Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington
Books by Michael Covington
Consulting Services
Previous months
About this notebook
Search site or Web

Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
On being a humble Protestant
Nokia 7020 cables and adapters
Types of USB connectors
Windows File Sharing very slow, Internet OK
DMK21AU04.AS camera with color sensor by mistake
Is "cloned" food safe? Of course!
AT&T FastAccess, Westell modem, Linksys WRT54G
Moon (thin crescent)
Moon (Mare Orientale)
Moon (Mare Orientale)
Jupiter (SEB spot)
Jupiter (2 red spots)
M35 (star cluster in Gemini)
M42 (Orion Nebula)
M77 (spiral galaxy in Cetus)
Many more...

For more topics, scroll down, press Ctrl-F to search the page, or check previous months.

If you suspect you're not looking at the latest version of this page,
use the refresh button in your browser.


Two early memories of electronics

The first electronic device that I saw the inside of was a Futura Medallion transistor radio that I was given in second grade (1964). Even by the standards of the time, it was primitive, a 3-transistor regenerative circuit (you have probably never listened to a radio that simple; normal radios are superheterodynes with 5 transistors or more). Now, thanks to the World Wide Web, you can see one too.

Our family TV set, a Du Mont from about 1954, lasted until 1967 (by which time it was badly behind the state of the art, even for black-and-white), and when it was scrapped, I was allowed to remove a few parts and study the diagrams inside the cabinet. As it turns out, this was a rather rare TV, and in recent years I never came across it as I looked at various documented collections of old TV sets (nor had I ever seen one just like it anywhere else). I finally came across a picture of it. It was a Du Mont RA-307.

With that useless information, I'll close out November. Things are getting busy around here... More news next month!


AT&T (Bellsouth) FastAccess, Westell modem, and Linksys router

Our home network, held together by a Linksys WRT54G router, uses a Westell modem (provided by AT&T) to access our AT&T (formerly Bellsouth) DSL connection.

Yesterday it mysteriously stopped connecting to the Internet. AT&T verified that they had a good connection to my modem and could not assist us further.

It turns out that the modem had suddenly started caring about a setting that had been wrong all the time, but until now, innocuous.

If the Linksys router handles PPPoE login (that is, stores your username and password), then the Westell should not be in PPPoE mode.

Here's what to do. Connect a PC directly to the Westell. You will probably find that it has a good Internet connection; if not, power-cycle the Westell. Then point your browser to to talk to the Westell. Go into "Expert Mode" and set the Protocol to Bridged Ethernet, not PPPoE. Save the setting, connect it back to the Linksys, and you're done.

I have no idea why I didn't have to do this until today.


People don't know what "cloned" means

The British have a controversy going about whether meat from cloned cattle is safe to eat.

I can't imagine why it wouldn't be.

And I think what this shows is that lots of people don't know what "cloned" means. They must be imaging cows made in giant Xerox machines, or something like that.

Actually, the cloning, in this case, is done with embryos in test tubes (as best I understand it). But the point is, they're real cows. If a cow gave birth to twins, would they be safe to eat? Yes, of course. But twins are clones of each other. The only difference is that the scientists are doing, in the laboratory, what nature occasionally does in the womb.

A clone is any living thing whose genetic material is a copy of another. Plants grown from cuttings are clones (and nobody balks at eating Granny Smith apples, which are all grown that way).

All this has been said before. What I conclude today is that lots of people have strong opinions about cloning without having the foggiest idea what it is. It's like the people in the 1970s who were "anti-nuclear." "Nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants?" "Don't bother me with details."

Sharon points out that the real risk with cloned livestock or plants is that if your herd of 100 cows is genetically identical, then a disease is likely to come through and hit all of them exactly the same way at the same time. Right now this is a problem with seedless bananas. Further, none of them will ever be better than the ones you have right now — their genes are frozen in time.

I should also point out that cloned animals are NOT "genetically modified" — that is a different can of worms entirely.


Happy Thanksgiving!


What Mare Orientale looks like from Earth

I finally have a picture that actually shows the middle of Mare Orientale (the plain surrounded by mountain ranges). Here you are seeing it more or less in cross section, right on the edge of the visible face of the moon. Unfortunately, the mountain ranges don't show up as well here as they did in my earlier shot. Also, this was taken with the 5-inch telescope, not the 8-inch.

If you're wondering why this is a big deal, look at the space-probe pictures, which show you Mare Orientale from directly above.

Also note that we are relying on lunar libration, an effect due to the non-circularity of the moon's orbit, to help us see beyond what would ordinarily be the edge. In the picture above, we have 4.5 degrees of favorable libration. It is possible to get slightly more, so I'm going to keep trying for a better view. Plenty of the time, of course, you can't see Mare Orientale at all because it is well beyond the visible edge at the time.

UFOs Klass-ified

Back around 1987, I had the pleasure of meeting the late Philip Klass, aviation writer and UFO investigator. Recently I re-read one of his books, UFOs Explained. This is a collection of "solved" UFO cases, where an unidentified flying object has successfully been explained as something other than an alien spaceship.

I am a UFO skeptic in the tradition of Donald H. Menzel. So is Klass, but if anything, he is more aggressive and overconfident. This book doesn't reveal just how badly he got along with other UFO investigators; for that, you have to look at other sources. Still, it must have been extremely trying to have to deal with "true believers" — people who were convinced that any unidentified speck in the sky must be an alien craft — and there are still plenty of "true believers" today.

I am not one of them. I see no reason to even guess that an unidentified object in the sky is an alien spacecraft unless you have some prior reason to believe there are aliens somewhere who can visit us (who? where?), and unless you have eliminated possibilities such as rare atmospheric phenomena, optical illusions, and, most of all, secret earth-based aircraft and spacecraft.

In any case, the "solved" cases are interesting. I actually saw one of the objects Klass mentions — a huge experimental balloon that flew over the Southeast in October 1973. To the naked eye, it was a bright spot in the blue daytime sky, too bright to be Venus and moving too slowly to be an aircraft. I got out my 6-inch telescope, saw that it was a balloon, and called the campus newspaper.

And in fact one of the useful data points in the book is that in the 1950s, there were many secret high-altitude balloon flights which were declassified in the 1970s. Quite a few UFOs that couldn't be explained at the time are now explainable.

The other point that comes out very plainly in the book is that people unaccustomed to looking at the sky will "see" things very strangely. Venus, which always looks like a bright white star, has been alleged to move around at high speeds, change colors, and sprout appendages. The appendages are of course just defects in the viewer's eye; nobody has perfect eyes, and when you look at a very bright star-like object, irregularities in the cornea and lens of your eye will show up as "smear" around the star.

Then there are objects that genuinely look strange, but have an unexpected, prosaic explanation. An example is a glowing object that kept pace with an observer's car, even as he sped up or stopped. It turned out to be a reflection of his headlights from power lines beside the road. As Klass observes, if this person had not investigated and found the cause, he would have only been able to report that at some point the object darted away and disappeared (when the power lines no longer ran parallel to the road), and it would have had to go into the "unsolved" file. Note: Extremely fast "darting" or non-ballistic motion is a characteristic of reflections.

Particularly misleading are cases where people feel sure of the size and/or distance of an unidentified object. That's just the observer's brain making a guess. If you don't know how big something is, you have no way of knowing how far away it is (or vice versa), except that of course it is farther away than things that it passes behind. Aircraft pilots, in particular, seem to be trained to assume that any object is the size of an airplane, and to immediately guess its distance. I can tell you from personal experience that people who have never been around mountains, or flown in aircraft very much, often think that everything is nearer and smaller than it is.

More generally, the function of the human eye-brain system is not to record visual images, but to recognize and identify objects. Identification is part of seeing, and as you see something, your brain will try to identify it and fill in the details. That is how we manage to recognize objects so quickly in life-saving situations, but it can also mislead us.

A recurrent example is the way meteors are seen as "cigar-shaped craft" with bright windows. A really big meteor tends to break up into several bright rocks that travel more or less in a row. Around them there may be some faintly luminous gas, not nearly as bright as the particles themselves. If you don't know what unusually bright meteors look like, but you do have a mental image of an alien spacecraft, that's what you'll see — instead of an extremely fast-moving cigar-shaped cloud with a row of bright spots, you'll "see" an elongated craft with glowing windows.

This, in turn, ties into the way UFO sightings come in "flaps" — when a "flap" is going on, and the newspapers are abuzz with stories, everybody will see UFOs and will attribute spacecraft-like behavior to everything they see that is even slightly unfamiliar.

I am struck by the fact that UFO reports almost never come from amateur or professional astronomers, people who are experienced in looking at everything in the sky, including rare phenomena. They more often come from pilots, who are trained in looking for aircraft but not much else, and who are biased toward viewing unusual objects as aircraft. Still more often, they come from "UFO enthusiasts," by which I mean space-alien enthusiasts.

Finally, what is the role of the UFO skeptic? If I believed we were getting extraterrestrial visitations, I would still think that 99% or 99.9% of UFO sightings are something else, and I would thank the skeptics for helping to explain them. Unfortunately, the "believers" do not seem to have appreciated the way the "skeptics" have been doing them a service. If there is anything "to" UFOs, it will be in the small number of cases that are sufficiently well documented but not explained. The explainers are performing a valuable service by clearing away the rest.


Some lazy astrophotography

All of these pictures were taken the lazy way — as a single exposure (though some were later stacked) with dark-frame subtraction done automatically in the camera ("long exposure noise reduction"). I was quickly checking whether the Crayford focuser would help me with deep-sky work, not aiming for top-quality results. Canon 40D on 8-inch telescope with f/6.3 compressor and autoguider.

First, the star cluster M35 and another smaller cluster next to it, to check that I could focus well:

Next, the spiral galaxy M77. This is a stack of a 1-minute, a 5-minute, and a 6-minute exposure, and you're looking at a small central area of the picture, not the full frame:

Finally, an attempt at HDR (high-dynamic-range) imaging of the Orion Nebula (M42). The alignment is not perfect. This is a stack of an 8-second exposure, a 30-second exposure, and a 2-minute exposure. The streak near the top of the nebulosity is a geosynchronous satellite going by (or rather rotating with the earth and hence moving relative to the stars). Consider this a prototype for better pictures to be taken with the same technique.

Some of you may have heard me express dissatisfaction with the align-and-stack feature of MaxIm DL 5. I'm glad to report that in release 5.12, the latest update, it is much improved.


Jupiter and the Ramparts of Mare Orientale

Here you see another rather sharp image of Jupiter, this time showing a white spot in the North Equatorial Belt, and another view over the triple concentric mountain ranges that encircle Mare Orientale. Each was taken with my 8-inch telescope and is a stack of more than 1500 video frames. Both were done with the DFK (color) camera, but the latter one was converted to black-and-white.


Keith Burns, 1965-2010

Keith Burns, former president of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, was found dead in a wooded area near a park this morning. He had been missing more than a week and an intensive search had been going on. No further details have been released, and although I did not know him well myself, I am among many who will miss him.


DMK monochrome astrocamera mistakenly built with color sensor

Today's technical war story is odder than most. For some time I've been using an ImagingSource DFK-series color video camera to photograph Jupiter. (Readers will remember that my technique is to take thousands of frames of video, then align and stack them using software.)

Well... I wanted to do monochrome infrared imaging of the current outbreak in Jupiter's SEB, so I ordered a DMK21AU04.AS camera from the same series.

It arrived, and since we were having a rainy day, I didn't put it on the telescope. Instead, I played with it indoors without a lens, making sure it could see variations of light and shade in the room.

The images should have been featureless gray, but instead, they had a fine grid pattern in them, like this:

I thought about that for a moment and said to myself, "That looks like the Bayer matrix in a color camera. It looks like I'm using a color camera in black-and-white mode."

I turned on Bayer decoding, and voilà — the camera could see in color!

Apparently this DMK camera was built with the image sensor of a DBK-series camera, and the electrical requirements of the two sensors are so similar that it worked. But it's not what I wanted... so the dealer is sending another one, and we hope the whole batch does not have the same problem.


Notes from all over

Copyright scandal of the day: As everybody knows by now, Cooks Source Magazine stole material from web pages, then, when challenged, brazenly told an author that the whole Web is "public domain," which it isn't. (Look carefully; there's a copyright notice on this page. I'm no fool.)

More about this ongoing drama here. It looks as if they're out of business, which is a pity, because they need to stick around and be sued by their other victims.

A while back, I said that back when Social Security was being set up, 65 was the average age of death of able-bodied workers. The Social Security Administration says that in 1935, the life expectancy of 65-year-olds was 12.5 (more) years. Was I wrong?

No. I checked. If you made it to 65, you were indeed good for quite a few more years; but your odds of making it to 65 were only 50-50. There were far more deaths in young adulthood and middle age then than now.

Flash forward to today. I thought it was uncontroversial that the Social Security retirement age needed to rise just a little, to adjust for the great increase in life expectancy. But I've just been arguing with some liberals who approach this from a different direction. Instead of asking what is financially feasible, they are asking whether "blue-collar people should have to work" past age 65, and arguing that extending the retirement age to, say, 68 or 70 is undue hardship.

Well, I can dream of a world in which "blue-collar people" don't "have to work" at all, but dreaming doesn't make it so.

(Let me clarify that I am not unaware of the physical challenges of blue-collar work. But if too many jobs can only be done by young adults, that is not the problem Social Security was set up to solve; we need to be thinking about working conditions and career paths.)

Incidentally, blue-collar workers' life expectancy hasn't risen as much as everyone else's, but the reason is simple: Smoking.

A related point: Where do people go to quit smoking? College. Apparently, one of the best things you can do for public health in a rural area is to open a community college.

Why? Maybe a change in social class status and role models; maybe a change in a person's attitude to facts. When they've been to college, they no longer feel that they have a license to ignore things. Less educated people have heard that smoking is bad for them, but they think it's a claim that comes from, and belongs to, a different world, not part of the little world in which they live. Going to college breaks this boundary.

My college friend Paul McGlasson is now an up-and-coming Presbyterian theologian. In one of his books, he has lucidly pointed out two things that are wrong with fundamentalism:

  • It is defined by, and thus dependent on, what it rejects. Without modern culture to thrust against, fundamentalism would be pointless. (As the Rev. Jim Griffith said to me many years ago, "If you take the 'knock' out of some of these people, there isn't anything left.")
  • Fundamentalists fail to realize that their interpretation of the Bible is an interpretation. (Doctrinally conservative non-fundamentalists, such as myself, would argue that it is close to the right interpretation; but a real fundamentalist denies that it is an interpretation at all.) Thus they fail to recognize an essential fact about human communication, which is that reasoning and decision-making are required of the recipient of every message. This may be connected to a vague notion that the Bible communicates miraculously.

Click the link to read more.



A minor technical improvement

You should be having considerably better luck getting the latest version of this blog every time you go to it, without having to hit Refresh. For the cognoscenti, the HTTP headers on Default.asp have been modified to include a short expiration time.


Windows File Sharing very slow, Internet access OK

I've just spent most of the weekend repairing our backup server, which was showing the following symptoms:

  • Windows file sharing was very slow (about 1 megabyte per minute to copy a file from the server to another PC) and during the copying operations, the server was quite unresponsive, not even responding to mouse movements on the screen.
  • Internet access was unimpeded; the DSLreports speed test was the same as on any of our other computers (much faster than Windows file copying).
  • There were no indications of anything wrong in the event logs, except that very occasionally, the computer was unable to get to the network at all.

There are many software solutions to this problem on the Internet, and I tried them, and they didn't work.

The key symptom — long delays without error messages in the log — indicates hardware trouble. The operating system is asking the hardware to do something that can take an unpredictable (but not unreasonable) amount of time, and is waiting as long as it takes without complaining. The hardware is taking far longer than it ought to.

Similar symptoms in the past have clued me in to disk drive and USB controller failures.

Well, cut to the chase — it was a hardware failure. I disabled the onboard Ethernet controller and added a new one ($25 from Best Buy). All fixed.

The only other confounding factor is that the blue slot in an ASUS P4PE motherboard is apparently not quite PCI standard. My USB adapters work in it but the Ethernet card did not. Weird.


Nokia 7020 review and note about cables and adapters


My new Nokia 7020 cell phone is serving me well. By way of background, this is one of the new ones that you can buy, unlocked, from Nokia and from vendors such as Amazon. It's ready for any digital network such as AT&T or T-Mobile — just put in your SIM card.

The phone contains a 2-GB camera, an MP3 player, and an FM radio. The latter two are going to come in very handy, especially when I'm traveling.

There's a slot for a micro SD memory card, and to my delight, a 2-GB card was already in it when I opened up the phone.

The easiest way to transfer files to the phone is either to move the memory card to your computer, or to hook up the phone using any micro USB cable (Nokia's CA-101 or any other brand). A micro USB connector is slightly smaller than the mini USB connector used on cameras (see below). Apparently, no device driver is needed if all you're doing is reading and writing the memory card in the phone. Software for doing other things can be downloaded from Nokia (and, in my experience, will pester you frequently offering to update itself).

A pair of Nokia ear buds is included. If you want to use regular (Walkman-type) headphones with this telephone, what you want is a common 3-conductor (stereo) 2.5-mm to 3.5-mm adapter (I don't know if Nokia makes this, but others do) not the Nokia AD-61 or any other adapter that has a 4-conductor plug. The Nokia headset has a 4-conductor plug, but the 4th conductor (the ring nearest the sleeve) is for the microphone. It is correct for this to be joined with the sleeve (without the third black band separating them) when your headset doesn't include a microphone. I made my own adapter, simply wiring corresponding pins of the 3.5-mm stereo socket to the 2.5-mm stereo plug, and it works.

I have since learned that this adapter is widely available. It is a 3.5-to-2.5-mm stereo adapter, not "cell phone" adapter. The plug has 3 metal areas (not 4) with 2 black bands (not 3) separating them.

These latter two facts were unknown to Nokia tech support and are not on Nokia's web site.

Types of USB connectors

Left to right: A, B, Mini B, and Micro B USB plugs. There is also an A socket, used on extension cables.

The Mini B and Micro B are almost exactly the same size. (Mini B is thicker and more T-shaped.) As I learned yesterday, Mini B is used on cameras and Micro B is used on cellphones.


Jupiter with two red spots

Here you see Jupiter with the Great Red Spot and another prominent red oval. At the suggestion of Christopher Go, I recorded only two minutes of video this time (so the planet wouldn't rotate as far) and used a higher frame rate. Traditionally I have been recording four minutes of video each time.


Jupiter spot

Here you see the spot that represents the start of the return of Jupiter's missing South Equatorial Belt. The spot was discovered by amateur astronomer Christopher Go a few days ago. It is very bright in infrared light. I have ordered an infrared camera and hope to have some infrared images soon.


Thin moon

This was a quick and easy astrophoto — Canon 40D, 300-mm lens, and 1.4x converter on a tripod, exposed in Live View mode to minimize vibration, sharpened with RegiStax. More quick and easy astrophotography is coming tomorrow. I'm too busy to do anything hard!


In further praise of a cheap watch
and other thoughts on timekeeping

Melody and I shopped for a new watch for me on Saturday night, and after looking at lots of alternatives, I decided to stick with my newly repaired Casio A178W. If it fails again, I'll get another one just like it (it's still made).

We saw some strange things in the stores. Any watch that does anything useful is classified as a "sports watch," no matter how dressy it looks. "Dress watches" have analog dials more than 2 inches in diameter, presumably for stage presence, so your friends on the other side of the room can see your bling.

Bulova is still making all-mechanical self-winding watches. Why? That was a great technology for 1955, but it has been obsolete for thirty years.

I like the A178W because of its good ink-to-information ratio (almost everything on the screen is actually meant to be read) and because of its compact, thin design. Notice how, in the picture, it doesn't catch or chew up shirt cuffs. And it takes a standard band — I think I have a $25 band on a $16 watch.

A new technology to watch: Not only wall clocks, but also some Casio wristwatches pick up longwave radio signals from the atomic clock at WWVB in Colorado and set themselves automatically. When it works, that's very handy. I'm told that these watches have some trouble setting themselves in Georgia, though, and have to be left on the windowsill overnight (or outdoors, if you're brave).

We need more than just one longwave transmitter in Colorado. My idea is that there should be a digital time-signal "chirp" transmitted along with the hourly station ID of every FM broadcast station. Unlike WWVB, it would only be accurate to maybe 0.1 second (not 0.001 second), but that's plenty good enough for almost every human activity, including the broadcast industry itself, which already uses various kinds of time beeps internally. And the signal would be strong enough to pick up anywhere.

Perhaps a dubious move: These same new watches use a solar-powered rechargeable battery, and the instructions say not to wear them inside a sleeve or cuff, or they won't get enough light. Oops.

Quartz accuracy: One of the blessings of modern life is that everybody has an accurate watch or clock. It's no trouble to keep a group of people synchronized to the minute.

"Back in the Day" (i.e., circa 1970), life was very different. A cheap mechanical watch could easily drift 2 minutes in 24 hours. Different people's watches and clocks commonly differed by 5 minutes or more. Polite people always showed up for appointments 10 or 15 minutes in advance, because if your watch and theirs were off by 5 minutes in opposite directions, there might not be any time to spare.

Nowadays I can schedule a meeting at 2:00, and at 1:59 people will start coming into the room, and by 2:00:30, they'll all be sitting down. No need for ten minutes of anticipation.

Strange powers? In high school, I had a rather fancy watch (originally my father's) with a second hand that could be set. (Most watches could be set only to the minute.) Naturally, like everybody else, every morning I set my watch to match the school's bells, which were a few minutes off Eastern Standard Time.

I found that I could do this to an accuracy of better than a second (really; the second hand moved in 1/4-second jumps). Then, at the end of class, I would close my book and start to stand up about half a second before the bell rang. Nobody could complain, because by the time they saw me the bell was ringing, but they were haunted by the thought that they saw me move before they heard the bell. How did I do it?

That experience, by the way, instilled in me a value that I still live by. I start classes precisely on time, and I end them on time or slightly early. I am not one of those selfish professors who gets into a lecture and says, "I know class is supposed to be over, but bear with me a few more minutes..." meanwhile keeping the students from their next class.

Paradoxically, the inconvenience of Daylight Saving Time comes from the fact that clocks are so accurate, and so numerous. "Back in the Day," every clock needed setting every few days anyhow, and a household wouldn't have more than three or four of them.

This year, here's how the clock-setting rounds went:

  • The computers took care of themselves.
  • Two "atomic" wall clocks took care of themselves.
  • The cell phones took care of themselves when turned off and on again, but not before that.
  • I had to set 2 wall clocks, 2 alarm clocks (his and hers), clocks in 2 cars, and the time in 4 digital cameras and 1 digital voice recorder.

We are told that Daylight Saving Time "saves energy" and that it "helps the outdoor recreation industry." To which I say, "Make up your mind."


A ghost story

My office computer normally runs Windows, but on Friday I was setting up Red Hat Enterprise Linux as an alternative, for a research project. I have two monitors. I was configuring the dual display and realized everything was exactly the way I wanted it except that the left display was on the right screen and vice versa. Since xorg.conf is a tricky and sensitive thing, I took the simple way out — reached around behind the monitors and swapped the cables.

Presto — immediately the contents of the two screens were interchanged, and that corrected the problem.

Then I booted into Windows, thinking I'll have to tell Windows to swap the screens, since they had been set up correctly before I switched the cables. In Windows, this is easy to do, so I wasn't worried.

Well... I started up Windows... and the screens were not swapped. Each one was displaying the same thing as before I swapped the cables.

What gives?

I have no answers. My best guess is that, even though the monitors were both the same model of Dell 19-inch, they somehow returned different identifying information to the OS, and Windows was able to tell that I had swapped them.

Or maybe it's still close enough to Halloween...


Are wristwatches at an evolutionary dead-end?

The other night I went shopping for a new wristwatch, but I ended up not buying anything, and then, fortunately, successfully repaired the old one. (Casio A178W, shown in the picture; one of the few present-day wristwatch designs that I like.)

The evolution of wristwatches puzzles me. There was a revolution in the 1980s: we put aside our analog mechanical watches and got quartz watches with nice, big, legible LCD displays. A wristwatch was easier to read, and less trouble to maintain, than ever before. What's more, it had extra features such as a stopwatch and an alarm.

But today, when I want a watch of that general type, the pickings are slim! I have three choices:

  • Sport watches, which have the functionality I like, but are big and black and don't take standard watchbands. They don't look elegant enough to wear with a suit and tie.
  • Dress watches, which have analog dials and are often excessively close imitations of tired designs from the 1960s. (I have nothing against analog dials, but must we imitate 1960s display mechanisms, with moving metal calendar digits and the like? What is the best way to build an analog display today?)
  • What I call "show-off watches" — fancy watches that look like a parody of the gear of a 1930s aviator, with multiple tiny dials that cannot really serve any useful purpose.

Why didn't the 1980s digital watch evolve into a better version of itself, with a brighter and more informative display and a more elegant body? I don't know. Besides adding functionality, the obvious move would have been to improve the "ink-to-information ratio" by getting rid of needless writing. We don't need the full specifications of the watch written on the front. They're there because, originally, the LCD wasn't big enough to fill the whole face. Make it bigger, and you have a better watch. But very few watches are made this way.

I have an idea what's going on. First, wristwatches are no longer ubiquitous. Three quarters of my students don't wear them — instead, they use their cell phones as timepieces. The obvious advantage is that the time is kept correct automatically by the telephone network. The disadvantages are that you have to pull it out of your pocket, and in many cases press a button, to find out what time it is. If cell phones are not permitted (e.g., during an exam, or in a courtroom), you can't tell time. I like being able to look down at my wrist and see what time it is.

Second, because of falling prices, the watch industry is confused about what it's selling. They're trying to trade on the memory of how expensive a good watch used to be and what it used to look like. That is why we are getting parodies of 1930s chronometers instead of elegant watches that make the best use of today's technology to do today's job.

Short notes

I am delighted to find that unlocked quad-band international cell phones, usable on any GSM carrier anywhere in the world, are now readily available in stores and are not very expensive. (No more working the black market to get someone to unlock one.) I've just ordered one from Nokia.

Don't believe everything your computer says: Reportedly, an error in Google Maps has caused a minor military conflict in Central America!


Theories and data in theology

This is not going to turn into a theology blog, but the previous entry got 1000 hits in 3 days, so maybe I'm onto something. (Or maybe a large crowd is gathering to brand me a heretic.) Anyhow, I want to make one more point.

I'm a scientist. All day long I deal with theories versus data. On the basis of data, we formulate theories, which encapsulate our understanding, and then we test the theories against the data.

I think something similar goes on in theology, except that the process sometimes goes awry.

Calvinism, for instance, is a theory. It is a system of theology that attempts to present, in neat and logical form, the content of its data (Holy Scripture and various sources of background information). Arminianism, classical Lutheranism (the theology, not the church), and Thomism are others.

As long as the theory remains subordinate to the data — as long as the goal is to use Calvinism to help you follow Christ, not the other way around — you're on solid ground. The theory is constantly vulnerable to testing, and hence improvement. If it becomes too hard to correct, you'll throw it out.

A bad thing happens, whether in theology or in science, when a theory begins to be treated as superior to the data, so superior that people neglect or flatly deny the data. Every theological system has a few advocates of this kind. They are more interested in using Christianity as a foundation for X-ism (for some value of X) than using X-ism to help them become better Christians.

Scientific theories have advocates of this kind, too, and one often watches them go down with sinking ships.


Confessions of a humble Protestant

Today, November 1, is All Saints' Day, the day Christians honor their great predecessors in the faith. The day I am writing this, October 31, is the anniversary of Martin Luther's 95 Theses. And today I want to reflect on the current, divided state of Christendom and my place in it.

To put it bluntly, although I see that the divisions had to happen, I am not proud of them. To me, being a post-Reformation Christian is like having divorced parents — no matter where you go, it's not really home. If you are looking for someone who will extol one particular church and say that all the others are bad, look somewhere else. I am too well informed about Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and Protestantism to consider any of them the enemy, or to consider any of them flawless. None of them claims to be flawless.

Apart from issues of ecclesiology — how the church should be run — the most fundamental issue dividing Christians is how salvation is obtained — how people are reconciled to God. We agree that our salvation was won by Christ on the cross. But how do we receive it? Does Christ choose us or do we choose Christ?

I think the truth is a sacred mystery — not something deliberately withheld from us, but something beyond the ability of our minds to comprehend. In my opinion, both extreme Calvinism ("He chooses us and we have no say in the matter") and extreme Arminianism ("We choose Him, and if we don't stick with the choice, we lose Him again") are oversimplifications. They are like the wave and particle theories of light. Each of them gets some things right at the expense of others.

Following the Bible, I affirm that we are saved by grace through faith, not by our own accomplishments. Salvation is an undeserved gift from God. That is the great Calvinist insight, a powerful remedy against the universal human tendency to claim credit for ourselves for what God has done.

But I also follow the Bible in affirming that if faith does not bear fruit in behavior (such as forgiving your enemies), it is not saving faith. The great Orthodox and Catholic insight is that placing one's faith in Christ takes time and involves behavioral commitment.

Protestants sometimes express part of the controversy as "once saved, always saved." If you have put your faith in Christ, can you withdraw it and go back to being unsaved? That is, suppose you make a faith-commitment at time T and withdraw it at time T+2. If you die at time T+1 you would go to Heaven but if you die at time T+3 you would go to Hell. Is that how it works?

My reply to this one is: I hope I've made the question sound as silly as it is. All Christians agree that your salvation is not something you accomplish by making some kind of act of faith. And all human beings agree that you only get to die once. The Biblical view, I think, has to be that if you totally lose your faith, we can't quite tell which of two things has happened. Maybe you never had it in the first place. Or maybe you still have it, but it's hidden under a burden of sin, and you'll still get into Heaven but will require considerable cleaning up when you arrive.

I cannot accept the "one-transaction" view of salvation — "say this prayer and instantly you are saved." I would say, rather, "say this prayer and you have begun to lay claim to the salvation Christ has prepared for you." The prayer itself isn't what accomplishes it. This is not to discourage people from repenting and turning to Christ! Just understand that the first minute of Christian life is not the whole thing.

But I absolutely cannot accept the undue pessimism about one's own salvation that seems to plague Roman Catholics. If you spend your life trying to follow Christ, of course he's going to save you. Here I side with the Calvinists and say that if He had not chosen you, you would not have wanted Him. You are not studying for a tough exam. You are receiving a free gift. Your whole life of Christian growth, of works and sacraments, is a process of claiming and benefiting from this gift.

And, in terms of ecclesiology, let me just say that I can't buy the oversimplified Protestant view that real Christianity died out in the second century until the Reformers revived it 1300 years later. (Few people actually claim this, but many often talk is if they did.) That would imply that Jesus failed to found a visible Church. On the other hand, I don't think Jesus intended his Church to operate like the Roman Empire, with a single point of control which turned into an efficient means for leading the whole thing into error at once. When Friar Tetzel started selling indulgences for money, the Reformation had to happen, but it was a sad necessity rather than a glorious triumph.

There. I have probably said enough to offend everyone. Fortunately, this blog doesn't have a comment section!

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