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Daily Notebook

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Forensic astronomy
20-dB L-pad
How not to process recorded speech
Has the zodiac changed?
Nokia 7020 MMS configuration for AT&T
Windows, cursor arrow on black screen
"Gold has intrinsic value" — a superstition?

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Windows: mouse cursor on a solid black background

I spent this evening (Jan. 30) fixing my server, which had developed an odd malady: instead of a login prompt, it would only show a mouse cursor (properly sized and movable) on a black background. It also wouldn't take RDP logins, although it would share files. Attempts to reboot it often resulted in bluescreens (fatal errors). System Repair would launch and run but would not make a successful repair.

This problem is commonly known as the black screen of death and apparently has many causes. It often has to do with video card drivers.

In my case, though, I think I can blame it on hardware failure of the video card. Look at those bursting electrolytic capacitors! Of the six in the picture, four have cracked open. This type of failure did not stop the video card in its tracks, but would be expected to make it malfunction momentarily at instants when it consumes more power than usual.

"Gold is real money" — a superstition?

There are quite a few people who argue that gold is "real money" and Federal Reserve Notes aren't. I think this belief should be classified as a superstition on the same level as believing that four-leaf clovers bring good luck. It has the characteristics of superstitions.

First, note that although gold was used as money for a long time, that choice is just as arbitrary as the choice to use Federal Reserve Notes. You can't eat gold or heat your house with it. It's just yellow metal. It has limited use in the jewelry and electronics industries, but apart from that, it gets its value only from people's irrational desire to hoard it.

Second, note that there is no real reasoning behind the "gold is real money" belief. At most, there are arguments that gold used to be a worldwide medium of exchange, which is true. This does not prove that gold "has intrinsic value" which it is guaranteed to retain. If you want something with intrinsic value, consider air and water, which are necessary for human life. Those are valuable — and, fortunately, very abundant.

Finally, like other superstitions, "gold is real money" involves mixing up types of sign-relationships. Superstitious people might believe that an herb with heart-shaped leaves is good for the heart. They're confusing resemblance (iconicity) with natural connection. In a similar way, the gold bugs (if I may call them that) are confusing a long-standing (though obsolete) human practice with a natural property of gold.

There's a lot to be said for tying the value of money to commodities, but they should be commodities that people actually use, such as food and petroleum.

Recycling and shredding huge amounts of paper

I have a new hobby — cleaning out file cabinets and boxes. We're realizing that we have retained entirely too many financial papers since the mid-1990s. At the time, we had a good filing system going, and our practice was to simply box up the whole year's files along with our income tax records. Unfortunately, we had no plan for disposing of the papers later.

Starting this year, we're going to make an effort not to keep anything that is never going to be needed again. Documents with income tax consequences we'll keep for seven years, which may well be excessive — most kinds of audits can only reach back three years, but because I'm running a business, I may need slightly older records occasionally. Of course, the records are in the computer; the papers only prove that the records are right.

So tomorrow about ten pounds of paper are going to a local office supply store that offers guaranteed secure shredding. This is just the first of many loads.


A bit of Valdosta trivia
Where was the Hotel Valdes?


Until right around the time I was born, one of the landmarks of Valdosta was the Hotel Valdes. The local historians write as if everybody knows where it was — but it took me a long time to find out.

If you stand in front of Lee Office Equipment and look toward the First Baptist Church, you see that there's nothing very tall or very old in between, even though it's quite a distance, in the middle of downtown.

The reason? That's where the Hotel Valdes was.

And now I can't find the web page that told me so. The truth is elusive!


Short notes

A major research project is in its last few days, classes have resumed, and after the holidays and the snow days, we're trying to do a month's work in half a month. So the Daily Notebook is still rather sparse, but here are a couple of things...

Concern is being expressed, and rightly so, about indecency on MTV. But not everybody realizes why MTV is not heavily regulated by the FCC in the first place. It is not broadcast through the air for everyone to see. It is not publicly visible. The only reason there's MTV in your house — if there is — is that you are paying money for it to come in via cable or satellite dish. Vote with your pocketbook, maybe?

Banking blunder of the day: The State of Georgia has direct-deposited the income tax refunds of a few people who filed early, and then the money has disappeared from the bank accounts again, causing some of the victims to go into overdraft. No satisfactory explanation yet.

Odd moments in Christian doctrine: A pastor in Thomaston, Georgia, claims that Luke 22:36 gives him the right and the duty to bring a gun to church. A judge didn't agree.


Thin wallet (and it's a good thing)

The usual men's wallet is considerably smaller, in length and width, than the pocket it goes into. ALL-ETT has found a better way. By expanding the length and width a bit, they can put the credit cards into two stacks, not one, and cut the thickness of the wallet in half. Not only that, but they use thin material. I got one the other day and like it.

What's missing? The traditional gallery of family photographs. But the picture of Melody that I've carried since 1976 is still there, encased in plastic, in the currency compartment (which is large).

(The photo of the wallet is from the manufacturer.)

Bad science writing

Example #1: If this writer had said that eating various things is unhealthy, well, that's her opinion. But she throws around the word toxic, which she has redefined for her own purposes. Rice is toxic? Really? What is the LD50? Do you realize that toxicology is a science?

Toxic does not mean "lacking nutritional value" or even "unhealthy." It means "poisonous."

Example #2: There is absolutely nothing to tie the star Betelgeuse to the year 2012, despite this writer's eagerness to do so. Betelgeuse might explode in 2012, or any other year. It's not likely. And if it did, it wouldn't be a second "sun" — more like a star as bright as the full moon. Why start off a news story with something you know is hogwash?

Project management for graduate students

Want to get a research project done? Read this.


How to configure MMS (picture and sound messaging)
on a Nokia 7020 cell phone for AT&T in the United States

What follows is the fruit of a remarkably frustrating process, a battle of wits that I won. You'll recall that a while back I bought an unlocked Nokia 7020 cell phone, which I like very much. I am a customer of AT&T Wireless.

Well — all I did was pop in my SIM card, and voice and text messaging worked fine. But neither Nokia nor AT&T could tell me much about how to set it up for MMS (picture and sound messaging).

Technical support requests to both companies were frustrating — all they did was e-mail me boilerplate text from their web sites.

Well, I cracked the puzzle. Mostly, what I did was study web pages from people who had done the same thing with T-Mobile (only slightly less agonizing) and AT&T's more detailed instructions for configuring phones that they sell.

So here's a complete dump of all the relevant menus on my Nokia. You may not actually have to set everything here. I've boldfaced the ones that I think are easy to miss, even if you think you're following AT&T's instructions.

You may have to go through the process of creating or renaming a personal profile, a process briefly described in Nokia's curiously incomplete instruction booklet.

       Message settings
          Multimedia msgs.
             Req read reports - No
             Allow read report - No
             MMS creation mode - Guided
             Default slide timing - 00:08
             MMS reception - Automatic
             Allow adverts - No
             Configuration settings 
               Configuration - Personal config.
               Account - MEdia Net
      Packet data
        Packet data conn - When needed
        Packet data settings
          Active access point - Access point 1
          Edit active access point
            Access point alias - Access point 1
            Packet data acc pt - wap.cingular (unnecessary??)

      Default config sett - Personal config. (checked)
           Items received - *Multimedia messaging
      Act def in all apps - Yes
      Preferred access point - (empty)
      Personal settings
        MEdia Net
          Account Name - MEdia Net
          Server address - http://mmsc.cingular.com
          Use pref access point - No
          Access point sett.
            Proxy - Enabled 
            Proxy address - wireless.cingular.com
            Proxy port - 80
            Bearer settings
              Packet data acc pt - wap.cingular
              Network type - IPv4
              Authentication type - Secure
              User name - (leave blank)
              Password - (leave blank)

There. Enjoy! But Nokia ought to be paying me a salary for this.

Readers: No, I don't know how to configure any other cell phones for anything!


Busy semester starting

I know the Daily Notebook is starting to become the Once-In-Three-Days Notebook, but it's because I have work to do. Here are a few short notes.

We were dismayed at the way the tobacco industry lied to the public from about 1950 to 1970, trying to spread confusion and disbelief about evidence that smoking causes cancer. Well, in China the lying is still going on and the government is doing it. (Their tobacco industry is government-owned.) Ditto, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in Asia and Africa. Dare we call it genocide?

I often hear financial call-in radio shows while driving to and from work. The questions are often startling. Here's one piece of advice I'd like to pass along to everyone: Don't get pulled underwater when you're trying to save someone from drowning. That is, when you're helping someone in need, recognize that is easy for you to suffer harm without doing them any good. Don't give what you don't have — that is, don't borrow or co-sign. And don't give money to a person who is misusing it. This is a recurrent theme, one sad story after another.

Another recurrent theme is that people don't know anything about estates — don't realize that a dead person's property passes to his heirs as specified in his will, or if none, then as specified by state law; you don't just gather around and divide things up. (There's always one relative who says, "You always knew Mama wanted me to have this...") Also, you can't inherit debt — if the estate can't cover its debts by selling property, the creditors are out of luck, and the heirs don't have to pay the bills. (Heirs might, however, choose to pay bills in order to keep property from being sold.)

On a lighter and more practical note, here is what to do with the "cakeboxes" that blank CDs come in.


Have the signs of the zodiac changed?

The media are abuzz with confused news stories that "the signs of the zodiac have changed." I want to explain what that's all about.

First, let's define some terms. Astronomy is the scientific study of the stars and planets. Astrology is the traditional practice of fortunetelling (horoscopes) using the positions of the planets (which are often called "stars" in that context).

I think astrology is complete bunk. It does not make successful predictions. More to the point, there is no known way the positions of the planets could influence our earthly lives, and the people who advocate astrology don't even care how this influence might work — they just want us to take their word for it.

The zodiac is the zone of the sky in which the sun, moon, and planets can appear. It makes a complete circle around the sky (somewhat like the equator on earth) and is traditionally divided into twelve equal signs (sections), which are named after the constellations (star patterns) in those parts of the sky.

Now for the new (very old) news. The signs and the constellations don't match up. Because of a movement of the earth's axis called precession, there has been a gradual shift since the time when the signs were named, and nowadays, for example, when the sun is in the sign called Aries, it is in the constellation called Pisces.

Does that mean "your sun sign is wrong"? Only if you assume the signs are supposed to match the constellations that they are named after. Actually, as I understand it, astrology is about angles and geometry, and the background stars (constellations) don't figure in it at all. The signs are just names for positions. And the positions, relative to the earth's orbit around the sun, are right where the astrologers think they are.

(I'm talking about European astrology here. Hindu astrology is different and does rely on fixed positions relative to the stars. But none of this terminology pertains to Hindu astrology; it's not the kind you've heard of.)

What's more, the signs never matched the constellations perfectly. The signs are equal in size; the constellations aren't. The zodiac passes through a thirteenth constellation, Ophiuchus, which was not used as the name of a sign because only twelve names were wanted.

So although I don't believe in astrology, I don't think this is what's wrong with it. Nor is it news. Precession was discovered by the ancient Greeks more than 2000 years ago. It's not a new discovery. Anybody who has cared to inquire has known for a long time that the signs and the constellations no longer match up by name.


Short notes

Unprecedented snowjam: Today (January 12) is the third day in a row the University has been closed due to snow. Not only does Athens have icy roads, a bigger problem is that thousands of students are still trapped in Atlanta, which is really socked in. Monday was supposed to be the first day of spring semester classes. Yesterday the dining halls had only half the expected number of customers, indicating that thousands of students haven't made it to campus yet.

Melody and I made a short trip to a grocery store yesterday and hope to get out again, briefly, today. But mostly I'm staying in and doing consulting work. No power failures, thank goodness!

Banking follies? Look at www.bankingquestions.com, a question-and-answer site for customers of banks. Most of the questions are straightforward, but there's an undercurrent of recurrent oddities. People seem to think income taxes are collected at banks. People think that if money appears mysteriously in their account, they can keep it. People imagine that if they play the lottery, they're actually going to win. And people who have a history of writing bad checks don't understand why nobody wants to do business with them.

On violent political metaphors: I don't think Sarah Palin's "crosshairs" rhetoric caused the Arizona shootings. I do think it was in bad taste.

War and murder are not appropriate metaphors for productive political activity. We ought to be showing the voters that our way is better — the very term "defeat" may bring up the wrong images in some people's minds. On the occasions when I've campaigned against particular candidates, I didn't pretend that I was killing them!

Two declarations

1. I was not put in the world to "express" my "personality." Goodness knows I'm a character, but the fact that I exist no longer startles me and I don't expect it to startle you.

I try to spend my time doing things that are useful to others. More importantly, that is also how I try to spend my words. The constant "Look at me! Look at me!" attitude of pretentious modern art and literature is not for me, especially when it's combined with, "Look! I can say things you don't understand because I'm More Fashionable Than You." Any fool can be obscure. My goal is to be understood.

2. It is not my job to take the rightmost possible position on every controversy. I don't like being judged as if it were a sin to compromise with anyone less conservative than whoever is judging me at the time.

My political and moral views are rather conservative, but conservatism is not automatically a virtue — it all depends on what you're conserving. More precisely, "conservative" and "liberal" describe how you're positioned relative to other people at the time. Without changing my own views, I could be either conservative or liberal depending on what the people around me choose to think!


A surfeit of snow

These pictures are of no interest unless you realize that Athens, Georgia, has habitually gone about a decade between snowfalls of this depth. We're getting tired of having the Storm of the Century every couple of years.

Today (Monday, January 10) the University is closed — which means I can get a lot of work done as long as the power stays on. We had heavy snow last night, and today we're going to have an ice storm (freezing rain) on top of it, followed by a whole week of freezing weather.


Audio infidelity
The wrong way to set the equalizer for speech

Today I have some unsolicited advice for anybody in the radio or audio business, based on an experience during lunch. There was a jazz program on the background music system (source unknown, probably Sirius) and I couldn't make out the announcer's speech.

The reason was obvious. There was a strong bass and treble boost, or, what amounts to the same thing, a midtone cut. Being a linguist, I know a little more than the average person about what I'm listening to, especially when it involves the human voice. And I know that the understandable part of speech is in the range from 200 to 4500 Hz. (That's very broad; some people say 300 to 3000.)

Now if you cut the midtones, and boost the ends of the audio spectrum, you can make small speakers sound like big ones, and make older recordings sound more modern. But the effect on speech can be disastrous.

I came home and made a recording of my own to illustrate the problem. Listen to this. What you hear is a straight recording, a midtone boost (which you probably wouldn't want to use in a high-fidelity setting), and then a midtone cut.


Building an anachronism
20-dB L-pad for Tascam DR-08 input

When I connected my Tascam DR-08 digital audio recorder to one of the tape outputs of my stereo, I had a problem. The line level output signals are a bit too strong. Tascam specifies line level (with "low gain") as 0.1 V rms normally and 0.7 V maximum. That's a bit low even for home audio equipment; mine was topping out at 1.1 V rms; there is professional equipment that goes all the way up to 4 V.

So I built an attenuator, an L-pad circuit giving 20 dB of attenuation (that is, a factor-of-10 voltage drop):

I decided to build it in the style of the 1960s, in a gray hammertone Minibox of a tiny size that is no longer made, using a terminal strip rather than a circuit board. It looks like Japanese 1960s gear, not American, because of the film resistors and the small size of the terminal strip. (We made things bigger and clunkier in this country.) So here it is:

It works beautifully, but when have you seen anything built this way in this century? Maybe I should have written the date inside it.


A frightening thought

Today's high school students have not only never lived in a world without PCs, they have never lived in a world where the dominant OS was anything other than Windows 95 and its descendants. They never saw DOS or even Windows 3.1. If they care at all, they probably think of those old operating systems the way I think of pre-1940 automobiles — all sorts of odd things, none of them very practical by today's standards.


Happy New Year, Facebook!

Here's my new year's greeting to my Facebook friends. Because of message length limits, this is posted as one message plus four comments.

I have found Facebook enjoyable — it makes it possible for a shy person like me to stay in touch with hundreds of friends without demanding their attention at any specific time. It's like a big college common-room, where lots of people are present and you can talk to them, or not, as you and they please.

Because it's an environment where people are identified and are responsible for what they do (unlike the Internet as a whole), unpleasantness is uncommon. I did get heckled by a student, once (and told him face to face that doing so can be a career-limiting move). In a stranger incident, I was publicly "rebuked" for "heresy" by a clergyman whose opinions I did not entirely agree with, and he was immediately removed from my "friends list" (where upon he "rebuked" me for doing that; sometimes you can't win). But those were the only really disturbing incidents I can remember from the whole year. I do, of course, decline to maintain links to people whose hobby is arguing about uncontested facts, or who won't give me their real names.

Forensic astronomy

There is such a thing as forensic astronomy. Sometimes people need to know, in a court of law, whether the sun or moon was in the sky at such-and-such a place or time. See the Naval Observatory's web page on the subject.

One point they address is that sunrise, sunset, moonrise, etc., do not need to be witnessed — they can be calculated to high accuracy; there is no doubt where the sun and moon are in the sky. There is a slight uncertainty (amounting to about half a minute in the time of sunset) because of variations in how the atmosphere bends light. There is, of course, the possibility of doubting what time zone was in effect at a particular place and time; time zones are man-made. And, unlike astronomy, weather does need to be witnessed; nobody can predict whether there is a cloud blocking the sunlight at a particular moment, and quite often, surviving weather records are not detailed enough to settle the question.

If, on the other hand, you're investigating a crime, and the star witness recalls clearly that the moon was just clearing the horizon at the moment he heard a scream — well, then, you need a forensic astronomer to testify to the time of moonrise.

This is somewhat out of the way, but it's something I can provide as a consulting service. If you stumble upon this page while looking for forensic astronomers, stumble no more.



These 21st-century dates look odd in Roman numerals...

Cathy came home on the 31st and we finished Christmas. We gave Cathy an Asus Essentio desktop computer. (What else? My own Essentio has been very satisfactory.) Cathy and her cat (?) gave me some Scottish digestive biscuits, very timely because I needed to digest something. Nathaniel Barrett gave me Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, a book I had been wanting to read for 30 years. (It is widely excerpted; read some here and laugh.)

Notebook entries are going to continue to be sparse this month; I have too much to do!

Firmware bug of the day

For those of you who think Apple Computer can do no wrong, read this. Sharon was directly affected by this: On January 1 and 2, 2011 (but apparently no other dates), the one-time alarm clock feature of the iPhone and iPod Touch doesn't work. How they managed to make this mistake is not clear to me. Deliberate prank?

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