Archive for the ‘STScI’ category

Science vs Consumer Detectors: Thank you, Mary.

August 4, 2009

I have been trying to figure out recently why people don’t understand what IR detector data looks like, given that we have examples and studies and in a few cases specifications of what we’ll get from JWST, and examples and analysis of NICMOS, Spitzer and some Keck data.  My wife explained it to me, and then I looked at the numbers.  She’s right, and I wanted to publicly thank her.

We have some simulated data, a cutout of which is shown here, that gives you the general idea of what the data will look like if it’s pretty good.  Jay Anderson (STScI) did this simulation.

Simulated NIRCam Data with 1% bad pixels

Simulated NIRCam Data with 1% bad pixels

That picture is 1 percent bad pixels, which is pretty good.  For the roughly 4 megapixel NIRCam, you’d expect to get 40,000 bad pixels, before you add any cosmic rays.  That means one in every hundred pixels is a bad one.  It could be one in 50.  And still, that’s pretty good.


Macs take over astronomy

March 11, 2008

Okay, maybe not all of astronomy, but I got these numbers yesterday from the people who handle HST proposal submissions:

Platform     Proposals
Mac OS X        492
Linux           297
Windows         115
Sparc Sun        46
Not Given        11

Five years ago, less than ten percent of proposals were done on Macs. This year it’s more than half.

Of course, the more interesting numbers would be the percentage on each operating system for accepted proposals, but we won’t know who is accepted until the end of May.

(Put another way, what I’d like to know is whether the platform used for submission predicts, even weakly, proposal acceptance, and whether the proportion of platforms for accepted proposals predicts future submission platforms.)

Is Junk E-mail Impeding Postal Mail?

June 17, 2007

I get 200-300 email messages a day in my three accounts, about two-thirds of them in my STScI (work) account.

On a recent day, the Institute junk mail filters caught just 21 messages, one of which was a false-positive. 39 other obvious spam, including several with a charming oversize image of a flayed penis, were not caught. Since the filters catch only a quarter to a third of my spam, and flags things that I thought were on my allowed senders list, I have to check them all.

The false positive is a puzzle: Bruce Schneier’s Crypto-Gram. *.SCHNEIER.COM was on my whitelist, but it seems Bruce switched the return address from MAIL.SCHNEIER.COM to simply SCHNEIER.COM at some point. Still, the message is long, but is all text with some embedded URLs. I don’t know why it’s marked as spam. I get a very similar daily summary from Northrop-Grumman of new JWST documents, but has not (yet) been flagged as spam.

The effect, though, is that I have to scan the envelope information of all the spam messages, 60 to 80 a day, looking for false-positives. That’s almost half of my STScI mail, due to the combination of poor rules and a clunky, unreliable whitelist interface. Gmail is a completely different experience, with less total spam, and very rarely do I get a false positive. Better yet, telling Gmail that it guessed wrong (either way) is quick and easy.

What I find interesting is that I use the same technique for junk postal mail. I get 5 to 10 pieces of mail per day about 75% of it junk mail. I scan the envelopes, looking for obvious ads, but also for credit card, refinancing, and home equity loan offers. I discard (shred, actually) most envelopes without opening them. It would only be slightly more efficient to shred them directly into a recycle bin at the mailbox.

But I also get false positives. My mortgage company needed my signature on some paperwork to clarify the agency relationship for tax purposes. From my perspective, the envelope information on the tax-related documents looked the same as the envelope information for the refinance-offer-of-the-month. So I shredded it. Twice.

The first bit of good news is that I get very little porn (or near-porn, “male enhancement”) junk paper mail.

The second bit of good news is that there are things we can do (but don’t) to improve email filtering, like domain keys, authenticated from addresses, and improved blacklist and whitelist user interfaces. We don’t do those things, but we could.

I wonder if the overwhelming load of crap in electronic mail is causing me to look differently at paper mail, or if the overwhelming success of electronic direct mail advertising has increased the volume and sophistication of paper-based direct mail ads. Is my experience unusual? Have others thrown away non-junk paper mail because they are simply tired of plowing through junk mail?

Or is this just the reverse of the Al Gore thinking model: New ways of thinking about old technologies. That, at least, would be amusing.


Tim Wise followup: Implicit Preference?

June 15, 2007

Harvard University has a series of tests of implicit assumptions people make, under the aegis of Project Implicit.

I took a couple of the demo tests, the African American – European American IAT and the Gender – Science IAT. According to the tests, I have a slight automatic preference for black people over white people, and moderate association of male with science and female with liberal arts.

If you register and follow the link to the research side of the project, you get different tests. One of the ones I took was whether I have a preference for “lucky” people. For example, one guy got run over by a bus, while another won a car in a raffle. It turns out I have no preference.

I am occasionally amazed at how preferences develop, and how our unconscious, or at least unacknowledged, preferences affect the decisions we make and the assumptions we act on.

Upper middle class PTA leaders assume that the people around them grew up the same way they did, and it never occurs to them that one of their number grew up poor. We get something of a break on the religious issue, because there are enough Muslims, Jews and Bhuddists to avoid the automatic assumption that everyone is Christian, but they were shocked to find a Wiccan. (Atheists don’t even surprise even the most Christian among them.) They assume that, because they want to “protect” their daughter from information about sexuality so that she’ll wait until marriage, that I want the same thing, and am trying to provide the same “protection.” In fact, the most shocking thing I think I’ve ever said to another parent was that I hoped my daughter would learn a lot about sex, so that she could make her own choices. I hope she’ll wait until she’s old enough to know her own mind, but I would be surprised and concerned if she committed to a marriage with no experience at all. From the look on that mom’s face, you’d have thought I was pimping my daughter.

People do have preferences about who they like being around. We build “tribes” around common interests, both online and offline. I value diversity, and I also value shared goals and aspirations. Building those communities based on expressed preferences is healthy. Picking your associates based on your assumptions, particularly assumptions about skin color and gender isn’t tribalism, it’s racism and sexism.

I’m fortunate to have grown up in a racially mixed environment, and to have been exposed to both poverty and wealth. While I could have made different choices and gotten a better technical education, I think having a liberal arts background has made me a wider person.

So to torture the metaphor at the end of Tim Wise’s talk, I recognize the stinking pot of two-day-old gumbo, and I’m willing to help clean up. The problem is, I don’t think I know how to clean it. I’m inclined to throw it out, but I fear replacing the pot would be expensive, and dangerous.

So, watch the talk, and think about the problem. If you have ideas for how to clean the pot, I’d like to hear them.

Looking for Help on FOS

June 14, 2007

We are looking for help for the Flight Operations Subsystem team.

The position is posted internally now, but will be external any time. The ideal person would have experience with control center systems, ideally building one, and be experienced in working with developer, astronomer and system engineering communities here and at Goddard. This is work that Carl Biagetti is leading, and Carey Myers is starting to work on.

To quote me:

The JWST Flight Operations Subsystem Engineer will be responsible for refining the FOS operations concept, defining systems requirements, interfaces and architecture as well as supporting the development of FOS elements and their integration with the JWST Science and Operations Center. The FOS Systems Engineer will work under the direction of the STScI FOS Systems Engineering Lead as a member of a concurrent engineering team responsible for the FOS Ground System. This position will require interaction with JWST science, operations and development staff, the JWST NASA GSFC project, JWST contractors and representatives of other missions to achieve the work objectives.

Knowledge of the state of the art in satellite control center systems is required. This includes experience with the following: one or more NASA GSFC developed systems such as TPOCC, ITOS, ASSIST, HST CCS; one or more commercial systems such as EPOCH, ECLIPSE or OS/COMET; ground station and communications satellite interfaces; satellite command procedures languages; satellite control center operations procedures.

If you are somebody like that, or know somebody like that, I want to talk to you, even if you aren’t interested in doing this kind of work yourself. (For one thing, I can use help on the interview team!)

This is new stuff for us, so it’s a challenging, exciting opportunity.


It’s not what the software does, it’s what the user does.

May 30, 2007

hugh macleod at Gaping Void does these great little cartoons, “drawn on the back of business cards.”   First, that’s a cool idea.  It’s a great size, and it lets you express just one idea in a little tiny format with which people are familiar.

This cartoon in particular says something very insightful, both about PowerPoint and about software in general.  I agree with the sentiment, though I have a quibble.

The problem Tufte and others point out is not that PowerPoint is abused, it is that the particular cognitive style of PowerPoint encourages lazy thinking, and poor communication.

When we’re building software, in my view, we should be concerned about the correctness of algorithms, using appropriate design patterns, and building designs that are sustainable and maintainable.  It is also essential that we build systems that users readily understand, and that encourage users to build correct results.

Because technology matters, but people matter most.


Single signon, but not what you wanted.

May 30, 2007

I previously discussed user-level security. This morning, I ran across this story about system administrators, and how they manage security.

It seems that system administrators are pretty careless with root-level security, and that the key to getting root may be finding the right Post-It notes. I keep the root passwords for all my systems (and a few passphrases for rarely-used encrypted volumes) on paper, but the paper is in my home safe. In fairness, I should add that they are in the safe not for security reasons, but to protect against fire.

I believe that the Institute uses a single password for all the Windows systems admin accounts. (Because I’ve seen sysadmin’s go looking for the password, which at least does get changed occasionally.) I’ll let you google methods for recovering passwords from a laptop you’ve managed to capture, and point out what this means: Once you have admin access to one Institute Windows system, you have them all. I don’t know for sure that the Macs use the same scheme, but I bet they do. I’ll be they have (one) different password, though.

Carl and I touched on this in a discussion yesterday: We rather doubt that the Institute has a current, accurate list of the computing assets we own, and that we permit to have access to our domain. In addition to being a problem from the standpoint of property management and effective use of resources, this is also a security problem.

Addressing this requires devoting time and attention, and people to work on it, all of which are in somewhat short supply right now. Hopefully it won’t take an actual catastrophe to up the priority.


Notes from the All-Hands with SMD Director Stern.

May 16, 2007

So, here are my usual almost stream-of-consciousness notes from today’s All-Hands meeting. There was about ten minutes of introduction and presentation, followed by an extended Q&A.

The Director introduced Alan Stern. Dr. Alan Stern is the new Associate Administrator of the Science Mission Directorate. He has been in that new role for about six weeks. He and his staff know there are problems in SMD, but are not yet entirely sure what to do yet. They are here today, at the home of a major SMD mission, in data collection mode.

Dr. Stern made some opening remarks about SMD and his experience so far since he was asked by (NASA Administrator) Mike Griffin to take on this role. He knows there are problems, and he can’t get things fixed in six or sixteen weeks, but will get them fixed in 60 weeks. He introduced the head of Astrophysics Division, the senior advisor for Research and Analysis (R&A), and the deputy chief scientist for Space Science.

Dr. Stern said that he believes we need higher mission flight rates.   He thinks the current R&A process is broken. The first word in SMD is Science.  Rather than do 1.5 MIDEX missions two years from now, he wants to do three SMEX in January ’09.  His focus is on science, and getting a balance in science missions between the big observatories.


Ian Jordan: Regarding the NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts:  This year the funding was zeroed.  Can SMD reverse that?

NASA lives on the budget it has. Demands on programs got worse because we’re on a Continuing Resolution rather than the President’s budget request. If we restored NAIC it would come out of SMD funding.  But we will look at it.

Q: Who pays for developing infrastructure for future mission? SMD shouldn’t have to develop all the infrastructure.  (Not clear to me which infrastructure the questioner was asking about.)

A: SMD’s focus is on advancing the priorities of the four decadal surveys.  We doesn’t pay for rocket engines.  SMD does pay for instrumentation, but might share some of that cost with other Divisions.  SMD does pay for some optics R&D, and for prototypes, etc that might support missions.  SMD may want to put some funding interfaces between launchers and applications, for example. They are still trying to find the balance between future missions and stuff currently in the roadmap.

Followup: Can SMD apply influence on the design of launchers, etc, that would enable or reduce the cost of doing future missions?

A: The are having those discussions, including with Exploration directorate.  The discussions go beyond “hallway conversations.”  Stern noted that Aries 5 could launch JWST-sized mission as a monolithic mirror.

Andy Fruchter: The current SMEX call for proposals specified that PIs be previous PIs/deputies. Isn’t that a bad idea, both in terms of new ideas and new people?

A: The goal of that restriction is to control cost.   The main problem in SMD budgets is increasing costs as missions overrun their budget targets.  If you extrapolate his first six weeks of budget overruns, SMD missions are over by a billion dollars a year, which is not sustainable.   We have to get control of mission costs or there is no future for science missions.   Leading a half-billion dollar mission is not an entry level position.  People need to get some experience before they lead a space mission, but they can get that experience on balloons or sounding rockets.    We also need to apply the same discipline to center-led missions.

Q: What’s the highest priority for R&A?

A: Get the money out faster.  Triage notifications, looking for financial bottlenecks, trying to fix the funding process.  May increase the length of grants, do similar things to reduce grant-writing and let people focus on science. (The Triage discussion was interesting: After the first review about 85% of proposals are clearly going forward, or are clearly not going forward.  Only 15% need more evaluation or review.  So 85% of proposers can get the notification that they either are or are not getting funded, so they can make hiring decisions, move on other proposals, etc.)

Q: What are the chances of starting up a big mission in the next few years if there’s a good science case?

A: Low.  We have a flagship mission (JWST) and the next decadal survey priority is Con-X, and some technology development. We can ask “what comes after Con-X” but from a budget standpoint, there is no room to do anything before those two missions are flying.  SMD will focus on getting SMEX and MIDEX advanced so that there is balance between large and small missions.

Q: What about SM-4?

A: We’re going to fly SM-4. SM-4 has some special risks, but Griffin is willing to accept the risk.  Issues are still being worked: ACS repair puts a lot of load on the mission.  The main focus of the mission has to be restoring the observatory (gyros, batteries, NOBL) and install two new instruments.  If that means neither ACS or STIS can be repaired, that’s preferable to having both repaired, but not getting the best possible situation for the observatory.

Any slip in shuttle launches costs astrophysics division 11 million dollars a month.  SM-4 is a big load on the shuttle system, because it delays Kibo and ties up an extra shuttle for a possible rescue mission.  SMD has been thinking about ways to coordinate with or support the Shuttle program.   For example, one reason for using a Shuttle on its last flight is that it avoids having to do the processing to put the space station airlock back in after the flight.   But if the cost of doing that airlock changeout is $20 million and it gets SM-4 a launch two months earlier, why not pay for it with SMD money?  There were some other examples as well.  Stern is very concerned about delays that might cause problems with the observatory:  The longer we wait, the more chance there is of a battery or gyro or other observatory problem.

Massimo Roberto: Is SMD thinking about conserving their budget  by collaboration with international partners?

A: We’ll talk to any country or space agency that doesn’t shoot down satellites. We’ll try a lot of ideas. Rather than duplicate missions, share capabilities and share science teams.  If we can do an outer-solar-system mission the Europeans don’t have the capability to execute, could we let the Europeans lead on a mission they can execute, and share science teams?

Q: ITAR is a burden. Is there any hope?

A: ITAR is a problem. We can’t change it, we need to think around it. We might do things like coordinate mission queues.  Again, we might share science teams, rather than share boxes that cause import issues.

Q (Matt): What can we do to help?

A: You do a lot of things well. We like your GO program. (TAC, grants, etc). Get SM-4 done. Get JWST flying and doing good science. Encourage people to collaborate rather than compete for resources. MAST, and the work on VO.

Focus on continued good work, and continued science leadership.

If you attended, please do comment or drop me a line if I missed or misunderstood something.


Does JavaOne Connect work?

May 3, 2007

Here’s an experiment:

Join Me at the 2007 JavaOne Conference Event Connect Tool!

They need a category “Java One Noob” for people like me.


Planning for FY08

April 28, 2007

With the HST contract signed, we will probably do another staffing plan. Fortunately, we have a running start because of some JWST staffing exercises that Tony Krueger has been leading.

The details are still being worked out, but the main message is that work on the planning systems will start to ramp up significantly the rest of this year and into FY08. If the budget numbers turn out where we expect them to be, we will be hiring several people.

Some of the new hires will come in as junior people, and may be working on HST efforts in order to free up our current staff to work on JWST. Because JWST is a very different observatory, there is a lot of different work, though we will leverage a lot of what we learned from HST.

A big problem looming next year is housing, both for people and for systems. I had a conversation with a JWST lead about the need to find room for JWST development servers. There is room for a few servers, but not for more than a few. Similarly, there is currently room for a few new people, but not for more than a few. We may be looking for space in Bloomberg again, though who would move over is hard to predict.

So, by the end of FY08, we will be very busy:

  • Serious work on JWST development will be underway
  • Kepler will be very close to launch
  • HST SM-4 might actually be in progress.

That last one is hardest to predict, but a three week slip would make October 1st EVA day two. That, I think, would be cool. :-)



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.