Monday, April 21, 2014

The Blood Moon Prophecy Debunked


It was a week ago that the world was treated to a total lunar eclipse, also known as a “blood moon” thanks to the fact that the eclipse turns the Moon red. Additionally, last week's eclipse marks the first in a series of 4 consecutive total lunar eclipses (somewhat of a rarity) known as a tetrad. If that weren't enough, the eclipse brought about a flood of doomsday predictions, too. Why you ask?

Well, blame the redness of the Moon.

Starting in 2008, pastor Mark Biltz began teaching that the Second Coming was near. How does he know that? According to Biltz, he has discovered astronomical patterns (which he refuses to reveal) that led him to believe that the next tetrad of eclipses would coincide with the end times. Using technology such as his website and Youtube to spread his message, Biltz quickly built a cult-like following with modern-day doomsday believers, a following that has grown into all-out hype now that the tetrad in in process.

Cue our next prophet of doom.

Writing in his 2013 book
Four Blood Moons: Something is About to Change, John Hagee notes that the last three tetrads corresponding to the Jewish feasts of Passover and Sukkot (as this current one does) correspond to pivotal events in the history of the Jewish people: the expulsion of the Jews from Spain (1492-3), the founding of modern Israel (1949-50), and the Six Day war (1967-68). As a result, thanks to the “rarity” of tetrads and their past correspondences with important events in the history of the Jews, Hagee predicts that something big is just over the course of the horizon that could mark a dramatic shift in the fortunes of the Jewish people, and, thanks to the global society we now live in, the world as a whole.

Now for facts.

For starters, Tetradds are not all that rare as there have been 62 of them in the past 2,000 years. That equates to a tetrad about every 30 years, meaning that, on average, a person will see two of them in a lifetime. As for tetrads that have eclipses falling on Passover and Sukkot, those are rarer, with only 8 of the 62 falling on such dates. Still, with about 1/8
th (12%) of tetrads having eclipses falling on these two holidays, the whole tetrad-Passover-Sukkot alignment doesn't look all that rare anymore, after all, does it?

As for the other tetrads falling on these two holidays, they took place in the following years: 162-2, 795-6, 842-3, and 860-1.

Now, even with the tetrads not being all that rare in themselves, isn't it still an oddity that they happen to fall on these important Jewish holidays? Well yes, that is until you learn that the ancient Jewish calendar (still used for determining the dates of religious holidays) is a Moon-based calendar! Gee, Full Moons (the only time a lunar eclipse can occur) on dates of major holidays now have a perfectly rational explanation.

Now, as for the implication that a series of 4 consecutive total eclipses leads to pivotal events in the history of the Jewish people, this is an extreme example of the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this” in Latin), which is basically false causal reasoning, an argument based on the assumption that two completely different events are related to one another in that Event A causes Event B. Example: you see a black cat (Event A) on your way to work and have a bad day at work (Event B), so you assume that the black cat caused you to have a bad day at work. Pretty stupid, huh? Well, not according to the millions of people who pushed
Blood Moons
into the bestseller category on Amazon, where it has remained in the top 150 titles essentially since its release.

In reality, there is only a single way that the Moon has any measurable impact of events here on Earth: its gravity. Want to see proof of this? Look no further than the famous
Bay of Fundy and its tides. Gravity aside, the Moon does nothing for us here on Earth, except scare the gullible, apparently.

Hagee's false causal reasoning exposed for what it is, how about Biltz and his interpretation of the Bible?

For fundamentalist Christians, the Bible is literal truth, case closed. However, even for the most devout Bible th
umper out there, there's no denying that the holy book can be very vague at times. Let's take a look at the verses Joel 2:30-31, which state that “30 And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” This is the passage that Biltz uses as the basis for his Doomsday prediction.

Okay, there is no doubt that, if one applies natural events to this “prophecy,” the events spoken of here can only be a solar and lunar eclipse. Problem: eclipses
occur in cycles thanks to celestial geometry. Result: a lunar eclipse at Full Moon is often followed by a solar eclipse at New Moon, roughly 2 weeks later. Bottom line: eclipses often follow each other, though having the perfect alignment for a pair of total eclipses is rarer, it's nothing that unusual. Doing a little math with the roughly 6-month eclipse seasons, that's roughly 4,000 such cycles in the last 2,000 years, which means that such a succession of events is nothing unusual at all.

In the end, what do we have? Well, after reading this, two prophets of doom with theories filled with more holes than a block of Swiss Cheese.?

Case closed.



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Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sigma 50 f1.4 Art to Sell for $949, Manufacturers Officially Screwing Us Over


Sigma has just announced that its much-anticipated 50 f1.4 Art lens will be hitting stores late this month for $949. While not cheap in absolute terms, the $949 price tag is about half of comparable products from the camera manufacturers. If that weren't enough, it appears as though the Sigma will trounce the competition on the performance front, too.

Breaking news: the name brand companies are screwing us over.

It is not new news that name brand camera makers (Canon, Nikon, etc.) charge a premium for their optics when compared to third party (Sigma, Tamron, Tokina) products with similar specifications. However, unlike 20 years ago, third party no longer equates to third rate, far from it. In fact, third party offerings are now not only often equal to manufacturer goods on the spec sheet, but in the field, too, which begs a question: why do people keep paying for over-priced products?

Short answer: snob appeal.

I hate to say it, but when pitted against the excellent Sigma, the name brand alternatives from the manufacturers (Canon, Nikon, and Sony) simply can't compare to the Sigma for the reason of price alone. The top of the line fast 50s (58 for Nikon) all cost upwards of $1,700 and perform no better (in fact, worse) than the Sigma. Want proof? Start reading reviews as the Canon 50 f1.2L is nearly a decade old, there are already plenty of reviews for the 50 f1.4 'Noct' Nikkor. Findings? Both lenses are, unlike the Sigma, anything but sharp at widest aperture ( the reason you're supposed to buy them) and as for the Sony-Zeiss 50 f1.4 collaboration (itself still just starting to hit stores), even if it were as good as the Sigma, it still costs over $500 more.

In the end, what are people paying all of this extra money for? Short answer: a nameplate (at least Canon throws in a fancy red ring on the lens barrel) and the bragging right of being able to say that they don't have a mismatched set of gear..


So what's a snob who doesn't want to pay through the nose to do? Answer: boycott your manufacturer.

We in America live in a free market capitalist economy where the customer has the power. Don't like a product or think it costs too much? Tell people and, if enough people collectively decide to boycott something, the manufacturer will have to address the concern as by not doing so, it will lose a lot of sales and money. Bottom line: if every Canon, Nikon, and Sony shooter decided to boycott their manufacturer's fast 50 offerings, prices would drop in a hurry to be more in line with the Sigma, which has gone to show that it is possible to offer premium, manufacturer-grade fast 50mms for under $1,000.

Unfortunately, snobs being snobs (and snobs often being rich), this will never happen. However, that doesn't make the Sigma 50 f1.4 Art disappear into thin air, so buy this lens instead as Sigma has demonstrated that Canon, Nikon, and Sony have no right to pick our pockets to the tune of $1500+, that is unless we're stupid enough to let them do so.




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Thursday, April 3, 2014

Current Digital Cameras are Garbage, Don't Waste Your Money


The latest numbers from CIPA are just out and disturbing as they show a 35% decline in worldwide digital camera sales compared to this time in 2013. What's worse? The Americas have seen sales drop about 50%.

According to CIPA's own numbers, production of digital cameras peaked way back in 2010, an eternity ago in the world of modern electronic technology. Back then, all of the manufacturers' current flagship models were still on the drawing board and are now at least a generation descended from 2010's best gear. So, with so much time elapsed and technology evolved, why aren't people buying?

My take: lame products.

I hate to say it, but the cameras of 2013/14 aren't much better than those of 2010. Being a Nikonian, let's look at Nikon's flagship models of these respective times: the D3s and D4s. So, what advantages does the D4s have over the D3s?

16 vs 12Mp (only a 25% resolution boost)
ISO 409,600 vs 102,400 (both are insanely high and make crappy pictures)
+/- 5 steps AE bracketing vs. 3 (that actually may matter)
1080p vs 720p video (never mind these aren't designed to be video cameras, anyway)

Everything else? Pretty much the same (and only 1 of these 4 changes really matters, to boot), which means that the D3s of 2010 is about 98% the D4s of 2014. Oh yes, then there's the price. You can snag a D3s, which is 98% of a D4s, for somewhere in the $3000s. The D4s? Expect to pay about double at $6500.

Gee, and I wonder why people aren't buying new cameras in the numbers they were 4 years ago.

The fact is that the cameras of 2014 aren't all that much different from those of 2010. Back in 2010, the image quality race was going strong, with giant leaps in picture quality still being possible. Come 2014, sensor technology seems to have reached a plateau. Yes, today's cameras may have more pixels, but aside from resolution, the pictures of today don't look appreciably better than those of 2010.

Picture quality being apparently stuck, manufacturers have been forced to look to other features to sell their products. Problem: instead of going for things like weather-sealing, more direct access controls, faster burst speed, faster processing, more aspect ratios, more custom functions, longer battery life, and better AF systems (which make the picture taking experience better), companies have gone for stupid stuff like GPS, wi-fi connectivity, face detect AF, art filters, faster video capture, touch screens, and more scene modes than you can fit on an aircraft carrier.

My message: if anyone from the manufacturers is reading this, we want more photo-friendly features that make for a better pictures/picture taking experience, not toys that we can use to try and impress techno geek friends with.

Implication: for anyone who's interest is actually taking pictures, there's no reason to buy a new camera as today's models offer no real improvement over 2010's.

End result: people with old cameras see no reason to upgrade and are holding onto their old cameras longer than ever before. Heck, until money starts growing on trees, why dump something that's a bit old but is perfectly functional for something new that costs twice as much and offers no real improvement other than a brand new shiny paint job?

No, photography isn't a dying hobby, the manufacturers just aren't giving us any good reason to spend our money.


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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Review: Third Episode of “When Knowledge Conquered Fear”

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The saga that is Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey continued on Sunday as host Neil deGrasse-Tyson explored a time “When Knowledge Conquered Fear,” which reveals the means by which the discovery of cosmic mechanics (Newton's laws of motion) were discovered, all starting with a childhood question asked by a young Edmond Halley: where do comets come from?

For thousands of years, humans were fearful of comets. Ever since the dawn of history, it was a recognized fact that humans were looking at and studying the sky, which was found to have familiar, regular patterns to its movements that the early humans undoubtedly found comforting in an ever-changing, dangerous world. In time, the study of the sky would lead to the calendar, which made the agricultural revolution possible.

Then came the comets.

Suddenly appearing as if out of nowhere, comets, with their unusual appearance, caused alarm among people because they were a cosmic wild card that didn't fit the familiar pattern. In time, comets became associated with the deaths of kings, plagues, war, and other, unpleasant happenings. By the 1600s and the life of Edmond Halley, these superstitions were starting to fade from thought, but a question still remained: where did comets come from?

By the time Halley was a young man, calculating orbits of celestial bodies was possible, as was describing how they move. As for the 'why,' that was still unknown. The rest of the episode details how Halley and a reclusive, shy Issac Newton became lifelong friends and collaborators and how Halley inspired Newton to publish his groundbreaking Principia, which was the final word in physics for about 250 years and which also answered the question asked by a young Halley: where do comets come from?

Thoughts?

The third episode is the best yet. Here, the new series really hits its stride, fully equaling the old. One thing that made the original series so special was its intertwining of science, history, and the human experience. In this episode, the story of Halley, Newton, their science, and feud with Robert Hooke all come together to make a whirlwind of a ride that is both informative and entertaining and that seems to fly by far faster than the official 60 minute time slot.

After watching episode 3, I can't wait for the remaining 10 episodes! Well done, Cosmos crew!



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Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Second Episode of “Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey”


The saga that is Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey continued on Sunday as host Neil deGrasse-Tyson explored “Some of the Things That Molecules Do,” which basically traced the history of life on Earth. For people expecting pure astronomy, this can seem like a bit of an oddball topic for a series about space science but, as Carl Sagan once said, the story of the cosmos is a story of us.

The episode is largely a tale about how life in its present form came about through time by way of evolution by natural selection, the still-controversial theory (still denied by a large part of the population) first proposed by Charles Darwin in 1859. In this episode, Tyson starts with the story of an animal familiar to all of us: the dog. By explaining how humans have bred all current dog species on Earth, an undeniable fact, from the gray wolf, Tyson showcases evolution by artificial selection (imposed by humans).

Evolution explained with human intervention, Tyson then traces the evolution of other species by way of natural selection, which is triggered by random genetic mutations in an animal's genes. To explain briefly, random genetic mutations occur all the time, often with no implications for survival as a whole. However, every now and then, a mutation occurs that aids an animal's chances for survival. Example: the polar bear, Tyson's next subject.

At one time, there were no polar bears, only brown bears in the arctic. However, once upon a time a long time ago, a bear was born that had a genetic mutation that gave it white fur. Being white and camouflaged against the snow, the bear had an advantage in its hunting. In time that bear reproduced, passing along its genes for white fur, which aided the chances for survival against its offspring that inherited the white fur. In time, these white bears reproduced, further spreading out their genes for white fur. In time, there started to be a lot of white bears in the arctic. With this advantage over their brown cousins, in time, all bears in the arctic became white.

The rest of the episode involves further lessons on evolution, extinction, and how life might have evolved on other worlds and how it may have began on this one. The episode ends with a segment from the original series that graphically showcased evolution from single-cell bacteria into humans.

Thoughts?

The second episode is better than the first, hands-down, as it was in Sagan's series. Here, Tyson really steps into Sagan's shoes, explaining complex scientific processes like evolution in ways that virtually anyone can understand. One thing that made the original series so special was its camera work and unique presentations. In this episode, there is some very not so boring documentary cinematography as well as the Hall of Extinction, which offers a distinctly unique way of capturing the attention of the viewer. In short, while the original series may have felt more like journalism with its brief, somewhat cursory glances, this second episode feels more like a novel: engrossing, entertaining, and captivating.

Hopefully, this will be an indication of things to come in the remaining 11 episodes.


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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Review: First Episode of 'Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey'

I just got done watching the first episode of Neil deGrasse Tyson's Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey. Overall impression: positive, though the cartoons do not do any favors to the series. Rather than write all about it here, check out my review on Examiner.

Needless to say, I will be watching next week and encourage you to do the same as Cosmos is far better than regular primetime programming!

Time Changes, New 'Cosmos' Premieres Today

Two bits of interesting astro news for the day in that (1) Daylight Savings Time returns and (2) Cosmos: a Spacetime Odyssey (a modern update to Carl Sagan's iconic 1980 Cosmos mini-series) will premiere tonight on Fox-owned networks all over the country and around the world.

First: time change.

At 2am this morning, the time changetook place as America sprang ahead an hour as Standard Time was be replaced with Daylight Savings Time, which will run through the first week of November. While most lovers of the great outdoors will rejoice, astronomers will not as, thanks to the time shift, dark skies will arrive an hour later than “normal.”

For astronomers, the time change will bring a change to observing patterns as, thanks to the time being pushed ahead an hour, one will have to stay up an hour later than yesterday to observe under dark skies. The good news: at least for now, daybreak will come an hour later but, thanks to the lengthening of the days, this bonus will not last long, so get out and observe in the morning soon!

Next: primetime TV.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, will premiere tonight on Fox stations across the nation. To create even more excitement, the series was a collaboration between Sagan's widow, Ann Druyan, Family Guy creator Seth MacFairlane, who took great inspiration from the original version, ans Steve Soter, who was instrumental in making the original a reality.

So, what of the series?

Unfortunately, to keep the hype at a fever pitch, tight wraps are being kept on the exact nature of the show. However, what has been revealed is that it takes a lot of inspiration from the original. Sagan's Space Ship of the Imagination is back, as are the historical sketches (this time cartoons) and the Cosmic Calendar, and the overall sense of wonder created by the original. New are recent discoveries in science and updated special effects.

As for what will be on TV tonight, the first episode it titled “Standing Up in the Milky Way” and reintroduces viewers to the Space Ship of the Imagination and Cosmic Calendar while telling the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian burned at the stake in 1600 for teaching, correctly, that there are other planets circling other stars, which were merely Suns at a great distance.

The series will premiere tonight at 9pm EDT
on Fox, National Geographic Channel, FX, FXX, FXM, Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2, Nat Geo Wild, Nat Geo Mundo and Fox Life. On Monday (March 10) it airs again on National Geographic at 10 p.m. ET/PT
.

Tune in, I will . . .



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