• The Loneliest Star in the Sky

    sky images and a distribution plot

    The loneliest star in the sky on the left, and on the right a somewhat more lonelier one (it's explained in the text). The inset shows the distribution of the 500 loneliest stars on the whole sky in Galactic coordinates.

    In early December, the object catalogue of Gaia's data release 3 was published (“eDR3“), and I've been busy in various ways on this data off and on since then – see, for instance, the The Case of the disappearing bits on this blog.

    One of the things I have missed when advising people on projects with previous Gaia data releases is a table that, for every object, gives the nearest neighbour. And so for this release I've created it and christened it, perhaps just a bit over-grandiosely, “Gaia eDR3 Autocorrelation”. Technically, it is just a long (1811709771 rows, to be precise) list of pairs of Gaia eDR3 source ids, the ids of their nearest neighbour, and a spherical distance between.

    This kind of data is useful for many applications, mostly when looking for objects that are close together or (more often) things that fail for such close pairs for a wide variety of reasons. I have taken some pains to not only have close neighbours, though, because sometimes you may want specifically objects far away from others.

    As in the case of this article's featured image: The loneliest star in the sky (as seen by Gaia, that is) is eDR3 6049144983226879232, which is 4.3 arcminutes from its neighbour, 6049144021153793024, which in turn is the second-loneliest star in the sky. They are, perhaps a bit surprisingly, in Ophiuchus (and thus fairly close to the Milky Way plane), and (probably) only about 150 parsec from Earth. Doesn't sound too lonely, hm? Turns out: these stars are lonely because dust clouds blot out all their neighbours.

    Rank three is in another dust cloud, this time in Taurus, and so it continues in low Galactic latitude to rank 8 (4402975278134691456) at Galactic latitude 36.79 degrees; visualising the thing, it turns out it's again in a dark cloud. What about rank 23 at 83.92 Galactic (3954600105683842048)? That's probably bona-fide, or at least it doesn't look very dusty in the either DSS or PanSTARRS. Coryn (see below) estimates it's about 1100 parsec away. More than 1 kpc above the galactic disk: that's more what I had expected for lonely stars.

    Looking at the whole distribution of the 500 loneliest stars (inset above), things return a bit more to what I had expected: Most of them are around the galactic poles, where the stellar density is low.

    So: How did I find these objects? Here's the ADQL query I've used:

    SELECT TOP 500
      ra, dec, source_id, phot_g_mean_mag, ruwe,
      partner_id, dist,
      COORD2(gavo_transform('ICRS', 'GALACTIC',
        point(ra, dec))) AS glat
      NATURAL JOIN gedr3auto.main
    ORDER BY dist DESC

    – run this on the TAP server at http://dc.g-vo.org/tap (don't be shy, it's a cheap query).

    Most of this should be familiar to you if you've worked through the first pages of ADQL course. There's two ADQL things I'd like to advertise while I have your attention:

    1. NATURAL JOIN is like a JOIN USING, except that the database auto-selects what column(s) to join on by matching the columns that have the same name. This is a convenient way to join tables designed to be joined (as they are here). And it probably won't work at all if the tables haven't been designed for that.
    2. The messy stuff with GALACTIC in it. Coordinate transformations had a bad start in ADQL; the original designers hoped they could hide much of this; and it's rarely a good idea in science tools to hide complexity essentially everyone has to deal with. To get back on track in this field, DaCHS servers since about version 1.4 have been offering a user defined function gavo_transfrom that can transform (within reason) between a number of popular reference frames. You will find more on it in the server's capabilities (in TOPCAT: the “service” tab). What is happening in the query is: I'm making a Point out of the RA and Dec given in the catalogue, tell the transform function it's in ICRS and ask it to make Galactic coordinates from it, and then take the second element of the result: the latitude.

    And what about the gedr3dist.litewithdist table? That doesn't look a lot like the gaiaedr3.gaiasource we're supposed to query for eDR3?

    Well, as for DR2, I'm again only carrying a “lite” version of the Gaia catalogue in GAVO's Heidelberg data center, stripped down to the columns you absolutely cannot live without even for the most gung-ho science; it's called gaia.edr3lite.

    But then my impression is that almost everyone wants distances and then hacks something to make Gaia's parallax work for them. That's a bad idea as the SNR goes down to levels very common in the Gaia result catalogue (see 2020arXiv201205220B if you don't take my word for it). Hence, I'm offering a pre-joined view (a virtual table, if you will) with the carefully estimated distances from Coryn Bailer-Jones, and that's this gedr3dist.litewithdist. Whenever you're doing something with eDR3 and distances, this is where I'd point you first.

    Oh, and I should be mentioning that, of course, I figured out what is in dust clouds and what is not with TOPCAT and Aladin as in our tutorial TOPCAT and Aladin working together (which needs a bit of an update, but you'll figure it out).

    There's a lot more fun to be had with this (depending on what you find fun in). What about finding the 10 arcsec-pairs with the least different luminosities (which might actually be useful for testing some optics)? Try this:

    SELECT TOP 300
      a.source_id, partner_id, dist,
      a.phot_g_mean_mag AS source_mag,
      b.phot_g_mean_mag AS partner_mag,
      abs(a.phot_g_mean_mag-b.phot_g_mean_mag) AS magdiff
    FROM gedr3auto.main
      NATURAL JOIN gaia.edr3lite AS a
      JOIN gaia.edr3lite AS b
        ON (partner_id=b.source_id)
      dist BETWEEN 9.999/3600 AND 10.001/3600
      AND a.phot_g_mean_mag IS NOT NULL
      AND b.phot_g_mean_mag IS NOT NULL
    ORDER BY magdiff ASC

    – this one takes a bit longer, as there's many 10 arcsec-pairs in eDR3; the query above looks at 84690 of them. Of course, this only returns really faint pairs, and given the errors stars that weak have they're probably not all that equal-luminosity as that. But fixing all that is left as an exercise to the reader. Given there's the RP and BP magnitude columns, what about looking for the most colourful pair with a given separation?

    Acknowledgement: I couldn't have coolly mumbled about Ophiuchus or Taurus without the SCS service ivo://cds.vizier/vi/42 (”Identification of a Constellation From Position, Roman 1982”).

    Update [2021-02-05]: I discovered an extra twist to this story: Voyager 1 is currently flying towards Ophiuchus (or so Wikipedia claims). With an industrial size package of artistic licence you could say: It's coming to keep the loneliest star company. But of course: by the time Voyager will be 150 pc from earth, eDR3 6049144983226879232 will quite certainly have left Ophiuchus (and Voyager will be in a completely different part of our sky, that wouldn't look familar to us at all) – so, I'm afraid apart from a nice conincidence in this very moment (galactically speaking), this whole thing won't be Hollywood material.

  • DaCHS 2.3 on the way to Debian main

    DaCHS, Debian, and 2.3

    DaCHS 2.3 will be the first DaCHS officially in Debian.

    DaCHS releases usually come around the Interops in (roughly) May and November. Not this one, though, for one pleasant, one unpleasant, and several other reasons.

    The unpleasant reason first: The 2.2 release has a fairly severe memory leak in it (resulting, in roundabout ways, from python 3 preserving tracebacks of nested exceptions), which of course really became virulent on my server right over the holidays. If you run a site with just a few gigs of RAM that might be hit by second-rate async clients, this will bite you and you ought to upgrade now (well, you ought to upgrade anyway).

    The pleasant reason is that DaCHS has made it into Debian main and thus, unless something disastrous happens, it will be part of the Debian version 11 (“bullseye”). This means that people who do not need to be on the bleeding edge, will not need to monkey around with our repository (and its signing key) any more starting some time in 2021 (or just about now, if they're running testing). I can't tell you how gratifying that feels to me. And well, I wanted relatively recent code corresponding to a something on our release branch in bullseye.

    One of the other reasons is that stilts' author Mark Taylor is trying to stomp out TAP services failing his taplint's validation, and many DaCHS 2.2 services (those that don't define TAP examples, which of course is a shame anyway) fail with only the (really minor) error E-EXDH-1 (see below).

    DaCHS 2.3 has some other noteworthy changes; as usual in minor version steps, my expectation is that none of this will break existing services. Still, you may want to glance over the following list, as there are some behavioural changes nevertheless. In approximate order of the wizardry involved:

    • I've long had a bad consciousness because DaCHS has stored cleartext passwords so far. That's probably not a problem for DaCHS itself (as it does not protect great riches), but people tend to re-use passwords, and I'd have hated to leak passwords that might work elsewhere. Well, no longer: the dc.users table now contains hashed passwords, and the upgrade will hash them. This, in particular, means that you cannot recover them once you have updated (which, of course, is as it should be).

    • The javascript delivered with DaCHS was no longer quite up to date with Debian's jquery. I have updated it in several ways, and I have restored the functionality of the WebSAMP button in the default response. If you have custom HTML templates containing javascript, you may need to update them to newer jquery, too, specifically,

      • change .unload( to .on("unload", (this happens in the SAMP code in defaultresponse.html, for instance).
      • also in the SAMP code in overridden defaultresponses, change the icon URL to completeURL("/logo_tiny.png") (or whatever) to avoid trouble with https installations.
      • if you compare jquery element names: these are now returned in lower case.

      And yes, WebSAMP now mostly works with HTTPS (which is unrelated to this update, except that DaCHS until 2.2 suppresses the WebSAMP button when it thinks it is delivering through HTTPS).

    • DaCHS now honours upgrade-insecure-requests headers that common web browsers issue and will then redirect them to https when appropriate. So, please don't forcibly do these redirects any more from reverse proxies – they break, among other things, TAP, and they're generally just a bad idea.

    • DaCHS now instructs the database to return all bits of floating point numbers. This may break your regression tests, but it's the right thing to do (blog post on this).

    • Another thing that may break regression tests: TAP results now have column names in the case given in the RD (where previously they were lowercased unless quoted). Let me cite rule 1 of SQL table design: Don't use mixed-case column names.

    • Wildcards in the directory parts of sources patterns are now expanded, which means that you can write things like <sources pattern="data/202?/*.fits"/>, which previously wouldn't have done what you might reasonably expect; however, this might in rare cases match additional sources when you re-import data.

    • The examples endpoint now returns a 404 if no examples are defined on a service; this fixes the stilts taplint E-EXA-EXDH-1 error I mentioned above.

    • DaCHS will now refuse to use x-unregistred as an authority when publishing resources or creating publisher DIDs. This is to protect to people who do a lot of imports before settling on their authority; sometimes DaCHS' fallback null authority got into their databases, which then caused quite a bit of cleanup effort.

    • Because of licensing problems, the Debian package no longer contains the CC logos for the time being. If you want them back, drop appropriate files cc0.png, ccby.png, and ccybysa.png into /var/gavo/web/nv_static/img

    • You can now list modules you want in a procedure application in its setup/@imports attribute. I've done this after I had to add code to a proc's setup just to run an import once too often.

    • simbadinterface's Sesame now uses the dc.metastore table to cache results rather than files as before. Previous saveNew, id, and debug parameters are no longer supported (the base.caches.getSesame interface is unchanged, so it's unlikely you'd notice this).

    • table.query() or querier.query() are now seriously deprecated (you may have used them in code embedded in RDs). See Database Queries in the reference documentation for what the recommended query patterns are (and have been for a while). Just one word of warning: table.query would macro-expand its argument, which the connection method obviously cannot. If you depend on that, call table.expand(query) manually first.

    With this: Merry upgrading and a happy new year!

  • The Case of the Disappearing Bits

    [number line with location markers]

    Every green line in this image stands for a value exactly representable in a floating point value of finite size. As you see, it's a white area out there [source]

    While I was preparing the publication of Coryn Bailer-Jones' distance estimations based on Gaia eDR3 (to be released about tomorrow), Coryn noticed I was swallowing digits from his numbers. My usual reaction of “aw, these are meaningless anyway because your errors are at least an order of magnitude higher” didn't work this time, because Gaia is such an incredible machine that some of the values really have six significant decimal digits. For an astronomical distance! If I had a time machine, I'd go back to F.W. Bessel right away to make him pale in envy.

    I'm storing these distances as PostgreSQL REALs, so these six digits are perilously close the seven decimal digits that the 23 bits of mantissa of single precision IEEE 754 floats are usually translated to. Suddenly, being cavalier with the last few bits of the mantissa isn't just a venial sin. It will lose science.

    So, I went hunting for the bits, going from parsing (in this case C's sscanf) through my serialisation into Postgres binary copy material (DaCHS operators: this is using a booster) to pulling the material out of the database again. And there I hit it: the bits disappeared between copying them in and retrieving them from the database.

    Wow. Turns out: It's a feature. And one I should have been aware of in that Postgres' docs have a prominent warning box where it explains its floating point types: Without setting extra-float-digits it will cut off bits. And it's done this ever since the dawn of DaCHS (in postgres terms, version 8.2 or so).

    Sure enough (edited for brevity):

    gavo=$ select r_med_geo from gedr3dist.main
    gavo-$ where source_id=563018673253120;
    gavo=$ set extra_float_digits=3;
    gavo=$ select r_med_geo from gedr3dist.main
    gavo-$ where source_id=563018673253120;

    Starting with its database schema 26 (which is the second part of the output of dachs --version), DaCHS will configure its database roles always have extra_float_digits 3; operators beware: this may break your regression tests after the next upgrade.

    If you want to configure your non-DaCHS role, too, all it takes is:

    alter role (you) set extra_float_digits=3,

    You could also make the entire database or even the entire cluster behave like that; but then losing these bits isn't always a bad idea: It really makes the floats prettier while most of the time not losing significant data. It's just when you want to preserve the floats as you get them – and with science data, that's mostly a good idea – that we just can't really afford that prettyness.

    Update (2021-04-22): It turns out that this was already wrong (for some meaning of wrong) when I wrote this. Since PostgreSQL 12, Postgres uses shortest-precise by default (and whenever extra_float_digits is positive). The official documentation has a nice summary of the problem and the way post-12 postgres addresses it. So: expect your float-literal-comparing regression tests to break after the upgrade to bullseye.

  • Sofa instead of Granada

    Screenshot from an online talk

    Gesticulating wildly to a computer is what happens in an online conference. To me, at least. Let's hope nobody watched me through the window.

    It was already in the wee hours of Friday last week (CET) when the second "virtual Interop" had its rather unceremonious closing ceremony. Its predecessor in May had about it an air of a state of emergency. For instance, all sessions were monothematic. That was nice on the one hand, because a relatively large part of the time was available for discussion – which, really, is what the Interops are about. But then Interops are also about noticing what everyone else in the Virtual Observatory is cooking up, for which the short-ish talks we usually have at Interops work really well.

    In contrast to that first Corona Interop, this second one, replacing what would have taken place in Granada, Spain, had a much more conventional format, which again accomodated many talks. But of course, this made one feel the lack of possibilities to quickly hash out a problem during a coffee break or in a spontaneous splinter quite a bit more.

    Be that as it may, I would like to give you some insights on what I'm currently up to at the IVOA level; I am grateful for any feedback you can give on any of these topics.

    Given that I currently chair the Semantics Working group, there was a natural focus on topics around vocabularies, and I gave two talks in that department. The one in DAL (DAL is the working group that builds the actual access protocols such as TAP or SIAP) was mainly on Datalink-related aspects of my Vocabularies in the VO 2 draft (VocInVO2), which in particular was an opportunity to thank everyone involved in the Vocabulary Enhancement Proposals we have been running this last year (all of which were about Datalink and hence closely tied to DAL). One thing I was asking for was reviews on a github pull request that would make the bysemantics method of Datalink accesses semantics-aware; basically, as intended by the original Datalink authors, when asking for #calibration links, this will also return, say, #bias links. If you can spare a moment for this: Please do!

    Another thing I tried to raise some interest for is the proposed vocabulary of product types; this, I think, should eventually define what people may put into the dataproduct_type column of Obscore results, and there are related uses in Datalink and, believe it or not, the registration of SSAP (spectral) services. A question Alberto raised while I was discussing that made me realise I forgot to mention another vocabularies-related development relevant for DAL: I've put the gavo_vocmatch ADQL user-defined function into DaCHS. It lets you match something against a term or its narrower terms, referencing an IVOA vocabulary. For instance, if we had different sorts of time series (which, of course, would be odd for obscore that has the o_ucd column for this kind of thing), you could, using ADQL, still get all time series by querying:

    SELECT TOP 5 *
    FROM ivoa.obscore

    Here, the first argument is the vocabulary name (whatever is after the http://www.ivoa.net/rdf in the vocabulary URL), the second the “root” term, and the third the column to match against. Since postgres, for now, isn't aware of IVOA vocabularies, the second argument must be a literal string rather than, say, an expression involving columns.

    I gave a second semantics-related talk in the Registry session. That had its focus on the Unified Astronomy Thesaurus (UAT), from which people should pick the subject keywords in the VO Registry (actually, they should pick from its representation at http://www.ivoa.net/rdf/uat). I'll probably blog about that a little more some other time. For now, let me recommend a little UAT-based game on my Semantics Based Registry Browser sembarebro: Choose two terms that are pretty far apart (like, perhaps, ionized-coma-gases and cosmic-background-radiation) and then try to join the two sub-graphs. Warning: This may waste your time. But it will acquaint you with the UAT, which may be a good thing.

    In that second talk, I also mentioned a second draft vocabulary I've put up in the past six months, http://www.ivoa.net/rdf/messenger. This builds upon the terms for VODataService's waveband element, which enumerated certain flavours of photons (like Radio, Optical, or X-ray). Now that we explore other messengers as well and have more and more solar system resources in the Registry, I'm arguing we ought to open up things by making “Photon” explicit in there and then adding Neutrinos and, later, other messengers. I've received a certain amount of pushback there on mixing the electromagnetic spectrum with particle types; on the other hand, the hierarchical nature of our vocabularies would, I think, let us smartly get away with that.

    Speaking about solar system resources, I'm also listed as an author on Stéphane Erard's talk on EPN-TAP and EPNCore v2.0, probably due to my involvement in finally bringing EPN-TAP into the IVOA document repository. I've already talked about that in a 2017 post on this blog – and again, if you're interested in solar system data, this would be a good time to review the EPN-TAP working draft.

    Talking about things regluar readers of this blog will have heard of: September's Crazy Shapes post I've referenced in a talk on MOCs in pgsphere, together with a fervent appeal to data centers to become involved in pgsphere maintenance.

    And then there was my colleague Margarida's talk on LineTAP, a proposal to obsolete the little-used SLA protocol (which lets people search for spectral lines) with something combining the much more successful VAMDC with our beloved TAP. Me, I'm in this because I'd like to bring TOSS data closer to VAMDC – but also because having competing infrastructures for the same thing sucks.

    And finally, I gave a talk I've called Data Model Posture Review in a session of the Data Models working group; I was somewhat worried that given its rather skeptical outlook it wouldn't be really well-received. But in fact quite a few people shared my main conclusions – and perhaps it was another step towards resolving my decade-old spot of pain: that the VO still doesn't offer tech to reliably bring two catalogues to the same epoch without human intervention.

    With this number of talks I've been involved in, I'm essentially back to the level of a normal Interop. Which means I've been fairly knocked-out on Friday. And I can't lie: I still regret I didn't get to spend a few more warm days in Granada. Corona begone!

  • DaCHS 2.2 is out

    Image: DaCHS "entails" 2.2

    DaCHS 2.2 adds support for what simple semantics we currently do in the VO. Which is a welcome excuse to abuse one of the funny symbols semanticians love so much.

    Today, I've released DaCHS 2.2, the second stable version of DaCHS running on Python 3. Indeed, we have ironed out a few sore spots that have put that “stable” into question, especially if you didn't run things on Debian Buster. Mind you, playing it safe and just going for Debian is still recommended: Compared to the Python 2 world, where things largely didn't break for a decade, the Python 3 universe is still shaking out, and so the versions of dependencies do matter. It's actually fairly gruesome how badly pyparsing 2.4 will break DaCHS. But that's for another day.

    Despite this piece of fearmongering, it'd be great if you could upgrade your installations if you are running DaCHS, and it's pretty safe if you're on Debian buster anyway (and if you're running Debian in the first place, you should be running buster by now).

    Here are the more notable changes in this release:

    • DaCHS can now (relatively easily) write time series in the form of what Ada Nebot's Time Series Annotation note proposes. See the tutorial chapter on building time series for how to do that in practice. Seriously: If you have time series to publish, by all means try this out. The specification can still be fixed, and so this is the perfect time to find problems with the plan.
    • The 2.2 release contains support for the MOC ADQL functions mentioned in the last post on this blog. Of course, to make them work, you will still have to acquaint your database with the new functionality.
    • DaCHS has learned to use IVOA vocabularies as per the current draft for Vocabularies in the VO 2. The most visible effect for you probably is that DaCHS now warns if your subject keywords are not taken from the Unified Astronomy Thesaurus (UAT) – which they almost certainly are not, because the actual format of these keywords is a bit funky. On the other hand, if you employ the “plain” root page template (see the root template in our templating guide if you are not sure what I am talking about here), you will get nice, human-friendly labels for the computer-friendly terms you ought to put into subjects. In case you don't bother: Given I'm currently serving as chair of the semantics working group of the IVOA, the whole topic will certainly come up again soon, and at that point I will probably also talk about another semantics-related newcomer to DaCHS, the gavo_vocmatch ADQL UDF.
    • There is a new command dachs datapack for interacting with frictionless data packages. The idea is that you can say dachs datapack create myres/q myres.pack and obtain an archive of all that is necessary to re-create myres on another DaCHS installation, where you would say dachs datapack load myres.pack. Frankly, this isn't much different from just tarring up the resource directory at this point, except that any cruft that may have accumulated in the directory is skipped and there is a bit of structured metadata. But then interoperability always starts slowly. Note, by the way, that this certainly does not teach DaCHS to do anything sensible with third-party data packages; while I've not thought hard about this, as it seems a remote use case, I am pretty sure that even the “tabular data packages” that refine the rough general metadata quite a bit simply have nowhere near enough metadata to create a useful VO resource or TAP table.
    • As part of my never-ending struggle against bitrot (in case you've always wondered what “curation” means: that, essentially), I'm running dachs val -vc ALL in my own data center once every month. This used to traverse the file system to locate all RDs defined on a box and then make sure they are still ok and their definitions match the database schema. That behaviour has now changed a bit: It will only check published RDs now. I cannot lie: the main reason for the change is because on my production machine the file system traversal has taken longer and longer as data accumulated. But then beyond that there is much less to worry when unpublished gets a little bit mouldy. To get back the old behaviour of validating all RDs that are reachable by the server, use ALL_RECURSE instead of ALL.
    • DaCHS has traditionally assumed that you are running multiple services on one site, which is why its root page is rendered over a service that exposes metadata on local resources. If that doesn't quite work for how you use DaCHS – perhaps because you want to have your own custom renderers and data functions on your root page, perhaps because you only have one browser-based service and that should be the root page right away –, you can now override what is shown when people access the root URI of your DaCHS installation by setting the [web]root config item to the path of the resource you want as root (e.g., myres/q/s/fixed when the root page should be made by the fixed renderer on the service s within the RD myres/q).
    • Scripting in DaCHS is a powerful way to execute python or SQL code when certain things happen. That seems an odd thing to want until you need it; then you need it badly. Since DaCHS 2.2, scripts executed before or after the creation of a table, before its deletion, or after its meta data has been updated, can sit on tables (where they have always belonged). Before, they could only be on makes (where they can still sit, but of course they are then only executed if the table is operated through that particular make) and RDs (from where they could be copied). That latter location is now forbidden in order to free up RD scripts for later sanitation. Use STREAM and FEED instead if you really used something like that (and I'd bet you don't).
    • Minor behavioural changes:
      1. Due to a bug, you could write things like <schema foo="bar">my_schema<schema>, i.e., have attributes on attributes written in element form. That is now flagged as an error. Since that attribute was fed to the embedding element, you might need to add it there.
      2. If you have custom flot plots in one of your templates (and you don't if you don't know what I'm talking about), you now have to set style to Points or Lines where you had usingIndex 0 or 1 before.
      3. The sidebar template no longer has links to a privacy policy (that few bothered to fill out). See extra sidebar items in the tutorial on how to get them back or add something else.

    The most important change comes last: The default logo DaCHS shows unless you override it is no longer the GAVO logo. That's, really, been inappropriate from the start. It's now the DaCHS logo, the thing that's in this posts's article image. Which isn't quite as tasteful as the GAVO one, true. But I trust we'll all get used to it.

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