Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
PC shuts down or hibernates as soon as UPS kicks in
Tek oscilloscope refuses to use some USB drives
Emitter-coupled oscillator
Asus laptop wakes up with black screen
Acrylic sanding sealer: no longer made?
A note on the "affluenza defense"
Half a century ago
Astronomy and the Star of Bethlehem
Science, religion, creationism, and the Big Bang
DSLR spectral response compared to Ektachrome E100G
A weak spot in evangelical Christian culture
A sacrifice to the Earth Goddess?
Orion (Ektachrome)
Sagittarius (Ektachrome)
Cygnus (Ektachrome)
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Old Year's Day

That's what I call December 31: Old Year's Day.

For us, 2013 was a year of subtraction. Much of the familiar world in which we lived a year earlier is no longer with us. I retired from the University of Georgia to do consulting. Melody's father died. My sister got divorced and remarried. Our dog, Babbage, went blind suddenly. On a more mundane level, our eye doctor and old friend, Jim Dillard, retired and we have to find a new eye doctor. Our primary physician is on extended sick leave but is planning to come back...

Still, we end the year with much to be thankful for. My consulting business is going well, and I'm enjoying the lighter workload and higher income compared to academia. Melody and I get to spend a lot of time together. She is preparing for hip surgery, which will probably happen in the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, I am slowly getting over costochondritis (rib inflammation), which became severe in October 2012 and improved only slowly until I stopped taking pravastatin (a cholesterol-lowering drug) in September 2013. (I would not tell everyone else to stop taking statins. Few people get muscle damage from them, and they can lower your risk of a heart attack dramatically. But I was one of the unlucky ones, suffering substantial muscle damage without realizing it.)

Here's to a better 2014! In the meantime, I'm going to write up two topics I had had in mind for some time.

The impenetrable French language

In 1974, as an undergraduate, I went to Québec with a student group. One of the first things I noticed was that the Québecois had a kind of popular music all their own, rather melodious, pleasant-sounding songs, not unlike folk music. Twenty years later, the rest of the world came to know this kind of music via Céline Dion. But in 1974 it was provincial, literally.

I went into a Woolworth's and tried to ask someone to recommend a record or two that I could buy. At the time I didn't know any useful amount of French. After a clumsy conversation with a shopgirl about my own age, in no particular language, I emerged with a vinyl record of Gilles Vigneault (who was popular as much for political as for musical reasons). Of course, I wouldn't know what it sounded like until I got home to Georgia and could play the record.

I came home and, in the next couple of years, learned a good bit of French and set out to figure out what he was singing about. One song, "Le voyageur sédentaire" ("The armchair traveler"), contained the puzzling lines:

Le voyageur se dit souvent
Que le (?) serai(ent?) jamais enfants

Literally, "The traveler often tells himself that the (???) would never be children."

Not quite right.

Fast-forward to 2013. We have Wikipedia and online lyrics and I've solved the mystery. He was actually singing:

Le voyageur se dit souvent,
"Que laisserai-je à mes enfants?"

"The traveler often says to himself, 'What will I leave to my children?'"

Straightforward, now that it's decoded. French has so many words that sound alike or nearly alike that it lends itself all too easily to mondegreens.

And there was I, outwitted once again by the impenetrable French language.

On not being a busybody

I hope I'm right in thinking I'm not a busybody, know-it-all, or what the Germans call a Besserwisser. By that I mean I do not go around imagining that I know how other people should be living their lives and I just need to tell them (to their faces or behind their backs).

If you want opinions about how you're raising your children, managing your money, decorating your house, or dressing yourself, go somewhere else. I don't spend my time thinking about these things.

The only exceptions are: (1) a specialized topic that I actually know something about, such as where to go to graduate school in linguistics (in which case I'll give you advice if you ask for it); (2) an obvious moral or legal failure (in that case I'll address the problem). In neither case will I talk about you behind your back and say what you "really ought" to be doing.

I don't imagine that everybody's mind works like my own, or that they have the same likes, dislikes, and tastes. Nor do I imagine that my own choices are the only rationally defensible ones. For example, if you happen to need exactly the same kind of car as I do, but you chose a Honda CR-V instead of a Ford Escape, I won't hold it against you. The two are very close equivalents for most purposes. I don't cling with blind loyalty to the particular choices I made.

Most of all, I don't want to give people unsolicited advice when I know that I don't know all the relevant facts. I hear other people doing this all the time, and it is often comically obvious how little they know.


A day of electricianry

A day of electricianry (a word that ought to exist if it doesn't already) — or, as Melody and I sometimes also call it, elec-trickery. I did two fairly major projects, one planned and one unplanned.

The planned one was to replace bulbs in four of our kitchen overhead lights (which are 48-inch fluorescents above a plastic suspended ceiling) and convert one of them to an electronic ballast. I thought two were due for conversion, but one turned out to have been done and not labeled as such a few years ago, so I didn't have as much to do as I thought.

The unplanned one had to do with fixing the DSL, after dinner. For months, our Internet connection has been just a bit unreliable and we've done things like replace the modem and run all kinds of tests. The problem wasn't very reproducible.

This evening (Dec. 28) it suddenly got worse; we would lose our Internet connection every few minutes, and in addition, there was a lot of noise on the (voice, POTS) telephone line.

Potentially big headache — this could be caused by a defect in any piece of telephone equipment in the house, or the wiring out in the yard.

My next move was to go to the network interface (the place under the house where Bellsouth's wiring joins ours) and look around. I was thinking I'd plug a telephone directly into that and see how it sounded.

Well... at the slightest touch, our plug fell out of the socket (which was also technically ours, connected to Bellsouth's wire).

Problem diagnosed. That plug had probably been getting gradually looser for years.

Next step: Build a dual outlet RJ-14 network interface out of parts already on hand. Fortunately I have a well-stocked workshop, and exactly what I needed was there. In fact, I built a better one than we had before. After crawling around under the house for a bit, I got the new network inferface installed. I also replaced the DSL filter (which is upstream of all the house telephone wiring; the DSL modem has a separate wire). It wasn't defective, but I figured it had been absorbing surges, humidity, and whatnot for about fifteen years and deserved a dignified retirement.

Problem fixed — I think!

A sacrifice to the Earth Goddess?


Today's electrical work left me with four 48-inch fluorescent tubes to dispose of safely. Because they contain mercury, I didn't want to put them in the garbage. So I explored my options. Home Depot (nearby) doesn't take them, although it does take CFL bulbs and batteries. Athens-Clarke County offers free, safe disposal if I will carry them to the solid waste facility, 6 miles away, during business hours.

Should I spend half an hour or more and drive 12 miles to take them to the county facility?

It's easy to say, "Obviously, yes." But I think that is the wrong answer.

Driving 12 miles would itself impose a burden on the environment, as well as danger to human life (small, but appreciable, whenever we use an automobile).

And that might well be more of a burden than the mercury would have been. I looked it up, and we're talking about 22 milligrams of mercury per bulb. That means it would take about 50 bulbs to equal one old thermometer. These new-style, low-mercury bulbs are legal to put in landfills in most states, including this one. That doesn't mean I advocate it, but it's legal.

So if I were to drive the 12 miles, it would be as a sacrifice to the Earth Goddess, to show that I don't mind wasting time, money, and energy, and even polluting the environment, to show that I can Make A Sacrifice For Mother Earth.

I balk at that. I'm a big recycler — my household outputs more recyclables than garbage every week — but the infrastructure has to meet me halfway, or at least a quarter of the way. About recycling I'm inclined to say what Ayn Rand would probably have said: If you want it to happen, make it part of the economy. If you can't do that, you've missed something important about costs versus benefits.

It is often said that environmental stewardship raises impossible moral dilemmas. I would reply: This isn't impossible morality, it's straightforward economics. We're talking about trade-offs, harms versus benefits, and that's what economics is all about.

Putting it another way, the earth's ability to handle pollution is a finite resource, and the allocation of finite resources is economics.

The earth does have some ability to handle pollution. The dose makes the poison, and there really are levels of pollutants low enough to have no biological effect. And remember, all that mercury was in the earth somewhere before it was mined — it's not a man-made element.

Pollution is a problem in the first place because people can do it without paying the cost. The impose the costs on other unwilling people (present or future). Economists call this an externality. It's somewhat like overuse of a man-made resource, such as clogging up a highway.

All pollution ought to be taxed. Anyone who can easily reduce pollution should be able to save money by doing so. Present pollution laws are like speed limits; they give you no incentive to go below the limit. That's what we need to change.

I'm annoyed at the way some environmentalists fail to think quantitatively. They get fixated on one hazard — typically something that arouses fear of the unknown, such as radioactivity or unfamiliar chemicals — and want it totally eliminated at all costs. Their fear of their chosen hazard often borders upon superstition. Meanwhile, big hazards, such as drunk drivers or poorly designed roads, are neglected.

I mentioned the notion of sacrificing to the Earth Goddess, as if suffering inconvenience for the sake of Mother Earth were ipso facto meritorious. That's a point at which environmentalism becomes, for some people, a substitute for religion. Allied to this is the curious notion that Homo sapiens, alone of all species, has no right to impose any load on the environment — perhaps because we're "out of harmony with nature." That, to me, is an extremely crude, pagan-like substitute for the Judeo-Christian doctrine of original sin.

See also my earlier entry, "Christianity and Environmentalism" (2007).

The rest of the story: Earth911.com told me falsely that Batteries Plus would take the bulbs for safe disposal. They didn't, but they told me Lowe's would take them, which turned out to be true. It pleases me that I can dispose of fluorescent tubes safely in the course of normal shopping, rather than by having to make a sacrificial journey to a special facility.


A weak spot in evangelical Christian culture

Today's Notebook entry is for my fellow Christians. Those of you who came here for the astrophotography or even the occasional ventures into politics or economics are welcome to skip it. Also, I should warn everyone that in order to describe a problem adequately, I have to exaggerate it. You may well think that I think things are worse than they are.

I consider myself an evangelical Christian. That means I think a personal commitment to Christ is vital, the Bible is authoritative, and church organization is flexible — valid churches don't have to be part of a single hierarchy. I belong to a Baptist church; Baptists are largely evangelical in their approach to things.

What I want to do is point out a broad weakness in evangelical culture. We seem to be allergic to great art, music, and literature. I contend that the weakness extends further, and that we are actually weak on worship. We are also infected with inverse snobbery. I'll explain this in the next few paragraphs.

My old friend Don Williams has written an essay called "Why Evangelicals Can't Write" (in this book). He points out that the Catholics have Flannery O'Connor, the Anglicans have T. S. Eliot, etc., etc., but we evangelicals "get Left Behind" (alluding to a series of novels which, even if you like their eschatology, can hardly be considered more than popular fiction).

I can add that in some evangelical churches there seems to be a complete ban on great music — no Bach, no Palestrina, hardly anything composed before 1970 — and when I went to an evangelical bookstore two weeks ago, I was struck by the absence of first-rate, or even traditional, visual art. Everything was cartoon-like, and the only "big name" artist represented there was Thomas Kinkade.

Dr. Williams says that in order to foster great literature, art, or music, a Christian community needs three things: a Christian worldview, a theology of art, and a sense of mystery (divine immanence and transcendence). Evangelicals typically have only the first of these, and (I would argue) they are often weak on it: evangelicals often treat the Gospel as a set of beliefs that you just need to graft onto a basically godless worldview, and then you're OK, resulting in an overall outlook that runs far too close to atheism.

As for theology of art, that's something Catholic philosophers have (and Eastern Orthodox theology is positively immersed in) but evangelicals neglect.

But "sense of mystery" is the big one. I think part of the reason evangelicals are weak on art, music, and literature, is that (strange to say) we are often very weak on worship.

That seems strange to say, since we put such a high value on churchgoing. But we use our church services almost entirely for instruction — evangelization of outsiders and practical training of insiders — and we don't pause to contemplate the immanence and transcendence of God.

We often have an excessively lightweight view of the Sacraments — we are so eager to get away from Roman Catholicism that we find ourselves fleeing from ordinances instituted by Jesus Christ.

We sing about our own emotions rather than about the glory of the Almighty. When we have musicians performing, we often turn the service into an Ed Sullivan show, pausing to applaud each act.

And we seem to forget what worship is. Instead of an orderly, humble, dignified approach to God, a church service becomes something like a Rotary Club meeting with a lecture. We want sermons about practical topics ("Ten ways to improve your marriage") rather than fundamental Christian doctrines. (I want to emphasize that evangelization and practical instruction are important. But they are not the whole point of a church service.)

So that's part of the problem. I think there are also two more problems: a tendency toward provincialism and even inverse snobbery.

By provincialism I mean thinking that everyone who matters is a lot like ourselves, and God has never been anywhere else, or at least it doesn't matter to us if He has. It reminds me of the way generation-gap kids in the early 1970s (my contemporaries!) demanded that everything must be "relevant to My Generation." We want to fit God into our suburban lifestyle and tastes and not care about anything He has done elsewhere in space or time. We want to pretend that Christianity vanished at the end of the Apostolic Era and reappeared in America in the 1950s, or maybe 1980s, and nothing in between matters. We demand that all art, music, and literature must be made of things already familiar to us.

Provincialism is largely a manifestation of ignorance (possibly culpable ignorance) and laziness ("I don't want to bother with anything I'm not already familiar with"). Inverse snobbery is something worse, especially because it is easily passed off as humility.

A snob, in the traditional sense, looks down on people and culture that he considers to be beneath him. An inverse snob looks down on people and culture that he considers to be above him. Inverse snobbery is a combination of the deadly sins of Pride ("I'm better than them") and Envy ("I hold it against them that they have something I don't").

In church, inverse snobbery is often expressed as something like, "We're plain country people and we don't need that fancy stuff." Or even a false doctrine: "God objects to people offering anything too fancy." (Did God ask for a plain, unadorned tabernacle?) It would indeed be a mistake to think that God can be bribed by "fancy" offerings, or that He holds it against us if we can't perform classical music, or that great art or music is a substitute for personal holiness — but can't it be an expression of, or even a help toward, personal holiness, at least for those who are equipped to appreciate it?

In fact, my experience is that "plain country people" (genuinely humble ones, not inverse snobs) routinely are edified by great Christian art and music even if they lack all historical and technical knowledge of it. It seems that everyone wants to hear great Christian music at Christmas; why not the rest of the time? Does anyone really look at the Canterbury Cathedral window and turn away because it's "too fancy"? In its own time it was designed to teach the Bible to complete beginners. It is beautiful but not, in that sense, "highbrow."

I am not objecting to the presence of things that are completely accessible to beginners. That is vital if the church is ever going to reach anyone. Nor am I objecting to new (as well as old) music and art. But we don't go to church just to be entertained in a culture we are already familiar with. We go to connect with two thousand years of accumulated Christian wisdom and to humbly approach God Himself. Let's not leave God in the church building. We need to take our humble awareness of immanent and transcendent God everywhere we go.


C. S. Lewis, warts and all

For Christmas, my family gave me, inter alia, Alister McGrath's biography of C. S. Lewis. It is excellent. As you know, I have been interested in Lewis for a long time, long before Narnia became his best-known achievement.

The author, Alister McGrath, is a prominent evangelical Christian theologian and writer, and in this book he presents an impressive amount of new information and critical thinking. Instead of just adding to what is already being said about Lewis, he did his own research, from the ground up, and in the process, straightened out some minor chronological puzzles. He also presented a lot of background information that would otherwise be hard to come by, especially for people outside the Oxford and Cambridge milieu. (One detail that had eluded me was that Lewis's "triple first" was not what we Americans would call a triple major; his first degree, in Humane Letters, had two final examinations, so to get a triple first, he only added one more degree, in English.)

More importantly, McGrath depicts Lewis "warts and all," but without aiming to discredit him. Perhaps for the first time, we get a biography that is neither adulatory nor hostile. McGrath appreciates Lewis's formidable achievements but clearly points out his deficiencies — ranging from theological arguments that don't quite hold up to expert scrutiny, all the way to Lewis's odd relationships with women.

Verdict: A first-rate book.




Christmas in miniature

Photo: Sharon Covington

We didn't have time to set up a Christmas tree this year, so Sharon's dolls rose to the occasion and decorated a rosemary bush for us.

I should add that we planned a low-key Christmas because we expected Melody to be in the hospital right about now; she's awaiting hip surgery, but it has been postponed slightly. This is good news, not bad, because it will mean the end of a painful problem that has been plaguing her for years.

We wish you and yours a blessed Christmas and a prosperous New Year!


The last Ektachromes

Below, I humbly present my last two Ektachrome astrophotographs, a 20-minute exposure of Sagittarius and a 25-minute exposure of Cygnus, taken at Deerlick on October 1 using a Canon EOS 10S and Canon 50/1.8 lens (wide open) on an iOptron SkyTracker. Both were scanned with a Nikon LS-30 scanner and were adjusted and sharpened digitally.

You can see various nebulae, but the picture quality is nowhere near the eighteen megapixels of the Canon 60Da DSLR; in fact, there is probably less than one megapixel of true image quality in each of these.

Film astrophotography was fun, but we live in a different era now.

Finally, here's the very last Ektachrome slide I ever took, a self-portrait in late October. It is one of the few Ektachrome slides anyone will ever take with the new Canon "pancake" lens, which came on the market after Ektachrome was discontinued. The picture has been adjusted and flipped (mirrored) digitally.

Farewell to a trusted tool.



DSLR spectral response compared to Ektachrome E100G

I published part of this back in October, but here's the picture you're really waiting for. How does the late lamented Kodak Ektachrome film — known to be very good for photographing nebulae — compare to ordinary and astronomy-modified DSLRs?

These pictures were taken by aiming a Project STAR spectrometer at a white piece of paper illuminated by a tungsten-halogen bulb. The Ektachrome image isn't as sharp as I'd like, but, alas, there is no way to re-do it; Ektachrome is no longer made.


  • At hydrogen-alpha (656 nm), Ektachrome is in between the modified and unmodified DSLRs. Data sheets indicate, actually, that Ektachrome is strong at precisely that wavelength but does not extend appreciably past it. The modified DSLR extends to 700 nm or so.
  • Ektachrome (like all color film) has gaps in its spectral response. There is a gap around 590 nm, and another around 500 nm. The latter corresponds to the blue-green color of comets that shows up only with digital cameras.
  • Greens and purples to the right of about 420 nm in the picture are reflections in the instrument.

Fuji slide film, as I understand it, does not have response extending to 656 nm; nor do most black-and-white films.


Orion on film

My last two rolls of Ektachrome E100G were exposed in, respectively, my Olympus OM-1 (a trusted friend from the 1970s) and my Canon EOS 10S (a 1990s anachronism, a film camera that works like a digital camera).

This is the last astrophoto I took on Ektachrome with the Olympus. It is a slightly cropped, digitally adjusted image from an exposure of about 18 minutes with my Olympus 100-mm f/2.8 lens, wide open, taken from my yard in Athens, Georgia, last March 8th.

How far we've come! This is, by present-day digital standards, not a very good picture at all. Compare for example this, taken with the same lens!

I also took a few film images with the Canon 10S at Deerlick recently and will be posting them soon.


Astronomy and the Star of Bethlehem

I've just updated my 2004 notes on astronomy and the Star of Bethlehem. Click through if you're interested — and be sure also read the 2007 sequel.

The bottom line is that there is no quick, simple astronomical identification of the Star of Bethlehem. That doesn't mean it didn't happen, only that we now have so little information that we don't know much about it. We can't declare, "Oh, yes, it was the supernova of 3 B.C. that produced such-and-such a nebula," or even, "It was Comet So-and-so, which reappeared in such-and-such a year." It may well have been something not reconstructible, such as a nova (exploding star) or a one-time visit by a comet that is otherwise unknown, or even a vision or mystical experience.

Science, religion, creationism, and the Big Bang

Most of you know already that I consider young-earth creationism to be a mistake which occasionally rises to the level of a heresy in the hands of a few people who are more interested in leading young-earth movements than in being good Christians.

Bottom line: I do not think God deceived us by creating false fossils of animals that never lived, false light emissions from supernovae that never happened, etc., in order to "create with the appearance of age." I think that if you accept such a proposition, you immediately find yourself holding a very strange, non-Judeo-Christian theology.

Well... I thought of a good historical example of why Christians ought not to oppose lines of scientific research that seem to contradict Christian doctrine (the way some young-earthers seem to want to get rid of evolutionary biology).

A century and a half ago, astronomers were sure that the universe was (or at least appeared) infinitely old, which contradicts (or at least fails to support) Holy Scripture.

Fortunately, nobody managed to kill off astrophysics in the late 1800s. If they had, the Big Bang would never have been discovered, nor eventually confirmed by the discovery of microwave background radiation. We now have confidence that the universe had a beginning, and that "Let there be light" was a good description of what it looked like. This is not the last word, of course; no scientific theory ever is; but if people had abandoned astronomical research a century or so ago, it would never have been discovered at all.

So what I tell young-earthers is that if you believe modern science is completely on the wrong track (which I don't), you should want research to continue, because that's the only thing that can be done about it. If a scientific theory is wrong, the only way to find out is by pursuing it.

To do the opposite — to retreat in fear — makes it look as if you are afraid of the truth, or, even worse, that you know that you're wrong but don't want to face it. At the very least, if God wants to reveal something to you through the Book of Nature, do you want Him to find you with your hands over your eyes and ears?


Εἷς κύριος, μία πίστις, ἓν βάπτισμα

Photo: Catherine Anne Barrett

My granddaughter, Mary Catherine Barrett, is now a baptized Eastern Orthodox Christian. Here you see her studying iconography with her other grandfather just before her baptism, which took place today (December 21).

The title of this entry is a verse from the New Testament in the original Greek: Ephesians 4:5, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism."


Second grade 50 years ago

Photo by Charles G. Covington. Polaroid J66, Type 47 film.

I am now old enough to have distinct memories from half a century ago. That is a frightening thought. But half a century ago, the 1963-64 school term, was a very good, even idyllic, time for me. My parents had built their dream house diagonally opposite R. B. Wright Elementary School in Moultrie, Georgia. I started first grade, but then, within just a few weeks, was moved to second grade, along with another student. The whole year was one of the high points of my education, with plenty of interesting things to learn and do. In fact, that's when I first became interested in linguistics, by way of the spelling and pronunciation rules we were being taught as part of "phonics."

It was the year of the Kennedy assassination, although they chose not to tell us about it at school; the news was just breaking when it was time for the second grade to get out, and the adults were not quite sure of the facts yet.

Other things I remember include a classroom fish tank; French lessons from Mme. Ball; someone passing around a British newspaper printed on what seemed to be tissue paper (presumably the overseas edition of the Manchester Guardian); learning about the X-15 high-altitude jet; the flag going to half-mast for General MacArthur; and, most of all, lots of good times with friends. The class was unusually friendly and cohesive. As I recall, it was also small by 1960s standards, with about 26 students.

Amazingly, on Facebook I have reconnected with the teacher (Myrtle Lofton, now 90 years old) and more than half a dozen of the students, many of whom I would have had no trouble recognizing at sight — they look the same! (Allowing for growth and maturity, of course.)

When the school year ended, my father got transferred to Valdosta (after just one year in the dream house) and that was the last I saw of the old crowd. In Valdosta, my parents built the same house again, on Lake Drive. The move to Valdosta opened up some opportunities for my father and me to pursue our interest in technology together; in general, there was more of everything; but the school system didn't serve me as well, and the community seemed less friendly. Tragedy struck just two years after the move, in October 1966, when my father was killed in the line of duty.

But back to my main point: What's it like to remember life 50 years ago?

Mainly that there was much less change in the past 50 years than in the 50 years before that. In 1964, we didn't have the Internet or personal computers, but we definitely had radio, TV, automobiles, air conditioning, telephones (not mobile!), and plenty of up-to-date information about the world around us, and the expectation of going to college. Apart from the lack of computers and cell phones, the main change you'd notice if you suddenly went back to 1964 is that the details of the cars and kitchen appliances were different. Also, personal finance worked a little differently: credit cards were used only at gas stations, and you paid for major purchases by writing a check on the spot, possibly using a pad of blank checks provided by the merchant. Shopping had not totally moved out of "downtown," although there were starting to be shopping centers (strips, not enclosed malls).

Contrast that with 50 years earlier. In 1914, neither of the World Wars had happened yet; automobiles, radios, telephones, and college-educated people were scarce, and even indoor plumbing wasn't universal; and architecture was totally different — no split-levels, ranch houses, or shopping centers.

I'm glad to have been born when I was, brought up by a generation that was determined to treat its children better than any children had ever been treated before. Yes, we were pampered. I think it paid off. We grew up to create a society in which — for all its passing difficulties — we want to treat everyone well, and we do not tell people that adversity is an inevitable part of life. Our parents stared down the Great Depression and Hitler; we, even the most conservative of us, have a determination to solve society's problems that was unheard-of a century earlier.



A note on the "affluenza defense"


People are rightly shaking their heads after a Texas teen avoided jail time for lethal drunk driving after a psychologist's testimony that he suffered from "affluenza," a delusional inability to tell right from wrong that somehow came from growing up rich.

I think that is hogwash. But suppose "affluenza" is real. Consider the consequences.

In effect, the court has agreed with the psychologist that he is a danger to others because he is mentally incapable of handling the responsibilities of an ordinary citizen.

Doesn't that mean he should be locked away in an institution in order to protect the rest of us? "Danger to oneself or others" is exactly the criterion for doing that.

Be careful what you ask a court for. You may get it. And in this case, I hope he does.

(Our legal expert, who is my daughter Cathy, points out that because of the confidentiality associated with juvenile cases, we may be hearing a very incomplete account of what happened. It may be that the judge gave a light penalty for other reasons and didn't actually accept the psychologist's claim. I hope more details come out as this is discussed publicly.)



To my considerable surprise, the Carver-Tripp water-based wood stains that we bought twenty years ago are still usable, including one custom-mixed by Sharon on August 5, 1993, when she was less than five years old.

So we can still do small craft projects with materials from the last century. These products are no longer made, and I'm not aware of any modern substitute for the Danish wax, which is wax in a glycol mixture.

I really enjoyed being able to finish small pieces of wood in just a couple of hours, without odor and without toxicity. I seldom build full-size furniture; these are for small things such as wooden bases for electronic equipment, and for repairs.

By the way, water-based stain is handy for fixing scratches on furniture; it only sticks to bare wood, not to the existing finish.


Water-based acrylic sanding sealer: handy, but no longer made?

You can tell that I'm getting back into my workshop, at least a little, as this notebook gets more like Popular Mechanics.

Today's topic is sanding sealer. That is a kind of thin varnish that is often applied to wood before the final sanding, so that if the varnish is going to raise the grain, it will do so and you can sand it back down flat.

However, sanding sealer has other uses.

Oil-based sanding sealer has always been widely used. Back in the mid-1990s, when my daughters and I were doing a lot of woodworking, there was also an abundant line of water-based wood finishes, most of which have vanished from the market. One of them was Parks (I think) acrylic sanding sealer. I bought a couple of quarts of it, and since I only make small things, it has lasted me until now. In fact, I still have nearly a quart of it in a Mason jar. Unfortunately, I don't have the original can, with the manufacturer's information.

Water-based sanding sealer dries in 15 to 60 minutes, and the brush cleans up with soap and water.

I've used a lot of it as an overcoat on top of other finishes, even paint. It is especially good for turning flat interior paint into a glossy, scrubbable surface. Since I have a lot of leftover interior paint, that's something I've done many times. It can even be used as the only finish on a piece of wood that just needs a light varnishing.

Well... The product that I'm using may still be available, in gallons only, as this. (Rust-Oleum bought out Parks.)

Also, Minwax has a very fast-drying water-based sanding sealer that may be worth trying, although it's obviously not the same thing.

There are also heavier water-base varnishes from both companies. A word to the wise: Choose a satin or semi-gloss surface, not high gloss; glossy surfaces are hard to get sufficiently uniform.

And there's a line of very well-regarded water-based wood finishes from General Finishes, including a sanding sealer, but they're expensive. These are the nearest thing to the Carver-Tripp products that we used in the late 1990s.

Then there's shellac, a time-honored coating that is fast-drying and totally nontoxic (some animals will even eat it). Zinsser makes regular shellac and also a shellac-based sanding sealer. The distinctive properties of shellac are: (1) brushes must be cleaned with pure (water-free) alcohol, not water or mineral spirits; (2) shellac sticks well both to oil paint and to water-based paint, so it makes a good bonding layer when something is being repainted with a different kind of coating.

But the bottom line seems to be that there's a lot more oil-based wood finishing in my future, with disposable foam brushes. I don't know why water-based finishes came and went away again. Maybe they weren't durable enough when used on furniture. I used them on small gadgets, such as bases for electronic equipment, and never really tested their durability. They certainly were easy to apply, and odorless, and they dried quickly.

Speaking of Popular Mechanics, they quoted me recently, about Wolfram's new programming language. I said, in essence, that from the early announcement, I couldn't tell what it was.


Short notes

I'm still here, just not spending my time writing Notebook entries...

Casualties of the recession: Has anyone noticed how many things you could buy in 1995 or 2005 but not (easily) today? In electronics, a number of handy integrated circuits have gone away, such as the UA2240 timer; the expectation today, I think, is that we'll use microcontrollers. And down at Home Depot, I note that water-based wood stains and wood finishes are almost gone. (We had them circa 1995 and they worked well! What happened?) The other thing that seems to have vanished is 12-inch-square stick-on carpet tiles, just when I needed a few...

Odd news story: I continue to be puzzled by reports of the sign-language interpreter at Mandela's funeral who produced gibberish. (At the time, everybody thought he was using the sign language of some other country; there are several ways of signing English.) Today's reports are that he has schizophrenia. That doesn't really explain anything... who gave him the job, and on the basis of what qualifications?


Busy weekend

Not a hint of leisure this weekend, as my church recruits a new pastor, and, meanwhile, my nephew, Aaron Paul, celebrates his graduation from the University of Georgia.

Lots of hobby-related activities — not only electronic explorations, but also scanning and posting my last batch of Ektachrome slides — will have to wait. As if there weren't anything else going on, I have plenty of consulting work to do.


Asus laptop wakes up with black screen


Asus laptop (UX32A and probably other models too) wakes up from sleep or hibernation with black screen; seems to be unresponsive until power-cycled.


Press Fn+F7 (screen on/off). The computer has awakened with its screen turned off.

This does not seem to have been fixed by BIOS updates (yet).


Low-level carbon monoxide detection, again

Ordinary household carbon monoxide detectors aren't good enough for me; read what I wrote back in 2008. Today's news is that the sensor in a detector of this type lasts 5 years and then reports "Sensor End Of Life," so it's time for a new one. Again, the place to get them is Aeromedix, but now there's a new model.

Interestingly, the old detector had not run down its 9-volt battery (Kodak Ultralife), which I'll use somewhere else now. The batteries removed from smoke detectors, too, are often good enough to continue using in radios and the like, as long as they aren't safety-critical.

Quicken bug of the day

Starting with Quicken 2014 release 3, the "reminder" window won't stay minimized — it opens up every time you look at an account, even if there are no reminders.

Quicken acknowledges the problem and I can tell you that they did not fix it in Quicken 2014 Release 4, which I obtained today.


Short notes

Consulting business is picking up, to the point where I am apparently more than fully occupied for the next 2 years or so, and both the Daily Notebook and my Facebook presence may become a bit scant. But I'm expecting to still have time for astronomy and gadgeteering (see next item, below).

By the way, the hardware section at the local Lowe's has gotten more interesting lately. In drawers labeled "Hobby" and "Science project parts," they are selling things like battery holders, motors, and ersatz Erector set or Meccano parts (not the full line, but a good many useful angle brackets and the like).

Emitter-coupled oscillator

[Revised and corrected.]

Other people play chess or build ships in bottles; I dabble in analog electronic design. In particular, I've always enjoyed experimenting with oscillator circuits because they seem to give you something for nothing. Just apply power, and a waveform comes out.

When I was younger, it bothered me that both of the major types of LC oscillators, Hartley and Colpitts, required either a split capacitor or a split inductor. Why wasn't there one that operated with a simple LC tuned circuit?

Well, there is, and you see it above. But first, back to Hartley and Colpitts. The reason for the split (either the double capacitor or the tapped inductor) is either phase inversion, or impedance matching, or both. If the transistor is used in common-emitter mode, it is an inverting amplifier and the polarity of the output has to be flipped in order to provide positive feedback. In emitter-follower or common-base mode, there is a low-impedance output or input, respectively, and a parallel tuned circuit would be detuned (or rather de-Q'd) by a low impedance connected to it. The split in the tuned circuit provides a place where a low-impedance connection can be made without spoiling the resonance.

Above you see an emitter-coupled oscillator. It requires two transistors, which, in my example, are PNP units arranged "upside down" so that the tuned circuit can be grounded. The tuned circuit is connected to a high-impedance output (a collector) and a high-impedance input (the base of a transistor with an emitter resistor).

I've built several versions of this over the years, and I want to breadboard it again to try out my new oscilloscope. According to TINA simulations, it oscillates with a very wide variety of L and C values. Note also that it has no RC time constants that could cause squegging. However, two transistor electrode capacitances are across the tuned circuit, which means that at high frequencies, you will need a smaller C than simple calculations suggest.

TINA simulation file here. You can get a free copy of TINA from Texas Instruments.

One bit of TINA trivia: If a simulated oscillator does not run, be sure to check "Zero initial values" under Analysis, Transient, and also try varying the length of time for the simulation; if it's too long, the points calculated will be too far apart and oscillation will not be detected.

Speaking of electronics puzzles, remember Garner's mysterious oscillator, which I was writing about five years ago? I found that his circuit, as published, worked with germanium transistors but not silicon transistors. (Germanium transistors "leak" slightly and bias themselves into conduction.) But I breadboarded it in sixth grade with silicon transistors, and it worked. The question remained open whether Garner made a mistake in his published circuit diagram (besides one mistake that is obvious), and I may have corrected the mistake, by a mixture of accident and common sense, without realizing it. (The same thing happens to mathematicians reading published proofs with mistakes in them; if the mistake is easily correctable, it often gets corrected in the reader's head, without awareness that there was a mistake in the first place.)

Well, the question is still open, and the plot thickens. I found two versions of the circuit in Popular Electronics, 1957, in articles by Garner. Both use germanium transistors. One uses his published version of the circuit (with minor changes), and the other uses my corrected version of it.


Tech notes

I've been fixing up things today... here are a couple of notes:


Windows 7 PC shuts down or hibernates the moment it switches to UPS power, even though the battery has plenty of run time left. I experienced this with a server connected to an APC uninterruptible power supply, using Windows' battery management (which sees the APC UPS just fine, without needing to install APC's software).

Solution: Disable ACPI in the BIOS setup. (Press DEL, F2, or whatever you're supposed to press while booting, to get to the setup screen.) Apparently, the BIOS was responding to the UPS and was overriding what Windows had been told to do. I'm not sure I understand this, but it worked.


Tektronix oscilloscope refuses to use an 8- or 16-gigabyte USB flash drive. I experienced this with my new Tek 2014B.


(1) Download and install the latest firmware update from Tektronix.

(2) Make sure the flash drive is formatted as FAT32, not NTFS. When in doubt, let the oscilloscope format it.

We wish you all a blessed First Sunday in Advent!

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