Privacy Policy Update: No Mining

I got a weird spam e-mail overnight asking if I wanted to embed someone’s cryptocurrency miner into my website. They purport to be opt-in only, but all the other examples I’ve read about online up to now have been surreptitious, hijacking the browser for its own ends without asking. The end user only notices when their computer fans switch on or their computer gets too hot.

Such mining scripts have been strongly contentious in other websites. They exert excessive and unilateral control over the browser’s system. I certainly had such things in mind when I promised never to embed ads and the like in my website, but I had never spelled out that I had no intention of hijacking the browser for my own ends (ad or not).

This morning, I added a new point to my privacy policy.

  • This website does not load software in the user agent (your browser) which serves any purpose beyond displaying the website and its assets—meaning it does not use your browser to mine cryptocurrency, for example.

Most of my privacy policy describes what the website does without mentioning the browser. This point adds a clear expectation for browsers which visit.

I generalized the point a bit to include things which aren’t just cryptocurrency miners. It might be tempting to grab a few of my users’ cycles for SETI@home or the like, for example, but if a user wants to contribute to a project like that, they can do so themselves. I’ll have to rely on persuasive words to bring people around to a cause like that.

The Apology Contract

A binding contract has three elements: offer, consideration, and acceptance—all of which must exist among mutually assenting parties. These elements, in some form or another, have existed since time immemorial. A contract of sale, for example, contains an offer (the good for sale at a price), the consideration (the money exchanged for the good), and the acceptance (the actual mutual agreement to exchange the good for the price).

Many of our social interactions implicitly follow a similar structure because they rely upon offering, considering, and accepting one another’s social cues in more-or-less formulaic ways. Some of these interactions are rigidly ritualistic—”thank you,” “you’re welcome”—and some are not (flirting, for example).

I have read several articles on the best way to apologize, with which I agree, and which address the person giving the apology with humility and sincere intent, acknowledging the harm done, and reducing further harm. (One such popular example was written by John Scalzi. Another good example aimed at children comes from a parenting blog.)

However, I have lately come to worry that the act of the apology often still imposes a contract-like, ritualistic exchange. On receiving an apology, I have in the past found myself at odds with every instinct in my body to assuage the apologizer who, having recognized their fault and promising in good faith to do better, awaits something like an absolution from me before moving on.

The formula for how we’re taught to apologize, as children, goes:

— I’m sorry.

— It’s okay.

I’ve tried withholding that second part of the exchange as I’ve gotten older. Sometimes I don’t feel okay. Sometimes it’s not okay. Maybe I need space or time to get there. Maybe I just want to move on without needing to perseverate on the feelings of the person who wronged me.

This is especially difficult for an in-person conversation. Without the expected words, “it’s okay,” or, “it’s fine,” in my mouth, what am I to say? I don’t necessarily want to prolong the moment, either. I often have an interest in moving past the moment, but I don’t have some alternative wording that isn’t focused on the feelings of the apologizer.

When I don’t automatically say, “it’s okay,” a loaded pause often seems to follow. The apologizer feels they have done everything right, and I haven’t followed through on my end of the apology. They wait for me to give them some way to get past the moment, and when I don’t offer that back, they also don’t know how to continue.

The ritual of the apology feels a lot like a social contract because we’re conditioned to treat it as such from a young age, to offer some comfort to someone who has apologized and meet them part way. However, this is no contract. The formula, like so many social rituals, instead imposes an expected response on the recipient. There’s not necessarily mutual assent.

What I have read about the best way to offer an apology sometimes, but doesn’t always, offers a final step I believe is extremely important—once given, expect nothing back. Any forgiveness, grace, or acceptance on the part of the recipient is a gift, not an exchange. Beyond that, though, you need not expect any response whatsoever, not even acknowledgement. The apology, for the one giving it, is both the understanding of harm and the promise to reject furthering it. It is not a request.

What’s more, I can’t recall seeing anyone write for the person receiving the apology. I address you now: You owe nothing. Take comfort, if you can, that someone has seen how they have harmed you. Find peace, if you can, in the closure they offer. Exchange what you like, and repair the relationship if you want it. But your duty to them ended when the apologizer wronged you in the first place.

Adding a Privacy Policy

I’ve decided to give my website a privacy policy. It’s maybe more of a privacy promise.

It might sound strange to make a privacy policy for a website with which I don’t intend users to interact, but I’ve realized that even browsing news websites or social media has privacy implications for users who visit them. So I wanted to state what assurances users can have when visiting my website—and set a standard for myself to meet when I make modifications to my website.

Most of the points in it boil down to one thing—if you visit my site, that fact remains between you and my site. No one else will know—not Google, not Facebook, not your ISP, not the airplane WiFi you’re using, not some ad network.

I went to some trouble to make these assurances. For example, I had to create a WordPress child theme which prevents loading stylesheets associated with Google Fonts used by default. Then—since I still wanted to use some of those fonts—I needed to check the licensing on them, download them, convert them to a form I could host locally, and incorporate them into a stylesheet on my own server.

I also needed to audit the source code for all the WordPress plugins I use to see what requests they make, if any, to other parties (and I’ll have to repeat this process if I ever add a new plugin). This was more challenging than I realized.

I needed to ensure I had no malware present and that my website remain free of malware. I began with WordPress’s hardening guide. I found a very thorough plugin for comparing file versions against known-good versions (WordFence, which I found recommended in the hardening guide). I also made additional checks of file permissions, excised unused plugins, made sure all server software was up to date, and incorporated additional protections into the web server configuration to limit my attack surface.

Finally, I had to browse my website for a while using my local developer tools built into my browser, both to see if any requests went to a domain other than my own and to inspect what cookies, local storage, and session storage data were created. This turned up a plugin that brought in icons from a third party site, which I had to replace.

After all that, I feel sure I can make the assurances my privacy policy makes.

Beginning Astrophotography: Crescent Moonset

Computer-controlled, motorized telescope, dimly illuminated, aimed up and to the left at the distant crescent moon in the upper left, with a camera attached where the eyepiece should be at the back, using a baroque contraption.
Last night’s front-porch setup: Celestron NexStar 5 SE powered by a Celestron PowerTank Lithium and Sony α6300 camera connected using an E-mount camera adapter, aimed at the twilight moonset.

I had clear skies again last night, and I remembered to look for the Moon while it was slightly higher in the sky. I set my telescope up on the front porch shortly after sunset. The Moon presented an incandescent, imperceptibly fuller crescent facing the failing twilight.

Because it was higher, I had a better perspective, I had more time to take photos, I had more time to check my settings, and my photos had less atmosphere through which to photograph (meaning less distortion). And because the crescent was fuller, I captured more detail in my photos.

Equipment

I always remember to spell out acquisition details in my astrophotography posts, but I’ve found instead people most often ask what equipment I use. I usually don’t list this in detail, both because I’ve usually already mentioned my equipment in earlier posts and also because I find that the exact equipment I used on a given night is partially convenience and whim, not meriting any particular recommendation or endorsement. My photos are within reach of all sorts of equipment of various kinds and prices, given practice and technique, and the last thing I want to do is give someone the impression they need to spend over a thousand dollars to do what a two-hundred-dollar telescope and a smartphone can do.

However, I’m going to try to make an effort to name what equipment I use now and in the future just because it’s so commonly asked. Maybe I’ll need to reference it myself in the future, too. So last night, I used

Those are the only four pieces of hardware I used last night.

Technique

I aligned the telescope on the Moon, which let it track roughly. This meant it needed periodic corrections to keep it from drifting out of view (once every several minutes). I concentrated on keeping the extents of the arc within the viewfinder.

View of the LCD display of the camera, zoomed in on a fuzzy section of the Moon, showing bright and dark sections divided by a diagonal line.
Using the Focus Magnifier on the Sony α6300, concentrated on a section of the Moon near its terminator to fine-tune focus.

Once it was centered and roughly focused, I used a feature on my camera called the “Focus Magnifier” to fine-tune the focus. I’ve found this to be indispensable. Using this feature, I zoom in to a close up view of some section of what the camera sensor is seeing. This way, I can make fine adjustments to the telescope’s focus until I get the best possible clarity available. I can also get a good idea what kind of seeing I’ll encounter that night—whether the sky will shimmer a lot or remain still. I was lucky last night to find good focus and good seeing.

Once focus is good, it can be left alone. I ensure that the adapter is locked tightly in place so that nothing moves or settles, keeping the focal point cleanly locked on infinity.

Then I turned the ISO up—doubled it. The Moon is a bright object, so I was not keen to use something I would use for a dark site, but I settled on ISO 1600. My goal was to reach a shutter speed of 1/100 seconds, which I did, without losing the picture to noise or dimness. A higher ISO works great at a dark site, but the Moon is quite dynamic, so I felt like I had less headroom. In any case, I used 1/100 seconds’ exposure and ISO 1600 for all my photos.

I captured a short 4K video before I began so I could capture the seeing conditions that night. I recommend viewing it fullscreen, or it will look like a still photo—the sky was placid as a pond last night.

After taking the video, I realigned the telescope slightly and, using my remote controller so that I could quickly actuate it without shaking the telescope, I took 319 photos, occasionally realigning to correct for drift.

Unfortunately, Venus and Mercury had already sunk too low to get a glimpse, so I packed it up and went inside.

Processing

I moved all the photos, in RAW format, to my computer from the camera. Then I converted them all to TIFF format. These two steps took probably something like an hour and resulted in seven and a half gigabytes of data.

Screenshot of a Windows program called PIPP, using two Windows, one showing the Moon highlighted in blood red, the other with several progress bars and a list of files.
Screenshot of PIPP in use, aligning the photos of the Moon and sorting them by brightness.

Because the Moon drifted, due to the rough tracking, the photos needed to be pre-aligned. I used a piece of software called PIPP for that. Without this pre-alignment step, the tracking and alignment built into my stacking software struggled mightily with the photos and created a mess.

Its output was another series of TIFF photos. I found afterwards that two of the photos were significantly too exposed, leaving many details blown out, so I excluded them from the rest of the process, leaving me with 317 photos.

Screenshot of AutoStakkert!3, a baroque program consisting of two windows, one with a large preview of the moon, the other with lots of graphs and buttons and inputs and multiple progress bars. It is 20% through "MAP Analysis."
Screenshot of AutoStakkert!3 stacking the best 50% of the Moon photos I took into a single image.

I opened these 317 photos in AutoStakkert!3 beta. After initial quality analysis, I used the program to align and stack the best 50% of the images (by its determination). This took a bit less than ten minutes and left me with a single TIFF photo as output.

Image stacking leaves behind an intermediate product when it’s complete, which is what this TIFF photo is. It’s blurry, containing an average of all the 157 photos which were composited into it. However, the blurs in this photo can be mathematically refined more easily using special filters. I used a program called Astra Image to apply this further processing. In particular, I used a feature it calls “wavelet sharpening” (which can be found in other programs) to reduce the blurring. I also applied an unsharp mask and de-noising.

Finally, I used Apple Photos to flip the resulting photo vertically (to undo the inversion which the telescope causes) and tweak the contrast and colors.

The Photo

Photo of crescent moon, slender, curving down like a bowl but askew to the right. Terminator stops just short of the Mare Crisium.
Crescent moonset taken at about 8 p.m., PDT, on 20 Mar 18. Composited from 50% highest quality photos of a set of 317 taken.

Click to view the photo in fullscreen if you can. There’s a lot of detail. The terminator of the lunar surface stops just short of the Mare Crisium (the Sea of Crises), the round, smooth basalt surface right about the middle of the crescent.

I can’t help but compare this one to the photo from the night before: what a difference a day makes. I had more time to work, more photos to take, and the benefit of yesterday’s experience to help improve.

Now it’s clouded over here again—Portland weather—and I can’t practice anymore for a while.

Beginning Astrophotography: Cheshire Grin

Thin waxing crescent moon, turned upward like an askew grin, surrounded by blackness
Waxing crescent moon setting in the west, photographed about 8:45 p.m. PDT (image stacked from thirty-nine individual photos taken by a Sony α6300 camera through a Celestron NexStar 5 SE telescope).

Before the waxing crescent moon set tonight, I caught its Cheshire grin among the firs in the west for a few minutes. Then it was gone.

I had to take my telescope (a smaller model, a Celestron NexStar 5 SE) down the sidewalk a little ways to get a view between the branches. I took as many photos as I could before it set too low in the sky, using my Sony α6300 camera connected to the telescope using an adapter without an eyepiece (the “prime focus” technique). They were photographed all at ISO 800 and exposed for 1/25 seconds. The photo above was stacked from the 50% best examples of those seventy-eight photos I took before the Moon subsided among the trees.

The Thing About My Name

I’m just Emily to my friends. I go by “Emily St” in writing whenever someone needs a longer name and there’s no strict, legal reason to give my whole last name. It catches some people up because “St” resembles the abbreviation for a bunch of things which have nothing to do with me.

In this case, “St” is only short for my last name—not “Saint,” not “Street,” not some other thing. I rarely give out the full version because I’ve found it’s unnecessary in almost every situation.

It’s surprising how often the full last name isn’t actually required. For years, I’ve managed to have mail delivered without my full last name—useful so I can know mail from people who actually know me from those who have me from some list. I’ve even had credit card transactions go through okay without the whole last name.


The idea that I might not be going by my “real” or “legal” name might cause someone consternation. But a “real name” is a slippery idea. It comes from a combination of assumptions about a person having a single, fixed name which is registered with a single, fixed governmental entity. This assumption is both relatively recent in history and only true in the simplest cases.

Not only may a legal name for a person vary over time, but even in a single moment, disagreement may exist among various legal entities about a legal name. For example, in the U.S., the moment a judge issues a court order granting a name change, you (and not some automatic process) must then take that name change order to all the various entities, public and private (Social Security Administration, DMV, bank, job, and so on) and get them all updated. Until you’re done, those entities disagree about your name. You can hold in your hand a driver’s license in one name, a Social Security card in another, and be totally in the right simply because of bureaucracy. They’re not even the same governments—one’s federal and one’s state. They have little meaningful responsibility to be in accord with one another (and any bills attempting to create a unified federal ID system have been resisted so far in the U.S.).

Then setting aside legal technicalities, a “real” name is just an idea that can coincide with a legal name or not, may be a single name or multiple. Used enough, a name may become someone’s legal name through sheer use—a name change by usage can be recognized legally as well.

There are people who convert their names through religion, use different names to assimilate culturally, or adopt assumed names for performance or pseudonymous reasons. Do you know Mozart’s “real name”? There’s an entire Wikipedia article about it. Would you be surprised to hear Beethoven introduce himself as Luigi or Louis, depending on if you were in Italy or France at the time?

The process of name change continues today. SAG-AFTRA rules discourage name collisions, so performers often choose new names under which they perform. Names also may have marketing or homage purposes. Diane Keaton loved Buster Keaton. You know Tom Cruise and not Thomas Mapother. Harry Houdini’s greatest escape might have been from the name Erik Weisz.

Seen through the prism of those contexts, what’s a “real” name?


As for why I use “St” and not some other abbreviation, I have a couple of reasons. First, “S” on its own would be even more confusing, I think. It’s less unique and might look like (in handwriting especially) like I’m just pluralizing my first name.

I also liked the way it looked when I signed it. I could cross the final flourish with a downstroke.

Scripted signature signed as "Emily St"

It began at my first tech job, where everyone was assigned usernames with three-letter acronyms, and for some reason, I was given “est.” I took to expanding that out—I can’t remember where exactly first—so my first name would be included.

It was pretty unique—easy to find as a username in places. It had no strong flavor of personality beyond being my name, so I probably wouldn’t tire of it. It was short. I managed to find a Web domain version of it online.

It sometimes confuses people that I shorten it this way—it’s not an initial, but it has no vowels, so it’s not a word. So sometimes I slap a big asterisk on the end—Emily St*—so it looks like something is omitted. (Putting a dot just made people say “Saint” or “Street,” as if part of the name got lopped off.)

That’s all there is to it—it’s just my first name and part of my last name. Nothing more. If you meet me, you can call me by my first name. If you really need to, you can sound out the letters “ess tee,” or just ask me my last name in person. (I don’t mind people knowing. I just don’t commit it to writing without a good reason.)

The Putty

A long time ago, when I was still a young buck in middle school, I was sitting around with my best friend at his trailer playing around, and I noticed a giant tub of what I took to be Silly Putty. Had to have been half a gallon of the stuff, pink, in a white plastic tub.

I thought: hell, yes, tub of putty. Gonna play with some putty. Gonna just scoop up a bunch of this putty, and—it’s a rock. I can’t shove my hand in. I only left finger dimples.

My friend told me it’s putty for physical therapy. “You squeeze it with your hand.” He dipped his hand in slowly, and it gave way to his light touch.

He explained, in middle-school words, that the viscosity makes it resist any flow faster than a fixed rate. You can’t make it flow any faster, no matter how much effort you put in. You can’t speed it up. To shape it, to squeeze it, it doesn’t matter how much force you put in. It always flows at the same speed.

I tried it. He was right. It felt soft and yielding as long as I applied very little force. If I added more force, it responded with obstinate indifference.

He was able to scoop it up smoothly because he allowed his hand time to sink in without shoving. I had thought of it as a liquid like any other that would simply make room for me as I pushed my hand in, but it didn’t. It pushed back. No effort on my part made a difference. Only time mattered.


Early on in my life, many things came easily to me. By that, I mean I learned new information easily and retained it. Some things came more quickly to me that did not come as quickly to others, and I was encouraged for it. I became accustomed to gliding through tasks superficially. I used my innate aptitude to move past unpleasant work as quickly as possible and attend to my interests. But this was an undisciplined way to live. The more I indulged only what came easily, the more I neglected other aptitudes I should have nurtured.

Later came problems for which I had less inherent aptitude—whether that meant synthesizing existing knowledge to adapt to novel situations, coping with uncertainty or ambiguity, training for physical tasks, or understanding and empathizing with new people. I had no ready-made shortcut here. When the time passed beyond which I could no longer ignore these problems, my instinct was again to find some other way to speed up my approach.

I had formed a habit of rushing of which I wasn’t even aware. I also didn’t like being caught off-guard and unprepared.

I figured maybe I could power through these new situations with a burst of concentrated effort. It made sense to me. If I could just summon up one good wind, I could quickly clear whatever problem and—ironically—avoid self-discipline again.

However, I often encountered frustration instead, and I tended to begin by blaming my frustration on extrinsic factors. At work, for example, I blamed the documentation, training material, or managers. I blamed the people around me for confusing me or misleading me. I dismissed or downplayed the subject’s importance. After a while, these excuses stopped working, and my frustration then turned inward. I ended up blaming myself.

My life—one with a relative lack of financial privilege until recently—had a way of forcing me through the hardship of those episodes, just to survive and make my way, and I’m better off for it today. I can look back at times when I finally saw what had to happen, acted on it, and grew from it. I only regret that I had to pass through so much needless, self-inflicted frustration, pain, and blame along the way.

I’ve begun thinking more and more about that physical therapy putty as I get older. I think we’re the putty.

To learn—to grow—we must change, in a real and physical sense, by reshaping our brains and (sometimes) our bodies. This is a process that takes time. Laborious effort makes no dramatic difference in the rate at which this happens, the way a novice cannot just throw a massive amount of weight onto the rack at the gym to get stronger right away. On the other hand, neither can it be slowed by failing to bring all our effort to bear—so long as we devote the time and commit to some progress—nor initial lack of innate ability. We inevitably change as a function of time, provided we keep going, bit by bit, every day.

I have thought about this as I learned guitar. I thought about it when I learned French. I thought about it when I taught myself to juggle. I thought about it as I tried to train my eye to see through a telescope. And I thought about it as I recognized the pattern of discomfort I move through as I begin a new job. As long as I kept at it, I improved—usually just about at the same pace from one experience to the next.

I learned that new kinds of growth came from applying myself and then just waiting, and from accommodating within myself the discomfort of that waiting.

I have often avoided uncertainty in my life out of fear, I think. I’ve never been encouraged to be uncertain or doubtful. Not having the answers makes me vulnerable because it undermines the very thing that set me apart early in life and made me feel more capable. With that vulnerability then comes discomfort because I am unkind to myself when I notice I’m unable to meet my own expectations. Worst of all, it feels inescapable in the moment: there’s just no way to get easy answers, an easy fix, a magic word. It’s tempting to believe—after half a lifetime of being addicted to all the answers coming so quickly—that you’re failing, and it’s your fault.

However, I believe uncertainty, discomfort, and self-forgiveness are precisely the traits I need in order to grow beyond superficial knowledge acquisition, so that I may find kindness and connect to new things and people I could not have done when I was younger. Cultivating these traits allow me to surrender myself in the present to the passage of time and all it brings—and eventually to new circumstances and possibilities I would not have had otherwise. There are matters of experience which I cannot touch intellectually, no matter how hard I try.

The hell of it is, I still don’t know how I will do these things yet. I think that’s okay for now, as long as I keep trying.


(I am grateful to Amy Farrell and to Sophie for their constructive feedback on my earlier drafts of this post.)

The Shareholder Primacy Myth

I used to hold a common misconception about corporations in the United States that I’ve seen commonly shared by friends and strangers online. I believed that the executive leadership of corporations was legally mandated to prioritize and maximize profit for shareholders, putting this duty above all other considerations. I’ve since learned that this misapprehension is, at best, controversial, and at worst, outright false and dangerous.

The doctrine of prioritizing shareholder interests above all others is called shareholder primacy. It appears to have been promulgated in particular by theorist Milton Friedman (an economic theorist who advised U.S. President Reagan and UK Prime Minister Thatcher, espousing free-market policies with minimal government interference).

The initial notion of shareholder primacy in the U.S. seems to come from a misinterpretation of a case called Dodge v. Ford Motor Company. That took place back in 1919, when Henry Ford wanted to take surplus profits from his publicly shared company and, rather than continuing dividends, reinvest those into his factories and workforce. Shareholders took him to court, and the court forced him to pay dividends.

The judgment in this case, its interpretation, and its context are more complex than I feel willing to stretch as a non-lawyer. However, I understand most definitely—based on that case and case law afterward, which states unambiguously what limits courts have to interfere in business decisions—that Dodge v. Ford Motor Company did not establish the shareholder primacy doctrine as it lives, in myth, today. In that case, the court ruled that (emphasis mine),

courts of equity will not interfere in the management of the directors unless it is clearly made to appear that they are guilty of fraud or misappropriation of the corporate funds, or refuse to declare a dividend when the corporation has a surplus of net profits which it can, without detriment to its business, divide among its stockholders, and when a refusal to do so would amount to such an abuse of discretion as would constitute a fraud, or breach of that good faith which they are bound to exercise towards the stockholders.

Subsequent case law has only underscored the original intent. Case law has evolved into a doctrine called the “business judgment rule” in many common law countries, including the U.S. It gives corporate business leaders generous autonomy in making business decisions, even ones that sacrifice short-term profit or reduce shareholder value, so long as those decisions aren’t outright profligate, fraudulent, and so on. Duty to the shareholders is grounded in dealing fairly, not submissively.

The business judgment rule allows that, “in making business decisions not involving direct self-interest or self-dealing, corporate directors act on an informed basis, in good faith, and in the honest belief that their actions are in the corporation’s best interest.”

So it seems clear that the shareholder primacy myth was predicated on, charitably speaking, a misunderstanding of case law. If there were any doubt about the interpretation of the judgment in Dodge v. Ford Motor Company, there are subsequent cases which have provided clear precedent and tests of the court’s powers in matters of executive decision making.

The next time someone tells you that corporations exist only, or first and foremost, to serve the shareholders, you know now that belief has no basis in law, if not reality. Where CEOs and boards hold themselves to the standard of conduct that shareholder primacy implies—always capitulating to shareholder whims, prioritizing share price and profit in every decision—they are imposing their own independent values and beliefs on corporate governance. Shareholder primacy is itself a leadership decision, not a law.

Beginning Astrophotography: Day for Night: The 2017 Eclipse

View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse
View screen of the Sony α6300 camera during the later parts of the eclipse, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus

I had promised myself I wouldn’t bother with photography during the 2017 eclipse. I had figured everyone else would take such far better photos that I shouldn’t bother. But I knew I wouldn’t miss seeing totality for the world, and as the time approached, I found myself bringing all of my equipment, “just in case.”

Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse
Detail showing the Sony α6300 camera adapted to the Celestron eleven-inch telescope I used to photograph and video portions of the eclipse

I kept having this debate with myself about how I would spend my precious minute and eight seconds (the duration of totality allotted to me where I ended up). Do I passively observe? Or do I try to capture the experience?

Actually, people kept expecting me to take photos. They were excited for them in advance, and each time I tried to let them down gently—”I might just let the experts take the photos and sit back and enjoy the show”—I felt more and more like I was kidding myself. In the end I decided all the hours of solitude at the telescope over the last two years, all the practice, all the writing I’ve done here—they’ve engendered in me the confidence to photograph the eclipse up close, and I’d be disappointed in myself if I didn’t try.

The Night Before

I drove to a friend’s farm for the eclipse, in the area of Molalla, Oregon, in the Willamette Valley (the same place where I photographed the Milky Way the month before). I had been invited to come the day before so that I could stay and watch the event the next day, and my host had also invited possibly a hundred people to come for a pig roast that Sunday. It was a kind of impromptu country fair, and I met a lot of people that day.

As night fell, I set up the telescope and aimed it on Saturn so I could make sure the motors and optics were still in working order. There was a panicked moment when I thought I had lost the control cable for the declination motor! But after some fooling around with collimation and other setup, I got it aimed on Saturn and invited everyone to form a line to see. Nothing impresses quite like it!

People began to turn in, and I stayed up a bit later to look at other parks of the Milky Way’s core. Quite randomly, as I shifted the telescope about the core, I happened upon a smudge I didn’t recognize but was rather bright. I couldn’t make out through the eyepiece quite what it was, so I found my camera and began photographing it for later identification.

The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The Omega Nebula, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Later, after the whole thing was over and I got home, I turned to a program called solve-field from Astrometry.net. It used the star field in the background to determine the area of the sky this photo was taken in. It plotted the nebula as the Omega Nebula.

It’s one of my favorite photos of the weekend, and it was entirely happenstance!

The Morning of the Eclipse

I was up early, having barely slept—new place, lots of people coming and going. There were dozens of people encamped where I was. I arose by seven and gradually made my way out. I determined where the sun would finally be and moved the telescope out to a prime spot (with the help of some sturdy new acquaintances—thanks, friends!).

Next was putting on a filter. I had a couple of twelve-by-twelve pieces of solar filter sheet from Thousand Oaks Optical. Another couple of new friends lent me gaffer’s tape to secure it in place and cover any small gaps leftover. I wish I had a photo of the result, but believe me when I say it looked crude and took a couple of attempts to get right.

I looked through it at the sun in its fullness to see what it looked like.

Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Full sun before eclipse, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I had succeeded. I was ready. The telescope’s motor was tracking the sun. Now all I had to do was wait.

Shortly after 9 a.m., we knew it was real. The limb of the moon touched the sun. We could see something we had never seen before.

The moon's first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The moon’s first contact with the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

Things progressed surprisingly quickly from there.

I have photos during several phases of partiality, but I mostly kept the camera away from the eyepiece of the telescope so that people could look through it. I found that as things advanced, the dozens of people in attendance began to line up, look through, and take smartphone pictures through the eyepiece. I didn’t want to interrupt this as much as I could. The closer we got, the more popular the telescope was.

Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed
Solar crescent projections through an ordinary colander as the eclipse progressed

I got to see other signs of approaching totality, like the growing coolness of the air and the light gradually fading. Someone also brought a colander so that we could see projections of the crescent through its holes.

Totality

About ten minutes before, I began to take over the telescope for myself so I wouldn’t miss the chance to photograph the parts I really wanted to.

The sun itself became dimmer and dimmer—the same settings I had on the camera captured less and less light. I’ve had to play with these after the fact to make them look brighter. Toward totality, the sun began to look very slender.

Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
Crescent of the sun, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

From this point, everything happened so quickly that the sky and earth changed from breath to breath. I watched the crescent thin almost perceptibly quickly, each photo different than the last.

Just before totality, the entire grassy field was covered in shadow bands, which I remember clearly—we could see we were all at the bottom of a vast ocean of air, now that the light from the sun had grown point-like and highly collimated. Muted ripples of white crossed the pale grass quickly, as if we were sitting on the bottom of a shallow pool.

I kept photographing as the eclipse continued, until I could get the barest crescent detectable through the filter.

The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The smallest possible crescent I could photograph before totality proper through the filter, showing an irregular pattern, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

In that slight crescent, there are some places at the sides where the light seems almost mottled. It doesn’t form clean points. I can’t say that either the atmosphere nor my focus cooperated perfectly in that moment, but I suspect some of the irregularities (evident in other photos as well) are from the surface of the moon itself—its mountains and valleys interacting with the surface of the sun. Here I believe I captured the profile of the lunar geography along the edges of the crescent.

Finally, the view in the camera went pitch black, and I looked up from the viewfinder with my bare eyes. The sun appeared to be an emptiness on fire. There is an ineffable quality to the experience, and I did my best to linger, knowing my time was so short with it.

I was surprised how much color and dynamism I saw—a kind of unnatural fierce fire fringe lay just inside the corona of blue-white which feathered out, all of which circumscribed an inner full blackness. The sky beyond was deep blue-black.

Outside of that, I saw Venus to the right. I looked for other planets, but I could not see Mars or Mercury (too close to the corona or sun, I suppose). I did not see Regulus, either. I saw other stars in the distance. It was not a full, pitch-black night around us, but it was a swirling night. I felt it palpably begin to get dewy, so quickly did the temperature plunge.

In a moment, I ripped off the filter from my telescope. Once off, the camera could see again, and it saw spectacularly.

The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.
The sun eclipsed in totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera.

I took as many photos as I could in the time allotted—about a minute. I didn’t dare mess with the settings I had. I simply set them as if I were photographing the moon (which I had practiced some weeks before) and took as many as I could in burst mode. I figured later I’d just try to process what I could and see if anything turned out okay.

Incredibly, they did, though even these could not capture what the eye saw. I was amazed to see the solar prominences in my photos as well as I could. I found that if I processed some of the photos a particular way, I could even get a clearer view of these prominences and of the fierce orange I recalled.

As totality ended, the light began to overwhelm my sensor again. If I had had more practice, I would have backed off the exposure length or ISO to capture a diamond ring effect, but I did not have this practice, and it happened so quickly that I did not adjust in the moment. Instead, the light began to overwhelm my sensor, revealing the sun in all its power as dramatic distortions.

The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera
The sun re-emerges from totality, taken via Celestron eleven-inch telescope and Sony α6300 camera

I liked the drama of it, even if I missed the special diamond ring effect. The color was really interesting (that’s more or less how it came out of the camera).

Within seconds after, totality had ended, and I had to race to slam back on my lens cap on my telescope before I damaged my camera or optics.

How I Spent the Eclipse

Now I have hindsight to think about how I spent the eclipse: about whether I should have put all the equipment away and let the experts do the photography so that I could enjoy the spectacle itself, or if I was right to join in by photographing it myself.

I think if I had had less practice, I might have come away frustrated, with poorer photos to show, and I might have missed actually looking down to see shadow bands (I yelled out, “shadow bands!” to call them out to others) or missed out on looking up. I might have ruined the moment.

But all the time I had spent with the stars and moon had prepared me, and I came away with photos that didn’t disappoint me, nor did they detract from the experience in the moment.

In fact, having the telescope set up at all was the best part, and it is the reason I do not regret the attempt. Dozens of people came and went, looking through it to see what they could, using their smart phone to take away their own photos, including lots of children. If I had not bothered, they would not have gotten to see that. I’m glad I could provide a close-up view that only a minority got.

I’m not sure if “beginning astrophotography” fits me, still, but I’m keeping it. I’ve come a long way in the last two years, but I know I have so much to learn. I spent so much time wondering if I should “let the experts” handle the photography of the eclipse, only to learn I had somehow become one of the experts at some point. This eclipse marked for me an incredible turning point as an amateur astronomer, and I hope I keep learning and growing.


Addendum

If I had one regret, actually, the journey home might be it. It took a couple of hours to get home, and I found myself stuck still in a line of cars like this.

Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus
Stationary in traffic northbound on Oregon highway 213, taken with an iPhone 6S Plus

Beginning Astrophotography: The Wide Field

Photo of the night sky showing the core of the Milky Way on the horizon
Photo of the night sky showing the core of the Milky Way on the horizon, taken 22 Jul 2017 at 10:44 p.m. PDT.

“You know, ‘galaxy’ means ‘milky,'” I said, still looking up.

“What? No way,” my friend, who was stargazing with me with her own camera, said.

“Totally. ‘Milky Way’ is directly from Latin, ‘via lactea.'”

“So it’s not from the candy bar?”

“No.”


I was taking photos with a new friend at her farm south of Portland. I remain extremely grateful to her for allowing me to do so because they allowed me to my first photos of the core of the galaxy unaffected by light pollution.

Photo of the Milky Way in the sky
Wide-field view toward the core of the Milky Way, taken on 22 July 2017

The photo above was processed somewhat delicately to improve the white balance and the colors and brighten things up a bit, but that’s more or less how it came out of the camera. Taking photos of the sky at large is a very different activity than taking photos of individual objects through a telescope.

Chiefly, there is no telescope. None of this post will discuss using a telescope. I took all these photos with my same mirrorless camera, the Sony α6300, and a tripod. To adapt this camera to wide-field night sky images of the Milky Way, there are two big differences from ordinary photography: for one, using a long exposure and high ISO, and for two, using a suitable lens.

When I started last year, I was practicing blind, experimenting in wintry months, guessing at settings, and using a 32 mm lens with significant shortcomings for night-sky photography. To make improvements, I’m grateful for information I got from Lonely Speck, which I adapted to suit me.

Exposure settings

First, most of the job of collecting a night-sky image is accomplished by exposing with a high ISO and a long exposure period. This means trucking out to a dark site—this activity is absolutely impossible anywhere near a city and impractical in a suburb. You also have to have a camera capable of manual control over its ISO and exposure length, among other things.

Detail of the night sky, looking into Cygnus, taken with ISO 800.
Detail of the night sky, looking into Cygnus, taken with ISO 800.

For my early wide-field attempts, I was afraid to raise the ISO higher than about 1600. I took some experimental shots with the ISO as high as I could go, but few were in the middle ground. I assumed these photos would be unusably noisy. Therefore, the photos which turned out best were at ISO 800, but to bring out any detail, I had to push them dramatically, such that they looked artificial.

The most important thing I read was an article on Lonely Speck about finding the best ISO which explained that ISO doesn’t increase sensitivity so much as it provides amplification of the underlying signal. ISO can be thought of as a gain control for the sensor signal. Quoting,

It’s a (very) common misconception that increasing ISO increases the sensitivity of a camera sensor. ISO doesn’t change sensitivity. Increasing ISO simply increases the brightness of a photo by amplifying the sensor signal. In the electronics world, amplification is sometimes called “gain.” …[W]e can “gain” brightness if we increase our ISO. … Higher ISOs won’t increase the visible noise in a photo. …A higher ISO will decrease the total dynamic range of the image…And, in many cases (like astrophotography), a higher ISO will actually decrease the visible noise[.]

I was amazed to learn this. The article goes on to explain the conditions under which this occurs and how. This meant that I was free to amp up the ISO on my photos considerably.

The other consideration was exposure length. Mostly, the goal is to expose as long as possible before stars stop being points of light and start being streaks. How long this takes is entirely a function of the focal length of the camera—that is, the wider the field of view, the smaller the points of light are, so the less noticeable it becomes when stars seem to “move” across the field of view.

The lens I had used before was a bit longer than typically used for Milky Way photography. It’s only able to capture about the size of a constellation. That meant that stars would appear to move if I exposed longer than about fifteen seconds.

Add these together, and I was taking in a lot less light than my camera was capable of. On top of that, my lens was not designed for astrophotography, meaning that it introduced significant distortions, called aberrations, to each photo around the edges.

Choosing a lens

Corner detail of a wide-field photo showing significant coma and astigmatism aberrations
Corner detail of a wide-field photo showing significant coma and astigmatism aberrations

I had noticed from the first images I took that I had weird comet-looking distortions around the edges of my photos, but I didn’t know why. All the bright stars ended up looking this way.

I figured I might be able to avoid these distortions by stopping down the lens somewhat (and I would have been right, as I later learned), but that would have meant blocking even more light.

Luckily, there was another post on Lonely Speck that explained all about these distortions, called aberrations. I learned that these shapes were a combination of coma (which caused the light from the star to smear inward toward the center of the photo) and tangential astigmatism (which butterflied the distortion apart parallel to the radius running from the center to the star).

These were in-built distortions of the lens. It’s not necessarily that I had a bad lens—indeed, this was a Zeiss Touit f/1.8, an extremely good portrait lens. It just wasn’t designed for work where spots of light in the periphery were meant to be precise dots.

Picture of a Rokinon Cine 12mm lens
Rokinon Cine CV12M-E 12mm T2.2 Cine fixed lens

I found out there are classes of lenses built by Samyang (also known as Rokinon lenses, among others) designed to minimize these aberrations, also having extremely short focal lengths (meaning, really wide fields of view). For my birthday in June, I treated myself to a Rokinon Cine CV12M-E 12mm T2.2 Cine fixed lens. This is the lens I’ve used for all the photos of the Milky Way since then.

The First Batch: Learning What’s Possible

I’ve taken two batches of photos of the Milky Way since getting the lens and figuring out the right direction for settings.

For the first batch, I went to Stub Stewart State Park and waited till about eleven at night. It’s summer, so that’s when astronomical dusk occurs, and you can look up and see the Milky Way (which is visible from that site, though a bit washed out). Being summer, as well, the core of the galaxy is visible in the south, which I’ve wanted to photograph for a long time.

Photo of the Milky Way in the direction of the core of the galaxy, taken 18 July 2017 from Stub Stewart State Park at 11:01 p.m. PDT
Photo of the Milky Way in the direction of the core of the galaxy, taken 18 July 2017 from Stub Stewart State Park at 11:01 p.m. PDT

I followed the instructions from Lonely Speck rather closely, with respect to ISO and exposure, and I found I got wonderful results. In this case, I exposed for twenty-five seconds, and I used ISO 3200. The results exceeded my expectations.

As I processed them later, I found that I captured a lot of the light pollution from the city (which was in the distance in the southeast), and that presented difficulties in processing the photos without bringing out splotches of unnatural color.

I consider my attempts from that night now to be middling, and my ability to process them have evolved considerably as well.

The Second Batch: Finding What Worked

Photo looking up along the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way near the zenith, taken from the farm
Photo looking up along the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way near the zenith, taken from the farm

I was extremely lucky enough to have a very helpful and happy friend who let me come to her farm and do more night-time photography. Because her farm was south of Portland, the core of the galaxy was facing away from all the light pollution. The photos at the top of the post represent some taken from this attempt.

Here at the farm, I decided to lessen both the exposure length of time (down to twenty seconds) and the ISO (down to 2000). The earlier settings, I had found, seemed almost too aggressive for the conditions, though I may revisit them if I’m at a darker site. But twenty seconds and ISO 2000 turned out to be perfect. The photos looked gorgeous right off the camera, almost without editing at all. The results had delicate bands of dust and light in them that were considerable easier to work with as I processed them on my computer.

Photo of the core of the Milky Way taken, from the farm
Photo of the core of the Milky Way, taken from the farm

I took enough that night that I’ve been able to find lots of different ways to process each and experiment with what I like. For some, I’ve tried wild color combinations and gradients. I’ve tried delicate forms of processing or pushing others as far as they’ll go. I’ve learned to duplicate a photo many times over so I can manipulate it in many different directions and compare the results.

This post has been about changes I’ve introduced to the photography process, and in a future post, I’d like to talk about processing a bit more (basically editing the RAW photos to make them pop). I’d like to get better at that first, though.