Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
Not recommended: Acronis True Image 2016
Recommended: Veeam Endpoint Backup Free
Cascaded grommets
What terrorists want
Babbage, 2004-2015
Gossip, a national security hazard
Processing DSLR images with PixInsight
An advantage of Linux for big data
Cygnus (wide field)
Double Cluster
Andromeda Galaxy (M31)
North America Nebula
Triangulum Galaxy (M33)
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One of the inhabitants of our lotus pond says hello. The two main animals there are this frog and a goldfish that has grown almost to the size of a trout. Here's the frog, who sat there with his eyes out of the water for a long period during this warm (70 F) afternoon (Nov. 28).

The cross-shaped highlights are due to the crosshairs that I put in front of my 105-mm Sigma lens in order to produce crosses on bright stars when I do astrophotography with it.

Some other obligations are coming up, so I'm closing out the month of November a bit early. December in the Daily Notebook will start a bit late. Don't be alarmed! I'm coming back.


An advantage of Linux for big data

We celebrated Thanksgiving quietly at home, and I spent some time experimenting with my computers. In particular, I was looking at a big-data clustering technique that a client is interested in (no, I won't say what or for whom) and ended up having to install Linux!

The reason is that the R statistics package cannot allocate extremely large (> 4 GB) vectors due to "preallocations by Windows in the middle of the address space."

This is the case even under Windows 10, 64-bit, which no longer has the 8-TB process memory limit of earlier versions.

I don't know to what extent other software is affected by the same limitation.

I set up my computer to dual-boot Linux Mint. (If you want to do that, click and follow those instructions. Linux Mint does not recognize Windows 10 as a preinstalled operating system, so you have to take care not to overwrite it!) Linux Mint is delightfully interoperable with Windows, including the ability to read and write my Windows files and folders.

R under Linux happily created the data structures and will spend all night crunching them.

Waiting for Windows 10 Service Pack 1? It's here!

Some people refuse to upgrade Windows until the first service pack for the new version comes out. Well, Windows 10's service pack is here, but it's called Version 1511.

My PCs have been receiving it one by one over the past few days. It's a 3-gigabyte download and they're not rolling it out to everyone at the same time.

To find out whether you have it, go to Start button, Settings, System, About, and see if Version 1511 is mentioned.


Happy Thanksgiving!


Do they really scrape the sky?

Here you see a skyscraper (in Atlanta, Nov. 3) apparently doing what its name implies. It took it all day to get that cloud down, though.

One more observation

"Christmas" songs that avoid religion and also avoid children are pretty nearly songs about nothing.

Both the singer and the audience only care about sappy love songs, but "for Christmas" they make one that mentions Christmas somehow, and we have to listen to it...

Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent. — Wittgenstein.


Some observations


For some people, Black Friday is a cultural event like running a marathon — they train for it, get up early, and compete. Not me. For me, shopping is not a sport, and I can't get worked up into a frenzy about it. Everyone, if you think Black Friday is overgrown, vote with your pocketbook; simply don't participate.

And for some people, politics is a fantasy game in which you get to make up your own reality, unfettered by objective facts. Not me...

A few people have apparently gotten it into their heads that we're no longer allowed to say "Merry Christmas." A much larger set have gotten it into their heads that they need to protest loudly against that notion.

Let's get some things clear. It makes perfect sense to say "Happy holidays" because there's more than one holiday during this season. It is also a gesture of good will toward our Jewish and other non-Christian friends and neighbors. It does not mean that Christianity has been blotted out or is under siege. Not at all.

What I balk at is the few faddish people who won't call Christmas by its proper name when they are talking about Christmas specifically. December 25 is not "Holiday" and we do not have a "Holiday tree" and "Holiday presents" in this house.

It reminds me of the undergraduate who learned to call black people African-Americans and proudly extended that term to Nelson Mandela. No... not quite...

(The equivalent of that is the journalist who reported that people were flocking to Bethlehem, Georgia, to mail their "holiday cards." Exactly how many holidays are associated with Bethlehem? Why not call a Christmas card what it is?)

I also balk at people (if there are any!) who won't let me wish them a Merry Christmas. But I have not encountered any. It may be a fad among the excessively politically correct. It may even be a legend.

I didn't plan to spend this past week having bronchitis. Unfortunately, when one is sick, life is reduced to work, chores, and rest, with little time to play or be creative. It's like being on a tight budget — of time and energy, not money. Cough, cough...


North America Nebula and northern Cygnus

Photo by Douglas Downing and Michael Covington

Doug and I got out to Deerlick on November 12, and by carefully picking out holes in high clouds, we got some pictures. This is the North America Nebula together with star clouds north of it in Cygnus. Stack of ten 1-minute exposures, Canon XSi, ISO 1600, Sigma 105/2.8 lens, iOptron SkyTracker.

Triangulum Galaxy (M33)

Photo by Douglas Downing and Michael Covington

Here's M33, the galaxy in Triangulum. Same technique as the previous picture, but it's a stack of only nine 1-minute exposures, and you're looking at the center of the picture, enlarged.

The purpose of this picture is to show that very small, portable equipment can photograph the spiral structure of a galaxy. The total aperture was one and a half inches.

Processing DSLR images with PixInsight

If you want to use PixInsight to calibrate and stack DSLR images, see my newbie's notes, which are subject to revision. The Batch Preprocessing script provided with PixInsight makes some initial assumptions that you have to change. Actually, it would not be hard to create a version of the script with some defaults changed, and I may do so; the JavaScript source code is provided with PixInsight.

PixInsight is the emerging standard for astronomical image processing software. I keep being surprised by how well it does difficult things. It is a toolkit with a thousand tools in it, and most people only need to learn half a dozen of them — but you get to choose the right half dozen.

If PixInsight has one weak point, it's that some of its fans seem to like it for the wrong reason — because it can be hard to learn. Difficulty is not a virtue, nor is finding complicated ways to do simple things. Most of the PixInsight tools are actually strikingly easy to use once you see how the tool fits the task. As for integrating them into larger workflows, that's what scripting is for; many scripts are provided, and I hope to see many more.


Some co-authored astrophotos

Photo by Douglas Downing and Michael Covington

Doug Downing and I did some astrophotography together during his visit, using his Canon XSi (EOS 400D) camera, my iOptron SkyTracker, and my Sigma 105-mm f/2.8 lens. The first session, on November 10, was done in my yard. Here you see the Double Cluster in Perseus, about as well photographed as anyone could wish. This is a stack of ten 1-minute exposures at ISO 1600, processed with DeepSkyStacker and PixInsight.


Photo by Douglas Downing and Michael Covington

Here are the Pleiades, with some nebulosity. Same technique, same number of exposures. Bear in mind that this was taken in town, under fifth-magnitude skies.

Andromeda Galaxy (M31)

Photo by Douglas Downing and Michael Covington

I've photographed the Andromeda Galaxy many times, but the purpose of this picture was to show what can be done with simple equipment at a mediocre site. Same technique and site as the previous two pictures. Not bad, is it?


Gossip — a national security hazard


In case you haven't noticed, the United States is under threat from ISIS and other terrorist groups. And an incident at the University of Georgia the other day points up one of the hazards that we haven't talked much about.

Terrorists want to create panic and disrupt our lives. That's what terrorism is.

One way to spread panic is through rumors. Social media and e-mail make that especially easy to do nowadays.

As best I can piece it together, what happened at UGA was that a student had been to an international festival, and he was in Saudi Arabian native dress and carrying a Saudi Arabian flag. A staff member saw him and mistook the flag for an ISIS flag.

Then, instead of calling the police, she e-mailed another staff member, who sent out a mass e-mail to colleagues. Others forwarded it, and by the end of the day, the rumor mill was telling people that classes were cancelled.

If that much disruption can happen without any terrorists even being involved, think of what might happen if they actually tried to stir things up!

The problem is that too many people will believe anything if they see it on Facebook or in e-mail forwarded by a friend. We see this with wild political falsehoods every day. The UGA incident reminds us that it can also happen with specific local incidents.

If you see something suspicious, contact authorities, not all your friends on the Internet.

Don't believe warnings about specific incidents unless you get them directly from a reliable source. It doesn't count if somebody says "the police said this" or if the message was forwarded by your most trusted friend, if they got it from nobody knows where.

The Internet is an intelligence test. Don't fail.


Babbage the Schnoodle, 2004-2015


Babbage, our faithful dog, has ended his career today (November 18) at the age of 11. For a long time he had suffered a chronic liver condition that was gradually worsening, and the last few days were especially bad. I had become adept at emergency carpet-cleaning and dog-bathing, and Babbage even seemed to enjoy the baths — much better than the indignity of not being able to keep himself clean.

This morning, he apparently suffered a stroke, depriving him of the use of his hind legs, and Melody and I agreed that it was time for the sad final trip to the vet.

Babbage was an intelligent and gentlemanly dog. On one occasion he apparently observed a meteor. On another, he warned us when a pest control technician entered our house by mistake and started spraying. (For that, we awarded him a medal for valor, which he wore on his collar.) He will be missed.

On his last day, he got up obviously feeling bad, but still following his normal routine — greeting me as I got out of bed, going outside to relieve himself, and then scratching on the pantry door to demand breakfast, which we did not give him just yet. Then, while sitting with Melody, he suddenly whined and begged to be let outside, but we did not get him out quite soon enough. After some emergency carpet cleaning, we gave him an emergency bath, which he seemed to enjoy, though he was obviously weak. Then his strength left him; Melody held him on her lap wrapped in a towel, and he was barely alive when we got him to the veterinarian at 4 p.m. His time had definitely come.


Liberal or conservative?

Reality is not liberal enough for some people, and not conservative enough for others.


Extreme fixed-tripod astrophotography

Reprocessed Nov. 15.

This wide-field view of Cygnus, showing the North America Nebula, was taken when Doug Downing and I were at Deerlick on November 12.

The camera was on a fixed tripod. This is a stack of 79 (yes, 79) 2-second exposures at ISO 6400 with a Canon 60Da and Sigma 50-mm f/2.8 lens (wide open), calibrated with a comparable number of dark frames and with 25 each flats and flat darks.

Not bad for an untracked photograph, if I may say so!



What terrorists want


Because I am professionally involved in terrorism research, I haven't said much about the Paris bombings. But here are a few things everyone should keep in mind.

This was not a military attack by a foreign country. (Islamic State claims to be a state but that doesn't make it one.) It was an attack by terrorists.

The goal of terrorism is to weaken us indirectly by:

- Spreading fear and panic among huge numbers of people who were not directly hit;

- Crippling our economy by disrupting everyday life, work, travel, etc.;

- Weakening us by making us take costly defensive measures that are not very effective;

- If possible, even provoking us to fight the wrong people.

That's why it's extremely important *not* to get swept up into emotional hate campaigns based on a poor understanding of what's going on.

To defeat terrorists one must be precise about who they are, disrupt their leadership structure, and prevent them from receiving support and achieving their political goals. War, and especially terrorism, is the continuation of politics by other means.

NOTE: These are not "liberal" or "conservative" opinions; I am trying to give you widely acknowledged facts about terrorism.

DISCLAIMER: These are my personal opinions only and are not based on any inside information. This is not a statement from any official agency or defense contractor. My own research involves methods of data analysis, and I do not have inside information or expertise on specific events or groups.


Aujourd'hui, nous sommes tous français

The Starbucks Christmas-cup flap

The most pathetic media circus in which I have ever been involved is the Starbucks Christmas cup incident, which played out over the last few days.

One individual, whose true motives are unknown, called for Christians to object to Starbucks' holiday coffee cup design this year because it is plain red (with gold, green, and white on the wrapper) and does not depict any symbols of Christmas.

The Chicago Tribune reported this accurately, including the fact that he got a lot of flak for it, and virtually no followers. But other newspapers transformed it into a report that "evangelical Christians" were up in arms because of Starbucks removing "Christmas trees, reindeer, snowmen, poinsettias and other holiday symbols" from their holiday cup design.

Wait a minute. Trees, reindeer, snowmen, etc., are not sacred Christian symbols, and we don't take offense at their absence. Starbucks isn't required to have a Christmas cup at all. If they choose to, it seems to me that red, green, white, and gold make it look as Christmasy as it ever has.

So the newspapers reported a virtually nonexistent protest. I do not personally know any Christian who joined in. We were starting to get vague reports of a few small groups taking the bait; they were more political or journalistic than Christian.

And then Donald Trump took the bait. You know the rest.

Let me be clear. If someone were refusing to call Christmas by its right name, or forbidding me to do so, I would object. But I can't see that Starbucks has taken a step in that direction. They weren't using any Christian language or religious symbols in the first place. Nor would I expect them to; they're a coffee shop, not a church!

I will gladly say "Happy Holidays" in order to convey my best wishes for more than one holiday. I celebrate three of them myself in this season — Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's — and I certainly express best wishes to those who celebrate Hanukkah and other things.

My role in this? Within 30 minutes of the original story breaking, I had dashed off a letter to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution telling them they were reporting a non-event and saying it looks to me like an attempt to make Christians look silly. They're going to print it.

A major anniversary

November 8 was the 40th anniversary of the day Melody and I met. It is also very close to the 1/3-century mark for our marriage.

A third of a century is nowhere near enough!

Catching up

I've been away from the Daily Notebook for a whole week. Doug Downing has been here, and we've done a lot of astrophotography. (Stand by for pictures.)

Note that Acronis graciously gave me a refund after I found their 2016 product unusable. Ordinarily I would have been expected to use the 30-day free trial to verify that the new product met my needs, but I never dreamed that they would remove important functionality in an "upgrade," so I didn't track down my problems until too late. To my surprise, a support technician thanked me for my input. Perhaps they are seeing the error of their ways.


Cascaded grommets

When installing a new power cord in the Hallicrafters radio, I needed a rubber grommet that was a good bit smaller on the inside than the outside, and no standard size would do.

A less fastidious technician would have used a grommet that was too large. It would have protected the cord from rubbing against the sides of the hole, but not from pulling. I wanted at least a little protection from pulling, too, and that would require a tight-fitting grommet.

I ended up making one grommet out of two, using Super Glue. Here's how:

Don't laugh — it works!

How to put a grommet in a hole when the wire is already there

A related question: Internally, old tube equipment often has a hole in the chassis through which one or two wires pass, to reach a speaker or something mounted above the main surface.

Traditionally, these do not have grommets. To my taste, they need them. I don't trust plastic insulation quite as much as people did in the 1950s.

How do you put a grommet in when the wire passing through the hole is already there and you don't want to disconnect it?

Simple. Cut the grommet so it becomes an open ring instead of a closed ring. Put it in. If it fits the hole, it will hold together perfectly well even though it has been cut.

This doesn't apply to the grommet depicted above, of course.


Recommended: Veeam Endpoint Backup Free

My computer-backup nightmare seems to have ended; I've adopted Veeam Endpoint Backup Free, which is very similar to what Acronis True Image used to be, and is free. (I thank Paul Williams for recommending it.) It explicitly supports "rotating disks," multiple removable hard disks that substitute for each other, exactly as I do it. It has a console from which you can easily see the status of recently run backup tasks.

What it does not do is send reports by e-mail. (Their commercial products do.) That's not a big problem; for other reasons I had been wanting to set up a script that would e-mail me a report about the state of the machine, twice a day, so I've done so, and it gives me a list of Veeam backup files with dates and times.

What is Veeam up to? Not pushing cloud storage. No; their main business is utility software for managing fleets of computers, especially those involving virtual machines (VMs, hence the name). They wanted to have a compatible backup utility for standalone desktop and laptop PCs. And one of the best ways to set a standard is to give away a free product.

Which brings me back to the question, What is Acronis up to? Having become king of the hill in the backup business, why did they start removing functionality from their product? Acronis 2015 and 2016 may be the "New Coke" of the software industry — they had the best product on the market, and they downgraded it!

Why? To push cloud storage. Right now, everybody wants to sell, or rather rent, cloud storage because it produces continuing income. I admit that cloud backups are convenient for people who don't need a lot of confidentiality. But that's not what I am.


Farewell to the scanner radio

The Athens-Clarke County police and several surrounding agencies have just switched to a new encrypted digital radio system that isn't receivable (as anything but noise) on radios other than their own. For me, it's the end of an era.

Since shortly before I got my ham radio license in 1988, I've had a scanner radio capable of picking up local police and fire radio communications. More recently it has been possible to hear these through Internet relays as well.

It may surprise my readers in some countries that in America, private citizens are welcome to have and use radios of this type. In fact, those of us who have ham licenses have been encouraged to have them, since we sometimes help the police in disaster or crowd-control situations.

I actually don't think a scanner would be much help to anyone plotting a crime. Information relating to detective work isn't on the radio. We're never told what happened after the police were sent out. Even when there's a manhunt in progress, there's generally no information on the radio that wouldn't be obvious to bystanders in the area.

But I've found it handy to hear about things that affect traffic or travel, and to learn something about police work in our town. Here are some things I've learned:

  • A surprising number of police calls are to just a few small areas.
  • A surprising number of police calls are "domestic disputes," i.e., fights among people who know each other, often family members.
  • Reckless drivers do get reported (by other drivers with cell phones), and the police take them seriously.
  • Football-game traffic is a mess. (But I knew that.)

Now what will I use my scanner radio for? I'm not sure. It's dandy for receiving NOAA weather. I can also listen to aircraft, to CB channels (not very active any more), and the 2-meter ham band — but I also have a transceiver for that. I actually don't use it much; cell phones have displaced the need for mobile ham gear, and I've become a relic, a ham who is licensed to transmit but does not do so. I remain fascinated by radio equipment and consider ham radio one of my hobbies; it's just that it no longer involves much talking on the air.


A grand(children) time

Melody and I have just returned from a delightful but exhausting trip to Kentucky to see the grandchildren.

Mary is almost three and, like most intelligent three-year-olds, is a philosopher. She learns some important concept about the world around her every day. While we were there, we saw her puzzle out the difference between real tools and pretend tools (the latter are not dangerous), as well as pronoun substitution (me vs. you).

The twins are eleven months old. Their favorite food is bananas. They were in their high chairs and Cathy (their mother) asked if they wanted a banana. Philip, an elf-like child who reminds me of the sprite in old Coca-Cola ads, was emitting a musical series of babblings, when his brother Benjamin, the down-to-earth one, decided to give a straight answer, even though he is just starting to talk. "Nana!" he exclaimed. "Ba! Nana!"

Radio Shack lives: Both in Louisville and in Lexington, there are Radio Shack stores still open with reasonably normal product lines, slightly cut down, but they still sell parts. I am relieved that the new owner did not carry out the threat to turn them into audio-accessory and cell-phone kiosks. I think there is one still open in Georgia. I think Georgia could support maybe half a dozen. There used to be too many; now there are too few.

In fact, the Web tells me there are surviving Radio Shacks scattered across Georgia, just not one in Athens. Why not? I know we couldn't support three stores, but maybe we can support one, as we did in the early 1970s.

Road constriction: Avoid I-65 in central Kentucky. There is an area where the lanes are separated, and then you drive 20 miles in a single lane with concrete barriers tightly enclosing it on both sides, like a toboggan lane. If a car broke down in this monstrosity, there would be no way to pass it. We took I-75 coming back.

Not recommended: Acronis True Image 2016
No error notification, no support, baffling fake uninstaller


I do not dish out heavy criticism lightly, but I have had a very disappointing experience with a popular piece of commercial software. I will tell the whole story here as fairly as I can, but I have totally lost confidence in Acronis backup software.

Five years ago, Acronis True Image Home 2010 was the best Windows backup software I could find. I used it happily for years to make daily backups of my home server, Pallas, which ran Windows 7 and now Windows 10.

Under Windows 10, Acronis had trouble running backup jobs at night, when the computer was supposed to be asleep, so I paid for an upgrade to the 2016 version, which claims Windows 10 compatibility.

It worked, but with a wildly different user interface that was aimed mostly at promoting Acronis's new cloud backup service. For contractual reasons I cannot use cloud backup. I have clients' data that I have promised never to put anywhere that is not under my physical control.

My impression was that the company has changed hands, or at least changed direction, and is downgrading their disk backup product. Other reviewers confirm that Acronis True Image was substantially downgraded around 2015.

I got it running but ran into one pesky problem. My practice was to swap out the backup disks at unpredictable times, inserting a new disk with no backup files on it. (This method is called "rotating disks.") Acronis would then do a full backup followed by incrementals until I changed the disk again. The 2016 version refused to do this.

The solution, I eventually found out, would be that when changing disks, I should also "clone" the backup task to make a new backup task for the new disk. Like many newer backup programs, Acronis identifies disk drives so you don't accidentally back up on the wrong disk, but this interferes with the use of rotating disks. [A competitor, Veeam, allows you register all the disks in a rotating set so that they will be recognized as alternatives to each other. That's the best of both worlds.]

But while I was encountering that problem and exploring it, I encountered two more serious problems.

(1) Acronis 2016 does not report failed backups to the user, nor does it let the user view logs to see whether tasks ran correctly.

Like Acronis 2010, Acronis 2016 would e-mail me when a backup task completed. But if the task failed, the error messages went nowhere. They were not e-mailed to me, and there is nothing in the software that enables me to view logs and find out what happened. Contrast that with Acronis 2010's handy screen where you can look at a series of recent tasks and find out whether each of them ran successfully, and when, and with what messages.

What were they thinking?

On the Acronis online forum I found out that the logs are in C:\Programdata and can be viewed with a text editor. They are in XML and look almost like gibberish. That is nowhere near as good as their previous system of giving you a screen on which you can view a summary of all the logs and click on any log for details.

I have also been told that the e-mail notifications can be set to report errors as well as successes, but this is not the default.

(2) Acronis does not "support" users more than 30 days after the purchase. Thus, even though I'm a paying customer, I cannot communicate with Acronis about any of this. (I am at the 38-day mark, if I counted correctly.) I can only communicate with their other users on forums.

That is, the work of their support department has been off-loaded onto the customers.

Now, support by the users works well for open-source software such as LaTeX. But in that situation, the users actually know all about how the software works; they have access to the source code, and they get the software free. Off-loading all the support to the customers is not appropriate for proprietary commercial software.

[Update: Acronis contacted me and offered to "support" the product. However, it became evident that they simply no longer make a product that meets my needs, even if minor technical problems are solved. Realizing this, they very graciously gave me a refund on the upgrade.]

So at this point I decided I'm not going to use Acronis any more, and I ran into another problem that is worthy of Twilight Zone:

(3) When you "uninstall" Acronis True Image 2016, the uninstaller runs for a while, displays a progress bar, reports completion, but does not actually uninstall anything!

That's right. I went to Control Panel, Programs and Features, chose Acronis True Image 2016, chose Uninstall, and Acronis's installer came up on the screen. It queried me as to why I was uninstalling, sent the results to Acronis, and then appeared to run an uninstaller for a couple of minutes, complete with a moving progress bar. After which nothing had been uninstalled! Rebooting didn't help. Even the Acronis background processes started up again after I rebooted.

To actually uninstall Acronis, I had to use their 2015 cleanup utility. There is no 2016 cleanup utility, but I found that the 2015 version would remove Acronis 2016 without the modifications described here and without doing the registry edits that are described at the end of the cleanup utility's instructions. Your results may differ.

I cannot see what kind of programming error would produce an uninstaller that claims to run and reports success but does not uninstall anything at all.

At this point I do not trust Acronis 2016 at all, do not recommend it, and, because of the very suspicious behavior of the uninstaller, cannot classify it safe to run. To put it bluntly, the uninstaller is showing a behavior that I have previously seen only in malware. I'm not saying it is malware, only that I cannot give it a clean bill of health.

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