orion starblast astro telescope.K, being the amazing human being that he is, got me a really great amateur telescope for my birthday. Being that it is winter in the bay area we don’t have a lot of clear skies, but last Saturday night there was a break in the relentless rain. K & I toted that telescope to the end of our street where there is very little light pollution (comparatively, for being in an urban environment). And there the universe was opened to us.

We saw the moon in such detail that we saw craters inside the craters. We looked at Mars, could see its orange, round form. We looked at the Orion Nebula and could see stars inside the nebula.

Now, I do regularly go to the Chabot Observatory to look through their big telescopes (it’s free!), and I have seen globular cluster M-15 at least a dozen times. but there is nothing like seeing this stuff in your own backyard (or so) with your own telescope. It was really stunning.

Here’s something new for The Nerge: a product review. I figured that other people could benefit from my nerdy research.

I’ve been meaning for several years to produce an annual book of a dozen or so of my best photographs of the year. I had been meaning to do this through iPhoto, but dummy (me) waited so long that I would have to buy a new version of iLife to create the book, and I am too cheap for that. So I prowled around online until I found too comparable services: Shutterfly and Snapfish.

With both of these sites, you create an account, upload photos to virtual albums, and arrange them in the book. With both you get a variety of layouts, colors, fonts, etc. to work with. So, there was no way to know which was the better product unless I ordered comparable books from both companies. Yes, I made two books with the same photographs and similar layouts to that I could objectively and empirically observe which was the superior book. You’re welcome.

I used Shuttefly first. I was dismayed to find that the layout choices weren’t very robust. With both these companies, the photo books are geared to folks with no design sense who want something bright and cheesin’. You have to spend some time finding the layout that will best display artistic photographs. Eventually, I found two on Shuttefly that weren’t vomity: a plain white or a plain black one.

The next limitation is that color also determines that layout of the photos. You do have very little choice as to how the photo is placed on the page. The white book would run the photos into the gutter (literally, the page gutter, where the pages meet the binder), which kinda sucked. But the black one left considerable space around the photos, so that they were reduced by about 20%.

And THEN, it turned out that the font is also predetermined by picking the color of the album. What the…? The white album had a pleasant serif font, while the black album meagerly offered some variation of Arial (much like the font you’re reading now. Good for websites, bad for photo albums).

In the end, I went with the white because a)I want my photos as large as possible and b)nice fonts are pretty.

Next, Snapfish.

Snapfish is way, way more accommodating. I could have an album with BOTH black AND white pages. I could choose from multiple photos layouts. I could have one photo or up to four on a page. I could choose from half a dozen fonts. Yep, I could go nuts with the thing. I did determine that ALL of the fonts were ugly, and that was sad. But I gleefully made a very satisfying layout. To top it off, the Snapfish book cost almost half of the Shutterfly book, AND they threw in 4″ x 6″ prints of the photos for 19 cents. Nice. AND, the Snapfish book arrived five days before the Shuttefly one, although I ordered them on the same day.

Now, you’re going to think I’m going to recommend Snapfish, but you are wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! Because when the books arrived, and K & I compared the photos in each book side by side, it was very clear that the Shuttefly prints were far better. They were crisper, had more details, better contrast, and better color. Basically, everything that makes a photo worth looking at. The Snapfish pictures were noticeably duller and fuzzier. And this, to me, is the bottom line: how the damn photo looks.

If you’re look to just make a cutesy book of your kids or pets or something, I’d go with the cheapy version at Snapfish. But if you are an artiste, comme moi, you will choose the superior product: Shuttefly.

And now, one of the photos:

… and can redesign the Tokyo railway system: