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Popular topics on this page:
Hand-lettering, an essential life skill
Trouble with Windows updates?
Do computers need maintenance?
A visit with Σ3050

For more topics, scroll down, press Ctrl-F to search the page, or check previous months.

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Astrophotographer sidelined?

Sadly, I've come down with costochondritis, a rib-joint inflammation, and can't lift anything heavy for the next few weeks — especially my 8-inch telescope, an 8-inch Meade LX200 Classic with a Crayford focuser, a Losmandy camera rack, and other things that raise its total weight to about 55 pounds (marginally too heavy even if I didn't have anything wrong with my ribs). I'm even thinking about selling it and getting something that disassembles into lighter-weight pieces, like maybe this mount with a lightweight telescope on top. I'd appreciate advice from experienced astronomers who are familiar with suitable equipment.

In the meantime, other things are going well — and I can still lift an Arduino, so maybe I'll get some microcontroller projects done. Happy end of month — I'll see you in November.


Jack Sprat...

Now that I'm successfully losing weight (down 13 pounds from my midsummer all-time high), an amusing thing is happening. People tell me, "You shouldn't be on that diet, you should be on my diet..."

Nonsense. I'll stick with what is working this well for me. It's based on small portions and very low fat content.

I'm convinced that the human species is polymorphic on a number of factors that affect fat storage. I'm doing fine on a low-fat diet, but other people have to have a low-carbohydrate diet instead. In fact, I know people who lose weight eating a lot of meat (including fat) and no carbs. I'm the other way around.


I'm gratified by people's steadily increasing interest in repairing and restoring old things rather than buying new ones. The History Channel has a TV show, American Restoration, about exactly this; they restore everything from cars to guitars to nail guns. And I just learned that Ford Motor Company makes, or licenses people to make, vintage car parts from original tooling. Of course, electronics restoration has been around for a long time, complete with good suppliers.

Partly, it's respect for one's predecessors, and partly, I think, fascination with things that don't use microprocessors or even, in many cases, electricity. In any case, restoration is something I approve of.


Another quick check-in

I have plenty to do right now other than write Notebook entries, so please bear with me... there will be more leisurely times. Until then, a few brief remarks.

A friend sent me a remarkably mean-spirited piece of circulating e-mail that said, in essence, that if the "blue states" were to split off from the "red states" they would control most of the nation's educational institutions, high technology, etc., etc.

My response (from the red state of Georgia): We tried that in 1861 and you wanted us back immediately.

Interest rates to turn the stomach: About 90% to 340% APR here. I know there is no federal usury law, but is this lender skirting other regulations by being located on an Indian reservation?

Investment tip: On the theory that the homebuilding industry has some recovering to do (even if it won't come all the way back to its previous heights), I've invested in the XHB exchange-traded mutual fund. Let's see how well it does.


Catching up

It's catch-up-with-everything week, after being out sick for a few days, and I'm spending a lot of time doing things other than writing Notebook entries. Here are a few short notes.

Cyberattacked: The trouble I've been having recently getting Quicken to connect to Capital One and SunTrust is apparently attributable to denial-of-service attacks from overseas, probably connected with Islamic terrorism.

I think the attackers want us to kick hostile countries off the Internet so that their people won't be able to hear about American freedom. That's why we shouldn't do it.

The Internet is freedom's strongest weapon since the printing press. Naturally, people who don't like freedom are going to fight back. But they are fighting a hydra. The Internet originated in our own Department of Defense and is designed to be almost indestructible. It automatically reconfigures itself in response to any damage.

A good tactic for dealing with cyberattackers is "give 'em enough rope to hang themselves." Let them think they're getting away with what they're doing, and observe, and observe, and observe... Computer criminals think in terms of a short time span. They cannot fathom someone actually observing them for three or four months and then taking action.

Someone said to me today, "I try to respect all cultures." To which I replied: I don't. I try to appreciate all cultures, and I try to respect what is good in them, but not everything.

The notion that "we should respect all cultures" is actually, I think, a piece of 1970s relativism. It leads to the notion that you have to let Nazis be Nazis if they are true to their own culture.

Does it make any sense to ask whether a controversial religious group "is a cult" or not? This writer argues convincingly that it does not.

"Cult" is a word with which we brand small, heretical, untrusted religious groups. It does not have a clear enough meaning to be useful.

Instead, we should ask (1) whether a group has any oppressive practices (denying members their freedom, deceiving them, etc.), and (2) how close its beliefs are to our own, or to other well-known groups.

The writer also points out that what most Christians are looking for, as a dividing line, is the doctrine of the Trinity. That is what unites Catholics, Orthodox, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Nazarenes, Churches of Christ, etc., as against Mormons, Unitarians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and other offshoots that most Christians don't consider Christian.


Trouble with Windows updates?

If you're having any kind of trouble with Windows automatic updates, check out Microsoft's "Fix it" page. They provide a lot of helpful advice, including a browser application that will perform some of the repairs semi-automatically.

Do computers need maintenance?

After having helped someone with a Windows update problem this morning, I had an insight. Individual computer owners need to know what the business world knows: Just like your car, your computer needs maintenance. You can be a do-it-yourselfer — like me, and like all of us 20 years ago — or you can take your computer to a technician every six months for a checkup. At least, we ought to be evolving toward that kind of world. Microsoft and Apple try heroically to do all the maintenance automatically, through the Internet, but they don't always succeed.

Privacy is of course a concern; the technician has to be trustworthy. Unlike your car, your computer probably contains lots of confidential data. I'm not entirely sure how to address this. Of course, privacy is also a concern when you let Big Brother fix your computer through the Internet.

A visit with Σ3050

I'm temporarily unable to lift my big telescope, so last night (October 13) I got my little 5-inch out and looked around in northern Andromeda. We had rather hazy skies, but the Blue Snowball (NGC 7662), a planetary nebula, was very bright.

Then I decided to look at the double star Σ3050 (STF 3050, Struve 3050), which is a very pretty pair of yellowish 6.5-magnitude stars separated 2.3 arc-seconds (not 1.7 as some sources say; due to orbital motion, it is now widening). It has a Wikipedia article, but only, at present, in Finnish. The real information is in the Washington Double Star Catalog via Vizier, and by clicking through, I get to this 1952 article by Paul Couteau giving a separation of 1.4 arc-seconds at that time.

I'm impressed at how well the astronomers have linked all their data sources together.



Bad color film for the hipster market?

From a newsletter from Freestyle, the Los Angeles supplier of film and traditional darkroom supplies:

Also new from Adox is their "Color Implosion" 35mm C-41 standard process color negative film. This new color film is a limited edition product with an unusual color pallette and variable contrast. When shot as a 100 ISO film it is rather muted with color leaning towards blue. When shot as a 400 ISO film it builds contrast and leans towards red. With the off color tones and large grain, prints from this film have a vintage 70's look and feel. No app needed here!

That is: Adox is selling film with coarse grain and color crossover — two serious defects — to the hipster market. The grain makes it look like Kodacolor 400 from 1977, and the crossover and "muted color" make the prints look faded.

Maybe Adox had a bad manufacturing run, or a big batch that was stored too long without refrigeration, and they've decided to package and market it.

Or maybe "hipster photography" (the "nostalgia" cult of artificial defects) is taking over. O tempora! O mores!


Farewells in the local business world

I forgot to note that, back in the spring, Georgia University Station (the post office on campus) was shut down.

My family lived in three different houses while I was an undergraduate, and, foreseeing this, on a friend's advice I rented a post office box so I could have a constant address during my whole four years. I think I already knew that this was customary at Yale, and in fact I did the same thing when I got to Yale. So at one time my address was 2605 University Station, Athens, Georgia 30602, and later on, 3600 Yale Station, New Haven, Connecticut 06520.

When I came back as a faculty member in 1984, Melody and I were in a rented house, so I again rented a post office box and was delighted to get Box 2605 again. (Not the same actual box; the post office had moved from Memorial Hall to the Tate Student Center; but the same number.) Then I was surprised to still be on a few mailing lists that had not noticed my seven-year absence.

Postal mail is much less important to people than it used to be, and Georgia University Station is no longer with us. During its heyday, people mixed it up with Campus Mail, from which it was completely separate — United States Postal Service boxes were not reachable by campus mail.

Athens no longer has a K-Mart. Two decades ago we regularly shopped at the K-Mart on Atlanta Highway at Epps Bridge Road (now a Hobby Lobby). It closed, but the "far K-Mart" on Gaines School Road carried on until a couple of weeks ago.

And last Sunday, Piccadilly Cafeteria at Georgia Square Mall shut down. Melody and I had become almost regular customers — it was one of the few good places to get a wide variety of foods. It was formerly a Morrison's Cafeteria, and back in our undergraduate days, we occasionally ate at Morrison's when it was at Beechwood Shopping Center.


Catching up...

I'm back after an unexpected absence — lots going on here — but today I'm going to try to catch up. Please bear with me... Most of this has already appeared in brief conversations on Facebook. But here you are getting my refined and well-considered thoughts.

The "married Jesus" manuscript may well be fake

You probably heard about a recent discovery: an early Christian Coptic manuscript that referred to Jesus' wife.

My reaction at the time: (1) Christianity doesn't fall apart if Jesus had a wife; nothing about His ministry, as far as we know, actually depended on His being single. But (2) it would be incredible that we had never heard of her until now. So I decided to wait and watch what might happen next.

Now it has happened. A flurry of scholars (here, here, and here among others) are reporting that the Coptic manuscript appears to be fake.

It is composed entirely of words and phrases from an already-known Coptic text, The Gospel of Thomas (which is not considered an authentic Gospel, but is genuinely ancient). And it reportedly preserves a typo from the online edition of that book!

Two notes: (1) It was not faked by the scholar who discovered it, but by someone farther up the supply chain. (2) We do not yet have chemical tests of the age of the ink. Those are going on now.

Rutter's Beatles Concerto

What happens when the greatest living English composer (or at least the greatest one I have had the honor of meeting) does a Beatles medley? Something rather nice. (Think Rachmaninoff, maybe.) Buy from Amazon here.

Short notes

Not only do I have an Erdös number, I now find I'm cited in the Online Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences. Have I turned into a mathematician?

It has just dawned on me that a lot of well-educated people don't realize site and sight are completely unrelated words. They think site is a simplified spelling of sight and there must be complicated customs dictating which one is used where.

The fact is, sight is derived from see while site is from the Latin for "place." Some sites may also be sights — that is, some places are scenic — but the words are no more interchangeable than red and green.

You may have a web site. It is not normally called a "web sight" no matter how funny it looks.

There are now type fonts for dyslexic people. They make the letters heavier at the bottom than at the top, like an old typewriter whose platen is out of adjustment. (If you know the word "platen" you're as old as me!) The extra top-down asymmetry makes it harder to mistake (for example) M for W, as dyslexic people often do.

Things I have had to say in class recently: "Attendance is required. That means you're not expected to be able to pass this course without attending it." Students want to be given a quota of allowed absences, but I don't do that; I say we come to class because we're adults, not because we've used up the quota. Absence for good reason is, of course, permitted.


Hand lettering as an essential life skill

I take it for granted that if you carry a pen or pencil in your pocket, you should be able to use it to convey information accurately to other people. (Especially if you want to take my exams!)

That is, everyone should be able to write so that it is perfectly clear what every letter is, even if the letters don't spell a word, and whether it is capital or lowercase, and whether there is space before or after it. Otherwise you can't write computer codes, product keys, or the like.

A surprising number of people can't do this. For many, it is a matter of cursive scribbles and "guess what word this is." They're counting on us to recognize complete words parts of which are unclear.

Others just don't seem to be in control. The size and spacing of the letters varies haphazardly.

I don't think the need for hand lettering will go away in my lifetime or even my children's lifetime. Yes, keyboards are taking over, but we still give talks with marker boards, we still label equipment by writing on stickers, and we still take informal (but accurate) notes on paper with a pencil or pen.

Here's what I recommend for people who want to become better hand-letterers.

(1) Give up on cursive, or at least recognize that this isn't it. Cursive writing has always been hard to read. It was invented to solve a problem with 18th-century dip pens, which behaved badly if lifted from the paper. Your goal now is to write letters, not words.

(2) Write faster by not hurrying. If you try to write too fast, you'll scribble and write slower. Every time you lose control of the position of the pen, you waste time trying to regain it. Slow and steady wins the race. Also, write bigger — it's less tiring.

(3) Know both what the letters should look like and how to make them. It's important to keep an eye on what's coming out of your pen. It's equally important to associate a fixed set of muscle movements with each letter. That is what will speed you up.

You might start by imitating one of the following alphabets. This is not elegant calligraphy. These are the Comic Sans and Segoe Print fonts from Microsoft. They look silly if used in place of elegant typesetting, but coming out of a handheld pen or pencil, they look fine, even elegant.

So you want to practice? It's remarkable what you can gain by taking a few minutes just to write each character about five times. Write the same character over and over until you're happy with how it looks: AAAAA BBBBB CCCCC and so on. Then remember it, and in the future, be consistent.

One last detail: If you're a computer professional, you need a way to distinguish 0 (zero) from the letter O. I suggest putting a slash through the zero. Also make sure capital I, lowercase l, and the numeral 1 are always distinct.

Odd business practice of the day

Still more strange tales from the business world. I have been rather frustrated by a medical billing service (not one of the ones already named here) which, by policy, ignores anything that arrives in the mail except payments, although they do not say this on the bills, and they do not provide any other address to which to send correspondence.

The story: In July I received a bill and paid it, with the wrong account number (theirs, not mine) on the check. (Why should I expect them to have two different account numbers for the same patient?)

At the end of August I got a second notice, so instead of mailing them another check, I mailed — to the same address, which is the only address they gave me — an explanatory letter and a copy of the cancelled check.

This was ignored, and I got a "final notice." At that point I phoned them to ask what in the world was going on. They found their error and corrected it, but they also told me that, by policy, they don't accept anything by mail except payments.

One day they'll miss something very important that way. I wonder if they have talked this over with their lawyer. There are numerous legal precedents for assuming that if something is mailed and delivered to someone, they have received it!

I understand why a business might ask us to send nothing but payments to a particular address. Note that this business didn't do that. And even if they had, I don't think it would entitle them to ignore and discard incoming correspondence, especially since they have given no other address at which they can receive mail.


Picking up some Facebook conversations...

People are telling me my Facebook postings are much more interesting than the Daily Notebook. So let me summarize some of them here. Apologies to the Facebook audience for the repetition.

Public rational criticism

I take it for granted that when I make a public statement about anything, I'm inviting rational criticism from anybody and everybody. So it surprised me to hear radio host Dave Ramsey say that he doesn't see things that way. "To speak to my life, you have to have a relationship with me," he says, and this is his reason for disregarding criticism that comes in from strangers.

I see where he's coming from. He's taking a criterion for whether it is tactful to give people unsolicited advice — only if you have a relationship with them — and applying it to the public forum, where I think it doesn't apply. I'm always eager to learn from people who think I'm wrong. (I'm not obligated to debate them or even to reply!) The only critics I don't tolerate are those who have no knowledge to offer. I already know there are people who have different opinions than mine. If they can back them up with information I don't already have, I'd like to know. That does not obligate me to change my opinions any time anybody comes along with a different one, of course!

As Sir Karl Popper put it, "Serious rational criticism is so rare that it should be encouraged. Being too ready to defend oneself is more dangerous than being too ready to admit a mistake."

Against anti-Windows chauvinism

Am I the only one who gets annoyed at the way some people answer any Windows/PC technical question by saying "Get a Mac" or "Use Linux"? It's not helpful or amusing at all; it sounds ignorant and narrow-minded.

It's one thing when somebody actually knows that I need and knows that a Mac or Linux would meet the need better. The remarks I'm referring to are more like wisecracks or mindless displays of contempt. They are made in open disregard of the reasons why I might be using Windows. Yet some people can't resist popping up with them whenever I ask a technical question. You can almost hear the Three Stooges saying "Yuk, yuk, yuk" in the background.

Crucial point: I'm not a computer hobbyist. I don't get to engage in equipment snobbery; I have to choose the tools that are actually best for doing the job, not only for me, but also for others who are involved.

And more to the point, answering a Windows technical question by saying "Get a Mac" is utterly unhelpful. It's like answering an automotive question in 1920 by saying "Get a horse!" If the question weren't worth asking, I wouldn't have asked it.

On the decline of trendiness

"[In the Yale English Department] directory for tenured and tenure-track faculty, 'Marxist literary theory' is listed by five professors among their fields of interest, 'gender and sexuality' by nine, and 'colonial and postcolonial' by 11, or a quarter of the 44 professors. In the graduate student directory, however, the numbers for those subjects are one, three, and a fat goose egg. That’s quite a statistical drop-off, considering that grad students outnumber professors nearly two to one. The topics favored instead by these future scholars are Romanticism (six), Victorian literature (five), Milton (seven), and, oddly enough, religious literature (also seven). Honorable mentions include 'Biblical exegesis,' 'conversion narratives,' and 'Middle English devotional, visionary, and anchoritic writing' — they’re not just reading the Bible, they’re reading monks."

So the graduate students have better sense than the professors. That doesn't surprise me. I'm quoting from this rather incisive article, and whether or not you agree with all its conclusions, at least consider the data point above.

In the 1980s, English departments were full of people wanting to be amateur Marxists, sociologists, or political theorists unencumbered by any real knowledge of the social sciences. Everybody except its adherents thought the whole thing was rather silly. I'm glad wiser heads are starting to prevail.

Also, one of the risks of postmodernism is that if you allow people to explore a variety of ways of thinking — as postmodernism does and modernism didn't — they may find something they consider wiser than postmodernism!

Gelernter on Americanism

Yale computer scientist David Gelernter has written some interesting things about the American national consciousness. Start with the essay here, and note that Dr. Gelernter is Jewish; that web site adds some comments, in green type, by a Christian writer about whom I know nothing.

The key concept is that America is inherently Judeo-Christian in a way other nations aren't. We don't claim to be descended from an ancient tribe, or anything like that. We only claim to be a motley bunch of colonists who know who God is, and who have latched onto some of His wisdom. That doesn't mean we're all religious, but even our atheists are moralistic (consider Ayn Rand). The bottom line is that we are held together by our values, not our ethnicity or our distant history.

That, I think, is why our debates about such things as abortion and civil rights are so hard-fought. We are not quick to settle things by compromise the way the Europeans do. We want to do what is right.

It may also be why we led the victory in World War II. Other countries were fighting enemies; we saw more clearly than others that we were fighting evil.

That may also be the reason why radical Islamists consider us the only nation really worth destroying. We're the ones who can stand up to them and say, "We know what you're trying to do, and you got it wrong. We know what godliness is, and that's not it."

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