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Damage to LX200 telescope from using wrong cables
Obnoxious Schlotzsky's ad campaign. Sexual harassment?
Books that made me what I am

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Visual Studio 2010 includes InstallShield

A brief news dispatch, and I'm too busy to put in hyperlinks, so you can Google these things yourself:

Visual Studio has always included a setup project generator, to build .MSI files for Microsoft Installer. The compelling reason to build a setup project is so that people can install and uninstall your software product.

That built-in generator only knows how to install software that you compiled with Visual Studio. It's not general-purpose.

In VS 2010 they're moving away from that. It's still supported, but users are encouraged to use, instead, a slightly cut-down version of InstallShield. This is a much more versatile setup project generator. Basically, if you want to put files on someone's computer, and/or put information into the registry, and/or set environment variables (including the path), you should use InstallShield. Setup projects can do these things and make uninstallation easy.

Visual Studio costs less than InstallShield, so this is a bargain.

There's an even cheaper, and more versatile, option. Microsoft's free tool WiX (Windows Installer XML, if I remember the name right) generates setup projects from instructions that you write in XML. What's more, it can de-compile an existing .MSI file into XML, so that you can make alterations and then re-compile it. WiX does not yet have a user interface as friendly as InstallShield, but in five years I suspect we'll all be using it.

Speaking engagement: Veritas Forum

On April 7, at 6 p.m., I'll be speaking at the University of Georgia Veritas Forum, a panel discussion on the question, "Does religion make a difference to academic life?"

I'll be speaking on behalf of Christianity, of course. We'll also have faculty members speaking for Judaism, Islam, and atheism.

Come one, come all!

This is an unusually busy month and I'll close out March now. See you in April!


About 25 books that made me what I am

A while back, my friend Don Williams (who is also my favorite 21st-century poet) challenged his Facebook friends to each name 10 books other than the Bible that shaped their lives.

I couldn't get it down to 10. After posting a somewhat scruffy list of 18 books, I took down the Facebook posting and promised a blog entry with more explanation. Here it is.

Note first that:

  • I'm not ignoring the Bible. The question said not to include it.
  • Not all of these are great books. Some of them are technical books that just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Some of them are not even, in my present opinion, first-rate expositions of their own subjects.
  • Some really great books are omitted because they didn't happen to open up, for me, new realms of thought and experience. In fact, there isn't much fiction or poetry here, even though I've enjoyed lots of them. (I will sneak in one poem; poems are not read a whole book at a time.)

Alongside each book I'll indicate how old I was when I read it. And this time, the books are divided up by subjects. You may be surprised or even daunted by the breadth of my interests.

Religion and theology

(age 9) Kay Friedrichsen, God's Word Made Plain. First systematic presentation of Christian doctrine that I ever read; completely different from the ennui of Sunday School and "Bible stories." It uses a dispensationalist framework and I no longer agree with quite everything in it, but then, the author didn't seem to expect me to; she encourages readers to study the Bible for themselves.

(age 14) C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. Introduced me to the Christian mind as a way of thinking, not just a set of beliefs.

(age 15) C. S. Lewis, Miracles. Tackles a major problem of philosophical theology.

(age 16) Francis Schaeffer, The God Who Is There. The Christian mind responds to popular culture and modern philosophy. Not a complete response (in fact, Schaeffer came along too early to be able to call postmodernism by name) but it stakes out some very important territory that has interested me ever since.


(age 15) A. J. Ayer, Language, Truth, and Logic. Seldom have I ever disagreed with a book so thoroughly, but this was the start of my thinking about some very important issues. His premise is that statements that cannot be "verified by sense-perception" are meaningless. The core insight is very valuable, but the details are wrong — it seems to me that after disposing of metaphysics, ethics, theology, etc., his criterion is so strong that it even disposes of itself.

(age 25-30) Sir Karl Popper, The Logic of Scientific Discovery. A much greater mind at work on the same issues.

(age 25-present) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles. From the latter I take my motto, veritati non contrariatur veritas (truth does not conflict with truth). I haven't read these entire; I just keep dipping in.

Mathematical and physical sciences, computers, and technology

Addendum: (age 2-3) Electricity (How and Why Wonder Books). This is the book my father read with me — repeatedly — while my mother was in the hospital giving birth to my sister. The book includes a lot of experiments, which we read and understood, although we didn't do them. It unlocked for me the importance of understanding how things work.

(age 9) Marcus, Practical Radio Servicing. What I got from this book was not just the details of how electronic components work, but much more importantly, an understanding of how they all work together to make a working five-tube radio receiver. The book describes just one thing and describes it so thoroughly that you can't fail to understand it.

Addendum: Several Alfred Morgan electronics books almost make the cut here, too.

(age 10) Baker, Astronomy. This college textbook had many editions. My sixth-grade teacher lent me one, and I checked out another at the public library. It set out the whole of astronomical science in orderly fashion. It is, of course, quite out of date now.

(age 11) Sam Brown, All About Telescopes. This introduced me to optics as much as to astronomy.

(age 12) Willy Ley, Watchers of the Skies. This book awakened my interest in history of ideas and, curiously, in ancient languages.

(age 13) Granville, Calculus. From this I learned what a limit, a derivative, and an integral are — fundamental concepts if you want to measure anything numerically.

(age 15) Kemeny and Kurtz, BASIC Programming. I read this book in an evening (between Valwood basketball games!) and it made me a computer programmer.

(age 15) McCracken, Fortran IV Programming. This and the previous book mark me as part of a particular generation.

(age 26) Wirth, Algorithms + Data Structures = Programs. This book gave me a mature approach to computer programming, thinking about the mathematical beauty of the program rather than the quirks of the machine. I had the great pleasure of meeting the author a couple of years ago.

(age 26) Horowitz and Hill, The Art of Electronics. This picked up where Marcus left off (although of course I had learned plenty of electronics in the meantime). It is a truly great book.

(age 27) Sedgewick, Algorithms (first edition), a classic.

The arts

(age 9) Aaron Sussman, The Amateur Photographer's Handbook. Not only lots of technology, but also a distinctive concept of picture style — what others call pictorialism — came to me from this book.

(age 40) Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art. This book put together a lot of things I had been thinking about for a long time, and I was particularly gratified that the chapter on modern art said, in essence, "I said this wouldn't last, and sure enough, it didn't!"

Fiction and poetry

(age 13) A. Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes (complete). What can I say? Every intelligent person should read this.

(age 18) Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Pied Beauty." This is my favorite poem; it's about a totally unexpected subject; I list it because it showed me that a poem can do something I hadn't anticipated at all.

Languages and linguistics

This is my profession, and I can't reduce it to just a few books; I've read too many! Bloomfield's Language and Anttila's Historical and Comparative Linguistics are of course paramount. Books that introduced me to particular languages, or ways of studying them, include the far-from-elementary Spanish for Beginners published by Barnes and Noble; Wheelock's Latin (the original red Barnes and Noble edition, long before my friend Rick LaFleur revised it); and H. P. V. Nunn on New Testament Greek.


Schlotzsky's wants to call you "Shapely Buns"

After 20 years of enjoying their sandwiches, I've had to stop eating at the local Schlotzsky's restaurant.

The sandwiches are as good as ever. The trouble is that the rest rooms have been re-labeled. Instead of "Men" and "Women" they say "Manly Buns" and "Shapely Buns" respectively.

Why do they imagine that this is not offensive? Is there anybody working for Schlotzsky's who actually would let a stranger call them either of those things in a public place? Anyone who tried it on my daughters would probably find himself flat on the ground, nursing a broken nose.

"Shapely Buns" and "Manly Buns" are part of an ad campaign that compares sandwich bread to a certain part of the human body. That gets yuckier the longer you think about it.

I registered my objections locally and through Schlotzsky's online comment form. From the latter I got a $10 gift certificate (which I returned) and a letter saying that the offensive terms were meant "tongue and cheek" [sic — do they mean "tongue-in-cheek"?] and that they never "meant" to offend anyone.

I returned the gift certificate and explained to them that communication is not what you imagine you meant, it's what the other person actually receives. I'm sure they've driven away other customers. I just may be the only one who wrote in to say why.

But it's not just that my family and I feel offended. Making unwanted, demeaning comments about people's bodily attractiveness constitutes sexual harassment, which is illegal in American workplaces.

I'm not going to sue them, of course. But what if someone does? If they have a sexual harassment incident — if some employee makes a pest of himself toward some other employee or a customer — then the rest room signs are evidence of a corporate culture encouraging sexual harassment. All of a sudden, it's the company's problem, not just the pest's.

That, and I have a letter from them proving that they knew that their rest room names were potentially offensive and that they did not respond to a warning. If they had sent that letter to anyone who was actually thinking of suing them, they would have cooked their own goose.


Do sports make us bad negotiators?

I'm starting to read Getting More, by Stuart Diamond, a book based on the author's course in negotiation at the Wharton School. Since I now spend at much as 20% of my work time negotiating, I figured it would be an appropriate thing to read.

One of the author's main goals is to de-program people who have been taught excessively simple tactics for negotiating. He emphasizes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Negotiation is learned by experience and requires lots of attention to the situation, along with actively modeling what's going on in the other person's mind.

The book is not concise, and that may be because the author believes the subject can only be learned from lots of examples.

In the early pages, Mr. Diamond knocks down one athletic metaphor after another. The goal of negotiation is not to "win" by overpowering someone. Even "win-win" is misleading because it suggests you're playing a game that can be rigged to have two winners. The actual purpose of negotiation is usually to get closer to your goals, not to "win" a predefined game.

A recurrent theme — and I'm putting it into words my way, not his — is that the two parties to a negotiation are not arm-wrestling over a single idea. They have, quite often, radically different goals or radically different understandings of what is going on. If they didn't, there wouldn't be a problem. A good negotiator will try his best to find out what's going on in the minds of both parties.

And this reminds me of something Jeff Duntemann said a while back: He doesn't like sports because he doesn't like making people lose. More generally, sports are a very bad metaphor for productive activity because there is no mutual benefit.

By pushing children to become sports enthusiasts, does society push upon them a shallow view of life?


How I almost killed my Meade LX200 telescope

I have a Meade LX200 telescope (the "classic" LX200, not LX200 GPS or ACF) which has served me well for almost eleven years. This evening I replaced the cables to the hand box and declination motor, as I do every few years.

And then I turned the telescope on. It was electrically dead.

To make a long story short: I had mistakenly ordered "straight-through" cables, with the conductors in the same order at each end. I should have followed the advice in my own book and ordered "rollover" cables, with the conductors in the opposite orders at opposite ends.

The casualties were the 1.5-amp slow-blow fuse in the telescope base and the 7805 voltage regulator in the handbox. Bear in mind that my telescope already has a modified power inlet circuit, but I don't think this made any difference.

I also don't know if the life of any other components was shortened. The damage resulted when power was applied with reverse polarity to both the hand box and the declination motor circuit.


Inflation, foe or friend?
The graph you never see

The Consumer Price Index is up a bit this month, and some people are starting to panic. Yesterday I heard a rabble-rouser ranting on the radio. According to him, Obama's excessive spending has ruined the economy, and soon we won't be able to afford to eat. (Why just Obama? I thought there was plenty of government spending under Bush, too. But I digress.) Anyhow, he had no solutions to offer, just discontent, the stock-in-trade of rabble-rousers.

I have two responses. First, it's not clear we really have much inflation, and, second, if we did, we might benefit from it.

Here's a graph of the CPI itself — not its rate of change — since the beginning of 2008:

This is the graph you never see. Usually, people show you either the monthly inflation rate (the rate of change of the CPI-U) or some kind of year-over-year change. Unless you're good at computing integrals in your head, those graphs don't tell you what you want to know.

And here's what you want to know: Inflation has been unusually low a lot of the time since 2008.

The graph shows a line for a targeted rate of 2%. That's actually rather low — there are good reasons to believe 2.5% to 3% would be better.

Why not aim for zero? Several reasons: We want to be sure it never goes negative; there is ground to believe that the CPI reads high, so a 2% inflation rate is not really an increase in the cost of living; and (a more subtle argument) the labor market is more efficient if people expect their wages to be adjusted for inflation periodically rather than kept perfectly constant. It creates some "churn" in the wage market. Click here for more about that.

And what if we do get some inflation? The news media seem to think inflation happens at the gas station and the grocery store, and nowhere else. You won't be able to afford gas — you won't be able to afford food — you'll be miserable!

But what about the rest of the picture? Admittedly, rising food and fuel prices cause hardship. But inflation also happens in the paycheck — somewhat unreliably and after a delay, but it does happen. In the 1970s, lots of workers thought they were really advancing in their careers when they were merely experiencing paycheck inflation. Their children, twenty years later, were puzzled when the same thing failed to happen. That set the stage for the recent real-estate crisis: you can't "grow into" an excessively large house payment the way your parents did.

And, more importantly, inflation doesn't happen to the house payment or the student-loan payment. That is how my parents moved from house to house, a bigger one every time. The resale value of the house went up and the loan balance didn't. In fact, the payments got easier to make, year by year, as paychecks went up and loan payments didn't.

Expected inflation is built into interest rates, of course, but unexpected inflation helps get people out of debt. And that is precisely what the student-loan generation should want.

A side note: Right now we're having a petroleum price shock, much as we did in 2008. We'll get over it. But in the long run, the United States cannot force other countries to sell us their gasoline at prices we like, when they can equally well sell it to somebody else or keep it for their own use. For a few decades we were almost the only nation with a lot of cars. Not any more.

Another side note: Housing prices are depressed right now. When the real-estate market revives, the housing portion of the CPI will go up, and people will complain that housing is becoming more expensive. I do not think that will be bad news.


Clutter, again

Following up some correspondence and discussion about yesterday's entry...

I'm not against de-cluttering. Lots of people have houses full of bulky objects of little use or historical or sentimental interest, and those objects should be passed along to people who can use them better.

And, thanks to technology, lots of us have gadgets that are obsolete (unusable, not just out of date). If the purpose of a machine is purely to do a job, and a new way of doing the job comes along which is cheaper and better in all respects, then the machine becomes worthless and should be gotten rid of.

What I'm against is the notion that you must get rid of all the possessions from prior stages of your life if you're not using them actively right now.

I think it indicates an unhealthy, disconnected kind of life. Continuity with your own past is part of the quality of character called groundedness, an aspect of personal integrity.

Not everything I've ever done has turned out well. But I do not feel compelled to try to wipe it out — still less, to wipe out all of the past — in the name of "de-cluttering." That would be tantamount to saying that large parts of my life or my mind are clutter.

It may even have something to do with my Christian beliefs. I believe in a Redeemer who reclaims what is valuable out of everything He has created. I don't believe in "karma" that accumulates and burdens you forever.


Here come the fanatical de-clutterers

I think I've spotted a media trend: magazine articles about "de-cluttering" that exhort the reader to be ruthless about throwing away "unneeded" possessions.

There is such a thing as pathological hoarding. (The TV show Hoarders spotlights it.) But not all keepsakes are pathological, or even wasteful. I disagree with people who try to make us feel guilty for keeping books, pictures, and other memorabilia.

Some guesses about what may be behind the trend:

First, today's young adults are the first generation that normally don't live in bigger houses than their parents. Many of them are very mobile and need to minimize possessions.

Second, during the "credit card era" (c. 1995-2008), lots of people really did buy great piles of useless junk.

And third, and on a more sinister note, I think — indeed I know — that quite a few people want to eliminate part of their own past (for many different reasons), and they project this onto their possessions. That is simply not the way I operate.

Besides, one person's memorabilia can easily become the next generation's historical record. When I was at Cambridge the University Library solicited donations of "ephemera" (posters, concert tickets, etc.) so they could preserve samples of Cambridge life in the 1970s. And one of the most exciting surprises of my scholarly career was to open up a 700-year-old manuscript (in the Bodleian) and see that Roger Bacon had doodled in it.


iPod, you pod, we all pod...

The University has issued me an iPod Touch 32GB in the hope that I'll get interested in iPod app development. My deep suspicion is that to ignore pocket computers today would be as bad as ignoring PCs in 1983 or so. They are becoming the usual way to do computing tasks that don't require a keyboard or big screen.

The iPod Touch is as powerful as many desktop computers. It has a touchscreen interface which turns into a tiny, but surprisingly usable, keyboard when needed.

For those having trouble keeping their pads and pods straight:

The iPod started as a music player but has evolved into a general-purpose pocket computer with two cameras and Wi-Fi Internet access. (You have to be near a Wi-Fi network and have permission to use it, of course. On campus, where we have a campus-wide network, this is perfect.)

The iPad is, as I understand it, basically the same thing with a much bigger screen.

And the iPhone is like an iPod Touch with cellular telephony and GPS added. This includes the ability to get to the Internet through the cell phone network from anywhere.

All of these run the iOS operating system and application software ("apps"). There is a good built-in calculator, a good e-mail client, and a good web browser whose only flaw is that it doesn't do Adobe Flash.

Despite being Apple products, the iPod, iPad, and iPhone are not particularly related to the Macintosh.

Minor annoyance number 1: This thing wants a credit card number in order to initialize! You thought having to type in your Windows serial number and register it with Microsoft was bothersome... You can use the iPod without a credit card number, but you can't download any apps, even free ones. Instead of a credit card, you can use an iTunes gift card, and I did, so that my credit card would not be associated with a gadget I don't own.

Minor annoyance number 2: The time-of-day clock can only be set to the nearest minute. It's supposed to be set automatically by the computer to which you "sync," but that process is imperfect. It cannot be set by NTP (Internet network time protocol), nor by any third-party app. So although I have an app that gets the exact time by NTP and displays it, that app can't set the clock in the iPod!

That, I think, is a case of deleted functionality. The iPhone gets the exact time of day through the cell phone network. The iPod is doomed to be inferior for marketing reasons.

Minor annoyance number 3: If you connect it to a PC that doesn't have iTunes installed, the iPod only shows its DCIM (camera image) folder. If it can do that, it should also show all its other data so you can put music onto it, as with other MP3 players.


Automotive mystery solved

Why does my front-wheel-drive 1995 Oldsmobile have a hump in the middle of the floor, right where the drive train would be if it were rear-wheel-drive? And why is the same true of so many other front-wheel-drive cars?

Three reasons that I can find out.

(1) For structural body strength.

(2) For the exhaust system, which is bulkier than it used to be.

(3) Because it's traditional; some people would distrust the car if it didn't have the hump.

For Oldsmobile, (3) might have been the operative one.

Pete Albrecht supplies a fourth reason: Quite a few FWD car bodies, including this one, were also made with a 4-wheel-drive option, so they need the hump.


A chicken-and-egg problem
Time of day is incorrect throughout a domain
whose controller is a Hyper-V virtual machine

Yesterday afternoon I noticed that the time on my office computer was about two minutes fast compared to my watch and cell phone. All the computers in our Windows domain agreed with each other and were two minutes ahead of their time.

Windows domain controllers are supposed to get the time of day from an Internet time server, then distribute it to the computers in the domain. So what was going on?

Well, we already knew we had a chicken-and-egg problem: The domain controller is a virtual machine, but its host is a member of the domain. So each of the two is supposed to boot before the other.

For the most part, they reconciled the conflict just fine, but one quirk of Hyper-V had eluded us. Hyper-V virtual machines, by default, are forced to get the time from the host, not from the Internet. That means the host and the domain controller were getting the time from each other. They agreed perfectly, of course, and drifted together.

I changed a setting for the virtual machine — didn't have to reboot it — and told the domain controller where to get the time from, then did a w32tm /resync, and the problem began to diminish. Apparently it won't make large changes all at once, but I'm watching it and will do a set of reboots if necessary to get everything straightened out.

I may not be quite finished with this. Useful links are here and here.

More about the decline but not disappearance of checks

In the aftermath of 9/11, American banks were unable to ship paper checks around the country by air, and this led to legislation allowing them to transmit electronic images of checks instead. (This had to be done by legislation, not agreement, because each bank needed assurance that all other banks would participate, not just most of them.) In a few situations, an image is printed out on paper again, when it runs into a local processing system that still requires paper, and, by law, the printed substitute is as good as the original.

The usage of paper checks is declining but is not expected to diminish to zero any time soon (click through and read the article).

The reason? Instead of checks being replaced by electronic transfers, checks have become electronic transfers.


Idle threat of the day

Are banks really going to stop letting people use debit cards for big purchases?

No. They just want some regulations changed.


Two ripples about to run through the banking industry

Now that all checks in the United States are cleared through the same Federal Reserve Bank, regulators are starting to realize what this implies: All checks are local now. This is related to the fact that almost all checks are transmitted as electronic images rather than being trucked to a clearinghouse. Expect banks to be required, soon, to clear all checks much faster than they have been doing.

Meanwhile, Britain will eliminate paper checks entirely by 2018.

Checks originated about 300 years ago but were not common until around World War I. I used to write one or two every day. Now it's about six per month and diminishing.


Farewell to a familiar face

We're about to get new telephones at the University. Let's see... I was here the last time we did that... was it 25 years ago? Yes, 25 years ago.

Around 1985 or 1986 we gave up our Western Electric key sets (with which the entire Advanced Computational Methods Center shared about three incoming lines) and got telephones with individual numbers in our offices. Before then, you couldn't dial me directly. All incoming calls were answered by a receptionist, who buzzed me or whomever you asked for, and I had to press the appropriate button to use the telephone line. If all three lines were in use, tough luck. (Unlike the phone in the picture I linked to, ours had no speakers, and were beige.)

Recall that until 1983 or so, it was normal to lease your telephones from the telephone company; in fact, until the late 1970s, customer-owned equipment wasn't permitted.

So when the University of Georgia made the transition to owning its own phones, someone made a very wise choice. The Panasonic Easa-Phone gave consistently good audio quality, even using the speaker. Many of its competitors didn't. The mid-1980s were a time of cheap, badly made telephones.

Now they're replacing most of the Panasonic analog telephones with something digital that I don't know much about yet. Has it really been 25 years? I probably need to change the batteries in the autodialer.


Recommended: Zeiss GT2 3D progressive eyeglass lenses

My new glasses have Zeiss GT2 3D lenses (in 1.66 high-index plastic), and they're the best progressive bifocals I've ever had. Like Shamir Optical, the company whose lenses I wrote about a while back, Zeiss puts the complex curve on the inside rather than the outside surface. But they do a better job of it. The clear-vision region is appreciably wider than with other progressives I've worn.

The Shamir lenses did not hold up well — some kind of deterioration of the coating — so I'm back with Zeiss, a company whose products I used regularly before I used bifocals.

Zeiss lenses can be special-ordered through most opticians.


Sparse Notebook

The alert reader will note that the Daily Notebook isn't daily right now. I'm writing an entry about once every five days. We're having an unduly busy semester — productive and worthwhile, but not conducive to blogging!

Heard in a lecture today

"This number is a lot bigger than you think, even after I tell you it's a lot bigger than you think."

The speaker was referring to the 100th Bell number. I don't know exactly how big it is — probably on the order of 10120, or about a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion (if I counted trillions right). It is the number of different ways of classifying 100 items.

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