Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist
Adjunct Professor of Computer Science
Associate Director
Artificial Intelligence Center
The University of Georgia
This is a private web page not hosted or sponsored by the University.
Copyright 2005 Michael A. Covington.
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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Mars photographs: Nov. 9 Nov. 8 Nov. 18
Venus photograph: Nov. 26
What is "Christian money management"?
How Windows video programming is done (AVIfile and DirectShow)
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2005
November
28-30

They sought obscurity and achieved it

[Minor revisions 2006 Jan. 22.]

I'm referring to an obscure British (?) band called The Current Event that made two or three records around 1969.

In my high-school days, I bought all my records from the discount rack at Woolworth's. That meant I collected obscure stuff – some of it worth listening to – rather than anything well-known.

It happened that my favorite album in ninth grade was the following. Please do not judge it by its ridiculous-looking jacket:

Instead, judge it by how it sounds. To hear a sample, click here.

Basically, it's simple instrumental renditions of the songs, following Simon and Garfunkel's musical score very closely. The Current Event gets no points for creativity, but that's just as well; they bring out the details of the tune.

Fast-forward 30 years. My copy of this record is rather worn, and I wouldn't mind having a replacement, but I've never seen any sign of it anywhere. It was never in the Schwann catalogue. Online used-record dealers have never heard of it. Neither has the Internet, except for this page, which I created when soliciting information a few years ago. [And which has been radically revised since I wrote this notebook entry. - M.C., 2006 Jan. 22.]

What's more, there's no copyright notice and no publisher's address on the original album or its jacket (except for "SPC, Newark, N.J." on the label).

Now fast-forward 5 more years, to 2005. At last, I succeed in finding "The Current Event" in MusicStack, an enormous directory of used records.

Two copies of this album are on the market, in New Zealand. Were the musicians Kiwis, I wonder?

Further, The Current Event also did albums of hits by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The first of these sounds promising but isn't actually on the market right now. As for the second, I'll pass. I don't know what songs they have on it, but most of the Rolling Stones' output is not very tuneful. To put it bluntly, I don't like the Rolling Stones. They produce mostly amorphous noise.

Anyhow, I've ordered a pristine copy of the album of Simon and Garfunkel songs. Look at how the vendor (Slow Boat Records, New Zealand) describes it:

I suppose that makes me a completist or kitch-meister. To each his own!

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2005
November
27

Christmas or Holiday?

[Revised 4 p.m. Nov. 27.]

Happy First Sunday in Advent!

This year, I'm glad to see people demanding that Christmas be called by its proper name, rather than "Holiday."

Behind this controvery is an amusing principle of linguistics.

It makes perfect sense to say "Happy Holidays" or even to have a "holiday party," if you want to give people a choice whether to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, New Year's, Kwanzaa, the Winter Solstice, or what have you.

But the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 has a name; it's Christmas. Anything attached specifically to that holiday deserves to be known by that name.

Thus the people of Boston objected when a webmaster announced the lighting of their "holiday tree."

What's behind it is this. Euphemisms don't work. Whenever you change the name of something in order to change the meaning, plenty of lesser minds will simply substitute one word for the other, as if you were only changing the pronunciation.

"Don't say Christmas, say holiday" is all that's going through the minds of numerous web designers and advertising copywriters. They aren't expressing sensitivity to other religions. They're just being trendy, imitating each other.

It reminds me of a student who referred to South African reformer Nelson Mandela as "African-American." (He's not the least bit American.) To her, "African-American" was just the new buzzword for "Black." Similarly, there are those for whom "Holiday" is the new buzzword for "Christmas."

As for the abolition of the word Christmas, see Jeff Duntemann's more pointed remarks here. To put it bluntly, it is not "offensive" to mention a religious holiday. It is offensive to forbid people to do so!

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2005
November
26

Miscellany

Several correspondents point out that you can get your own vacuous mission statement written for you by a computer here. Another fine service of Dilbert...



Fortune magazine has an interesting think piece about the economy. One its main points is that since the 1970s, the economy has become a lot more flexible, thanks mainly to rapid communication, and that helps keep inflation and unemployment in check – but no individual's job or standard of living is as secure as it used to be. It is much harder to lock in good things for one set of people – be they union workers, home owners, or whatever – at the expense of everyone else.

But the author says the average hourly wage, corrected for inflation, is lower than in 1973. I'd like to know the statistical distribution. Does this mean simply that the minimum wage is lower (after inflation), and an awful lot of people work for minimum wage? Or is it that the highest-paid jobs have been cut back? What counts as wages? Is it simply that higher-paid people now have salaries rather than hourly wages?



Finally, here's a picture of Venus that I took on Thursday afternoon.

The sky was so clear that I could see Venus with the unaided eye in broad daylight. (That's actually quite common and has given rise to lots of UFO sightings.)

Unfortunately, the air wasn't very steady, and even after stacking about a thousand frames of video, this was the best I could do. This is an infrared image with an 8-inch telescope.

Venus looks like a crescent moon because it is lit from the side and is closer to the sun than we are. The phases of Venus, seen for the first time through his telescope, are what convinced Galileo that the planets orbit the sun, not the earth. The phases actually prove only that Venus orbits the sun, not that we do.

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2005
November
25

"Mission statements" and doubletalk

It seems every organization has a "mission statement" these days. A typical one is that of Zaxby's:

We aim to consistently create encore experiences that enrich lives one person at a time.

From that, you'd hardly know that Zaxby's is a purveyor of boneless fried chicken.

Fortunately, the people at Zaxby's don't take themselves too seriously. On their web page, they explain that their real goal is to keep their customers coming back.

The problem with most "mission statements" – of which Zaxby's is either a prime example or a subtle parody, I can't tell which – is that they come close to being complete nonsense couched in lofty language.

If you can't tell whether you're doing it, it's not a mission. At best, it's a vague wish. It may not even be that.



Today is the 30th anniversary of the day Melody and I met. For the story of how we met, click here. We have enjoyed over 23 years of happy marriage without a vacuous mission statement.

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2005
November
24

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! Another year, and we count our blessings. I can't speak for anyone else, but the Covingtons are in every way healthier and more prosperous than last year. We have a lot to be thankful for.



As the so-called Holiday Season gets revved up, I want to remind newcomers to the United States that you are not actually required by law to get up at 4 a.m. and go shopping tomorrow. The economy won't collapse if you don't do it.

And I want to advocate, on humanitarian grounds, and end to Jingle Bell Rock!

Cornucopia clip art from birding.about.com, used by permission.

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2005
November
23

Miscellany

Business experts are finally discovering that making people work 80-hour weeks is not good for them. What both amuses and alarms me about this is that previously, the desire for a reasonable workweek had been labeled a "women's issue." Is there no limit to the depths...?

Speaking of depths of stupidity, there are people in our town who steal bicycles from policemen. I don't know what surprises me more – the fact that it's been attempted or the fact that it's been done successfully.

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2005
November
22

Lizardry

This isn't the Geico gecko; it's the Covington Innovations green anole. This one got on top of Cathy's car back on October 15 and ran around for a while. I photographed it with my Canon Digital Rebel and Sigma 105-mm f/2.8 macro lens.

Yes, I know it's not green. This kind of lizard is also known as the American chameleon. It can change from green to brown in a matter of minutes.

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Firefox: Not quite there yet?

I tried the famous Firefox web browser this evening and decided not to adopt it, even though it's the up-and-coming new product (possibly the most popular piece of free software this year).

It works very much like Opera and even imported my Opera bookmark list (or at least offered to; I'm not sure it got it right). It displayed the wrong font on one of my most-used pages, and I decided not to stick with it.

What disappointed me is that uninstalling Firefox did not completely clean up the Registry. After uninstalling, HTML files were still tagged as type "FirefoxHTML" and wouldn't open until I started up Internet Explorer again and set it as the default browser. I don't know how much Registry junk Firefox left behind.

The biggest immediate advantage I noticed of Firefox over Opera is that in Firefox, you can delete bookmarks by right-clicking on them. Also, Firefox supports colored fat horizontal rules such as this:


(in HTML, <hr color=gray size=12>), as does Internet Explorer, while Opera displays these as long, empty rectangles.

On the other hand, Opera lets you change the size of the display (magnify or shrink it) at the touch of a menu, and I'm not sure whether Firefox does.

'Tis better to bear the ills we know (said Shakespeare) than fly to others we know not of. I'm sticking with Opera at least until Internet Explorer 7 comes out.

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2005
November
19-21

AVIfile and DirectShow
How Windows video programming is done

I'm working on a project that involves writing a program that will input AVI video files and manipulate them. Windows has two different sets of system functions for video editing, AVIfile, which goes back to Windows 3, and DirectShow, which is part of DirectX. I'm fairly new to all this, but here are some useful links:

I must say I prefer the plain Win32 API of AVIfile to the COM API of DirectShow. I've never found COM very appealing despite its power.

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Notes from all over

NaNoWriMo: Cathy and Sharon are both participating in National Novel Writing Month. That is, they are each writing an entire novel during the month of November. I think NaNoWriMo is a good thing; it gives writers practice, which is vital. Official web site here.

Pfffffft...: The "real estate bubble" appears to be deflating, which is going to cause hardship for people who have bought Too Much House (with the expectation of selling to a Bigger Fool), but I think it will be good for the rest of us, and especially for first-time home buyers. Better to deflate it gently now than to let it get bigger and burst.

Spurred by an excess of borrowable money, real estate prices have risen spectacularly in the last few years. And as the article points out, the bubble has its own psychology. If you really want to measure the value of a piece of property, see what it will rent for. The normal selling price is about 10 years' rent. When this ratio gets up to 20 or 25, as it's doing in some places, you know you're in a bubble.

Fake romance: Online matchmaking services are being sued for misrepresentation because they have allegedly published fake listings of people who don't really exist and have even sent employees out on sham dates with customers.

Online dating is entirely after my time. In the 1970s we looked for mates the old-fashioned way, and frankly, for a lot of people, it didn't work too well. The positive side of online dating services is that they're built around the notion that a successful relationship has to be based on personality and character, not superficial attractiveness.

It's also an admission that society is so diverse that you need somebody to filter the candidates for you – to eliminate the ones whose values are completely at odds with your own. Half a century ago, it was traditional to pretend that everybody was just alike. That's when the notion of "popularity" emerged, and the idea that you should choose your mate because of their success at something irrelevant, such as playing high-school football. By the 1970s, the uniformity had badly broken up, but we didn't quite know what to do about it.

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Quote for the day

When so much is in flux, when limitless amounts of information, much of it ephemeral, are instantly accessible on demand, there is a renewed hunger for that which endures and gives meaning.

The Christian Church can speak uniquely to that need, for at the heart of our faith stands the conviction that all people, irrespective of race, background or circumstances, can find lasting significance and purpose in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Queen Elizabeth II, at the opening of an Anglican synod.



Happy birthday, Sharon! (Sweet Seventeen!)

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2005
November
18

(Extra)

Mars again

So where has Mars been for the past ten days? Not much farther from earth than the last time I photographed it, but the weather here hasn't been good. Last night, the air was rather turbulent, but I finally managed to get a couple of decent images:

Like all my Mars pictures, these were taken with an 8-inch telescope in my back yard.

Here we see a different side of Mars than in the earlier pictures. On the infrared image, the tick marks point to a white spot called Nix Olympica or Olympus Mons, a huge volcanic mountain.

But there's more. If you go from the center of the picture halfway to the left edge, you're looking at some very complicated detail related to the immense canyon system Valles Marineris (much bigger than the Grand Canyon on earth), the sand drifts around it, and the weather above it.

I've found some marvelous Mars maps on line here. Their only flaw is that some of the Latin names appear to be misspelled (e.g., Aurora Sinus for Aurorae Sinus; Mare Australis for Mare Australe). I noticed these only on the "Albedo Map with Classical Names"; the combined albedo-topographic map appears to be entirely correct, as well as being extremely useful.

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2005
November
18

With hands outstretched...

The latest word is that, during the "holiday season," we're supposed to "tip" almost every service person we do any business with, including the mail carrier, the garbage collector, and the exterminator. At least, that's the message of a "survey" on Bankrate.com.

Well...

I have nothing against people giving presents to anybody to whom they want to give them.

But I don't approve of creating the expectation that a "tip" is obligatory in more and more places. (Even the mail carrier? Last I heard, the Postal Service was against that.)

I tip waiters, taxi drivers, and people who carry my baggage because that's an essential part of how they earn their living. And I do it all the time, not just at Christmas. I tip fairly generously (15-20% for waiters, for instance) because I know a lot of other people don't.

But I agree with Judith Martin that tipping is not a good way to get people paid. (See also this.)

Tipping is unreliable and has the distasteful flavor of a bribe. It sets people up for embarrassment, since nobody tells you in advance what you're expected to pay. We should replace the tip system with proper wages. We should not extend it. And certainly not raise it to 30%, as some nuts in Boston are advocating.

I think what's going on is partly a class thing. "I'm rich, you're a servant, and I condescend to give you a little bit extra..." Sorry, folks, I'm not a snob. I don't join "exclusive" clubs. I'm not looking for people to look down on.

And I don't want to get second-rate service just because I'm not paying bribes. That is contrary to American plain dealing. Tell me what something costs, and if I want it at that price, I'll pay it. If not, I'm off the hook. Don't offer it to me for $X and then snub me because I didn't know I was secretly expected to pay $X+Y.

Allowing "tipping" to get out of control looks to me like a way to turn the efficient American economy into an inefficient Third World one. But see this alarming article, which seems to advocate doing exactly that!

By the way, I strongly discourage my students from giving me presents. I don't want to let anyone think that people have to bribe me to get my attention or to get fair or favorable treatment. If I did, where would it end?

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2005
November
17

Engineers and PIC microcontrollers

My engineering students have finished the material specified for the course, and the semester isn't over. I got a bright bunch.

So, after polishing off the 68HC11, I'm going to give them some experience with PIC microcontrollers. For that purpose I wrote a quick-start guide for MPLAB (the PIC assembler-simulator). We'll also be using my article, PIC Assembly Language for the Complete Beginner.

Yesterday our Board of Regents approved some new engineering degree programs.

Have you noticed that in the last 40 years, the number of places you can get a B.A. in English or "business" has skyrocketed – there's a college in everyone's backyard – but the number of places you can get an engineering degree has barely increased? Does somebody think we don't need engineers any more?

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2005
November
15-16

Miscellany

Sigh of relief: The revised Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms is finally ready to go off to the publisher; Melody will spend the day printing things out and Xeroxing them, and then it will be out the door.



Bellsouth update: The new DSL modem, which is free with a 12-month contract, arrived today, 2 days earlier than expected, and only 36 hours after the start of service. Fortunately my old DSL modem is working just fine. I plan to test both of them and keep one as a spare.

Sony's rootkit debacle: As you've heard by now, Sony was distributing CDs with a digital rights management program that modified the operating system to conceal its presence. This is what crackers call a "rootkit."

Well, it didn't take long before someone created a virus that hides in the same place, proving that Sony's rootkit is not just a discourtesy to the users, it's an actual security hazard.

Microsoft did the right thing by promising to wipe out this and all other known rootkits through Windows security software.

Sony then withdrew the controversial product in the face of lawsuits.

Using a rootkit was uncouth. But beyond that, I'm generally against the idea of limiting your "right" to listen to a CD that you own. The money-hungry record industry is upset because CDs don't wear out. They liked selling us vinyl LP records and flimsy cassette tapes.



Judge Alito's critics just don't get it. He's being criticized today for saying 20 years ago that the U.S. Constitution does not guarantee a right to abortion (which, as far as I can tell, is obviously true; the Constitution certainly does not mention abortion, either to permit or to prohibit it!).

(Note to British readers: Unlike your constitution, ours is 100% written. That is an established principle of American law.)

Well... His critics are people who want the Supreme Court to make laws, and who don't like the kind of laws they expect Judge Alito to make.

That misses the point. Judge Alito believes the Supreme Court should not make laws and he should therefore not be expected to make any.

Conclusion? Either his critics aren't too bright, or they want some laws made, and they don't want the elected representatives of the people to make them.

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2005
November
14

Changing DSL providers
and setting up a Linksys router with Bellsouth DSL

I've just changed DSL providers from SpeedFactory to BellSouth. BellSouth is less expensive. Also, SpeedFactory, though generally a good outfit to deal with, annoyed me by shutting down its news server a while back without advance notice.

The transition was rather sudden. BellSouth had assured me that my old service would work until I actually performed the setup for the new service, using an information packet that they're going to send. But in fact, at 12:01 a.m. last night, the old service went down. This evening, by phone, I was able to find out the settings for the new service. They are:

Naturally, use your own user name and password.

This is with a Linksys WRT54G talking to the DSL modem. I've ordered BellSouth's modem, which is free, but SpeedFactory is apparently letting me keep the old modem, and it works.

It would probably have worked even earlier – perhaps even right after midnight – except that I was misguidedly leaving "@bellsouth.net" out of the user name.

Interesting triviality: www.bellsouth.com is the corporate sales site but www.bellsouth.net is a portal, presumably the default start page for new customers.

Pleasant surprise: BellSouth has a news server, newsgroups.bellsouth.net. They also have very lucid instructions at help.bellsouth.net.

Minor disappointment: Most of BellSouth's sales and support Web sites don't work with the Opera browser. I get messages saying to use Internet Explorer or Netscape.

Added Nov. 15:

Another pleasant surprise: As a subscriber to BellSouth DSL, I can also use their dial-up Internet access any time I'm traveling or my DSL isn't working, for up to 20 hours per month. They have convenient local phone numbers all over the country. The ones outside the Southeast, and the toll-free number for travelers, cost 5 to 8 cents per minute.

One more note: When connected to the Internet through BellSouth, you can't send mail out through any other server. No matter where you receive your mail, mail.bellsouth.net has to be where it goes out. This is an anti-spam measure.

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2005
November
12-13

Believing in marriage – and singleness

Piet Hein defined a philosopher as someone who studies the follies of mankind by introspection.

I prefer to see the follies of mankind by turning on the TV to the Suze Orman Show while I do something else. It's a rather informative kind of wallpaper.

One of her recurrent themes lately has been young adults impoverished by a lover. A dating couple starts merging their finances somehow, or one of them pays a lot of the other's living expenses (whether or not they live together), and then they break up, and then...

Back in the twentieth century, Melody and I didn't have that problem. One of the side effects of believing in marriage is that we also believed in singleness.

We took it for granted that we were single until we got married. For a long time we were single people who were very much in love and planning to get married – but not married yet. So we took it for granted also that we were financially independent of each other.

Not only that, but neither of us had any money to lose!

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2005
November
11

Web amusements

Some things worth looking at:

Wikipedia in Latin. I'm not kidding.

The Blue Ball Machine. Animated and endless. Turn the sound on when you watch.

Fire Melon. Anybody else would have the sense not to do this...

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2005
November
10

How to lose scientific credibility

As you know, the state of Kansas has opted to teach intelligent design theory as an alternative to evolution in its school system. That is, they're going to teach evolution plus a controversial alternative.

Some scientists can't stand this; they're trying to make Kansas the laughingstock of the nation. Today, with his permission, I want to publish a guest commentary by my colleague, Dr. Tom Lessl:

The charge that Kansas is destined to become a "joke" has been much repeated since this controversy first broke out there several years ago. While I find scientific arguments for evolution persuasive (thought not as compelling as others do) this argument pushes me in the other direction. The belief that acceptance of evolution is a matter of pride, such that I should feel shame for doubting it, seems gratuitously emotional – an appeal to prejudice.

The last time this happened a high ranking scientist (the president of the AAAS I believe) suggested that universities around the country should not admit high school graduates from Kansas. Now the NAS is proposing that Kansas high schools should not be allowed to use the published materials that the academy puts out for high school instruction. These kinds of behaviors don't work in favor of evolution. They are more likely to suggest that irrational motives underly these appeals to science – the same kinds of motives they would accuse fundamentalist Christians of harboring.

Really, folks. This is how you give the public the impression that scientists aren't very smart. Ostracism and threats are not how you promote a scientific theory. Why not argue on the basis of scientific evidence? Why not act like scientists?

I hasten to add I'm not exactly on the ID bandwagon, but I'm in favor of rational discussion. People who are convinced ID theory is wrong should be working to refute it, not silence it.

I haven't been able to track down what prominent person originally said universities shouldn't accept Kansas high school graduates, but the idea has been echoed repeatedly around the Web. Other aspects of the controversy are described here.

[Note added Nov. 12: I should add that the situation is not being helped by Christians who equate ID theory, its present form, with godliness. Again, let's be scientific. Maybe God created the world but didn't reveal it this particular way.]

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2005
November
9

And more Mars...

Here's Mars from Monday night, much the same as the previous pair of images, but taken under slightly better conditions. Again, one is a regular full-color image and the other is infrared.

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Cleaning out the inbox

Revision of the Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms is proceeding apace, though it's still keeping me very busy. The new edition will come out in the spring.

Is there anything sinister about an upside-down Christmas tree or is it just this year's strange fad? If the Christmas tree were actually a Christian symbol, we might be taken aback at seeing it inverted. But a Christmas tree isn't a Christian symbol. It's just a north European winter decoration. Apparently, people have been hanging Christmas trees upside down occasionally since the Middle Ages.

Want to be king of England? The Guardian, a British newspaper, is mounting a legal challenge to the present succession laws. If you are descended from some branch of the earlier royal family, here's your chance!

Meanwhile, across the channel, look out for a certain lack of freedom of religion in France. The French now prohibit students from wearing religious symbols at school. That includes Muslim head scarfs, Sikh turbans, Jewish skullcaps, and Christian crosses. In some cases, this rule requires people to violate the precepts of their religion.

Compelling people to pretend publicly to have no religion is just as unacceptable as compelling the practice of any specific religion. Where is all that famous French liberté?

And some freedom-loving people are (misguidedly) up in arms about the fact that Big Brother knows where your cell phone is. That's right – the telephone company tracks the location of your cell phone whenever it's turned on, not just when you're using it. They have to; otherwise they couldn't route your incoming calls to the appropriate tower. But some people see this as an invasion of their privacy.

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2005
November
8

Mars, visible and infrared

Here are Sunday night's images of Mars (around 0500 UT November 7), visible and infrared:

Kudos to Astro-Physics for getting the Baader IR-pass filter to me within about 27 hours of receiving the order.

Note the two prongs hanging down from Mare Cimmerium, in the middle of the visible face of the planet; they flank the crater Herschel, which is not visible. The longer, straighter one is Antoniadi's "canal" Cyclops; the shorter one was apparently not mapped during the "canal" era, and may not have existed, since it probably consists of drifted sand. Note also the prominent North Polar Hood at the bottom, a polar cap made of clouds.

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2005
November
7

What is "Christian money management"?

 

This entry has been moved to a separate web page.

 

 

2005
November
4-6

Infrared Mars

I'm still very busy with other obligations, but here's one more Mars picture. This one shows Mars mainly in red and infrared light.

The full story is this: Like all CCDs, the CCD in my modified webcam responds strongly to infrared light, which goes through the filters for red, green, and blue. Thus, in infrared, it is basically a black-and-white camera.

Its original lens contained an infrared-blocking filter, but I've removed it.

Accordingly, I usually use a Baader UV-IR-block filter to get normal images. The other night, though, I decided to use a #23A red filter instead, which passes red and infrared light. You see the result. I've ordered a Baader IR-pass filter with which to do some real infrared imaging, and it will be here soon.

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2005
November
1-3

One of the canals of Mars

I'm far too busy to keep up the Daily Notebook properly, but here's my latest picture of Mars:

Note the small streak indicated by the arrow, a small protrusion downward from Mare Cimmerium. It is apparently the "canal" Cyclops on Antoniadi's maps. Newer maps (e.g., Mars Previewer II) confirm that it is real, although of course it is not a canal.



It worked: My investment advice the other day was right on target. Series I savings bonds are now paying 6.73%. But the ones bought before November 1 are paying 6.93%.

Please don't expect much more here for several days. We're revising the Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms.

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