My Solar Eclipse Experience

They are right when they say there is nothing quite like a total solar eclipse. I had seen an annular eclipse in my senior year of high school as it cross over Vermont. Wandering out there with our physics teacher, looking through glasses, it was pretty cool, but it was nothing like the Sun going out.

Eclipse day for us was in Springfield, TN, as my friend's Nick and Heather were living there, and it was deep in the path of totality. We made plans to visit in May, booked our hotel then, and framed a trip around this so that we'd do four 8 hour driving days on our great eclipse road trip. Down through Cleveland to visit family, and up through Virginia on the way back to break up the drive.

On the way to Tennessee on Friday, my friend Jack was still sorting out his plans. He and his son were going to be sleeping in their car wherever they went. The weather where he was originally headed was looking dicey, and I said "well this is where we'll be, I make no promises, but I can offer you use of our hotel shower." Friday evening they decided they would join us. They arrived Sunday about 9am. In addition to bringing their wonderful selves, they had brought a solar filtered scope, a hydrogen alpha scope, and a camera rig to shoot the eclipse, and a shade tent.

We scouted a location at Nick and Heather's apartment, a flat grassy section near the apartment complex dog park. First contact was just shy of noon for us. We started setting up all the equipment at 10, were in a good state by 11.

Our setup area for the eclipse
All set up, shade tent, telescopes

First contact. The moment when you stare through those eclipse glasses and say: "wait, is that side just a little flat now? Maybe I'm imagining it. No, I really think it is. Yeah, that must be real." As the eclipse grows, your brain does this funny thing and enhances the boundary. The silhouette of the Sun seems to glow brighter than the Sun itself.

Eclipse glasses on!

After about 20 minutes, and our pacman shape ever growing, I realized we're never going to break for food (the original plan), we should bring it back down here. So I headed back upstairs with Nick, prepared a bit of our picnic food that we'd gotten the night before, and headed back provisions in hand.

A shade tent is a glorious thing when watching an eclipse on a 95 degree sunny day with few clouds. We would spend time inside the tent, drinking water, having a snack, then popping out to see how things were progressing.

Shade tent, and making new friends

With our little camp setup, folks from the complex started stopping by. Including a number of kids. Jack's a pro at the sidewalk astronomy outreach, we introduced people to the scopes, what they were looking at, and kept them pointed and in focus. One of the kids came back out with popsicles for everyone as a thank you for letting everyone see through those scopes.

Popsicle break

It was never going to get cold in Tennessee, but once we got past 75% coverage, the beating hot 95 turned into "a reasonable warm day to be outside". Maybe we dialed back to 80. The sky lost it's deep blue, and was just a muted version of itself. Everything was muted in an erie way that you can't quite describe.

As we closed in on second contact, a cloud creeped in over the Sun. It kept going away, coming back, going away, coming back, with lots of, "is that it?", "no". Then just before totality the cloud cleared, it went black, one of the neighbors yelled, "we're in!". Everyone took off their glasses. And we stared at a hole in the sky with the giant wispy corona spewing out from it.

Our eclipse, courtesy Jack Chastain

Pictures don't ever really capture what the eye sees. Most of them show a small ring around the Sun. But this was a sun flower. The corona extended at least the radius of the Sun again. It wasn't uniform, it was sweepy with a few petals poking out. It was amazing. Everyone was exclaiming in different ways, processing this true wonder of nature in a way personal to them.

Venus, Jupiter, and even dim Mercury came out to meet us. I was so focused on all of those I didn't really take the time to look for other stars. But given Mercury was dialing in at magnitude 3, there should have been plenty.

During totality

We got about two and a half minutes. It's not enough time. Not enough time to soak in this totally bizarre experience. It was about a minute longer than our daughter (not quite 3) was happy with. Both the dark, and the black hole in the sky definitely got her scared. She was not the only one, we heard another boy crying in one of the apartments behind us.

One of the neighbors gave us a countdown for the event ending. As hit the end of the countdown, I looked down at the 2 trees in front of us. No shadow, no shadow, no shadow, then with what appeared to be a swoosh... 2 shadows. Like they were dropped back into place in a cartoon.

A child crying... my child. "I want to see Venus! I want to see Venus!". Venus is a night sky friend, we've been finding it in the sky for nearly a year. Everyone was talking about how you could see it during the eclipse and now Arwen was upset that they didn't also get that chance. But at magnitude 4, Venus was easy to see even back to 90% coverage. We spent some time pointing and looking, and calming down. She's at the age where I don't know if she'll remember all of this later when she's grown up, but maybe there will be flashes of it.

The sun returns, with crescents through the bushes

And as the Sun returned, everyone dispersed. I spent the next hour helping Jack pack up and put things in his car. We all ended up back in the nice AC before the even was properly over, taking a last look at a 15% eclipse before going inside for more food and to crack a few beers.

Jack and son stayed a few hours to let the worst of the traffic clear, then headed off back to Virginia. The google map from that day is amazing. We fortunately had all the food we needed in the apartment for dinner, so dined in, made our goodbyes at about 7, headed to our hotel, and even started watching the PBS eclipse documentary that aired that night. Though after a few pictures of totality were on the screen Arwen proclaimed "that is too much for me, please turn it off."

My plan for avoiding the traffic was leaving the day after. However, there were really more people out for this event that did the same. Our 9 hour driving day, turned into 12 hours of driving thanks to constant stop and go traffic on the I-81 corridor in Virginia. We did get to our Tuesday night lodging that day, at 11:59pm. So we also get to have a traffic story for our eclipse adventure.

There really is nothing like a total eclipse. I'm now excited for 2024 (less excited about New England April weather). And, we'll see if we consider destination adventures to see another one along the way. I was exciting to share this with my daughter and wife, and friends both old and new. What a great end to the summer.

Eclipsee

OpenWest 2017 Roundup

When I first discovered the Open West conference, I was told it was the biggest US open source event that I'd never heard of, which is a pretty apt description. Open West brings together technologists interested in Open Technology in Sandy Utah, just south of Salt Lake City. This is a community regional Open Source event, run by volunteers, which means the program is much more varied than what you'd see at an event focused on a particular open source technology stack.

With up to 13 tracks happening simultaneously, there were lots of great moments for me over the course of the week. I'm just going to capture a few of them.

OpenCV Trials and Tribulations

There was a great talk by John Harrison at Lucid Charts about trying to do something interesting with OpenCV, and failing. He was giving the talk in the spirit of the Journal of Negative Results: reporting a hard problem they tried and failed at, and the dead ends they ran into.

It started as a hackfest project, could they take a screen shot with a camera of a flow chart, and use OpenCV to turn that into a symbolic flow chart in their tool. Turns out if you write all connecting lines in red, and all shapes in black, it's not a very hard problem. Also turns out, even in controlled user experiments, you can't get anyone to do that. It fails UX. And while they did build a system that worked with black lines everywhere in controlled lab environments, it worked with 0% of customer taken images, and the path to improvement wasn't clear, so after a 2 month experiment they stopped.

While they are primarily a Java shop, they did this entire project in python, because while "there are OpenCV bindings for every language you can imagine, all the interesting examples are only in python." Which goes to show how import an open and vibrant ecosystem of consuming tools is to the success of a project.

Writing Ethical Software

This was an interesting talk by James Prestwich on writing ethical software, that started with a brief history of schools of thought on ethics over the last 3000 years. The primer was just straight up informative, and the presenter actually did a quite good job being neutral through all of that.

Then we were posed with an interesting question. Software is now mostly about mediating complex interactions between people. If you look at other fields like Medicine and Law there are oaths and codes of conduct that their practitioners take because of how much their work affects people's lives.

We have collectively decided that certain things, like land mines, should not exist in the world. We have treaties on that. But as software eats the world, we're not having the conversation about what software should not exist, for any reason.

There weren't answers during this talk, it was mostly questions and attempting to start a conversation. But for anyone who works in software it's a good thought exercise to have. What are your personal ethical boundaries about software you would create or contribute to? It's also a much better conversation to have well in advance of any actual ethical conflict, because things are rarely bright lines, but long slippery slopes.

Hardware Track

There was a dedicated hardware track on the main stage for the whole conference, at least a third of the talks were related to home automation in some way, and 80% of them centered around a project that used a Raspberry Pi.

Raspberry Pi has managed to go across the entire hype curve and is now climbing away on the plateau of productivity. We went from neat idea, to unobtainium, to toy projects, to boxes full of pis in basements, to real productivity over the last 5 years. Yes, there are lots of other cheaper, neater, more powerful platforms, but the ecosystem around the pi just makes it the no brainer work horse.

I was actually a little surprised how many home grown Home Automation systems people talked about there. I did have pieces of something like that before discovering Home Assistant, but now it's hard to imagine doing all the work that the community is doing for me.

One of the projects I thought was most interesting was air quality monitoring with the esp8662. For about $30 they can build each monitoring unit, then find places throughout the community they can plug them in (need power and wifi). They are collecting it all in a
central MQTT broker and doing reports on it to try to get a better baseline on the air quality in the Salt Lake City area.

Patching People

The stand out keynote of the event was Deb Nicholson on patching people.

Any group of humans, and they ways they interact, have bugs, just like software has bugs. A people bug is like a software bug, it's unintended negative side effects of things that are happening. The point is, patching people is actually not all that different than patching software.

Filing "bugs" against people is a little harder than software, because no one likes to accept criticism. So as such, she put forward the idea of "calling in" vs. "calling out". Take the person aside, privately, and say "I think you were trying to do X, but the way it was said excluded a bunch of these people. Maybe saying it this other way would be more effective?".

The other thing to realize is none of us is above this. We all make mistakes, and need some patching from time to time.

After this talk I'm going to try to be better about calling in when I think it will help. In open source projects, they live or die by the longevity of the community, so patching the community to be more inclusive and welcoming is key.

So many more good moments...

Honestly, there were so many other good moments as well: chatting with folks about Home Assistant after my talk; seeing the state of the world on different AI cloud platforms; thinking about localization and culture in software; getting my head around the oauth model; json web tokens.

This is definitely a conference I'd love to get to again, and a great community event they've built there. Thanks to the OpenWest organizing team for such a great show.