Aiming for the stars

Self portrait…toiling under the cool starlit sky.

I’ve always been interested in space and astronomy, so it was only natural that I would eventually discover a hobby that lets me combine three of my passions: space, photography, and computers. Modern Astrophotography has a healthy does of all three elements, making it both appealing and challenging.

I started this new hobby at the beginning of this year, not ideal timing considering the movement restrictions that were soon put into place due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Having said that, being forced to practice from home under the hazy light polluted skies of downtown Dubai in the summer certainly accelerated my learning curve. However, before the restrictions came into force I was able to experience a few evenings of Astrophotography under the darker skies of the Al Qudra Desert about 45 minutes from home.

My first outing was spent trying to find the right spot to take the photos, figuring out how to setup my equipment in the dark, and pointing the camera up at the sky and seeing what happened. As you can see from these images below, they were pretty bad, but I was still intrigued enough to make a second attempt a few days later.

On my second outing I concentrated on capturing star trails. The basic idea is to use a wide angle lens and capture a long exposure of a starry sky to create trails as the Earth rotates. This image below was captured using my Leica Q2 with a fixed 28mm ƒ/1.7 lens. I captured nearly 200 exposures of 20 seconds each and then used a Mac application called StarStaX to combine the exposures into a single image, while enhancing the star trails themselves. This was necessary because this camera has no way to disable Long Exposure Noise Reduction (LENR).

Composite photograph of star trails taken from the Al Qudra Desert on the outskirts of Dubai
My first proper star trails photograph

Here’s a photo of the fairly basic equipment setup I used to capture this image:

Photography equipment setup to capture star trails
To capture star trails all you need is a camera (or smartphone) with a wide angle lens, a good tripod, and a dark cloudless sky.

I was also keen to try my hand at photographing deep sky objects (DSO), such as the Orion Nebula. The great thing about this DSO is that it is large and bright. So much so that even from light polluted downtown Dubai you can just make it out with the naked eye. From the desert, it is quite easy to photograph without any specialised equipment. In my case, I used a Sony α7R IV mirrorless camera, a Sony FE 200600mm F5.6-6.3 G OSS telephoto lens, and an iOptron SkyGuider Pro star tracker mount. The star tracker corrects for the rotation of the Earth and allows me to take longer exposures of deep sky objects.

With the help of a friend who had more experience than me, I was able to capture the following image of the Orion Nebula on my second outing:

My second photograph of the Orion Nebula. This particular photo was taken using a star tracker and 600mm lens, and is composed of multiple shorter exposures (25 seconds) stacked together.

A few more weeks of practice led to the following image of Orion Nebula taken with the same equipment, but with better settings, more total exposure time, and better post processing techniques:

My best photo of the Orion Nebula so far. This photo was taken five weeks after my first attempt, and is composed of 40 exposures of 60 seconds each stacked and processed in Photoshop.

Once lockdown was in full effect in Dubai, I continued shooting night sky photos as best I could from my roof. The Moon is easy to photograph even in light polluted skies, so I took a lot of different types of moon photos:

In addition to lunar photography, I tried my had at shooting the planets and DSO’s with limited success because there was too much light pollution, weather conditions were not great (hot, humid, dusty summer nights in Dubai), and my camera lens is not suitable for these types of targets. They really require a proper telescope and GoTo equatorial mount to shoot well.

In addition to photographing the night sky, I had the opportunity to photograph a partial solar eclipse in June. It was more challenging than I expected, and I wasn’t as well prepared as I thought I was. Some of the assumptions I made regarding camera settings, using a WiFi connection to control the camera from inside the house, and the extreme summer heat meant that I missed some of the photos I hoped to capture. Having said that, I’m still pleased with the final result and am looking forward to photographing a total solar eclipse at some point in the future.

Composite image of the 2020 partial annular solar eclipse as seen from Dubai.

Late last month (July 2020), I finally had the opportunity to photograph two things that I have always wanted to capture: the Milky Way and a comet. In fact, I was able to photograph both on the same night, again from the Al Qudra Desert not far from my house. In both cases, this was not the ideal location to shoot from. Al Qudra is too close to downtown Dubai to have the totally dark skies that Milky Way photographers seek out. The other challenge was that this was one of the last days that comet Neowise would be bright enough to photograph “easily” and as it turned out the dust and city glow on the horizon were worst than I had hoped.

Nevertheless, the ends result in both cases was a pretty good first attempt…if I do say so myself. The experience has rekindled my interest in Astrophotography and I’m looking forward to the next moonless night later this month to try and photograph the Milky Way again. The ideal location in the UAE is the Al Razeen area of Abu Dhabi, but COVID-19 related travel restrictions between Dubai and Abu Dhabi remain and I’ll have to make do with some of the dark sky spots here in the Northern Emirates for the time being.

Pulse: hello world!

For the past few months this blog has been very quiet; that’s mostly because I’ve been busy trying to get a new project off the ground. This is something I’ve been working on since I left Microsoft back in 2003, but it has taken time and some mistakes along the way to build the company and product that I wanted.

Pulse logo

I’m pleased to announce the launch of the Pulse family of residential and hospitality automation products and the company behind it, Aspalis SAS.

Aspalis was formed in December last year as a partnership between myself and my friend Laurent Nicq. Laurent and I met in 2004 while he was working for a company called ConvergeX which was building Windows Media Center based home automation software. When that company had severe financial trouble and laid off most of its staff, Laurent and I decided to partner and build our own company and hire many of the talented engineers which ConvergeX let go.

Thus, Aspalis SAS was born and is now based in scenic Sophia-Antipolis, just outside of Nice and Cannes in the south of France. Besides myself and Laurent, we have five other talented people working with us: Jean-Paul, Emmanuel, Baptiste, Lucas, and Thomas. Aspalis is working closely with Navicom Technologies FZCO, a Dubai-based company in which I’m also involved, to bring products based on Aspalis software to market in the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Pulse ControllerThe first of these products is the Pulse Controller. This device acts as a central monitoring, control, automation, and remote management gateway for various systems in the home. At present, this device is designed to interact with hardware using the KNX / EIB and Z-Wave protocols; we will be adding support for additional protocols and standards in the future. Basically, the Pulse Controller interfaces with lighting, HVAC, curtain/shutter, IP cameras, and other devices/systems in the home to present the user a unified view on what’s going on around them.

The end user interacts with the Pulse Controller via client software running on a range of devices:

  • In-wall touch screens running Windows Embedded CE 5.0 or 6.0 with the .NET Compact Framework installed
  • Personal computers running Windows XP and Vista, including a special version for UMPCs
  • Mobile devices such as Windows Mobile 5.0 PocketPC and Smartphone connected via a WWAN connection such as GPRS/EDGE/UMTS/HDSDPA/etc
  • In the near future we will add support for clients based on Vista Media Center, Mac OS X, Symbian, and the .NET Micro Framework.

Pulse Client on HTC S620We have worked hard to build a simple and consistent user interface which adapts to the unique characteristics of the device it is running on. It’s hard for me to describe what I’m talking about, but we hope to post a Flash based demo that you can play with on our website sometime early next year.

The Pulse Controller itself is also a mini-computer, but is totally customized to suit the unique requirements of the market we are targeting. First and foremost, the hardware and software inside the Pulse Controller is designed to be reliable and easily serviceable. The hardware is based on industrial-grade embedded technology and features an Intel IXP420 Network Processor running at 400 MHz. At present, it runs Windows Embedded CE 5.0 Core, but we are evaluating CE 6 for future versions. The blocking issue at the moment is the lack of a suitable BSP.

The Pulse Controller is manufactured for us by Kontron Modular Computers GmbH on top of their E2Brain platform and the entire system is fully CE certified. We are in the process of getting FCC certification as well. The Pulse Controller has 64MB of SDRAM and 32MB of flash storage. It has two serial ports, two USB 2.0 ports, and two 10/100 Ethernet ports. There is space inside for an RF module, which presently occupied by a Z-Wave module available in 868.42 or 900 MHz versions. KNX / EIB support is enabled by way of a Siemens BIM 113 module which allows direct connection to a wired EIB bus. The device accepts 10 to 33 volts DC, and consumes around 4 watts during normal operation. It’s very compact and comes with both wall and DIN rail mounting brackets.

In addition to making it reliable and delivering easy-to-use client software, one of our most important goals was to design a solution which scaled well. By this I mean that we want to offer home automation for even the largest residential/hospitality projects out there. In order to do this, you have to design a solution which can be monitored, controlled, and updated remotely. We have built some configuration and deployment tools already, but have also included full support for monitoring and control of the Pulse Controller via SNMP. A white paper detailing this capability will be posted shortly.

In summary, the Pulse Controller and associated products have some unique selling points:

  • Reliability. The hardware and software was designed from the ground-up to be reliable and easy to service.
  • Scaleability. We have developed the first home automation solution which can be deployed in large residential or hospitality projects in the same way networking or communications equipment is used.
  • Cost. We have not taken the traditional “kitchen sink” approach, but rather focused on delivering a solution which has some basic/essential features and does those things well. We’ll leave the flashy/gimmicky features to all the other guys.
  • Openness. We like making friends. By leveraging protocols such as EIB and Z-Wave, we allow our dealers and installers to design solutions which best suit their customer’s requirements. We also play nice when it comes to client devices and are open to integrating the Pulse Controller with front-end software from others.

So, what’s next? We just finished exhibiting at the Gulf Information & Technology Exhibition (GITEX) in Dubai, thanks to the kind folks at Intel who gave us some space at the last minute. Next week we’ll be at Cityscape 2006 in Dubai starting on December 4th. We will be on the Al Shafar General Contracting stand. In early January, we’ll be making our North American debut at CES in Las Vegas. More details on that shortly.

If you are interested in learning more, watch our website or this blog and we’ll have more information about where you can buy home automation systems incorporating our products and technologies. Our initial focus is on new homes, but the Pulse Controller can also be used in existing homes.

I’m really proud of the work my team has done over the past year, and I am confident that we have carved ourselves a viable niche in the home automation market. The architecture we have developed makes it easy to adapt to changing market requirements and we have already begun work on future generations of the existing product and new products as well.

2008 Infinity G35 sedan?

I saw this car today behind the Emirates Towers in Dubai. Sorry about the bad quality of the picture, it took me a little while to figure out it might be a prototype of a future Infinity and it was hard to take the picture while shifting gears (was driving the Aston).


2008 Infinity G35 Sedan spy picture taken in Dubai

At first I thought someone had played a joke on the owner of the car because the Infinity badges were covered up and someone had drawn a Hyundai logo on it instead…but then I noticed that the Infinity logos on the wheels were also missing. When I got home I did a little search on the Internet to see whether my hunch was right, and sure enough I found some other pictures of a similar G35 prototype…which seem to have been taken at the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai.

The main differences I can tell are that the twin exhausts are now separated on either side of the rear apron, the more rounded rear with integrated spoiler, and new location of the G35 badge further up on the trunk lid.

EDIT: Turns out this is a 2007 G35 sedan which will be publicly unveiled in September, followed by a new coupe which might be a 2008 model year vehicle.

Where are the Finals???

I can’t believe it’s the summer of 2006 and I still can’t find a way to watch the NBA Finals live in Dubai…either on the cable/satellite TV or on the Internet. At most I can buy the video from Google Video or iTunes 24h later which kinda spoils the fun. If anyone knows of any way to watch the games live in Dubai, please post a comment.

2008 BMW X5 spotted in Dubai has posted a bunch of pictures of the next generation BMW X5 which was recently photographed undergoing hot weather testing in Dubai (yes, summer is here unfortunately). I guess I’ll have to start carrying my digital camera again as the other manufacturers bring their cars in for testing over the summer.

Virgin Atlantic comes to Dubai

A couple of friends and I gate crashed a Virgin Atlantic party last night at Bab Al Shams celebrating their inaugural flight to Dubai. Richard Branson was there and we enjoyed a nice buffet dinner and traditional Middle Eastern entertainment including four belly dancers.

I’m glad they have started on this route as both British Airways and Emirates need the competition to bring fares down and increase the level of service on this sector. Many people will also prefer flying Virgin all the way from California and Las Vegas to Dubai rather than using BA which is the only option at the moment. The Virgin Upper Class is far superior to the Business Class on both Emirates and BA.

UPDATE: I just saw a half-page ad in the newspaper from Etihad Airways saying “With 25 Etihad flights a week, the UK is hardly virgin territory.” This is basically a response to the launch of Virgin Atlantic’s service to Dubai. For those who don’t know, Etihad is the third “national carrier” of the United Arab Emirates. The other two are Emirates and Air Arabia, but none of these airlines belong to the U.A.E. federal government. Etihad belongs to Abu Dhabi, Emirates to Dubai, and Air Arabia to Sharjah.

Anyway, my point is that after seeing this ad I decided to figure out how many flights per week there are between the UAE and the UK. It turns out there are a lot. Emirates has 92 flights per week between Dubai and the UK, Etihad has 25 per week between Abu Dhabi and various UK destinations, and then there are services from British Airways, Virgin, Bangladesh Biman, and Royal Brunei which bring the grand total to approximately 122 flights per week yet it’s always difficult to get a seat and decent fare. I also found that Dubai is the second busiest destination out of London Heathrow after New York.

President Bush does something right

I totally back US President George W. Bush on his threatened veto of any legislation from Congress which tries to unfairly or illegally interfere with DP World’s purchase of P&O.

WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Bush on Tuesday defended a deal that would let a United Arab Emirates-based company run some key U.S. seaports, telling reporters that he would veto any bill to hold up the agreement.

Bush, who has yet to veto a bill during his administration, warned that the United States is sending “mixed signals” by attacking a Middle Eastern company after the ports were run by a British firm for several years.

Lawmakers who have called for the deal to be blocked need to “step up and explain why a Middle Eastern company is held to a different standard,” he said.


DP World is a good company with management and employees from all over the world. I think they will do a decent job of leveraging P&O to deliver improved management of ports which they have recently acquired. Some misinformed US legislators and government officials have objected to the idea that a Middle Eastern company would manage the ports of New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Miami. They have said that this poses a security risk to the US and the deal should be blocked. What a bunch of horse shit.

I hope the clear ethnic/racial/religious bias being shown by these individuals and their uninformed supporters does not go on for much longer. This deal will most likely result in improved performance and security at these ports and the people of those cities should feel good that such an experienced, diverse, and well funded company is now responsible for maintaining and developing this vital infrastructure. If American companies can operate major industries or infrastructure in other countries, then there is no reason why DP World can’t do the same in the US.