GAVO vs. Corona

[Group Photo of the 2018 Victoria Interop]
You won’t see something like this (the May 2018 Interop group photo) in Spring 2020: The Sidney Interop, planned for early May, is going to take place using remote tools. Some of which I’d rather do without.

The Corona pandemic, regrettably, has also brought with it a dramatic move to closed, proprietary communication and collaboration platforms: I’m being bombarded by requests to join Zoom meetings, edit Google docs, chat on Slack, “stream” something on any of Youtube, Facebook, Instagram, or Sauron (I’ve made one of these up).

Mind you, that’s within the Virtual Observatory. Call me pig-headed, but I feel that’s a disgrace when we’re out to establish Free and open standards (for good reasons). To pick a particularly sad case, Slack right now is my pet peeve because they first had an interface to IRC (which has been doing what they do since the late 80ies, though perhaps not as prettily in a web browser) and then cut it when they had sufficient lock-in. Of course, remembering how Google first had XMPP (that’s the interoperable standard for instant messaging) in Google talk and then cut that, too… ah well, going proprietary unfortunately is just good business sense once you have sufficient lock-in.

Be that as it may, I was finally fed up with all this proprietary tech and set up something suitable for conferecing building on open, self-hostable components. It’s on https://telco.g-vo.org, and you’re welcome to use it for your telecons (assuming that when you’re reading this blog, you have at least some relationship to astronomy and open standards).

What’s in there?

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an established, Free conferencing system based on SIP/RTP, which I consider the standard for voice communication on the internet (if you’ve never heard of it: it’s what your landline phone uses in all likelihood). That came as a bit of a surprise to me, but the next best thing is a Free and multiply implemented solution, and there’s the great mumble system that (at least for me) works so much better than all the browser-based horrors, not to mention it’s quite a bit more bandwidth-effective. So: Get a client and connect to telco.g-vo.org. Join one of the two meeting rooms, done.

Mumble doesn’t have video, which, considering I’ve seen enough of peoples’ living rooms (not to mention Zoom’s silly bluebox backgrounds) to last a lifetime, counts as an advantage in my book. However, being able to share a view on a document (or slide set) and point around in it is a valid use case. Bonus points if the solution to that does not involve looking at other people’s mail, IM notifications, or screen backgrounds.

Now, a quick web search did not turn up anything acceptable to me, and since I’ve always wanted to play with websockets, I’ve created poatmyp: With it, you upload a PDF, distribute the link to your meeting partners, and all participants will see the slides and a shared pointer. And they can move around in the document together.

What’s left is shared editing. I’ve looked at a few implementations of this, but, frankly, there’s too much npm and the related curlbashware in this field to make any of it enjoyable; also, it seems nobody has bothered to provide a Debian package of one of the systems. On the other hand, there are a few trustworthy operators of etherpads out there, so for now we are pointing to them on telco.g-vo.

Setting up a mumble server and poatmyp isn’t much work if you know how to configure an nginx and have a suitable box on the web. So: perhaps you’ll use this opportunity to re-gain a bit of self-reliance? You see, there’s little point to have your local copy of the Gaia catalogue, and doing that right is hard. Thanks to people writing Free software, running a simple telecon infrastructure, on the other hand, isn’t hard any more.

The Bochum Galactic Disk Survey

[Image: Patches of higher perceived variability on the Sky]
Fig 1: How our haphazard variability ratio varies over the sky (galactic coordinates). And yes, it’s clear that this isn’t dominated by physical variability.

About a year ago, I reported on a workshop on “Large Surveys with Small Telescopes” in Bamberg; at around the same time, I’ve published an example for those, the Bochum Galactic Disk Survey BGDS, which used a twin 15 cm robotic telescope in some no longer forsaken place in the Andes mountains to monitor the brighter stars in the southern Milky Way. While some tables from an early phase of the survey have been on VizieR for a while, we now publish the source images (also in SIAP and Obscore), the mean photometry (via SCS and TAP) and, perhaps potentially most fun of all, the the lightcurves (via SSAP and TAP) – a whopping 35 million of the latter.

This means that in tools like Aladin, you can now find such light curves (and images in two bands from a lot of epochs) when you are in the survey’s coverage, and you can run TAP queries on GAVO’s http://dc.g-vo.org/tap server against the full photometry table and the time series.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to see me use this as an excuse to show off a bit of ADQL trickery.

If you have a look at the bgds.phot_all table in your favourite TAP client, you’ll see that it has a column amp, giving the difference between the highest and lowest magnitude. The trouble is that amp for almost all objects just reflects the measurement error rather than any intrinsic variability. To get an idea what’s “normal” (based on the fact that essentially all stars have essentially constant luminosity on the range and resolution scales considered here), run a query like

SELECT ROUND(amp/err_mag*10)/10 AS bin, COUNT(*) AS n
FROM bgds.phot_all
WHERE nobs>10
GROUP BY bin

As this scans the entire 75 million rows of the table, you will probably have to use async mode to run this.

[image: distribution of amplitude/mag error
Figure 2: The distribution of amplitude over magnitude error for all BGDS objects with nobs>10 (blue) and the subset with a mean magnitude brighter than 15 (blue).

When it comes back, you will have, for objects where any sort of statistics make sense at all (hence nobs>10), a histogram (of sorts) of the amplitude in units of upstream’s magnitude error estimation. If you log-log-plot this, you’ll see something like Figure 2. The curve at least tells you that the magnitude error estimate is not very far off – the peak at about 3 “sigma” is not unreasonable since about half of the objects have nobs of the order of a hundred and thus would likely contain outliers that far out assuming roughly Gaussian errors.

And if you’re doing a rough cutoff at amp/magerr>10, you will get perhaps not necessarily true variables, but, at least potentially interesting objects.

Let’s use this insight to see if we spot any pattern in the distribution of these interesting objects. We’ll use the HEALPix technique I’ve discussed three years ago in this blog, but with a little twist from ADQL 2.1: The Common Table Expressions or CTEs I have already mentioned in my blog post on ADQL 2.1 and then advertised in the piece on the Henry Draper catalogue. The brief idea, again, is that you can write queries and give them a name that you can use elsewhere in the query as if it were an actual table. It’s not much different from normal subqueries, but you can re-use CTEs in multiple places in the query (hence the “common”), and it’s usually more readable.

Here, we first create a version of the photometry table that contains HEALPixes and our variability measure, use that to compute two unsophisticated per-HEALPix statistics and eventually join these two to our observable, the ratio of suspected variables to all stars observed (the multiplication with 1.0 is a cheap way to make a float out of a value, which is necessary here because a/b does integer division in ADQL if a and b are both integers):

WITH photpoints AS (
  SELECT 
    amp/err_mag AS redamp,
    amp,
    ivo_healpix_index(5, ra, dec) AS hpx
  FROM bgds.phot_all
  WHERE 
    nobs>10
    AND band_name='SDSS i'
    AND mean_mag<16),
all_objs AS (
  SELECT count(*) AS ct,
    hpx
    FROM photpoints GROUP BY hpx),
strong_var AS (
  SELECT COUNT(*) AS ct,
    hpx
    FROM photpoints
    WHERE redamp>4 AND amp>1 GROUP BY hpx)
SELECT
  strong_var.ct/(1.0*all_objs.ct) AS obs,
  all_objs.ct AS n,
  hpx
FROM strong_var JOIN all_objs USING (hpx)
WHERE all_objs.ct>20

If you plot this using TOPCAT’s HEALPix thingy and ask it to use Galactic coordinates, you’ll end up with something like Figure 1.

There clearly is some structure, but given that the variables ratio reaches up to 0.2, this is still reflecting instrumental or pipeline effects and thus earthly rather than Astrophysics. And that’s going beyond what I’d like to talk about on a VO blog, although I’l take any bet that you will see significant structure in the spatial distribution of the variability ratio at about any magnitude cutoff, since there are a lot of different population mixtures in the survey’s footprint.

Be that as it may, let’s have a quick look at the time series. As with the short spectra from Byurakan use case, we’ve stored the actual time series as arrays in the database (the mjd and mags columns in bgds.ssa_time_series. Unfortunately, since they are a lot less array-like than homogeneous spectra, it’s also a lot harder to do interesting things with them without downloading them (I’m grateful for ideas for ADQL functions that will let you do in-DB analysis for such things). Still, you can at least easily download them in bulk and then process them in, say, python to your heart’s content. The Byurakan use case should give you a head start there.

For a quick demo, I couldn’t resist checking out objects that Simbad classifies as possible long-period variables (you see, as I write this, the public bohei over Betelgeuse’s brief waning is just dying down), and so I queried Simbad for:

SELECT ra, dec, main_id
FROM basic
WHERE
  otype='LP?'
  AND 1=CONTAINS(
     POINT('', ra, dec),
     POLYGON('', 127, -30, 112, -30, 272, -30, 258, -30))

(as of this writing, Simbad still needs the ADQL 2.0-compliant first arguments to POINT and POLYGON), where the POLYGON is intended to give the survey’s footprint. I obtained that by reading off the coordinates of the corners in my Figure 1 while it was still in TOPCAT. Oh, and I had to shrink it a bit because Simbad (well, the underlying Postgres server, and, more precisely, its pg_sphere extension) doesn’t want polygons with edges longer than π. This will soon become less pedestrian: MOCs in relational databases are coming; more on this soon.

[TOPCAT action shot with a light curve display]
Fig 3: V566 Pup’s BGDS lightcuve in a TOPCAT configured to auto-plot the light curves associated with a row from the bgds.ssa_time_series table on the GAVO DC TAP service.

If you now do the usual spiel with an upload crossmatch to the bgds.ssa_time_series table and check “Plot Table” in Views/Activation Action, you can quickly page through the light curves (TOPCAT will keep the plot style as you go from dataset to dataset, so it’s worth configuring the lines and the error bars). Which could bring you to something like Fig. 3; and that would suggest that V* V566 Pup isn’t really long-period unless the errors are grossly off.