What Ever Happened To You?

We apologize for our long absence.  As we noted in the previous column our other paying jobs and life have gotten the best of us lately.  To add insult to injury, we have been struggling with email deliverability.

We noticed that the amount of support email dropped off while our spam increased.  What we did not discover until last week was that email to us was bouncing – most of it, anyway.  We are still trying to wrestle that one down, so in the interim, please use the following email address to contact us if you have an unresolved issue.

Temporary email address

Temporary email address

On a positive note, if you follow Steven on Facebook, you may have noticed that he set a New Years resolution to lose 35 pounds in the year. So far he’s lost 26 pounds, far out stripping his two month goal of being 10 pounds slimmer. His plan is pretty simple, track and limit calories (using an App on his phone) to 1550 per day.  It’s been working well. Now if only he could figure out how to finish income taxes, get email fixed, and a dozen other tasks he would be in great shape.

Eclipse Alert

There is a Total Lunar eclipse coming the morning of April 4th.  Maximum is from 4:57 to 5:02 AM in California. That means it may be possible to get the moon in the shot near the horizon, but it will be at an altitude of 15 degrees. Getting the large moon effect at totality will be easier than the last eclipse, but still a bit of a challenge.  See the previous column for some tips.

The Vicissitudes of Life, Photography and Weather

If vicissitude is a long word, do not worry. It means:

a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.

Here in California we are finally getting much-needed rain.  The drought has been more severe than when we moved here 25+ years ago. Showers and clouds are quite welcome in these parts, provided they do not block out the next great celestial event.

The next great shower is the Geminids on the night of December 13th into the morning of December 14th.  Fortunately that is a weekend, unfortunately the moon is in its last quarter so it will rise near midnight just as the shower generally becomes more intense.

Meteor in Pointy Land

How to Watch a Meteor Shower

There are many guides on what to do to SEE a meteor shower, but we can boil it down for you:

  1. Dress very warmly. A thermos of hot beverages is strongly recommended.
  2. Get in as dark a sky as possible away from sources of light pollution, streetlights, etc. Do not use a flashlight. Let your eyes dark adapt so they can see their best.
  3. Get a comfortable fully reclining chair and look STRAIGHT up.  You’ll see more meteors if you can see the entire sky. While the meteors will appear to come from the constellation Gemini they can appear anywhere in the sky.
  4. Bring a friend along and share the wonders of the heavenly fireworks with them. Besides, officially you didn’t see a meteor unless two people saw it or you got a photograph :-)

The constellation Gemini – from which all the meteors of the shower appear to radiate rises at about 7:30 PM local time in the North East.  At that time, the Andromeda Galaxy will be almost straight above you for most people in mid-northern latitudes. By midnight, Gemini will be overhead. We recommend a Planisphere or an app if you want to identify the constellations, but to enjoy the shower you need nothing but your eyes.

Photographing a Meteor Shower

In prior articles have covered how to find a dark location and how to plan for and photograph a meteor shower.  And we even have a thorough article that explains why you probably DID NOT photograph a meteor.  We even have led expeditions to capture meteor showers in a dark location.  Unfortunately this year we have faced other vicissitudes.

You can safely skip the rest of this article if you wish…

Showers in Life

We could not deliver the content you requested used too many times

Download link error – hopefully resolved now.

We have weathered several storms ourselves recently, and like you find ourselves wondering where all the time went.  Most recently we were reminded how difficult it can be to maintain a website and sell digital goods. An increasing number of customers complained that the digital goods they ordered could not be downloaded.  We discovered that Google was the problem! We had been using goo.gl to create short links instead of long, sometimes multi-line links for downloading content, but Google insists – for your safety – to check the contents of each of those links.  It would have been fine had this happened once or twice, but we noticed that Google US, Google Czechoslovakia, Google Japan, and Google Brazil (and others) all separately scanned the links, sometimes multiple times.  And then your virus scanner may also have downloaded and inspected the content before it would let YOU have it…  It was a lot of wasted bandwidth and irritation. We rejiggered our software to resolve the issue. Bottom line if you recently purchased content and got a “Too Many Download Attempts” message, we think it should now work if you try again. We apologize for any inconvenience.

Also, as you may know, running a website is not for the faint of heart. For example, we are seeing another increase in attacks from Chinese Comment Spam robots as well as attackers in the countries of Georgia and Germany.

On a personal matter, Steven – the primary contributor to this website – was the sole survivor of an entire team that was laid off at his day job. Steven was fettered with sole responsibility for a vast armada of servers and networks – which all fell on their knees when a 30 second power interruption wreaked havoc. He also found that there were problems with his own home network which he has been building to be able to conduct webinars again (and to thwart robocallers) … His home network is still not reliable enough, unfortunately!

Meanwhile, we are still working hard on our 2015 schedule of events.  Please bear with us. Our next article will be about pin-point stars in landscape astrophotography.

~ Steven


Geometry and The Moon

Please do not run away. We are about to use adult language here. For example we will be using the word trigonometry. Still here? Good.  Here is a very pedestrian looking lunar eclipse photo taken with a 280mm lens*, cropped.

Near and Distant Neighbors

Very Ordinary Photo of the Lunar Eclipse with the planet Uranus in the lower left.

This past lunar eclipse several of us put our heads together to try to come up with a more creative photo than the one above. We had a trigonometry problem, however. On the West Coast the last moment of totality occurred at 4:24 AM PDT. We were brave enough to be out at any time of night – even if it meant extreme sleepiness in our day jobs but our problem was that the lowest the moon would be in the sky at the last bit of totality was 32.6 degrees above the horizon. We determined that angle using Stellarium, by the way. Unfortunately there is pretty much nowhere to go to get a nice large moon near an interesting object when the moon is almost 33 degrees high.

Wait: Why do we want the moon and the object to be similarly sized? Here is why… we want the moon to be noticeable like the Fantasy version below, not merely “present” like the real photo on the right. Even bigger would be better, right!?


Notice above right (Reality) and below how tiny the moon is compared to the building in the foreground?  Indeed, if you see a photo taken from anywhere on the West Coast where the eclipsed moon is significantly lower in the sky or larger than shown against foreground, you know it has been “photoshopped“.

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

In short, it is nigh impossible to get the large moon effect with an altitude (angle) of 32 degrees here is why:

Calculating the Angles

Calculating the Angles

Just how far away do we need to be in order to get the moon the same size as an object of interest:

114.6 x object size

In other words, an object that is one foot tall, requires us to stand 114.6 feet away to make the 1/2 a degree angular size of the moon the same angular size as that 1 foot tall object.  The number “114.6” is from this calculation:

1 / TAN (0.5 degrees)

Yeah, that is trigonometry. Using still more trigonometry it is possible to calculate how high above the horizon a 9 inch tall object has to be so that it is “moon sized”.  We did that for you in the “Calculating the Angles” diagram above. Once you calculate the distance from the camera of 85.9, you can multiply that by the sine of the angle to calculate a height of about 46 feet! Here is the trigonometry:

Height = 85.9′ * SIN (32 deg)

You can go one step farther and calculate the distance from the object with ‘distance = 85.9 * COS(32 deg)’.

Of course after all that calculating you will still need to find a location, have contingency plans for weather and so on. At StarCircleAcademy we have built some tools and put together materials to help in all these endeavors.  We teach these things in our NP111 Catching the Moon Webinar.

The Road To The Temple

Below is where we ended up. This image is from our friend and co-conspirator Andy Morris.

Lunar Eclipse over Temple by Andy Morris of PhotoshopScaresMe

Four of us plotted and schemed to get an interesting shot. Above is Andy Morris’ result.  Click the image and you can read a great article about how he created the shot using Photoshop Skills at his site: PhotoshopScaresMe.com. In fact, it’s a great article which we strongly encourage you to read. You’ll learn how he composited the images together in Photoshop as layers.

The Long Conversation to Pick a Location

Andy has more details including how alcohol played a part in the process. Mostly I, Steven, was the wet blanket explaining why the geometry was all wrong.

  • The Stanford (Hoover) Tower looks like it is shrouded in trees from the needed angle
  • Bank of Italy (formerly BofA) in SJC doesn’t work
  • The main problem with the wind turbines is that the angle to the top of them is something around 12 degrees above the horizon which is 40 moon diameters below the eclipse.
  • Here is why the GG Bridge doesn’t work…
  • This seems to be the best solution I could find: the Coit Tower…
  • Darn. It would appear the coast is out. Forecast calls for Fog from SF to HMB
  • This might make an interesting foreground (see below)… Somebody want to check if they will mind us being on their property in the wee hours?

*Ok, we lied, it was actually a 70-200mm lens with a 1.4 TC on a full frame camera, but the net is the same: 280 effective mm focal length.

Where did you go and what did you get in your planning efforts?  Post a comment and link below… we’d love to see what you came up with!

Off Topic Post Ahead: Combating Robocalls

Boy have we been busy at StarCircleAcademy. Eric has been burning the midnight oil in his day job being a mad scientist and all.  Steven survived layoffs at his day job and found his workload tripled, and Harold keeps plugging away writing, teaching and creating full time.

We are going a different direction with this article which we hope you’ll regard as a public service announcement.  Even though Steven lives in the Silicon Valley, his only high-speed option was Comcast/Xfinity which rates an “F” on the Better Business Bureau. But this article is not about Xfinity, their egregiously intentionally confusing pricing, or their inept customer service.

Death to robocallers

Death to robocallers

We Are Tackling Robocallers – And Saving You $

With high speed internet, it’s now possible for Steven to more effectively run Webinars at home as well as work from home part of the week on his day job. But this gave rise to severe annoyance. . One day while working at home Steven got 11 “robocalls” from telemarketers including a call you’ve probably gotten before.  The most famous fraudulent (and illegal) caller is “Rachel of CardHolder Services“. You probably have gotten robocalls yourself, even if you, like us, have been on the Do Not Call list for a long time. Even though Steven has successfully sued telemarketers in the past the RoboCallers with their automated voice messages are hard targets to assault via small claims courts. Robocallers spoof phone numbers and you can not find out who they really are without following the money (i.e. paying for the scam).

The FTC even held a contest to find a way to stop robocalls. The winner was NoMoRobo.com. NoMoRobo is rather ingenious.  You configure your phone to simultaneously ring a number at NoMoRobo which analyzes the calling number. If the calling number is a suspected robocaller – NoMoRobo answers the call for you and your phone stops ringing.  In short, you don’t have to hang up on the RoboCaller yourself, NoMoRobo will do it.

BUT There is a catch.  Many, many services do not support simultaneous ring, including AT&T, or Xfinity’s (overpriced) voice offering.  AT&T has all sorts of very expensive plans to “help”, but mostly they help themselves to your money and provide next to zero value.

At AT&T a landline phone with CallerID, Anonymous call rejection and number blocking will cost about $45 / month after all fees and taxes. There will be a significant limit to how many numbers you can block while the robocallers can spoof any number they wish.

But if you already have a decently fast internet, you can get VoIP from providers for less than $11/month.  Who? PhonePower for one. But we will get to that in a minute.

Here is how I set up my service:

  1. Call AT&T and tell them the Robocallers and telemarketers are annoying (IMPORTANT STEP!)
  2. Call AT&T and tell them I want “simultaneous ring” service so that I can use NoMoRobo to stop RoboCallers.
  3. Open an account with PhonePower and waited for their device to arrive.  I *could* have moved my phone number to them, but decided it will be better to get a new number.
  4. Called AT&T and told them I’d had enough and to cancel all services on my landline except call forwarding.  This gives me a few months to notify folks of my new phone number… and I get more features out of PhonePower at a lower price.
  5. Installed my PhonePower device and configured my landline to forward to the new number. Interestingly while I don’t get caller ID information on my landline, I *do* get it from the PhonePower line.
  6. Unplugged my cordless phone from my landline jack and plugged it into the jack on the PhonePower device (an ObiHai).
  7. Signed up with NoMoRobo.com (free).
  8. Registered my new phone number (and reregistered my old numbers) to the US Do Not Call list.
  9. Configured my PhonePower line to first ring the NoMoRobo number for 6 seconds, then to ring my PhonePower number.  This is BETTER than simultaneous ring because it doesn’t ring the phone in my house until AFTER NoMoRobo has had a chance to disconnect it for me.

What Can You Do?

You can report the number to the FTC here.  Too bad their site is painful to use.

Change your answering machine greeting

“Please Hold for a second…..  (several second pause) You’ve reached us. Leave a message”.

Why? Because robocaller software listens to the line and when they think they’ve got a live person speaking, they play out their message or connect you to an agent. By leaving a pause and using a short greeting, you convince them into thinking your answering machine is a live person which causes them to leave a message or summon a live person whose time you want to waste as much of as possible (see next item). Also, if it’s a Robocall and you fooled it into leaving a message you will have proof of their call should you need it in court!

Answer It Yourself… and Do THIS if you get a Live Person

The worst thing you can do for your fellow man is to immediately hang up. The worst thing you can do for you own sanity is to scream or shout obscenities (though sometimes it is quite therapeutic). As soon as you realize it is a telemarketer say:  “Sounds interesting, Tell me more.” Then put your phone on mute, put it down and do not hang up until you hear the “re-order” (phone off hook) tone.

Why? A> Every second they spend on you they cannot annoy someone else.  A few days ago I had a caller who called back three times. The second time he called he said “so are you interested?”  I said: “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you very well, could you explain again?” (MUTE). The third time “I’m still confused, explain the benefits…”
B> Most telemarketers are trained to not hang up until they are clearly dismissed… if you make it easy for them to move on they will.

Isn’t it mean to waste their time?  Perhaps, but remember they called you in violation of the Do Not Call rules!

NEVER Do Business with a Telemarketer

If you’re on the Do Not Call list and they are calling you anyway they are unethical and willing to get business illegally. Does that sound like a business you want to do ANYTHING for you?

Do Not Answer Any Questions in a “Survey”

First, many surveys – which are permitted under the Do Not Call rules – are actually marketing scams pretending that they are surveys. Either you’ll get the sales part right away, or you’ll be placed on a list to recall if they find out ANYTHING useful from you. As soon as they ask anything or give an inclination that they are a “survey” I tell them to “Put this number on your do not call list and send me a copy of your do not call policy.”  While survey takers are not required to do either, it’s worth a try.  If they press or say “we are exempt” then my response is: “And for that reason I will not participate in any survey.”

Will These Tips Stop All the Calls?

Sadly, no. Political organizations, charities, and several other exemptions exist that allow those organizations to call you notwithstanding your status on the Do Not Call list.  Robocall scofflaws have also started spoofing (pretending to dial from) local numbers and businesses. You might even get what appears to be a call from your own number.  The only way to put an end to all the calls is to get a service that pre-answers and requires the user to press some (random) digits to connect to you.


What About Phone Power?

PhonePower is one of many companies providing Voice over IP service. You’ve no doubt heard of Vonage, for example. But Vonage charges $28/month (do not be misled that $9.99 price is temporary and doesn’t include all fees).  At Vonage you have to pay extra for a SoftPhone (computer based phone), for example.  Phone Power on the other hand acquired BroadVoice a company with whom I had service for several years with good service.

If I have any complaints about PhonePower, it is that it is a little nerdy to configure, their user interface is a tad clunky, and they do not have a feature like “call intercept”.

Are There Other Alternatives?

Oh yeah. Google Voice, which is super cool and free and it has some spam caller detection features.