Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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I'm not into expensive cars
Rev. Dr. Alan Dan Orme, 1933-2015
Latin for "gear" = rota dentāta
To use a machine, you need a mental model
Astronomy drive-out lights, 2012 Ford Escape
How to open Ford Escape center console
How to disable Ford Escape airbags
In defense of "new math"
What is the moon about to do?
What is scientific proof?
Does science assume there is no God?
"The semaphore timeout period has expired"
Acronis: "Failed to process tag 'script' in script..."
M4 to Rho Ophiuchi
M16 (Eagle Nebula, Pillars of Creation)
M17 (Swan Nebula)
NGC 6888
Barnard's E
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Football and perspective


While I am glad that the UGA football community is reaching out to help the Southern University player who was seriously injured in their game last Saturday, and raising funds to support him through long-term disability, I would be much happier if he had not been injured at all.

I seem to be the only one saying this. Perhaps others do not want to face the sad truth.

Let's not deny that what happened was tragic. Yes, we rally in his support and hope for the best, but let's not deny that a bad thing is a bad thing. His injury was a regrettable accident, not a battlefield self-sacrifice.

Unfortunately, there are many people for whom football is so much like a religion that no one can speak against it. One can become very unpopular by saying heretical things, such as that football, in its current form, may just be too dangerous to push on our young people.

One can even become unpopular for simply not liking football. I have experienced this. It is like refusing to worship the tribal deity. I freely admit that lots of other people enjoy football as a wholesome form of entertainment; I just don't happen to be one of them. And I have met people who considered this a serious character defect or a sign of disloyalty to my school or community.

You can certainly enjoy football without giving your heart to it, the way I enjoy the music of the Beatles without idolizing them, without by any means supporting everything they did or stood for. I think the entertainment value of football comes from the fact that it can be viewed on so many different levels: as something rather like soccer, or like wrestling, or like chess, or just pageantry.

But there are entirely too many people for whom football fandom is the most important thing in life. These are the kind of people who would scarcely miss a home game for their own wedding. They overspend to show their loyalty, as if extravagance won them favor with some kind of deity. For such a person, all other duties are subordinate to being a loyal fan. Their instinctive desire to worship God has been redirected toward a football team.

I think there is spiritual danger in letting a sport or team claim that kind of unconditional devotion; in allowing oneself to be obsessed with what should be just a recreational activity; and in glorifying the battle-like aspects of the game, as if ersatz tribal warfare were a good thing.

The religion-like nature of football also shows up as syncretistic mixing with Christianity, especially in the South. For example, you will hear football mentioned in church services much more often than any other outside cultural activity. Historically, this is well-intentioned; churches promote sports as a much more wholesome pastime than a lot of the things young people would otherwise get into. And some good things come out of it; — young people get pulled out of gangs into churches.

But odd things happen, too. Of course, there's the continuing question of whether religious activities associated with the football team are fair to non-Christian students in the public schools. (I'm a Christian, but I believe the public schools are public and want their activities to be open to everybody.) But that's not the only point.

A month or two ago, we were scratching our heads over reports of baptisms of football players performed in the high school stadium in West Georgia; I never got all the details, but like most Christians, I was wondering why on earth they couldn't do their baptisms in a church. Was there, in the background of it, the desire to combine two religions? To avoid professing one's faith before a non-football-related congregation?

What concerns me about the mixed football-and-Christian religion is the mixing itself. I keep running into people who seem to view football and God as a conjoined pair, or who draw the line between them in an unexpected place, or put the wrong one on top. Something to watch out for.


No eclipse pictures; next supermoon eclipse 2019


We couldn't see the eclipse last night; the sky was solid overcast. We get a good view of a total lunar eclipse every two or three years. The next one visible from Georgia is January 21, 2019, and according to NASA, the apparent size of the moon seen from earth will be 33.4 arc-minutes (geocentric), as compared to 33.5 last night. From North America, which is on the surface of the earth turned toward the moon at the time, the moon will look a tiny bit larger during the 2019 eclipse than it did last night, but the variations in its apparent size are very slight.

The media are saying there won't be a "supermoon" eclipse until 2033. Well, it depends on what you mean by "supermoon." The word "supermoon" was introduced and promoted by an astrologer (horoscope fortuneteller), not a scientist, and it doesn't describe anything actually seen in the sky. To count as a "supermoon eclipse" by astrological criteria, the moment of perigee has to actually fall within the eclipse. In 2019 it will be a few hours out, which makes no observable difference. The view from North America in 2019 will be about as good as it can possibly be.

Acronis backup: "The semaphore timeout period has expired"

I've finally found a piece of software that won't run under Windows 10: Acronis True Image Home 2010, a disk backup program.

Actually, backups that are started manually work just fine. But backups that are started automatically in the middle of the night fail with the message "The semaphore timeout period has expired." The system event log shows lots of disk failures.

I was sure my disk drive had failed, so I replaced it. Then I replaced the USB cable and thought about replacing the Thermaltake BlacX external disk enclosure.

But the problems were confined to Acronis, so I decided to update the software. It's very inexpensive and comes with a generous free-trial offer, which means I can include a copy of Acronis True Image on the backup disk itself, ready to run if the backup needs to be unpacked onto a different computer.

Updating to Acronis True Image Home 2016 fixed the problem.

Apparently, the problem has to do with keeping the disk drive awake while the computer is asleep in the middle of the night, but needs to run a backup. Acronis 2010 doesn't do this powerfully enough, somehow, and this is said to be a problem with Windows 8 as well as 10.

There are scattered reports that Acronis 2010 will work under Windows 8 and 10 if you set all its .exe files to run in Windows 7 compatibility mode. I didn't try this.

Acronis: "Failed to recognize tag 'script' in script..."
Obsolete scripts still try to run but are not shown in menu and cannot be deleted

Upgrading from Acronis 2010 to 2016 was not a totally smooth process. The backup script from Acronis 2010 continued to exist and try to run, but it always failed with the message "Failed to recognize tag 'script'..." and did not appear in the menu, so I could not delete it. My new backup script, created under 2016, ran fine.

Backup scripts are stored in C:\ProgramData\Acronis. One heavy-handed solution would be to wipe out that folder, uninstall Acronis, re-install it, and re-create the backup script that I actually want to use.

I think that's what I am going to have to do. Simply deleting the script (or rather renaming it so that its name didn't end in .tis) didn't do the job.

(In fact, I uninstalled Acronis, then deleted C:\ProgramData\Acronis and also C:\Program Files (x86)\Acronis, then did a fresh install. Recall that C:\ProgramData is a hidden folder.)

The root of the problem is apparently some change in the syntax of the XML files used by Acronis.



What is scientific proof?

Today I want to expand on 2 points made by David Mills in his sermon this morning. These are points of logic and philosophy that should be of interest to believers and nonbelievers alike. They are uncontroversial, though not as well known as they ought to be.

"Give me scientific proof of that," people often say. But the people who say it are generally not scientists, nor do they have a very clear idea what they're asking for.

The words "proof" and "prove" are used in different ways in different fields.

In logic and mathematics, a proof is a demonstration that something follows logically from something else. To take a trivial example, using algebra I can prove that if x = 2, then x+3 = 5. And that if it doesn't, it doesn't. But I cannot prove any facts about the real world.

In a courtroom, a proof is a demonstration that the evidence compels a reasonable person to believe something. A courtroom proof does not exclude all imaginable possibilities — it only excludes alternatives that are considered relevant. The available evidence is limited, and investigation has its limits. Nobody witnessed the murder, and nobody ever will, but there is clear evidence that only one person could have done it...

In science, you may be surprised to learn that the word "proof" is rarely used. Somehow, "scientific proof" is something that exists in newspapers and popular books, not in laboratories or research papers.

The reason, as philosopher Karl Popper has pointed out at length, is that science proceeds more by disproving or rejecting hypotheses than by "proving" them. It takes a huge amount of evidence to establish a law of nature. It is much easier to show that a particular proposal is incorrect or needs adjustment.

A bigger reason is that, unlike the courtroom, science is not closed to further possibilities. In a courtroom, you generally don't have to prove that the defendant didn't use a gadget that hasn't been invented yet! But in the laboratory, there is the constant possibility that something is going on that hasn't been discovered or thought of yet.

That is why scientists — real, working scientists — are so unwilling to make pronouncements that they've "proved" something. If you learned your science in elementary school, and you demand cut-and-dried answers that you can memorize, then real science is not for you. It's just not like that.

Does science assume there is no God?

One of the working rules of scientific research is that we don't say "Well, God did it" when we run into something we don't understand. And this is a point on which there is much confusion.

Philosophical naturalism is the belief that the physical world is all there is — as Carl Sagan put it, "the cosmos is all there is, or has been, or ever will be." A philosophical naturalist is, by definition, an atheist.

Methodological naturalism is something different. It is the determination not to call on forces outside of the physical world to explain the physical world, because things outside of the physical world are outside the scope of scientific investigation.

Methodological naturalism does not assume there is no God. It only assumes that He cannot be investigated by direct observation of the physical world. It is a determination to read the book of nature thoroughly before concluding that something isn't in it.

I am the second kind, not the first kind. I don't resort to "God of the gaps" — that is, I don't postulate miraculous intervention whenever I get to something I can't explain scientifically. Of course, it is all God's creation, but I don't postulate petty divine interventions as solutions to minor puzzles. I take it for granted that more scientific discoveries are coming.

At the same time, I do not mix up assumptions with conclusions. It is one thing to say that science only investigates physical reality. But it is quite circular, and fallacious, to imagine that science somehow has proved that there is nothing but physical reality. That would be like a deaf person claiming to have proved that there is no such thing as sound.

A small example of "God of the gaps" that is circulating is the notion that, when Colossians 1:17 says "in [the Creator] all things hold together," this means the nuclear binding force, which holds atoms together, is the result of divine intervention. I would reply: It is part of God's creation; it is no more and no less divine than other natural forces. We hope to know more about it one day.


NGC 6888

Here is one last picture from Deerlick on September 13. This in NGC 6888 in central Cygnus, a stack of nine 58-second exposures with a Canon 60Da and Canon 300-mm f/4 lens on a Celestron AVX mount. These are the same picture; the first one shows the whole picture, reduced, and the second is the central area, cropped but not reduced as much.

Why American politics is changing direction

Let me just briefly note a couple of forces at work in American politics that may shape the 2016 election.

(1) From opposite ends, Pope Francis and Donald Trump are driving a wedge between Christianity and the secular right wing. People are having to question the assumption that being a good Christian is largely the same thing as being a good Republican.

(2) The economic downturn of 2008 showed a lot of people that bad things can happen to good people, and in particular that you can be plunged into poverty against your wishes and in spite of your willingness to work. There is more appreciation of the social safety net — which, of course, must be a safety net to catch people who are falling, not a hammock for them to rest in permanently.


What is the moon about to do?
Several things, none of them rare

As is obvious from the news media, on Sunday evening the moon is going to do something unusual. Actually, it will be doing several things, none of them rare. Even the combination of them is not rare or unexpected.

(1) Eclipse of the moon. Details here. Mid-eclipse is 10:47 p.m. EDT. The moon is very likely to turn red, as it does during most total eclipses, because of light scattered by the earth's atmosphere.

Eclipses of the moon are not rare; I get a good view of one every couple of years. They come in groups of four (tetrads), and, for what it's worth, this eclipse is the fourth one in its group.

(2) Full moon. Eclipses of the moon always occur on the night of full moon.

(3) "Supermoon." The moon will be relatively close to us in its orbit, which will make it look larger. The change in size is only a few percent; more about this here.

Note that these changes in distance are always going on; whenever you see the moon, it's at some point in its orbit. Nothing extraordinary is happening here.

Let me elaborate on that. We have a "supermoon" some time every month — that is, the moon reaches minimum distance from us every time it goes around — but this does not usually coincide with full moon. Every so often it does. And "supermoon" is not an abrupt moment; the moon looks nearly as large a few days before or after the exact moment of minimum distance. If you drew a graph of lunar distance versus date, it would look like a sine curve, which does not have a sharp peak. So don't despair if you don't see the "super blood moon" — about a quarter of all lunar eclipses are reasonably close to "supermoon."

(4) The "moon illusion" will make the moon look larger when it's close to the horizon than when it's high in the sky. This is an illusion of human visual perception — the moon looks larger when we have objects to compare it to. It happens every day when the moon is close to the horizon. But many people will mix this up with the "supermoon."

(5) Harvest Moon. The full moon in summer is low in the south. In September and October, the full moon rises appreciably to the north of where it would rise in the summer, which means it's higher in the sky soon after it rises. This happens every year.

Let me reiterate that there is no generally accepted Christian doctrine or prophecy about a "blood moon" although one sect leader is making much of it. To him, and to everyone else, I would point out several things:

(1) Before you tell me your elaborate scheme for "proving" that this is the fulfillment of a prophecy, show me the prophecy. Where does the Bible say to watch for obscure mathematical patterns in lunar eclipses and coincidences with events on earth? Nowhere that I know of. It tells people to stay away from pagan astrology, not adopt its methods.

(2) Yes, the Jewish calendar forms a pattern with the dates of lunar eclipses. That's because it is based on the phases of the moon, and lunar eclipses always occur at full moon.

(3) This can easily become a scheme to make Christians look silly. The media are spreading the impression that we have a belief that we don't have, and then they're going to prove that belief false. And then where will that leave you?


Eagle and Swan

No, that's not the name of an Oxford pub, but rather this pair of nebulae in Sagittarius:

This, too, is from my September 13 trip to Deerlick. Stack of nine 58-second exposures, Canon 60Da at ISO 3200, Canon 300-mm f/4 lens, Celestron AVX mount, PEC, no autoguider.

The Eagle Nebula (M16, at the top) contains a set of dust lanes sometimes called the Pillars of Creation since a Hubble photograph made them famous. Here is an enlarged view of that part of the picture:



More on the car-light project

I've done a little more on my car-auxiliary-light project.

First: Electrical measurements show me that the lights receive 6.2 volts and draw 6 amps. That is exactly what I planned on, so the resistor value seems to be correct. Because brightness of an incandescent lamp is proportional to the cube of voltage, they burn at 1/8 normal brightness, equivalent to a pair of 7-watt instead of 55-watt bulbs. If experience shows me that they need to be dimmer, I can still increase the resistors.

Second: I've labeled the switch "AUX LIGHTS":

The Ford dashboard has two rather peculiar typefaces on it, and with Melody's sage advice, I chose not to try to match either of them. Instead I used Myriad Pro. The label was made in Adobe Illustrator, laser-printed on Avery white plastic label material, and cut out with an X-Acto knife. I actually made three of the labels; used the first one; kept the second as a spare; and affixed the third (least neatly trimmed) one to the piece of metal that holds the resistor.

Third: I added more pieces of wire loom to further protect and hide the wires that were visible from the front of the car.

What I am still not satisfied with is the way power is obtained with a fuse tap that prevents me from installing the inner cover of the fuse panel. More on that later, maybe.

Temporary solution: Putting the fuse tap in socket 1 (which is always on) instead of 33 (on in Run and Start), and cutting a notch in the cover, I can get the cover on again. This may not be the solution I stick with.


Barnard's E

This is a bright field of the Milky Way near the star Tarazed in Aquila, showing the dark nebula called "Barnard's E" and another dark nebula. This is the same field I photographed at lower magnification two years ago.

This is a stack of eleven 58-second exposures with a Canon 60Da set to ISO 3200 and a Canon 300-mm f/4 lens on a Celestron AVX mount with PEC but no autoguider.


From M4 to Rho Ophiuchi

It's cloudy even in interstellar space.

On September 13 I got to Deerlick, and my equipment (including the new drive-out lights) served me outstandingly. This is the first of several pictures from that evening. This is a stack of nine 58-second exposures with a Canon 60Da and Canon 300-mm lens at f/4 on my Celestron AVX mount, with PEC playback turned on but no autoguider.

Why 58-second exposures? Because my timer is set for 1 minute, but I'm using 2-second delayed shutter release to eliminate vibration. Now you know.

In the picture you see the bright star Antares (lower left, somewhat distorted by light scattering in the lens), the globular cluster M4 (lower right) and another globular, and, at top, the triple star Rho Ophiuchi. More importantly, you can see a mix of all three types of nebula — a small patch of reddish emission nebula rendered fluorescent by starlight (near the star at mid height near the right edge of the picture), plenty of grayish reflection nebulosity reflecting starlight, and plenty of dark nebulosity, simply blocking starlight.

I want to photograph this region again when it is higher in the sky. The ideal time of year for photographing it, July, unfortunately isn't blessed with much clear weather in our part of the world.


In defense of "new math"
(It's not new, and it's about answers, not tedium)

For about 50 years, elementary schools have been teaching mathematics in a way that emphasizes comparing numbers and understanding the information they give you, rather than just adding and subtracting with pencil and paper.

This is called the "new math," and for 50 years, people have been criticizing it, almost always misrepresenting it as they do so. The idea is that our children aren't being taught to "figure," they're being taught some useless nonsense that is the fault of liberals, Communists, or Arabs.

Balderdash. Let me give you an example of why the "new math" is better.

First, a practical math problem. Which is closer to 200, 198 or 203?

That's a good example of the kind of thing you might really want to know in daily life. Real-life mathematics usually has to do with which of several numbers is closer to some goal, or whether one number is close enough to another.

Old math: The "old math" approach to this problem is that in order to compare numbers, you have to subtract. Specifically, you have to perform two 3-digit subtractions with pencil and paper:

  200       203
- 198     - 200
-----     -----
    2         3

You have to compare the numbers even before you do this, so you can put the larger number on top each time. Then you go through a tedious process complete with "borrowing." At the end, you compare the 2 and 3 and try to remember what they mean.

New math: Think of numbers as points on a line:

Now look at the distances. Compared to your goal (200), 198 is two steps to the left, and 203 is 3 steps to the right. You can see which one is closer and how much closer it is.

Let me hasten to add that "new math" students do learn to subtract the "old math" way. (A common misrepresentation is that they don't.) But the point is, they don't have to use pencil and paper for this simple problem. The number line approach is easy to do in your head.

Some critics of the "new math" don't seem to understand what arithmetic is supposed to accomplish. See also this.


An open letter to the Oconee County Sheriff's Office

On the evening of September 14, two people died tragically in a fiery crash while fleeing from law enforcement on McNutt's Creek Road. My understanding is that they have not yet been identified, nor is it known why they were fleeing.

On September 15, one or more Atlanta TV stations asked for the dashcam video under the Open Records Act.

In response, around 4 p.m., the Oconee County Sheriff's Office (OCSO) decided to broadcast the entire video via YouTube and Facebook.

I agree with the decision to make it available to the public. That's part of police accountability, which I'm in favor of. But they way they released it was to put it in their Facebook feed. In many people's browsers, the video played automatically, even before they could read the warning about gruesome images. (People have argued with me about this, but Facebook does auto-play videos and as far as I can determine is the default option.)

In this way, two people's tragic death became a public spectacle. The Facebook crowd immediately started gloating about "how idiots die." But we don't know that they were "idiots" or even criminals.

Then, "to brighten the mood," the OCSO broadcast a clip from "The Dukes of Hazzard" via the same channel. To me, this only reinforced the impression that a tragedy was not being taken seriously enough.

Here are three things I wish the OCSO would understand.

(1) Respect for the dead and for the living calls for some discretion here. Yes, make the video available upon request. No, don't shove it at people as entertainment.

(2) Your fan base of Facebook followers may not be an asset. They were quick to gloat and heckle. Is that the kind of thing a law enforcement agency should be presiding over? You are a sheriff's office, not a TV network.

(3) Following up with "The Dukes of Hazzard" just worsened our impression of you.

Please respect the citizens — all of them — even the ones who died in the fiery crash.

Please put professionalism ahead of entertainment.

And if I should happen to die in your county (which I'll try my best not to), please think long and hard before televising my death to entertain your fan base.

[Update:] Popular opinion was strongly against me on this one; most people saw nothing wrong with the crash video being distributed on Facebook. But I think an entertainment site — which is what Facebook is — is the wrong way to distribute such serious and tragic material. It puts it in the wrong context.


Astronomy drive-out lights for my 2012 Ford Escape
How to open the center console
How to disable the air bags before working on the dash

Over the weekend I completed a project that a bad case of costochondritis (rib inflammation) rudely interrupted in the fall of 2012. Having recently regained the ability to do mechanical work, I installed astronomy drive-out lights on my 2012 Ford Escape. I'm documenting the project in meticulous detail here because it may interest others who want to install auxiliary lights on a Ford Escape.

Astronomy what lights, you ask? Well, when I go to dark-sky sites where other astronomers have telescopes set up, I often need to drive away before they are finished. I don't stay out all night. Accordingly, I need a way to pull my car off the field without shining any bright lights toward the other astronomers. The usual advice is to drive by one's parking lights, but even then, the taillights and other marker lights can disturb people.

What I needed was a set of lights that shine only forward, down low, and are about as bright as parking lights. That way, having already parked my car pointing away from the astronomers, I can turn on the astronomy drive-out lights and creep slowly off the field.

These dim lights are not sufficient for night driving on any public road anywhere. They are for use only on driveways that have been carefully scouted out in advance, by a driver whose eyes are adjusted to the dark.

My other goals for the project were:

  • Compatibility with the styling of the car. I didn't want something that would scream, "Look, I modified my car!" Both externally and internally, I wanted the whole setup to look like a Ford option that one happened not to have seen before. I also didn't want to join the "LED eyebrows" fad, which looks to me too much like a hostile caricature of an Asian face.
  • Lights protected from car washes and minor impacts. Too many people mount their auxiliary lights right out front where they're in danger.
  • Powering the lights from a switched 12-volt circuit so that they could be left switched on for use as (relatively dim) daytime running lights.
  • Very simple, reliable technology. Although I've experimented with pulse-width-modulation solid-state dimmers (and may yet put one in), for now I'm using a resistor; my circuit design is like something Gus Wilson would have been troubleshooting back in 1948.

Click here for a complete wiring diagram with parts specifications, just in case there's anybody else weird enough to want to build exactly the same thing.

Now for how it was done. The front grill and bumper cover are hard to remove from an Escape, so I didn't do so. Instead, I carefully drilled mounting holes in the metal bumper using a drill with a right-angle adapter. (The metal bumper is a couple of inches behind the plastic bumper cover.)

The lights hang from brackets mounted on the metal bumper above them. I ran the wires inside a black wire loom (conduit) and secured it with black zip-ties, drilling a couple of holes in the plastic bumper to make this possible. As you can see, higher up, some wires are still visible; I may go back with small pieces of wire loom to make them less conspicuous.

Next, the wiring under the hood. The wires to the lights go around the right-hand edge of the radiator, behind the grill. Because sharp metal edges were present, I used a wire loom. First I fished a single thin wire through the desired space; then I slid the wire loom around it and got it into position; and then used the original wire to pull the actual wiring harness that I had made. Here you're looking down, toward the front of the car, and you can see the wire loom disappearing into the nether regions. The two plastic things in the foreground are the coolant reservoir and the washer fluid reservoir.

Just inside the front fender is my ground connection for the lights. They are grounded through their cases, poorly, so I also ran a ground wire to them, and it's attached to the car's body using a pre-existing 6mm threaded hole that I found, under the hood near the right fender. Here my 3/8-inch wire loom ends, the ground wire comes out of it, and the hot wire continues in a smaller loom.

Here's how my wire loom snakes around the coolant reservoir and makes its way to the firewall, where it's zip-tied to a pre-existing wire loom:

At the top center of the firewall are a lot of connections to the car's computer (PCM). To the (car's) right of that (left in the picture), I've mounted a scrap of metal with a 1-ohm 50-watt resistor on it. This is what dims the lights.

Here's a better view of the resistor (Digi-Key part TMC50-1.0-ND). Note that it is not in contact with the wire loom that passes in front of it. (It gets rather warm!) Note also that it can be disconnected and bypassed by hand, by just unplugging things and plugging them in differently, in case you want to run the auxiliary lights at full brightness.

And here's the rest of what's under the hood on the (car's) left side. The wire comes through the firewall using a large grommet that would have been used for a clutch if the Escape had one. Then it is encased in a wire loom, zip-tied to existing wire looms, until it gets to the resistor.

Here's a better look at that clutch grommet. The grommet pulls out easily from the front of the car. Behind it is sound-deadening material and a plastic panel which has a punch-out corresponding to the grommet. If I had it to do again, I would not have taken out the plastic punch-out, but rather carefully drilled a hole in it. As it is, I punched it out, then had to put it back with duct tape. Of course, I had to punch a small hole in the grommet itself.

Now for the interior of the car.

How to disable 2012 Ford Escape air bags (SRS): I am passing along this safety-related information in good faith but cannot be held liable for errors. Please check against multiple sources of information.

Before working near the air bag sensors in the dash area, you must disable the air bags so they do not deploy accidentally. Disconnecting the battery is not enough because there is a back-up capacitor. Here is the procedure:

(1) With the vehicle turned off, remove fuse 31 (labeled SRS).

(2) Start the engine and watch the air bag warning light. It should remain continuously illuminated. Watch it for at least 30 seconds. If it doesn't stay on, you've removed the wrong fuse; go back and correct your error.

(3) Disconnect the ground terminal of the battery and wait at least one minute. Do not use a "radio saver" auxiliary battery. (My radio did not lose its station presets anyhow, although it did forget what station it was tuned to, and the clock lost the time.)

When you're finished working on the dash, put fuse 31 back in, reconnect the battery, start the engine, and make sure the air bag warning light goes out after its initial test.

How to open up the center console: To facilitate running the wires, I also opened up the center console, although that is not strictly necessary. The procedure is simple. First pry up the plastic bezel:

Then lift out the storage box and pry up the upper part of the console, starting at the back. This is easier if you had the presence of mind to shift into neutral (and apply the parking brake) before disconnecting the battery.

The console can be demounted from the floor — it's obvious how — but I didn't do that.

Now then. Here are some parts that are going to play a crucial role:

One of them is an illuminated rocker switch (from Advance Auto Parts) that mounts in a round hole and has a plastic nut (arrow). The other is a fuse tap, which plugs into an existing fuse socket and gives you power for something else.

Here is where the switch is installed. The plastic nut is not used; instead, it is a tight press-fit into a hole that has been drilled to exactly the right size with a conical bit. A dab of contact cement holds it in place. Unlike plastic cement, contact cement is rubbery and can easily be broken loose for a repair. Of course, all the wires were connected to the switch before I pushed it into the hole.

Now how do we get it there? This panel, under the dash, opens up and then detaches. (Pry at the arrows, then pull it down.) It gives easy access to the clutch grommet (where the wire goes through the firewall) and a metal panel to which the illuminated switch is grounded.

Getting the "hot" wire around the console and into the fuse panel was a bit of a fishing job, but here's the end result. As you can see, again I used a wire loom because the wire had to pass by some sharp metal edges.

Right now, the inner (black) cover of the fuse panel can't go back on because the fuse tap takes up too much space. The outer cover, not shown, of course fits in place and looks perfectly normal.

Right now the fuse tap is attached to circuit 33, a "spare" (unused) circuit (the Escape has several of these), which is on in Start and Run. But a fuse tap can work equally well on a regular circuit.

The project is almost complete. Here's what remains:

  • Label the light switch. I figure that with the resources of a graphic design studio in the house, I should be able to make a neat label, somehow.
  • Evaluate whether 1.0 ohm is the correct resistance, or the lights should be a little dimmer.
  • Further consider the source of DC power. A circuit that is on in Run and Acc (rather than Run and Start) might be preferable. It also might be possible to get the fuse tap into a position that doesn't interfere with the inner cover going on.
  • Possibly hide the wires that are still visible from the front.

But that's enough for today. More was done September 20.


To use a machine, you must have a mental model


I was thinking the other day about why some people can't load dishwashers, and it's related to why some people can't drive in the snow.

For me, dishwashers have always worked obstinately well. Even old ones that are starting to wear out will still get my dishes clean.

Other people don't seem to have any luck at all, and as far as Melody and I can tell, what matters is how you load the dishwasher.

If you think about water flowing all over the dishes, of course you'll load them so they don't block each other, and they'll come clean. But if your mental model of the dishwasher is simply "get the dishes into it somehow, and it will magically wash them," your luck will not be so good.

This is related to what we see when people try to drive in the snow for the first time. Like many people in our town, I grew up a couple of hundred miles to the south, where there is no snow.

The first time I drove in the snow, I went very slowly but didn't really have any trouble. The reason? I had a mental model of how the tires grip the road and propel and steer the car. I was alert to whether they were really doing it as intended.

But every winter, we see people spinning their wheels in the snow. The reason? Their mental model is just "this pedal makes it go, the other pedal makes it stop." If it doesn't "go" they press the "go" pedal harder and longer.

Here's a second insight. Your mental model need not be as complex as the machine itself, but it must be enough. You can drive a car all your life without visualizing the camshaft. You can use a dishwasher without knowing what goes on inside its timer.

(Even the engineer who designed the body of your car did not have to think about the camshaft. Good engineering design separates a machine into components whose internal workings are largely hidden, as long as their inputs and outputs are clearly understandable by others.)

The extreme case is with software, where every piece of software is basically a machine in itself. You need a mental model of how to use the software (not of everything that goes on in it, just of exactly what it is supposed to do for you, and what it requires to do it). But you don't have to understand how the computer works. You approach the software on its own terms.

The software designer should cooperate with you by making the software fit the task. Good software takes advantage of the understanding that you bring to it. It does not force you to learn a totally new way of describing something that you already understand.

It follows that if you don't know what to do, no software in the world can enable you to do it. You can use Microsoft Word without knowing much about computers, but you need to know a lot about what printed documents should look like. Traditionally, a typist didn't just know how to use a typewriter; she (it was almost always a she) also knew what typewritten documents ought to look like, and beyond the beginner level, the second kind of knowledge was more important.

Likewise, today, with Photoshop and its kin, the question is not how much you know about the software — it's whether you know what a picture ought to look like. Does it need more contrast, or less? A color shift? Photoshop will let you do anything you want. Now what should you want?

Now for a third insight. Using any machine effectively requires metacognition. That is, it requires you to know what you know and have insight as to whether it is enough. Yes, I can drive in the snow without knowing about camshafts. No, I can't drive without knowing what the tires do on the road. And if my tires aren't doing what I expect on the road, I need to be smart enough to seek further knowledge.


We remember — and we defend

World War III has now been being fought in slow motion for fourteen years.

On September 11, 2001, I came downstairs after checking my e-mail in my home office, looked at the TV, remarked, "Look at that, the World Trade Center is on fire," and then, as events unfolded, went to my office at the University, told the staff that they need not stay there if they didn't feel safe, and told the foreign graduate students that they still had the same freedoms as before, and that I (and the American police) would stand up for them if any misguided patriots gave them trouble.

Our defenses worked. One of the four 9/11 attacks was thwarted in real-time by brave airline passengers. There have been no further attacks on U.S. soil.

Six years later I started doing defense research to help protect us from terrorism, and that is now my main job.

I should say a little more about that. Some of my friends think I'm retired and just sitting in a rocking chair. No; I'm running a thriving software consultancy, doing applied artificial intelligence and computational linguistics for several clients. Some of the work is for the financial sector and for medical research, but the bulk of it is for a defense contractor. I am not in the armed forces myself, nor do I have a security clearance.

What do I do? Well, I can't give you the details, but in general terms, terrorism is now something scientists study just like earthquakes and epidemics. Terrorist groups give out a huge amount of current information about themselves in order to attract and retain recruits. By monitoring that information, we can often know more about the behavior of the terrorists than they know about themselves. This is closely related to peace research except that instead of preventing whole wars, we prevent particular battles.

Not much of our work is made public. A publicly known project that incorporates some of our work is ICEWS. We have published a few papers; one reference is here, but if your library cannot access it, contact me for a copy.


Elizabeth II, Dei Gratia Regina...

Today Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-reigning monarch that England has ever had. (Not the longest-reigning in the world; King Bhumipol of Thailand has been on his throne even longer.) We salute Her Majesty and continue to wish her a long and prosperous reign.


Visual Studio 2015 is free — maybe

Microsoft Visual Studio 2015 (their latest editor and compiler for C#, Visual Basic, F#, and C++, with hooks for Python and other languages and platforms) is available free of charge in a "Community" edition that now includes performance analysis. I've been trying it out. It's good.

But I can't use it for my consulting work. The reason? The license says: "If you are an enterprise, your employees and contractors may not use the software to develop or test your applications, except for open source and education purposes as permitted above. An 'enterprise' is any organization and its affiliates who collectively have either (a) more than 250 PCs or users or (b) more than one million US dollars (or the equivalent in other currencies) in annual revenues, and 'affiliates' means those entities that control (via majority ownership), are controlled by, or are under common control with an organization."

I contract for multi-million-dollar companies, at least some of the time. And $499 for the Professional version is a price I'm willing to pay; it is still not a lot of money for so much functionality.

But I do not think the criterion is as well thought out as they intended. "Annual revenues" means gross income (I think!). Some rather small businesses gross well over a million dollars a year — and pay almost all of it out again in costs of merchandise. A mom-and-pop hardware store might do almost that. On the other hand, if my consultancy were grossing that much, I'd be very prosperous. And "on the third hand," I can see why they used gross income — it is very easy to manipulate net income to look like zero on paper, by treating all expenditures as necessary expenses.

But the real problem is that for a reasonably small business, the annual revenue is likely to be confidential information, not given to software contractors!

Latin for "gear" = rota dentāta

The other morning I woke up wondering what was the Latin word for "gear" ("sprocket") and wondering why I had never come across it. The Romans had machines with gears in them.

A lot of dictionaries gave me translations of "gear" meaning "equipment" (e.g., "a soldier's gear"), but that's not what I was looking for. Even Comenius was no help.

In an Italian dictionary I found ruota dentata, which led me to believe that the Latin was rota dentāta "toothed wheel."

This is confirmed by Latin Wikipedia, whose name (Vicipaedia) actually makes more sense than "Wikipedia" — by a happy choice of words they've made it mean "education by taking turns."

They cite a Vatican Latinist (Carolus Egger) and tell us that another word was denticulātiō (literally "toothing"). Both of these are from the group at the Vatican that recommends ways to describe modern things in Latin. They may be shallow calques from Italian.

There I end my quest, but there is surely more to be found. The problem is that although the Romans had machinery, they didn't write about it very much. Though I haven't tracked it down, I've seen indications that Leonardo da Vinci called a gear a rota dentāta. Can it be found in any earlier source?


Rev. Dr. Alan Dan Orme, 1933-2015

Today is the funeral of the Rev. Dr. Alan Dan Orme ("Dan" to his friends), mentor to two generations of Christian intellectuals in Athens, Georgia, and founding pastor of The University Church, an independent evangelical church and community that combines conservative doctrine with high intellectual standards (see also this). I was never a member of The University Church but often visited it as an undergraduate and was definitely part of its community.

Dan died on August 27 after a long illness. He had been a blessing to our town and university and will be missed. May his memory be eternal.

Addendum: With his permission, I am making available an audio recording of the eulogy delivered by Don Williams. I recommend listening to it if you want to know just what Dan Orme was all about. Click here.

The picture above has been widely circulated. I will be glad to credit the original source if that information comes my way.


Moon, slightly past full

Just after midnight on the evening of August 31, I was looking at the rising moon with binoculars and was struck by how much Mare Crisium looked like a giant crater. So I took a picture. This is a single exposure with a Canon 60Da and Celestron 5 at f/10, digitally sharpened and with color saturation increased.

March of Dimes or march of telemarketers?

The March of Dimes seems to have gotten involved with a disreputable telemarketing company. This morning I got a call on their behalf from caller ID 866-583-9826, which, according to numerous web sites, is used by pesky telemarketers. The person calling me took about 10 seconds to say anything (indicating that an autodialer was being used), and when I said, "Please do not call us at this number," she wanted to argue. "But we're a non-profit organization." "We're not calling to ask for a donation." And so on. I ended up saying, "What part of 'no' do you not understand???" and hanging up.

Then I called the March of Dimes at 914-997-4488, complained about the rude caller, and got taken off their list.

The woman who fielded my complaint sounded a bit tired. I'll bet she had been getting these complaints ever since the telemarketing campaign started. But if they can call us, we can call them, right? We definitely should. Telemarketers are counting on not hearing from the people they've offended.

Two cautionary notes.

(1) Charities that call you out of the blue are very often bogus. This call was from the real March of Dimes, but usually, those phone calls come from sound-alike names like "American Cancer Association" (not "Society") or "American Heart Society" (not "Association"), or from charities that claim falsely to be organizations of police officers or veterans.

(2) The March of Dimes isn't what it used to be. Charity Navigator gives them only 2 stars out of 4. More than half a century ago, they heroically wiped out polio, but then their sense of mission became less clear. They've done some good work, but the experts no longer rate them as the best destination for your charitable giving today.

And if they've gotten involved with obnoxious telemarketers, they may sink their own ship rather fast!

I'm not into expensive cars

One of my personal quirks is that, unlike the average American, I have no desire to spend as much money as possible on automobiles.

I don't drive jalopies, of course. Our family cars have always been reliable, comfortable, and presentable. But they haven't been status symbols.

I was thinking of a friend who has a $50,000 observatory. Most people would consider that a great extravagance. But he could have easily spent $50,000 more than he needed to on cars for himself and his wife, and no one would have blinked.

There really are people out there with $30,000 annual incomes and $50,000 automobile debts. I am convinced the main paths into poverty in America are medical crises, disability, abandonment, and excessive car debts.

And a $50,000 car is not five times as good as a $10,000 car, by any reasonable criterion.

The most expensive car we've ever bought was our current Ford Escape, which (departing from usual practice) we bought new four years ago, and financed. It has held its value so well that we had positive equity in it within about a year. Normally I would advocate buying a car with slightly over 50,000 miles on it and paying cash. That's the sweet spot. A well-broken-in car can actually be more reliable than a new one, and you want someone else to suffer the first year's depreciation.

Also, you don't want to have a car payment every month for the rest of your life. Car payments are not like rent. They're more like time payments on furniture. You hope to finish paying the debt and keep enjoying the thing you bought!

Some people buy expensive cars as status symbols. For many of my parents' generation, it was very important to show the world that you had made it off the farm and out of the mill houses and into the Middle Class. If you had a new American car, you had something. If you had an expensive car (Cadillac, or nowadays BMW), you really were somebody.

Others imagine that a car is worn out and unreliable after about three years or 30,000 miles. Definitely not. Maybe a 1962 car would have been badly worn at that point, but not anything of modern manufacture. They don't make them like they used to, thank goodness.

Still others mix up buying a car with buying a house. "You have to trade up to preserve your value." "They'll give you a better trade-in allowance on a better car." Well, yes, but that's because they're giving you a discount on something expensive. That doesn't mean it's the best use of your money. Unlike a house, a car drops in value (usually very fast). You're not buying it as an investment. You're buying it to drive around in.

These things don't appeal to me. Why should I imagine that owning a car would mark me as a better person? And my experiences with premium cars have not always been pleasant. Due to an inheritance, we once, briefly, owned a 1982 Cadillac with the notorious 4-6-8 engine. We joked about the monthly $600 cover charge at the dealership, and we sold the car for next to nothing (which was all it was worth) and bought a more conventional one that was easy to maintain.

I'm not saying nobody should have expensive cars. If you enjoy it and can afford it, go for it. But it's not worth that much to me. I have other things to do with my money.

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