A blog named for the muse of Astronomy containing musings by an astronomer

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Stealth Upgrade Fees: How to treat your customers like feces… AND how to fix it! 0

Posted on December 07, 2010 by Juan

[Added 4:45 pm on December 7, 2010: In the giving credit where credit is due category, Jonathan Monroe of Actual Technologies responded to my complaint (in the comments to this blog post) and has done a very nice thing, crediting me my upgrade fee.  I fully understand this is no small action for what I suspect is a smallish developer with reasonably small margins.  While I didn’t like how I felt extorted, Mr. Monroe does seem to be interested in fixing the problem.  So as you read this, be aware there was in fact a happy ending…]

One of the pieces of software I use a lot is database software, specifically MySQL.  Much of my research involves manipulating large amounts of data and using a free product like MySQL just made a lot of sense to me.

To get that data to easily move into Microsoft Excel, I have used Actual Technologies ODBC Driver for Open Source.  This awesome product worked beautifully for allowing me to move data from MySQL to Excel.  Until today…

Recently my university upgraded my Microsoft Office to version 2011.  I am not sure if the problem lies in Office 2011 or in Actual’s drivers, but Excel couldn’t see the driver.  I could open the ODBC Manager software and see the Actual drivers were installed and I had a valid license:

Open Source Database DSN Configuration
I could even see the serial number and confirm it was OK:

License Key

However Excel insisted it wasn’t installed.  Faced with this problem, I went ahead and downloaded the software again, figuring I might just need to reinstall it to get Excel to see it.  So I downloaded the new version of the driver and installed it.  Notice the installer claimed it was upgrading my drivers:
Install Actual ODBC Driver Pack
I then launched Excel and it did see my MySQL database success!!!!  Oh wait, why am I only getting 3 lines of data back for my query….  Opening the ODBC manager my worst fears are confirmed, my old license key is no longer valid!

Actual Open Source Databases DSN Configuration

I am able to confirm my old license number is in there…  the driver just claims it is “not valid for the current version of the driver”.  I try to erase the number thinking that maybe the driver just got confused and I got this error:

ODBC Manager

This acknowledgement that I had a previously valid license key that they are now rejecting strongly suggests they didn’t do this by accident. Actual technologies simply declared my old license number invalid.  Now I am rather upset.

An installer program should NEVER simply upgrade a user if the new software is going to declare their old serial number invalid.  That is just rude and frankly smacks of extortion.

After waiting a few hours for a response, I got one. I had a license key for the old version, NOT the new version. They did send me instructions for downgrading. In that sense, they are doing a good job, and in fact, the upgrade price is reasonable and I will probably pay for the upgrade, but I replied with the following message to Jonathan Monroe of Actual Technologies:

Mr. Monroe,

First of all, thank you for your response. I appreciate it. I especially appreciate that you provided instructions for downgrading the driver. I will in fact probably purchase the upgrade, the price is reasonable.

That said, I do need to chastise Actual Technology a bit. I am currently working on a blog post about this, but in a nutshell, it is rude in the extreme to upgrade a user without warning them that such an upgrade requires a new license key. This action left me without a functional installation of ODBC drivers for hours, right when I needed them. Please consider placing a warning message in large print telling users how this will happen or changing your software to recognize formerly valid licenses as ‘temporary licenses’ so a user can contact you to get things resolved.



As I noted above, Mr. Monroe in fact has done a gracious thing and refunded me my upgrade fee as well as made the suggestion they will be looking into remedying this problem.  Fixing the problem always makes the customer happy… thanks Mr. Monroe and Actual Technologies.

June Storms 0

Posted on June 15, 2008 by Juan

We had a set of hard storms come through yesterday afternoon. I was doing SkyWarn spotting with the local hams. I think (but will leave it to experts to confirm) that the structure under the smooth part of the storm (“the shelf) is a wall cloud. For a sense of scale, this is 8 photos stitched together covering above a fifth of my horizon and the leading edge of this storm when it was about five miles away.. Shortly after I shot this picture, the sirens went off. Rotation was spotted, but luckily, no funnel cloud touched down. Thankfully, while the storm blew through at 60 miles per hour, we had no significant damage… Still, it looked mean…

June 14, 2008 Storm

Addendum: I sent the picture to Greg Gust, who runs some of the SkyWarn stuff for the National Weather Service in Grand Forks. He sent me these additional comments:

Most of the structure is a classic shelf cloud on the leading edge of a line of thunderstorms… this the widespread strong to severe winds as it came through. One the south end was the feature that we believe was a wall cloud… rotating updraft… and was what prompted us to issue the Tornado Warning across the southern part of Fargo and Moorhead.

[Added August 9,2008] It appears at least two people saw this wall cloud and posted videos on YouTube. I have embedded them below.

This first video is from “bluemanhal” and contains some audio. Notice how far he has to pan the camera to see this. My photo was a panorama about 150 degrees, which loses its perspective in the image:

This second video is from “cpilotkid” and appears to have been shot from the West Acres Mall parking lot, but again notice how far he has to pan to get the entire wall cloud:

Warning About Doing Poorly in Astronomy Class 0

Posted on April 28, 2008 by Juan

This was posted on my friend John Martin’s blog. He is an astronomer and an educator, like myself. As finals roll around and students realize that slacking off in the class is going to have consequences, they get… creative. Here is John’s post:

This warning should be posted under my class in the course offering directory:

WARNING The Astronomy-Physics program has determined that doing poorly in Astronomy 101 may have deleterious impact beyond your GPA. Students failing Astronomy 101 report a higher incidence of: deaths of grandparents, close relatives who discover they have cancer, chronic personal health problems, influenza outbreak, computer hardware failure, traffic accidents, complete melt down of their university email account, death of beloved pets, and inability to find adequate child-care services. A high degree of correlation has been observed, however the cause-effect relationship is still under study. Students should be advised to enroll in this course and take it lightly at their own risk.

[From Warning About Doing Poorly in Astronomy Class]

A Foxy Telescope 0

Posted on April 14, 2008 by Juan

During our observing run at CTIO, Dr. Roberta Humphreys lamented apparent disappearance of a pack of foxes that liked to hang around the observatory. The cooks, who had traditionally tossed out some scraps to the foxes, stopped doing it. Apparently, there was a concern that the foxes were becoming overly dependent on the hand outs. On my last morning at CTIO, I got to see one of the foxes and snapped a few pictures.

CTIO Fox in front of Blanco 4-meter

Above Photo is the fox with the Blanco 4-meter telescope in the background.

CIMG2266 CIMG2267

The Above Photos show the first first nibbling on something than turning around, apparently looking at the small telescopes on the Cerro Tololo summit.

Funny thing is as I was dumping the pictures from my camera, Roberta knocked on my door, and I opened it, just in time to see one of the foxes run behind Roberta in my field a view. I pointed it out to her and she was happy the foxes were not completely gone.

Last night of the Observing Run 0

Posted on April 11, 2008 by Juan

Well, after a bit of a bumpy start, this observing run has gone reasonably well. We think we will be able to get the spectra don of several hundred stars, some over 150,000 times fainter than the human eye (in dark skies) can see. We managed to do this in all of our planned fields except one, which we had to drop after the attack of the telescope gremlins mentioned in a previous post.  After that first tramautic night, this has actually become a rather “routine” affair, as we spend 50 minutes at a time on one field, then have to scramble to shoot some calibrations or re-configure the fibers on the spectrograph.

It will take us a good chunk of the summer to know what the results of this run actually are, such is the nature of astronomical data, but all in all, this feels like it has been a very productive run. In addition to the “science objectives” of this trip,  I have seen some of the darkest skies imaginable.  Since my interest in astronomy started by my attempts as a 6 to 7 year old to understand our place in the vastness of that sky, it has also been somewhat fulfilling to the soul to see the Universe in this way, the way humans saw it before the advent of artificial lighting.  Call this Chicken Soup for the Astronomer’s Soul.

That said, I am now ready to go back home to my family who I miss and my students whom I have to guide to finals. Just a few more hours, another short 5 hours of sleep, than I take the carryall to La Serena. Dr. Humphreys, my collaborator, will give a talk there tomorrow afternoon. We’ll do dinner afterward, and then tomorrow, I start the 24 hours of flights and connections it will take to get me home.

CTIO All-Sky Camera Goodness 0

Posted on April 10, 2008 by Juan

One of the neat internal websites you are seeing more and more of at observatories is the use of all-sky cameras to monitor cloud cover. You spend your time in a windowless control room (so as not to let light out) so sometimes you completely miss changes in weather. I downloaded the last roughly 10 hours of video from the all-sky camera here at CTIO and am posting a Flash movie version of it. It starts off with the crescent moon setting (which is bright enough to overwhelm the camera). Then you see the center of the Milky Way galaxy rising in the East, eventually getting very high in the sky.

Since each exposure is 10 seconds, in some frames you see ‘lines’ appear, these are typically airplanes or possibly satellites.

The bright “star” to the East (left) of the Galactic Center in the last few frames is the planet Jupiter. Also in the last few frames you start seeing a glow in the eastern sky, almost pointing toward Jupiter. This is the Zodiacal light, sunlight reflecting off dust particles in the plane of the solar system. You need quite dark skies to see that.

Get the Flash Player to see the wordTube Media Player.

Its dark here at Cerro Tololo 0

Posted on April 08, 2008 by Juan

My last observing run at Cerro Tololo, we were observing in “grey” time, when the moon was between 3rd quarter and full. So the dark sky only lasted a few hours. Now we are here during dark time, the days around new moon. Cerro Tololo is a nice, very dark site… perfect for astronomy. There is a bit of light pollution from La Serena and Coquimbo in the east and Vicuña in the north, but the sky is very dark, especially without the moon up. A large part of what makes this site so important to optical astronomy is this darkness, which is a rare commodity in the modern electric light-filled world.02221x.jpg

I realize how dark the skies are here every time I go outside now. The Center of the Milky Way is passing overhead and it just screams out at you to be noticed. You can see it clearly on the right side of this picture, shot by Roger Smith of NOAO/AURA/NSF. It shows the 4-meter at Cerro Tololo shot at night. This is what the skies look like here. Admittedly this picture goes a bit deeper than human vision, but I would swear it isn’t much deeper. At home, we can’t see the Milky Way easily, even 15 miles from town, because of the light pollution and the fact that the Galactic Center is very far south. Here, you can’t avoid it! The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two irregular galaxies orbiting the Milky Way, are clearly visible to the human eye (they are on the right side of this picture).

And just a few minutes ago I saw something I have never seen before, Zodiacal Light. I am seeing sunlight reflecting off dust grains in the plane of the Solar System. Something only possible because of these extremely dark skies. Cool!

Telescope Gremlins and more pictures form CTIO 1

Posted on April 07, 2008 by Juan

Last night was quite a misadventure for us. First, we lost the autoguiding computer that keeps the telescope pointed at its target. The able engineers here tackled it for over 2 hours, we finally decided to guide by hand… tedious, but possible. Then the fiber controller on our multifiber spectrograph flaked out. Another 3 hours lost in attempts to remedy that. In a 10 hour night, we only had about 4 hours on sources. Oh, and in the last hour or so, something I hadn’t seen at CTIO during my last run happen, high cirrus clouds came in. Blech.

Tonight is starting off better. The clouds dispersed (mostly). The autoguider is working. And while we lost about 45 minutes to fiber issues, it looks like those may be vanquished as well. Hopefully the telescope gremlins that were working against us last night will be gone tonight. We are on our first 50 minute exposure, so I am going to bang out this post quickly.

Here’s some more pictures I have taken around here during the few hours of daytime I have been awake.

This is the telescope we are using, the 4-meter Blanco telescope on Cerro Tololo. This is a stitched image composed of 6 single frames. Because I was relatively close to the telescope, there is a distortion here similar to a fisheye lens image. To get a sense of scale, notice the double doors to the lower right hand side of the telescope itself.


This is an image of the other telescopes on the peak of Cerro Tololo shot from the catwalk around the 4-meter. From left to right the larger domes contain the 60-inch (1.5 meter), 36-inch (0.9 meter), the Yale 1-meter (which I used in April 2006), and the Michigan Schmidt Telescope. There are a few smaller telescopes in the background. About 50 miles behind the telescopes is the La Silla observatory (not visible in this picture).


There were some clouds here earlier today. This is the view from the peak of Cerro Tololo towards Cerro Pachon, which the rightmost mountain in this image. On its peak you can see (as small dots in the thumbnail) the SOAR telescope on the left and the large Gemini South 8-meter telescope on the right. I love the clouds in the background rolling over clouds, towards Argentina.


This is another 180 degree panorama shot from a bit up the hill from the dormitories. It shows Cerro Tololo on the right and on the left, appearing more distant than it really is, Cerro Pachon. If you squint, you might see the Gemini South 8-meter in this image.


Finally, another 180 degree panorama of the western horizon as seen from my dorm room right around sunset tonight. Those pink clouds, illuminated by the setting sun, are over Argentina. They form over those mountains to the west of us, Cerro Tololo rarely sees puffy clouds like those, it rarely sees clouds (except in the winter), and when it does see clouds, they are high cirrus as shown in the picture above.

Another CTIO Panorama focusing on the Domes 0

Posted on April 06, 2008 by Juan

Another “panorama” of CTIO, this time a set of 6 photos covering about 75-90 degrees of my field of view of the dome-covered peak of Cerro Tololo as seen from the parking lot near the dormitories. I am using the Blanco 4-meter which is in the far left (largest) dome.

Panorama view of the Peak of CTIO

Panorama near CTIO Peak 0

Posted on April 06, 2008 by Juan

It was beautiful outside when I arrived yesterday, so using my cruddy little Casio Exilim camera, I shot 16 pictures of the view from outside to dormitories near the peak of CTIO. Here’s the panoramic image I stitched together from those 16 images. It’s not nearly as impressive as the real view. It covers about 180 degrees of the horizon. Click on the images for the largee versions.

Panorama of CTIO

Here’s a version of the image with some of the features/telescopes labeled (yes, I misspelled dormitories in the image, its not worth fixing it right now).


The Difference between “Cooking” Data and Purging Bad Data 0

Posted on March 06, 2008 by Juan

There is a great article online at Scientific American’s website investigating the claim that Arthur Eddington and Frank Dyson might have “cooked” the data from their solar eclipse observations in 1919 in a way that supported Einstein’s (then new) General Theory of Relativity:

On May 29, 1919, two British expeditions, positioned on opposite sides of the planet, aimed telescopes at the sun during a total eclipse. Their mission: to test a radical theory of gravity dreamed up by a former patent clerk, who predicted that passing starlight should bend toward the sun. Their results, announced that November, vaulted Albert Einstein into the public consciousness and confirmed one of the most spectacular experimental successes in the history of science.

In recent decades, however, some science historians have argued that astronomer Sir Arthur Eddington, the junior member of the 1919 expedition, believed so strongly in Einstein’s theory of general relativity that he discounted data that clashed with it. [From Fact or Fiction: Did Researchers Cook Data from the First Test of General Relativity?]

The nice thing is this article illustrates one of the less well-appreciated challenges facing the functional scientist: distinguishing between bad data and data that conflicts with your theoretical expectations. Bad data, like other things in life, just happens. And when it happens, it can be a pain to deal with. How do you know when the data is “bad” (that is, the result of a problem at the telescope or a glitch in your software) versus when the data simply conflicts with your theory? In one case, getting rid of the data makes sense. However, being over-eager to reject conflicting data may make you reject a completely compatible alternative interpretation to your observation. Furthermore, if your data seem to support a controversial theory, you should be fairly confident your results are not the result of “bad” data. As Carl Sagan said in Cosmos , “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” You have to be pretty confident you haven’t made a mistake if your data strays far from what you expect. Knowing the difference between “bad” data and data that supports a different theory the human part of the science I try to teach my students about. It is also the reason peer-review is such an incredibly important part of the scientific process.

By the way, the verdict of the article’s author is that Eddington and Dyson did the right thing. It turns out it was actually Dyson, who was initially inclined against Einstein’s theory, who made the decision to toss the bad data out. The final results when published[1] supported Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which still stands as the most well-supported model for gravitation to this day.


  1. A Determination of the Deflection of Light by the Sun’s Gravitational Field, from Observations Made at the Total Eclipse of May 29, 1919 – Dyson, F. W.; Eddington, A. S.; Davidson, C. 1920, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series A, 220, 291

Sign this Petition to Encourage a Presidential Science Debate 0

Posted on February 15, 2008 by Juan
We live in a strange era where some presidential candidates brag about their complete absence of knowledge of science but yet admit science plays such a gigantic role in the possible improvement (or destruction) of society. Given this election climate, the Union of Concerned Scientists is asking the presidential candidates to participate in a debate focused solely on the role of science-related policy in their proposed administrations. And they want them to do it before the presidential primaries in Pennsylvania. The full text of the petition says:
Dear presidential candidate,
Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy. We would like to hear how, as president, you plan to defend science from political interference, and how you plan to use science to inform your policies. We call on you to participate in Science Debate 2008 in Philadelphia on April 18. If you want to sign it, it’s too late… address removed (May 25, 2012 edit).
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