It Was Just A Tuesday

It was just a Tuesday, not unlike any other Tuesday, except I happened to be working in my office on the first floor of AAVSO headquarters in Cambridge. I opened my email and began responding to the messages that had come in since the previous night. Several members had renewed their membership, some had made donations with their renewals, some new members had signed up, TZ Per was in outburst, so I updated the CVnet page. Here was one from the sequence team telling me Tim Crawford had uploaded a sequence created by our newest team member Natalia Virnina, from Odessa, in the Ukraine.

I had witnessed Natalia’s AAVSO story right from the beginning. She had submitted a well-constructed proposal to observe several eclipsing binaries, using AAVSOnet telescopes. Unfortunately, she was not a member, and paying dues would have presented a hardship for her. No problem, Tom Krajci volunteered to sponsor her membership and within a few days he was setting up her observing plan and taking data for her.

As it turned out, almost none of her program stars had existing sequences, so she contacted Tim Crawford to request sequences for her observing targets. She was perfectly willing to do the work herself, if Tim could just show her the ins and outs of using SeqPlot and creating the proper files to upload into the comp star database. After a few basic tutorials Natalia was off and running, creating sequences for her program stars and sharing them with the sequence team. Shortly after that, Natalia became the newest member of the team and has been submitting work on a regular basis. This morning’s email was just the latest in a string of newly minted Virnina sequences uploaded to the database.

The next email was from a new member who wanted to learn how to use VPHOT. I called Ken Mogul in Georgia to see if he’d be willing to take him on as a student, and he gladly accepted. Ken is the one who made the video tutorials for VPHOT and was the person who taught me how to use it, so I knew he was qualified. I was glad we started our conversation on a positive note, because I was about to ask Ken to volunteer for another long-term project: examining all the images that are downloaded from AAVSOnet telescope K28 each night, and entering comments about them into a permanent record created by a snazzy tool called Remark-O-Matic and developed by Sara Beck. This was a new volunteer program and we had decided to ask Ken to be our test case.

Ken said he’d be happy to take on another project, even though he was already involved in several AAVSO volunteer efforts, and not only that, he asked me what I thought about the idea of him running for Council! I told him I thought he would be a great councilor. People who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work for the AAVSO as well as donate time and money to the organization are just the kind of people we need on council. I thanked him and wished him luck and moved on to the rest of the email in my folder.

Another email had arrived from a Dr. Knight in the United Kingdom, asking for some assistance in CCD photometry of exoplanet transits. I had to think about this, since I don’t have an “official” AAVSO mentor in the UK. I thought I would take a chance and write to Richard Miles, who I know is an excellent photometrist and scientist.

Richard is a past president of the British Astronomical Association, but I wasn’t even sure if he was an AAVSO member. I looked up his records in our database and was happy to discover he is a member of the AAVSO. The thing is, I hadn’t heard much from Richard lately and suspected he was rather busy. Considering his credentials, I thought it was worth a try, so I wrote to Richard to ask if he would kindly lend his expertise to help out a fellow Englishman looking to do some advanced observing.

Richard replied within ten minutes, explaining that he was and had been very busy, reviewing papers for journals and writing an extensive paper on comets for another, but that he would be glad to help out if I put him in touch with Dr. Knight.

Here was another email from a new member in Germany, responding to the “Welcome to the AAVSO” message I send to all the new people when they join. This one was from Katrin Fortak, or Katy, as she likes to be called.  She’s been observing variables with a CCD for about a year now, and complimented the AAVSO on the tools and information we offer. She especially appreciated VSP, VPHOT, and the CCD Manual.

As it turns out, she knew some other Germans interested in CCD photometry who don’t know English so well, and she wanted to know if it was okay if she translated the CCD manual into German for use by her friends and others. I discussed her generous offer with Matthew Templeton, and he gave me a Word doc version for her to work with, which would be easier than trying to re-create it from scratch using the pdf she had downloaded from the website.

Katy had some questions about exoplanet transits and short period eclipsing and pulsating stars, so I referred her to the respective section leaders and gave her what information I could to help. She also indicated she would be taking the CHOICE course on Variable Star Types and Light Curves that I would be teaching in May.

Katy’s letter continued, as she also volunteered to act as mentor for the AAVSO for anyone from Germany or surrounding countries - a very generous offer from someone who was still learning advanced techniques herself. But she had been impressed with the friendly helpful advice she had been getting in the AAVSO chat room, and thought it was only fair to pay it forward, in the best tradition of the AAVSO mentor program. I have every confidence she will be an excellent mentor. She is obviously very enthusiastic and her English is very good.

It is no secret that we had been having some problems with VPHOT recently. We had fallen victim to our own success - the high volume of images being uploaded and analyzed daily were now pushing the limits of our current cloud computing configuration - and we had been discussing how to proceed with the anticipated upgrade to more cloud computing power.

VPHOT is another example of the power of volunteers and donors, and how they can push the AAVSO forward by their sheer will and generosity. The program was written by Geir Klingenberg, an AAVSO member from Norway. Geir donated it and the copyright to AAVSO almost two years ago, and has been supplying the support needed to keep it running, as well as continuous incremental improvements along the way. The initial expense of hosting it on the Amazon cloud server had been paid for by AAVSO members Ken Mogul and Donn Starkey.

Now that we were making plans to upgrade to a more powerful instance on the cloud, another AAVSO member, Ken Menzies, had contacted me to tell me he would like to pay for the increase in power and bandwidth. Ken is a power user of the program, and had been aware of the rash of problems we were now experiencing as we had outgrown our baby teeth on the cloud. Several of us had spent our entire lunch period discussing how we were going to implement the changeover and now I was back in my office when Ken stopped by headquarters to drop off a generous check to pay for the impending upgrade.

Little did we realize that, as we sat in my office discussing VPHOT, AAVSOnet, the upcoming SAS/AAVSO meeting in Big Bear, Z Cam stars, and a host of other topics, thirty feet away in the office next door Doc Kinne had just watched our Amazon server disappear before his very eyes. We were moving to Plan B right now, and Ken’s check was going to be deposited today!

Plan B meant building a whole new version of VPHOT and launching it on the cloud as soon as possible. Unfortunately, Geir had been ill with the flu for several days and the clock was closing in on midnight for him as he struggled with Doc to reconstruct VPHOT and get it back online as soon as possible. This was the spirit of AAVSO volunteerism and unselfish sacrifice demonstrated at the highest levels.

Nobody complained. They just opened up their checkbooks, rolled up their sleeves, and got about the business of doing what was needed.

After the initial shock of what had just happened wore off, I got back to my email. A new visual observer from Colorado had just joined the AAVSO and he needed a mentor. I knew just the person for him: Roger Kolman. Roger has been an AAVSO observer and member for fifty years and has over 75,000 visual observations to his credit. He also has a great enthusiasm and love for variable stars and the AAVSO. I wrote to Roger asking if he had time to take on another student. Kolman wrote back saying he would be glad to help out a newbie and added jokingly that he “wasn’t sure how often he could get to Colorado to help the new guy.”

Of course he was kidding, since most of the instruction provided by our mentors happens via email, chat, Skype, and the telephone these days. But that is another reason I knew Roger would be a good choice - he’ll make learning to observe fun and interesting.

Later that night, as I threw myself on the bed in the Feibelman guest suite at HQ, it dawned on me what a perfect example of the spirit of the AAVSO today had been. Our members and observers speak volumes about what is really special about the AAVSO through their actions every day. They walk the walk. It was only Tuesday, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t wait for Wednesday. I have one of the best jobs in the world, and it’s because of the people I work for, the AAVSO.

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