Venus in silhouette

A local astronomer's transit viewing station

Transits of Venus are a very rare celestial event: since the invention of the telescope in 1608, there have been just eight of them. The most recent one, of course, was Tuesday; the next one will be on 11 December 2117. Here in Berkeley, there were a number of amateur astronomers setup public transit viewings with their telescopes.

To see some absolutely stunning images of the transit, I recommend Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomer, and the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Of my transit photos, this one turned out the best. You can see some sunspots as well as Venus.
Some transit watchers on Indian Rock
Later, clouds obscured the transit but made for a beautiful sunset

What does “Big Data” mean?

In an article in yesterday’s New York Times, Dennis Overbye writes about “Big Data”. This is a phrase that I deal with every day: my company, Aspera, writes software that can quickly copy huge amounts of data over the Internet. Many types of businesses generate Big Data: movie studios, where a full-resolution feature movie can consume more than 4TB; bio-tech firms, where DNA sequencing produces TBs of data, and the subsequent genomic analysis even more; web sites like YouTube which receive multiple TBs of video content every day and must store, organize and collate them for easy retrieval; and so on. This is what the computer industry means by “Big Data”.

But that’s not what Dennis Overbye meant in his New York Times article. He used “Big Data” to mean the heaps of data that Facebook, Google, or the Government are using to keep track of us and our buying habits, so that they know more about us than we do ourselves. Overbye meant “Big Data” with a clear allusion to George Orwell’s “Big Brother”. As he wrote, “Big Data is watching us, but who or what is watching Big Data?”

I am very interested in this unexpected usage of “Big Data”, especially as I use the phrase every day when talking with customers. In our Facebook Age, neologisms can go viral within days. If the computer industry loses control of “Big Data” we’ll be obliged to coin a new phrase to avoid the undesirable Orwellian overtones. I’d suggest one, but I haven’t thought it up yet.

The Ring of Fire

The "ring of fire" projected through my binoculars. That's me on the right.

On 11 August 1999 I was standing in the rain in Stuttgart, Germany. Very slowly the light grew dimmer, until for two minutes it was as dark as twilight. Then it suddenly brightened again. Behind the opaque clouds was a total solar eclipse that I had come a long way to see, but instead, nothing but dark clouds. I was very disappointed.

This time was different. On May 20th, my friend Coy and I drove up to Red Bluff to see the annular eclipse. Along for the ride were my two nephews, Josiah and Samuel; Coy’s two daughters, Anne and Emma; and Emma’s friend Kelsey. We had a great time, and seeing the eclipse was a rare delight.

During an annular eclipse, the moon isnt’ close enough to completely block the sun, so the result is the “Ring of Fire” instead. It doesn’t get dark like it does during a total eclipse, but it did get noticeably dimmer, similar to the “Golden Hour” effect just before sunset.

The annular eclipse becomes thousands of little circles when filtered through trees. Note that it's still very light out.
Anne making tiny "pinhole cameras" with her crossed hands
Just after annularity, I caught Emma in profile. Tiny crescents can be seen in many places, including the edges of her lips
Mt Lassen as seen from downtown Red Bluff