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

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Dictionary of Computer and Internet Terms Astrophotography for the Amateur How to Use a Computerized Telescope Digital SLR Astrophotography
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Spinal decompression — a success story
Linux won't resize your Windows partition
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NGC 7009 (Saturn Nebula)
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An exhortation for mathematicians

There are many who feel that anything written as a formula is precise. That is not the case if the formula uses a notation you've just made up and you're vague about what the notation means. Merely using formulas does not show that your work is mathematically clear. You have to show that everything in the formula is defined by pre-existing mathematics or by mathematics that you have worked out.

Incidentally, I "leave as an exercise for the student" the refutation of Von Neumann's famous equivocation: "If you will tell me precisely what it is that a machine cannot do, then I can always make a machine which will do exactly that." Hint: "precisely what" is not the same as "precisely how." And if you think Von Neumann was right, it's time to reread my early entry against cybernetic totalism.

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How a computer works, from the ground up
Or: How I spent my summer, in 1990

Back in 1990, I had some time off while switching from 12-month to academic-year employment. I spent it writing a short book for Barron's Educational Series:

It's designed to help computer science students who are completely lost. "Write for a C student," they said.

And now I've been given permission to put the entire text of the book on line. (Free for noncommercial use only. If you want to sell copies, you have to pay me royalties.) Click on the image above to view it. (Click here for another copy.) Of course, the book only covers computers up to 1990, before Java and before Windows as we know it. But everything it says is still true (I think).

Speaking of books, Digital SLR Astrophotography is selling surprisingly well. Get 'em while they're hot!

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Recommended: Best Buildings, Athens, Georgia

Our new roof is finished, and Best Buildings did an unusually careful, thorough, and competitively priced job, including a much more thorough clean-up than is traditional. I do not hesitate to recommend them. Their usual business is putting metal roofs over existing shingled roofs, but they can also replace a shingled roof, which is what they did for me. Metal is both economical and durable, but in this neighborhood, people tell you what kind of mailbox post to buy, so I didn't want to have the first metal roof on the block.

The old roof was peeled off down to the tarpaper, or farther when necessary. Most parts of the new roof have two layers of tarpaper, old and new, which makes the new roof much quieter when it rains.

What ever happened to law enforcement?

[Revised and shortened.]

Fifty years ago, an average person could go a week or even a month without having anybody try to commit a crime against him. Today, crimes are attempted against me — and I think I'm typical — about ten times per day.

I refer, of course, mainly to Internet fraud. Come-ons from con artists arrive in my inbox hourly. If I were operating a web server, somebody would try to hack into it every few seconds all day long. Somehow the Internet became a wild frontier separate from the civilized world.

The Internet isn't the only place where there are curious gaps in laws and their enforcement. We've had a decade of largely unregulated banks and credit-card companies and, closer to home, Atlanta's freeways seem to have no speed limits.

But we do not live under anarchy. We can't stop spammers, but we can certainly stop people from wearing shoes with gel insoles on airplanes. (I had a close call with this one the other day.) While it's possible that the ban on gel insoles is justified, don't you think some other, more obviously beneficial, laws ought to be enforced, too?

Oppression comes from having bad laws, and from tolerating lawlessness, not from enforcing good laws.

Beware of crazy politically-motivated e-mail

This is in response to someone who contacted me with a question...

It's not long until the election, and people tell me they are getting bizarre e-mails warning about a "holocaust" or "Muslim takeover" or "Mexican takeover" of the United States — to be prevented, of course, by voting for a particular candidate.

Hold on there! If this were Clark Howard's radio show, you'd be hearing klaxons and sirens at this point. Those e-mails are an attempt to trick and use you.

The contents of these messages are made up. They claim to be true but have no authenticated source. (They may claim to be from an authoritative source, but are they?)

And you're supposed to forward them to your friends. Then people will believe them because they trust you, in spite of the totally unknown original source.

See what's happened? You've just lent your personal credibility to a rabble-rouser.

I have no doubt there are people who would like to "take over America." They're not going to get to. American freedom is resilient. And it gets its resilience from the way we extend it to everybody, not just our own ethnic group. A hundred years ago, bigots were saying the Italians and the Irish were going to "take over." Are we now tyrannized by them? Of course not.

Update: Check out political rumors and allegations on Snopes, and especially their pages on Obama, Biden, McCain, and Palin.

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Check your clocks!

Daylight Saving Time used to end on the last Sunday in October; now it ends on the first Sunday in November.

A certain number of VCRs and digital clocks are just smart enough to keep up with the old dates, but don't know about the change. Telecom Digest reports scattered incidents of clocks waking up an hour slow on the morning of October 26th. Our VCR is showing the wrong time right now. Check yours...

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I'm back...

I'm back from an intensive but productive trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, during which I didn't get to see anything historic except part of the beautiful campus of the College of William and Mary, the second-oldest university in North America, founded in 1693.

Recommended: Hampton Inn, Williamsburg Historic District. Reasonably priced ($100/night) but looks and functions like a hotel that would cost twice that much.

Mostly recommended: AirTran, which has the look and feel of an up-and-coming airline rather than a depressed, nearly bankrupt one (I had gotten tired of Delta's decline). But there are curious omissions. Bring your own headphones; they're no longer provided. And if your spine doesn't curve as much as their seat, they can't give you a pillow or blanket; they don't have them.

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Since I seem to have been appointed as an allayer of financial panic, let me address one more thing people are panicking about. Then I promise I'll return to technology, science, philosophy, and all the other fun stuff that is normally covered here.

A panic I'm hearing repeatedly is, "I'm upside down on my house!" This does not mean someone is performing acrobatics on the roof, but rather that the house is not worth as much as is owed on it.

Well... so what? If you can make the payments, and if you're planning to live in the house for a while, then being "upside down" is no tragedy. I strongly recommend avoiding it, but if it happens, you're not necessarily in trouble. Just keep up the payments, and wait. People are "upside down" on their cars all the time, and they don't consider it a disaster.

Related to this is the ubiquitous question, "Are we in a recession?" As Mr. Bernanke pointed out to members of Congress the other day, "recession" is a technical term that is rather arbitrary. It's not as though we switch economic systems when a "recession" starts. It's more like asking, "Are we having a rainy spell?" Some spells are rainier than others; it's not an all-or-nothing thing.

I hasten to add that I am not upside down on anything. This entry was uploaded early; I'm about to be occupied with something else for a few days. Back soon!

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You need an FSA

If you:

  • are a United States taxpayer;
  • can predict that your medical expenses (incuding prescriptions, dentistry, and eyeglasses) for 2009 will be at least a few hundred dollars; and
  • do not have enough medical expenses for an itemized deduction on Schedule A (i.e., your medical expenses are less than 7.5% of your income)

then you will save money by setting up a flexible spending account (FSA), whereby some of your income is diverted, pre-tax, into a fund that can only be used for medical expenses. Check with your employer — in many places, now is the time to set it up for next year.


Jeff Duntemann has given me a new title of honor: "World's Sanest Man." Hmmm... I have relatives who will assure you I'm as crazy as a loon.

I'd be downright disconcerted if one of my students did this to me. (In case the link goes away: It's a picture of an undergraduate girl proudly standing in front of an enormous poster print she has made that shows the grinning face of Harvard economics professor Greg Mankiw.)

The surplus market, 1928: What to do with a superannuated Model T.

Bad pun alert: You know what a hippodrome is, and maybe also an aerodrome and a velodrome. With that in mind, is a palindrome a place where people run for governor of Alaska?

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Roof, roof!

We're having our house reroofed. (Because of economic conditions, this is a great time to get it done — but get competitive bids. Our differed by a factor of 1.5.) More about this in a few days, when it's finished.

Here you see a newly installed ridge vent doing its thing — letting humid air out of the attic, early in the morning on a cold day. Ridge vents are purely passive devices that keep your attic ventilated without consuming electricity or requiring maintenance. Of course, you have to have soffit vents already; we did.

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Social networking for grown-ups?

I'm old-fashioned. My web page isn't on MySpace or Facebook. It's just on the Web. I administer it myself.

Nonetheless, I can understand the need for networking sites whose participants are at least slightly accountable for what they do. But MySpace and Facebook have not managed to attract me.

I have joined LinkedIn, which is a professional networking site designed for maintaining business contacts rather than playing "are you my friend?" or picking up dates. And I have found it useful. It is genuinely free of charge.

I also tried briefly to use Reunion.com, which also claims to be free, but it asked for a credit card number every time I tried to do anything, so I deleted my (empty) account after just a few minutes. There are supposedly four people on Reunion.com who are looking for me. They'll have to use Google.

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Do you believe in a stupid, unconscious deity?

Not long ago I was at a gathering of very learned people, and a scientist among us happened to remark that Darwinian evolution is not goal-directed.

Three or four Ph.D.'s in various fields immediately demonstrated that they were not familiar with the concept. "Yes, giraffes evolved long necks because they needed them," they said — which is precisely not how evolutionary theory says it happened.

In Darwinian evolution, there is no such thing as "need," and if there were, it still wouldn't cause changes. The changes happen at random, not because of a "need" but just because organisms vary, and then natural selection preserves the changes that increase the chances of survival.

That is, evolution is a totally blind natural process that doesn't know where it's going and is not guaranteed to ever get anywhere.

Misunderstanding of this point is, I think, one reason evolution is so controversial. In the average educated person's mind, evolution is not a natural process, but rather a religion of a particularly unappealing sort — a Guiding Force that is fairly stupid and maybe even unconscious.

It's no wonder that few people prefer this kind of religion, and those who do prefer it strike us as a bit obtuse.

Meanwhile, if adherents of established religions understood that they are only being asked to believe in a natural process — not a Guiding Force — they would have a lot less trouble with evolution.

But the confusion is endless. In front of the Graduate Studies Building where I work, there's a statue which, viewed from one side, is Charles Darwin; from the other side it is Michelangelo's face of God; and from the front, it looks like an old man with a strange neurological disorder.

I think the statue is insulting to both Christians and evolutionists. God and Darwin are not opposites. Can't we get that clear?

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Not the end of the world,
nor even the Great Depression

[Revised for conciseness.]

I'm getting tired of newspapers publishing stories about breadlines in 1930 and prophecies of economic doom. The current economic panic, although unusual, is nothing like the Great Depression. It isn't even anything like the recession of 1982.

To put things in perspective:

  • Unemployment is 6.1%, on a scale where 4.5% is as low as it ever gets, and it has previously been 6.1% in 2003, and 7.9% in 1993, and 10.8% at the end of 1982. (Data here.) We didn't all starve back then, did we?

    If you like bad news, you can always play a game with percentages of percentages. The unemployment rate was 4.7% a year ago, and it's 6.1% now. You can say it has "skyrocketed" with a year-over-year increase of 30% (i.e., 6.1/4.7). That ignores the fact that it's still rather low and that it bobs around all the time.
  • The petroleum price shock is over, gasoline is under $3 again, the month-over-month inflation rate is now zero (seasonally adjusted), and it seems clear that fiscal measures taken to "bail out" banks have not been inflationary. Data here and here.
  • We don't know if Gross Domestic Product is falling, the way it would in a recession. In the first half of 2008, it was increasing at a good clip. Maybe it's about to bounce back and lose part of that increase. But will a recession kill us? Of course not. We've been having them every few years for as long as I can remember. Look at the growth of GDP on this chart, and remember that it's inflation-adjusted — all that growth is real.

The bottom line? We're getting too much economic commentary by newbies who have never seen any fluctuation at all and who report every blip as if it were the end of the world.

Or maybe they're mistaking the stock market for the economy. Stock prices depend on the willingness of other people to buy your stock. The stock market therefore goes down temporarily when there is a new wave of cautiousness for any reason.

Admittedly, we're not as prosperous as we were last year, and people who are overextended are going to have difficulty. But remember that if a straw breaks the camel's back, the camel was overloaded already. Unfortunately, there are a lot of overloaded camels out there.

What's good about present economic conditions? Well...

  • It's a great time to buy a house if you're renting, or if you're living in a substantially less expensive house (so that a low price on the new house would more than make up for a low selling price on the old one).
  • It's also a good time to build a house or get major repairs done (I'm getting a new roof this week).
  • If you have a decent credit rating, it may soon be a good time to refinance a house. Rates have gone up a bit (to 6.3% or so) but are not expected to stay that high.
  • Many businesses are prospering, including computer consulting. (Would-be clients: I can't take any more projects until the spring, at least.) Anything that offers a lower-cost alternative to an older method or technology seems to be doing well.

In short — Conditions change, but hard times are not here.

How to lose an election

The New York Times reports that the Republicans are making pesky automated phone calls to voters in swing states.

Shame on them. I'm disappointed.

Advertising by automated phone call is already against the law for any purpose except for politics and charities. [Typo corrected Oct. 18.] It ought to be banned for political advertising too, for two reasons:

  • It's pesky.
  • There's always the problem of impostors. Who's really making the calls, and for what purpose?

Maybe this episode will convince the next administration to go forward with a ban.

(Thanks to Peter Albrecht for this news item.)

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Two poems about stars

Many of us are familiar with Walt Whitman's "When I heard the learn'd astronomer," which certainly makes a good point but (to me) smacks of shallow anti-intellectualism.

Well, today I learned that it has been, so to speak, refuted (or at least counterbalanced) by Robert Frost, who, besides being America's top 20th-century poet, was something of an amateur astronomer.

"...Choose something like a star
To stay our minds on and be staid."

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A small but useful advance in eyeglass technology

Like most people my age, I wear progressive-lens bifocals, i.e., glasses whose focal length changes smoothly as you go from the upper to the lower segment.

And, in obedience to the laws of physics, progressive lenses are imperfect. You can't go from one spherical surface to another without going through something that is entirely the wrong shape.

My newest glasses do incorporate a minor improvement. The fine folks at Shamir Optical Industry Ltd. have realized they can put the variable curvature on the back surface of the lens instead of the front. That puts it closer to the eye, so the eye can more efficaciously move from one part of it to another as I look in a different direction. Result? The zone of clear vision is a little wider.

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XceLite PS-7

[Minor updates.]

In the spring of 1966, just a few months before his unexpected death, my father surprised me with a few presents from the local electronics store, one of which was an XceLite PS-7 interchangeable screwdriver set. It was the first set of good hand tools I had ever owned, and I used them for years. Many of the parts of the set were lost, but the survivors are now carefully preserved as keepsakes. I bought a similar set from a different manufacturer (Vaco) about 25 years ago as a newlywed, and it remains in active use.

Well... on eBay I recently found a PS-7 set just like the old one at a bargain price. (The PS-7 was still made until just a few years ago, and when discontinued, was selling for about $30. In 1966, it sold for about $4. In modern times, the name is spelled Xcelite without a capital L in the middle.)

So here's an authentic mid-1960s XceLite PS-7, complete with translucent shell and "torque amplifier" handle. It doesn't smell too good — some preservative that was present in trace amounts seems to have gone rancid during 40 years in storage — so I'm going to give it an airing out. (My vague memory is that the original one smelled the same way when new, but not as strongly.) It will go into my desk drawer at work, nicely complementing the interchangeable screwdriver that is already there.

One reason I didn't buy another PS-7 set over the years, apart from the rising price, was that I didn't understand the sizes of the screwdrivers. The ubiquitous #2 Phillips is missing, partly, I suppose, because industry in 1965 had not yet standardized on #2 heads for screws of several different diameters. The nutdrivers are common sizes but the screwdrivers are all a little unusual.

Then it recently dawned on me: This is designed to supplement the tools you already have, to help you move to working on late-20th-century miniaturized equipment. Most technicians in the 1960s would already have a #2 Phillips and a 1/4" slot-end screwdriver. This set adds Phillips #1 and #0 and slot-end 3/16" and 3/32" (skipping the much-needed 1/8"). Most technicians wouldn't have had any nutdrivers, so this one gives you the two most needed sizes, 5/16" and 1/4".

The legacy lives on. A slightly better-chosen set, with ten drivers instead of six, is still in production. It is the Xcelite PS130 and sells for about $37. If I were buying a set to use, rather than as a memento, that's what I'd choose.

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Switching to IMAP

There are three ways to get your e-mail:

  • A web mail interface, where everything happens on the server, and you access your mail from any computer using the web browser.
  • POP3, the most common interface used with web client software (Outlook, Outlook Express, Windows Mail, Thunderbird). All your e-mail is downloaded and stays on your PC. This is handy if you have only one computer.
  • IMAP, which is also accessed through a web client, but the mail stays on the server, in any number of folders that you create and manage — so you can get to it from any PC.

The University of Georgia has supported IMAP for a long time, but until recently I had to use POP3 for covingtoninnovations.com. That led to awkward procedures such as using Mailwasher to preview the mail without downloading it.

The other day I inquired — my service provider now supports IMAP — so I have switched over. All I had to do was delete each account in Windows Mail and re-create it as an IMAP account. Now the mail looks the same from everywhere. Modern conveniences...

[Update:] Note also that IMAP mail-checking goes much faster if you change the synchronization setting for each folder to "Headers Only" instead of "All Messages."

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The amazing nineteenth century, again

Since I was about 10 years old, I've had what may be the only surviving possession of my mother's mother's father (Marcus L. Trawick, d. 1942), namely the book Safe Methods of Business, by J. L. Nichols, which was reprinted around 1904-1906, though the principal author died in 1895. The book is now online and I want to share some of its contents. It is really a book for people who are only going to have one book, and who need a complete course in everything condensed into its 500-odd pages.

There are old-fashioned pictures:

There is calligraphy (some of which formed the basis of doodles I've been executing ever since):

There is advice about how to write letters:

There is practical geometry:

And there is a lot of legal advice, including even the details of how to swindle someone:

(Just cut out the portion that I've rendered in a slightly lighter color, and it becomes a completely different note.)

In those days the law had a quirk that if a promissory note was fraudulently sold to an innocent third party, the third party could collect in full from the original maker. I rather hope this has been corrected!

Crazy ads by Google


I am again experimenting with Google Ads in the Daily Notebook. Results so far have been whimsically off-target. Google has put together two common words on this page to make the name of an artist I had never mentioned, and all they're doing is advertising his prints. We'll see if their computer learns anything from experience...

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Does your bank have cherubs?
Or even baby policemen?

The nineteenth century produced some amazing things. I have been browsing through Banking: A Short History, by Chase and Allen (1888), apparently a book given away by banks to their top customers. It is a fairly lively history of American banking up to 1888, except that at the end, it gets mired in very detailed accounts of recent events. Also, the text is illustrated with pictures of coins, ancient and modern, domestic and foreign, which are scattered throughout material to which they are not the least bit relevant, like this:

I hasten to add that the coinage of the Danish West Indies had nothing to do with whatever New York banking crisis was being reported.

Then there are the ads. Sprinkled through the book are full-page color lithographs that advertise the latest financial institutions in high romanticist style. The typical ad looks like this:

But there are flights of fancy. Several of them have cherubs or other angelic or deified characters, like this:

And in Kansas they apparently rely on baby police officers...

Reproducing these pictures for noncommercial purposes is permitted under the terms of use of the archive from which the text was downloaded.

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Some perspective on the stock market

[Charts updated Oct. 11.]

As I write this, the U.S. stock market has had one of its oddest days ever, with wild fluctuations over a 10% range during the day. This is part of a slide that has been going on for almost a month. What I want to do today is chart the stock market in some slightly unusual (but valid) ways and call attention to where we stand on the stage of history.

Everybody knows that stock values go up. So do prices (that's inflation). Here are 80 years of the Dow Jones Industrial Average and 80 years of the Consumer Price Index:

Notice that everything goes up sharply at the right. But that's not increasing wealth — that's just inflation, working like compound interest. The same percentage increase in 2005 looks like a lot more than in 1935, simply because it's a percentage of a bigger number. You can barely see the crash of 1929 because the overall numbers were so much smaller then.

But investors decide for themselves how much to invest, so percentages are what matter. Accordingly, let's re-graph the data on a logarithmic scale, so that equal percentages translate into equal distances:

There. You can see the crash of 1929 and compare it to the crashes of, say, 1987 and 2008. You can also see that the market doesn't always keep up with inflation, but sometimes, as in the 1990s, it outruns inflation quite nicely. Looking at the red curve, you can see the Great Inflation (1964-80) quite clearly.

What if we convert the Dow Jones Average into constant dollars, i.e., adjust it for inflation? That's easy to do, and then we should of course still plot on a log scale (though doing so is no longer quite so important). Here's the result:

Now you can see two long run-ups ("bull markets"), one in the 1950s and one in the 1980s to early 1990s. In between, the market fluctuated a lot and failed to keep up with inflation (I call these "bear markets" although they are not always recognized as such at the time because inflation conceals what is being lost).

And guess what? We've been in a bear market (by my definition) since the mid-1990s. It's true that we had a sharp upward fluctuation for several years, a bubble that has just burst. But I think everyone has probably been underestimating the volatility of the market; we remember the 1980s and don't quite realize that they ended quite a while back.

I plotted these graphs myself, using Excel, with downloaded data. I know they're a bit clumsy, but I don't have time to make more elegant ones right now.

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Work crunch and e-mail flurry

Mid-October is always a flurry of activity, and I'm receiving about 150 e-mails (that actually require answers) per day. I don't have a lot of time or attention to spare right now. Thank you for your patience.

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Is it an economic collapse or just a bear market?

The most important thing to remember about current economic conditions is that most American businesses are doing relatively well. Stocks are crashing because investors are in a panic, not because the companies are worthless.

I've done yet another revision of my Christian money management page. I'm just now coming to appreciate the number of ordinary Americans who have gotten into deep financial difficulty just by over-borrowing and overspending. I thought I wasn't particularly frugal, but after looking at statistics, I wonder how people can afford to eat when they carry "normal" amounts of debt.

Maybe it's postmodernism. Maybe the "believe anything you want to believe" people have gotten jobs running banks.

I'm serious. One of the foolish dogmas of academia in the 1980s and 1990s was that there are no objective truths — that nobody has the right to impose his beliefs on you — and that all debates are really just power struggles.

("Point of logic, Mr. Chairman! How can it be objectively true that there are no objective truths?")

Anyhow, it seems to me that to manage your money wisely, you have to believe that objective reality is out there, whether or not you know about it, and you're not at liberty to substitute wishful thinking for real knowledge. On the contrary, you have to watch out for nasty surprises.

Linux won't resize your Windows partition...
and chkdsk /f has no effect

This is more a war story than a neat account of how a problem was solved, but here goes...

Normally, when you install Ubuntu Linux on a Windows PC, it offers to resize your Windows partition to create a new partition for Linux. I was doing this on a Dell laptop today, and the resizing option was not offered.

So I booted Linux from the CD and ran the partitioner (GParted). It saw all the partitions but refused to modify the NTFS (Windows) partition because there were filesystem errors. It said to run chkdsk /f under Windows and reboot twice.

I booted Windows and did so. Of course, chkdsk /f said that the disk couldn't not be checked right now but would be checked upon bootup. So I rebooted and no such thing happened.

After a few cycles of this, I booted Windows PE from a CD-ROM and was able to chkdsk /f successfully. Sure enough, errors were found. I think it would have worked equally well to boot from a Windows installation CD.

Then Linux worked just fine. It automatically offered to resize the Windows partition during installation, but in fact I had already resized it using GParted.

The remaining mystery is why Windows XP, even in Safe Mode, would not fix those disk errors.

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Credit card companies rush to
make the situation worse

I've long been a harsh critic of the credit-card industry, and today they seem to be trying extra-hard to deserve it.

As the economy takes a downturn, what do credit-card companies do? Bask in the increased business they'll get? Try to make things easier on their customers?

No, not at all. While interest rates on other things fall (e.g., mortgages are down to 5.8%), credit-card issuers are responding to economic difficulty by raising interest rates and even redlining.

Yes, redlining, although right now, race or ethnicity doesn't appear to be the criterion. Weirder than that. American Express is reportedly yanking people's credit because of where they shop or who holds their mortgage.

I think we have a civil rights issue here. Of course, there is also an issue with the lenders' eagerness to take advantage of people's hardship. It is reasonable to refuse to lend to people who are likely to have trouble paying you back — if that is really the case. But raising interest rates merely traps them in their difficulty and exploits them. (All the things the Bible says about usurers apply to precisely the people who do that.) And yanking credit because of where people shop? That ought to be fodder for a congressional hearing.

Here is an interesting commentary by economist Paul Romer, quoted at length in Greg Mankiw's blog, about the difference between economic "fundamentalists" (those who believe the mathematical models) and "realists" (those who think it is more important to observe the actual situation). The "fundamentalists" are the ones who opposed the bailout. Food for thought... (And this has nothing to do with fundamentalism in religion.)

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Spinal decompression — a success story

I gave Melody something unusual for her birthday — an experimental medical treatment. And it worked.

For years, Melody has had two herniated disks in her lower spine. For the past several years, it has been painful, and for the past few months, she has had trouble walking.

The usual treatment is surgery, but because of other medical problems, the surgery cannot be done safely on Melody. So she was treating the backaches as best she could with exercise and medication, and dreading disability.

While exercising, she discovered that she could partly decompress the herniated disks by stretching just the right way. This led her to check into spinal decompression, an experimental treatment currently administered mostly by chiropractors and not covered by insurance. (The treatment is FDA approved and supported by published research. It is not connected with the controversial claims of chiropractic theory.)

Spinal decompression is not the same as the traction commonly used by physical therapists (although that, in itself, is worthwhile). Spinal decompression uses a stronger pull applied to a specific area of the back.

And it worked. Melody got some relief with the very first treatment. About two weeks into the series, something suddenly snapped into place and her back got a lot better. The series of treatments isn't complete yet, but it has obviously done her a lot of good. I only wish Blue Cross would cover it.

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Happy birthday, Melody!

All previous expressions of birthday good wishes are hereby incorporated by reference. :)

Legal logic award for today

From the terms of use page on eppraisal.com:

"If you violate the previous term or any other term herein contained, Eppraisal.com shall have the right to recover damages from you in an amount equal to (3) three times Eppraisal.com's actual damages or the maximum allowable under the law, whichever is more."

That's right — they claim the right to recover more than is allowable under the law.


In response to changing economic conditions, as well as an upcoming personal-finance course at our church, I've just updated this.

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PIC to buy out AVR?

Like a million other electronics experimenters, I use two kinds of low-cost microcontrollers, the Microchip PIC and the Atmel AVR. These compete head-on for price, performance, and ease of use. The Atmel product has a newer design and is more compatible with software tools such as Gnu C.

Well, the latest news is that the PIC company is trying to buy the AVR company and then resell part of it to a third party.

This could be great news, if the modern architecture of the AVR series is going to be promoted and supported by the energetic sales force that presently handles PICs.

Or does PIC simply want to dispose of a competitor? Maybe there will be no more AVR...

...in which case a lot of us won't use either of the two brands any more, and we'll be casting about for something else (maybe the Texas Instruments MSP430).

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Latest, and oddest, banking scandal

Atlanta consumer advocate Clark Howard was busy answering questions about the FDIC on the radio on October 1, when he got a call from someone who had not yet realized that banks lend out the money that is deposted in them (which is the main reason we need the FDIC). "Oh my G.." she kept saying, over and over, as Clark explained banking to her.

Speaking of banking, here is a heresy alert. I expect the following erroneous doctrine to start circulating among conservative Christians, having already gotten whiffs of it: "The current banking crisis was caused by people borrowing money. It is wrong to borrow money."

The Bible does not say it's wrong to borrow, and the crisis was caused by imprudent and insufficiently regulated lending more than by borrowing. I know you can't have a borrower without a lender, but most of the bad decisions were being made by lenders, not borrowers. This is not to let imprudent borrowers off the hook entirely, of course, but for the most part, they caused problems for themselves individually rather than for the whole system.

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The Saturn Nebula (NGC 7009)

This isn't Saturn — it's the nebula NGC 7009. You're looking at a single 4-minute exposure with minimal processing, not even dark-frame subtraction. A better version of this picture will appear here soon. It was taken with an 8-inch telescope at f/6.3 in my back yard.

Economics note: Jim Mischel has posted a really good explanation of why financiers believe there's danger of a major collapse unless the "bailout" or something similar to it takes place. It's not just that some big banks are in danger — if that were the case, we could let survival of the fittest take its course. Rather, it's that a major type of market, on which even the most reliable, cautious, and innocent bankers are relying, has failed to function.

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Urgency is not importance

Today, everybody but me is writing about the economy. I want to write briefly about the most important principle of time management that I often share with graduate students and colleagues:

Urgency is not importance.

That is, don't spend all your time on unimportant things with short deadlines, rather than important things whose deadlines are less pressing.

Things that are urgent and important of course demand attention. Paying the bills, fueling the car, feeding the dog... You can't do without them.

Things that are urgent and not important are legion. Reading the news, following sports or TV, attending shows or social events that are not of topmost importance, even helping "high-maintenance friends" (every college dorm has several: people whose hobby is having crises so they can demand your help; I think colleges should send such people home). Or even reading blogs.

These things claim your attention because they are constantly changing; what you miss today, you've missed forever. But the mature person should realize that many things are worth missing.

Things that are important and not urgent are all too easy to neglect. Finishing your dissertation is the biggest. I contend that a Ph.D. is proof of project management skill (on the part of either yourself or your advisor!) more than it is proof of intelligence. It is easy for a graduate student to get through a whole day, keeping busy, without making a bit of progress on the dissertation. There are so many urgent-but-not-important things contending for attention! The rule I ask people to make is: If I made no progress today, I must make progress the very next day; don't lose two days in a row.

The advertising industry tries to get people to mistake urgency for importance. "Come to our sale, today only!" If it's something you don't need, don't bother.

And one of the curses of the workplace is that "office work" can be either of two radically different things which managers often fail to distinguish. Some office workers spend their time doing nothing but handling interruptions — telephone receptionists, for example — and management often fails to realize that the rest of us aren't like that. A computer programmer cannot handle ten interruptions per hour or even per day. Neither can anyone else whose job involves large intellectual tasks. On the other hand, we do "come up for air" periodically, and that's when we read our e-mail and handle pending requests for small things. And not even we can predict when we'll do it, or how much "air" is enough.

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