Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
Maker Faire
Tools of thought: Backing out of an error
Polypoly? Oligopsony?
How grammar helps you think more clearly
Dual-booting Linux and Windows 8.1
The truth about guiding and round star images
Moon (first quarter)
Partial solar eclipse
M31 (Andromeda Galaxy)
North America Nebula
Barnard's E
Barnard's E
Coathanger Asterism
Gamma Cygni region
M27 (Dumbbell nebula)
Many more...
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Quarter moon (half moon)


Why is a half moon also called a quarter moon? Because when it's half illuminated, it's a quarter of the way around its orbit (a quarter of the way through its cycle of phases). Now you know.

Sharp pictures of the full face of the moon or sun are not easy to get. I can't claim that this one is excellent, although I'm getting there. It was taken with my vintage Celestron 5, which is a Schmidt-Cassegrain and has appreciable field curvature, and then postprocessed with PixInsight, Photoshop, and RegiStax to bring out detail. I also raised the color saturation a little.

This was taken as part of a series of experiments. I determined that, whatever its flaws, the Celestron 5 renders a good bit more lunar detail than my Celestron 300-mm lens with 1.4x extender. (It has about twice the aperture and three times the focal length.) I also determined that the Celestron f/6.3 focal reducer is no help; it is designed to flatten the field of an 8-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain (somewhat) but is not well matched to the 5-inch.


Pope Francis, science, and the Bible

The media seem to imagine that Pope Francis said something new about science being compatible with Christianity, but actually, he was reaffirming a statement made by his predecessor in 1950 and a position widely held by educated Christians for a very long time.

The notion that the earth dated from 4004 B.C. was promoted as a doctrine by American frontier Christians, especially Seventh-Day Adventists, in the mid-1800s. Until then, it had been only an opinion — a widely held opinion back when there was no scientific counterevidence, but not a point of doctrine. Christian thinkers as far back as St. Augustine (in the fourth century) maintained that the Bible does not give the exact age of the earth. The age of the earth is not in the Creeds.

Nor do I find an exact age of the earth when I look in the Bible myself. If Jesus or a prophet had said, "Four thousand years ago, when the earth was created," or something like that, we'd have a different situation. But all I find is a set of dates that can be added up a certain way if you make certain assumptions.

As a Christian, I regret very much that popular preachers such as Ken Ham have made young-earthism into a test of orthodoxy for American evangelicals. There is a widespread popular feeling that if you believe the earth is millions of years old, you're not a sincere Bible-believer. To which I would reply: I want to know what the Bible actually teaches, not play a game of "more literal than thou."

To put it bluntly: Deliberately choosing to interpret the Bible to contradict other God-given evidence, and then demanding that we ignore the other evidence, is not sound Scriptural interpretation. It is not even sufficient respect for God's creation.

To those who, after weighing the evidence, still believe the earth is young, I would say the same thing that Lemaître did: You must admit that the earth and the universe have the appearance of age; they look as if the laws of nature have been operating for billions of years. Accordingly, God must have created them that way. So the appearance of age is itself God's work, and worth studying!

Short notes

One more landmark gone: Valwood School's very first overnight basketball trip was to Athens in early 1971. We stayed in the old part of the Holiday Inn. My family stayed there on subsequent trips as we were preparing to move to Athens, and it became one of my reference points for learning my way around the town. It's on the edge of the campus, and I've driven past it almost every day for most of the past 40 years.

Well, yesterday it was being torn down. The "new" northern part of the Holiday Inn remains, and I'm told the old part is going to be rebuilt, probably not in the same style.

Handy little voltmeters: On Amazon or eBay, anywhere from $2 to $7 now buys you a small LED panel meter that measures its own supply voltage, from 4 to 30 volts DC. These are going to start appearing on my batteries and power supplies, especially for astronomy in the field. They also work well for monitoring a car's electrical system. They draw appreciable current (30 mA?) and so shouldn't be left constantly connected to a battery without a switch. I splurged and got the $7 variety, with free Amazon Prime shipping.

The deeper lesson? We're moving into an era of modules, not components, as it becomes possible to buy a digital meter or even a microcomputer board for the cost of a major discrete electronic component.


The truth about round star images

Having gotten the new firmware and the autoguider talking peaceably to each other, I decided to try astrophotography through the Celestron 8 EdgeHD. I don't have the compressor lens yet, so this is at f/10. Here's M27 (the Dumbbell Nebula), a stack of two 3-minute autoguided exposures:

Compare this to what I got with the Meade telescope here and here.

Incidentally, it's not dumbbell-shaped. It's a translucent doughnut shape seen from the side.

The autoguider reported excellent tracking (about 0.5 arc-second average error in both X and Y), but when I checked the exposures in the camera, I saw that the star images were visibly elongated. Not good! Elongated star images indicate poor tracking. But how...?

On further analysis, I arrived at a basic principle of astrophotography, not widely enough recognized:

If the camera and telescope are sharp enough, the star images will be elongated or irregular.

To be precise: What's going on here is too much resolution. With a telescope whose focal length is 2000 mm, the Canon 60Da produces pixels that are only 0.44 arc-second wide. The unsteadiness of the atmosphere introduces irregularities of one or two arc-seconds constantly, and these are mostly a challenge in the east-west direction because the telescope is tracking in that direction. The peak-to-peak error is typically 2 or 3 arc-seconds, even if the average reported by the autoguider is a lot less.

Here's one of my elongated star images, blown up:

If it were round, this would be considered a very good star image. It's only three arc-seconds long. If anything, the mystery (or good luck) here is that it's only spread in one direction. Apparently I did a really good polar alignment last night.

For comparison, I looked at published pictures. Star images in the Digitized Sky Survey (from Palomar Observatory) are consistently about 2.5 to 3 arc-seconds in diameter. By that criterion, I wasn't doing so badly!

So... How do you make irregular star images round? There is a way. All you do is resample the image smaller and then, if you wish, resample it larger again. Irregular blobs become nice and round because the resampling function has circular symmetry.

In this case, I resampled the picture to 1/6 of its original size (from 0.44 arc-second per pixel down to 2.6 arc-seconds per pixel, which is much more reasonable), thereby reducing my camera's 18 megapixels to just half a megapixel. But half a megapixel is plenty — it left me with a bigger image than you're looking at, because of cropping. A typical Kodacolor snapshot, printed 4 by 6 inches, was the equivalent of about 0.3 megapixel! And I remember taking digital snapshots happily with a 2-megapixel camera, before the megapixel rat-race set in.

Irregular star images were much less of a problem in the film era because film isn't nearly as sharp as modern digital cameras. A typical DSLR has 5-micron pixels. The smallest speck that a piece of film can render is about 20 microns in diameter and is quite blurry; the light spreads out in a circular shape. So my resampling did little more than reduce the resolution of the camera to that of film.


A couple more

Still from the evening of October 25, here's the star cluster M103. This is cropped from a full-resolution picture and is at a much higher magnification than the others I've shown you. Its purpose is to show the quality of the tracking.

And here's Barnard's E again, taken on the following night (October 26). This is a stack of 3-minute rather than 1-minute exposures, just to show that the autoguider would track well in exposures of that length. It doesn't really gain anything in quality over the other picture.


Terra non firma

Last night (October 25) I finally tracked down the last remaining mechanical problem with my AVX mount.

The symptom was occasional 5- to 10-arcsecond jumps along either or both of the axes. They were unpredictable but seemed to occur when I was moving around. Hmmm...

It was not the camera, nor the mount, nor the tripod.

It was the very ground beneath me!

Unlike my old Meade, which had a permanent pier, the AVX was set up on the concrete driveway. And the 40-year-old concrete has started cracking. It turned out that the jumps occurred when I stepped in certain places — not particularly close to the tripod.

A 10-arcsecond jump is only 1/20,000 of a radian, equivalent to a 1/20-millimeter movement 1 meter away from the fulcrum. It's a barely perceptible vibration.

As soon as I moved the tripod to the middle of an uncracked area of concrete, things went much better. Here are some pictures. Each is a stack of ten to twelve 1-minute exposures with a Canon 60Da and Canon 300/4 lens at f/5.6, with standard postprocessing. None is especially good because I was in town, under a relatively bright sky. They are just equipment tests.

Here's the Coathanger Asterism, which may or may not be a star cluster, but certainly looks like a coathanger:

Here's the region of Gamma Cygni, with faint gas clouds:

And here are the Pleiades; what's noteworthy about this picture is that the autoguider was not used for any of the 1-minute exposures. The drive was smooth enough to track without corrections.

Two more astronomy notes

Celestron beta-testing: As I said yesterday, I'm beta-testing new firmware from Celestron. (The AVX mount has two computers in it, one in the hand box and one near the motors.) Before you ask, if you are an AVX owner, I can't give you the beta firmware, for two reasons. First, it would void your warranty. The warranty only covers beta-testing mishaps if you're in the beta program. Second, Celestron wants reports from beta-testers; it would be a nightmare for them if untested software started circulating and they then were flooded with tech support requests. You can join the beta program yourself at www.teamcelestron.com.

Voice recorder: I've bought a new Olympus voice recorder for making notes while I do astronomy. I had an old, battle-weary one, but the new one creates time-stamped MP3 files which I can download to my computer and store along with the picture files from the camera. Because everything is labeled with the time and date, it is very easy to match audio notes with pictures.

I have a fine Tascam audio recorder which I use for digitizing music. It's not appropriate for astronomy because its controls are much more complicated. And I have given up on using my iPhone as a voice recorder for astronomy — I'm often using it for something else, and it's awkward to switch modes. Also, its controls are on a touch screen which (contrary to its name) cannot be operated by touch — you have to look at it. Buttons are much better than touch screens in the dark.


Astrophotos from a firmware-testing session

I got out the Celestron AVX mount, SBIG STV autoguider, and Canon 60Da camera with 300-mm f/4 lens on the evening of October 24 to beta-test some new firmware for the AVX that should improve its interaction with the autoguider.

I wasn't expecting especially good pictures because I was in town, with a sky that was not very dark. I just wanted to put the equipment through its paces. But I got three presentable pictures after all.

Here's Barnard's E, a curious E-shaped dust cloud west of Altair in Aquila. (The bright star in the picture is not Altair; it is Gamma Aquilae.) Stack of ten 1-minute exposures, corrected and processed in the standard way.

And here's a dim view (literally) of the North America Nebula, barely distinguishable from the sky background. Stack of eleven 1-minute exposures.

Finally, here's the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), a stack of eighteen 1-minute exposures.



Dual-booting Linux and Windows 8.1

I had been without Linux on my laptop for several months, and yesterday, I really needed to compile a piece of UNIX software written in C. In that case I found a workaround, but I decided I had gone too long without trusty old Linux. So I set it up to dual-boot with Windows 8.1 on my laptop.

The following notes are for the cognoscenti. I can't really advise others, but if you're somewhat familiar with multi-boot setups, the following information may be useful. There are many good web pages on dual-booting Linux with Windows 8.1.

This laptop does not have Secure Boot. (To confirm that, I ran the Windows command msinfo32 and found Secure Boot "unsupported.") If I had had Secure Boot, as newer Windows 8 computers often do, I would have had to open another can of worms.

I chose Linux Mint 17 Cinnamon 64-bit.

This laptop does have UEFI. That means there is a boot menu in Setup mode (press F2 when booting) and it lists operating systems, not just disk drives. Linux Mint, which hosts the GRUB boot manager, shows up as "ubuntu" there. A subsequent Windows update may change the default back to "Windows Boot Manager", which would make the computer boot directly into Windows without showing GRUB. In that case, I'll go into setup mode and change it back.

In fact, strictly speaking, I didn't need GRUB at all — I could do all my operating system selecting in UEFI setup. But I chose to have GRUB, as in days of yore.

To make room for Linux, I did a "shrink volume" to free up 100 GB of space. Hint: If you cannot shrink your volume, then disable hibernation, disable the page file [under Control Panel, System, Performance], reboot, and shrink the volume, then remember to re-enable the page file and hibernation and reboot Windows again.

When I went to install Linux Mint, it did not recognize Windows already on the disk; it wanted to wipe the whole disk. No! I carefully pointed it to my 100-GB of free space, and from it I made an 80 GB partition for "/" and a 20 GB partition for swap space. (Just guessing at the sizes.) Then I told it to install in "/".

(For the Linux wish list: an installer that knows more about what to do in a Windows 8.1 environment. They'll get there, I'm sure.)

Then: success! Last step was to go into Linux and modify GRUB a little: sudo gedit /etc/default/grub to set GRUB_DEFAULT=saved and GRUB_SAVEDEFAULT=true, then sudo update-grub to make the changes stick. Now, whenever it reboots, my laptop reboots into the same OS as the previous time if I don't make a new choice.


Partial solar eclipse

Here's the solar eclipse of October 23. The eclipse began near sunset, and only the first part of it (before sunset at our location) was visible. On top of that, clouds were approaching from the west. So here's what I saw, about 30 minutes before sundown, from the top of the University of Georgia's South Campus parking deck. Canon 60Da camera, 300/4 lens, 1.4x extender, and a filter made of Baader solar filter material taped to a 77-to-58-mm adapter ring in front of the lens. You can see high clouds and, of course, sunspots.



"O Canada, we stand on guard for thee." Today our thoughts, prayers, and resolve are with our neighbor and ally to the north.

"Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, Protégera nos foyers et nos droits." Aujourd'hui nos pensées, nos prières, et notre détermination sont avec notre voisin et allié du Nord.



Here's the huge sunspot group photographed today (Oct. 22) with the Celestron 5 and Thousand Oaks solar filter. This is a single exposure with a Canon 60Da, postprocessed with Photoshop. I'm looking for a good way to stack multiple exposures — RegiStax won't stack files this large. I should dig into PixInsight...

Here's an enlarged portion of a better rendering of the same image — four exposures stacked with RegiStax 5.1.



Sunspots, using my Canon 300-mm f/4 lens and ×1.4 converter, at a working aperture of f/10, with the Canon 60Da camera. The sun filter is a piece of Baader solar filter film (salvaged from a larger damaged filter) taped to the front of a 77-to-58-mm step-down ring. Because the aperture is only 58 mm, the lens must be stopped down to prevent vignetting.

This is not bad, considering the small aperture and the fact that I was dodging high clouds (which produced an overall mottled apparance). The picture was post-processed with Photoshop, including unsharp masking, and the color is completely artificial (originally bluish).

This is not quite as good as what I get with the telescope, but it's quite adequate for Thursday's eclipse, for which I'm going to need very portable equipment. The eclipse starts at about 6 p.m. local time, very close to sunset, and the sun will be low in the sky. I'll have to photograph it from somewhere other than home so that trees won't block the view.


The oldest part of Athens Regional Medical Center?

While Melody was in the hospital (Athens Regional Medical Center, ARMC, formerly Athens General Hospital), I took some walks around the building, which has been repeatedly added on to, and tried to identify the oldest part. That wasn't easy.

I think the oldest part is the left and middle portion of the picture above, with the crenelated cornice. The right-hand part, with no cornice at the top, has a cornerstone marking it as the 1951 (?) "new north wing," thereby inaugurating a long-standing ARMC tradition of saying "north" to mean "northwest by west."

The picture was taken from the lawn, near the intersection of Prince Avenue and Talmadge Drive, facing south.

Here is a historic picture of the same building (perhaps not from the same angle); I thank John Stephens for the link.

Indoors, on the first (= ground) floor, the oldest part is recognizable because the floor is slightly higher than anywhere else. It contains administrative offices (to your right as you enter the Prince Tower entrance) and also backs up to the hospital library (which I've never been in) and the best vending-machine room (very useful), accessible from the first-floor passage between the Prince and Talmadge towers, near the chapel.

I think all this is correct. I'd be glad to hear from anyone with more precise knowledge.


How studying grammar helps you think more clearly

A while back someone sent me an online grammar quiz that asked:

Which is correct, "If I were..." or "If I was..."?

The quiz said (incorrectly) that only "If I were" is correct. Actually, both are correct but mean different things.

Specifically, If I were refers to a situation different from the real one: If I were a horse, I would eat grass.

By contrast, If I was refers to an unknown fact about the past. It is rarer than If I were, and in order to construct a good example, I'll need several sentences for context. Here goes:

I don't know when Senator Dingbat first ran for office. It may have been when I was very young. If I was a boy at the time, that would explain why I don't remember it.

The take-home message here is that when you learn grammar, you learn to make distinctions of meaning that might not otherwise have been clear to you. When you learn a foreign language, this is doubly or triply so. (In Spanish and Latin, for example, anything in the past has to be classified as a single event or a habitual or recurrent event, so that you can choose the right verb form.) Grammar sharpens the mind.

The other take-home message is that grammar is about meaning. It is not a set of rules that simply forbid some combinations of words.


Having a tooth stopped

I had a Victorian experience today: I woke up with a toothache, went to the dentist, and had a cavity filled (or as the Victorians would say, "stopped").

(No, my dentist is not the one in the picture!)

In modern America, of course, cavities are almost always detected before they produce pain, and I had never had a toothache caused by one. Mine was at the edge of an old filling that is wearing out, and there are two more like it which will be filled in November. That's what happens when you get old.


Home again

Melody is home from the hospital, recovering from the recovery... Deo gratias.

We are glad to have gotten all this over before the Ebola panic. In a few weeks, hospitals (and airports) are probably going to be quite different from what they are now.

The news media are reporting many strange things, including video game critics receiving death threats (apparently for exposing a strongly woman-hating group of gamers) and the mayor of Houston subpoenaing (!) Houston pastors' sermons about sexual morality, for no clear purpose, apparently as an intimidatory (and stupid) gesture. I don't have time even to look into these properly, much less to make informed comments. We live in a strange world.


are bad English — let's change them to

"Tornado watch" and "tornado warning" are bad English — potentially deadly jargon. I don't mean they're ungrammatical. I mean they fail to communicate.

We had a tornado warning this morning, and authorities are sending out reminders to tell us the difference between a watch and a warning.

My take on it? Those reminders are proof that the words are chosen badly. If they had chosen their words better, we wouldn't need further instruction.

"Tornado watch" and "tornado warning" are inherently confusing. When they're watching a tornado, they call it a warning, but when they're just warning us, they call it a watch. To much of the audience, each word conveys the opposite of what is meant. I used to give people D's in English Composition for doing things like that.

It would actually have been better if they had made up new words, "tornado aaarrrgh" and "tornado blllurgh," whose meanings we would learn afresh, without conflict.

Better yet, they could have chosen existing words that actually mean what they intended. That's why I would have them say tornadoes likely and tornado spotted, respectively. Why not speak plain English?

And above all, drop the authoritarian attitude: "Here are some words we made up. You must memorize what they mean." That is a common practice in bad computer documentation, and I've spent my career fighting it. To communicate, use the language that people already know.

[Update:] A correspondent points out that "likely" and "spotted" might not be ideal. "High risk of tornadoes/floods/thunderstorms" and "Tornadoes/floods/thunderstorms occurring" might be better. Or the second one might remain "warning." The important thing is that "watch" confuses people — the most common meaning of "watch" is "look at."

Others say, "It's perfectly clear once you learn it." That misses the point. Nobody should have to learn the difference between a watch and a warning. If the choice of words were better, it would be obvious what was meant, and surely it would be obvious which was which.

Another correspondent points out that antiquated computer systems actually look for the words "watch" and "warning" in text messages. To which I say: Harumph! You are being paid to keep us safe, not to preserve old software.


A new hip for her birthday

Melody's hip replacement on October 10 went smoothly, and the past couple of days have been thankfully boring. (I was hoping for no excitement, but braced for complications.) I will of course be taking care of her at home for a few weeks.

On a clear day she could sing forever...

Sirius XM satellite radio has regained its senses and has turned Channel 69 back into a mostly-instrumental-oldies channel. For a few weeks it had been 100% Barbra Streisand, around the clock. Nothing against Ms. Streisand, but the 20th Century did have other singers...

By the way, what was the best piece of instrumental music in the "easy listening" genre, while it lasted? I nominate Paul Mauriat's "Love Is Blue."


Polypoly? Oligopsony?

I may have finally contributed something to economics — not an idea, just a few terms. At least, they'll enter circulation when a certain book is published soon (no, I didn't write it) — you'll hear more about it here when it happens.

You've heard of monopoly (one seller), oligopoly (few sellers), and maybe even monopsony (one buyer — the situation in which a government contractor operates, for example). Let's complete the set:

monopoly mon-OP-o-lee situation where there is only one seller of a good or service
oligopoly olig-OP-o-lee situation where there are few sellers of a good or service
polypoly pol-IP-o-lee situation where there are many sellers of a good or service
monopsony mon-OP-so-nee situation where there is only one buyer of a good or service
oligopsony olig-OP-so-nee situation where there are few buyers of a good or service
polyopsony poly-OP-so-nee situation where there are many buyers of a good or service

Since these are formed from familiar Greek roots, I can't be sure how many of them are actually new. I think polypoly, oligopsony, and polyopsony are the new ones. You heard them here first!


Tools of thought: Backing out of an error

[Slightly revised for clarity.]

My profession is artificial intelligence (AI), the computer modeling of human thinking. Many of the most important AI techniques involve backtracking — considering one possible solution to a problem, then backing up and considering another, and then another.

People get into trouble when they can't backtrack, when they stick with their first impression too long and don't consider alternatives.

In medical diagnosis, failure to backtrack is called anchoring and is a notorious cause of mistakes. But failure to backtrack is also a problem when people think about other things.

In fact, I've concluded that one sign of low intelligence is inability to abandon a hypothesis when all the evidence for it goes away. Suppose you think a particular thing is true, but then you find out that all your reasons for believing it were mistakes (either yours or other people's). What do you do?

If you're intelligent, you bid goodbye to that idea because you no longer have any evidence for it. You'll remember it, of course, and bring it back if evidence turns up, but remembering is not the same as half-believing.

Less intelligent people, however, can't do that. They keep the idea around, still half-believing it.

That, I think, is why less intelligent people are often so wrapped up in gossip. They can't disbelieve anything that they once suspected of being true. They don't make a clean distinction between true, false, and unknown. Instead, they half-believe anything they hear, especially if it makes an exciting story.

To clarify: It's perfectly reasonable to view something as uncertain and try to judge how likely it is, based on evidence. What I mean by "half-believe" is something different, a state of mind in which you stop trying to find out whether something is true or false, and just hold it in your mind like a ghost that won't vanish.

What's important is to go by the evidence you actually have, not just imagination. "It might be true because nobody can prove it's false" — no. If you think that way, your imagination will run away with you.

For the rest of my "Tools of Thought" series, click here.


Happy birthday, Melody!

I won't say which birthday, except that you are evidence that the Fountain of Youth might be in DeKalb County, not in the Okefenokee where De Soto looked for it.

This year you are getting a new hip for your birthday. Everyone is wishing you successful hip surgery on October 10 and a quick recovery.

Thank you for being my devoted companion all these years. I love you!



Maker Faire Atlanta

[Revised and extended.]

Today and tomorrow (Oct. 4-5), Maker Faire Atlanta is going on in downtown Decatur. Stop by if you haven't already been there. Admission is free, and it's big.

That is part of the exhibit area; there was more. I didn't even see all of it. The exhibits feature lots of hands-on activities and demonstrations. This is not a swap meet and very little if anything is for sale; it's a place to go, see, and learn.

Here, for example, are children changing Abraham Lincoln's facial expression by computer:

What is a "maker"? A person who engages in any of a wide range of creative, craftsmanlike hobbies, from woodworking to sewing to building robots. The "maker movement" is a new popular uprising in favor of this, and often connected with organizing "makerspaces" (club workshops with equipment).

I'm wholeheartedly in favor of this. Two main themes are (1) the satisfaction of making physical objects that do useful or pleasing things, and (2) as often as not, the combining of computers and software with the "real world" of physical objects. (For example, 3-D printers are very popular, and so are robots.)

Yes, there was some computational linguistics! It took me by surprise. Georgia Tech student Madeleyne Vaca and her colleagues at Sign++ have made a glove that reads the sign language of the deaf (so far just the alphabet, but more is coming).


Open letter to the last few remaining smokers at UGA

To my surprise, the whole University campus smells cleaner now that the smoking ban has gone into effect. I was there yesterday (October 1) and had never realized how much we were still smelling the last few smokers, until they went away.

And, at the request of someone on Facebook, I wrote and posted this open letter, to respond to numerous questions:

Regarding our newly smoke-free campus, someone wrote to me privately to ask why I don't show compassion for smokers. OK, here is my message to people who are seriously inconvenienced by the new smoke-free policy.

First, let's understand that the issue is not your access to nicotine, but only your right to expose other people to it. I understand that nicotine addiction can be incurable. If you can't function without nicotine, you can still have lozenges and patches. What you can't do is put fumes in the air that are both unpleasant and harmful to others.

Some smokers probably feel that the terms of their employment have changed. Well, they have — but the change is necessary, to protect other people from a definite hazard. Secondhand smoke is not merely unpleasant but also proven to damage health. We have to get rid of it, regardless of the inconvenience to smokers.

But let's be honest. Addiction is miserable, but didn't you realize addiction is exactly what you were signing up for when you started smoking? Before 1970 or so (if you are that old!) it might have been fashionable, but it was still an addiction and a known health hazard. You didn't just want to smoke occasionally, the way a person might eat shrimp occasionally — you wanted to be a smoker, constantly tied to tobacco. Or at least, you saw that that was what happened to everyone who got involved with it.

Let's be honest about something else, too. Did you really think the rest of us didn't mind breathing your smoke? For a while there was strong social pressure to silence us, and smokers had special privileges, including the privilege of putting fumes into the air almost everywhere they went. Did this ever really make sense? Even smokers often conclude that they don't like secondhand smoke, once they think about it.

One way to sum it up is that society, manipulated by the tobacco industry, made a terrible mistake for several decades. But the fact that the mistake lasted a long time is no reason to continue it. It's over.

The bottom line? Compassion, yes; condoning actions that harm others, or even are culpably inconsiderate of them, no. Voluntarily getting addicted to a drug does not give you special privileges.

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