Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
One and a half cheers for libertarianism
Improved BatchPreprocessing script for PixInsight
Organizations for the idle and lonely?
Painting with colors that don't photograph
Are you hateful enough?
Monoceros (wide field)
Many more...

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Billy Graham, 1918-2018

Rest in peace, Billy Graham.

As a Christian, I am glad to point to Billy Graham as a good example. He only taught clear, central Christian doctrines, didn't try to start his own version of Christianity, didn't push a set of personal opinions, and avoided politics in public (although behind the scenes he encouraged, among other things, the civil rights movement). He built bridges between Christians of different backgrounds and effectively presented Christ to the world.

It is a pity that such good examples are so few.

By the way, I am not claiming he had no faults. I'm sure people will start popping up and pointing to something, I'm not sure what. Also, I'm well aware that many of my readers are not Christians. But I want to honor a man who did an outstanding job.

[Addendum:] The most distinctive thing about Billy Graham, in contrast to other televangelists, is that he didn't try to build a following for himself and didn't speak much about his personal opinions. He gave you Christianity, not Grahamism. If he made a mistake, he didn't demand that others follow him into it.

Bear in mind that his heyday was 20 to 60 years ago. I've heard people talking critically about him who turned out to have completely mixed him up with someone later. I am also hearing — regularly — the strange notion that if he can be shown to have made a mistake in private 50 years ago, it invalidates his whole career.



The comic strip "Nancy," which I remember from my childhood but had not seen in years, has come to an unusually dignified end. The concluding episode, dated February 18, shows the wedding of Aunt Fritzi and Phil Fumble, who had been dating off and on since the strip first appeared (as "Fritzi Ritz") in 1922.

They should have held out for a full century.


Are you hateful enough?

During the past couple of years of political mudslinging, many Americans (especially Christians who should definitely know better) have lowered their moral standards in a way that is much more serious than just condoning a candidate's adultery or someone's political corruption.

They have come to believe it's desirable to hate and despise fellow humans and fellow citizens — and disparage, misrepresent, and stereotype them.

It is now widely thought that it's OK to hate people in the name of patriotism and that 1 John 3:15 doesn't apply when political rivalry is involved.

Depending on where you stand on the political spectrum, you're supposed to despise, disparage, and misrepresent Muslims, immigrants, people on welfare, "liberals," "conservatives," "evangelicals", Democrats, Republicans, Tennessee football fans...

Actually, that last one may be the key to it. Some people may have forgotten that when they pretend to hate a rival team's fans, they're only pretending. And I don't engage in that kind of pretending myself — I don't think it's healthy. If I were interested in football (which I'm not), it would be from the standpoint of seeing how the players perform, figuring out whose strategy is what, etc., rather than playing at tribal warfare.

But back to my point. I would ask any person of conscience a few questions:

  • Do you understand that it's better to criticize ideas than people? If you can start saying "X is a bad idea" rather than "X is a bad set of people," you can move toward helping the situation rather than wallowing in how bad it is.
  • When you describe people on the other side, are your descriptions accurate? Hint: A "liberal" is not the exact opposite of a "conservative" on every point. If you want your country to succeed, that doesn't mean your rivals want it to fail. They want it to succeed and have different opinions about how to do it.
  • Do you understand that it's wrong to tell falsehoods — even mild inaccuracies — for the sake of "winning"? Don't distort the truth.
  • Do you understand that people who disagree with you aren't going to vanish? You're going to have to live with them. You can hope to persuade them to agree with you. That is not done by reviling them as enemies.
  • Do you understand that needless division is the real enemy here? We are becoming a weak and divided nation. The reason is that too many citizens are contemptuous of too many other citizens.

Bottom line: People are playing a rivalry game rather than trying to solve problems.

Meanwhile, the "meme" game goes on. Here are two pieces of political naïveté that I saw on the same person's Facebook timeline yesterday. I'm not going to name him, but I suspect that either he's a Russian propagandist or he's picking up a lot of Russian propaganda.

Er... make up your mind?

There were funnier things on that page, such as a "meme" challenging us to display a picture of Jesus, and the picture they gave us was of Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.

Update: There have been multiple sightings of this pair of contradictory memes. That is more ground for thinking this is what the Russians are grinding out.


Paintings with colors that don't photograph
Scott Pope, artist of the atmosphere

This afternoon Melody and I went to Athens Academy for the opening of an art exhibit featuring (as one of two artists) our old friend Scott Pope. In Melody's student days, he ran (and nowadays he owns) an art store called The Loft where she went for art supplies. We've all kept in touch, and today we got to see some of his paintings.

Scott's specialty is the earth's atmosphere seen from the inside — that is, bright clouds, sunsets, and the like. I knew from seeing the pictures on line that he was good. But what I didn't know is that his paintings have colors in them that can't be photographed.

The one in the picture above, for instance. On the left, it has vivid bluish-greens that the camera utterly failed to capture. And on the right it has vivid reddish-purples. The camera made it all into blue. As photographed, it's a good picture, but we're missing a lot!

Scott uses pigments invented in the 20th Century, phthalocyanine and a newer one whose name I didn't catch. They must have very unusual spectrograms. They certainly remind us that there are colors the computer screen can't render (nor can color printers). Because of the way primary colors work, a mix of any given red, green, and blue (additively) can render any hue, but not at full saturation. These extremely saturated greens and purples are "out of gamut," not achievable by mixing the colors available on the computer screen or on color printers.


A cautionary note for Christian organizations

This is mainly for my fellow Christians, although it will interest others because of some parallels to civic clubs, hobbyist organizations, and the like. It's something I was well aware of in my student days, and it came up again in conversation yesterday.

Christian organizations outside the church, and special-purpose organizations within it, run the risk of becoming clubs for people who (1) have time on their hands, and (2) want lots of fellowship.

If the purpose of the organization is to gather under-utilized people and get them doing something worthwhile, then all is well. If it is to provide Christian fellowship to people who might otherwise lack it (often very important to students), then yes, by all means.

But what about ministering to people who are already very busy with their God-given vocation (job, family, or, with students, their studies) and are not lonely? If you're not careful, they're simply left out. Worse, you may actively discourage them from doing something more important than coming to your meetings.

"We need people to be regular and faithful for the sake of the Body," I've heard it said (meaning the Church as the Visible Body of Christ). To which I reply: "Whoa there! You're not the Church. You're a special-purpose organization. You're justified by the worthiness of your purpose and how well you fulfill it."

Two external forces operate. One is that the people who run any organization want it to grow, or at least continue steadily, on its own momentum. Thus they want "faithful" members. The other is that some of us have in our heritage the mistaken Puritan idea that there is no such thing as enough churchgoing — that Sunday, at least, should be 24 hours of exclusively religious activity and the more we can do the rest of the time, the better. Quantity, not quality.

I want to call out for quality, not quantity. Dealing with outside organizations, yes, I look at the schedule and decide whether I want to go to a specific activity, rather than going "regularly to be "faithful." My faith is in Christ, not in somebody's series of meetings. The Bible tells me to belong to a church; while other organizations often do very worthwhile things, it is not necessarily my calling to belong to them, or to participate "faithfully" rather than occasionally.

"Don't forget why you're in Athens," as a very wise minister said to one of my student friends.



In response to the tragedy in Florida, I want to point out that mass shootings in peacetime are not common in any other country. That is a fact to be dealt with.

What's different this time is that the shooter was captured alive.

That's important. It means the story isn't over and won't be ignorable — or distortable — for a while yet. There will be an investigation and punishment. The shooter won't be a mysterious antihero who died in a blaze of glory; he will be imprisoned for decades. Anyone telling his story will have to point out that he's a prisoner.


"Just ignore it" is nonsense

Yesterday I got e-mail from a Russian would-be extortionist who wanted $360 to not release video he had supposedly obtained of me doing something indecent that I hadn't done, supposedly recorded with a computer that didn't have a working video camera. And although he gave a Bitcoin address, he had no way of knowing which of his victims had actually paid (Bitcoin is anonymous). So it was rather obvious that his threat was empty.

I wrote about it on Facebook, to warn others and to reflect on how crime-ridden the Internet has become. I also did a bit of investigating to see if this one could be caught (and did get a rather good lead).

One of the replies I got on Facebook was, "Just use the delete key. Just ignore them."

Those are the same people who say "look at the Caller ID and ignore" the spam telephone calls. By the time I've looked at the Caller ID, it has already interrupted me.

Likewise, people used to smugly say "just use the delete key" on spam — "all you need is the delete key." That might be OK if you only get two or three spams a day, but I get 500 a day. I am not going to plow through hundreds of them to see if I happen to have any real e-mail.

That is not what "ignore" means.

Thank goodness for spam filtering. But aggressive and effective prosecution of fraudsters would be better.

By the way, bogus e-mail asking for money — for any imaginable reason — is extremely common. Fake bills for web services are much more common than extortion, but I occasionally get some of anything you can imagine. Do not pay bills that arrive by e-mail unless you are certain they are correct. Remember, you don't owe money just because somebody typed a message saying you do. And make sure your older, less experienced family members know this.

One more thought. I care about ordinary people, not just people with my level of experience and technical skill. I've seen the Internet's follies since Yale linked up to CUNY in 1978. But there are still plenty of people in the world who are relatively new to the Internet and who are accustomed to the business practices of 40 years ago, when almost anything put in writing was from an accountable source. I'm not here to look down on people with less experience than myself. That's why I keep passing along warnings like this.

And it's why I keep pressing for cybercrime to be done away with, rather than smugly congratulating myself on knowing how to avoid being a victim.


Improved BatchPreprocessing script for PixInsight

Astrophotographers, take note: If you use PixInsight and you calibrate with darks, flats, and flat darks, you'll have a use for my modified version of their BatchPreprocessing script.

Update: The latest version, finished this very evening (Feb. 10), also gives you a quick way to perform cosmetic correction (hot and cold pixel detection) without creating an instance icon.

Click here for more information.


A lot of Monoceros

This is a wide-field view of the constellation Monoceros, from the Christmas Tree Cluster (near top left) to the Rosette Nebula (bottom right). At the very top, about 1/3 of the way from left to right, you can see the unnamed nebula that I've written about.

What is a Monoceros, you ask? A unicorn (mono- 'one', keros 'horn'). (A rhinoceros is a nose-horn, rhino- and keros in Greek.) And where is this celestial unicorn? It's basically a blank area of sky, rich with faint stars, nebulae, and clusters, just to the left (east) of Orion. In ancient times it was not considered a constellation at all, just an "unformed" area of the sky. Petrus Plancius named it Monoceros around 1612. If you can see a unicorn there, you're doing better than I am.

Nonetheless, Monoceros has become one of my favorite areas of the sky because of all the star clusters and nebulae. Although there are no bright nearby stars, we are looking out along a rather thick area of the Orion arm of our galaxy.

This picture looks strange because the lens, filter, and camera did not entirely cooperate. I used a Canon 60Da (with extended red sensitivity) to bring out the nebulae, an Astronomik CLS filter to try to cut the effect of streetlights, and a Nikon 180/2.8 ED AIS lens from the early 1980s, which, although it uses ED glass, is not quite free of chromatic aberration in the deep red. So the stars came out with red halos, probably not visible at the image scale shown here, but enough to make their images reddish.

This is a stack of 40 (yes, 40) 2-minute exposures at ISO 800. Due to a change in the camera position, the very top and bottom of the picture do not comprise all 40 images, but merely 20, which is still plenty.


Back from obscurity

Some astrophotos are coming soon. In the meantime...

After an unprecedented three-week hiatus, the Daily Notebook resumes. I continue to be very busy with another writing project. But I've gotten so tired of the foolishness shoved at me on Foolbook — I mean Facebook — that I'd rather write somewhere that doesn't have a "reply" button.

A lot of people are out there arguing silly things, such as impossibly naive versions of political philosophies, not to mention the people who think the earth is flat and pigs can fly. Two things people have recently tried to make me believe are:

(1) The word none stands for not one and can therefore be used only in the singular. (False; check any dictionary. Not my job to argue about it.)

(2) Trump's Tweets on Twitter are the best thing about him. (Ouch! Even his strongest supporters wince at the things he puts on Twitter, late at night, without consulting anyone.)

One and a half cheers for libertarianism

One more political topic. Someone asked me if I am a libertarian. No, although I do believe the parts of libertarianism that are part of our American heritage; just not the whole thing. I think the whole thing goes too far.

I agree with the libertarians that governments are things that people form voluntarily; the people are prior to the government; there is no king that inherently owns everything and then allows us to have some of it. I agree that the power and the cost of government have to be justified.

But I think a good bit more government is justified than the libertarians think. Genuinely good and worthwhile functions for government continue to be invented. Not all of them are erosions of our freedom. (Do federal highways erode your freedom? Really?)

I also think governments have the right to compel people under their care to participate. That is, you can't just declare yourself independent and stop paying taxes. You are using government services (such as national defense) even if you live in a cabin in the woods. You owe the government something for them.

And that is why I reject the motto "taxation is theft."

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