Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
The thrill of anger? The joy of contempt?
Blood moon?
Don't use get to hide a slow computation
Should I keep my date of birth secret?
How to become a better speller
Barnard's E
M57 (Ring Nebula)
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End-of-month miscellany

Melody has been cleared for hip surgery on October 10, after which she'll have two good hips. Until then, we're a bit busy. Let me close out September with just a few short notes.

If everyone could see what I see about the needs of modern businesses, they'd be scrambling to major in mathematics and foreign languages. And by mathematics I mean something heavy on statistics, data analysis, and algorithms, not trigonometry or even calculus.

Today's automotive hint: Change your transmission fluid when the instruction book recommends it for vehicles in heavy service, even if you aren't driving your car very hard. Remember how we've all been told to change the oil more often than the book says? Well, nowadays, it's the transmission that needs extra coddling because it's not likely to last as long as the engine. In my life I've experienced 3 transmission failures, each at about 60,000 miles. I've never worn out an engine.

I just had my 3-year-old (30,000-mile) Ford Escape's transmission flushed and filled with full synthetic fluid, and it got quieter than it had ever been before. The gas mileage may have improved just a bit, too.


Fresher air and deontological ethics


As an asthma sufferer (and as a person who dislikes foul smells!), I only wish this had happened 40 years earlier. Right now, what I'm wondering is whether it will actually work, or whether there will be semi-secret illegal smoking areas all over the place, some of them no doubt rather inconvenient (near air intakes or blocking walkways). We'll see. I've heard good things about whole groups of graduate students planning to quit smoking.

What bothers me is the way so many otherwise civilized people got it into their heads, fifty years ago, that they had the "right" to make other people endure a strong unpleasant smell everywhere they went. Never mind the health hazards, which were discovered later. In 1930, common etiquette included awareness of nonsmokers' preferences; in 1960 it didn't, and objecting to breathing smoke was considered rude.

Note that the issue isn't whether you indulge in nicotine; it's whether you have the right to put it in the air all around you and make other people breathe it.

I think I have an idea how the mistake was made. It has to do with utilitarian vs. deontological ethics. Utilitarianism says do what makes the most people happy ("the greatest good for the greatest number"). Deontologism says people have rights, and acts are right or wrong, regardless of the numbers, in fact regardless of whether other people like them or not. I've written about this before.

Before the 1970s, and particularly right after WWII, there was, I think, a lot of collective, utilitarian thinking in our culture. It was thought reasonable to make everyone do what you thought most people wanted. This may have roots in people's experience of the army (where large numbers of people have to do the same thing at the same time) and in high school (which often works that way too).

It may be no coincidence that the heyday of utilitarianism was also the heyday of racial segregation. To a utilitarian, if many can benefit from oppressing a few, that's OK. The deontologist comes back and argues that the oppression is wrong regardless of the "benefit."

Same for smoke-free air. If utilitarians can be convinced that smokers are, or deserve to be, the majority, then everybody has to cater to their wishes — "the greatest good for the greatest number" again. That was 1960s etiquette. But in the 1970s, deontological thinking gained popularity, and we had not only the civil rights movement, but also a much more general recognition of people's right to be individuals, even the right not to be forced to breathe smoke.

That is part of it. The medical evidence is the other part. Secondhand smoke is now known to be so harmful that no responsible employer would allow it in the workplace. Or if they want to, their liability insurance company doesn't.

I think that within my lifetime, the tobacco industry will be killed off by legal liability — not new laws or regulations, but simply the traditional requirement that if you harm people, you have to pay. I am concerned that present-day laws and regulations have the effect of shielding the tobacco industry from full responsibility. I'm also concerned that so far, no responsibility has fallen on the farmers or the retailers, who may have been acting in all innocence in 1940, but have known since the 1960s that they are dealing out death.


First whiff of old age

It was a clear, crisp autumn day like today. The sun had set, and as I looked out the west window of my upstairs bedroom, I saw the last glow of sunset in very clear air: a bluish-purple sky with a narrow band of orange at the horizon. The stereo was playing an instrumental rendition of "Brian's Song."

And I said to myself, "I will not be in this familiar place much longer. This is the last autumn I will see here."

Perhaps the name of the song gives away how long ago this was. The year was 1972, and I was contemplating the end of my last full calendar year of high school in Valdosta. By one year later, I had gone around the world, moved to Athens, and entered college. Almost all my major achievements were still in the future. But my feeling at the time was bittersweet: As soon as I get really settled in anywhere, it's time to move on.


I got one decent picture of M57 (the Ring Nebula) from what was mainly an equipment-testing session on September 20. Celestron 8 EdgeHD on AVX mount, Canon 60Da, ISO 1250, stack of four 1-minute exposures, cropped. You can see stars down to sixteenth or seventeenth magnitude.


How to become a better speller

What do you do if you have trouble spelling words correctly in English? As a linguist and as a teacher (and, to some people's resentment, a world-class good speller), I've pondered this question and have some ideas. Other educators tell me I'm on the right track, so here goes...

First, recognize that English spelling is a lot to learn. Nobody is born knowing it. Nobody is born knowing how to drive a car, either, but learning both things can enrich your life. Good spellers, like good drivers, are people who want to be and who have adopted a good learning strategy.

English spelling is complicated because the spelling of a word doesn't just tell you the pronunciation; it also tells you the word's origin and history. The letter i stands for different sounds in the words crime and criminal, but we spell them alike because they're related. The funny -que ending of mystique tells us the word is originally French. And so on.

This brings me to my second point: Learn words, not just spellings. I say this for several reasons.

For one thing, the more you know about relationships between words, the easier the spellings will be to remember. Consider relate and relation. If you recognize these as part of a whole platoon of pairs of words ending in -ate and -ation, with their meanings connected in a particular way, then to you, the endings -ate and -ation will no longer be letters to memorize; they'll be familiar elements of the language.

Or consider govern and government. If you realize that the second word is formed from the first one, and that lots of words are formed by adding -ment to another word, then you won't forget that government contains an n.

Another reason to focus on learning words, not just spellings, is that if you don't know how to spell a word, you're probably also a little unsure about the pronunciation and the meaning. Words aren't just sounds we make with our mouths. A word is a combination of pronunciation, spelling, and meaning. Knowing a word means knowing all three.

For example, someone who misspells incident as insadent probably doesn't realize that the sound in the middle is i as in pit — that is, in-si-dent, not in-suh-dent.

Many English words have both "clear" and "reduced" pronunciations. In the "reduced" pronunciation, the unaccented vowels come out as an "uh" sound (called schwa); in the "clear" pronunciation, they are short vowels. Bad spellers often don't know the clear pronunciations of words.

Distinctions between words also matter. To a good speller, to and too are completely different words (as different as red and green) and they just happen to sound alike. Don't think of them as two ways of spelling the same word; that's the wrong approach. They're not even related. The same goes for sight (vision) and site (place) and numerous other word pairs.

The lesson is that improving your spelling is part of improving what Reader's Digest calls your "word power" — your knowledge of words, how to identify them, and how to use them.

Some schools approach this the wrong way, giving the students long lists of words to learn to spell without learning anything else about them. That's almost like saying, "Learn this, but we won't tell you why you're learning it." You should be learning to use words, not just spell them.

My third point is that handwriting helps, but maybe not the way you think. The more senses you can use in learning, the better you'll remember things. The spelling of a word is not just something you see on a page; it's also something you produce with a pen and paper. When you learn a word, write it neatly three times. If the spelling looks hard to remember, write it ten times.

But allow me to express one of my heretical opinions. I don't think cursive writing is altogether a good thing. It looks entirely different from the print that you see in books and on computer screens. It makes things look different that ought to look alike and keeps you from learning to recognize them.

It is very important to use the same muscle movements every time you write the same word; that way, you'll remember it by "feel" as well as by appearance. That's what cursive was supposed to accomplish, but there's a better way. Learn how to print neatly and rapidly, writing with the speed of cursive, and making consistent muscle movements, but producing letters that look like what you see in books and on the screen. This is a skill every literate person needs.

Cursive is not faster or less tiring, at least in my experience. It's just harder to read, and it gets people confused. I have seen too many adults who cannot make a capital letter F (for example) because they are caught between printing and cursive.

Let me finally answer a few objections.

"The misspelled words look perfectly OK to me."

Yes, they will, until you train yourself to be a connoisseur, and, more importantly, stop practicing bad spellings. When you're unsure how to spell a word, at least make a mark over it to remind yourself to look it up. And when you've found out the correct spelling, practice it.

If your name were Jack and you always wrote it as Qwertyuiop, then soon enough, Qwertyuiop would look perfectly normal to you. But the purpose of spelling is to communicate with other people, and to do so, you're going to have to stop practicing "Qwertyuiop" and start practicing "Jack."

"I don't need to memorize spellings; I have a spelling checker."

But does the spelling checker know what you are trying to say? Of course not. A spelling checker is good for catching typing errors, where you know what you wanted to type but didn't hit the right keys. But the spelling checker doesn't know anything about what words to use. It doesn't even know if you want a spelling checker or a spilling chuckle, a bell or a ball, a dearth or a death.

"I'm dyslexic."

Personally, I think developmental dyslexia is not as common as some educators think, but I'm glad to admit that different people's minds work differently. Different people learn in different ways.

And if you do have dyslexia of clinical severity, I hope it's something you want to overcome, rather than settling for a second-rate career.

Either way, you need your own learning strategy. If you're especially good at remembering sounds, you'll want to focus on pronouncing words accurately and learning the complex relationships between sound and spelling. But if you are a visual learner, you'll want to focus on what the word looks like — and careful handwriting can be especially valuable to you. If all else fails, you can learn English the way the Chinese learn to write their language — by learning the distinctive appearance of each word.

"I don't have time to learn spellings."

That's tantamount to saying, "Other people are going to have to do my hard work for me." Other people are going to have to do extra work to figure out what you've written. It's as if you wanted to talk without opening your mouth wide enough — yes, people can figure out what you're saying, but it isn't as easy as it should be, and they're not going to want to listen to you.

The reason to become a better speller is so that other people can more easily read what you have to say. (Along the way, you'll develop a more precise knowledge of words, and you'll end up speaking and even thinking more clearly.) If you don't want to do this — well, you don't have to, but you're competing with people who are willing to do it.

University under threat

I was, fortunately, not on campus around noon when a "credible threat of violence" forced evacuation of the central part of the University of Georgia. It was reportedly delivered via social media on the Internet.

I predicted that the culprit would be caught soon, but to my surprise, it didn't even take eight hours. A suspect is in jail now and has reportedly confessed.

I predicted he would be caught either of two ways: (1) his IP and MAC addresses would be traced, or (2) he would brag. The latest reports are that it was (1).

Reportedly, the suspect, 19 years old, wants this to be viewed as an "immature prank." What should be done to him?

I would advocate being relatively tough on him. He's not that young, and anyhow, "I'm so young you can't really punish me" is an excuse I got tired of hearing back when I was doing computer security. He caused real harm.

Nor do we know, at this point, that it wasn't a serious threat. Maybe he's only saying he wasn't serious because he got caught. Authorities haven't said what he threatened, but their words were "threat of violence," not "bomb threat."

Finally, the "immaturity defense" can backfire. Is he claiming that he really can't tell right from wrong? Does society needs to be protected from him?

An electronics nostalgia bonanza

OK, I've found my leisure reading for the next ten years: AmericanRadioHistory.com. Though focused on the broadcasting industry, this web site has a huge collection of digitized magazines going back to 1920 or earlier, including Wireless World, Radio News, Popular Electronics, Elementary Electronics...

I started learning about electronics when my father brought me the Summer 1964 issue of Elementary Electronics (unfortunately still missing from that site's collection, but I have a paper copy). In the 1990s I did a lot of writing for similar magazines, as well as computer magazines.

As you browse, be sure to look at the "Serviceman's Experiences" column in Radio News in the late 1930s and early 1940s. It is often quite funny.


Running a 500-ring circus

I have more than 500 Facebook friends and have made little attempt to divide them into subgroups. One of the joys of Facebook is seeing people find common interests that nobody knew about in advance. I enjoy bringing interesting people together who otherwise wouldn't have met.

But there are some challenges associated with running this 500-ring circus. The biggest is making sure everybody realizes what a diverse crowd they're in. This is not half a dozen people who are just alike. Quite a few of my friends are world-class experts in their fields. Others are ordinary people who are personal friends or relatives, all the way down to middle-school students.

Specialized conversations among experts pop up often. You'll see us talking about astronomy, philosophy, electronics, computers, literature, or anything in between.

A problem arises when someone feels left out and says something to discourage the other participants. It may be intended as a joke, but when someone pops up in a conversation and says, "I don't understand any of this," it has a chilling effect on the others. Being polite, most of us don't want to leave you out. But we don't want to be forbidden to continue our conversation, either. We don't know what to do.

That is why I explicitly ask my friends not to point it out when some conversation is too specialized for them, but instead, just don't join that conversation. If you hang out with me, you're going to see things that are beyond your ken every day. (I know I do, and it adds to the fun.) There's no way to include everybody all the time. There are 500 of us. This isn't a parlor with all 500 people in a single conversation; it's more like a common room where people can form smaller groups as they wish.

Another recurrent problem is that some people want to debate everything. I'm a good debater — I won an award for it in high school and have only gotten better since — but debating is not what I come here to do. I would much rather understand other people's thinking than hasten to refute it. If that's not your approach, you're not going to fit in well.

A related point is that I don't have time to write a full response whenever someone challenges me. I'm going to have to assume you can use the Web to find out what people think and why they think it. It does not become my job to write a detailed treatment of a subject just because someone asks for it.

And another related point is that it's not news to me that you have an opinion. I already know that people have opinions. What I and my 500 guests wonder is whether you can tell us something we don't already know. Even if you're not highly educated, you probably can, provided you speak from your own experience.

Scotland and the ERA

The vote for Scottish independence failed to pass, and people are telling me part of the problem is that the issue was too simple — shall Scotland be an independent nation? — with no implementation details spelled out. The Scots weren't sure what they'd get if they voted yes.

I think the same problem afflicted the Equal Rights Amendment (for women's equality, back in the 1970s). The amendment was offered as one sentence with no implementation details. I heard people express concerns: Would the army have to draft women for combat? Would government-provided insurance be unable to cover pregnancy? And so on. The amendment didn't pass.

A further problem faced by the ERA (and I don't know if it has parallels in Scotland) is that advocates of the amendment didn't take opposition seriously and didn't try to address questions about implementation. It was much easier to say, "You're a sexist pig."


Fewer megapixels, more light

Click to see B&H Photo's catalogue listing

I think I can finally see the future of digital photography, at least the near future. For a long time I've thought that mirrorless interchangeable-lens cameras (ILCs) would replace DSLRs. The SLR mirror isn't really necessary if you have electronic image preview, which is preferable anyhow, and the absence of the mirror makes the camera more compact and gives the lens designer more freedom. It even lets you use all kinds of existing SLR lenses with adapters.

But until now, mirrorless ILCs have been pitched to a less-than-professional market. The Canon EOS M, in particular, got criticized for having overly simple controls.

Enter the Sony α7S, the first ILC I know of whose performance blows DSLRs away. Its secret? Big pixels. Its sensor is "full-frame" (24 by 36 mm) and has only 12 megapixels. That means every pixel has 3.8 times the surface area of the pixels of my Canon 60Da (which is typical of current DSLRs). That makes it pick up 3.8 times as much light, as well as reducing the noise level.

Getting out of the megapixel rat race was a Very Good Idea. Nobody needs 18 megapixels, just as, fifty years ago, almost nobody needed large-format sheet film — they just hadn't realized it yet. A good 3-megapixel picture looks sharp, unless you're enlarging to poster size. Ten or twelve megapixels are gracious plenty.

But Sony appears to have made a breakthrough in noise reduction, too, because they can amplify the signal up to ISO 400,000 (with reduced dynamic range). The true speed seems to be around 3200 to 4000 (versus 1000 to 1600 for current DSLRs). At ISO 400,000, you should be able to take a handheld snapshot of stars in the night sky. I'm looking forward to trying!

Ian Norman's astrophotography test shows that this camera is very promising. A friend who is buying one has offered to let me try it out — stay tuned for more information.

And most of all, I hope Canon, Nikon, and Olympus jump on the bandwagon and make mirrorless ILCs with professional features and high performance.


Monkey wrench

Besides the recently mentioned dashboard cover, Melody and Sharon gave me an antique Ford monkey wrench. From what I can find out, this probably came in the tool kit with a Model T or Model A. The wrenches outlived the cars, and they are still common and widely used. I was shown one in 1965, and it was old then.

Since I actually plan to use it (as an emergency tool in my much newer Ford), I ground the jaws straight (taking out someone's dents probably inflicted before 1940) and gave it a good cleaning, followed by a coating with very light oil.

Its other job will be taking off the antenna at the car wash, and putting it back on. Why not pull out a genuine Ford antique from the glove compartment and do the job in style?

It's a handy tool. It will adjust to any opening from zero to about 2.8 inches. It's definitely designed for people who didn't have very many tools and needed the maximum versatility. This one has a square end that fits (I am told) something on the Model T.


Should I keep my date of birth secret?

I want to thank the dozens of people who have wished me a happy birthday today. The most surprising greeting came from Google, which gave me a special Google Doodle (at least when I connected from Chrome, which was logged into my Google Account):

But wait a minute. Isn't the date of birth part of the "personal information" we're supposed to keep secret so that people don't hack our accounts, steal our money, kidnap our children...?

No. In my opinion, that is circa-2005 paranoia. A handful of different things are going on.

First, instead of taking proper responsibility for their own security, Internet businesses have often tried to burden us with keeping all kinds of "personal information" secret so that they can try to use it like passwords. People have even told me I'll get hacked if I reveal my telephone number. (It's in the phone book!) This is a misguided tack. By their original design, even Social Security Numbers weren't secret (although we seem to be locked into practices that require them to be secret now). Proof of identity should mean proof of identity, not mildly out-of-the-way information.

Second, my date of birth is not secret. I'm a book author, and you can find my date of birth in several major reference books. It may eventually even be in Wikipedia.

Third, my date of birth distinguishes me from other people with similar names. That, and not secrecy, is why the pharmacy wants your date of birth. They don't want to give my prescriptions to the Michael Covington who works for Intel or the one who promotes Edelbrock carburetors. (I don't know either one personally, but they exist, and there could even be times when all three of us are in Atlanta.) And if my name were Jack Smith, I might have dozens of namesakes in any large city.

I think the third one is what leads a lot of people to think their date of birth needs to be guarded like a password. It isn't a password and shouldn't be used as one.

The cognoscenti know, of course, that the digits on my birth certificate are in the wrong order and I was actually born in 1579. You were wondering where I learned Latin...



State of the film photography industry

Looking back at the recent collapse of the film photography industry, I see that the film industry did not collapse; Kodak collapsed.

Ilford and Fuji still have essentially normal lines. A few minor products have been discontinued, but only a few.

The film division of Kodak no longer exists. It has been spun off as Kodak Alaris, a new company owned by Kodak's former British pension fund, which needed something to invest in. It makes the most essential black-and-white and color negative films; no color slide film; no photographic paper.

Curiously, the whole range of Kodak photographic chemicals still seems to be available, including developers for papers and slide films that are no longer made (but still usable with Ilford and Fuji products). This is because the chemical product line was apparently spun off to another company even earlier, but still bears the Kodak name.

When digital photography was new, I remarked that film photography, as an art form, would die out after oil painting dies out. Companies are still making a profit manufacturing oil paint for artists. Fuji and Ilford are apparently still making a profit on film. Only Kodak has stumbled.

Kodak made two mistakes. The first was counting on truly enormous consumer sales. Kodak didn't plan to shrink.

The second was not getting into digital photography more aggressively. Kodak made the first DSLR (a modified Nikon) and has always made very good image sensors. Apparently, though, Kodak's top executives didn't want to compete with their "cash cow" — film — and (to change metaphors) chose to stay on that ship as it sank. They did make some moderately good consumer digital cameras and some cheap (but reportedly unreliable) printers.


Retired? No. Second career.

Just to give you a snapshot of what life is like these days: No, I'm not retired. I left the University as a retiree in order to run a fast-growing consulting business which is now bringing in more income than my University salary did. I'm not sitting idle or playing golf. In fact, I have less leisure than I did twenty years ago.

At the moment I'm also Melody's chauffeur; she has been unable to drive for more than a year and will remain so until her right hip is replaced in October. By Christmas, more of my time will be my own, but I still won't have time to do everything people imagine I have time to do.

I've also just done two years of involuntary servitude to costochondritis, which is almost over, thank goodness. (Asymptotically approaching recovery...) I'm to the point where it doesn't limit my activities, and if I'm moving around when it flares up, the best thing to do is continue moving around, provided the movement is not repetitive. Repetitive movements, such as swinging my arms while walking, can still be troublesome.

Waiting for the last horse...

I'm about to give almost all my remaining stock of photographic film to my cousin Anna Gay Leavitt, fine-art photographer and preserver of older photographic processes. There's no point in keeping aging rolls of films that are still made. I still have a few curiosities in the freezer: the last roll of Panatomic-X, the last roll of Technical Pan, and a roll of Kodak Rapid Process Copy Film, a strange material that produces a positive image using the Herschel effect (reversal by solarization) and requires ten-second exposures in broad daylight.

This reminds me of the James Herriot story about a farm in the 1960s whose last working horse had finally died. Once you switch from horses to tractors, there's a period when you still have a few horses — and then, eventually, you don't.

I still have a darkroom, and a roll of film that needs developing, and plenty of (aging) paper... eventually I'll find the time. I last did darkroom work three years ago. I think this three-year hiatus is the longest I've gone without doing darkroom work since I started in 1970.


Your car needs a dashboard cover

As an early birthday present (early mostly because it arrived in a fully labeled box, spoiling the surprise), Melody and Sharon got me a black dash cover for the Ford Escape.

You probably need one too. The dash cover makes it a lot easier to see through the windshield. I no longer feel as much of a need for sunglasses. Before, as much as 10% to 20% of the light coming into my eyes was reflected off the dashboard! (I figure the dash was 2 to 4 times as reflective as the road, and uncoated glass reflects 5%.)

And it looks like it belongs there. Admittedly, we're not accustomed to seeing dashboard covers, but it's not at all awkward or unsightly. It's held on with adhesive Velcro strips, and I'm going to lift it up and position it more accurately after it has been unfolded for several days.

Melody recommends the vendor she chose, Auto Accessories Garage. They gave quicker service than she planned on!



Here is last night's (Sept. 9) "supermoon" (nearly full moon near perigee), photographed with my vintage-1980 Celestron 5 telescope and its vintage-1980 T-adapter coupled to my Canon 60Da DSLR. (It's nice that some camera lens mounts have been unchanged for half a century.) Sharpness and color saturation have been increased digitally.

If someone reminds me, in March or April I'll photograph the full moon with the same telescope. It will be a few percent smaller.


Do not use get or set to hide slow computations

C# and related programming languages use the keywords get and set to hide computations that are needed to retrieve or set a value. The idea is that the data fields of an object aren't really data fields; they're hidden behind computations, or at least potential computations. That makes it much easier to modify the object's inner workings later without affecting how people use it. You can add computations in the getter and setter (as they're called) to cover up the changes.

The problem is, the programmer who uses the object may not realize that get or set is hiding a time-consuming operation. Consider something like this:

for (int i = 0; i < 1000; i++) { do something to this.Widgets[i] }

where, unknown to the programmer, this.Widgets is actually a getter that performs a time-consuming computation. (Maybe retrieving the list of widgets from the underlying data structure, sorting it, and removing duplicates.) That whole computation is going to be done every time the loop goes around, since the getter has no way of knowing the list hasn't changed.

What you need is this:

WidgetList ws = this.Widgets;
for (int i = 0; i < 1000; i++) { do something to ws[i] }

That runs much faster, but the real problem is that hiding a long computation in a getter is misleading. Better yet to do this:

WidgetList ws = this.GetSortedWidgetList();
for (int i = 0; i < 1000; i++) { do something to ws[i] }

Here nothing deceives you; you can tell that a sorted widget list is being constructed, with appropriately Herculean effort.

Bottom line: get and set are only for hiding quick computations, such as type conversions, throwing out invalid values, or quickly checking a cached value and doing the recomputation only when actually needed.

In case you're wondering, "widget" doesn't mean anything in C#. I'm using it as a dummy name.


Blood moon:
Does the Bible say anything about next month's eclipse?

Does the Bible say anything about next month's lunar eclipse?


I wish I could leave it at that, but a best-selling book has gotten a lot of people thinking that this lunar eclipse is one of a set that predict something important about the coming history of Israel. Or something.

This notion comes from a TV preacher named John Hagee. It has been picked up by a lot of other people, including Republican Congressional candidate Jody Hice (from my district).

As both a Christian and an astronomy writer, I want to make sure everybody knows two things:

  • This is not in the Bible.
  • This is not a normal Christian belief — it's a new speculation; nobody ever heard of it before.

Nowhere in the Bible do we find any assertion that patterns of lunar eclipses predict events in the history of Israel.

The Bible makes a couple of brief references to the moon looking like blood. Two things can make the moon look red: a lunar eclipse (which you see above) or heavy dust in the air through which you're viewing the moon. Most people have probably seen both of these, at different times.

But that's all. Since this "blood moon" theory is a wild extrabiblical speculation, I'm not inclined to pursue it further. Some of the background is summarized, not without controversy, in Wikipedia.

But if I did pursue it further, I'd point out four more things.

  • When people claim to have found a teaching in the Bible that nobody ever found before, isn't it overwhelmingly more likely that they've made a mistake?
  • It's not clear why a series of eclipses should be interpreted as a special message from God. The eclipse is not a surprising or unpredictable event. Eclipses can be predicted thousands of years in advance. The dates and times of these eclipses have been fixed as long as the earth and moon have been in their orbits.
  • The Hebrew (Jewish) calendar is based on the moon, so we expect Jewish festivals to line up with lunar eclipses. (There is, for example, always a full moon during Passover, and full moons are when eclipses occur.)
  • Historically, Jews and Christians have steered clear of astrology (fortunetelling by the sun, moon, planets, and stars). The Bible says some rather negative things about fortunetelling of all types (Deut. 18:10 for example).

So there I'll leave it. If you choose to believe the blood moon theory, please acknowledge that it is a new notion, not a historic Christian teaching. Why it is particularly popular with people who sing "Give me that old-time religion" baffles me, unless of course they have itchy ears.



Barnard's E — an equipment test

I am still learning about the AVX mount and testing its performance. In particular, I've learned to guard against two problems:

  • The counterweight bar must not be loose. It can easily come partly unscrewed without being noticed. Since I never remove mine, I'm thinking of putting threadlocker in it.
  • When attaching the mount to the tripod, it is important to tighten the central shaft against the tripod head, not against the spreader. Best of all, don't even put the spreader on until the mount is in place.

Careful attention to both of these produces better tracking.

With that in mind, here is a picture of Barnard's E, a dark nebula in Aquila that is shaped like the letter E. This was taken as an equipment test on August 28, and what it shows is that I can get good 30-second exposures with a 300-mm lens without the autoguider and, in fact, without PEC. This is a cropped picture, not the full frame.

This is not a great astrophoto; it's just an equipment test, taken in town. Stack of eight 30-second exposures, Canon 300-mm f/4 lens, Canon 60Da, ISO 1250. I will take a much better picture of this object from a dark site.

Update: In fact I can go 60 seconds with this mount and no autoguider, with PEC turned on. This is the same object the following night (August 29), a stack of six 1-minute exposures with the same lens and camera, this time at f/5.6.


The thrill of anger? The joy of contempt?

Critics are starting to point out that social media, such as Facebook, make it easy for you to isolate yourself into a small group of like-minded people and never have to deal with anyone outside it. This leads to ignorance, intolerance, and gullibility from never having your ideas challenged.

I want to point out something worse. A surprising number of people's hobby is feeling anger or contempt toward their fellow human beings. They may think they are promoting good causes — in fact, they may be promoting good causes — but their real hobby is anger. What they actually enjoy is the adrenaline rush of feeling anger or the opportunity to despise someone else, not the advancement of the things they advocate.

If you look at some people's Facebook postings, you see nothing but shallow disparagement of other people. It is often politically themed but not politically well-informed. Being well-informed isn't the goal. Instead, such people are often gullible and engage in what I have called fantasy politics, eagerly passing along anything that arouses the right emotions whether or not it has any basis in reality.

I have often been puzzled at how little such people care about factual accuracy. They want emotions, and they'll swallow anything that arouses them. In fact, I have been aghast to see people continue spreading stories that they know are false, simply because it promotes their cause.

Such people are often what Jeff Duntemann calls tribalistic, all wrapped up in cheering for their own little group and putting down everyone outside — whether the outsiders are liberals, conservatives, foreigners, immigrants, the federal government, or what have you. The idea is to find an "out-group" and demonize it. When you do that, of course, you stop caring about factual accuracy, and you easily fall into paranoid thinking.

Cultivating anger and contempt can do terrible things to your soul. Of course, we should despise evil, but that is not the same as despising people, nor wanting evil in order to have something to despise. Those latter two things are wrong.

Here is a test from C. S. Lewis: Suppose you hear that someone has done something terrible, and then you get a later report that it wasn't as bad as it first seemed. What is your reaction? Are you relieved and thankful that it wasn't as bad as it might have been? Or are you disappointed that you no longer get to feel so angry?

If the latter, then as Lewis puts it, you are wishing for black to be blacker, and you will pursue a mind-destroying habit of wishing everything to be worse than it is, and end up unable to recognize any good in anything.

Meantime, if your idea of conversation is nothing but passing along copies of other people's angry but ignorant rants, get out of my friends list!

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