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Daily Notebook

Popular topics on this page:
Mary Catherine Barrett, our first grandchild
Why does the date of Easter vary?
Rutherford Hall will never look funnier
A different default style for Word 2010
Why I do electronics, photography, and astronomy
Should American football go away?
Why meteors look bright but photograph dim
Landing site of Apollo 17
December 21 intelligence test — did you fail?
Bible translations should not be called "versions"

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

For the latest version of this page at any time, use this link: www.covingtoninnovations.com/michael/blog


End of year...

Just a short note to close out 2012. In the next few days I'm going to write a lot about WPF (Windows Presentation Foundation), which I'm now using for substantial projects. This week's personal project is to learn the parts of C# that I haven't learned yet.

And I may even look back at 2012, once it's over; politically, at least, it won't end until Congress makes some budgetary decisions tomorrow or the next day.

In some ways 2012 (my last full calendar year at UGA) parallels 1972 (my last full calendar year in high school). Each of them was a year in which I did largely the same things as the previous year, but did them better. Each included some major transitions and was followed by a year of big changes.

Right now I'm spending the evening doing consulting work so I can bill it in 2012. Am I dull, or what? Happy new year!


We're back...

Melody and I are back from a brief trip to Lexington, Kentucky, to visit baby grandchild Mary. We had a great trip. Word to the wise: Several web sites will give you road conditions and even camera views of any major highway.

Bible translations should not be called "versions"

People who don't know much about the Bible have said to me, more than once, "There are so many versions of the Bible that we don't know what the original said — it might have said anything."

That is, of course, simply not true. We have ancient manuscripts and other archeological evidence showing the Bible essentially unchanged for thousands of years.

The people I'm referring to may have heard speculations about how the original text was written in the first place. These speculations are, of course, based on literary rather than archeological evidence.

But I'm wondering if they were misled by the word "version." In Biblical studies, "version" means simply "translation into another language." The King James Version was a famous translation from the original Hebrew and Greek into English. The Revised Standard Version was a major revision of it, into more modern English. And so on.

But in popular speech, "version" may mean something like "account," as in "his version of the facts." An outsider could get the impression that "versions" of the Bible are alternative Bibles that say different things. Is that what's going on?

How that Google Ad works its magic

If you look at the Google Ad at the top of this page, you may be startled to see something that you recently looked up on Google. How did I know what you were shopping for?

The answer is, I don't. Google does.

The Web is not TV. When you look at web pages, you are not viewing a broadcast. You are requesting an individual copy of each page to be sent directly to you at the time. It need not be the same as what was sent to other people.

That's part of the story: This page, including Google's ad, is created especially for you when you call it up. The part of the page that I wrote doesn't change, except when I update it every day or two. But the Google ad is constructed by Google's computer.

The other part of the story is that Google makes your web browser store records of what you have looked up on Google (including Google Ads) and these are sent back to Google's computer when it requests them. These records are called tracking cookies. Many other web sites also use them so that your next session will resume where the previous one left off (or at least remember some crucial information, such as what preference settings you made). Google's cookies are separate from Bank of America's cookies and eBay's cookies and everything else.

(Why are they called cookies? Because of an old joke at MIT, or maybe Stanford, where a computer program called itself "cookie monster" and popped up at random times demanding that you type "cookie." Silly, I know...)

Now that you know all this, do you feel that your privacy has been violated? I think it's important to remember that the World Wide Web has always been based on one-at-a-time, on-request transmission of web pages — it is not a broadcast medium like TV or radio. You never had the privacy you thought you lost. Every time you view a web page, the computer that hosts it knows you requested it. It may not know much about you, but it at least knows your general location and the kind of browser you are using.

You can set your browser not to accept cookies. Then the computers on the other end will not know as much. They will still know roughly where you are, but they won't remember anything from your earlier sessions.

Have I done this? No; I think cookies are useful. But I understand the concern.

Two ways to give directions

I've been thinking about the way people give directions. Here are two examples.

(1) "Go to the third traffic light. Turn right and take the sixth street on the left."

(2) "You are heading into Athens on Epps Bridge Parkway. Down this hill is the river, which is the county line. The first traffic light after that will be Timothy Road. Turn right at that traffic light, then look for St. George Drive on your left, right after a pedestrian crossing, which is the only pedestrian crossing on the road."

Which is better? I've come across people who demand the first kind of directions and simply won't accept the second kind. But I greatly prefer the second kind. Why? Two reasons:

(a) It tells you where you are. Roads have names, after all.

(b) It's not "brittle." That is, a small mistake doesn't break it. What if you aren't sure whether one of the things on your left is a driveway or a street? Then the first set of directions sends you to the wrong place. With the second set, there's no problem,

But I have come across people who feel that directions are incomprehensible if they use any names, and even worse if they use words like "north." Different minds work differently...

[Addendum:] Yesterday Melody produced a really good example of direction-giving: "Turn on the side street between the two Adcock Furniture buildings." Can't miss it. Much better than "go to the third right..."

Then there are people who refer to invisible or unknown landmarks. "Go to old Joe Carter's farm" [said to someone who has never heard of old Joe Carter] "and then turn where the barn burned down five years ago..."


An update

Scroll back to December 22 and see the picture that has been added.


Today the Virgin gives birth to the Heavenly One
And the earth gives shelter to the Unapproachable One.
Angels and shepherds sing His praise;
Led by the star, wise men make their way.
For unto us is born
A newborn child, from before all time God.

St. Romanos Melodos (c. 550 A.D.)


Christmas links

Astronomy and the Star of Bethlehem

St. Nicholas and Santa Claus

What is Christmas, and is it under attack?


Our first grandchild

Melody and I are proud to announce the birth of Mary Catherine Barrett, our first grandchild, born to our daughter Cathy and her husband Nathaniel around 9:25 p.m. EST this evening. Mother and child are doing fine.

Mary carries on a family tradition: both of her parents also have birthdays on the 22nd of the month (though not the same month).

When we have more news, you'll see it here!

A happy thought: If Mary lives to the ripe old age of 88 years and 10 days, which is not unlikely, she will see the beginning of the 22nd Century. In my youth I knew people, such as my great-grandfather T. W. Aaron, who were adults in the 19th Century.


Sub-professional government

[Revised; the situation is changing rapidly and is poorly reported by the media.]

I rarely blog about politics. But today I want to express serious diappointment with the way federal budget negotiations have turned into obstinacy and brinksmanship. The "fiscal cliff" was a bad idea in the first place, and the failure of the President and Congress to reach a working compromise to work forward is very disappointing.

Many people, especially outside the U.S., are concluding that some of the Republicans in Congress would rather cause another recession than raise taxes on multimillionaires.

There are other issues, of course, especially the failure of Plan B to cut spending, but there are people who talk as if low tax rates for the rich were sacrosanct.

How did we get to this point? I think one factor is that some people have started thinking that every political issue is a moral issue — that every little question about tax rates is like abolishing slavery. But it's not. Most political disputes are not moral issues; they are disagreements about the probable effect of a policy. The people who disagree with you are not evil or even necessarily foolish.


December 21 intelligence test — did you fail?

Some schools in Detroit have reportedly cancelled classes tomorrow because of rumors that the world will end on December 21.

I think they may just be looking for an extra day of Christmas vacation. In Detroit, there may also have been some terroristic threats. Still, doomsday hysteria is at least part of what's going on. And I'm concerned about the way people's minds work.

The intelligence test is this: Granted that you heard someone say that the world will end that day, can you abandon this belief when you find out there is no reason at all to hold it?

As a scientist, I have to do this all the time. I make guesses, and they turn out to be false, and I have to abandon them. The same is true of anybody whose job includes diagnosis or prediction — detectives, doctors, business analysts.

But apparently some people can't back out of a mistake — they're doomed to half-believe it for the rest of their lives. These are the people, I think, who are fascinated by gossip. They would rather have a mind full of half-believed juicy nuggets than a clear grasp on what is most likely to be true.

Some facts about December 21:

(1) The earth's North Pole tilts farthest away from the sun on this date every year. It's the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year if you're north of the equator.

(2) The sun passes in front of the center of our galaxy on this date every year. Because of precession, the date will eventually shift away from December 21, very gradually. Any anyhow, it only passes in front of the visible center of the galaxy, not the true nucleus.

Neither of these events makes 2012 special in any way.

(3) The Mayans did not predict the end of the world on December 21, 2012. That is fiction, from a movie! It is no more real than Mickey Mouse. But the movie was marketed with fictional news releases that presented the December 21 theory as truth, and people got confused.

At most, the Mayan calendar reaches the end of one of its cycles on that date.

(4) If the world were going to end on December 21, would the Mayans have known it? How? It makes no sense to pluck one calendar date from their culture, without knowing how they arrived at it or what it is supposed to mean.

(5) Christians, please note that this end-of-the-world prediction is explicitly denied by the Bible. Look it up.

Meanwhile, I wish everyone a blessed Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Let's honor a wise man, not a foolish one...


Landing site of Apollo 17

Copyright 2012 Michael A. Covington. If you want to reproduce this picture for any purpose, please contact me for permission.

Last night I decided to try some video astronomy with my Canon 60Da and realized afterward that I had photographed the landing site of Apollo 17, which landed there forty years and one week ago — the last Apollo, one of two whose launches I personally watched.

The prominent crater is Posidonius. The snake-like ridge on the left is known as Dorsa Smirnov.

Canon 60Da direct coupled to Celestron 5 (f/10), 640×480 movie crop mode, stack of 2,806 frames (1/800 second, ISO 1600, 60 fps) converted with VirtualDub and then processed with RegiStax.


Two sad farewells

The amateur astronomy community lost two prominent members this past week, Sir Patrick Moore, of Surrey, England, and Lenny Abbey, of Atlanta, both active in the British Astronomical Association (as am I).

They will be missed. Lenny was of course one of my local friends, and, thanks to a book swap, I have his collection of early issues of Sky and Telescope. He was an expert on observing planets, especially Uranus and Neptune.

Sir Patrick Moore was my inspiration when I was just starting out; I read as many of his books as I could get. I regret that I never met him, but to my surprise and delight, he wrote rave reviews of two of my books in the Times Educational Supplement.

Mediā vitā in morte sumus.


Connecticut school tragedy


Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the Connecticut elementary school massacre, of course. I haven't said anything about it until now, mainly because I haven't had a clear enough understanding of what really happened (and still don't). But here are a few thoughts.

(1) Why was it so easy for a mentally impaired person to get a gun that was specifically designed to kill large numbers of human beings? I don't think gun control is the complete answer, but let's admit that guns are inherently dangerous, and some of them are designed to kill people efficiently. Not every gun is a deer rifle.

(I understand that the boundary between military-style weapons and sport weapons is fuzzy, and that it takes a lot of firepower to hunt certain wild animals, such as boars, which charge if wounded. But I have heard wildly irrational things said by both sides on the gun-control debate.)

(I do not have the particulars of the guns in the Connecticut massacre, but he reportedly fired 100 rounds in a short time. What is particularly strange is that the guns reportedly belonged to the shooter's mother, who was a victim.)

(I also don't know the nature of the shooter's mental impairment. If it is indeed Asperger's Syndrome, that is not associated with violence. I've known people with that disorder, and they are careful and courteous to the utmost. I just don't know what other psychological problems the shooter may have had, but I don't want Asperger's Syndrome to be given a bad name.)

(2) In my lifetime, public schools have become a sterile, amoral environment from which the religious and moral values of the surrounding community are forcibly excluded by a policy that resembles Soviet "official atheism."

Of course, no child should be forced to practice a religion other than his own. But if you demand that children discard their moral upbringing when they come to school, or if you create the appearance of making such a demand, you cannot be doing them good.

(3) We don't know how rare this incident really was. Maybe nothing else like it will happen for a long time, and we shouldn't restrict the freedom of innocent people to try to prevent it. That is what I would have said several years ago, but it rings hollow today — there have been too many massacres in recent years, and there is a real risk of copycat crimes now.

"Entitlement" does not mean "giveaway"

One thing muddying today's political discourse is that people hear the budget term "entitlement" and don't know what it means.

An "entitlement" is a payment already promised to everyone who meets the specified criteria. It does not mean "unearned giveaway." Some entitlements, such as military retirement pay, are very well-earned. They're called entitlements because the payments have already been promised.

Of course, some kinds of highly questionable aid payments are also entitlements.

This is an example of metonymic meaning change (R. Wells, "Metonymy and misunderstanding," 1975). People forgot the intent of the word and gave it a different meaning based on some (not all) of the things it refers to.


A very temporary pet

While tidying up the kitchen, I found a baby chameleon (Anolis carolinensis) hiding under the toaster. We've met him, or his brothers and sisters, before; we think they get in around an air conditioner. Anyhow, it's too cold to put him outdoors right now, so he's going to spend the night in a jar and be released tomorrow. He has had dinner (two gnats and a spider) and something to drink (a sprinkle of water on the inside of the jar; chameleons won't drink water unless it's in droplets).


Why meteors look bright but photograph dim

During the Geminid meteor shower on the evening of the 13th, I saw quite a few bright meteors — maybe four or five brighter than magnitude 1 — but only photographed one meteor digitally, as far as I know. Others may have shown up on my film images, which will be developed in a few weeks. Most were outside the field of either camera.

Above you see a meteor streaking through the tiny constellation Canis Minor, which is shown with west up (thus Procyon is the bright star well below the meteor and Beta Canis Minoris is the one above it). This is part of a one-minute exposure taken with a Canon 60Da at ISO 800 and a 28-mm f/2.8 lens wide open on a fixed tripod.

The stars are streaks because of the earth's rotation during the one-minute exposure. The meteor is a streak because, of course, it was moving.

Now for the surprising part. I saw this meteor visually, and it was as bright as Procyon. The reason it is so dim in the picture is that it covered a track about 8 times as long and took only about one second to do it. So it was moving at about 500 times the apparent speed of the stars.

And that's why meteors are hard to photograph. Even a very bright meteor is a rather dim object when you consider how much light actually falls on any single pixel.


Should American football as we know it go away?

When something gets into Reader's Digest, you know it's on a lot of people's radar. So I was gratified to see that they're reporting the not-so-recent discovery that playing football causes brain damage, even with normal "safe" equipment, and even in high school.

Concerns about this were already being expressed in the 1930s and led to heavier body armor and helmets. Recently, the medical evidence has accumulated that even with today's equipment, football is cumulatively damaging. Part of it is our new understanding of brain injury: there is no such thing as a harmless concussion, although if you're lucky, the harm may go almost unnoticed.

I think the situation with football today is like smoking in 1960 — everybody still wants to pretend it's harmless, but the days of their fantasy are numbered, and then there are going to be huge legal liabilities.

I've had other concerns about football for a long time. Some people are far too fanatical about it, and too many girls and women equate playing football with the height of masculinity. I suppose football may provide a useful substitute for real fighting, but it may also encourage warlike attitudes that are undesirable. (Have you ever seen a civic youth organization torn apart by high school rivalry?) It also diverts schools' and colleges' resources (and culture) away from education in a costly way.

What's to be done? Substitute another sport? The thing is, American football is already at least three sports in one. It's a running and kicking game like soccer — sort of. But it's also a contact sport like a collective version of boxing or wrestling. And it's a strategy game with elaborate, discrete "plays" almost like chess moves.

The middle part needs to go — the collisions and physical force. Whether football would retain its fan base if that happened, I don't know, because the fighting quality of it is what many of the fans enjoy.

Soccer is not a complete substitute because of the lack of complex strategy and discrete steps. Maybe someone could invent a sport that works like soccer but has more complexity.


Why I do electronics, photography, and astronomy

This Notebook entry will be more autobiographical than most. It concerns something I didn't really think through until just the past year, or less.

As you know, my three main avocations (hobbies? pursuits?) are electronics, photography, and astronomy. None of these is part of my profession (computational linguistics).

What I've realized is that each of them is connected with the gap left by the tragic death of my father when I was nine years old.

By way of background, I have always felt — and my parents encouraged me to feel — that my role in the world was to acquire and use specialized knowledge. I wasn't like everybody else, and I didn't try to be. I knew from about age 2 that I was going to be some kind of scientist or scholar. While my contemporaries were watching TV and listening to Top 40 in order to keep up with each other's TV and musical tastes, I was reading whatever I wanted to read, mostly about science and technology.

Electronics is the interest that my father and I pursued together. He didn't have any special expertise, but he gave me lots of encouragement. At age six I was taking apart old radios and identifying the parts. At seven I was given a Knight 100-in-1 kit for Christmas — basically a reconfigurable circuit board with instructions for making over 100 circuits. Dad regularly took me to the local electronic parts dealer, Specialty Distributing Company, some of whose green metal shelves are now installed in my own workshop. In that milieu, one got practical knowledge at stores, not libraries. There were also magazines — the first one we got was the Summer 1964 issue of Elementary Electronics.

After Dad died, I taught myself to solder (since he could no longer do it for me) and carried on. The magazines kept coming, and the trips to Specialty continued. My uncle generously bought me an oscilloscope.

Photography is the pursuit in which I took over my father's role and responsibilities. Before he died, he had showed me how the cameras worked and had even taken me to see a darkroom at the Valdosta Police Department, but I had never taken a picture myself. After he was gone, I finished up the roll of film in our Polaroid J66 (which was extremely easy to use, with instructions printed all over it). Then, in the summer of 1967, while we were between houses, I had custody of the box containing the 35-mm cameras and accessories. With the aid of a couple of books, I figured everything out, although our budget was so tight that I made the first 36-exposure roll of film last two years. Later, in high school, with access to darkroom facilities and bulk-loaded film, I mastered 35-mm photography right at the height of the Tri-X era.

Astronomy is the first pursuit that dates from completely after my father's time. Although my father had viewed a 1963 solar eclipse with me (by pinhole projection) and a lunar eclipse around 1964, apart from that, we never paid any attention to the night sky and didn't know any constellations. Sixth grade (1967-68) was when I really got into astronomy. In rapid sequence I read an astronomy textbook lent by my sixth-grade teacher, discovered the Valdosta Public Library's astronomy books (much better than their electronics books), and was put in touch with astronomers at Valdosta State College. My father's only connection to this is the way I found out there was such a thing as amateur astronomy: by browsing through the Edmund Scientific Company catalog (#645), which he had gotten for us.

Astronomy was a much more academic pursuit than electronics or photography, and (through Valdosta State College) it was my initiation into academia. It launched me on a long trajectory that led to history of science, languages, linguistics, and computers.

So now you know something about my background. I've always felt that I should give the world something back — that when I acquire knowledge or capabilities, I should use them for others. That's why I've done so much writing about all three of these pursuits: books about astronomy and photography (which overlap) and, from 1985 to 2000, about two hundred magazine articles about electronics. There's an electronics book in the works, too, half finished in 2006 and on hold until my other responsibilities settle down.

I haven't had time to put in hyperlinks, but many specific things mentioned in this entry are also described elsewhere in the Daily Notebook, including the first picture I took with the Polaroid J66, the Edmund catalog, and the Knight 100-in-1. Use the search button to find them.


A different default style for Word 2010

Word 2010's default document format is annoying. Normal text is in sans-serif type, and an extra line is skipped after every paragraph. (My instinct, from typewriter days, is to hit Enter an extra time at the end of a paragraph, and it's more work to remember not to do it than to do it!) Also, the section headings are different colors and not, to my eye, entirely harmonious, and there are no page numbers. By default, things look like this:

Here's how to change the defaults forever, so they will look like the following, and also so that all pages after the first will automatically have page numbers.


(1) If you are using Word, close it. Word must not be in use while you make this change.

(2) Download Normal.dotm by right-clicking here and save it on your desktop.

(3) Click the Start button (at the lower left of the screen), and in the search box, type: %appdata%\Microsoft\Templates

(4) In the folder that opens, rename the existing Normal.dotm to be Normal.dotm.bak. Then move the new Normal.dotm into that folder.

(5) Start up Word and try it out.

You can make further customizations. In Word, choose the style you want to change, right-click on it, choose Modify, and make sure "New documents based on this template" is checked. Then save your document (somewhere, anywhere) even if it's empty. That will cause Normal.dotm to be updated when you exit Word. You can then copy your new Normal.dotm to other computers just the way you did mine.

Is this why they're saying "Holiday"?

As I've said before, I'm glad to wish anyone "Happy Holidays" because we have more than one holiday at this time of year. But I get mildly annoyed when people won't call Christmas by its right name. December 25 is not "Holiday" and I don't give people presents for "Holiday." Indeed, I find this trend puzzling.

I wonder if part of what's going on is this. Do some people think "holiday" means "holly day" and is the name of a winter festival, or maybe an alternate name for "Christmas"? It actually means "holy day." Of course, people have been saying "happy holly days" as a pun for years, but maybe some people didn't realize it was a joke.


Rutherford Hall will never look funnier

A while back I chronicled the demolition of Rutherford Hall at The University of Georgia. Now the new Rutherford Hall is being built, and with its green and blue insulation layer, it looks especially comical:

And here is the crane that has been looming over several buildings for several weeks:

The colors are realistic, a bit on the vivid side. These are both daytime photos with the (astronomy model) Canon 60Da and 40/2.8 "pancake" lens.

Out with the old, in with the new

For Christmas we gave ourselves (somewhat on short notice, because of equipment failure) a new furnace and new ductwork downstairs. It is actually cheaper to replace the ducts than to have them cleaned! The 40-year-old ducts had dust a quarter inch thick on the supply lines (upstream of the filter) — not much dust downstream of the filter, which proved that the filter was doing its job, but there was still a slight musty smell. We are enjoying having a house that smells like nothing at all.


First Sunday in Advent

I want to wish everyone a blessed First Sunday in Advent (Dec. 2).

Why does the date of Easter vary?

If you've never wondered about this, you don't have an active enough mind.

Why does the date of Easter vary, even though the date of Christmas doesn't vary?

Let's deal with the second one first. The date of Jesus' birth is not given in the Bible. It may have been the spring, when sheep were being watched at night.

While there is some chance that an old tradition that says it was December 25 may be true, it's also quite possible that the celebration was placed on December 25 to overshadow pagan festivals of the winter solstice (the time of year when days start getting longer). In ancient times, people chose festive days arbitrarily; they did not have to be anniversaries.

In any case, the only tradition we have says that the date is December 25, and that is a date expressed in terms of the Roman calendar.

The Roman calendar, which (with minor updates) we still use today, is a solar calendar. That is, it's designed to keep in step with the sun. The longest day of the year is always June 21; the shortest is always December 21; and so forth. (Before the usage of leap year was perfected, these varied a little, but the goal was to keep them fixed.)

The Roman calendar totally ignores the phases of the moon. You have absolutely no idea what date will be full moon, in any given month, until you look at a chart. The calendar isn't synchronized with it.

What about Easter? Well, the date of the Resurrection is given in the Bible, at least approximately. It is a Sunday very close to the first day of Passover, in the middle of the month of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar.

And the Hebrew calendar was lunar, not solar. It was synchronized with the phases of the moon by actual observation, resulting in a extra month being inserted every few years as needed. This was too clumsy for the Romans, so the Hebrew calendar was never adopted outside of Judaism.

For a while, Christians set the date of Easter by following the Jewish calendar. But they had trouble keeping this up, partly because of uncertainty about the accuracy of the Hebrew calendar itself, so after the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) they decided to reconstruct part of the lunar calendar for themselves. Thus it is that Easter is the Sunday on or following the first full moon of spring, where spring is defined as the part of the year when the days are longer than the nights and are lengthening.

Now you know.

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