Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Does Windows 7 software work with Windows 8?
Ghost images with RegiStax and Autostakkert
A counterblast against electronic cigarettes
Did Cosmos get off to a stumbling start?
Cable or satellite TV lacks sound on some channels
Moon (first quarter)
Moon (craters)
Jupiter with satellites
Jupiter with Io
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Reactivating the 8-inch telescope

Until this evening (March 31) I had not used my 8-inch Meade LX200 telescope since October of 2012. I've had a bad case of costochondritis (inflammation of the cartilage that connects the ribs to the sternum). As far as I can find out, the entire research literature on costochondritis consists of about four journal articles that all say the same thing, and the treatment is to wait patiently for two years. Fortunately it didn't take me quite that long to regain the ability to set up this 45-pound telescope. Today I bought a cart from Harbor Freight and used it to shuttle the telescope from its cabinet to the pier (with a pillow under the telescope; soon I'll equip the cart with a layer of foam rubber).

I wish I had had the cart all along. Why did I torture myself carrying that heavy telescope every time I used it for twelve years?

Anyhow, despite poor atmospheric conditions, I got a decent picture of Jupiter with the 8-inch. Here you see the best 2000 of about 3600 video frames, processed with Autostakkert, RegiStax and Photoshop. And the 8-inch is back in use, finally!


Jupiter, reprocessed


Here is are a couple of recent pictures of Jupiter (scroll down for details), reprocessed with Autostakkert and RegiStax 6:

Some fellow astrophotographers referred me to this excellent, short tutorial [link corrected] suggesting some best practices for using Autostakkert and RegiStax. I followed the guidelines, more or less, with some experimentation.

Until now, I had been using RegiStax with incrementing wavelet sizes (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). I thought the default (1, 1, 1, 1, 1, 1) was a mistake. No — it makes sense to have six filters with the same wavelet size, applied in succession with different denoising and sharpening parameters, and when this is done, some of the features of RegiStax, such as de-ringing, work noticeably better. So that's what I did.

See also Damian Peach's results from moving to Autostakkert 2.

Finally, I'm told that the next Autostakkert (already in beta) will handle Canon DSLR .MOV files directly, without requiring conversion in advance.



I think I've set a new height for quality of Jupiter pictures taken through a 5-inch telescope. It helped that Jupiter was almost directly overhead at the time, so I wasn't looking through much air.

This was taken on the evening of March 26 with my Celestron 5 telescope, a Meade 3x Barlow lens, and a DFK color camera. This is the best 2000 of about 3600 video frames, stacked with Autostakkert (which is fast and accurate) and sharpened with RegiStax. You'll see a bit of "ringing" around the edge, especially at the upper right (the most strongly sunlit side of Jupiter). This is not a ghost image but an image processing artifact.

This time I did the video recording with FireCapture, which I like. FireCapture produces a handy log file to accompany each exposure. If it knows you're photographing Jupiter, FireCapture will include central meridian longitudes, apparent diameter, and magnitude, and if it also knows the pixel size of your camera, it will calculate the focal length of your telescope! Mine came out to 3150 mm, a bit less than I thought. (The focal length of a Schmidt-Cassegrain varies with eyepiece position.)

Where the builder signed our house

Our house includes a large laundry sink hidden in a cabinet, with a removable countertop on top of it. We use the sink occasionally to wash the dogs. The inside of the removable cover is unfinished particle board, and it is starting to deteriorate from having been damp occasionally over the years, so I decided to varnish it.

As I was applying the varnish I noticed the name "R. W. Porterfield" written on the particle board with a pencil, in letters three inches high. That's the builder who built the house 40 years ago.


Does Windows 7 software work with Windows 8?



Jupiter with its satellite Io

Here's Jupiter, taken with a 5-inch (inadequate) telescope on the evening of March 22, when Jupiter was almost directly overhead. Stack of the best 2000 of about 3600 video images with a Celestron 5, Meade 3x Barlow lens, and DFK camera, processed with Autostakkert, RegiStax, and Photoshop.

Ghost images with RegiStax and Autostakkert

Last night I took three 2-minute video sequences of Jupiter. Two of them, taken at 30 frames per second, were no trouble at all to process. The third one, at 60 fps, had a problem I've experienced before — "ghosts." There are a couple of faint extraneous images of Jupiter superimposed on the main one. Here's how they look in RegiStax's preview (2-pixel wavelet):

The ghosts don't show up until you start sharpening the image, and then they definitely are visible in the finished product, like this:

Initially, I thought RegiStax was obviously having trouble stacking the video frames, so I tried all sorts of different alignment settings, and also aligning with Autostakkert (which is delightfully fast and accurate) before doing the final sharpening in RegiStax.

None of that was any help.

I thought there might be some deviant frames in my 60-fps video, so I chopped it into short pieces (1000- and even 500-frame segments) and was able to reproduce the problem with any and all of them. That shows that it's not just due to something bad at some point in the video sequence.

Also, I noticed that the ghost is always in the same place, displaced directly to the right, even though the image moved in all directions during the exposure. That points to a problem image capture or image processing.

So I don't think it's an alignment problem. Remaining possibilities are:

  • A problem with the RegiStax sharpening algorithm? Remember, I never saw the ghosts until I took the images into RegiStax and ran the wavelet filters. Is there a bug in the wavelet filters? — No, because I can also see the ghosts by examining the stacked but unsharpened image in Photoshop.
  • A problem with the image capture software (IC Capture)? I'll try FireCapture.
  • An electronic problem with the camera?

Investigations are continuing! I'll post a follow-up when I have one.

[Update:] No further discoveries yet, but I think this was a rare electrical or optical problem, unrelated to other "ghost images" I've had, which actually were failures of RegiStax to align the frames properly.


The silly world of fantasy politics

Note: In what follows I am not arguing for or against foreign aid. I am just asking for any such arguments to be based on facts, not imagination.

The blue square in the picture below is a mini-poster that I was asked to "pass along" on Facebook. I decided to do so after adding my own comments, making a bigger poster. Here is the result.

The gist of the original poster is apparently that we're spending so much on foreign aid that we impoverish our own people.

And look at the total lack of contact with reality.

It's what I call fantasy politics, the product of people sitting around imagining things rather than gathering facts.

Do we really have people starving in the streets, elderly people dying for lack of health care (despite Medicare), an underequipped army, and so forth? Are there any facts to support these claims?

And is all this caused by giving away too much money to foreign countries?

And what do they mean by calling themselves "conservative"? Is it "conservative" to advocate unlimited food handouts to the homeless in lieu of spending on national security? Foreign aid does improve our defenses and prevent wars. It has other effects, of course, and we can debate whether it's worth it, but what really jumped out to me is that free food and medicine are this "conservative" person's priorities.

The clincher is in the budget numbers. We are already spending 50 times as much on social programs as on foreign aid. The poster is trying to give you the impression that foreign aid cuts substantially into social spending. It does not.

Unfortunately, the Internet has made it easier than ever to be ignorant. It is all too easy to get your news only from "trusted" sources (including "pass it on" gossip) and avoid ever having any contact with people whose opinions are different from your own. Back when the news came via three TV stations and two newspapers, you couldn't avoid seeing a fairly wide spectrum of opinion. Now you can be as ignorant as you want, meanwhile pretending to be well informed.


A breath of fresh air

The Board of Regents is reportedly voting to make all University System campuses entirely smoke-free. If they had gotten around to this while I still worked for UGA, my job would have been more pleasant. Although our building had been smoke-free for years, an annoying amount of smoke still got into my office from people smoking just outside.

As one who lived through the 1960s with then-undiagnosed asthma, I'm pleased at how far we've come, and (in retrospect) aghast at how low civilization had sunk fifty years ago. Back then, objecting to secondhand smoke was considered seriously rude. Smokers were superior, and everybody else had to bow to their wishes. Even if there had been no health hazard, that would have been wrong because breathing smoke is unpleasant. But, as I said, civilization had sunk low. Etiquette books of the period cautioned nonsmokers always to provide ashtrays and never to expect smokers to ask permission.

As recently as about 1980, I dropped a course at Yale because of the professor's chain-smoking. (Smoking in classrooms was permitted, but students rarely did so.) The University of Georgia had banned smoking in classrooms in, I think, 1972, but only in classrooms, not offices, hallways, or dining halls.

The new policy covers the entire campus, indoors and out, including privately owned cars. (I'm not sure exactly how cars figure into it, but presumably, some of the campuses that are already smoke-free found it necessary to include them.) It covers electronic cigarettes as well as real tobacco.

Interestingly, it allows college presidents to make exceptions. That might be necessary in order to set up smoking areas in the middle of the largest campuses, including ours. I fear that if that is not done, illegal smoking areas will spring up in unsuitable places, and also that private property on the edge of the campus will be overrun by smokers. I'm particularly thinking of the Episcopal Center, which is a little island of non-University property in the middle of the campus. It wants to welcome visitors and might not even want to go entirely smoke-free, but it surely doesn't want to become a continuous 2000-person smoking lounge.

The new policy takes effect October 1, and the implementation will be interesting to watch — from a safe distance.


A counterblast against electronic cigarettes

(If you don't catch the allusion in the title, click here.)

I am glad that the Regents' proposed smoke-free-campus policy, which may be approved in a few more days, includes e-cigarettes. Right now, the public has some serious misconceptions about electronic cigarette smoking ("vaping").

Fact: They're addictive. In fact, addiction is their purpose.

For pharmacokinetic reasons, a cigarette, whether conventional or electronic, is an addiction machine. The way to create or strengthen an addiction is to administer the drug suddenly, and then, just when the body is starting to get used to it, take it away suddenly to create a craving. That's exactly what cigarettes do, and it's why nicotine gum, pipes, and cigars are much less addictive: they don't follow the addiction timescale.

The e-cigarette industry sells addiction just like the conventional cigarette industry. That is their product. It is how they expect to make their money.

Fact: Even without "tar," they're a health hazard.

Compared to tobacco, some of the hazards have been removed, but not all. Nicotine itself, besides being very strongly addictive, raises blood pressure and apparently damages the coronary arteries. It has a large number of other effects on the human body, apparently including long-term changes in brain chemistry.

Fact: There is secondhand smoke (er, "vapor").

Its quantity has been estimated at 1/10 that of conventional cigarettes, and that's certainly an improvement, but that doesn't render it harmless. In fact, the lack of a strong smell may make secondhand vapor more hazardous since people won't avoid it.

Fact: Electronic cigarettes are a gateway for the young, not an "endgame" for the old.

Until very recently, many of us were hoping that established smokers would move to e-cigarettes (greatly reducing the secondhand-smoke problem), and this was described as "the tobacco endgame." But that's not how it's working. This study shows that e-cigarettes are indeed a gateway for the young, commonly progressing to conventional tobacco smoking.

The misconception that "I'm not really smoking" is surely a factor here, as is the "available without nicotine" loophole, which allows e-cigarettes to be advertised and promoted to children. This loophole needs to be closed immediately.

I'm particularly wary of the way the advertisers are trying to change our culture, to push the idea that "vaping" should be something people do, proudly, everywhere, including places where smoking isn't permitted. "I'm not really smoking," they tell themselves, and us. That's why I'm glad the Regents decided to reply, "Yes, you are."

Am I moralizing? Yes, of course. I think it is wrong to damage people's health, and to enslave them to an addiction, even if you can trick them into consenting. In real life, people are not perfectly free agents. They can be duped and misled. And harm is still harm even if a person can be made to consent to it. We do not tolerate other consumer products that are inevitably harmful when used as directed. The way we have pampered the tobacco industry for fifty years is inexcusable. Let's not expand the hazard.

The mystery of Flight 370

Just one comment about the mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 more than a week ago...

To me, what this proves is that a large area of the world does not have adequate air defense. If this Boeing 777 indeed flew off course for hours, and nobody noticed at the time, what else could someone get away with?

Either that, or some national government does know what happened, and isn't letting on.

The tragedy, or mystery, or whatever it is, hits home because I've been in that part of the world. As part of the 1973 trip to Australia, we flew from Honolulu to Sydney with an unscheduled stop in Nouméa to pick up a sick person — thus making Nouméa the most remote place I've ever visited, and probably the most remote place I can visit. Two weeks later we flew from Sydney to Singapore and on to Bangkok. I haven't actually been in Malaysia, but I've been very close.



I can't solve the mystery of the missing Malaysian airliner, but I do think I can lay another long-standing aviation mystery to rest.

In 1947 a British plane crashed in the Andes, and its last radio message to the control tower, sent in Morse code, was:


Here ETA stands for "estimated time of arrival," and Santiago is the destination. The Santiago control tower operator didn't understand the last word, which was sent in very fast Morse code, and asked for it to be repeated two times. He got STENDEC again both times.

In 2000 the BBC conducted a discussion in which lots of people proposed explanations of the mysterious word STENDEC. One of them, in my opinion, is completely convincing.

Bear in mind that the last word, or last message, was something that should make sense in isolation — so that the radioman on the aircraft would not feel the need to alter the wording or add more words to clarify it — and that the Morse code was admittedly fast and probably imprecise.

In Morse code, STENDEC is:

... _ . _. _.. . _._.

The Santiago operator, however, said that the code was sent very fast, and that implies uncertainty about the spaces between the letters. (I've used Morse code enough myself to know what that is like.) So what we are really trying to decipher is:


In those days it was common to say ETA LATE to indicate that a plane was coming in later than originally planned. In Morse code, that would be:

. _ ._ ._.. ._ _ .

Compared to this, STENDEC has two more dots at the beginning and one more close to the end.

I think the airplane said ETA LATE. The extra dots could have come from vibration in the plane making the key go down momentarily, or they may have been noise that was mistaken for dots.

Either way, we all know that once you mis-hear something, it is hard to un-mis-hear it; that is, you will mis-hear it the same way if you hear it again, unless the sound is appreciably different. The radio operator on the plane did not slow down when repeating his last message. The operator on the ground couldn't help but misinterpret it the same way when it was repeated.

End of mystery. It was not (as some have said) a mysterious message from space aliens.


The trouble with humility

I don't claim to be an especially humble person (in fact, if I did, it would be an oxymoron), but the mathematical sciences, including engineering and computer programming, do foster a certain kind of humility: You can't pretend that you never make mistakes, and you can't pass a mistake off as correct. When any kind of engineering is involved, either the machine works or it doesn't.

At the same time, if you correct your mistakes diligently, it's the same as if they had never been made. Every computer programmer spends a certain amount of time hunting down mistakes and fixing them. Engineers of all kinds do a lot of checking and improving.

The best computer programmers, such as D. E. Knuth, actually publish studies of their own mistakes, as a contribution to the art of computer programming.

At the other end of the scale, I had a disconcerting experience a while back (I won't say when or where) with an item published in a magazine. It was about how a simple engineering error was discovered and corrected; in fact, the solution involved a workaround that other people might not have thought of. (That's what the magazine thought, or they wouldn't have published it.)

Well... the groundlings in the online comment section stated to jump on me for making the mistake in the first place. Never mind that (to keep the overall, unpublished design confidential) I couldn't tell the whole story of how it arose.

Sometimes you can't win. Some people are unimpressed by the humility of the competent worker; I suppose they'd rather have prep-school arrogance.


Did Cosmos get off to a stumbling start?


I didn't see the first episode of the new Cosmos TV series myself — the one hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson — but I'm seeing reports that it misrepresented an important historical episode and that the misrepresentation might reflect prejudice on the part of the show's producers (but see the update below). For criticism of Cosmos see this article in Slate, this oft-quoted blog entry, and this newspaper piece.

It has to do with Giordano Bruno, who was burned at stake by the Inquisition in 1600. Now, I don't approve of the Inquisition burning people at stake. Even if I were Catholic, I wouldn't defend that. But the point is, Cosmos gives the impression that Bruno was killed for supporting Copernicus' new science, and that's not true. He was not a scientist at all. He did say Copernicus was right, but he didn't give scientific reasons. He was mystical to the point of being superstitious; he advocated "magic" and wrote books about it; and one historian said that he did his best to turn Copernican astronomy back into superstition. He made a long career of deliberately annoying people. The Inquisition condemned him for denying the deity of Christ, the virginity of Mary, and other fundamental doctrines, not for his astronomy, what little there was of it.

[Update:] I've heard from people who saw the episode and don't think it gave that mistaken impression after all — that Cosmos made it clear that Bruno was not an astronomer. (In that case, I wonder why Bruno was in Cosmos at all.) In any case, others have portrayed him as a martyr for astronomy, which he wasn't.

By all means lament the way Bruno was treated, but don't make him a hero of science. He was a crackpot who enjoyed antagonizing people. We should treat crackpots better than he was treated — but we shouldn't make them heroes.

What's the back story here? Too many people want to believe that the medieval Church persecuted scientists and was an obstacle to the growth of science. (People say this to my face, or rather my Facebook, every few days lately.) So which scientists did the Church persecute? Galileo. Anybody else? Not really. (Copernicus' book was banned as a side-effect of the Galileo affair; it wasn't banned when it first came out.) In fact, from about 500 to 1800 A.D., the Church was the main patron of science in Europe and supported not only the creation of universities, but also the work of scientists there. Have you never heard of Boethius, Roger Bacon, William of Conches, Albertus Magnus, or Nicole Oresme? Maybe not, because, unlike Galileo, they weren't persecuted. I could name many more. Gerbert of Aurillac, also known as Pope Sylvester II, introduced decimal numerals to Europe. In more recent years, under Catholic patronage we have had (Brother) Gregor Mendel's discovery of genetics and (Father) Georges Lemaître's discovery of the Big Bang. Is this the work of an organization that persecutes and suppresses science?

Sadly, some people are too gullible and want to think that everybody was foolish and superstitious until modern times. Just seven years ago I read a newly published book (Discarded Science) that claimed that St. Augustine believed the earth was flat. Actually, he was notorious for saying it was round, and all educated people in the Middle Ages knew it was round. (Uneducated people didn't, and today they still don't.) Elementary-school students are still told that Christopher Columbus had to argue with flat-earthers — he didn't; his critics knew the earth was round and were rightly concerned that he had misjudged the length of his journey. People still circulate a 19th-century hoax about Magellan and other hoaxes. Pieces of gossip in support of "science" are not necessarily any more truthful than any other gossip.


Telephoto moon

After a couple of months away from astrophotography, I did a bit of lunar and planetary imaging last night (March 8). Here is the moon, high overhead, through the Olympus 600-mm telephoto lens that I bought at the hamfest back in November. This is a single fixed-tripod exposure at f/11 using a Canon 60Da camera body. I plan to sell this lens, which is a collector's item, is rare on the market, and is in excellent condition. Let me know if you're interested.

Moon with crater Albategnius

Here's a "closeup" of the lunar terminator region, featuring the crater Albategnius just above center. This was taken with my Celestron 5-inch telescope and DMK monochrome video camera with an IR-pass filter, so you're actually looking at an infrared image. (The air is steadier in infrared light than in visible light, so I often use infrared for lunar work.) This is a stack of the best 3000 of about 3600 video frames, aligned, stacked, and sharpened with RegiStax 6.

Albategnius was an Arab astronomer of the tenth century.

Jupiter with satellites

Same telescope, same technique, but aimed at Jupiter and using a DFK color camera. In the first picture you see, left to right, Europa, Ganymede, and Jupiter. In the second, which is slightly enlarged, you see Io and Jupiter. Where was Io in the first picture, taken just a few minutes earlier? It was in almost the same place, but in eclipse — that is, Jupiter was blocking sunlight from falling on it. By the time I took the second picture, Io had moved slightly to the left and was in sunlight.

These were taken with a rather underpowered telescope (my 5-inch). Due to a very pesky rib injury a year and a half ago, I am still not using the (55-pound) 8-inch telescope. The long-term plan is probably to remount the 8-inch on a new mount that will come apart into 20-pound pieces for storage and transport. Not done yet, though.



I didn't think this was real when I only heard about it in spam e-mails, but now I'm seeing TV commercials too.

There is an "agency" that apparently arranges opportunities for married people to be unfaithful to their spouses. Because I won't touch this kind of thing with a 100-foot pole, I haven't clicked on their web links to see if they're real. But supposing they are, I have two responses.

(1) You're not going to get me involved in this. Not only is the very idea of adultery repugnant, but also, I can see long-term adverse consequences, possibly lasting the rest of my life.

In fact, one habit that keeps me out of trouble is that I'm good at asking, "And then what would happen? What comes next?" If people were better at asking themselves that question, there would be less misery in the world.

(2) What kind of fool would arrange adultery through a business that would keep records, and through the Internet?

Wouldn't such a person just be setting himself up to be blackmailed?

What if the credit card number were misused? Wouldn't most "customers" be afraid to file a complaint? That's how the online porn industry steals credit cards. These people, or someone with access to their data, could do the same thing.

One more thought. From a legal perspective, "arranging discreet encounters" is awfully close to pimping. It might cross the line.


Short notes in a busy time

No, I haven't disappeared. Covington Innovations is very fully occupied with consulting work at the moment, and I've also been taking care of some family responsibilities.

Regarding the Ukraine, I'll only make two observations. (1) There's some history in favor of giving Crimea to Russia rather than the Ukraine. I'm not saying I advocate doing that, but there are historical reasons to go both ways. (2) Putin has something to worry about that Stalin didn't: a free country. At least, Russia has a stock market and a freely traded currency, both of which plummeted as soon as he started making noises about starting a war.

Congratulations to my friend Robin Ryan Carroll, who appeared on the TV show Jeopardy and knew the (claimed) etymology of dude. It is supposedly from "doodle" in "Yankee Doodle" (which is a word to which I was never able to attach any meaning). I don't know if this is the true etymology, but it's the one that won her some money.

Cable TV lacks sound on a few channels

Symptom: Some cable TV channels (from a set-top box) come in with no sound. Most channels are normal.


(1) Check whether "SAP" (Secondary Audio Program) is selected in the TV set or the cable box. But if that is the problem, you'll probably have the wrong sound (e.g., Spanish) on some of the channels, as well.

(2) Check whether there's normal sound (on all channels, especially the afflicted ones) at the audio outputs of the cable box. If so, proceed to the next step.

(3) Don't use an HDMI cable to connect the cable box to the TV. Instead, use component video (a quintuple coaxial cable, red, green, blue, left, and right).

Explanation: Some cable boxes apparently do not output a fully standard-conforming HDMI signal, and/or some TV sets do not decode audio correctly from HDMI in all cases. I haven't pinned down the details, but it's a known problem and may vary depending on what channel the cable box was on immediately before going to the afflicted channel.

The alert reader will infer that we have TV again, after a long lapse. We have Charter cable and 60-Mpbs Internet.

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