingly, Virginia’s 1930 PhD thesis was entitled The Importance of Play.

Although as an atheist I generally prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, the kind of belief in Santa that was the subject of Virginia O’Hanlon’s letter and the The Sun editorial, is, I think, perfectly okay.

Even in recent times I’ve heard the same sort of “there is no Santa” comment that prompted Virginia’s letter to The Sun, expressed between young children, encouraged by adults, who at the same time profess belief in God.

That brings me to the question in this post’s title: what counts as good belief?

What’s the difference between these two statements?

  • I believe in Santa Claus
  • I believe in God

Other than that the first refers to a particular individual while the second to any one of a number of possible gods, their form is identical. We can remedy this remaining difference by reframing the second statement as:

  • I believe in Jesus (or Yaweh or Jeohvah or …)

Too often, the second form is accompanied by exclusive statements, such as:

Hmm…and here I was thinking that the reason for the season was axial tilt. Not to mention Saturnalia.


The worst that can happen, in the child’s mind, for not believing in Santa or for being on the naughty list, is that they will receive no presents. True, there have been other harsher myths associated with Christmas, but I’m thinking broadly about the contemporary situation in the western world.

The worst that can happen, in the believer’s mind, for non-belief in God or being wicked (i.e. not accepting either salvation by faith or works) is eternal separation from God and loved ones or eternal torment in Hell.

So, again, what counts as good belief?

In my view, it’s the kind that doesn’t hold you ransom, that encourages you to imagine things not yet imagined while not making threats or requiring you to be dogmatic or to abandon critical thinking. In short, one that allows you to be creative but still allows you to think for yourself.

Take the risk of thinking for yourself. Much more happiness, truth, beauty, and wisdom will come to you that way. Christopher Hitchens

A key difference between encouraging a child to believe in a powerful being who can deliver presents to every house in a single night and childhood indoctrination into belief in a personal god, and the associated demands, is the exclusivity of the second. That and the lack of fun.

Here’s another excerpt (again, my italics):

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

I have some sympathy with Church’s view that:

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see.

and especially:

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him.

We have to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater of course. As George Santayana says:

Scepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness.

There is so much we don’t yet understand and we should approach the gulf between what we do and don’t know with humility. The universe as revealed through evidence by Science so far is stranger than anything we could have imagined:

  • We live in a universe in which everything we can see and touch makes up only a few percent of everything that is, the rest apparently being dark matter or dark energy.
  • On the smallest scales there exists a seething ocean of particle-antiparticle pairs coming into and out of existence.
  • If we travel fast enough, time will slow down and our mass will increase.

Alice’s world seems almost normal by comparison.

Science doesn’t claim to have the answer to all questions, yet the Scientific Method is the most successful and powerful form of knowledge acquisition we know. If new evidence comes to light to change our model of the world, then it will change after the dust has settled. That’s an important departure from dogmatic thinking, and skepticism is an important part of the Scientific Method.

There’s room for a child-like view of the world that encourages imagination and optimism, as well as an honest view of the world that requires careful thought and evidence regarding important questions, especially those with life-changing potential.

Kids will ask questions about early beliefs when they’re ready and that’s okay. Adults should encourage the fun aspects of early belief with a twinkle in their eye while accepting that questions will come.

It’s often been said that children are natural born scientists until society discourages them from asking honest, simple questions. I’d like to think that Francis Church the cynic and Virginia the child seeker-of-answers and adult teacher might have agreed.

In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted. Bertrand Russell

Nova Cir 2018

January 28, 2018

In my last post on January 20 about Nova Mus 2018, I said that another southern nova had been discovered, this one by John Seach in the early hours of January 19 in the constellation of Circinus, near alpha and beta Centauri. That post also showed a Stellarium context screenshot and pointed to an AAVSO finder chart.

This nova has slowly been on the rise for the last several days from around magnitude 8.5 to 6.3 by January 27.

The following 15 second DSLR images I took on Jan 22, 23, 26 and 27 show the nova brightening over time:


If the images seem out of focus, that’s because they are. They were used for photometry rather than with the intention of being pretty; use of defocus is part of the procedure. See this talk I gave about DSLR photometry in 2015 for more detail. There’s some positional differences between frames, reflecting the difference in observation time from night to night.

The light curve below shows visual, Johnson V, and Tri-Color Green (DSLR) observations from January 19 to 28; mine are in purple. I’ve also submitted observations in blue and red bands.


This light curve doesn’t appear to show a simple linear increase, so it will be interesting to see where the rise stops.

Rob Kaufman (discoverer of Nova Mus 2018) said that a low resolution spectrum he took on January 26 was essentially featureless.

The sky is largely clouded out tonight here in Adelaide at the end of a hot day (42° C), but I just caught a quick glimpse of the nova in 7×50 binoculars, but wasn’t able to check against comparison stars. It’s around the same magnitude as last night though. I’ll carry out more DSLR photometry as soon as I can.

In the meantime I have two more nights of Nova Mus 2018 (currently on the decline) DSLR images to process. I’ll write an update post for that nova too.


Nova Musca update (and another one)

January 20, 2018

It’s been several days since the nova in Musca was found by Rob Kaufman. The alert notice was sent out by AAVSO on January 16.

Below is the green filter channel of a DSLR image I took around midnight on January 17. The nova is shown via red markers with a faint satellite trail at upper right. Compare this with the narrow field Stellarium screenshot in my last post.


That was one of 20 images used for photometry of the nova that night. I’ve repeated this on two other nights since submitting untransformed green (visual wavelength), blue and red band observations.

My visual band (binocular and DSLR photometry) observations are shown below in purple alongside visual band contributions from others:


A polynomial fit makes the emerging pattern a little more obvious (if exaggerated in parts); up and down from night to night as is common with novae.


This morning another southern nova was discovered in the constellation Circinus (near Alpha Centauri) by John Seach in NSW at magnitude 9.1. John also discovered a bright nova in Centaurus in 2013. I have not been able to observe this yet due to cloudy conditions tonight.

Here’s a Stellarium screenshot of this latest nova’s location:

Nova Circinus 2018

The AAVSO finder chart I will be using initially is this:

Nova near Southern Cross

January 15, 2018

Rob Kaufman in Victoria discovered a possible nova (PNV J11261220-6531086) near the Southern Cross (Crux) in the constellation of Musca on January 14 2018. All novae start out having the designation PNV or possible nova.

Rob’s discovery visual estimate was magnitude 7. I estimated it tonight with 7×50 binoculars at magnitude 6.7 relative to magnitude 6.4 and 7.1 comparison stars.

This context screenshot from Stellarium shows the nova’s location (cross-hairs at upper middle of image) relative to familiar stellar sign posts, including Crux and Alpha Muscae at 10pm Adelaide time (AEDT).
PNV J11261220-6531086 wide

The next shows a narrower field of view with the nova at right of the helpful triangular, A-shaped asterism.

PNV J11261220-6531086 narrow

Here’s a 10º finder chart from AAVSO
X22594EOand an 8º finder chart with the orientation closer to that of the sky around tonight’s observation time. The two comparison stars I used are circled in red.


After submitting my observation tonight to AAVSO I noticed that since Rob’s discovery observation, only two have been submitted other than mine:

  • another visual estimate by Sebastian Otero in Argentina (6.85);
  • and a tri-colour green DSLR observation (6.72) by David Blane in South Africa.

What I love about such transients, is their spectacular brightness rise and unpredictability.

Initial spectroscopy by Rob indicates a classical nova. I’d expect to see more amateur spectroscopy of this object in the near future.

Will it become visible to the naked eye like the similarly southern and close-to-Crux V1369 Cen did in 2013 (peaking at around magnitude 3.4)? One never knows with these things but it’s worth noting, as per the CBAT transient report page, ASAS-SN observations suggest the nova may actually have started in the first few days of January. If so, perhaps we’re a little too far down the track to expect naked eye visibility. All we can do is to observe it and see!

Being such a southerly object, it will not be as well observed as novae in the northern hemisphere, but it’s in a great location, so have a go if you can! I’ll be out every clear night observing it when I can in the days to come, visually and possibly via DSLR.

ACE, optimisation and an old friend

December 29, 2017

In late November I received an email from an old friend: Sean Miller. Sean was a member of the wonderful community that built up around ACE BASIC, a compiler for the Amiga I developed as a labour of love between 1991 and 1996. I’ve written about ACE in this blog before. Sean told me how his use of ACE influenced him over the years. It has been great to get back in contact with him.

I felt honoured and humbled when, on Christmas Eve, Sean released an episode about ACE on the Raising Awesome YouTube channel he and his son have created. In this episode (Retro Amiga Computing – ACE BASIC and Questions2.1 Development):

Sean shows how to use ACE on an Amiga emulator to compile and run a program he wrote more than 20 years ago (Questions).

Retro Computing with ACE

I’ve expressed this in email to Sean, but let me say it publicly: thank you Sean! It means more to me than I can say.

During the video, Sean comments on the progress of the compilation of Question, notes that there were around 4000 peephole optimisations (see screenshot from video above) and wonders whether I might explain what a peephole optimisation is. I’d be happy to of course. Now you’ve got me started! 🙂

ACE generates assembly code for the beautiful Motorola 68000 microprocessor. Compilation of some ACE language constructs generates sub-optimal assembly code instructions on the first pass. Assembly code is emitted as ACE parses the input source code without any knowledge of the broader context of the program.

Here’s a trivial ACE program:


This simply stores 42 in the short integer variable x% (the type is denoted by %), multiplies x% by 3 and stores the product in the variable y%. I chose integer over floating point for this example because the generated assembly is more complex and would distract from the explanation. Speaking of distractions…

As an aside, unlike modern Intel, ARM and other processors, the 68000 didn’t have a floating point unit (FPU), so floating point operations were carried out by library code instead of hardware, such as a Motorola Fast Floating Point or IEEE 754 library. As an aside to my aside, the Amiga 500 had a 68000 processor whereas the Amiga 1200 (I owned both eventually) had a 68020. The 68020 could offload floating point instructions (which it did not know how to handle) to a co-processor. The 68040 was the first 68k processor with an on-board FPU. This is a whole topic by itself.

Back to the trivial example ACE program above…

Here’s the 68000 assembly ACE generates for the two line program without any optimisation (i.e. without the -O option):

    move.w  #42,-(sp)
    move.w  (sp)+,-2(a4)
    move.w  -2(a4),-(sp)
    move.w  #3,-(sp)
    move.w  (sp)+,d0
    move.w  (sp)+,d1
    muls    d1,d0
    move.l  d0,-(sp)
    move.l  (sp)+,d0
    move.w  d0,-(sp)
    move.w  (sp)+,-4(a4)

With optimisation we have 6 assembly instructions instead of 11:

    move.w  #42,-2(a4)
    move.w  -2(a4),-(sp)
    move.w  #3,d0
    move.w  (sp)+,d1
    muls    d1,d0
    move.w  d0,-4(a4)

Looking at the first two lines of the 11 unoptimised sequence:

    move.w  #42,-(sp)
    move.w  (sp)+,-2(a4)
Example stack operations (source:

ACE examines this pair in a sliding window, or so-called peephole, onto the emitted instructions and notices that 42 is being pushed to the first-in, last-out stack then immediately popped from the stack and stored into the variable x%’s address, represented by an offset of two from an address stored in the register a4. The peephole optimiser reduces this push-pop pair to a single instruction:

    move.w  #42,-2(a4)

ACE stops short of taking the newly optimised pair:

    move.w  #42,-2(a4)
    move.w  -2(a4),-(sp)

then peephole optimising it and emitting this:

    move.w  #42,-(sp)

The reason is that the programmer has asked for 42 to be stored in the variable x%.

More ideally would have been this sequence:

move.w  #42,-2(a4)
move.w  -2(a4),d0
muls    #3,d0
move.w  d0,-4(a4)

which literally says:

  • move 42 into variable x%’s memory location
  • move the value stored at x%’s memory location into the 68k register d0
  • carry out a signed multiplication of 3 with the contents of register d0, storing the result in d0
  • move the contents of register d0 into variable y%’s memory location

If the constraints relating to use of x% and y% did not exist, the following would be sufficient to yield the product of 42 and 3 in 68k assembly:

move.w  #42,d0
muls    #3,d0

Notice that the 4 instructions after the multiplication (muls) in the unoptimised sequence are optimised during more than one pass over the assembly code to a single instruction that stores the product into y%, from this:

    move.l  d0,-(sp)
    move.l  (sp)+,d0
    move.w  d0,-(sp)
    move.w  (sp)+,-4(a4)

to this:

    move.w  d0,-4(a4)

So, ACE does better with this than the instruction sequence before the multiplication.

There are other simple optimisations carried out when the -O option is used, relating to numeric negation, but this example illustrates the key aspects.

Bernd Brandes later wrote a more powerful optimiser for ACE, the SuperOptimiser, that built upon this simple peephole optimisation approach.

Every instruction the processor doesn’t have to execute means fewer CPU cycles, so a run-time speed up. This matters a lot for example, when such instructions are part of a loop that iterates many times.

To revisit ACE’s code generation and optimisation implementation, I downloaded and Vidar Hokstad’s improvements to the ACE source (on GitHub) for compilation under Linux. I compiled that on my Mac OS X laptop and used it to generate 68k assembly code. Vidar contacted me several years ago to say that he was engaging in “software archaeology” (that made me feel a bit old, even then) with the ACE source code. I appreciate Vidar’s efforts. He sorted out some compilation problems under the GNU C compiler (gcc) that I would have had to otherwise.

It’s interesting to look at the Intel assembly generated by gcc for a similar C code fragment. The following would have to be embedded in a function:

int x,y;

The gcc compiler generates this sequence:

    movl    $0, -4(%rbp)
    movl    $42, -8(%rbp)
    imull   $3, -8(%rbp), %ecx
    movl    %ecx, -12(%rbp)

As with the ACE generated 68k assembly, only the relevant part is shown. There’s additional code generated just to start up and shut down a program (by gcc, ACE or any other compiler). The Intel assembly generated here is a bit better than the optimised 68k code ACE generated (4 vs 6 lines) although surprisingly, not very much better.

When I wrote ACE in the 90s, all components were written either in C or 68000 assembly and I went straight from an implicit parse tree to assembly code generation. These days I tend to use ANTLR or similar tools for lexical analysis (converting character streams to tokens) and parsing (checking against language grammar). I have yet to use The LLVM Compiler Infrastructure for language development, but that’s on my list too.

Creating an intermediate representation (such as abstract syntax trees) before code generation, provides additional opportunities for optimisation, something I’ve been exploring in recent times. I’ll write more about that in another post.

To be honest, the more I think and write about this topic again, the more I want to.

Thanks again Sean.

Mr & Mrs JW: I have some questions…

October 3, 2017

In recent months, I’ve noticed more of you in pairs with portable pamphlet displays, congregating mostly around public transport interchanges, train stations, busy street corners, and near the occasional university in Adelaide.

Are we special or is the picture more or less the same elsewhere?

Is the Apocalypse impending? Wasn’t it supposed to happen in the mid-70s? Where’s the evidence that it will ever happen? Please don’t say “it’s in the Bible”. That doesn’t count as evidence. Telling me to “have faith” doesn’t help either. I prefer not to pretend to know things I don’t know, especially for no apparent reason and certainly not about things that could profoundly affect my life, in spite of Pascal’s Wager.

Why do you think it’s reasonable that Joseph Rutherford in the early 1930s declared that only 144,000 would make it to heaven once the total number of JWs exceeded that number?

Isn’t that just a little bit convenient?

Do you think you’re one of those 144,000?

If not, what makes you OK with the idea that millions of you will be resurrected bodily, zombie-like (from Jehovah’s Witness to Jehovah’s Zombie?) to live in “paradise” (no, not Paradise, the Adelaide suburb, although that is close to a major bus interchange) built upon the 7 billion human corpses of the Apocalypse, assuming the rest of us haven’t become followers by then. Unlikely!

And why exactly is it that every other species on Earth must pay for the sins of humankind with their future? Why the heck does it always have to be about us? What makes you think we’re so special? That we have a soul? Evidence?

But that’s your mission now, isn’t it? To get yourself and the rest of us through the Apocalypse and into this paradise on earth depicted by the Watch Tower publications you hand out.

Isn’t that at least a little bit creepy?

What will happen in Paradise? What will our newly resurrected bodies be sustained by? All other species will be dead, won’t they, or are some going to be bodily resurrected too just so they can be consumed again? Will we get to worship your genocidal god for eternity? If so, we’ll need to be sustained for eternity so we’ll need food for eternity.

I hope we find strong evidence for life on other worlds. Not because we will be able to communicate within reasonable timeframes, but so that the Copernican revolution continues on its logical trajectory toward deposing us from our delusion of central importance in the universe. We can be important to one another and create meaning in our lives without being favoured by gods. Watch Pale Blue Dot! It always comes back to that.

How is it that you don’t see that in the marketplace of religions, yours is just as manufactured as the rest? We create gods in our own image not the other way around!

What evidence do you have that around 1915, your religion was “selected” by Jesus to be the one true religion? Has no-one else declared such a status for their religion?

And don’t get me started on shunning, your theological allergy to blood transfusions, or allegations of child sexual abuse in your chosen church? It’s not just the Catholics and Anglicans anymore who are under the spotlight.

I’ve engaged in civil conversation with JWs when they’ve knocked on our door, especially when a child has been in attendance, so they at least hear a different viewpoint. But door knocks are infrequent and I feel the need to engage in street epistemology with JWs (or Mormons or …) where I find them.

I don’t particularly enjoy debate or conflict, but I like dogmatic thinking less.

I wrote this post after hearing a compelling interview with Lloyd Evans, an ex Jehovah’s Witness, on The Thinking Atheist podcast.

Questionable church websites: prayer by email?

September 17, 2017

I passed by a school and associated church-next-door while out walking in an Adelaide suburb yesterday. They had a web address on their signage so I navigated there in my phone’s browser to get an idea of their theology. Not too fundamentalist. Probably not too different from the sort of liberal theology I grew up with. Probably a nice bunch of people and a caring community.

But I did a double-take when I saw this:


Intrigued, I clicked “Request Prayer”.


they asked. Hmm. So, I felt compelled to reply:


Seriously, I know that (the Christian) God is supposed to forgive all sins, but a missing personal pronoun and an unnecessary capitalisation? Blasphemy!

Anyway, I’ve at least made the suggestion that direct email communication with the almighty might be a Good Thing. We’ll see what comes of it. Not much I suspect.

The church in question has my email address (what the heck, so does the rest of the Internet it seems).

However, after clicking Submit, I did get this response page:


Naturally, I have a question… You know what’s coming, don’t you?

My question is this: who has my submission been received by, exactly? 🙂

As you might imagine, I have not received an email response yet (from a god or a parishioner concerned for my soul) and I suspect I won’t. After all, it was not actually a prayer request, more like web site feedback, if a little cheeky. It should be taken as gentle satire of course, something to reflect upon.

There is a serious point to be made here though. If gods really wanted to communicate with us, they could choose to do so clearly and distinctly. Sagan (as always) captures the essence of this for me:

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (source)


15 years since the kindest, wisest, sanest of us died

August 17, 2017

It’s hard to believe that 15 years have passed since Mum died and as I’ve said before:

She was the kindest, wisest, sanest of us all. But she’s gone.


…she is still in my thoughts at some point of every day. I try to recapture the sound of her voice, her facial expressions, kind, caring, at times whimsical. And yes, I still miss her. The sense of loss reduces over time, but doesn’t leave. Not that I want it to entirely.

Karen and I have taken to lighting a candle on August 17 near the end of the day as a symbolic gesture, a focus of meditation.