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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Pentax K-x for astrophotography
What caused the Great Recession?
Astronomy mods for 1995 Olds Ciera
Rosette Nebula
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How I use a typewriter

You'll recall that one of my new year's resolutions for 2010 was to resume using typewriters, after 25 years of trying, not quite successfully, to use computers as total replacements. So what do I use a typewriter for?

Obviously, forms and envelopes. It takes less time to type an address on an envelope than to figure out how to get the computer to print on an envelope, then actually feed the envelope through the printer.

But I also type my "to-do list" on a typewriter every day. This works out surprisingly well. By typing it all by hand, I ensure that everything on it actually passes through my conscious mind. Also, I have an incentive: I have to type things over and over, once a day, until I get them done!

And the typewriter never interrupts me with e-mail, nor does it want to update its software.

(What you see in the picture is my second Selectric II, purchased this year. I use it at home and use the 1975 blue one at the office. The beige one has all the features I wanted, but thought I couldn't afford, back in '75: dual pitch, correcting, and 1.5-line spacing.)

Barring unforeseen developments, I'm going to close out the month early, wish everyone a blessed Holy Week, and see you all in April!


Campus buses done right

At Emory University, you can track the location of all of the shuttle buses on line. (Yes, and zoom in and actually see them moving.)

If the University of Georgia had this, we might know the solution to some mysteries. It's like researching the behavior of migratory birds: Where do they go? How long do they stay there? How do they decide when to come back?


Stop the gloom, fortunes are being made

Has anybody noticed that the stock market and other investments have been rising steadily for a year or more? Here is the past year of FRESX, a real-estate mutual fund:

The most important part of "buy low, sell high" is "buy low," and anybody who bought investments a year ago — or held on to what they already had — is much better off today. Unfortunately, the same people who thought the stock market was a bank, five years ago, are now thinking it is worthless.


"Resistance is futile"

Credit Melody for expressing this Star Trek catchphrase as a circuit diagram.

Greek calligraphy

A prominent London calligrapher (click also here) wrote to me today to thank me for devising a way to do italic handwriting in Greek. He has done much more with it than I have!


Today's great technical discovery

Today's great technical discovery: If you get hold of a ribbon cartridge for an IBM Selectric Composer (green color-coded) and put it on a Selectric II typewriter, it works beautifully, and doesn't "lift-off" (is not correctable), which means it can be used safely to type checks.

Who else but me would have tried this in 2010? Admittedly, quite a few people probably tried it in the 1970s.



There is kosher-for-Passover Coca-Cola at Publix in Watkinsville.


Not an evil conspiracy

The new health care legislation may be misguided and expensive, but it is not an evil conspiracy and I am getting tired of right-wing grandstanders misrepresenting it.

For accurate information about the bill, click here.

For a thoughtful critique of it by a world-class economist, click here. Note especially that he points out a trade-off between maximum freedom for individuals and what's good for the community.

(Maximum freedom for individuals is not the summum bonum. If it were, we wouldn't have an army, at least not a taxpayer-supported one; you'd be "free" to defend yourself, or not, when an enemy invades.)

For my own position on health insurance (written a while before the bill passed), click here and here.

Finally, I don't understand why conservatives are so upset about the government requiring people to buy health insurance. That's the part conservatives ought to like because it minimizes the role of government. If we regulate insurance, and require you to buy it, but buy it from industry, not from the government, then in my opinion we're doing a lot better than if we were to tax you and "give" you benefits. Nobody objects to being required to buy car insurance. Health insurance is similar.

And an afterthought: Yes, there are going to be hidden costs, but there will also be hidden economic benefits from keeping people healthier, reducing the load on emergency rooms, and allowing people to change jobs more easily.



Congratulations, Cathy!

Cathy has accepted an offer of admission, including a scholarship, from the University of Kentucky College of Law and will be moving to Lexington this summer.

Cathy, may God bless the path you have before you.


On the eve of something or other...

As I write this, Congress is about to vote on the health-care bill.

I can understand people who support the bill, and also people who oppose it.

But I can't condone people who misrepresent the bill in order to try to discredit it. (Factcheck.org is useful for clearing things up.)

And I can't agree with people who say nothing is wrong — especially if their position is, "I'm well-to-do, and I'm OK, and I don't care about people who aren't."

By the way, amidst all this panic "against socialized medicine" I never come across anybody at all who objects to Medicare. [Strictly speaking, I have heard from exactly one, but it was by e-mail, not in the public debate. In my opinion there are good arguments for replacing Medicare with a private insurance system like the Swiss have. But that would necessitate requiring healthy people to buy private health insurance, which is unacceptable to the American right wing.]



Adobe software is like a high-maintenance girlfriend

I am fortunate enough never to have had what young men call a "high-maintenance girlfriend" — one who is always having crises and demanding attention just because she can. (Melody is notable for not asking for attention unless she really needs something.)

But I'm having the high-maintenance-girlfriend experience with Adobe software. We moved Adobe CS2 from one computer to another, and it then spent the whole day downloading updates and asking me to do things.

Of course, attention-demanding automatic updates are frequent even when you have a stable installation. I've said before that I think Adobe is using this as a form of advertising. It's a way to insist that your attention must be on Adobe for a while instead of on whatever you intended to do. Just like a high-maintenance girlfriend.

PowerPoint, let go of those type sizes!

Today I finally figured out how to break PowerPoint of one of its most uncouth habits — automatically changing type sizes. Thanks to that uncouth habit, all my PowerPoints until now have broken one of the basic rules of graphic design, which is that there should be no meaningless variation in format.

In PowerPoint 2007, click on the Office button (at upper left), then PowerPoint Options, Proofing, AutoCorrect Options, AutoFormat As You Type, and uncheck the two AutoFit items.

Now you're in control!



We are having a flurry of activity. Please bear with me if I can't answer your e-mail promptly or add things to my schedule. Between now and final exams, I'm working about six and a half days a week. But it's because good things are happening.

Upcoming talks: In April, I'm giving a series of four talks at Beech Haven Baptist Church, and giving each of them twice (to the college group and a wider group). Topics include "Christianity in a Relativistic World" and "Can Non-Christians Go to Heaven?" Come one, come all (when the dates and times are announced).


Astronomy modifications for 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera

The Oldsmobile is going to be my astronomy vehicle, so I had Car Craft make some modifications to the electrical system. As the car comes from the factory, there is no way to turn off daytime running lights, nor all the interior lights. I had them add switches for these things, and also add a set of fog lights wired to the battery. Here's how the control panel looks. (I did the labeling myself with Avery plastic weatherproof labels.)

The exact modifications were:

— To disable daytime running lights and automatic headlights, we had to interrupt the ground wire to the DRL module. Grounding the blue wire to the parking brake disabled headlights but not parking lights.

— To disable interior lights, we interrupted everything coming out of the Courtesy fuse except the radio backup. (Side effect, you can't blow the horn while interior lights are disabled; not a serious problem.)

The fog lights are a pair of the usual 55-watt halogen bulbs and are probably too bright for the purpose; I plan to add some resistance (probably 0.25 ohm in the form of four 1-ohm 10-watt resistors in parallel) to make them dimmer.


"Mathematically impossible to pay off the national debt"?

The latest bit of junk economics making the rounds is the notion that it is "mathematically impossible to pay off the national debt" and this fact is going to lead to a "collapse."

Let me make it clear that I am not in favor of unlimited government spending. I favor fiscal responsibility just like the rest of you. But let's get our economics straight.

First, the numbers that motivate the claim: The national debt is presently about $12.6 trillion. The money supply (M2) is about $8.5 trillion.

That means that if we had to pay the national debt back all at once, we couldn't do it, even by confiscating every dollar in circulation. (You can take a few minutes to let your mind boggle about exactly how such a transaction would work, but I'm going to skip that.)

Should we panic? No. We're only in trouble if you assume we are suddenly going to have to pay off the national debt all at once. We're not. It's rather like panicking because there's not enough money in your checking account to pay off your mortgage. If there were, you wouldn't have needed the mortgage, and besides, your house isn't worthless.

Please remember that these are not normal times. We've just come through a once-in-75-years recession, and we didn't have people starving or rioting in the streets. I would say we're doing pretty well.

But the big point is, M2 is not a measure of our national wealth. It's only a measure of how much we're circulating in reasonably liquid form. The proper measure of our ability to pay the national debt is the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is currently $14 trillion per year.

Yes, our national debt is too high. As we return to prosperity, we need to reduce it. But we are not about to enter another Dark Age, and I would question the psychology and the motives of people who are trying to tell us that we are.


The last minivan

We have succeeded in driving an automobile for its entire life, from being a new car on the dealer's lot, to being sold for salvage 15 years and 150,000 miles later.

Our venerable old Dodge Caravan needs a new transmission and a new paint job. The same amount of money would buy a better entire vehicle, given the way the market is glutted with used cars right now, so we're going to let Car Craft send it to a salvager. (Unless someone out there wants it; if so, act fast!) Today we ended almost 25 years of minivan ownership. For a while, we'll have nothing but normal cars.

This was our second minivan. Our first one, a very similar gray Plymouth Voyager, was bought in 1985, when minivans were new. It served us for ten years, and the air conditioning went out on a trip to Valdosta and Jekyll Island. Unable to get it repaired promptly, we went to Dodge of Valdosta and simply traded it in, in August 1995, and drove on to the beach in comfort. We should probably have traded the second minivan at the same age, which would have been 2005, but we were busy with other things and it seemed to be holding up well. Over the years, it has had its transmission replaced and has been repainted. But instead of giving it another transmission and another paint job, we've chosen to bid it farewell.

In the picture, you see a magnetic sign that advertises one of my books and which made it obvious whose van this is when I went to astronomy events. The sign is more or less worn out. The license plate, of course, we will reclaim because it has Melody's ham radio call sign on it.

Melody is glad that she no longer has to roll car windows up and down manually. (Our other vehicles all have electric windows.) I am glad that the driveway isn't overcrowded; since Sharon chose not to take a car with her to Emory, we've had more cars than drivers.


Short notes

I made some additions to my Selectric typewriter page today.

Many new research projects are starting up, and I'm busy, but there's nothing I can announce publicly yet.


Dubious graph, continued

Roy Green writes to tell me what happened to the value of houses in Athens (see yesterday's graph). Obviously, it all went to Alpharetta, where prices have purportedly skyrocketed.

Go to eppraisal.com and type in "Alpharetta, GA" (with no street address), and then try the same for "Athens, GA". Both of them report 0 sales for January, but they also report a median sales price of $0 for Athens and $401k for Alpharetta. As Roy explains it, "I suspect some basic programming errors" in the part of the web site that generates the graph.



Dubious graph of the day

This is why you shouldn't believe all economic indicators. If you believe eppraisal.com (which is usually reliable), houses in Athens, Georgia, are, on the average, completely worthless right now.

What happened? Apparently they have no sales data at all for January. Maybe the bad weather had something to do with it; maybe they just didn't receive the information. Anyhow, "unknown" went into their computer as an average price of $0.

They may have simply run the update program at the wrong time, before the data had arrived. If so, the error will correct itself very soon.

(I know this is a copyrighted graph. I am quoting it as fair use for purposes of criticism, as permitted by copyright law.)


Another breath of fresh air from the credit industry

Latest word is that, not only is Bank of America dropping overdraft fees on debit cards, most issuers are now dropping overlimit fees on credit cards. Instead, when you try to go over your credit limit, your transaction will be declined, and you can call the issuer and try to persuade them to raise the limit.

That's the way it used to be.

There is mounting evidence that one of the biggest forms of usury in the United States, until just now, has been overdraft fees and overlimit fees. There are apparently out-of-control yuppies walking around who get overdraft or overlimit fees every day (go to Starbucks, $4 for the coffee, $40 for the overdraft) and don't know why their balances are up in the thousands.

A $40 fee for a $4 loan is absurd. A person who accepts such things as the ordinary course of business — whether as lender or as borrower — is foolish.

Short notes

Remember how LifeLock was going to protect you from all kinds of identity theft? They didn't.

When a really, really good radio-frequency engineer retires and starts building crystal radios as a hobby, this is the result. Impressive!


Another thing that's missing from modern moral reasoning

Another component of the messy situation that I described yesterday is that when society has no sexual morality, everything depends on what people decide to "consent" to.

This leads to endless debates as to whether an act was "consensual" or not (and whether people's behavior at the time agrees with what they decided the next morning).

It also means that people who are genuinely victimized will be pressured to "consent" after the fact, and that the victim will be put on trial along with the perpetrator.

That is why society — not just individuals — has to say that certain things are wrong.

Then there's the issue of sexual harassment. The University of Georgia quite sensibly insists on applying "a reasonable person's standards" so as not to have to accommodate people who are hypersensitive or persistently misinterpret innocent actions. This also keeps victims from being pressured to say that obnoxious behavior is all right with them. Even if the victim consents, the behavior is still unacceptable.


Something that's missing from modern moral reasoning

At the moment, a pro football player is facing charges of sexual assault in Milledgeville, Georgia. I have no way to know what he actually did. But it's been pointed out that if he gets even a misdemeanor conviction, he will be prohibited from being an "entertainer" who performs in front of children, and that will end his football career.

I'm strongly against sexual assault, of course. But I see society becoming oversensitive to some sexual acts at the same time it is determined to permit almost all sexual acts. Something's missing.

Prudishness and licentiousness come out of the same mindset — a loss of perspective on the meaning and value of sexuality. Because people can no longer say why sexual acts are right or wrong, they've turned morality into a high-stakes game of blackjack: do anything you want, except that if you go over an arbitrary boundary, all of a sudden we treat you as unspeakably evil.

What is missing is the concept of things being "close to the line" or "mildly out of line." There's no middle ground between "anything goes" and "you're a horrible criminal." This is a symptom of an inadequate moral reasoning system, a casualty of the Sexual Revolution. And it means that the very people we most need to restrain often have no idea what they did wrong.


Two econo-notes

In a flash of clear thinking that is rarely seen in the financial industry, Bank of America (spurred by federal regulation) has decided that there will no longer be overdrafts on debit cards. No more $40 cups of coffee. I have long argued that using penalties as a source of profit is unethical.

Meanwhile, recent, seemingly good news that Americans are reducing their use of credit cards could be an illusion. According to one analyst, all that has happened is that more existing debts have been charged off as uncollectable.

So we may not have a new culture of thrift at all. We may have people eager to drown in debt as soon as they're allowed back into the water.


Big Tobacco may want me to lose my job

The entry originally here was a response to an inaccurate news report, so I am replacing it with the following.

One of the proposals for remedying Georgia's state budget shortfall, and thereby saving the University and the public schools, is to raise the tax on cigarettes, which is currently abnormally low.

Tobacco company Altria (Philip Morris) has been campaigning by e-mail against the proposed tax increase. That means they're part of the problem. Too many Georgians think cheap cigarettes are more important than good schools. Others think "no new taxes" means "keep all the loopholes."


Exhortations to eBay sellers

Based on some of Melody's recent experiences:

(1) Newspaper and a shoebox are not how you pack a fragile object. Newspaper does not absorb impact. Shoeboxes do not withstand impact. If you're not willing to drop the package onto the floor yourself, from two or three feet up, you shouldn't be willing to put it in the mail. Use bubble wrap, foam peanuts, or other modern packing materials.

(2) If you don't want something to sell for 99 cents, don't list it with a starting price of 99 cents. If there is only one bidder, that bidder cannot pay more than your minimum price (plus shipping, of course), because there is no one else to bid it up. Please don't punish them by packing the object improperly so it will arrive broken. Remember that they paid as much for shipping as any other buyer.


Putting the "Old" in "Oldsmobile"

I'm back from the American Association for Applied Linguistics, where I spent less than 24 hours, but they were productive. On the way, my Oldsmobile ceased to be a young car:

I'm getting ready to use this car for astronomy excursions, and it's maddeningly difficult to use it without having any lights come on. (On the observing field, you have to be able to move the car short distances without using any of its regular lights, just a handheld or mag-mount light that shines only forward. And you certainly have to be able to open doors without turning lights on.) It looks like I'm going to have to do the following:

(1) Bypass the switch in the parking brake, so that daytime running lights will stay off. This can be done with a clip lead, I think, if I don't want to modify the wiring.

(Parking brake? Yes, there's a switch that keeps the headlights from coming on until you take the parking brake off. It has nothing to do with brake function.)

(2) Remove the "Courtesy" fuse to disable all the courtesy lights. This also disables the radio's memory, an inconvenience. The alternative would be to remove a lot of bulbs from courtesy lights, or change them to dim red. Actually, if I do any wiring modification in support of this particular item, I'll probably just change the radio's "always on" supply to a different circuit, and continue removing the fuse. The reason for wanting the radio to stay powered is that when it loses its settings, it doesn't just forget the stations, it goes into a pesky animated display mode with moving lines dancing back and forth.

(3) Add either some built-in running lights (that are dim and only shine forward) or a power socket for the mag-mount light that I place on the hood when driving on the observing field. The latter is easier.


"Free Public WiFi" decoded

If your computer ever offers to connect to "Free Public WiFi," don't. Click here to read what Jeff Duntemann has learned about this egregious Windows security hole.

[Note also that Windows Vista and Windows 7 give you a layer of protection by asking you whether the network is private or public. If you say it's public, your files will not be shared (as I understand it).]


Short notes

There's been no further news about the proposed devastating budget cuts except that the governor has denounced them.

Meanwhile, a new wave of credit card regulations is coming, to patch loopholes and forbid things whose foolishness should have been obvious. For instance, it will no longer be legal to charge a penalty fee larger than the amount of money that prompted the penalty.

A British economist argues that it's not the end of the world if national debt rises as high as 200% of GDP. Britain has survived that, and worse. (And note that during their 1975 economic crisis, the debt-to-GDP ratio was uncommonly low, and if that's the only criterion, things should have been peachy.) I post this to refute someone who was recently telling me there is going to be a worldwide "dark age" because of excessive U.S. government spending.

Finally, TV personality Suze Orman argues that we never really had the wealth that we think we've just lost.


What caused the Great Recession?
It wasn't just subprime lending — something else collapsed first.


If you'd like to know how the Great Recession started, look at this paper by Yale economist Gary Gorton. I got it from http://online.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/crisisqa0210.pdf, but since it's a public document, I'm hosting my own copy. I found out about it from Harvard economist Greg Mankiw.

The standard explanation, which we've all heard, is this:

Banks were reselling their mortgages as securities (bonds). For a while, this was too easy, because investors were unaware of the true risk, and this encouraged banks to lend irresponsibly. Then, all of a sudden, investors realized what a bad deal these bonds were, and the demand for them dried up. As a result, banks no longer had money to lend, mortgage loans became much harder to get, and real estate prices dropped. This caused a calamitous situation for homebuyers who had assumed they could resell their houses at a large profit before their ARMs reset.

That is undoubtedly part of the picture, but Professor Gorton points out that the market for all kinds of bonds collapsed, not just mortgage-backed bonds, and that the losses were felt first by very large securities firms. Further, the whole situation seems to have defied economic theory; people just didn't understand it. So what was really happening?

The answer: a run on the shadow banking system, completely off the radar of regulators at the time (mid to late 2007).

The shadow banking system is where large corporations and institutional investors keep their cash. Suppose you have $500 million that you need to park somewhere for a few days or weeks. A regular checking account is not very good because it's only insured up to $100,000 by the FDIC. In effect, you'd be betting that your bank is good for $500 million, which is risky.

Instead, you go to a securities firm, such as the late lamented Bear Stearns, and do a repurchase agreement (repo). You buy some bonds and agree to sell them back to Bear Stearns the next day for a fixed price. (Equivalently, you lend them some money and they give you the bonds as collateral.) This agreement can be renewed day after day; you and they split the yield from the bonds; and everybody's happy. If something goes wrong with Bear Stearns, you can sell the bonds to someone else. The bonds can be a diversified mix to protect you from the risk of anything happening to the bond issuer. And yet you can get all your money back in 24 hours or less. It's as good as a checking account.

What happened in 2007 is that people suddenly stopped trusting this arrangement, and they all wanted their money out, and the demand for all types of bonds fell precipitously. Mortgage-backed bonds are the kind that affected ordinary Americans the most because those were the source of funding for ordinary banking. But in fact the whole shadow banking system shrank abruptly.

Because shadow banking is not regulated, or even visible to most people, much of this went on behind the scenes. One fact that jumped out at me is that in 2006 the Federal Reserve System stopped keeping track of the amount of money in the shadow banking system; previously it had been included in M3, which is one of their measures of the money supply.

What should be done? It's hard to say how to regulate shadow banking, since it has the nature of private arrangements between individual companies. But some kind of regulation is needed, especially because shadow banking supplies the money for ordinary banking.

So who's to blame for the Great Recession? Many will be disappointed that there is no evil conspiracy or evil practice at which we can point the finger. Repurchase agreements are not evil. As far as I can determine, they are as legitimate as any other kind of banking. (In fact, they are not even loans, except in a shallow technical sense, so if you think moneylending is the root of all evil, think again.) The problem is that the whole country was inexperienced with repurchase agreements, and we had a wild fluctuation that nobody understood. It would have helped if decision-makers had had better information about what was going on, and I think data-gathering should be the main focus of whatever is done to reduce the problem in the future.

Short and medium-length notes


I've been sick with a sinus infection and bronchitis for a few days. I'm slowly returning to normal but will be keeping a reduced schedule for several more days.

University budget cuts: Everyone is against the budget cuts that were proposed the day before yesterday. We'll avoid them somehow. In the process, we may have some much-needed maturing of the role of the University in the state. Three quarters of a century ago, when we weren't an academic powerhouse, we had to justify our existence through lots of aid to farmers and rural schools. Now we have a more important job: Georgia wants a world-class university.

Personally, I think we should raise taxes on tobacco, alcohol, and maybe gasoline to make up at least part of the budget shortfall, especially since these taxes are abnormally low to begin with. We apparently have legislators who think it is more important for Georgia to have some of the cheapest cigarettes in the world than to have a good educational system.

Regarding other things that are on the chopping block: I support the 4-H Club, which is often the only organization rural young people encounter that isn't anti-intellectual. But it should be funded locally. As for ag extension, do we need to spend taxpayer money, forever, to preserve small, inefficient, mom-and-pop farms? Shouldn't farms sink or swim like any other kind of business, so that only the efficient survive? And shouldn't successful farms pay their own way, as other industries do?

New-style credit-card bills: I've received at least one credit-card bill that was issued after the new laws took effect on February 22, and it didn't have the "minimum payment warning" that I thought was required. What gives? Any information, anyone?


Frightening threats
De-funding the University

The Legislature has asked the Board of Regents to submit a plan for dealing with a further $300 million budget cut to the University System.

In response, the University of Georgia submitted a plan that includes firing all the temporary and part-time teaching faculty (an axe that misses me by a hairsbreadth), closing WUGA, the Botanical Garden, and Rock Eagle 4-H Center, and drastically cutting agricultural extension programs, including 4-H Clubs. That, and cutting academic programs (no indication of which) and downsizing the student body.

Judging from what I see in the press, the public doesn't understand what's going on very well. First, these are not cuts the Regents want to make. They hope never to make them, but the legislature demanded a plan. We hope the legislature will decide the cuts are intolerable after all.

Second, shrewdly, the Regents are proposing cuts that will be noticed in our less-educated counties. Atlanta and Athens are already solidly behind the University. Rural legislators may not care about the quality of the University, but no rural legislator wants to be known as the man who killed the 4-H Club.

(I only wish the Regents had proposed something that would disrupt the football program; that would get noticed everywhere. As it is, North Campus is still muddy from the football fans camping there last fall; why do we let them do that?)

Third, by design, we lose money on students. Their tuition doesn't pay for the cost of educating them. Our job, as a state university, is to give them a subsidized education. (A private university would aim to break even on students.) Accordingly, downsizing the student body is an excellent idea. It also sends a message: If you cut funding to the University, it shrinks, and your grandson might not get in.

Fourth, balanced budgets are the root of the problem. The state government is not allowed either to borrow money or to build up savings. Each year, it has to operate on that year's tax receipts. That puts it totally at the mercy of economic fluctuations. Think about that if you demand that the federal budget be balanced at all times.


Where the lake used to be

View Larger Map

It isn't every day one gets to record the demise of a lake. This unnamed lake, in our fair city of Athens, Georgia, on the Atlanta Highway just west of Epps Bridge Parkway, ceased to exist around January 26, during a rainy spell. The dam broke, the water got away (fortunately without doing any harm), and now we don't have a lake any more. For many years, one of the sights of Athens, at Christmas, was the illuminated Christmas tree (actually just lights strung in a conical shape) on the dock and its reflection in the water. You can see the dock in the left background area of the picture.

What took it down, apparently, was the effect of pavement. The dam was built to withstand the runoff from surrounding forests, but nowadays, there are apartment buildings and parking lots that don't absorb water.


A promising astronomy DSLR from Pentax
Finally, an "Ektachrome DSLR"

Robert L. Post has written to tell me that the new Pentax K-x DSLR has high response to deep red (hydrogen alpha) light, even without modification. Compare his picture of the Rosette Nebula (below) with mine taken with ordinary and modified Canon DSLRs.

Rosette Nebula by Robert L. Post, Pentax K-x camera body

What this means is that Pentax has apparently decided to emulate the spectral response of Ektachrome rather than Fujichrome film. That should appeal a little more to nature photographers, and a little less to portraitists. I hope Canon will follow suit; Ektachrome was a lot of people's favorite film for a long time, and not just for astronomy.

The K-x has live focusing (important for astronomy) and its ISO settings go up to 12,800. (That may not mean the sensor is really more sensitive than Canon's, only that you can do more amplification in-camera.) It can do high-dynamic-range imaging in the camera, without a separate computer (useful for solar eclipses and objects such as M42). Slightly awkward for astronomy is the fact that in-camera dark-frame subtraction cannot always be turned off, and the remote control is infrared only, not cabled.

Let's keep an eye on this one. My big question is, are many DSLRs going to start adopting Ektachrome-like spectral response, or is it just Pentax?

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