Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Story of Skyhound

When I started my fledgling software business back in 1990 I needed a name. I loved the name Sirius Software (a pun would be absolutely perfect for my sense of humor) but it was already being used. I wanted something unique that had "soft" in it for "software." So I started going through constellations and stars adding "soft" to them, such as LyraSoft, AltairSoft, etc., until I came across one I liked: CapellaSoft. I didn't realize at the time that for many around the world I'd in fact named my endeavor GoatSoft!

At that time the commercial Internet was just getting started and I wasn't ready as yet to have my own domain name. When the time finally came I checked for and discovered to my great dismay that it was already registered. Some guy in Phoenix had it, although he wasn't using it. No doubt he'd registered it with the idea that I'd one day buy it from him. That really ticked me off; I hated the idea of being extorted for my own name. About that time we were thinking about moving from California to New Mexico, and we made a car trip across the southwest. On the long drive I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my new web site. I knew I wanted to split it into two parts, one for the business and one for observing. But try as I might I couldn't come up with a good name for the URL. With taken I was looking for something more unique and interesting.

As we drove across southern New Mexico we passed Rock Hound State Park. I thought, if there were amateur rock hounds, why couldn't there be amateur sky hounds? When I got home I checked the domain name: was available. I also did a search on skyhound using the search engines of the day, and I got only two hits, both from Italy. Apparently there was a sci-fi comic book that had a space shuttle in it named Skyhound. But that was it. I knew I'd found my name.
Eventually it was too confusing to have CapellaSoft at, so I went ahead and changed the name of my business to match.

After I registered I realized that if I was going to coin a new word then I had the chance to define it as well. So I added this at the top of my new web page: "Skyhound -- noun: someone with a keen interest in all aspects of the sky--from visual observation to scientific curiosity."

This morning I typed Skyhound into Google. There were 13,800 hits! It's not all me though--there is a wireless internet company called Skyhound, which judging by their logo is a takeoff of skyhoundz
competition, which is about dogs catching frisbees.

I used to be able to sign up for web services and email addresses using the nickname skyhound, but now more often than not it's already taken. Although on the one hand that's a bit annoying, on the other I have to chuckle and shake my head. I wonder how much in total the guy in Phoenix paid year after year for

Monday, May 21, 2007

Progress and Frustration

It's been a couple of weeks since my last post. There's been quite a lot going on. My family has kept me very busy as the school year winds down and I've had a nasty cold. So far my progress report for this month is a mixed bag: things have been going slower than I'd like, yet I have undeniably moved forward toward that ever brightening light at the end of the tunnel.

For a while there it seemed like things were moving at a snail's pace and I was pretty frustrated. I bitterly recalled claiming here that making the chart cursor ignore objects when the shift key is depressed would take "two minutes." So I decided to time myself. Sure enough, it only took 1:45 from opening the editor to testing it successfully. But before I drew too much satisfaction, I realized that I needed to add the same code to two other charts, meaning it would in fact take three times longer than I had estimated!


I turned most my attention to the observing lists, adding a bunch of new columns. It seems like not a day goes by that I don't add a new one. In fact, I thought of a new one last night that I need to add today. This is one of those annoying things that appear as one item on my ToDo list, yet like a cosmic ray explodes into a shower of little items to be checked off. The most time consuming part isn't changing the code, it's coming up with nice-looking icons for the columns that require them. For instance, I spent a lot of time on the observing priority and observing status icons. For the status I ended up with a little Keck dome open to the night sky for objects that need observation, and a daytime shot of the dome closed for objects that have been observed. They look nice but I'm not sure I like them.

The priority icons are just awful. I hate them! So I'll have to try another approach, maybe simply going with the numbers 1, 2, and 3. I dislike wasting time on such trivialities, but in the end it's often the little details that count the most and the problem with being near the end is that you can't put them off any longer. Fortunately I like how the 5-star ratings came out.

One thing that's satisfying is making a little leap of insight. I had a customer email me some time ago with regard to the needs of imagers, and I read what he wrote but didn't really get what he meant through my sometimes rather thick skull. Fortunately while I was looking into imaging from the "what can I compute?" point of view I had a tiny epiphany: it's great to know what your chances of detecting an object tonight are, but it's even better to compare that to the best circumstances. And that applies to visual observing too. In other words, if tonight detecting M98 is "challenging" it's immensely useful to know that on another night it may in fact be "easy." So I added a new column that tells you how easy the object is to detect on a the best night for comparison. Unfortunately it takes up quite a bit of screen real estate. So I'm adding a new column with little colored-circle icons that summarizes the comparison: green means that tonight the object is at prime visibility, yellow means it is degraded somewhat, and red means wait for another night. And yes, this is pretty much what had been suggested (smacks forehead with palm).

I've also been working on the deep sky databases. It turns out that the LMC globular clusters were missing. Being an ignorant northerner, I didn't even realize there were LMC globulars! The source catalog I used was for Milky Way clusters (duh). Some are quite bright and nice, for those far enough south to observe them. I've also added the MASH planetary nebulae and updated positions and magnitudes for other planetaries. I'm currently working on the open cluster database, primarily improving positions. Fortunately the databases are going fairly quickly.

That's NGC 2210, a "new" LMC globular cluster above.

Anyhow, like I said it's a mixed bag to report: I've had to let go of the idea of starting the beta test at the beginning of June, but on the other hand things are moving along without any more major setbacks. I'm not going to try to predict anymore when It'll be ready to start testing other than to say it will be this summer for sure.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

The Problem with Loose Ends

The danger with loose ends is that sometimes you can pull one and things unravel.

So there I was early last week, happily finishing things and marking them off my list when the next thing you know I'm off on one of my parenthetical random walks. I was adding new columns to the observing lists portion of the main planning tool: one for status (observed, not yet observed, re-observe) one for setting observing priorities, and a third for 5-star object ratings. With the ratings column came a small problem. The ratings (and notes) that are displayed depend on the selection of a note group, and I hadn't placed a group selection on the dialog yet.

I dislike designing the layout of dialogs, particularly when space is at a premium, and I really hate having to do the same one more than once. So naturally I started thinking ahead to what other items might need to be worked in. This lead me to thinking about the new imaging features. I knew I'd need a toggle of some kind to switch between visual and imaging modes. What else would I need? It was an innocent thought: perhaps I should look into imaging a little bit more so I'd have a better idea what I wanted to accomplish on this dialog.

Before I knew it I was knee deep in readout noise, exposure times, and signal to noise ratios. My desk was covered with pages of algebra. And even my dreams had CCDs in them.

The point of all this was to find imaging analogs to the optimum times and detection difficulty that SkyTools uses as the basis for planning visual observation.

Visual observation is all about contrast. For the best contrast the observer requires the darkest sky possible. So the important questions for the visual observer revolve around how dark the sky is.

Imaging is all about signal to noise ratio. Imagers can cheat a bright sky with a longer exposure or by stacking many exposures. Many of the important questions for the imager still depend on how dark the sky is, but they are more subtle. The visual observer may ask, "Should I observe Sh 2-1 tonight, or wait for a better night or darker location?" while the imager asks, "If I observe Sh 2-1 tonight, how much more time and effort would it take compared to a darker night or location?" Therefore my job to support imaging is to quantify "time and effort" in the observing list. Optimum times also mean less: more important is the observing window and its duration.

I also realized along the way that my new ability to model the sky brightness can be folded into a useful tool for calculating exposure times.

Anyhow, it's back to loose ends again. But I'm really happy about my diversion into imaging this past week: the new imaging features were very hazy and unclear, and now they are beginning to come more sharply into focus. I can't wait to make it become a reality!