Tuesday, February 15, 2022

learned of sync upgrade

A bit of good news today...

An email plopped into Thunderbird as I was finishing off dinner. From the Skyhound Forums...

Oh. Oh. Oh! What could it be?

Subject: New Reply to observing status from sync?


theskyhound has just replied to a thread which you have subscribed to at Skyhound Forums.

Here is an excerpt of the message:
It'll be available in the next update, which should be very soon....

Thank you,
Skyhound Forums Staff

Oh my Universe. Very good news indeed from developer Greg. 

It seems like I'll be able to restore all my SkyTools data. Not just the observing lists, telescope configurations, observer details, location profiles, and log entries, but also the observing session status indications!

Those first ones are critically important. A log note is tied to a piece of equipment, location, and person. So all that data needs to be kept.

I discovered recently the "backup" process did not restore the observing session status indications.

Greg's take on this was that if transferring an observing list STX file from one computer to another, there was no need, it was perhaps inappropriate, to copy the observing status. Yes. I understood that.  STX files, fine.

But observing status indicators were not being transferred through the synchronisation process, a completely different process, a feature used by a single user trying to use data on more than one device. This same feature is the one currently recommended (required?) for the migration from old SkyTools 3 to the new SkyTools 4. 

And that meant the primary means of backing up my decade of data to transfer to the newest version of the software would not be complete. Data disappeared.

That was shocking and disappointing and disheartening.


Let's back up a bit, shall we?

I bought the SkyTools 3 Professional software after much research and consultation. 27 Aug 2010, I installed it, borrowing an external optical drive, on my awesome ASUS Eee PC 1000 netbook under Windows XP. Took me a while to get up to speed on The SkyTools Way but probably, it's fair to say, a year later I was drinking the Kool-Aid.

In the fall of 2011, I was invited to serve as a beta tester for the new SkyTools Starter Edition. December 2011, I gave my first demo of the software to RASC Toronto Centre members. Greg said of my recording video in 2018, it was the best he had ever seen. In January 2014, I released a comprehensive shortcuts guide for the software. By December 2017, I have over a dozen shared STX files that people could download. In the spring of 2018, I began beta-testing version 4, first the Imaging product, later the Visual. I also negotiated a group "club" discount for RASC members. Then in August 2021, we did focused testing on the Real Time Tool in Visual 4.

Over the years, I drove a lot of mounts with the Real Time mode. This included my super-charged Vixen Super Polaris with IDEA GoToStar, a NexStar 11 GPS, and a Software Bisque Paramount ME.

Over the years, I used SkyTools in many ways. Primarily for session planning, at the telescope for field identification, and morning-after logging. I used it for member and public sky tours. I used it to suggest targets in The Sky This Month presentations and long-range planning. Calculating ephemerides and plotting asteroid and comet paths. Occultation planning. Extensively for double star work. Astrophotography planning and execution. I.e. everything. Almost everything.

Can you tell I'm a fan-boy?

Anyway, I got dialled into the good options available in session planning and execution.

You build an observing list by some means (often with multiple inputs). If necessary, you apply priorities within the Observation Priority column. Objects can be rated (something I used when building lists for sharing). I didn't often use it before the observing session but certainly during I'd start interacting with the Observation Status column when the Sun went down.

The observing status indicators are used within a session to show progress or things to revisit.

observing list status indicators

There are four status settings:

  • Observed - closed white dome
  • Not yet observed - open observatory dome
  • Re-observe - open dome with redo arrow
  • No value - blank

Without getting into specifics, I used these a lot. There were very useful in an evening, across a weekend or observing week, worked well with filtering and prioritising, and I used in various cross-checks (e.g. observed targets should in general be logged).

And I just assumed they'd transfer as I migrated my data from the old software to the new.


As noted previously I started helping in the beta testing of SkyTools 4 in 2018. On 11 Feb 2020, Greg released the V4.0 Octans Update which signalled the last round of beta testing.

the beta team

At that stage, I actually wasn't sure what to do... 

I mean I generally feel this way about software, if I don't have to upgrade, I won't. I was comfortable with SkyTools 3, fast in it. Even though I had a lot of stick time with the new product, it was still different enough that I would get disoriented. And there were no significant bugs in 3 that were hindering me... So, slowly over time I did more things in 4.

Lowered myself very slowly into the cold, cold waters.

(I haven't used ST4 Imaging much... It truly is a leap, with significant improvements. But I just haven't explored it much. And I could do what I needed to do with ST3... satisfactorily.)

While there were many great new features in ST4, there were some gaps. For example, I regularly used the Current Events capability to look up appulses, conjunctions, transits, occultations, elongations, and moon events such as Jovian shadow transits. But the new product did not offer this. So it forced my hand. I needed to keep ST3 around.

And there were still some bugs.

Greg has never said but I think he did a wholesale complete bottom-up re-write. I really felt that during the beta testing. Long-established, core features of the software needed testing and showed buggy behaviour at the early stages. If my hunch is true, it was a mammoth undertaking. And it is to be expected that there'd be a lot of bugs introduced, as opposed to a simple revision.

Version 4 crashed on me. Often. The official release I had some trouble with. And some of these issues were very frustrating, happening at bad times, when I needed a result quickly, or I need a stable platform. So I'd throw my hands up, hurl expletives inspired by Captain Haddock at my monitor, and switch back to my trusty ole steed.

Now this could be because the software on the John Max computer was dirty. From all the iterative changes, installs, rollbacks, futzing. All atop a Win10 OS that itself was not pristine.

I guess for much of 2021, I was just staying the course. I used both. I'd use ST3P for some projects and checks. I'd use ST4VP or ST4IP for some new things. 

But another critical factor was my tiny computer.

I continued to use the very long-in-the-tooth, old, cranky netbook John Repeat Dance with SkyTools 3 Pro chugging along just fine. It was The Observing Computer. It was the Mount Control Computer. I continued to use this during my observing or imaging sessions. It remains a perfect (or near perfect) platform. Small and light-weight with good battery life. Another if-it-ain't-broke item.

Yes, it's running an extinct OS. Yes, the case is cracked. Yes, I can't run Evernote on it any more. Yes, it's doesn't connect with modern wifi points now.

But it works. And well.

My typical use-case over the last couple of years was to build observing lists on ST3P on my AMD desktop computer, comfortably in my office, with big monitor(s), full extended keyboard, real mouse, quickly and easily, applying "current" updates for comets, novae, etc. Then when a new observing list was done, ready to go, I'd export the STX file, get it over to the ASUS netbook, import, and I was OK to go. OK to go.

The list was now owned by the netbook. I'd update the observing status for objects through the session and log targets seen the morning after.

While the project is essentially done now, I heavily used SkyTools 3 on the desktop during the RASC Finest NGC image planning with the Burke-Gaffney Observatory. In fact, I did not move any data there to the netbook. All the planning was done on the desktop. Now, when a good image came in, I'd log that on the netbook SkyTools directly as done, logged, completed.

This was working well.

All's well.

I just thought... I'd keep using it until it died. This would work until the netbook died. And then I'd get a new ASUS, with the smallest screen possible, with an up-to-date OS, and then I wouldn't be locked into SkyTools 3. And, heh, the remaining kinks in ST4 would have been worked out.

That was the plan.


Something else happened.

Something else in early 2020 happened that really took the wind out of my sails.

And it was my fault.

To keep a long story short, I tried transferring an observing list, as an STX file of course, from SkyTools 4 to my netbook's SkyTools 3. And I broke SkyTools 3. 

Greg revealed that the STX file format from v4 was not compatible with v3. I had likely corrupted my data in the small computer!

The really bad news was that I had not taken a backup of the ST3P data on John Repeat Dance for some time. 

I was devastated.

It took days to recover and I was able to reconstruct much of the lost data. But it was really upsetting. 

I wish I had known beforehand about the file format and that one should not the transfer. 


That was the second time I had a big loss with SkyTools. The first was returning from the August 2013 StarFest when my netbook (the first one) fell out of the car and was driven over!


On 26 January 2022, I fired up SkyTools 3 Pro. I forget what I was working on at the time... maybe checking something about Sirius. Hello, what? An update notice! A bug with the StSci DSS download was fixed.

I applied the update and when ST3P relaunched, it showed as version 3.2L. But then another dialogue box appeared.

It was the End of Life notice! Support for version 3 was ending. The software would continue to work but no more software updates would be offered. Also the data updates for comets, minor planets, novae, and supernovae would end.

This was the end of the road.

My heart sank a little. 

I'd not be able to use SkyTools 3 anymore.

How would I observe now?

How would I plan?


Then I calmed down.

As long as the ASUS portable computer kept running, I could still use SkyTools 3 Pro. Of course. No need to panic. The immediate disconnect would be new comets. But even then, there were workarounds. But I could still do all my double stars work, deep sky object observing, with no direct impact. Calm down.

Still, I had a quick look at Canada Computers, Best Buy, ASUS Canada... lay of the land, pie in the sky, online window shopping, considering what would be the new small computer beside the telescope. Actually, that was a little bewildering due to the extraordinary array of choices these days. I realised it would take a serious sit-down so I put it on the back burner.

Again, no need to rush. It was not that I was dead in the water. If I want to observe tonight, with John Repeat Dance nearby, I can. If I need to figure out where Sirius B is beside the searing bright parent, I can. If I want to tackle some new targets from Levy's Deep Sky Gems, I can. I could log imaging NGC 3486 for Chris Vaughan.

But a door was closing. Sooner than I expected. And I needed a new plan. 


Sipping my coffee on Saturday morning, 12 Feb, I thought, well, let's do it. Let's try migrating. Let's move my official, prime SkyTools 3 data over to SkyTools 4!

I decided to do so in a prospective way using the loaner laptop, the lenovo Thinkpad. It would allow me to do a very clean install in that I could re-image the C drive and then do a fresh install of ST4 and finally load in my backed up data. If it glitched, no great loss. If it worked initially, I could shake it down for a bit, run it in parallel.

Immediately, I did a SkyTools backup on John Repeat Dance.

Jumped into forums to find instructions but after a while gave up.

Launched SkyTools 4 on John Max and looked in the help documentation. Ah ha. Found it.

I read the recommended method was to perform a Sync process. Briefly, this creates a special database that, under normal circumstances, can be used for replication, to allow a user with two end clients, possibly with unique datasets, to merge everything together. I re-read the dozen steps and cautions and warnings again. 

Performed the preliminary steps on the old machine and created the Sync database.

Meanwhile on the slim Thinkpad I wiped the C disc, installed SkyTools 4, and applied updates. 4.0J R10.

Zipped up the Sync folders and dumped it on the NAS. Pulled the compressed file into the Thinkpad and let 'er rip.

All went well. There was a battery of changes I applied per the instructions to avoid problems. I was pretty happy at the end. All my telescopes and custom eyepieces were there. All my observing locations were there (plus locations I had used for others in their trip planning). Yes!

And then I readied for the hard work...

As much as I had tried avoiding it, I had a reconcilation problem ahead of me.

  • John Max - SkyTools 3
  • John Max - SkyTools 4
  • John Repeat Dance - SkyTools 3
  • and now lenovo - SkyTools 4

And each one of those datasets was unique!

Yep. All different.

I had dabbled with ST3 on Max in various things. I didn't think there was anything major on this computer that I needed over in the target dataset. But I had to check. Similarly, I didn't think there was a lot I had done in ST4 on Max but again I had to have a look-see.

So, I started into the comparison. And immediately found disparity. A couple of examples:

  • RASC Insider's 200505 (for a RASC presentation)
  • zodiacal (double stars that could be occulted by the Moon)
  • TSMT 2004 (for a RASC presentation)

About a dozen in, I started to wonder if maybe I shouldn't do another sync?! Would that be the fastest way? I wasn't sure. Some of what I was finding was experimental and me just goofin' around. So I wouldn't want it all to come across necessarily. So I kept plodding along... despite a nagging feeling.

And then I noticed it.

Something was missing. 

Some of my data was missing.

I checked a list on the old computer and on the new. Yep. All the observation status data was lost. 

It hit me hard, stopped me dead in my tracks.

The log notes, after some checks in the new install, were intact. This was very important. But arguably the observing status is important too. To me, it meant I was losing some history. I would not be able to look back to an old observing session on a particular evening to see what happened. Yes, I generally log things that I consider "seen well" but I relied on the Re-Observe and Not Yet Observed to bring things forward into a new observing session. As noted, the Observed was a good cross-check to ensure something was logged. All that was gone. Gone!

To verify they didn't transfer directly, I tried to transfer over an STX from ST3 on Max to the new computer but ran into a different problem... Oh boy.

I felt dazed.

I tried to find posts in the forums. I thought I read a note that addressed the issue, where Greg acknowledged it, and he said he would address it. But clearly it was not happening in this newest version of SkyTools 4. Finally, I started a new thread, perhaps pleading, looking for a solution.

The developer acknowledged my message. Explained the indicators weren't transferred in STX files. But seemed to soften at the idea that they could transfer in a Sync command.

I argued that these indicators were very important to me.

And made a sacrifice to the computer gods.


Greg's message today suggests I will be able to enjoy a complete data transfer in the future.

I'm feeling relieved.

In the meantime, I'm work the reconciliation issue...

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