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Popular topics on this page:
Christians are allowed to believe in evolution
A medieval diagram of an eclipse
What Dave Ramsey doesn't know about higher education
When is it wrong to borrow money?
Moon (crater Einstein)
Hubble Space Telescope
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Hubble Space Telescope

You've seen lots of pictures taken through the Hubble Space Telescope; here's a picture of it. It looked like a moving second-magnitude star. Here you see it approaching the star cluster M41. The bright star at top is Sirius. Single 5-second exposure with a Canon 40D and 28-mm lens, cropped and contrast-enhanced. Not a great picture, but an interesting subject.

I continue to be very busy. See you next month!

Addendum: My first experience of academia was Mrs. Morgan's Kindergarten in Moultrie, Georgia. Click here to see a scan of a faded photocopy of the program from the graduation ceremony. Believe it or not, some of us have gotten together on Facebook and are plotting a 50-year reunion!


Wild week #2

This is another wild week — way too much going on — but I'm such an efficient person that I've managed to have the flu and get it over with in 36 hours.

Astro-dog: Bright meteors sometimes come in pairs, and maybe that happened the other night. Babbage, our schnoodle, was standing on the patio, looking up toward Canis Major (presumably his favorite constellation, though he rarely looks at the sky), and intermittently looking expectantly at me. So I stepped out to where he was, started looking up at the sky, and saw a negative-2-magnitude meteor in Canis Major. Was it the second of a pair, I wonder? Had Babbage seen one? It looked like a Geminid (slow, bright, and coming from Gemini) but out of season.


The lunar crater Einstein

At last, an astrophoto, after a nearly 2-month hiatus! The crater-within-a-crater at the top center is named Einstein. It's in a libration zone and is not always visible from Earth. This is actually an infrared image — the air is steadier in infrared than in visible light, and with this winter's weather, we need all the help we can get. Best 1500 of about 2200 video frames captured with my Celestron 5.

A striking case of the fallacy of sunk costs

The fallacy of sunk costs is the mistaken belief that, if you have invested a lot of effort or money in something, you must stick with it, regardless of its future prospects.

I heard a striking case of it on a financial call-in radio show recently. A young couple had gone to college and gotten education degrees — from some strange kind of college that only qualified them to teach in (some kind of) Christian private schools, not public schools.

The schools where they could teach did not pay them very well. They were in deep financial trouble. What to do?

The host, Dave Ramsey, wisely prodded them to realize that they didn't have to teach school at all. Presumably, a person with an education degree is intelligent enough to do a lot of other things, especially jobs that require a good bit of reading and writing, or involve delivering some kind of training. You don't have to do the exact thing you were trained for. Do something else if there's more need for it. I give the same advice to graduate students regularly.

Indeed, I think one thing keeping the unemployment rate high is that too many people have not yet ceased to be auto workers or construction workers — but we are never going to need as many of those as we used to.

This also raises another concern: I'm in favor of Christian education, but let's not let it become a racket. It's one thing to want a good grounding in the faith. It's another thing entirely to be scared of secular schools because you think you or your children will be "exposed to" something evil there. Some parents overspend on Christian private schools that they can't afford; college students take out unwise loans to go to Christian colleges; and bad things happen, all because of fear. Worst of all — as apparently happened to this couple — schools labeled "Christian" sometimes get away with delivering inferior results.

What Dave Ramsey doesn't know about higher education

While I'm tackling the Dave Ramsey show, let me supply some information about higher education that Mr. Ramsey doesn't seem to have come across. That is forgivable, of course, because I'm a postgraduate-level educator and he's a businessman.

(1) Specialized graduate study is funded through assistantships. Mr. Ramsey quite properly advises people not to borrow money to get doctorates in things like music history. That is wise advice. But what seems to have escaped him is that (at least in my part of the world) that kind of study is supported by assistantships anyway. An assistantship is a 1/3-time job that covers your fees and living expenses.

I would advise all prospective Ph.D. students that if you can't get an assistantship or fellowship, you can't get the degree. Only the rich spend their own money on degrees to prepare them for college teaching or other low-income fields.

This means, typically, applying to several graduate schools to see where you get the best offer. It may also affect your choice of department: if the same research topic can be studied as English or Comparative Literature, you might see which department has more assistantships. (Typically English because they have to teach the freshman composition courses — but ask.)

But above all, don't borrow money for a degree that only qualifies you to be a college teacher, because although you're preparing for a fascinating career, it will not be a high-paying one.

And this brings up another point...

(2) Don't go to a college you can barely get into. You don't want to be the weakest student there.

If you're a graduate student, you don't want to be the one who doesn't get an assistantship, of course.

And, more importantly, you don't want to risk flunking out. Although I'm not dead-set against student loans, note that a student loan plus an unfinished degree can be a disaster — all the expense and none of the remuneration.

I'm on the admissions committee for a graduate degree program right now. What applicants don't realize is that we're not vetting them for an exclusive club, we're genuinely trying to figure out whether they'll pass their courses. If the committee isn't sure whether to admit you, it's because they're not sure you can complete the degree. Don't beg them to give you a chance if they're hesitant. And above all, don't try to trick them — if you convince them you're better than you really are, you may be heading into disaster.

(3) As Mr. Ramsey points out, where you go to school normally matters only at the Ph.D. level, and even then, it's not as critical as you think.

Over the years, I've had a good look at great universities, middling ones, and weak ones. It looks to me as if the best students are about the same everywhere. What is different is what the weak students are like. The weakest students at Yale are not very different from the best ones. The weakest students at Podunk State (that's a made-up name) are weak indeed. But if a Yale-type student goes to Podunk State, he can almost certainly squeeze a nearly-Yale-level education out of them.

What I really worry about are the people who borrow money to go to what I call boutique colleges, the private colleges that are not Yale or Harvard or Duke or Emory, but cost as much as if they were. If you can afford them, they can give you a great experience. But if you can't, please don't go into debt. It's not worth it.

(4) Everybody needs to apply for financial aid.

I heard Mr. Ramsey say to someone, "You can't get financial aid, you're too well off. Apply for merit scholarships instead."

That was good advice in 1970, but today, all scholarships are called "financial aid." If you happen to qualify for a long-forgotten scholarship for red-haired descendants of Jason Q. Quaggleshire IV, the financial aid office is who is responsible for handling it.

There's another reason to apply for financial aid. Some private colleges give financial aid to nearly everybody. That is, nobody poorer than Bill Gates pays list price. If you don't ask, you'll think you can't afford it. Fill out a FAFSA (financial statement) and send in the application!

One last note. As part of the FAFSA process, you will be awarded federal loans and possibly other loans, but you don't have to accept them. Simply leave them unchecked when you accept the various parts of your financial aid at the beginning of every semester. Don't try to avoid being considered for them.

When is it wrong to borrow money?

While I'm writing about economic topics, here's another one. A hot issue in financial counseling, especially Christian financial counseling, is whether and when a person can rightly borrow money. Obviously, a lot of borrowing is foolish. But beyond realizing that, advisers disagree and often become muddled.

I want to propose a simple, clear approach to the question. I do not think borrowing money is inherently wrong (although some people quote half of a Bible verse, or occasionally half of a different Bible verse, to say that it is). I think all borrowing needs to pass two tests:

  • The moral test: Are you practically certain you can pay the loan back?
  • The economic test: Are the added costs of borrowing justified by the benefits of having the money now rather than later?

Of course, the hard part is working out what these tests imply.

It is wrong to borrow if you don't have a practical certainty of being able to pay the debt. But what is "practical certainty"? Absolute certainty never exists in this world.

But a vague hope that you will have more money in the future is certainly not enough. Nor is the expectation — reasonable during the inflation of the 1970s but not today — that your paycheck will consist of more dollars in the future, even if those dollars are less valuable.

Here morality encounters all the complexity of financial management. Risks can be quantified. I like to think in terms of the worst reasonably likely scenario. That is, what is the worst scenario that does not involve rare, freakish, or unforeseeable developments? (And, for that matter, can you eliminate the rare and freakish risks by buying insurance? That's what it's for.)

From this perspective, we see that, for instance, borrowing to invest in the stock market is imprudent. It is certainly not rare or freakish for the market to go down.

Then there's the economic test. The way I see it, there are two costs associated with every loan. One is the interest that you pay. The other is the loss of flexibility (and that, I think, is the real point of Proverbs 22:7b). If you have bills to pay, you are not at liberty to divert money to something else, or divert energy to something less lucrative than your present job. That's why I don't approve of the American dream of buying everything with "easy monthly payments."

Again, a good manager will try to quantify both of these costs and will consider all reasonably likely scenarios.

I don't have time or space to go into more detail, but I hope I've provided a useful framework. I think this at least gives us a way to pull together and compare the seemingly disparate advice that a number of different people are giving.


Wild week

I haven't vanished from the earth. There were no Notebook entries for several days because of three things:

  • The general second-month-of-the-semester frenzy, combined with the economic upturn. Lots of opportunities are popping up — some very much worth pursuing.
  • IBM's "Watson," the computer that played Jeopardy. Although I had nothing to do with Watson, I work in the same field, and the press has been after me — local and national — for interviews.
  • The University has been having substantial Internet-connection failures every day since last Friday. The cause is said to be heavy usage, but I think there must be an equipment failure somewhere, even if it hasn't been recognized. The University of Georgia now keeps its e-mail on a server in Texas, so if we lose our connection, we can't see our mail. ("Dear students: Your homework is being sequestered in Texas by a hostile computer...!") What's worse, local-area networks often are disrupted by lack of DHCP or DNS service.

But I actually took some astrophotos last night (the 17th)! Pictures soon.


A medieval diagram of an eclipse

Several times I've said that William of Conches drew diagrams of eclipses around 1150 A.D. The other day I looked for confirmation and couldn't find it. Had I been mistaken all these years?

No. I finally tracked it down. Quite a few eclipse diagrams by William of Conches are in the Patrologia Latina, volume 172, in a work called De philosophia mundi which is mistakenly attributed to Honorius Augustodunensis. I saw them in graduate school, and on Friday I saw them again, this time using a digital copy of the Patrologia. Here's one of the diagrams:

The diagram that you see was engraved in the 1800s when the Patrologia was printed, of course. The original was hand-drawn and hand-copied and probably looked considerably scruffier. But the diagrams are referred to in the text, so they must have been created by William himself. Notice that this one has the sun orbiting the earth rather than the other way around. That was the Ptolemaic system.


Yes, Christians are allowed to believe in evolution

Today we had a public lecture by Joel Martin, author of The Prism and the Rainbow. The title of the book reflects his starting point: We don't deny the spiritual significance of Noah's rainbow when we find out about the physical process of refraction of light. Nor should we deny the spiritual significance of creation when we find out about the process of evolution.

Points on which I profoundly agree with him:

(1) Science is nothing to be afraid of. God is not a deceiver. Scientific investigation is not going to reveal anything God doesn't want us to know.

(In fact, the most disconcerting thing about young-earthism is its deep conviction that God has played a dirty trick on us, which we have to be wary of.)

(2) People are leaving the church because they think it is asking them to ignore scientific facts. This is a serious obstacle to our Christian witness.

He also cited evidence that many Christian denominations have explicitly said they think evolution is compatible with the faith, and churchgoers don't realize this.

I diverge from him somewhat on his view of Scripture. I have a considerably higher view of Scripture than he does — I don't think you have to shove things off as "stories" or "symbolic" in order to break the deadlock.

The key is to ask, "What do you mean by 'literal' when you say the Bible is 'literally true'?" Surely the highest view of Scripture that a person could rationally take is that the Bible's teachings are true in the sense in which they were originally meant.

But it is common in American fundamentalism to try to interpret the Bible super-literally, as if it communicates miraculously. The idea is, for instance, "Genesis 1 says 'day' so it must mean exactly what pops into my head when I hear the word 'day'." More generally, "the teaching of Scripture is what pops into my head when I read it," as if it were doing a Vulcan mind meld with me, and I need not inquire what the original writer meant or how the original audience took it. Or, "the teaching of Genesis 1 is exactly what I thought of when Grandma first read it to me, and it would be irreverent to revise my thoughts."

In short, me, me, me. That's the problem with super-literalism. It's self-centered.

I do not think Genesis 1 is "symbolic" or "allegorical" in the sense in which some people mean that. But I do think its purpose is to teach certain things and not others. Nowhere in the Bible do I find any clear assertion that the earth is young. I find passages that can be taken and forced to say that if you insist. But many historic Christians such as St. Augustine didn't see it that way. Young-earthism (as a dogma rather than an opinion) is a product of the 19th-century American frontier.

I also think the context of Scripture includes our knowledge of the natural world. When we read about Jesus walking on water, we apply our knowledge that water is a liquid and people can't normally walk on it. That is knowledge of the natural world, and you couldn't understand the Bible without it. Similarly, when we read about the Creation, and when we ponder how to understand it, we know of evidence that the earth and life are ancient.

Some of you will be saying, "wait, part of that is ordinary knowledge and part of that is scientific knowledge — they're not the same." Yes, they are the same. There is no wall between "ordinary knowledge" and "science." It is not as if "science" is a newfangled "subject" with a self-contained body of knowledge that doesn't contact anything outside it (the way, for instance, that the rules of golf don't influence anything outside of golf). The notion that knowledge is divided up into "subjects" is an artifact of the way schools are run. It is not a fact about the universe.


Addendum about SSNs

Further to the previous entry (below), I should add that there is a good reason not to use social security numbers as student IDs and the like: it makes it too easy to track individuals. I don't necessarily want all my records, everywhere, to be linked together with a single key number. Yale was sensitive to this: sometimes a famous person (e.g., my contemporary, Jodie Foster) goes to school there and doesn't want to be hounded by paparazzi.

But I shouldn't have to keep my SSN as secret as if it were a password.


When did "SSN" start to mean "password"?

When and why did it become necessary for people to keep their social security numbers secret? I can remember a different era, when we used them for college IDs and driver's license numbers and even sometimes had them printed on our checks, so the merchant could check that the person writing the check actually had an ID card with that number on it.

The other day the University required me to shred the class roll from the first course I ever taught here, which was the only old-style class roll I had kept. It had social security numbers on it.

I think we've been bamboolzed. The SSN was never meant to be a secret password. The trouble is with our financial industry. If banks have become so gullible that they will let anyone impersonate me who happens to know my name, address, and SSN, that's their problem.

Let's change that, somehow.

Judge Vinson's famous decision

Here is why the Obama health care plan was overturned in a Florida court. It's not that the judge objected to the idea. (In fact, in my opinion, requiring everyone to have health insurance is a Good Idea.) Rather, the judge ruled that:

  • The Constitution says Congress can only regulate interstate commerce. Buying health insurance from a company that is normally in your own state is not interstate commerce. Not buying insurance is not commerce of any sort.
  • This provision of Obamacare is not severable. What that means is that Obamacare can't work without it; removing this provision would create a radically different system that neither side wants; so the whole thing has to be overturned.

We'll see how this plays out in the appeals process.


A short note

It's time to reform the federal income tax code again.

Also, given the difficulty of switching the federal tax system from income tax to sales tax, let's go for the low-hanging fruit and do it at the state level.


What was January 2011?

A month of awful weather, that's what. And hard work too; I had a major research project to complete (through the University of Georgia, not privately). I got through the whole month without taking a single astrophoto. But the next-to-last day of the month was sunny and 70 degrees.

Outsmarted by hidden accounts in Quicken

February is Income Tax Month here, and this year, I'm doing more of the work than usual, so I'll be more familiar with the process; traditionally Melody has done all of it. By "it" I mean the bookkeeping; we then hand the data over to our CPA to actually prepare the tax return.

And that's what led me to clean out boxes and boxes of old papers.

And that left me wondering how much of our bookkeeping data we still have in electronic form. At the end of 2009 I closed out our Quicken files and started new ones. At that point they ran from about 2004 to 2009, as far as I could tell. But I know we were using Quicken in 2001. So what happened?

There ensued a frantic search for backups, old hard disks, Zip disks, and so forth. I noted with sadness that we have some tapes that can never be read. And although I found some data from 2001 and early 2002, I never could cover the whole of 2002 and 2003.


Until I remembered hidden accounts. Our file ending in 2009 actually went right back to the beginning (January 1, 2000, which is when we started using Quicken). But the accounts no longer in use were hidden. (Quite properly; dead accounts don't need to take up space on the menu.) Nothing actually in use with its current account number was older than about 2004. Even accounts that have lasted a long time, such as credit cards, generally change their account number in some minor way every few years, becoming, from Quicken's point of view, a new account.

I un-hid them, and that was that!

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