Friday, January 24, 2014

Great parking lot and terrible stair lighting

On a recent evening in Dresden, I noticed some great area lighting in a mall parking lot. As you can see below, the visibility in the parking lot is excellent.

In this closeup focused on the luminaires you can see that these types of lamps send almost no light directly up into the sky and are not at all glaring. Why isn't every parking lot in the world lit like this? Beats me...

Parking lot lighting (closeup) by Christopher Kyba is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Of course, it's impossible to tell by eye how bright it is. It's possible that these lamps are putting out more light than is necessary. It's also possible that they should have a warmer color. Regardless of whether these lamps were perfect or not, it's clear that they are excellent compared to the typical parking lot!

While I was visiting Dresden, I also noticed another example of how additional light can make your vision worse:

Dangerous lighting 1 by Christopher Kyba is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

This lamp is intended to help people see, but it's right next to a stairway that is completely unlit due to bad positioning of the lamp! You can see how invisible the stairway is in these two photos from roughly the same angle:

Dangerous lighting 2 by Christopher Kyba is licensed
under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

In this case, you would actually be better of if the lamp wasn't there, and you were just navigating by artificial skyglow or moonlight.

Finally, a little contest. Comparing the last two photos, can you spot another lighting problem? Answer in the comments.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Nearing observation #10,000

Thanks to a big increase in the number of app users after releasing our expanded language version, we will reach observation number 10,000* in the next few days. To celebrate the milestone, I will send a holographic postcard showing Europe by day and night to the registered user who makes a complete observation (7 or more stars, no moon, no twilight, no clouds) with the observation number closest to 10,000.

This postcard could be yours!

The moon is away, GLOBE at Night 2014 has officially started, so get out and observe some stars tonight!

*This doesn't mean that we have 10,000 good data points, because most of these observations have in fact been submitted by people running the demo mode, using the app when it's partly cloudy, when the sun is not fully set, when the moon is up, or not making decisions on at least 7 stars. Depending on the month, about 10-20% of all observations fit the strictest requirements for analyzing the data.

Update: Dr. Marsden made it to her interview

In an earlier post, I told the story of an American educated colleague of mine who was twice denied entry into the USA, who was worried she wouldn't be able to attend a job interview. Here is an update to her story:

Preface: I had already done a Skype interview with the professor I'm interviewing to work with. The next stage in the academic interview cycle is to go and give a seminar to the department on my work, and interact with the people I would be working with, mentoring, and to see the facilities I would have access to.  The interview is a two-way street, and people often interview at several places in order to receive multiple job offers, which can be leveraged into the best job and terms possible.  As it happens, I have been interviewing in multiple countries, and may wind up with multiple job offers, although not all are equal of course.  I am being pursued by U.S. institutions to work for them, in part because I was trained for 8 years in what I do, paid for by science foundations funded by the US government.
On the day before the interview, I showed up at the airport, letter of invitation and plane tickets bought by the university in hand.  In customs, they spent 3 hours questioning me and going through everything I had, in excruciating detail.  Looking through my texts, photos, every single piece of paper, etc.  It was embarrassing, although at least everything corroborated what I was saying.  

However, the officer kept saying things such as "you're under oath", "anything you say can be used against you", and "being permitted to enter the US is a privilege, not a right". While I have no problem with these statements in general, it served to make me feel as though I was a criminal, despite having never done anything wrong.  Disturbingly, he even said, "I know your type, you grew up in _____ with lawyers for parents and don't take this seriously".  

Despite denying that this had anything to do with unsubstantiated suspicions of a secret boyfriend, I was questioned vigorously about my relationship with one particular ex boyfriend.  In my 8 years in the States, I naturally dated people. In my case I'd dated about a handful of people relatively seriously.  The ex the border agent was particularly interested in was the one I had been attempting to visit over the holidays (and his family, with whom I am friends).  The officer thought it was strange that we are still friends and spend time together.  He thought he had trapped me in a lie when I said we broke up in 2012 but then found pictures of us hanging out in 2013.  Luckily for me, since I was telling the truth there was also evidence that we have both been dating other people.

In the end, I was cleared to stay for the few days around my interview (ie. I wasn't allowed to stay the length of a usual visitor visa) having to return on my return ticket, which I had planned to do anyways.  At this point though, I'd missed my first flight. After several phone calls, the university arranging my interview had to re-book, at the expense of several hundreds of dollars.   

 I was told that the next time I attempt to visit the US it will be the same.  I am not allowed to visit the US unless I have a job in Canada.  I was told that unless you're a student, being employed is a legal requirement for entry.  Even if I am invited for an interview, they may not let me through.    
It feels strange to know that the whole country next to mine, the ONLY country next to mine, is off limits.  I am not allowed to take time off and travel or take care of ailing loved ones, and am also not able to visit friends and family in the US, or be a tourist.  Even if I have enough savings to support myself, it is not allowed.  My statements were treated as lies without any attempt at verification.  I was treated as though being born in another country was my own bad decision, that I deserve to be punished for.  Yet I have done absolutely nothing wrong.

I'm glad Dr. Marsden was able to attend the interview, and I hope that her "luck" in being allowed to enter will continue with her other upcoming interviews in the US. If you are American and you think that baring Canadian astrophysicists from spending time and money in the US is not in the best strategic interests of your country, please pass this story on to your congressman.

GLOBE at Night's 2014 campaign starts tonight!

The 2014 GLOBE at Night campaign officially starts tonight, and the organizers need you to take part! In the GLOBE at Night project, people go out at night to spend a few minutes looking at the stars, and then report how many stars are visible. This generates Citizen Science data, which is really important for tracking how the brightness of the night sky is changing over time.

The world is undergoing a revolution in outdoor lighting due to the adoption of LEDs. No one is sure whether this will make the sky brighter or darker, and the best Earth Observing nighttime satellite isn't sensitive to much of the light produced by LEDs. So the ONLY way that we can really measure how the sky is changing is by having citizen scientists tell us what they see.

So please, take a moment on a clear night sometime this year to go outside, visit the stars, and let us know how many you can see.

In 2014, there are three ways to take part in GLOBE at Night:

1) The traditional web app (available in 20 languages!)
2) Using our Loss of the Night app (available in 11 languages - Android)
3) Using the Dark Sky Meter app (iOS)
Your data is valuable regardless of where you live, but we have a particularly strong need for people from brightly lit cities to take part. Multiple observations on different days (or observations using two or more methods) are especially valuable, because they improve the accuracy of the measurement.

We know that the night sky is changing. But we won't know how it's changing without your help.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

A challenge for astrophotographers and landscape photographers

Calling all astrophotographers and landscape photographers - I've got a challenge for you! We've all seen full color photos of a landscape lit by the moon with stars in the sky:

But what about a pristine landscape lit only by the moon under completely overcast skies? That condition existed on about 15% of all nights back when life evolved, but I suspect that it's probably the most infrequently photographed landscape that exists on Earth. I could really use such a photo for a paper I'm working on at the moment, so if you know of one, please pass it on to me. If you've never seen such a photo, it's a challenge! Perhaps you'll be the first person ever to take such a photo?

It is essential that the region be nearly completely free of artificial lights, otherwise the scene will just be lit by the artificial skyglow (light pollution), rather than the diffuse moonlight shining through the clouds. You'll probably want the moon to be at least about 20 degrees above the horizon in order to have enough light to take the photo. The photo should show both the sky and the landscape.

Whoever is the first to submit a photo that matches the description will have the honor of the photo being displayed on this blog, and a holographic postcard of Europe by day and by night!

Sunday, January 12, 2014

How can we improve the app?

Update: Changes have been made to the app since this post. For a more recent update list see here.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Astrophysicist denied entry into the USA, may not be able to attend a job interview

I am Canadian, and for the last 14 years I've been living and working abroad. This makes me keenly aware of issues like immigration and dual citizenship (my two children have American-Canadian-German and Canadian-German citizenship). That's why I wanted to share this unfortunate story about a former colleague of mine.

Dr. Marsden is apparently no longer able to enter the USA.

Dr. Marsden is a Canadian astrophysicist who overlapped with me as a graduate student. She has now been denied entry to the USA twice, and is extremely concerned that she won't be able to attend an upcoming job interview.

Dr. Marsden has never done anything wrong. As far as she can tell she is being denied entry because of a misplaced fear that she is planning on staying in the USA illegally. I think it's important that people hear about her story, because poor decision making at borders negatively affects not only the people involved, but also people in the country the border agents are defending. If Dr. Marsden loses out on a chance to work in the USA simply because of an incorrect DHS decision, hundreds of students will miss out on the chance to have her as a mentor.

Who says astrophysicists are boring?

If you are an American, then please share Dr. Marsden's story with your friends, and also with your representatives in congress. Border agents have an extremely difficult job, and I am sure that they make the correct call about who to let in nearly every time. But there needs to be a way for people denied entry to appeal the decision, and to have their case evaluated by someone in the Department of Homeland Security who doesn't face the time pressures of a border agent. That supervisor should be able to add a note to the file stating that the original decision was incorrect, and that in the supervisor's opinion the person is believed to be very low risk for overstaying their visa.

Here is Dr. Marsden's story:

I am a Canadian, born and raised.  Female, blond hair, blue eyes. 

From 2005 until 2011 I was at University A, a classic Ivy league institution, working on a PhD in physics.  As is required, I was on an F-1 student visa provided by the university.  I followed all the rules, did everything by the books.
After my PhD, I went to work for 2 years as a postdoctoral scholar at University B, ranked in the top ten in the world for science impact for the past decade or so.  Again, as is required, I was on a J-1 visiting scholar visa sponsored by the university.  Again I followed the rules to the letter, and left the U.S. within 30 days of the end of my contract and visa.

Within 30 days of leaving the U.S., I flew to San Fransisco for 3 days in order to attend an interview with a very prestigious consulting firm.  Proffering my letter of invitation to interview, I was allowed to enter on a visitor B visa.
About a month after that, I drove back to the U.S. state to gather the rest of my belongings in storage and tie up loose ends (close bank accounts, cell phone accounts, and officially export my car from the U.S. and import my car into Canada, a process that takes weeks and costs hundreds of dollars).  Again I entered on a visitor B visa, was let in no problem, and left well within the allowed time frame. 

Then, roughly a month after returning from my second trip to the U.S. since finishing my postdoc (3 months after finishing at university B), I tried to drive to Seattle to visit some friends for 2 days over the winter holidays.  One is in the U.S. Navy, and the other is a lawyer and owns a law firm.  Rather than pick up a phone to validate my story if they were suspicious, I was ridiculed, detained for over 3 hours, denied access to a phone, had my car completely tossed, and was denied entry.  The (third) border agent I dealt with only gave me the reason that she felt I was going to go to California and stay there, with no valid visa.  I was dumbfounded, as there was absolutely no evidence to support this conclusion, and in light of all the steps I'd just taken to clear out of the States and return to reside Canada.
At this point I'd like to mention that for the entire 8 years I was in the U.S., since I had no right to residency there, I maintained my residency in Canada, filed my taxes in both countries each year, and even paid my Canadian MSP medical premiums.

Completely exhausted and flummoxed, I returned home. 

The next morning, I called the border and spoke with a supervisor.  Since I had a job interview scheduled for just over 2 weeks thence, at a U.S. university, I was particularly concerned about money being wasted on plane tickets that I wouldn't be able to use.  It is also highly probable that I will have other interviews at other U.S. universities and institutions in the near future.

The border supervisor suggested attempting again at the land crossing, with more documentation "showing ties" to Canada. Having never had to show any documentation before, it made sense to me to print off all of the documents proving the above facts (imported car at my expense, closed cell account in States, new Canadian phone contract, bank statement showing my Canadian funds - i.e. that I have enough to support myself while in the USA).

I then, as suggested by the supervisor, tried to enter the US again. This time I took a bus, to show that I had a return ticket, and also because the fact that I had had my car seemed to be part of why they were suspicious of me the first time. I was hoping I would encounter a border official who would see the sense in what I was saying.  The logic of it all.  Once again, my intent was to pay a social visit to a Seattle friend for 2 days, but I also wanted to be sure that it would be possible for me to cross the border for my job interview. Instead, I was denied entry for a second time.

This time, I got slightly more information. For one thing, they asked several times if I had a boyfriend in the States. I said no (which is the truth; also, logically, if that was my game, I had 8 years to marry someone in the States as well as legitimate offers).  Yet they arbitrarily decided I must have a secret boyfriend I'm lying about, with zero proof.  This system lacks any sort of logic or justice, and there is no appeal process. If the guard wouldn't believe me when I told her how much I weighed (fact: she argued with me about my weight, insisting I must be 15 pounds lighter.  Believe me lady, if I were I would have told you), she would likely have not believed me if I said I was dating someone in Canada.  She's allowed to bar me from entry based on the color of my nail polish.

The border officials essentially said that for me to be able to cross in the future, I would have to show them proof of employment and of a residence. However, if I'm looking for a job, why would I sign a lease? It's more fiscally conservative to stay with my family in Canada. And how can I have a job when I'm looking for a job? It's not as if astrophysics (and more specifically, experimental cosmology) jobs are abundant, in any country. I continue to explore options in Canada and other countries, but would like to be able to go to my interviews in the States.  Ironically, this nation that spent 8 years educating and training me, at its own expense, may now not reap the rewards.

The only thing I can add is that international travel is basically a job requirement as a physicist, and an inability to even visit the United States would be a crippling disadvantage to a career. I hope that the problem can be worked out for Dr. Marsden's next attempt, and that she'll be at the top of her game for her interview!

Update: Dr. Marsden made it to her interview, but not without problems.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Want to translate the app into another language?

We recently released a version of the Loss of the Night app that works in Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, and Spanish.

It may become possible for us to do another extended language release sometime in 2014. If you would like to volunteer to translate the app into another language, please send me an email. Most of our translators needed about a half day to do the job.

We currently have volunteers for Czech, Korean, (Brazilian) Portuguese, and Slovak.

More light ≠ better vision

Hyperventilating politicians occasionally assert that people talking about light pollution want to throw us all back to the dark ages. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth, and these photos by George Fleenor show why:

Security lighting by George Fleenor is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

The unshielded security light produces a great deal of glare, which makes it difficult to see the man standing at the yard gate. With well designed lighting, you can actually reduce the total amount of light (saving lots of energy) while at the same time actually improving visibility.

The video below also demonstrates very dramatically how poorly your eye is able to judge luminance. For vision in a typical urban night environment, the total amount of light plays a relatively small role in determining how well you can see. The more important factor is how the light is distributed.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Quadrantid meteor shower, January 2-4

The peak of the Quadrantid meteor shower will occur some time in the next two days. The peak of the Quadrantids is intense (up to one per minute), but the timing is not very well known, so you need a bit of luck. If it's clear where you are tonight, go out to use the Loss of the Night app. While you're doing your observations, you might just happen to luck into a meteor shower!
Thanks to Alejandro Sanchez de Miguel for the tip.

2013 in review

Citizen Scientists have now been taking skyglow data with the Loss of the Night app since the end of April, and the New Year seems like a good time to give some feedback about how the project is going. Here's a map of all of the locations from which someone has submitted data:

The red dots show locations where the measurement can be used in analysis (no clouds, no twilight, no moon, at least 7 stars observed), and the black dots show locations where this criteria were not met. Hopefully, now that the app is available in Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese we will start to get more data from Asia and South America.

In total, participants have done 15,600 individual star searches in 2,241 sessions under night conditions (sun at least 16 degrees below the horizon and moon below the horizon). The 10 stars that have been searched for most frequently are:

Vega, 742x
Altair, 645x
Arcturus, 603x
Deneb, 450x
Capella, 340x
Alioth, 263x
Sadr, 262x
Polaris, 260x
Aldebaran, 228x
Kocab, 204x

Despite these large numbers, there are actually still 504 stars that no one has searched for. Most of these not-yet-studied stars are visible from the Southern Hemisphere, but a few are late winter stars that will star rising higher in the sky as winter progresses.

In 946 cases, the app has been used on a night with no clouds, and the observer has examined at least 7 stars (red dots in the map above). These are the minimum conditions we need in order to estimate the sky brightness, but the more stars a person observes, the more accurate the measurement is. So if you are an app user, please click "continue measuring" and add a few additional stars!

Thank you to everyone who has used the app! In the coming week I plan to write a post about our plans for a future upgrade, and I would really like your feedback to try to improve the app.

In case you missed them, here are the four most read posts of 2013:
1) The view from your app - birds eye view of a searchlight at night
2) Flashmob for Science
3) Moon phase calendar for 2014
4) First Blog Post

Finally, we were featured on Eyes on the Sky this week, so I wanted to share the video. The more people that use the app, the more valuable the dataset becomes, so please share news of the app whenever you see it!