Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
Senior Research Scientist
Adjunct Professor of Computer Science
Associate Director
Artificial Intelligence Center
The University of Georgia
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Daily Notebook

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Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms Astrophotography for the Amateur How to Use a Computerized Telescope Digital SLR Astrophotography

Popular topics on this page:
Must everything beep?
The "Free Public WiFi" scam
The Windows US-International keyboard layout
Shortwave radio links
How to read an e-mail header
Sony ICF-2010 front-end FET repair
Sony ICF-2010 headphone jack replacement

For more topics, scroll down, press Ctrl-F to search
the page, or check previous months.
Comet 8P/Tuttle and M33
Comet 17P/Holmes and Algol
Many more...

Have a look at my BOOK SALE!


Cowboy what?
Or are they just horsing around?

The latest fad to sweep evangelical Christendom, at least around here, is cowboy churches where people wear boots and hats and may arrive on horseback.

Google "cowboy church" and you'll find some.

I'm in favor of bringing the Gospel to every subset of the population. I certainly do not think God can only be approached by wearing a suit and tie.

But somehow this whole thing strikes me as a big gimmick. A cowboy church is, by definition, not a church for non-cowboys. Cowboy first, Christian second. Or at least that's what it seems constantly on the verge of turning into.

Then there's the whole question of what gospel. The second cowboy church that I found, on line, is apparently teaching the wholly erroneous "prosperity gospel," which says that if you do what God commands, He'll make you rich.

That doctrine implies that if you're poor, you must not be living right.

And at this point we seem to be a long way away from Jesus, who never looked down on the poor.

And that raises the issue of accountability. When a free-lance evangelist goes out to an almost totally unchurched population, nobody's going to stop him from dispensing heresy.

Short notes

I'm not going to say much about the election, but please allow me to make one snarky comment. Some of the news media seem to feel that in order to show that we're against racism and sexism, we must either vote for Obama because of his color, or vote for Clinton because of her gender.

I'm closing out January now because I'm so busy. See you in February!

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Gainfully employed

The alert reader will have gathered that I am keeping very busy with something other than writing in this Notebook. I tell people joining my research group that they have a choice of curing disease or preventing war. Or both. Who says we're not useful?

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Ghost of a departing comet

Comet 17P/Holmes

Comet Homes is still up there; in fact, it's almost the same direction from earth as it has been since it came into view — the direction of the constellation Perseus. Here you see it next to the star Algol. It's faint but big, about 1.5 degrees in diameter in the picture, and I don't know whether there's fainter material on its periphery that didn't show up. Stack of three 1-minute exposures at ISO 800, Canon 40D, 105-mm lens at f/4.

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More miscellany

Music video for research astronomers: Hotel Mauna Kea, a remarkably well-performed spoof.

Here's a big roundup on how to make printed-circuit boards.

Down in Cuba, people vote, but they have absolutely no choice — there is only one candidate for each office. Remember that when you consider our bewildering variety in the primaries.

Geeks who can't tell right from wrong: A group called Gizmodo disrupted the Consumer Electronics Show just for kicks. They got their jollies by surreptitiously turning off other people's video monitors using universal TV remote controls (actually a gadget called "TV-Be-Gone" that only transmits the "off" code). They expected to be admired for such a clever prank, even though it was very costly to the victims, who had paid a small fortune for exhibit time and space.

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Have a look at Rainy Day Magazine (on line), especially the part that's about my books... I found out about this after it was published.

Also enjoy an example of humor in a Tektronix circuit diagram. (Yes, she's washing the face of a CRT. And there are others.)

Finally, the true cause of the recession may be online golf. (Yes, I'm kidding.)

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Hallicrafters S-40B


Emboldened by my success with the Sony, I decided to try to revive my Hallicrafters S-40B (the one my father brought home in about 1965; it was built about 1954). The other day I turned it on and there was an awful smell and a small puff of smoke. Naturally I turned it off immediately and said to myself, "The electrolytic filter capacitor has shorted and has probably taken out a resistor that feeds into it."


To my credit, that's exactly what had happened. Unfortunately, I don't have any 450-volt electrolytic capacitors lying around — and look at all those wax-paper capacitors that also need to be replaced to make the radio safe to use.

I last used this radio seriously around 1990, at which time it got a new set of knobs. I had overhauled it around 1985, at which time it was almost fully up to spec (the top band was very weak). Sadly, around 1980, while I was away at graduate school, my mother discarded the outer enclosure, not realizing it went with a piece of equipment that I still had. Prior to that, I remember replacing the audio output transformer around 1975. Oddly, I don't think a tube has ever burned out.

I'm definitely keeping this radio as an antique, but, sadly, for a while it's not going to be a working antique; I'm too busy to work it over. I know about Antique Electronic Supply, and I know that high-voltage capacitors are still easy to get; with some work, this could still be an excellent receiver. For now, it's tagged "Do not apply power."

Old age is taking its toll — on my electronic equipment, I mean. Lots of things that were mildly out of date, and still quite usable, when I built up my ham radio station and workshop circa 1988-90 are now seriously out of date. (It's been nearly twenty years.) If nothing else, the electrolytic capacitors in old equipment can be relied on to deteriorate, and classic radios like this one need restoration, not just repair.

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How to detect and replace the commonly blown transistor
in the Sony ICF-2010 front end

I've been working on my trusty (vintage 1987) radio again... Here's something I wrote more than 15 years ago, which has been distributed all over the world but never placed on my own web site. Note the 1992-vintage newsgroup routing codes. Also see the rest of today's Notebook entry, and the additional shortwave notes at this link.

From cbfsb!att!linac!uwm.edu!zaphod.mps.ohio-state.edu!sol.ctr.columbia.edu!emory!athena.cs.uga.edu!mcovingt Sun Apr  5 16:26:04 EDT 1992
Article: 17074 of rec.radio.amateur.misc
Xref: cbfsb rec.radio.shortwave:14875 sci.electronics:27585 rec.radio.amateur.misc:17074
Path: cbfsb!att!linac!uwm.edu!zaphod.mps.ohio-state.edu!sol.ctr.columbia.edu!emory!athena.cs.uga.edu!mcovingt
From: mcovingt@athena.cs.uga.edu (Michael A. Covington)
Newsgroups: rec.radio.shortwave,sci.electronics,rec.radio.amateur.misc
Subject: How to detect and fix common Sony 2010 problem
Summary: Fried JFET easily replaced with Radio Shack MPF102
Message-ID: <1992Apr4.184635.17406@athena.cs.uga.edu>
Date: 4 Apr 92 18:46:35 GMT
References: <1992Apr1.151210.1131@ciit85.ciit.nrc.ca> <10190011@hpuerca.atl.hp.com> <1992Apr4.171730.9192@athena.cs.uga.edu>
Organization: University of Georgia, Athens
Lines: 76


Michael Covington, N4TMI

(Free distribution; you are welcome to copy and distribute
this document.)

As is well known, transistor Q303 in the front-end of the Sony ICF-2010
general coverage receiver is easily damaged by static electricity.
Here is information on how to diagnose and fix this problem.


   A 10- to 20-dB loss of sensitivity on AM (longwave, medium wave, short
   wave). If you have a good antenna you may not even notice the loss.
   In all other respects the radio functions normally.


   If you buy a used 2010 it's a good idea to perform this test even if you
   do not notice a performance problem.

   [Note added 2008: You should also perform the test if you
   haven't done it for several years, to see if your radio has developed
   trouble without your knowledge.
   I am told, but cannot personally confirm, that the following method works 
   to perform a rough test without a voltmeter:
   With no external antenna connected, and the built-in antenna retracted, 
   tune to 1620 kHz and then slowly up to 1620.1 or 1620.2.  If the level of 
   hiss drops off sharply, the FET is probably OK.  If there is no change, 
   the FET is probably defective.]

   Remove the back cover and locate transistor Q303, near the antenna input.
   Identify its three terminals (D, G, and S).

   Now measure the voltage from each of those terminals to ground, with the
   receiver turned on and receiving shortwave.  (A convenient ground connec-
   tion is the outer part of the antenna jack.)

   The voltages should be:  S  0.2V    G 0.0 V    D 2.9 V

   Note especially the drain (D) voltage.  If it is substantially lower than
   2.9V, the transistor is leaky.  (Mine measured 1.6V when defective.)
   If it's substantially higher (like 4.5V), the transistor is open.


   The popular MPF-102 transistor, available at Radio Shack, is a suitable
   replacement.  (Sony used a 2SK152, not widely available in the U.S.A.)
   Simply unsolder the old transistor and install the new one, then check
   voltages again.   No alignment is necessary.


   By connecting the shortwave antenna through a protective diode network,
   as shown below.

   \|/ Antenna
    +-----------+--------+----------------------------> tip of plug
                |        |
               \ /      ---                                   Sony 2010
               ---      / \      Four 1N914 or                antenna
                |        |       1N4148 diodes                jack
               \ /      ---      (do not substitute)
               ---      / \
                |        |
    +-----------+--------+----------------------------> sleeve of plug
   --- Ground (optional)

    The diodes limit all voltages going into the receiver.  Use the
    specified types; other kinds would produce loss of signal, signal
    mixing (resulting in image frequencies), or both.

    The 2010 has a built-in protective diode network connected to the
    built-in telescoping antenna but not the antenna jack.
	[Note added 2018: I no longer recommend this modification.
	See April 22, 2018 for alternatives.]
Michael A. Covington, Ph.D. |  mcovingt@uga.cc.uga.edu  |  ham radio N4TMI
Artificial Intelligence Programs | U of Georgia | Athens, GA 30602  U.S.A.

That is not my current e-mail address above.

Sony ICF-2010 headphone jack repair

The headphone jack in my Sony ICF-2010 recently disintegrated into a pile of plastic shards, and it's an unusual type; the replacement is no longer available, even from Sony. So I worked out how to use a more widely available jack. Here's what's involved.

(1) Desolder the old headphone jack. It attaches to the PC board in 4 places. Connect the upper two of these together so there will be sound in the speaker. (By the upper two, I mean the two nearer the top of the radio, not connected to resistors. No harm will result if you connect the wrong ones temporarily.)

(2) If you don't want a headphone jack, you can leave it at that. Otherwise, get a modern "closed-circuit" headphone jack such as Radio Shack 274-246 or Mouser 161-3504.

You will find that you can mount this in the hole left by the original headphone jack; you'll attach it to the enclosure rather than the circuit board, of course, and orient it so its connection terminals are down, toward the front of the radio and away from the circuit board.

Wire it as follows:

Headphone jack wiring

That is, at the speaker, find the white and black wires and interrupt the white one, then proceed as shown in the diagram. The 15-ohm resistor is a trick of mine: it lets you connect stereo headphones and hear sound in both ears, but at the same time, you can use mono headphones without shorting out the audio signal. Admittedly, the volume in the two ears is not equal; the right ear gets more sound, but the difference is not large.

One more note: If your Sony ICF-2010 goes dead while you're working on it and won't turn on, but its front panel clock is still running, you may have simply hung its computer. The cure is to remove all the batteries and let the computer reset. If you've installed a memory backup capacitor (as I have), you must discharge it.

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Snow warning

Here's a weather forecast you don't see every day, or even every decade, in Athens, Georgia. As I write this (4 p.m. Jan. 19), Atlanta has had quite a snowfall, but all we're getting in Athens is a chilly light rain (36 F). Nonetheless, activities are cancelled all over town, the University has officially closed the few things that were open on Saturday (e.g., libraries), and tomorrow morning's church service will be at 2 p.m.

Nevæda, formerly Nevada?

The people who run the State of Nevada want to change the pronunciation of its name. They're insisting on "ne-VAD-a" rather than "ne-VAH-da." (In phonetic symbols, the sound they want is [æ].)

I'm not at all sure why they're doing this, but it strikes me as a rather unpleasant anti-Hispanic gesture. Nevada was part of New Spain, and before that, it was part of the Aztec Empire, long before English-speaking people settled there. It shouldn't be ashamed of having a Spanish name.

The only reason to say ne-VAD-a is to show the world that you don't speak Spanish, y eso yo no quiero hacer. We still unashamedly use the (18th-century) French pronunciations of Illinois and Arkansas (not quite the same as modern French). I'm going to keep pronouncing Nevada the original way too.

In California, some Spanish pronunciations have survived (San José, San Diego, and especially La Jolla, pronounced "la hoya").

On the other hand, Los Angeles has been pronounced four ways. The Spanish pronunciation, "los AHN-hey-lace," is no longer heard in English. In the 1920s some people started saying "loss ANGLE-us," but it didn't catch on. During my lifetime another pronunciation, "los AN-je-leez," has died out. Today it's "loss AN-jel-us," which is one I would never have guessed.

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Yes, I do want a credit-card receipt

Several times recently I've been asked whether I wanted a receipt for a credit-card purchase. The answer is of course I do, because otherwise I have no proof of the amount charged! If someone steals my credit card, I'd like to have more than just my memory to tell me which charges are legitimate. And I'd like to have proof that I paid for the merchandise.

Well... My attempt to get a few groceries this afternoon (Jan. 18) ran into a surprising difficulty. I went to a local grocery store (which I won't name here) that had recently been the scene of a violent crime, plus another subsequent attack on a police officer. It's a prosperous-looking place, and I figured it was probably still safe. Sure enough, no crimes occurred while I was there. But an odd and frustrating thing did.

I used a self-checkout machine which claimed it was printing a receipt but did not actually deliver it to me. The sign said to go to the attendant if the receipt fails to print. I thought this meant the attendant would give me a receipt, but no such luck! The attendant told me that receipts are only printed when the purchase exceeds $50 (which, I was subsequently told, is false). Eventually, someone in Customer Service retrieved a computer printout of my receipt and I was on my way, perhaps never to return.

I know that younger people often don't want credit-card receipts. But didn't the store need to give me one, to prove that I'd paid for the merchandise? What if I'd been challenged at the door?

I wonder how much of the recent crime wave is connected with the store's apparent function as a haven for shoplifters. People routinely walk out with bags of merchandise and no receipts because receipts aren't regularly given, and employees think the lack of receipts is normal. Despite the armed guard at the door, there's no way to tell whether a customer has paid or not.

Multiple what?

Psychiatrists tell us that multiple personality disorder is extremely rare; some of them say it occurs only in the movies.

But our former football star Herschel Walker claims to have it, and the media are saying the same thing about Britney Spears.

Should we believe them? Let me just observe that fluctuations in behavior are not the same thing as multiple personalities.

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Sorted by shirts

Today (Jan. 17), when I taught class (LING 8570) around a conference table, the students sorted themselves by shirts. From left to right, I saw 2 deep red sweaters, then 2 almost identical rugby shirts, then 3 blue shirts of somewhat varying types.

They claim it wasn't planned — they did it all unconsciously. Should I believe them?

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A question of picture size — Resolved.

Never mind the query that was posted here earlier. My eager public told me that:

  • More than one person reads the Daily Notebook on a screen 800 pixels wide.
  • More importantly, 800 pixels is the right width for my layout; if it's much wider, the text becomes hard to read because the lines are too long.

I was frustrated by the occasional need to display larger pictures. But I think I've solved the problem and improved legibility.

I've locked the width of wrappable text paragraphs at 600 pixels, maximum. No matter how wide your screen is, the lines of text will no longer rewrap to fill them.

And when I need to display a wider picture, I just put it in, like this:

test image

and you can scroll to the right, if necessary, to see it.

If absolutely necessary, I can also shift a picture into the left margin like this:

test image

but that is not going to be a common practice. (I want to thank Bruce C. Baker for useful suggestions.)

You will also notice a few other minor improvements to the layout today.

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How to read an e-mail header
(to tell whether e-mail is fake)

[Information added after original upload.]

Fake e-mail claiming to be from banks, large businesses, eBay, or Paypal is now so common that it's disrupting people's everyday business. Here's a short tutorial on how to read an e-mail header so you can tell where the mail actually came from. Please feel free to share this link with others so they can read this information for themselves.

Every piece of e-mail includes a header, but you have to figure out how to get your e-mail software to show it to you. Look around in its menus and help system. Sometimes what you have to do is right-click on a message and choose "Properties."

When you've found the header, here's the kind of thing you'll see:

E-mail header

Note the "From:" line, which is whatever address the sender claimed to have, and the "Received:" lines, which tell you how the e-mail actually got to you. I've seen people add fake "Received:" lines, but they can't prevent the genuine ones from being put in, so look carefully.

When the message is from a small business or private individual, discrepancies are not necessarily a bad sign. For example, e-mail from covingtoninnovations.com always originates from either bellsouth.net or servdns.com because Covington Innovations doesn't run a mail server; we use our two ISPs.

But big businesses that run their own e-mail systems, such as eBay or Bank of America, should always show an origin address in their own domain.

Especially, look for foreign countries that shouldn't be in the list. If you're in Ohio and you're getting e-mail from Bank of America, it shouldn't go through Russia (.ru), or China (.cn), or Taiwan (.tw), or even an American university (.edu). You should see a relatively short chain of computers, all of them American commercial sites (.com or .net). And it goes without saying that such a message won't come from a major consumer service such as Gmail or Yahoo.

Anything named dsl or adsl is probably the address of a DSL line to a home computer. This is to be expected on e-mail from individuals but not large businesses.

Numeric addresses that start with 192.168.1 are individual PCs inside a network; these addresses are assigned by the local router and don't tell you where the computer is located. The next step up the line will tell you how it's attached to the Internet.

The dates and times are in different time zones and are marked as such. The most common ones are +0000 (Greenwich Mean Time, used worldwide), -0500 (Eastern Standard Time), and -0800 (Pacific Standard Time). Naturally, if you see +0700 on a message that claims to be from the United States, you should be suspicious because that's an Asian time zone.

Now let's analyze a fake...

Below is the header of an actual piece of fake e-mail I received this morning. As you can see, it claims to be from the Internal Revenue Service but was actually mailed from a home DSL line on Southwestern Bell (swbell.net).

Fake e-mail header

The content of the message tells me to click on a link that claims to be the IRS but actually goes to an FTP site in India. Here's what I found out by opening the message:


Crucially, if I put the mouse cursor on the link but don't click, the address is shown at the bottom of the window, and it's definitely not irs.gov!

(Look carefully. Yes, the address has "irs.gov" in it, but that's just a file or directory name. The actual location is the first part of the address, before the slash, and is "ftp.uhdein.co.in".)

This is an example of "phishing" — if I were to click through, I'd probably see a fake IRS form that asks for my bank account numbers or other financial information.

Now then. Why don't we hunt down the sender, on Southwestern Bell? We have the ADSL address; Southwestern Bell could track it to the individual house.

Why? Because that person is probably an innocent victim. It's almost certainly someone whose computer is infected with a virus that automatically sends out this e-mail, at the behest of the Indian con artist, without his even knowing it.

And that's why you need virus protection — not just to make your computer work more reliably, but also to keep it from becoming a pawn of organized crime.

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An amusing 1930s workshop manual

Have a look at The Laboratory Workshop, by Duckworth, 1933. This is a "tools and how to use them" kind of book aimed at high school science departments. It's delightfully disorganized; for instance the plumbing section doesn't mention turning off the water until halfway through, as an afterthought. And it's delightfully mispunctuated; all the semicolons somehow turned into commas. But it's also chock-full of information, recent enough to be useful and antiquated enough to be full of things that are now esoteric.

Most people will probably want to download the PDF version of the text, but it is also offered in several other formats, all free.

What R you?

The statistical software package R is taking the academic world by storm, and I'm about to start learning how to use it. Its great attraction? Besides being good, it's free.

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Shortwave radio miscellany

[Minor updates after initial upload.]

I've been a shortwave listener (SWL) ever since my father brought home a Hallicrafters S-40B when I was 8 years old. For the past 20 (!) years I've used a Sony ICF-2010, now highly modified (memory backup capacitor added, static protection diodes added, Kiwa wide filter in place of its "narrow" filter so that the settings are now "wide" and "not quite so wide").

I've just done one more modification, which is to disable the audio narrowband filter to keep the sound from being muffled on "narrow." (The way I actually disabled it was much simpler than theirs; I removed capacitor C83. The Sony ICF-2010 service manual is available here and is needed to identify the parts.)

Meanwhile, here are some more shortwave goodies.

What stations are still worth listening to on shortwave? Passing by a lot of idiosyncratic religious broadcasters in North America, we have two good Christian stations, WEWN (Roman Catholic) and HCJB (mainstream evangelical, but no longer in English, only Spanish). The BBC no longer has a shortwave service to North America, although its broadcasts to Central America still come in. Deutsche Welle, Radio Netherlands (very strong from Bonaire in the Caribbean) and the Voice of America are still going. So are a few others.

Lots of schedules are aggregated on the Web at www.bclnews.it.

What happened to the shortwave broadcasters? Well, if you just want to hear them, and you're near an Internet terminal, they're all on Internet radio. But I like shortwave for 2 reasons: I'm soon going to be able to listen to it in the car, and it won't go away if there's an international crisis. The Internet depends on a good bit of international cooperation. Radio waves, however, go straight from transmitter to receiver, bouncing off the ionosphere without relying on any third party.

The other thing that happened is that we're at sunspot minimum right now; the ionosphere doesn't work so well, and everyone has been shifting to other means of communication. I predict an upsurge of shortwave broadcasting over the next four or five years.

Meanwhile, for shortwave nostalgia, look at this collection of interval signals and station IDs. (An interval signal is a musical passage played repeatedly during the five minutes before the beginning of a broadcast.) My favorite? Radio RSA, Johannesburg, which combined music with birdcalls. Others familiar from my younger days include the BBC World Service (and the song "Lilliburlero"), the Voice of America (which really got some mileage out of "Yankee Doodle," and, much earlier, "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean"), and of course Radio Havana, which still blankets the Southeast.

And they have some vintage items such as the BBC in 1945 (presumably from a phonograph record) and this clip of Radio Prague during the Soviet invasion of 1968.

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Westphalian wars?

One of the most interesting papers at the conference (unfortunately I don't remember whose) pointed out that almost all wars are non-Westphalian. Now what on earth does that mean?

At the Treaty of Westphalia, 1648, the major powers of Europe got together and (supposedly) agreed that all nations should be like England and France, i.e., sovereign and self-contained, with police powers inside their borders but not across international boundaries.

The idea was to rule out loosely organized local powers that fell short of nationhood, tribal powers without definite boundaries, and, at the other end of the scale, empires that claimed the right to conquer territory anywhere they went.

The Westphalian nation-state concept was an important issue in the American Revolution. We wanted to be "a new nation" rather than a colony. We were struggling with the question of how a new nation comes into existence.

Well... Our speaker pointed out that the Treaty of Westphalia didn't really "take." Colonial empires were still being dismantled until the 1970s. Loose local confederations and tribal powers are certainly still with us.

And, to this day, most wars are non-Westphalian. The great majority of wars in modern times are directed at non-nations, such as the Viet Cong or, most recently, al-Qaeda.

As for the notion that it's wrong to cross a national boundary to defend yourself, we have to remember that that's not one of the Ten Commandments. It's part of a 1648 treaty to which few powers actually subscribe. I suppose we can thank Hitler for upholding the Treaty of Westphalia by breaking the rules so cleanly that he got the entire world to fight him at once! He was, of course, trying to complete the Westphalianization of Germany, along with other much less laudable goals.

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Short notes

I've just finished attending the Conflict Processes Summit, a conference at the University's terrorism lab. The scientific study of how wars start is an important business. I met people who have interviewed IRA and PLO terrorists in their headquarters, people who have tabulated thousands of incidents and created revealing statistical models... My contribution is going to be software to read newspaper articles and collect information about the events reported in them.

What a lot of people don't realize is that you can test theories about strategy. For example, is it better to negotiate with kidnappers or to follow a strict no-negotiation policy? Study of actual incidents will tell you which one makes the kidnapping rate go up or down. It's not just a matter of opinion.

Shortwave for the car: Two Sony CDX-GT260S radios are on the way to us from this eBay store in Singapore, which sells mainly to Australians. (Sony doesn't sell this radio in the US.) These are, of course, dandy AM/FM/CD players (with aux input and MP3 capability), and they also receive shortwave broadcasts. More news when they arrive. I'm not expecting them to pull in distant stations, but there are strong Spanish signals on the air here, broadcasts coming out of Cuba and broadcasts aimed into it, and I need to shake the rust off my Spanish by listening to something more coherent than just the local latino stations clowning around.

The installation will be trivial since we're replacing other Sonys, one mounted in the same bracket (so replaceable without even opening the dash) and one with the same wiring but a different bracket.

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Current events

The Iowa caucuses are weirder than you imagined. They're nothing like a primary election. They're a system to get people to support the candidate that they think will please their neighbors. That may how Huckabee did so well.

One more banking regulation we need: Payments on loans cannot be due on days when banks are not open. (Or if they are, payments the next business day have to count as on time.) Common sense? Not common enough.

Although I favor consumption taxes in general, there are said to be terrible technical flaws in the proposed FairTax. Indeed, the transition from an income tax system to a consumption tax system is very hard to make; we should phase it in over 100 years!

[Note, Jan. 12-18]: I know all of this is disputed. A lot of the dispute has to do with how much prices will fall when the changeover takes place, and also how much wages will fall. The optimists think prices will fall more than wages. Others aren't sure. See now the detailed rebuttal here.

Golf at hard labor?

A couple of years ago I read an amusing magazine article about "preposition golf", defined as the new fad for giving golf courses (and other fashionable developments) names of the form The [Noun] At [Adjective] [Noun].

If you're a golf course, your name has to be The Links at Tall Pines, or something like that; a name like Tall Pines Golf Course is so last-century.

Well... I don't know the story behind Hard Labor Creek, not too far from here, but it's the site of a state park, an observatory, and a few other things.

And — I saw it the other day — The Links at Hard Labor.

Haven't people ever heard phrases like "two years at hard labor"? Do they know what they mean?

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Surfing the Web automatically

Why surf the Web yourself when you can make your computer do it without you? After testing several competing products I am pleased to recommend iMacros from iOpus as an extremely useful web automation suite that can see through Java, Flash, and even graphics.

More about this later... I got involved because some colleagues need to collect news wire data automatically from a rather intricate web site. Basically, iMacros records a session, and you can either play back the transcript or edit it to make it more versatile. It's also scriptable from C#, VBScript, and other languages.

Semester starts with a bang

I won't be writing much for several more days. We have an unprecedentedly large turnout for CSCI 8570 — today there were 15 people either on the roll, or in the room, or both. I was expecting 3 to 5. And the rest of the semester's activities are starting up with equal force. Hang onto your hats!

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Typing foreign languages with the Windows US-International Keyboard

If you often need to type words like résumé or Dürer or mañana, you should probably be using the Windows US-International keyboard layout, which is documented fully in Wikipedia.

Here's what you do. Go to Control Panel, Regional and Language Options, Languages, Details, and add United States—International to your available keyboard layouts. You can keep or delete the regular US layout. If you keep it, a small icon will appear at the bottom of your screen on which you can click to change keyboards on the fly, and when you do, the keyboard change will only apply to the current window. That way US-International won't bother you when you don't want it to.

When US-International is selected, two things happen:

  • You can type ä á à â ñ by typing "a 'a `a ^a ~n respectively. To type " by itself, press " and then the space bar or any letter with which it does not combine; the same goes for the other accent marks.
  • The right-hand Alt key has a new function: it selects the blue items in the chart below. The left-hand Alt key is still Alt.

From Wikipedia, used by permission. Click for attribution and license.

My only disappointment with US-International is that there is no way to type macrons (the long-vowel marks used in Latin) and, as far as I can make out, no easy way to create a custom keyboard layout of my own.

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Chicago, the practical city?

I've just attended the Linguistic Society of America annual meeting in Chicago. Melody came along and we stayed in the Chicago Hilton (Conrad Hilton). I have another conference coming right up, so I won't have time to write a lot for several days...

Impression of downtown Chicago: Clean and practical. I suppose it's the result of decades of "downtown revitalization," but this is not a "grungy northern city." I walked from the south end of the Loop to just past the Wrigley Building. Everywhere was clean and well-kept and seemed relatively safe (though I didn't lower my guard). I was not confronted with any obnoxious behavior, graffiti, pornographic posters, or anything like that. There were a few beggars, but they were rather restrained.

This place makes Atlanta look very small. It even makes Manhattan look a bit cramped and very quirky.

I was treated courteously by everyone in the whole city. Where's the northern brashness? Not evident. This isn't New York, folks.

One of the highlights was my visit to Central Camera Company (established 1899), a good old-fashioned camera store, full of photographic gear old and new. I bought a Manfrotto tripod head for Melody to use photographing agricultural equipment. It's one of the least romantic things I've ever bought her, but she likes it.

The "Free Public WiFi" scam

I'm sitting in Chicago's Midway Airport and my laptop has found a network called "Free Public WiFi." The airport does not actually offer free public WiFi; they have a pay-by-the-day WiFi network named Concourse.

Further, "Free Public WiFi" is an ad hoc network, i.e., device-to-device. It is not an Internet access point.

In other words, somebody has set up his laptop to broadcast the name "Free Public WiFi" in the hope people will connect to it and he can then copy whatever is unprotected on their computer.

The person whose laptop is broadcasting "Free Public WiFi" may be an innocent victim. Once you've connected to such a network, your computer is likely to try connecting to it again — and because ad hoc networking is symmetrical, that means your computer is also soliciting connections under the same name. Details here. The cure is to make sure you've removed it from the list of network profiles stored by your wireless software.

A SpamCop malfunction

If your e-mail reaches you through any service that relies on spamcop.net, you may not have gotten all of it recently.

Last night (Jan. 5), in Chicago, I was using MailWasher to check mail, and all of a sudden a lot of perfectly legitimate mail — even tracking notices from UPS — was flagged as spam. Fortunately MailWasher did not delete it automatically. I turned off SpamCop access, had MailWasher recheck everything, and the problem cleared up. I don't know if SpamCop has returned to normal yet.

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Short note

I'll see you again in a few days. In the meantime, enjoy this online collection of mechanisms (machine subsystems) — both diagrams and working models.

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Comets amid scenery

I spent the final hours of 2007 photographing two comets amid celestial scenery. Here's Comet 8P/Tuttle next to the spiral galaxy M33:


Single 3-minute exposure with Canon EOS 40D, Sigma 105/2.8 DG EX lens at f/5.0, piggybacked on my telescope, corrected against dark frames and flat fields. The rapid motion of the comet precluded stacking multiple exposures.

A day earlier, it was cloudy here, but the comet appeared much closer to the galaxy.

And here's Comet Holmes, now bloated to 3 times the apparent size of the full moon (making it, in real life, something like 3 or 4 times the diameter of the sun, and thus the largest object in the Solar System, although it's mostly just a cloud). To the right is the star cluster M34 in Perseus.


This is a stack of three 3-minute exposures, processed like those of Comet Tuttle.

Why do they drop a ball in Times Square...?

Why do they ring in the new year by dropping a ball on a pole in Times Square?

The answer: Dropping a ball is a traditional way of signaling the time to ships in port, to enable them to set their chronometers. And, of course, chronometers (clocks) are necessary for navigation if you want to determine your longitude. You can find latitude by just looking at the stars, but for longitude you must also know how far the earth has rotated beneath you, so the development of chronometers that would run accurately for months at sea was a triumph for navigation.

Ideas needed...

To reclaim storage space, I'm looking for a home for a collection of magazines. Although I haven't taken a detailed inventory yet, I have QST (Amateur Radio) complete from 1990 to near the present date, Popular Photography complete for several years in the late 1990s, Dr. Dobb's Journal for much of the 1990s if not more, and some sporadic issues of PC from the 1990s. All of these are available to me at the University Library and are not likely to become rare or collectable, but they're too good to just throw out. If anyone knows where these would find a good home, please let me know. (No vague suggestions, please; I can already think of possibilities; I want definite leads.)

Alert readers will note that this entry was uploaded early in the day on Jan. 1. The Daily Notebook will be somewhat sporadic until mid-January because I'm busy with other things. There will probably be an entry for Jan. 3, then a gap for a few days. Readers, thank you all for your support!

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Going, going, gone...

eBay By the time you read this, the first wave of my eBay sale will be in its final hours. Seize the opportunity! My plan is to sell more items in the coming weeks. Some of them may even be as strange as the current ones.



What has the snout of a pig, the teeth of a shark, the face and body of a cat, the tail of a rat, and the reproductive system of a kangaroo, and catches and eats rattlesnakes, to whose poison it is immune? Clearly a joke perpetrated by our Creator. But this one seems to have taken up residence in our compost bin, to the considerable annoyance of Babbage and Tycho.

This picture was taken under unusual circumstances. In the dark, I walked up to the bin and aimed the camera in. It blinked its autofocus light, focused, and fired the flash. Result: A perfectly focused and exposed picture. Canon EOS 40D, built-in flash, Canon 28/2.8 lens.

Kabinkabink! Kabinkabink! Kabinkabink!
(Must everything beep?)

Back in 1978, while visiting Arthur Christian in Cheshire, I breadboarded a TTL gated oscillator, which produced a satisfying beep-beep-beep sound in a speaker, and immediately said to myself: "This is a sound that hasn't been common until now, but for the rest of my life it's going to be very common because with digital ICs, it's so easy to make."

I was right. Nowadays everything beeps. Even the machine in the library for depositing money to our copy-card accounts — it makes a "beep beep beep" that disturbs the whole room whenever anybody uses it. Somebody wasn't thinking.

Closer to home, I've just put a new Sony stereo system in Melody's minivan, and, like the Sony that inhabits my Oldsmobile, it has an uncouth habit. Whenever you turn the car off, whether the stereo is on or not, it goes kabinkabink! kabinkabink! kabinkabink! in the speakers.

That is Sony-language for, "Help! You've left my removable faceplate on! Take my faceplate off or the New York thieves will get me! I'm scared!"

Poor Sony stereo doesn't know it's not in New York. And there's no way to disable the beeping from the control panel. (Has anyone worked out a hardware modification to do it? If so I'd like to hear from you. The kabinkabink noises are delivered by powering the amplifier from the unswitched 12-volt line. There's probably one diode, or something, that I could take out to disable this.)

One of the great follies of the digital era is the notion that everything should beep. The other great folly is the practice of providing hidden controls ("press this button for 2 seconds, then press the other button twice, and voilà! that's how you set the clock"). I'll rant about that some other time.

Interesting products I've seen lately

Weatherproof laser-printer label stock available as uncut 8.5×11-inch sheets. You could use this to cover the entire front panel of a piece of electronic equipment, labeling all the controls. I made a bumper sticker out of this material about 8 years ago and it has been on my car ever since; it's still only slightly worn.

(And what does my bumper sticker say? "Covington Innovations," and it's just 3 inches wide. I really made it just to test the label material.)

A car stereo that gets international shortwave broadcasts as well as AM and FM, and of course it also plays CDs. If it weren't quite so expensive I'd have to have one, for language practice. Reception is probably not too good in town; it's mainly something to listen to during long drives to rural astronomy sites.

It's a Sony, so I presume it goes kabinkabink, but that doesn't totally rule it out.

The ravages of time

For those who feel that the new year should begin with a memento mori, I present this picture of the ravages of time.

The ravages of time

This was the first electric-blanket controller I ever saw, circa 1959, and (along with the blanket, of course) it kept me warm in winter until the early 1970s. Then it was put in the attic, and as you can see, 30 years in a hot attic were not kind to its plastic enclosure. I rediscovered it a couple of days ago while cleaning out the attic. I think it's ready to go into the trash...

Happy new year, everyone!

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