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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
World of Warcraft: black screen, audio OK
Converting PDF to text
Did a mathematical crisis give us computers?
The ultimate Facebook safety tip
Moon (color-enhanced)
M27 (Dumbbell Nebula)
M17 (Swan Nebula)
M71 (globular cluster in Sagitta)
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Interesting bit of brain science for the day

The most interesting bit of brain science I've seen lately is that when depression runs in a family, it may be due to a genetic error of folate (vitamin B9) metabolism. Review article (in PubMed) here; tutorial article (for doctors) here.

The background is that for years we've been hearing scattered reports of mental illnesses or mental performance being helped by B-complex supplementation, but the effects have been hard to pin down. Now the key to the puzzle seems to be that some people, for genetic reasons, do not make vitamin B9 into the compound their body needs. Instead they need to take a metabolite, L-methylfolate, which is what the normal human body turns vitamin B9 into.

Reportedly, a person with a milder form of this chemical impairment can simply take more B vitamins, but in a person with a more severe problem, vitamin supplementation could even make the situation worse because various metabolites, some of them needed and some not, all compete at the blood-brain barrier.

I do not have the medical training to evaluate this research. (It's a long way from psycholinguistics.) But it strikes me as a perfect of example of the kind of thing medical research ought to be turning out, whether or not this particular item is exactly on target. Far too much of psychiatry is prescientific — classifying symptoms and treating them with empirical remedies, using chemistry to understand why some remedies are similar to others, but not understanding or correcting what is actually wrong with the brain.

Short notes

No matter how boring I make this blog, people keep reading it (I think). If not, maybe my work here is done!

One last observation about the economy. Something that has come onto the radar of personal-finance advisors is a new strain on the budget — the $500 family phone bill. No, you don't have to give each of your children a 4G data plan with Facebook and streaming music videos everywhere they go, every moment of every day. A cell phone is handy but doesn't need to cost much. As for the Internet, I check e-mail about four times every day, when I'm at computers with network connections; isn't that enough for almost anybody? At least unless there is a genuine business need for more frequent communication.


Inflation preparedness

Based on what I hear in the media, fear of inflation is starting to set in. (Please, let's not call it "hyperinflation" if it's a few percent a year!) Current Fed policy apparently is going to permit more than the usual 2.5% inflation in hopes of lowering unemployment. People are starting to worry about inflation eating up their wealth.

So it's time for me to point out the same basic things I've pointed out several times before. Bear in mind that most of the inflation in U.S. history has taken place in my lifetime, most of it with me watching.

(1) Savings accounts do not keep up with inflation. Neither does cash buried in a jar. Even in times of appreciably higher interest rates, savings accounts did not keep up with inflation. People thought they were "earning" 5% while inflation was taking 7%.

(2) The stock market and real estate generally keep up with inflation — in fact, they outpace it. Don't let the Bubble of 2008 put you off owning real estate. The bursting of the bubble is over. As for the stock market, nowadays it is easy to invest in exchange-traded funds such as MDY that are spread across a very wide range of stocks, but without the overhead of conventional mutual funds.

(3) For real security, the U.S. Treasury still offers inflation-protected bonds. Series I Savings Bonds are one type. The interest rate is tiny or zero, but the principal is indexed to the rate of inflation. Use those rather than burying your cash in the back yard. (These bonds are extremely popular worldwide, by the way. Almost everybody still considers the U.S. dollar to be the most reliable major currency.)

Note however that the interest on inflation-protected bonds is subject to income tax, so if the interest rate is only the rate of inflation, you're still losing money. You're just not losing as much, and guaranteed never to lose very much.

(4) If you have debts, lock in fixed, low interest rates. Variable interest rates are your enemy; fixed, low rates are your friend. As soon as inflation hits 3.7%, those of us with 3.6% mortgages will be paying negative real interest. That is, we will be paying the debt in the future with cheaper dollars. That's how our parents' generation did so well trading houses in the 1960s. Inflation will be equally popular with people who are burdened by student loan debt. Remember, inflation makes us get frequent (if vacuous) pay raises.

(5) I do not expect gold to be a good hedge against inflation in the foreseeable future. I think a gold bubble is about to burst. The price of gold has risen unreasonably, out of proportion to the economic factors that ought to be driving it. Now there are some indications that the biggest investors are unloading their gold. Rule of thumb: "When the TV commercials say to buy gold, it's time to sell."


Flurry of activity

The reader may think all my time recently has been spent encountering uncouth business practices. (Read all the updates lower down on this page for the latest on several things. In particular, note that the "immediate payment" requirement expressed by a lawn service is reportedly not real, and I'm puzzled.) On top of what you've read about, another astrophotographer and I have tracked down a major copyright infringer.

Actually, I've spent a lot of my time getting worthwhile work done — just not writing Notebook entries. Stand by... I'll be back soon!


How I got a web page on Slideshare.com that I didn't want

Today I got notified that two of my colleagues were "following" my "web page" on Slideshare.com. Since I was not aware of having a web page there, I was puzzled. When the colleagues told me they had not heard of any such thing, my puzzlement changed to alarm.

I looked, and sure enough, there was a web page with my name and picture on it, with some text copied very awkwardly from Facebook.

Much of the afternoon was spent finding out how this happened. The answer is that back on August 30, a music video containing one of my photographs was posted on Slideshare. I logged in through Facebook (Slideshare accepts Facebook logins) to post comments pointing out the copyright infringement, since I didn't know how quickly Slideshare would take the infringing material down.

Unknown to me, I was supposedly authorizing them to set up a web page for me and recruit my Facebook friends to "follow" it.

Numerous interesting legal questions aside, I am wondering why they think I would want that.

UPDATE: Despite their assertion that they took down the unwanted web site, it has reappeared. I have edited it to say that it was created against my wishes.

UPDATE (Sept. 24): Now the page has been replaced by one saying I violated their "terms of service." I never saw, or agreed to, any terms of service.

UPDATE (Sept. 24, later): The page is finally gone. The company has assured me that, in fact, whenever you "log in through Facebook" you are creating a web page on their site, whether or not they make this evident to you.


Disrecommended: Microsoft Outlook 2010 (2007, 2003...)

After a few days of trying to use Microsoft Outlook, I've had to give up on it and go back to Thunderbird.

Annoyance #1 is that, for no good reason, Microsoft has never made Outlook compatible with Roaming User Profiles. That is, they are not fully supporting their own operating system.

Beyond that, though, Outlook has random incorrect behavior of a kind that indicates sloppy programming — in particular, uninitialized pointers. Configurations randomly become erroneous when they were correct. Items disappear from the Favorites list and reappear later. Outlook gets into its head that it has lost its Internet connection when it hasn't. And so forth.

Admittedly, my four accounts on two servers are a stress-test for Outlook. But a well-designed program will either work correctly or admit it has bumped into a limit. Random erroneous behavior is not acceptable.


39 years...

Thirty-nine years ago, on September 18, 1973, I started classes as a freshman at the University of Georgia.

The previous night I had flown in from Rome, Italy, along with the other students who had represented the U.S. at the International Science School for High School Students in Australia. That is, we flew together from Rome to New York, then scattered all over the United States.

Meanwhile, during my month-long trip, my family had moved from Valdosta to Athens. So I came home to a new house (very similar in design to the old one) in a new home town. I decided immediately to put down roots in Athens. I still live there.

On my first day of classes I had Greek 201 with the legendary James W. Alexander; Honors Political Science with Keith Billingsley; and mathematics for non-science majors (yes, I was a foreign-language major at the time) with a young mathematician whose name escapes me (in fact I think we students were unsure of it at the time).

Thirty-nine years have elapsed, and I've spent most of them on this same campus. I think I had almost done a lifetime's worth of roaming before I got here.



The ultimate Facebook safety tip

Several people have been circulating warnings (of questionable accuracy) about how to protect the privacy of your Facebook account.

Let me tell you how I do it.

Very simply, I never put anything on Facebook (or any other Internet discussion forum) that would be seriously damaging if the wrong people read it.

It's that simple. Except for certain secure communication channels (which Facebook isn't!), the Internet is not a private place. Everybody on Facebook needs to learn how to set up groups of friends and make messages visible to specific groups. That's handy, but I think of it as audience targeting, not privacy. I'm not betting that it will always work properly.


Did the foundations-of-mathematics crisis give us computers?

I've enjoyed reading Morris Kline's Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty, which tells the story of how philosophical crises in 19th-century mathematics paved the way for what is now called postmodernism, a philosophical movement that is skeptical about the power of human reason (except for being dead certain about its dogma that nothing is certain — hmmm...).

The essence of the crisis is that, since ancient times, educated people had assumed that in mathematics, everything was completely certain, but the certainty broke down. For quite a while, for instance, all of calculus was based on theorems that were not strictly true. They were heuristically correct — they showed how things almost certainly should come out — but they neglected details such as eliminating all divisions by zero. Or, more seriously, as you dug deeper down you just never got to perfectly clear logic.

Even Euclid's geometry, which had been held up for 2000 years as an example of mathematical perfection, turned out to have flaws. For example, very early in his book, Euclid superposes two triangles — moves one to place it on top of the other — which, although it gives the right result, isn't within the rules of compass-and-straightedge construction. In many other places he makes assumptions that are correct but which he has not actually proved.

So the mathematical crisis is one of the roots of philosophical postmodernism. But I think it also gave rise to something happier: Computers. The reason is that it spurred interest in formal logic, the branch of mathematics where everything is explicitly defined and you'll never be led astray by your intuitions about shapes or quantities.

Formal logic, in turn, gave us Boolean algebra, the basis of all digital computation. Computers as we know them came into existence the 1950s when their designers turned away from arithmetic and toward logic (including binary numbers). Until then, they had just been calculating machines.



Why we have linear algebra

I have been reading a bit about the history of mathematics. I didn't realize that as late as 1850, there was real controversy as to whether negative numbers and imaginary numbers (such as √ -1 ) meant anything.

Obviously, negative numbers are not quantities. You can't get them by counting apples or even pieces of apples. They were invented in financial work as a way to show subtractions in a list of additions. That is, you have a list of numbers to be added to an account, but actually, some of them are to be subtracted, so you mark them with a minus. Nobody ever has a negative amount of money. If his balance comes out negative, he doesn't have a negative amount of money; he has no money, and a subtraction remains to be done in the future when it becomes possible.

Negative numbers make more sense as distances, which is how we now think of them. But hang on...

Like negative numbers, imaginary numbers, such as √ -1 , were once understood as promises of calculations to be done in the future. In the early 1800s, many experts felt that √ -1  is not a number, but it is something you can use in formulas, and if you follow the rules of algebra, you may be able to turn it back into something not so mysterious (such as multiplying √ -1  by √ -1  to get -1). If you can't do that, you at least have a symbolic representation of why you can't, just as a negative bank balance is a symbolic representation of an unpaid debt.

Carl Friedrich Gauss and William Rowan Hamilton argued forcefully and convincingly that negative and imaginary numbers can be understood as distances in different directions. As Gauss put it, if they had been called forward, backward, and sideways numbers instead of positive, negative, and imaginary, the doubts about their existence would never have been raised.

Gauss is usually said to have said "direct, inverse, and lateral," but since he wasn't speaking English, I have felt free to substitute a better translation.

Hamilton pushed the notion that a complex number such as a + b -1  was actually an ordered pair (a,b) with some special properties due to the multiplicative behavior of √ -1  (which is defined to make -1 when multiplied by itself). This led him to invent quaternions, which are ordered quadruples consisting of a real plus three kinds of imaginaries, again with handy multiplicative properties.

All of this blossomed into the algebra of vectors and matrices, where by giving up some of the neat properties of complex numbers and quaternions, we gain the ability to compute in as many dimensions as we wish. That is, to a mathematician, space isn't necessarily 3-dimensional; it isn't even limited to a thousand or a million dimensions. Multidimensional analysis is often used in statistical studies of things that vary in multiple ways, and there's no reason to stop at three. If one person has a height, a weight, a shoe size, and a bank balance, he's a variable in 4-dimensional space. Right?


Farewell to Wolf Camera

I was notified last night by e-mail that Wolf Camera is going out of business (except for their web mail-order division, which will reopen under new management), so today (Sept. 15) I went to the local store (Athens, Ga.) and was — shall we say — underwhelmed by the closeout sale. The store was already largely empty of merchandise. Some items that might have interested me, such as a Canon 60D body, were discounted a whopping 5%. Yes, 5%, not 50%.

Wolf, we'll miss you — but we were already missing you. You seem to have positioned yourself to compete head-on with Wal-Mart and lost. That is, you stopped catering to advanced, semiprofessional, and fine-art photographers and assumed Grandma would buy a new digital camera every two years and would come in every week to get the pictures printed. By 2005 most people who wanted a digital camera had one that was more or less good enough for their needs, and they had mastered web photo sharing. Demand dwindled.

My experience of Wolf Camera mainly revolves around two stores. The flagship Atlanta store, on the south side of 14th Street immediately east of the Downtown Connector, was at one time practically the hub of photographic technology and art in the Southeast. I first visited it in 1980 or so, while setting up my home darkroom. I bought my Meade LX200 telescope there in 2000 and they exhibited some of my photographs. As long as the store was on that site, it was a thriving supplier of useful and interesting things. I was last there in 2005. Then they moved to a new store at Piedmont and Peachtree, which I last visited this past January to buy a flash diffuser — which will probably turn out to have been my last purchase from Wolf.

The Athens store was formerly (in the 1970s) World-Wide Camera and was located in the corner of Alps Shopping Center, in a part of the structure that has just been torn down and rebuilt to expand Kroger. There I bought my enlarger in 1979 or 1980, the Olympus OM-2S that took most of Cathy and Sharon's baby pictures, a huge amount of film over the years, and my first Meade 8-inch telescope in 1987. By that time the store had become part of the Wolf chain. Then it moved into a newer building (with Jittery Joe's) on the Baxter Street edge of the shopping center area. That is the store I visited today.

As I've noted before, the whole experience of going shopping is not what it used to be. Camera stores, especially, were hubs of knowledge, not just merchandise. You went there to see things and learn things. Not any more. Nowadays all the information and most of the merchandise comes to us through the Web, and local stores have a secondary role.


Short notes

Birthday: I had a pleasant 55th birthday except for a couple of nitwits on Facebook who started a rumor that it was my 64th birthday. Please, friends, let's not be premature...

Out-Outlooked: Today I tried to adopt Microsoft Outlook 2010 as my mailreader. I'm still not sure if I'm going to go back to Thunderbird. Outlook is almost too complicated to handle my four IMAP accounts with big collections of folders. Thunderbird, for all its faults, is a much more direct path to IMAP — it makes the server do things that I understand.

(What are Thunderbird's faults? Some problems formatting rich text; some problems capturing the focus when it starts up; and a tendency to become a "zombie," running but not visible, when it's supposed to shut down. Maybe, in another 15 releases, they'll fix it. Anyhow, the price is right.)

[Addendum:] Outlook works well. There are a lot of things to customize and no easy way to port a whole configuration from one computer to another (which is easy with Thunderbird, even across Windows and Linux). The trick to getting decent performance in IMAP is to only "subscribe" (synchronize) the essential folders (Inbox, Trash, and whatever else it won't let you unsubscribe from). Also, tell it to do a send/receive at the end of every session; that guarantees your mail will actually go out!


Where I get the news

Recent conversations about the fighting in the Middle East have led people to ask me where I get my information about current events.

Mostly from the BBC and Reuters, with frequent excursions to other international news sources, such as The Economist for financial matters.

Not from CNN or Fox, which both seem to me to have political biases (Democrat and Republican respectively). CNN used to be more like the BBC than it is now. Lately it seems far too wrapped up in "human interest" trivialities.

And certainly not, regularly, from opinionated sources (Huffington Post, Newsmax, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, or the like) except when they occasionally call attention to something I can follow up elsewhere. My rule of thumb is that the "juicier" (more emotional) a news source is, the less I trust it. I'm not looking for gossip or excitement.

Finally, as I've noted before, professional-looking fake news sources exist. A well-dressed reporter with good video production does not necessarily amount to reliability. Political activists do their own "news reporting," sometimes in a very misleading way. Beware of a "news video" from a "network" you've never heard of.


A note about the economy

The rambling things I said about the economy a few days ago can be summed up more clearly as follows:

We have a substantial problem with unemployment, but it's out of step with other economic indicators. If you don't look at unemployment, we're doing fine.

So why is unemployment so high?

As far as I can tell, employers aren't hiring because they think we're still in a recession. And they think we're still in a recession because employers aren't hiring.

Does anybody besides me see the circularity? How can we break out of it?

Responsible commentators need to be trying to allay panic, not stir it up. I'm afraid that for too many people, panicking about the economy has become a hobby.

Granted, the kind of jobs available today are different from before. As I said, we can't go on trying to build twice as many houses and cars as anybody needs. People are going to have to change careers and even relocate. But plenty of people want to hire my students, and I see plenty of new businesses starting up.

Above all, I'm not going to believe the conspiracy theorists who are starting to say we're "really" in "another Great Depression" and "the government is playing tricks with the numbers" to keep us from knowing it. If we were really in another Great Depression, things would be a lot worse than they are.

Also, beware of statements that something or other is "the worst since the Great Depression." That can be what I call the "highest hill in Florida" argument. You can stand in central Florida and point to a 150-foot-high hill and say, "That is the highest hill this side of Appalachia." That is true, but it doesn't mean the hill is an Appalachian Mountain!


The sparse globular cluster M71

Here's a quick picture of the unusual sparse globular cluster M71 in Sagitta, taken to test my autoguider. (The LX200's RA gear may be due for a lube job...) This is a stack of several 3-minute exposures through the 8-inch telescope.


The Canon 60Da can see through the telescope...

Here you see the Dumbbell Nebula, M27 (top), and the Swan Nebula, M17 (second picture).

These were taken through my 8-inch telescope in town (Athens, Georgia) under 5th-magnitude skies. The telescope is a Meade f/10 Schmidt-Cassegrain with a compressor giving about f/6.6. M27 is a stack of nine 3-minute exposures corrected with nine dark frames. M17 is a stack of ten 3-minute exposures corrected with seven dark frames.

The camera is obviously not the weak link in the chain here. It performed very well. I could wish for better optics and better guiding... Still, I got a couple of nice pictures.


Converting PDF to text

Some PDF files are graphical and require optical character recognition (OCR) to turn them into text. Most PDF files that were made with word processing software have the text in them and it just needs to be extracted. This is non-trivial because the PDF file consists of characters and location coordinates, not words and spaces.

One way to convert PDF to text is to open up Adobe Acrobat and "Save As Text." With some files I was working with recently, that resulted in very rough output, often lacking the spaces between words.

I quickly booted up Linux and found the pdftotext command gave much better results. (It is part of Poppler, which has doubtless been converted to Windows, but I haven't tracked it down.)

Then, back in Windows, I downloaded the free trial of NitroPDF and found it worked even better. It has an "advanced" mode in which the conversions are verified by OCR. To make this work, I had to install MODI, the Microsoft Office 2007 OCR engine, which was not on my machine because I was running Office 2010. There are several ways to get MODI free, one of which is to download Sharepoint 2007, which is now freeware, and do a selective install.

Good words for Best Buy

This evening (September 8), I needed a Canon RC-6 remote control, and the local Best Buy had it, for $41.99. Remembering a much lower price, I asked if they would price-match Amazon. They did; in fact, Amazon's price was so much lower ($21.85) that I insisted we check B&H Photo also to make sure it wasn't a mistake. So I got it for $21.85 and went home happy.

Canon RC-6 notes

A brief note about the Canon RC-6 remote control:

It has two modes, "normal" and "2-second delay." They cause it to send out different signals.

The "normal" mode is the only one that will trip the shutter on older cameras such as the EOS 10S. The "2-second delay" mode is the only one that will start and stop movie recording on the EOS 60Da.


What if the economy recovered and nobody noticed?


We'll have some more astrophotography and high technology in a few days. Today let me briefly share a couple of economic notes.

Perhaps the biggest thing holding back our economic recovery, I think, is that people think it's still 2008 or are locked into the 2008 mindset. A couple of weeks ago I opined that real estate is a good investment and gold is a bad investment, and people laughed. Look at the numbers. Real estate has been going up for a while, and gold has been going down for a while. That's not what they were doing in 2008, but it's what they're doing now.

And has anybody noticed that the stock market has returned to pre-recession levels? (Allowing for inflation, it's still about 10% or 15% below its all-time high, but that's not bad.) The NASDAQ 100 Index (.NDX), which favors small companies, has been reaching new all-time highs since the start of 2011. Our gross domestic product has also recovered to pre-recession levels (and as I understand it, that remains true when inflation-adjusted).

We still have a problem with unemployment, especially since the current 8% figure is apparently being pulled down by people leaving the workforce. The high unemployment rate is at odds with other economic indicators and is one of many puzzles about the current state of the economy. Personally, I think one factor is that businesses won't hire or expand because they believe we're still in a recession — a self-fulfilling cycle.

There are two more things everyone should notice.

(1) We're not getting the old economy back. In 2007, we were trying to build too many cars and houses and lend too much money. Those activities are never going to "recover" to a level they never should have reached in the first place. If you're a builder, think about other kinds of business ventures.

(2) There are always gloomy headlines. Some people suddenly started paying attention to, and believing, all the bad news on the financial pages, which they had been ignoring. There is always somebody who says the economy is about to collapse. Always has been, always will be. They know they can get your attention.

Bottom line: I'm not saying the economy is back to normal. But, business leaders, please stop acting as if it were your patriotic duty to keep the recession going! "We can't do that because we're in a recession" is the line of thought that is killing business.

Enough of this "immediately" nonsense...

It used to be traditional to give people a month to pay a bill. In the 1990s we started getting bills with shorter due dates on them (in fact, credit-card regulation had to address this). But the latest odd practice that I've encountered from several vendors is bills that are "due immediately" with no specified due date.

This is now common practice with medical bills. And I pay them promptly — usually within two weeks — but I'm never sure whether that counts as "immediately." Do they want it paid the same month? The same week? The same day? The very minute it reaches me? The very minute they send it out?

Scott's Lawn Service is threatening me with a late fee because I didn't pay a bill "immediately." They didn't give a due date, and I paid it within three weeks, assuming I had a month. Because they didn't give a due date, I don't think their late fee is enforceable.

[UPDATE, Sept. 24:] Talking with Scott's by phone today I am told that I have 26 days to pay each bill, and they don't know why I was told otherwise, or by whom.


A day off?

Holidays like Labor Day are great for assembly-line workers and even high-school students. But for those of us whose work is scheduled in units longer than a day, every day off means more work has to be done the next day.

So I'll be back when I've caught up!


Have you seen a stolen picture?

Here you see one of my most memorable astrophotos. I took it back in 2009 using what was then a new technique for color enhancement. It was published in Make Magazine and may be published again elsewhere.

The thing is, you may have seen it being passed off as someone else's work because someone has been copying it without my permission and without giving me credit. It appears in a music video called Lune.pps that starts with this picture (with the copyright notice removed) and includes numerous other images taken from other photographers without credit.

Honest people don't pass off other people's work as their own, and law-abiding people don't remove copyright notices. I have to put my foot down about this because unauthorized copying can prevent me from publishing my own pictures! If a picture is already circulating — especially if it doesn't have my name on it — magazines and book publishers won't touch it.

I should add that if you know anything about astronomy, you'll realize that this picture is unique. Noncircularity in the moon's and earth's orbits makes every moon picture different. To duplicate this picture, you would have to have been at the same location on earth at the same date and time. Other pictures of the moon at the same phase look almost but not quite the same.

World of Warcraft starts up with normal sound but black screen

I don't play WoW myself, but this one bit Melody when she downloaded the major upgrade yesterday.

The cure was to get the latest video driver from the video card manufacturer, not from Windows Update. Windows Update is cautious about video drivers and often holds off on distributing new versions that games actually need.

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