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

Popular topics on this page:
What is FormFree? — My new or not so new job
Betelgeuse (spectrum)
M81, M82, NGC 3077
M42 (Orion Nebula)
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Spectrum of Betelgeuse


Here's the spectrum of Betelgeuse, captured with the same equipment and software that I've used several times recently. (Click here to find out how to get one.)

And what a spectrum it is! This is a star that is mostly red, because it is not hot enough to glow yellow or white, and is full of heavy elements (rather than hydrogen) because it has been fusing atoms for a long time. Perhaps surprisingly, the big absorption bands in the spectrum are due to titanium oxide (common in minerals on earth). Blue lines mark their positions.

Also, I was surprised to learn that titanium oxide does not have an exact chemical formula. The ratio of Ti to O varies. On earth, TiO exists as impure crystals that are anywhere from about 40% to 60% titanium. In a star, it is of course a gas of TiO molecules. The titanium white paint pigment that we use on earth is TiO2.

Discussion at the AAVSO tells me the spectrum of Betelgeuse has not actually changed much with its recent variations in brightness.

Three galaxies

Last night I also took a couple of other astrophotos, mainly as a shakedown for equipment I hadn't used in about three months (during our awful weather). Here's the galaxy M81, with M82 above it and NGC 3077 to the left. The noteworthy thing about M82 (the top one) is its active, turbulent central area. AT65EDQ telescope (6.5-cm f/6.5), modified Nikon D5500, AVX mount, no guiding corrections. Stack of ten 1-minute exposures.


Orion Nebula


I photograph the Orion Nebula every winter, so here it is for 2019-20. This is not a very noteworthy picture; I've taken many other good pictures of the same object. Same telescope and camera as above, stack of 6 1-minute exposures. Some HDR processing was done on the midtone areas.


Betelgeuse is rebrightening

The star Betelgeuse in Orion has recently been much dimmer than its normal range of variation. (It is a red giant star, and, like other red giants, pulsates over a cycle of about 425 days, combined with a longer cycle of about 6 years.) Now it's coming back.

Here's some actual photometry. The observations marked with blue crosses are by my friend Tom Polakis and are all with the same equipment, so they should be comparable.


This graph is reproduced with permission of the AAVSO (American Association of Variable Star Observers). You can track Betelgeuse on their web site by clicking here.

The rebrightening at this time is consistent with the theory that Betelgeuse's two cycles of variation simply happened to hit minimum at the same time, rather than anything more ominous. Nonetheless, high-resolution imaging showed Betelgeuse as misshapen, indicating, perhaps, a cloud of dust in front of it, or an enormous starspot (quite plausible for that type of star). For a current scientific summary see Wikipedia.


Short notes

FormFree is keeping me busy. But here are a few notes about what has been going on recently. I hope to catch up and write more before long.

All 5 grandchildren came for the visit, not just the 2 that you saw in the pictures. I didn't mean to slight Mary, Philip, or Emily!

What Benjamin and I built was a battery box containing four AA cells. This will power lots of educational experiments for the children. During his visit, we did a short demonstration of a knife switch.

I'm thinking of writing a short book about electricity for children. Gone are the days of the No. 6 Dry Cell and wires coiled into electromagnets — we need LEDs, and maybe even diodes and transistors. I can show a first-grader that a transistor is a device in which electricity injected in one place turns on a flow of electricity in another place. And isn't that more than most people know about them?

We are having awful weather, including unusually heavy rain. That has kept me from doing much astronomy. The brightness of Betelgeuse is probably bottoming out right now, around magnitude 1.7, but all over America, fewer than the usual number of people are getting to observe it.

We had an interesting conversation on Facebook about how to deal with flat-earthers (who accost people like me giving astronomy presentations). I contend that they do not really believe the earth is flat; they just want to play a mind game or have a debating contest. And my reply to them (which also works with cranks of other kinds) is, "If you want to know the truth about the shape of the earth, seek it honestly. It's not my job to persuade you of anything. The earth will be round whether or not I beat you in a debating contest."


A grand visit

Picture Picture

One reason you haven't heard much from me lately is that we've been preparing for, and then receiving, two visits from Cathy and Nathaniel and the grandchildren. I finally got to meet the newest one (Dorothea) and do an electronics project with the budding engineer (Benjamin).

They stayed with Melody's mother, and we had dinner there last night. Here's what I said:

When Melody was 17 years old, her family had me over for dinner at this very table, and her parents gave me their blessing to date her. That, indirectly, is why most of the people around this table now exist!


What is this FormFree thing that I keep talking about?

Picture I need to say a little more about how I’m spending my time nowadays. Back during the economic crisis of 2007-2009, I thought a lot about how mortgage lending in America had gone wrong. Too many people were getting loans who couldn’t pay them back, and the lenders should have known that. I thought it was a problem, but since mortgage lending is not my profession, all I could do was think about it and occasionally express opinions.

Meanwhile, unknown to me, Brent Chandler was buying a house and was daunted by how much time people had to spend reading computer printouts and typing the numbers into another computer. He started a business, FormFree, to help lenders get the information they needed directly from financial institutions.

From the start, FormFree’s goal was to make loan underwriting smarter and wiser, not just faster. People were starting to notice that loans were being made on the wrong criteria, and FormFree could fix that, by providing the information lenders actually needed. So when Brent called me up, I was glad to help him explore how AI could be put to good use. I was delighted to be able to actually do something about a major economic problem.

At the same time, I felt that I was moving outside my career path. Most of my academic research was in natural language processing and computational psycholinguistics (www.ai.uga.edu/caspr). I’m not an economist, but creative use of computers is right up my alley, and we were getting results, so I persevered. After all, if everybody stuck to just what they were trained in, original work would never get done.

In fact, as it turns out, some of FormFree’s research is remarkably close to natural language processing. When FormFree analyzes a borrower’s financial situation, lots of details on bank statements have to be recognized and interpreted. This task is too complicated for traditional computer programming, nor is machine learning much help at the start (though it comes in later). What it’s like is natural-language grammar. Details, details, details – but I’m a linguist, and I’m accustomed to details. So in spite of the seeming impossibility, we’re doing it.

Up to 2013 I was a University of Georgia faculty member, doing consulting part-time with the University’s approval (it’s how the University keeps its faculty in touch with industry). When I retired, I ramped that up, although at first not much, because of Melody’s and Sharon’s health problems. I worked at home.

Well, FormFree has grown, and so has my involvement with it, to the point that by now I’m well into a thriving second career. At FormFree I now have a job title (“Senior Research Scientist” – same as my UGA job title – one might as well be consistent). I still work at home or at variable locations (library, coffee shop, or FormFree offices) on a flexible schedule, so that I can still take care of Melody and Sharon.

My mother, a manager at the Credit Bureau of Athens, never foresaw that I would be part of the credit industry, and she’d be tickled pink.

I should add that for tax reasons and to keep my skills sharp, I am still also an independent consultant, though on a small scale. So Covington Innovations is still in business. I continue to do R&D also for a defense-related project whose details are not made public, and several other smaller projects, though I am not actively soliciting more.

The Daily Notebook remains my personal blog, not associated with FormFree in any way, which is why FormFree’s name does not appear in the masthead at the top of each page.

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