Sunday, March 27, 2016

(Historic) Eruptive Action at Puʻu Huluhulu

Last week some friends from work and I went for a hike up on Mauna Kea near the Visitor Information Station. On our way down we stopped at Puʻu Huluhulu (which I've written about before) for a short hike since one of my friends hadn't been there before.

I wasn't originally planning to take any pictures, but as we were rounding the western end I was struck by something I hadn't noticed before. Move your mouse over the picture below to see it highlighted! (Which effect, incidentally, is a new trick I worked out just for this post. Mobile users, I'm not sure how mouseover effects are emulated, I'm afraid…try long-pressing on the image, perhaps?)

Western end of Puʻu Huluhulu, just off Saddle Road.

What I noticed, which can be seen better in the close up images below, is that at both sides on this end of the hill are pieces of flat rock sticking upwards at an angle. Given how they flank an eruptive cinder cone, I'm drawn to the conclusion that these are pieces of the overlying lava flow through which Puʻu Huluhulu erupted. (I keep wanting to call them the “crust” since they're both pretty thin—a few inches thick at most, especially the one on the right.) Presumably the rock connecting them was pulverized or ejected in the eruption of Puʻu Huluhulu and these pieces were far enough from the center to remain where they ended up.

Close-ups of the two bits of up-thrust crust.

Two miscellaneous comments on the first photo:
  1. That sky is surprisingly blue. We actually came down from Mauna Kea a little early because the weather was threatening rain, and there were a lot of patchy clouds and patches of fog on the way down. The wind was blowing pretty hard, and there were a lot of tiny water droplets in the air, so it surprises me there's that much blue sky to be seen.
  2. That picture also happens to be a (cropped) panorama I took with my phone. As someone who's put together a fair few panoramas by hand I remember being a bit disappointed in my previous attempts to use the auto-panorama feature in my camera software. I only took this one as something of an experiment, but perhaps the camera software was updated when my phone upgraded to Android 5.1 or something, because I'm actually pretty impressed with the result (I even have a slightly-differently cropped version as my desktop background right now). I'm looking forward to using this more in the future; as should be apparent from this blog I love panoramas, but putting them together is a bit time-consuming so hopefully this'll allow me to take more of them in the future.
Anyway, I thought this was kind of interesting as I didn't notice those bits of crust the last time I was there. A hui hou!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Looking Back, Moving On

Well, in the two weeks since my last post I've been coming to terms with my coming unemployment, and doing a lot of thinking about where to take my life from here. I don't have anything definite to report yet, but I think I'm finally ready to start looking around.

I went to a seminar at Subaru last Monday that was very helpful in this regard. The seminar was on Data Visualization, by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, and in the process of watching incredible visualizations of hundreds of thousands of galaxies and learning about how correct color map choice can dramatically increase the chances of a doctor noticing problems with your arteries, I came to a realization: I really enjoy data visualization.

During the talk I found myself thinking about how the times I'd had the most fun at my job working for the JAC and EAO were when I was designing systems and writing scripts to visualize data. Looking back even further, I've always loved seeing things like artists' impressions of exotic astronomical systems, and when I first discovered graphics programs like Inkscape, the GIMP, and Blender, one of the purposes I put them towards after figuring out how to use them was making my own such artist's impressions. (Some of my astronomy-related artwork on this blog can be seen here.) I'm a very visual person, and love figuring out new ways to make abstract concepts and abstruse ideas more comprehensible.

In fact, speaking of systems for visualizing data, I'm reminded that I never did introduce the project that occupied the majority of my time at work last year, the SCUBA-2 Calibration Database. This is a webpage linked from the EAO website that allows access to a database containing information on every calibration for SCUBA-2, the JCMT's powerful sub-millimeter continuum camera. You can search dates, date ranges, or pick a semester and project code to get a list of all calibrations taken on nights that project took data. You can filter by specific calibrators if you want, and when the results have been returned there are download links that will take you to the Canadian Advanced Data Centre where you can download all raw and reduced files associated with an observation.

Of course, the best part in my opinion is the option to graph the results you get. You have to enable the option, but doing so will let you graph anything from a single night's worth of observations to every single calibration ever taken with SCUBA-2. I had a lot of fun learning how to get a dynamically created image served up on command and writing the graphing script to get an interesting and useful image out. I've been adding some new features I always wanted to get around to in to my development version recently, so there will also be some new stuff released in the next two weeks.

(If you're wondering what these “Arcsec” and “Peak” FCFs you can plot are, FCF stands for Flux Calibration Factor, and they're essentially the ratio of a particular number to what that number would be if there were no pesky atmosphere getting in the way and attenuating the energy received from it. Put simply, Peak FCFs deal with the maximum brightness of an object and are very sensitive to proper focus of the telescope, while Arcsecond FCFs deal with the total energy received and thus should be more resistant to small changes in focus. Being out of focus moves the energy around in the image, but you have to be really out of focus for it to move outside the area being measured. The gray horizontal bar across the graph represents the range the FCFs should generally be in; as you can see, there are plenty of times this is not the case, and there a whole host of reasons why this is not the case ranging from dish deformation due to residual heat at the start of the night to long-term drifts in the Water Vapor Meter that estimates the transparency of the astmosphere.)

Anyway, that's how things have been going for me. I'm looking to start getting back into graphic design a bit after being introduced by a coworker to the work of a friend of his dealing with using Blender for scientific data visualization, so who knows, I might have some new projects to show here in the near future. We'll see! A hui hou!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Automating Yourself Out of a Job

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope running under East Asian Observatory management. Going to work this morning, I can definitively state that being unemployed was not on my mind, yet that's the situation I find myself facing this evening after going over my end-of-probation report with my boss.

And it's not even as if I did anything bad or poorly, either. If anything, I did too well. The job I was originally hired for, three years ago, was as a Data Quality Assistant, meant to handle simple but time-consuming tasks that my boss didn't have the time for but needed done. I've steadily worked to automate and reduce the amount of time spent manually doing the recurring parts, to the point where I'm not really doing that particular job anymore, or at least for no more than a tiny fraction of my time each week. I've automated it so effectively that there isn't really a need for that position anymore, and with the telescope facing a budget shortfall this year and the only positions left to fill requiring people with skillsets I don't have, it was a simple business decision from the top to cut costs. (Just to be clear, I'm not being replaced or anything; my position simply won't exist after this month due to there being no need for it.)

At this point I'm torn between conflicting thoughts, between pride that I did such a good job automating stuff with no formal computer science education, and the sad realization that that still puts me out of a job. It's such a terrible feeling, too; if I'd been fired for being lazy, or embezzling money or something it'd feel like a justifiable consequence, but being let go for doing your job too well flips around into a sort of cruel irony. This isn't the kind of reward for hard work I was always taught to expect! It feels like a major disincentive to working hard in the future, if that's a potential outcome.

As for what comes next? I don't know. I'm still employed through the end of the month so there'll be a lot of cleaning up code loose ends and passing things on to people. Then after that? We'll see, I guess. I'm still kind of in shock.