Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist
Adjunct Professor of Computer Science
Associate Director
Artificial Intelligence Center
The University of Georgia
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Daily Notebook

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Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms Astrophotography for the Amateur How to Use a Computerized Telescope Digital SLR Astrophotography

Popular topics on this page:
Arthur Brooks on generosity
Science in the Middle Ages
Shortwave car radios
Graphic designers as management de-tanglers
Alumnus, alumna, alumni, alumnae
The plural of curriculum vitae
All the files in/under a directory (C#)
Truth does not conflict with truth
Moral relativism demolished

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Earthlit Moon
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Short notes

Some short notes to round out the month...

Regular readers know that, in spite of not claiming to be an economic pundit, I have a certain history of reporting major economic events before they happen (e.g., foreseeing the subprime mortgage crisis 3 years ago).

With that in mind, let me offer my latest prognostication: Inflation. This time it won't be accidental, the way it was in the 1960s. We are a nation of people wanting to get out of debt, and a bit of inflation could help us. If the Fed lets the value of the dollar drop, without raising interest rates too much, we'll be able to pay back our debts with smaller dollars. I know inflation causes suffering. So do the alternatives. See Mankiw's blog.

[Note: Let the record show that this was written and uploaded before I read about Mr. Bernanke's Feb. 27th speech or these comments. We may actually be heading into a period when short-term interest rates are lower than the rate of inflation — which means debtors are being subsidized — which may be what a lot of people want.]

Odd gadget of the 1950s: The Timex magnetic disc recorder. It worked like a tape recorder but looked like a record player.

Did you ever hear about David Hahn, "the radioactive Boy Scout"? This is the fellow who built a nuclear reactor in his back yard, or tried to, thereby triggering a Superfund cleanup.

Well, here's an interesting article by a top-ranked nuclear scientist analyzing what was wrong with Hahn's approach to science. (Unlike most former-boy-scientists, Hahn never accomplished anything scientific.) Along the way he also points out that the reason the radiation from Hahn's reactor was picked up so far away was not its strength, but rather the fact that one of the byproducts was a gas floating through the air.

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Has anybody noticed that we've been more than 5 years with no substantial changes in the way we use computers?

I don't think that has happened before. If it happened at all, it may have happened in the early 1970s, during the height of the mainframe era. But then UNIX, structured programming, and microcomputers started an avalanche of change.

For PC users, the change from Windows XP to Vista is far smaller than the change from Windows 98 to 2000, which in turn was far smaller than the change from DOS to Windows.

What this means, of course, is that now I'm able to think about my work, instead of just scrambling to keep up with changes in the infrastructure! In retrospect, the Computer Revolution has occupied most of my career so far.

The real world is co-ed

The New York Times accused Senator McCain of an "improper relationship" with a female lobbyist, and the facts conspicuously failed to check out. The Times "stands by its story" even though nobody else can confirm it.

I don't know what the Senator actually did, but one possibility seems fairly obvious: someone with a dirty mind got it into his head that if the Senator and the lobbyist were seen within 15 paces of each other, they must be sexually involved. Or maybe someone with a dirty mind misinterpreted someone else's concern about a potentially improper political relationship (she is, after all, a lobbyist).

If that's what's going on, it goes to show that prudishness and promiscuity come from the same mindset. People who can't control their own sexual impulses imagine that nobody else can, either.

To someone with that kind of mind, people of the opposite sex aren't people — they're objects, and they're objects with only one use.

To this I retort: the real world is co-ed. That is, normal adult life is populated by both men and women, who work together and interact in numerous ways. I'm glad my wife doesn't get jealous when I publish papers with female co-authors (some of whom I've never even met!) or attend conferences where (gasp!) women are present. I don't mind that she works in a male-dominated industry.

And most importantly, our marriage is not just a fragile, temporary attraction. We chose each other. It's not going to lead to adultery if I happen to sit across the lunch table from some other female.

(By the way, you may be wondering how it is that I've never met some of my co-authors. That's what happens when an experiment is done at one university and the results are analyzed at another. Everybody who worked on it is a co-author, even if some of them have only met by e-mail.)

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Short notes

The latest edition of Traupman's New College Latin Dictionary, which Sharon is now using at Emory, contains a Latin word for "aircraft carrier." If I recall correctly, it's navis aëroplanigera.

Where he got it, I don't know, since no ancient Roman aircraft carriers have survived... It does not sound like the Latin neologisms that come out of the Vatican (which has a team to develop Latin words for modern concepts), because the words "airplane" and "aeroplane," though Latin-derived, are distinctively English and originally referred to the shape of the wing. In most other European languages an airplane is called something like avion "big bird."

My tagger (mentioned a couple of days ago) now correctly labels all the nouns and verbs in these sentences:

Can you can a can in a can?
Try it with all your might.
It might require will power.
The battery will power the radio all day.

Oddly, when I added the rules to handle these cases correctly, the accuracy on the complete Penn Treebank corpus went down slightly. Sentences like these examples are rare, although linguists always type them into taggers as tests.

Here is a good introduction to AVR microcontrollers.

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If I won the lottery...

One of my fellow Georgians, I don't know who, has just won about $200 million in the state lottery.

What would I do if I won something like that?

Well, let me begin by saying I'm not going to win the lottery because I never buy tickets. I figure that, to within a tiny fraction of a percent, my chance of a big win is the same whether I buy a ticket or not — that is, almost exactly zero.

I don't think buying lottery tickets is a wise use of money. Lotteries appeal to people who can say, "It could be me," but who can't calculate probabilities. I understand that there can be entertainment value in having a tiny chance of a big win combined with the certainty of a small expense. But that's not the kind of entertainment I enjoy.

So then... What if somehow I did get a $200 million windfall? What would I do with it?

The sad fact is, big lottery winners are usually very unhappy and, surprisingly often, broke just a few years after their big winnings. So my main goal would be to avoid their misfortune.

Lottery winners are usually not very good at managing money. (Financially astute people don't buy lottery tickets.) And when you win a gigantic amount of money, especially if you are not a deep thinker, you are cut loose from major sources of meaning in life:

  • You no longer know whether what you are doing is useful to other people, because you no longer care whether they will pay you to do it. (Paid employment is a prima facie indication that you're worth something. Think about it.)
  • You no longer know whether you're any good at what you're doing, for the same reason.
  • You don't even know if you're doing harm, because you don't need other people's approval of what you're doing. If you're too rich, nobody will say "no" to you, no matter what you attempt.

I think one reason rich people go into politics is that it does provide challenges that money can't overcome, so political success provides a real feeling of accomplishment. Yes, money helps, and money can be abused, but money does not directly buy unconditional success.

So if I won the lottery, what would I do?

Mainly, not let the public know how rich I was. I don't think I could avoid being thought of as a millionaire — but I'd keep the multi-millions quiet. I'd pay my debts, take a good vacation, make generous Christmas gifts to relatives (just once, and in strict proportion to how closely they are related), and then not let on that I was more than moderately well off. I'd invest my bundle in several safe, socially responsible investments... maybe the Templeton Fund or something like it.

I would not deal with financial advisors or charities that I did not already know and trust. When somebody wins a lot of money, outstretched hands and charlatans pop up everywhere. I might actually adopt a policy of not doing business with any financial service companies, and not donating to any charities, except the ones I was already involved with, or ones they directly recommend.

I wouldn't quit my job, at least not until reaching retirement age. If I had a dull job, I might change to a more interesting one, but not go idle.

I would set up a charitable foundation so that I could help deserving people and causes without letting them know who was behind it. Actually, the most efficient way to do good is usually through existing charities. Whether you have $10 or $100,000,000 to give away, you want it to go where it will do the most good, not just to the first few people who happen to ask.

Sadly, as far as I can determine, lottery winners rarely do anything like any of this. They typically set themselves up to be idle consumers — and that's the path to misery.

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"Put more words in it so it will sell"

One of the goofier things I've seen on eBay is the current fad for mislabeling items by throwing in extra words to attract people.

This is particularly the case with old electronic gear. When selling an old 40-watt soldering iron, an unimaginative person like me might title the listing:

40-watt soldering iron (1960s Ungar)

But not the followers of the new fad. They would say:

40-watt vintage tube amp CB radio ham radio Frank-Lloyd-Wright-era soldering iron

or as much of that as they can fit into an eBay headline. If any of it is lost due to length limits, it might be the last 2 words.

Why? This new practice is not the product of clear minds.

I suppose they think they're going to "attract more people." But the point is, if people aren't looking for 40-watt soldering irons, you don't want to attract them, because they're not going to buy your item.

And if you garble the labeling, the people who would want to buy your item won't recognize it.

That strange practice is, I suppose, a holdover of mid-20th-century advertising, when you had no way to advertise selectively. The object of the game back then was to commandeer every TV set in America and tell all the Americans to buy a Hula Hoop.

We no longer live in that era. Nowadays, the people who want Hula Hoops will come and find you if your web site is in Google with that word on it. And you don't have to put it in Google. Google will come and find you, too — that's its job!

It's an era of new freedom and independence. But the old mindset lives on in all the hucksters who offer to "bring more traffic to your web site," the people trying to trick Google (which almost always backfires), and the people who often write to me asking for link exchanges. I recently heard from one of them who seems to think my web site must be replete with would-be buyers of steam baths.

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What I do at the office

I'm working hard and not writing much here. Yesterday I finished a fair-sized programming project: Largely for the experience of it, I built a Brill tagger in C#, or part of one. Mine doesn't auto-train; its rules are hand-crafted, based on those published by Brill.

For those who don't know, a Brill tagger is one type of computer program that labels words as verb, noun, adjective, etc. using context to disambiguate the words that can be more than one kind. Using somewhat curious but standard labels, it outputs things like:

This/DT example/NN is/VBZ simple/JJ ./.

where DT, NN, VBZ, and JJ mean determiner, noun, present-tense 3rd-person verb, and adjective respectively.

My research assistant Dr. Jiayun Han has developed a Viterbi tagger which will almost certainly outperform mine. (Same result, different way of doing the computation.) We'll compare them — parts of my tagger may get incorporated into his. Then we'll have a useful research tool.

Why do people want taggers? Clearly, it's the beginning of grammar analysis by computer. Besides, we have found a really innovative use for tagging.

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Normally no politics here, but...

I normally keep party politics out of this Notebook. But let me point out this interesting think piece about why a (theologically) conservative Christian might vote for Obama. Please do not take that as an endorsement — I do not endorse candidates. [And note that we are still in the primaries — in my own mind I am only comparing each candidate to the others in the same party. Feb. 23]

Whatever happens, this election isn't going to be 50% George W. Bush and 50% somebody else. And that's a change!

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Lunar eclipse

Lunar eclipse

Last night's (Feb. 20) total lunar eclipse was the last for a couple of years, so I watched and photographed it through intermittent high clouds. All my pictures were taken with a Canon 40D, a Canon 300-mm f/4 lens, and a Canon 1.4x converter; the lens was set to f/6.3 (with converter) and mounted piggyback on my telescope. The picture above is a stack of three exposures (about 1, 2, and 4 seconds) at ISO 200, processed with RegiStax and Photoshop.

This was taken in the middle of a total eclipse, but the moon was not centered in the earth's shadow. The reddish light reached the moon by coming around the earth through the earth's atmosphere, and as you can see, one side got a good bit more light than the other.

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Moral relativism demolished

Even if you disagree totally with this book, you should read it in order to know what the arguments are. Far too many people don't, even though it is an important public and political issue.

I'm referring to Defending Life, by Francis J. Beckwith, part of which you can read on line here.

It outlines the case against abortion and, along the way, argues convincingly that moral relativism is irrational. As Beckwith puts it:

[Moral relativism is] the view that when it comes to questions of morality, there is no absolute or objective right and wrong; moral rules are merely personal preferences and/or the result of one's cultural, sexual, or ethnic orientation. So choosing an abortion, like choosing an automobile, a vacation spot, or dessert, is merely a matter of preference...

Many people see relativism as necessary for promoting tolerance, nonjudgmentalism, and inclusiveness, for they think if one believes one's moral position is correct and others' incorrect, one is close-minded and intolerant. I will argue in this chapter that not only do the arguments for relativism fail, but that relativism itself cannot live up to its own reputation, for it is promoted by its proponents as the only correct view on morality. This is why relativists typically do not tolerate nonrelativist views...

Touché. I would go further and say that the only reason for being tolerant is that you believe in objective values — you tolerate other viewpoints because of the possibility that your own values are not totally correct, your own grasp of the truth isn't perfect. If the truth is not "out there" then there is no point in tolerating anybody who challenges your opinions, because all opinions are really just power struggles.

That does not address the abortion issue itself, of course. A person can reject ethical relativism and still think abortion should be permitted. That's what Beckwith's next several chapters of argumentation are about. His initial attack on relativism simply clears away one common argument, "relativism is true, ergo abortion should be legal."

About abortion itself I'll say just four things.

(1) Regrettably, people on the "pro-choice" side often just don't know what the arguments are on the other side. (We see this when they try to rebut them.) That's why they should read Beckwith's book.

(2) If you start by arguing about women's freedom, you've grabbed the issue by the wrong end. The only question is whether a fetus has a right to life. You don't get around facing that question.

(3) Abortion is no more a privacy issue than slavery is a private property issue. The question is not about the freedom of the pregnant women or the slaveowner. It is about whether there is an innocent human victim involved. If you were convinced that slaves were not human beings, slavery would be all right. Ditto fetuses and abortion. The question is whether it's true that they're not human beings.

(4) The really bothersome thing about the United States since 1973 is that our national abortion law wasn't made by our elected representatives and cannot be overturned by normal legislative action. It was made when the Supreme Court somehow discovered a "constitutional right" that the Constitution does not mention explicitly. Since then, the issue has divided American politics, frustrated voters on both sides, and probably resulted in the election of undesirable politicians (on either side) in the hope that they would influence the future Supreme Court.

Kudos to Cambridge University Press for publishing this book in spite of its lack of political correctness. I'm sure they'll get some flak for it.

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Web sites only viewable on giant screens?

A few years ago, the plague of the Internet was web sites that were labeled, in essence, "This site can only be viewed with next week's version of Netscape." (Or, in some cases, last week's.) The whole point of having a World Wide Web is to enable people to view it from anywhere, with their own software, isn't it?

This morning I bumped into a newer, related problem. As soon as some people get a really big screen, they immediately redesign their web site so that it can only be viewed on a giant screen, and only if the browser fills the full screen.

I've gone to some lengths to keep this Notebook viewable on 800×600 screens (which are uncommon nowadays) and I do most of my own web surfing on a 1024×768 screen, which I didn't think was particularly small. But now I'm running into web sites that won't display properly on it. Bah, humbug!

The Web isn't TV. You aren't showing the same picture to everybody, with the whole picture resized. Left to themselves, web pages rearrange their contents to fit the space available. By going to some effort with software, you can prevent this from happening, and nowadays a lot of people do.

Besides, excessively long lines of text are hard to read. Studies have shown that the optimal line length is about 50 or 55 characters. We don't actually enjoy scrolling from left to right — with the mouse or with the eyes — to read each line!

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Truth does not conflict with truth

Minor revision 2008 Feb. 17.

If I had a coat of arms, I would want the motto on it to be:


That is: Truth does not conflict with truth. That is the linchpin of my approach to religion. I am part of a long line of Christians who believe that our faith, though it goes beyond what we can discover by reason, does not contradict it.

I don't swallow the "double-truth theory" that was allegedly advocated in the Middle Ages — the notion that the same thing can be, at once, true in science and false in religion. A weaker form of this theory seems to be popular with some fundamentalists, the ones who want you to keep your science and your religion in watertight compartments, separate from each other.

You will see attenuated versions of the double-truth theory pervading modern Christendom. You get a whiff of it every time people insist that you put aside your scientifically and technologically informed worldview and approach God as if God were a medieval peasant or a 19th-century romantic poet who doesn't care for your specialized modern interests. Actually, of course, God is the one who knows how nuclear fusion works and where all the bugs are in Windows Vista. For more about this, see God's Mechanics, by Guy Consolmagno.

Getting back to my motto: I finally found the exact source of it (and hence also the exact Latin words). In full, it is

Quod veritati fidei Christianae non contrariatur veritas rationis

In English:

That the truth of reason is not contradictory to the truth of the Christian faith

and is the title of Chapter 7 of Book I of the Summa Contra Gentiles of St. Thomas Aquinas. Latin text here; English translation here.

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How to find all the files in and under a directory in C#

Part of the fruit of today's labors: a C# routine to give you the names (with full paths) of all the files in and under a directory. Use it and enjoy.

/// <summary>
/// Retrieves the full paths to all files (but not directories)
/// in and under a specified directory, in the order in which they
/// are found by depth-first search.
/// </summary>
public string[] GetAllFilesInAndUnder(string path) // M. Covington 2008
   List<string> paths = new List<string>(100);
   System.IO.FileSystemInfo[] files = (new System.IO.DirectoryInfo(path)).GetFileSystemInfos();
   foreach (System.IO.FileSystemInfo f in files)
      if (f is System.IO.FileInfo)
   return paths.ToArray();

America's largest nonexistent highway

What's 400 yards wide, 2000 miles long, and doesn't exist? The rumored NAFTA Superhighway which is supposedly going to link Canada with Mexico by cutting a wide swath across the U.S. Except that it isn't. Nobody is building it, or funding it, and there is no serious proposal to do so.

It seems to be a myth of right-wing talk radio, originating when somebody misinterpreted a map of existing truck routes or maybe a highway project in Texas. Lots of politicans are against it but nobody is actually for it, as far as I can determine. And don't say it's a "secret conspiracy." You can't build a 400-yard-wide superhighway secretly.

I'm sure somebody will write in and tell me I just don't know about the conspiracy. OK then, maybe the conspiracy has been defeated.

It's like the old joke: Why do New Englanders paint their barns red? To keep away the elephants. And does it work? Yes, of course; there are no elephants in New England. Right-wing talk radio can claim victory over a "conspiracy" that never existed.

It's also like the false rumor that the FCC is/was going to ban all religious broadcasting. The FCC never proposed any such thing, but that still hasn't stopped some people from circulating petitions.

Cleaning out the inbox

A correspondent points out that you can see Canon's video about lens manufacture in an English version here.

Curious about the satellite that is going to fall down, or be shot down, soon? Track it on Heavens-Above, and you can input your location and find out when it's visible in the sky above you. (Note that the predictions displayed on the web site are worthless unless they actually pertain to where you are; by default they are for latitude and longitude 0.)

There's an eclipse of the moon on Wednesday.

And the most interesting medical news I've come across lately is that there will soon be a blood test for colon cancer. No more invasive screenings!

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"Are you an alumni?"

"Are you an alumni?" Someone phoned with that question for Cathy the other day.

Well, "alumni" means "graduates." Cathy is not a group of people!

Here's the full story:

alumnus = one male graduate or a graduate of gender unknown

alumni = two or more male graduates or a mixed or unknown-gender group

alumna = one female graduate

alumnae = two or more female graduates

I'm not the one who decided to divide alumni up by gender; the word is Latin and has Latin endings which follow Latin rules. Some may feel it's unfair that the words denoting females are more specific than the words denoting males. Take that up with the Romans, or just speak English and call these people graduates.

And what is the plural of curriculum vitae?

Every college professor has a curriculum vitae — also called a vita or, in the business world, a résumé — but the Latin terminology is really confusing. The problem is that two terms get mixed up, and each of them has a singular and a plural:

vita — life (of one person)

vitae — lives (of multiple people)

curriculum vitae — course of life (of one person)

curricula vitarum — courses of lives (of multiple people)

The trick is that vitae can mean either "lives" or "of a life."

The most common mistake is to write curriculum vita, which does not make sense in Latin, even though I just caught a prominent college telling its students to spell it that way. I recommend sticking with the 2 shorter terms (vita, vitae) unless you're really good at Latin and want to show it off.

So what do I call my own résumé? It's not titled Vita, nor Curriculum Vitae. It's titled Michael A. Covington.

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Two local businesses highly recommended

I want to put in a good word for two local businesses that gave me unusually good service recently. Those of you who aren't in Athens, Georgia, can stop reading...

One is Red Electric, which did some repairs for us a couple of months ago. At last, an electrician who is more thorough than I am! They're paid by the job, not by the hour. You might think this would make them hurry, but the opposite is the case. The electrician did a careful job of replacing some wires with bad insulation and installing a bathroom ceiling fan. He then went around with me to inspect a lot of other things and found an outdoor outlet with no ground connection (which is legal because it's GFCI-protected, but I didn't know another electrician was taking that shortcut when he installed it a few years ago).

The other is Athens Blueprint, which just made some excellent large-format digital color prints for me. When I got to the frame shop and unrolled them this morning, one of the prints had some dents in it. I went to Athens Blueprint and said that I didn't know whether the damage was their fault or mine, but they immediately offered to re-do the prints at no charge. They sent me to their digital print shop near Sandy Creek Park, which is very well-equipped, and re-did the job in a very professional manner, and packed it flat against a piece of cardboard.

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Musical oddities

The links in this entry point to Amazon pages where you can preview the music free of charge.

Now that Amazon is selling DRM-free MP3 files for less than $1 each, and now that my car radio plays data CDs of MP3 files, I've joined the MP3-purchasing generation.

A lot of good music is available. Consider this inspiring rendition of Mouret's Fanfares, or this Glenn Miller re-creation, or this rendition of one of my Cambridge crowd's favorite hymns. Indeed, although that isn't one of them, the Clare College Choir and the Cambridge Singers together have over 1500 items available on Amazon.

But half the fun comes from being able to collect oddities — pieces of music that stuck in my mind in past years even though I don't attribute great musical merit to them.

Did you realize that the work of Bach broke upon me through this odd performance, which made the hit parade in 1971? I was relieved to find out that most renditions of "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring" are a good bit tamer.

Then there was this song, with which Sandie Shaw won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1967 even though it's not quite clear whether she's singing about a puppet or a carousel horse or whether she's quite clear on the difference.

And not only was Ed Ames a good singer, he sang one idiosyncratic song that sums up the end of the 1960s in just a few haunting verses.

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Digital SLR Astrophotography

My editor tells me Digital SLR Astrophotography sold well at Astrofest in England this past weekend, is selling well everywhere else too, and is about to be reprinted.

Accordingly, I've updated its "Corrections and Updates" web page.

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An evening at Deerlick

On the evening of Feb. 9 I went to Deerlick and got a couple of good pictures. Here is Comet Holmes, bloated and faded:

Comet Holmes

Stack of three 6-minute exposures, minus darks and flats, Canon 40D (unmodified) with Canon 300/4 lens at f/5.

And here is the Rosette Nebula (NGC 2244 and environs), a stack of eight 6-minute exposures with the same setup:

Rosette Nebula

We were having unusual weather (50 F, very clear); normally I don't get to go to dark sites at this time of year, because it is either too cloudy or too cold, so this is my first good picture of the Rosette.

What's on shortwave these days

The shortwave radio was entertaining company during the long drive out and back. Ionospheric conditions were very poor at first, and even the 5 p.m. BBC newscast on 5.975 didn't come in very well, but later, the bands were crowded.

As you know, some shortwave broadcasters have shows about the hobby of shortwave listening itself. I tuned in one of these, and the announcer was telling us about pirate radio stations (illegal unlicensed broadcasters), including the interesting fact that many of them use the same frequency (I think he said 6.925, upper sideband, not AM). It's gratifying to know that they self-regulate to some extent, apparently to keep the FCC from bothering them. They'd get busted immediately if they interfered with a licensed broadcaster.

Then he played some samples of the audio of several of them. In general, pirates have no real message to convey to the public, although they often claim to be in favor of legalizing marijuana. They delight in using dirty words on the air.

Well... I was wondering about the legal ramifications of a licensed broadcaster encouraging people to listen to unlicensed pirates. (In Britain but not here, listening to pirates is illegal; I don't think there's anything wrong with listening to them, but a licensed broadcaster who appears to be supporting them seems to be on shaky ground.)

But then it got odder. Right after the distorted samples of raunchy audio, the program ended and the station identified itself as WHRA (a major evangelical Christian broadcaster). I wonder if they know what they're getting into.

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The other Orion Nebula (M78)

M78 is a reflection nebula surrounding two stars in Orion. If it weren't so close to the Great Orion Nebula (M42), people would pay more attention to it, since it might be the brightest reflection nebula in the sky. (M42 is an emission nebula.)


This is a stack of 14 (yes, 14) 3-minute exposures through an 8-inch telescope at f/6.3, using a Canon 40D in my back yard.

Farewell to Polaroid

Industry sources report that there will soon be no more Polaroid film. Polaroid instant photography has been completely eclipsed by digital imaging.

In memory of Polaroid, I submit herewith the first picture I ever took, in the spring of 1967, when I was 9 years old. This is a view of my house (on Lake Drive in Valdosta) from across the street. You can see our neighbor Mark Gish, our dog Blondie (or maybe Mark's dog; the image isn't clear), my sister Julie, and, off in the distance, my mother on the front porch of the house. Note the 9-year-old's approach to perspective — the ground is the bottom of the picture, right?


When my father died in 1966, no other family member knew how to use his cameras, but it fell to me to try to figure it out — and the Polaroid J66 was the first camera I was able to use, largely because of the explicit instructions printed all over it (press button 1, pull lever 2, flip switch 3, pull tab 4...) and also because I had paid a fair bit of attention to how it worked when my father was using it. So this picture is how I began to finish up the roll of film he had left in it.

The J66 was an evolutionary dead-end, the last of the roll-film Polaroids. After taking a picture, you pulled the film through a set of rollers that squeezed developer all over it. About 15 seconds later (I think) you peeled the picture off and discarded the other layers of material; then the picture had to be coated with a plastic solution that came on a pad.

This was Type 47 film, "3000 speed" (actually equivalent to ISO 3000 in modern terms; amazingly sensitive to light). (See also this.) The camera took good pictures with a nearly-fixed-focus f/19 lens and a photocell-controlled shutter. My father also had a "color adapter" for using Type 48 Polacolor film, 75 speed; the adapter simply covered up most of the photocell so that the exposures would be much more generous. Early Polacolor was wretched stuff, with lots of deep forest green, reasonable fleshtones, and bright reds, but no vivid green or blue that I can remember.

The J66 dates from 1961. Just a couple of years later, in 1963, Polaroid switched to the film-pack line of cameras, which remained in production until the whole product line ended just now. In the 1990s, when I was collecting cameras more avidly than now, I briefly owned and used a Polaroid 250. The film worked the same way as in the J66 except for packaging and gradual improvements in performance.

Professional photographers also used Polaroid film in sheet-film cameras as large as 8x10. It was a handy way to make test exposures. For casual snapshooters, starting in the 1970s, Polaroid's SX-70 and its many descendants provided color pictures with no peel-apart step; you could just watch the picture develop before your eyes. But (to my taste) the colors still were poor.

So that was Polaroid. The company hopes to license someone else to manufacture the film, but realistically, this is probably the first important photographic medium actually to disappear from the scene within my lifetime; all the others are just becoming less common.

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Earthlit Moon

Stepping out of the house right after supper on Feb. 8, I saw this, and photographed it:


The moon was just 44 hours and 15 minutes past new — that is, this is less than a 2-day-old moon — and you can see much of the dark portion via light reflected from Earth.

Canon 40D, 300-mm telephoto lens, fixed tripod. Routine processing with Photoshop and Neat Image.

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Miscellanea electronica

Here is a most excellent disquisition on the subject of crimp connectors. And here is Molex's web site; Molex is one of the main manufacturers, and the popular 0.1-inch-spacing connectors are called C-Grid. The other manufacturer is AMP, now known as Tyco Electronics, and their 0.1-inch-spacing connectors span several product lines, of which MTA-100 is one of the most convenient.

And have a look at Adafruit, a small kit manufacturer with some good, new ideas.

Finally: The last volume of Carl and Jerry awaits your eager perusal.

What have I been up to lately? Revising this. And a lot of work at my day job, of course!

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Graphic designers as management de-tanglers

For over a year, Melody has been the graphic designer and publication editor for ESS. Cathy is presently helping some biologists at the University of Georgia with a major presentation.

And as they were talking over dinner today, I had a realization: Publication editors are management de-tanglers. They have the power to make disorganized people stop and sort themselves out.

Much of the time, when people ask for help getting a publication laid out and printed, the truth is that the information they want to publish does not exist yet. Decisions haven't been made and facts haven't been gathered.

The publication editor (graphic designer, etc.) gets to judge whether the information is complete and orderly, and if not, hold things up until the information is ready.

So publication editors are nowadays the people who really know how a company runs. That attribute used to belong to the data processing department. Thirty years ago, lots of people in top management came out of DP because that was the department that had to know how the whole company operates. Today, maybe graphic designers hold that position.

Requests I must turn down

Some readers of my astronomy books don't realize I'm not a full-time amateur astronomer and astronomy certainly is not my profession. I'm very fully occupied doing scientific research. Besides, I have a family, and a life.

So it was with some dismay that today I received an invitation to subscribe to a 24-hour continuous amateur astronomy instant messaging chat service — and when I said I don't have time, they replied, "You can even get it on your cell phone!"

The last thing I need is my cell phone interrupting me all day at work with trivial chit-chat about amateur astronomy (or anything else).

Even if I were a full-time astronomer I don't think I'd go for that. How do I get all these books written? Not by immersing myself in hobbyist "chat" 24 hours a day. I spend my (finite) time strategically seeking out information I actually need.

By the way, I also do not take telephone calls from hobbyists wanting to talk about astronomy. There just isn't time. I will answer e-mail if it's concise and to-the-point. But my books have about 30,000 readers, and I can't take calls from all of them.

Nor do I travel at my own expense to amateur astronomy gatherings all over the country. In fact, I decided several years ago that, unless paid an honorarium and all expenses, I only speak to organizations of which I am a member (and that's not many). My next astronomy-related public appearance will be at the Georgia Sky View.

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Human rights, not special-group rights

As long as I'm telling the University and the world how to formulate sexual harassment policy, let me make one more point.

Prohibition of harassment should be dealt with as a matter of human rights, not women's rights or the rights of other specific groups.

It's true that harassment of women by men is the most common kind. But if you make it into just a "women's issue" you risk either of two things:

  • People may think harassment is permitted if the victim doesn't belong to a designated group (women, ethnic minorities, etc.).
  • You may go down the slippery slope and end up saying women are, after all, not equal, that they need special protection... and a special environment... and pretty soon you've thrown equal rights out the window.

Harassment and intimidatory behavior are just as ugly when they don't align with a widely recognized division within society as when they do.


Advice to students who want me to write a letter of recommendation: I'm thinking of following a colleague's example and asking students to give me several weeks' advance notice, as well as giving me a copy of some of their application materials, so I'll know what I'm writing in support of! I think they will get more benefit from a more informed letter — not one written in a hurry because yesterday-was-the-deadline-but-we-think-we-can-still-get-one-in.

Comet panorama: Check out the Feb. 5 Astronomy Picture of the Day. It's a composite image of Comet Holmes against the stars.

The strange world of antipopes: There are people who think the last 4 or 5 Popes were not validly elected and who have therefore set themselves up as Pope. One example is Pius XIII. Another is Michael I. Thanks to the Internet, you can probably find others. As usual, the mind boggles.

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Quiet, telephones!

There's a primary election today (Feb. 5), and it's high time to plug the loophole in the law that allows political campaigns to autodial telephones and play pre-recorded ads. This is illegal for everybody but politicians. Can't the politicians catch on to why it's illegal? It's a nuisance!

Community standards, not personal discomfort

Speaking of nuisances, the University of Georgia has just had a major sexual harassment scandal. Since I have no firsthand information, I won't report any details here, but you can check the campus newspaper (possibly looking back a few days).

[Note: Do not confuse this with another scandal involving a different University employee, involving fighting rather than harassment, which just hit the papers late on Feb. 4. It must be scandal season!]

Until recently, we didn't have sufficiently clear policies, and they probably still need more clarification (as well as enforcement). But I want to contribute one key idea:

This needs to be a matter of community standards, not personal discomfort. That is, sexual harassment is what the community says is improper, not what an individual objects to.

If you leave it up to individuals to decide what is offensive, you have three problems:

  • Victims will be pressured not to "object" when very improper things are done to them;
  • In every incident, the victim will be put on trial along with the perpetrator;
  • Occasionally, individuals will make unreasonable objections that could not be foreseen or avoided.

What's more, if personal discomfort is the criterion — if harassment is purely up to the victim to define — then there's no way for a person other than the victim to object to improper behavior that he or she observes.

I dealt with a lot of similar issues when helping to craft the University's computer acceptable-use policies in the 1990s. You do get a certain number of unfounded complaints, and even harassment-by-tattletale. If these cannot be filtered out effectively, without embarrassing the complainer publicly, then the whole policy loses credibility.

At every year's orientation session in the AI Center, we address personal harassment of all kinds, not just sexual. The key to success is having the whole community agree on the limits of acceptable behavior. The "anything goes" attitude of the 1970s was foolish.

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I've made some additions to recent entries in red type. Scroll down and read them...

Here's a good video on how camera lenses are made (in small quantities, by a custom optics company). There are also some good videos about how Canon makes lenses in quantity, but they're in Japanese.

Something to worry about: Just like the Internet, the field of DNA technology is beginning to develop a maverick "hacker" community of amateurs; how soon will this give way to openly malicious behavior? In the future "virus authors" may be authoring real, biological viruses. (Note that I am not accusing this particular web site of anything malicious; note especially their expressions of concern.)

What society needs most, I think, is to teach ethics to technically-oriented people. That's what went wrong with the Internet. Particularly in the 1990s, we had a large subculture of young people who were technically adept and morally ignorant, and who simply didn't grasp that their use of computers had ethical implications.

And by "teach ethics" I don't mean do the 1970s thing, which is to put them in a philosophy course and tell them that logicians have discovered that ethical statements are meaningless so they might as well do as they please. No... Teach them something about how society actually works. You might call part of it economics rather than ethics, but Internet users (for instance) need to know why there is an Internet and what their fellow citizens expect of them.

Now back to computers... if XML strikes you as verbose, have a look at JSON.

The successor to Windows Vista will be called Windows 7. Speculations here; counter-speculations here.

One thing's for sure — operating-system architecture is getting more sophisticated in a welcome way. DOS frankly wasn't an operating system; it was a hastily assembled file system for a computer that worked, internally, like a microprocessor breadboard. Windows 1, 2, and 3 were clumsily tacked onto DOS. Windows 95 and 98 were standalone operating systems that still had to run DOS games and device drivers. Windows NT, 2000, and XP — now there, finally, is an operating system that controls the computer, rather than just servicing requests from all-powerful application programs.

Vista is a big step up on the inside. Don't judge it by whether you like those pale-looking windows. What's important is that (for example) it can prioritize i/o operations as well as CPU operations, giving smoother performance when you're using the disk drive. It can also detect things going wrong to a much greater extent, which is why it asks for permission when a program wants to do something heavy-handed. (If you don't like viruses, you should welcome this, despite what those Macintosh TV commercials say.) Windows 7 will presumably contain more of these performance- and reliability-improving architectural changes.

Good news for photographers: Kodak is making a profit. I figured they could, by shifting to digital products as much as possible and by scaling down their film operations to be efficient at smaller volume. Like artists' oil paint, photographic film can probably always be manufactured at a profit if you don't overestimate how much of it the world needs.

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Was there science in the Middle Ages?

Was there science in the Middle Ages? Yes, there was plenty. Later propagandists have tried to get us to believe two falsehoods:

  • That experimental science was thriving in ancient Greek times;
  • That the medieval church (in one book "the Inquisition") killed it off.

(I've recently been annoyed by a book, which I won't name, that makes both of these assertions.)

The truth is, there were a few experimentalists in ancient Greek times, along with a few of everything else you can imagine, and nobody carried on the idea. Experimentation died out, or failed to catch on, a long time before the rise of Christianity.

Lots of worthwhile activities died out in the early Middle Ages because of the collapse of the economy. Far from suppressing intellectual activity, the church was, in the words of G. K. Chesterton, "the only thing in the Dark Ages that wasn't dark."

And although modern experimental science had not yet developed (and had not existed in Greek times either), there was a good bit of scientific observation going on. If the Venerable Bede's studies of tides (in the 8th century) don't qualify as science, I don't know what does. In that era, educated people knew the earth was round and knew the cause of eclipses; William of Conches drew a handy diagram in the 11th century. (Of course, not everyone was educated. But there are still uneducated people who believe the earth is flat.) Note also that eyeglasses were invented in the 1200s, right in the heart of the High Middle Ages. That must have taken some systematic experimentation.

Much more to the point, there were great advances in logic and related fields during the Middle Ages, laying the foundations for the rise of science. A few cranks such as Petrus Ramus claimed that the medievals had been wrong about everything — which is not true, but even if they had been wrong, at least they were thinking. The very concept of laws of nature is right out of medieval philosophy.

It's true that when experimental science finally started to rev up, in the early Renaissance, the Church often did not get along with experimentalists. But rather than characterize the Church as anti-science, it would be more accurate to say that the scientists themselves were too unsophisticated. Early experimentation was often tangled up in magic and superstition. The Church didn't like magic and superstition, and neither do scientists today.

Sony CDX-GT270S car radio with shortwave


Melody and I have just bought ourselves, from this eBay vendor in Singapore, two Sony CDX-GT270S car radios with CD, MP3, etc., AM, FM, and shortwave, one for each car. The cost was about US $135 each, plus about US $60 to ship the pair to us by airmail. Since these are not imported to the US by Sony, the vendor gives a warranty but Sony USA does not. If you prefer a North American (but still non-US) vendor, try The Shortwave Store in Canada.

Installation was very easy because we were replacing older Sony radios in both cars. No new wiring — just unplug the old radio and put in the new one. In Melody's minivan, the old radio, which was relatively new, fit in the same sleeve and all I had to do was use two key-like gadgets to pop it out. (Sonys are easy to steal, but at least, if a thief has the right gadgets, he doesn't damage the dashboard or even the wiring.) In my Oldsmobile, I had to change the sleeve, but the installation was easier than expected because the previous installer had made the same mistake I was going to make — removed four screws and popped a panel out, breaking some tabs — so now you can get to the radio by removing four screws, although that's not the way General Motors designed it!

I didn't expect much from shortwave, but I figured it's a handy feature to have, and we needed new car stereos (with aux inputs) anyhow. Besides, Sony's pre-stored equalizations really improve the sound quality inside a car. The cost of the CDX-GT270S units from Singapore was comparable to similar radios without shortwave in America. U.S. Customs did not charge a duty on the arriving package, and in fact, most consumer electronics enter the U.S. duty-free.

So how well do these radios work? Considerably better than I expected. There is no appreciable noise from the engine or from electronics inside the car. The first station I heard was CHU (Canada's time signal station) on 3.330 MHz, followed by some unidentified Spanish broadcasters booming in around 17.6 MHz.

I should add that the bandwidth is nicely limited to just under +-5 kHz. I have heard no 5-kHz whistles while tuning through crowded bands, but the sound is not muffled as it would be by an excessively narrow or sloping filter.

To my delight, the BBC World Service comes in on 5.975 from 5 to 6 p.m., ostensibly aimed at Central America, since the BBC no longer serves the United States.

Of course I know that I shouldn't expect FM-quality sound on shortwave. But these radios will give us a welcome alternative to the local fare, which consists of about 50 FM stations, all playing "adult contemporary," and about half a dozen AM stations, all devoted to right-wing talk. (Or so it seems.) I'm planning to listen to a lot of Spanish. Radio Exterior de España comes in well here.

Unexplained quirk: For some reason, all middle- to high-end Sony car radios now come with remote controls. What is the remote control for? It doesn't clip onto the steering wheel or gearshift lever, where it might be genuinely useful. It's an infrared gadget that has to be aimed at the radio. It sounds like a great way for obnoxious teenagers in the back seat to make pests of themselves! Fortunately that's a problem we've never had; Cathy and Sharon like music that Melody and I also like listening to, and most of all, they always chose their music because it sounds good, not because of adolescent fashions.

A bit of electronic prehistory

How did they build battery chargers back before silicon or even selenium rectifiers were invented? A conventional vacuum tube to rectify 10 amps at 12 volts would be very expensive and inefficient.

It turns out they used this contraption, called a Tungar rectifier. (See also here.) It's half light bulb, half argon-filled rectifier. That is, the filament works like a light bulb rather than a vacuum tube; it's a cheap way to build a big filament with lots of emission.

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Arthur Brooks and his discoveries about American generosity

On Feb. 1 I had the good fortune to be invited to a dinner and discussion with Arthur Brooks, the economist whose discoveries about generosity in America have made headlines.

Click on the link to see what some of them are. Basically:

  • Religious people are more generous than non-religious people, even when you only count non-religious charities, and even when donating blood.
  • By the same criteria, political conservatives are more generous than political liberals — but political moderates are the least generous of all!
  • The "working poor" give a higher proportion of their income to charity than the upper class — even though they take the standard deduction and thus don't get tax deductions for it.
  • Over the past 50 years, charitable giving in America has increased more than income.

The discussion was sponsored by the Christian Faculty Forum, but the goal was not simply to promote Christianity. In fact, Dr. Brooks' most important result is that, as far as measures of generosity are concerned, it hardly matters at all which religion a person practices, but amount of practice matters a lot.

Past social scientists have mostly divided people up by religious affiliation, but there's almost no difference between a non-practicing Catholic and a non-practicing Buddhist. If you ask how often a person actually attends religious activities, you get something that correlates closely with all measures of generosity.

At the discussion, we raised a lot of interesting questions, among them:

  • Can you distinguish different kinds of giving? Some people seem to give primarily to have the experience of "making a sacrifice" while others are entirely focused on delivering benefits to the recipients.

    These are hard to pick apart. Obviously, one test is whether the giver cares a lot about the efficiency of the charity. Another is anonymous or secret giving — but a confounding factor is that very unselfish givers may choose to do their giving visibly in the hope that it will encourage others to give.
  • Are we really measuring a personality trait, some kind of extraversion or community involvement, which leads people both to be generous and to be active in religious communities?

    Any pastor will tell you that there are people who are very active in church and have almost no religious belief — don't think it's necessary to have any — and can't tell you about the doctrines of their religion if asked.

And of course there's the doctrine of the political Left that we should not have private charity — that it demeans the poor if we give them gifts — we should instead provide them government entitlements, so that income without work becomes a right.

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Rules of a sleep lab

I recently came across the rules of the sleep lab at a local hospital (the diagnostic lab that observes patients as they sleep, to diagnose sleep disorders). Most of the rules were as expected (arrive by a certain time, eat normally on the previous day, etc.), but one jumped out at me:

13. DO NOT bring firearms or other dangerous weapons into the Sleep Lab. (If you do bring any such items into our Lab you will be asked to take the items back to your vehicle.)

I wonder what led them to put that particular rule in writing. As usual, the mind boggles. Just how far are we from the dark side of Kennesaw Mountain?

Things I don't have time to write about

Here are a few things I'd like to write about but don't have time to follow up. If they catch your interest, use search engines to find out more about them on your own.

One of the world's great machines: If you define a "machine" as something that accepts mechanical energy in a simple way and contains no electrical controls or chemical reactions, then I think one of the last truly great machines to be invented was the IBM Selectric typewriter. Did you realize the whole thing is non-electrical? The motor only turns a cylinder, and from there, everything is done by cams, levers, chains, and so forth.

I've owned a Selectric II since 1975; I still use it for typing envelopes, and I had the presence of mind to get the University's typewriter expert to overhaul it before he retired. Ever since 1975 I've been regretting that I didn't get the dual-pitch and correcting options. (Correcting? Yes, by purely mechanical means the Correcting Selectric will pop up a piece of "lift-off tape" in place of the ribbon and automatically un-type a letter, removing the carbon ink from the paper.)

Typewriters and gender: I also think the typewriter was responsible for introducing the sharp distinction between "secretary" and "boss" (or manager) in mid-20th-century business. (I'm talking about conventional typewriters, not just Selectrics, of course.)

Before 1920 or so, secretarial work was usually done by management trainees — people who were training for the job of the "boss." That's how they started up the ladder. Typing, however, was a specialized skill that most managers lacked. That (along with the telephone) helped create a separate (though inferior) role for women in business. It gave them jobs but kept them out of management.

A correspondent points out that this situation led to the frequent scenario of a highly qualified secretary running a department while the manager fumbled. Because they couldn't be promoted at all, secretaries couldn't be promoted to their level of incompetence; managers could, and were.

(Much of this was pointed out to me 25 years ago by someone who is now an eminent sociologist, but I'm too busy to dig up the published research. I leave that as a challenge for my readers.)

By the way, my father knew how to type. So did my mother. One day, around 1977, my mother sat down at my Selectric to type me a note. Not wearing her glasses, she didn't realize that the typeball for Greek was installed. The note came out a bit strange-looking, but I managed to decode it!

C# standard, heckled: I'm reading C# Annotated Standard, by Jagger, Perry, and Sestoft, a great book (if you're a computer geek like me). It consists of the C# language standard with remarks added.

I like it. Every technical standards document needs a good heckler, and that's what the authors do.

They point out a lot of things I hadn't noticed. One is that C# is asynchronous. For example, if you write

c = 10;
d = 20;
e = 30;

the compiler is not obligated to make the computer assign c before it assigns d or e, because doing so makes no visible difference. If the three operations can be done at the same time, or even if there's a reason to do them backward, that's permitted. You won't be able to detect it unless, in some strange way (and it's possible in C#), you interrupt the program and peek at the values of the variables. Then you might be surprised.

Of course, if any operations have visible effects, then the computer is required to do them in the order you specify.

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If what you are looking for is not here, please look at previous months.