Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
Freedom, Opportunity, and Security
Replacing battery in RxTimerCap
Is football on the decline?
Soldering coaxial connectors to lamp cord
Unintended exclusive file access in C#
Code signing comes to Covington Innovations
Garbled program name displayed at installer's UAC prompt
Visual Studio .vdproj generates .msi with corrupt signature
Can God make 2 + 3 = 7 ?
FBI versus Apple
Further notes on code signing
Recommended: Kingwin USB disk adapter and cloner
Let's not put everything on the Internet!
NGC 2261 (Hubble's Variable Nebula)
NGC 2264
NGC 2359 (Thor's Helmet)
M42 (Orion Nebula)
M35, NGC 2174, IC 443
Seagull Nebula (Monoceros)
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The left foot of Castor

Old star maps agree with each other quite precisely about the arrangement of the constellation pictures, because two centuries ago, astronomers wanted to be able to say things like "in the left foot of Castor" and pinpoint a region of sky. Below you see Castor's left foot, part of the constellation Gemini. Castor is one of the Twins and is also the name of the star that is his head, well outside the field of this picture.

Prominent at the top is the star cluster M35 and the much more distant star cluster NGC 2158 next to it. The star in the center is Eta Geminorum (Propus or Tejat Prior), and the star at the left is Mu Geminorum (Tejat Posterior). To the left of Propus is the reddish nebula IC 443, and above and to the left of that, a chain of stars constituting the irregular star cluster Collinder 89. At the lower right is a brighter nebula, NGC 2174.

Stack of twenty-four 52-second exposures at ISO 1600 with a Canon 60Da and Sigma 105/2.8 lens at f/4, on an iOptron SkyTracker in my driveway. They were intended to be 60-second exposures, but I had accidentally set the shutter delay to 10 seconds instead of 2 seconds.

Lots of work has come in all of a sudden, so I'll close out the month of February now, wishing everyone a happy Leap Year Day!


Let's not put everything on the Internet!

Computer security tip of the day: If a piece of equipment is not connected to the Internet, you don't have to worry about hackers breaking into it.

I shake my head when I hear about the risk of power plants or military facilities being broken into by hackers thousands of miles away. There are things that shouldn't be connected to the public Internet at all. If remote communication with them is really needed, do it some other way.

Now the problem extends to automobiles. Every Nissan Leaf electric car is on the Internet, presumably via the cellular (3G) wireless network, so it can be accessed by a mobile app. And it has been shown that it's easy to get into any Nissan Leaf from anywhere in the world. So far, the most destructive thing done has been to turn the climate control on and off, but that's surely because the experimenters have wisely chosen not to push this to the limits.

The link that I cited points out that the Internet connection could have been much more secure. But my radical idea is, Why have an Internet connection at all? Do people really need to check on their cars from thousands of miles away? Maybe this is an instance of communication that we don't need, where the hazards outweigh the benefits. For checking on the car electrically, how about plugging in a cable, or at least using a short-range Bluetooth connection?

It reminds me of a classic science fiction story I read years ago, and whose name and author I don't remember. In the story, teleportation (like the Star Trek transporter) had just been invented, and people were installing teleportation booths in their living rooms. Immediately strangers, even burglars, started popping in. Soon they realized the teleportation booth belongs outside the locked, private area of the house. The same goes for Internet connections to electronic equipment.

By the way, I drive a Ford Escape that is not on the Internet. I'll let other people make the mistakes.

Sprucing up the laptop

The disk replacement that I described yesterday has given good results. My vintage-2012 Lenovo laptop runs faster, and the speedup is more than the 8-GB SSD cache would explain, so I think the old hard disk was starting to fail. When a disk gets old, it has to retry more and more, but if it eventually reads the data successfully, it does not report an error to the CPU, and all you experience is a slowdown.

I also increased the memory of the Lenovo Z570 from 6 GB to 8 GB by replacing one SIMM. Reportedly, people have succeeded in raising it to 16 GB, which is twice the manufacturer's stated maximum; I'm guessing Lenovo changed the BIOS to support more RAM. So far, though, I don't feel the need for that.

Since this computer received a new keyboard not too long ago, there's not much more to spruce up. But I am going to add a 3M anti-glare screen. The glossy screen of the Z570 reflects overhead lights and windows just a bit too well.

Total cost of the sprucing up: About $200. Much less than a new laptop.


Recommended: Kingwin USI-2535CLU3 USB hard disk adapter and copier

The hardest part of replacing a hard disk is copying the old one onto the new one. It's usually a lot more than just copying files — you want a bootable disk with the same partition structure as the old one. Here's a gadget that makes it easy.

Today (Feb. 22) I decided to replace the 4-year-old hard disk in my Lenovo laptop. It still works fine, but I didn't want to wait for the disk to fail. Also, the computer had been getting slower, and this could be a symptom of a failing hard disk; often, such a disk will take longer and longer to re-try every operation, but will eventually succeed each time and not report any error to the CPU. I had become suspicious.

Nowadays an inexpensive laptop hard drive includes an 8-GB SSD cache, so that's what I got. I'll report later on how much it helped the performance; before delivering full benefit, it has to be used for a while so it will know what to cache. If all it does is give me 1 TB of storage where I used to have half that, I'll be happy.

Anyhow, the old disk (fortunately still in good working order) had a complicated configuration with GRUB, Windows, and Linux. Copying this to a new disk might not be trivial... To be specific, I didn't just want to copy the files, I wanted to clone the disk, preserving its partition structure.

Enter the Kingwin USI-2535CLU3 adapter that I'm recommending. It has two uses. You can connect two SATA drives to it, press the "clone" button, and watch it copy the disk unattended, without a connection to a computer. My 512-GB disk took about two hours to copy. The destination disk must be the same size or larger, of course. Then I put the copied disk into the laptop, and it worked perfectly, right from the start. Of course I immediately ran Disk Management in order to lay claim to the additional space that the new drive has and the old drive didn't.

The other thing the Kingwin adapter can do is attach any hard disk — SATA or IDE, 2.5-inch or 3.5-inch — to your computer as an external USB drive. It uses a USB 3 cable but is compatible with USB 2 ports. I used this feature to check the copied drive quickly before installing it in the laptop.

Anyone who works with disk drives needs this gadget. Its one fault? While in use, it produced severe interference to an AM radio in the room. That probably has to do with using the disk drive outside of the computer.


First Jupiter of the season

Last night (Feb. 19) I had a brief observing session with the 8-inch and got this picture of Jupiter. Celestron EdgeHD, 2× teleconverter, Canon 60Da in movie crop mode; this is a stack of the best 75% of about 7000 frames of video, processed with PIPP, AutoStakkert, and RegiStax.

This was taken in moderately unsteady air; there will be sharper images as the season progresses. Notice how the South Equatorial Belt has split into two.

Short notes

Consulting work is suddenly abundant, and I am not going to be writing as much here as I have been doing.

Today (Feb. 20) I gave a talk at the Fernbank Science Center on "The Missing Messier Objects and My Hunt for M102." It's related to my recent article in Sky and Telescope.

Browsing through Micro Center, I was gratified to see that hobby electronics has found itself again. Electronics as a hobby seemed to be on the verge of dying out in the 1990s, but a cultural movement spearheaded by Make Magazine, together with the Arduino project and others that it inspired, have made it, again, easy and fun to build things for oneself. Whatever works well for hobbyists is also going to be used for small-scale professional projects, and I suspect we'll be seeing Arduinos in industrial equipment all over the place before long. One great thing about the Arduino scales down gracefully to a single chip with minimal support components.

I was also glad to see that there is less of a bewildering variety of kinds of computer memory than there used to be. DDR3 1600, some number of gigabytes, desktop or laptop size — that's about all you have to know.

Things I've overheard myself saying lately: "Ordinarily, I would say 'Ladies first' and walk behind you, but since this is a bank vault, I'm glad to be the first one out."



Leonard Rudolph Howell, 1925-2016

Word has just reached me of the death of Dr. L. R. Howell, who was the first person to teach me computer programming, and thereby launched my career. Dr. Howell taught a short course in BASIC for high school students at Valdosta State University at the beginning of 1973, using the textbook by Kemeny and Kurtz supplemented by a Navy manual, and using a very noisy 110-baud teletype link to the University of Georgia's CDC 6400 in Athens. He allowed me to continue using the computer after the course ended, until I moved to the University of Georgia and continued using the same computer locally.

May his memory be eternal.


Can God make 2 + 3 = 7 ?
Normal-sounding language can be completely meaningless

The following would make a good lecture in Philosophy 101. The point I am going to make may surprise you, but it is quite uncontroversial among well-informed people. If you are encountering it for the first time, you may be able to realize, for the first time, that the real world is different from the language we use to describe it.

Although the question involves God, I'm talking about logic and language, not theology. If you do not believe in God, please assume, for the sake of argument, that God exists and is omnipotent in the traditionally understood sense.

So: Can God make 2 + 3 = 7 ?

If so, then 2 + 3 could equal 7, and it's hard to understand what that would be like. If not, then God isn't omnipotent. Or what?

Let me approach the question by asking a different one:

Can God qwflqwflqwfl?

I haven't given any meaning to "qwflqwflqwfl," and I'm not going to.

Accordingly, "qwflqwflqwfl" is not the name of something God can do. It is also not the name of something God cannot do. It is not anything at all.

The key point here is that (as C. S. Lewis put it) a meaningless phrase does not suddenly acquire meaning when you put the words "God can" in front of it. God can do everything, but not every sentence starting with "God can" succeeds in naming something God can do; some sentences don't name anything at all.

Consider now another example, four sentences:

1. God can miraculously heal me.
2. God can miraculously heal you.
3. God can miraculously heal Barack Obama.
4. God can miraculously heal the present king of France.

The first three sentences are (we believe) true. The fourth sentence has a problem: there is no present king of France. Of course, God could install someone as king of France and then heal him, but apart from that, sentence 4 is not true, and neither is its negation. "Miraculously heal the present king of France" is not something God can do, and it is also not something God cannot do. It is a phrase that does not refer to anything. And that is the case because of facts about the real world — that it tries to refer to someone who does not exist. Such facts can change. In 1970 I could have said "the present king of Spain" with the same result. Not today.

Now consider:

God can make 2 + 3 = 7.

Consider what "make 2 + 3 = 7" might mean. God (or we) could redefine the symbol "7" to mean what we presently mean by "5." In that case, "2 + 3 = 7" would be true, but that is probably not what you had in mind. Two plus three would still equal five, but five would be written "7."

Or, when you put two apples in a box and then three more, God could miraculously add two more apples so that you end up with seven.

It's not clear how that would play out in other situations. Suppose that instead of putting apples in the box, you are looking at apples that are already there. You choose two, then choose three more, anywhere in the box. How are you supposed to end up with seven? What if you are just looking at them in place, not picking them up? And how would this apply to positions, or scales on a ruler? If the temperature is 2 degrees and rises 3 degrees... You see what a mess this is.

In fact, I contend that "2 + 3 = 7" describes a situation that cannot be, not because of facts about the actual world, but because of what we mean by "2" and "3" and "7" (and "+" and "=").

So "make 2 + 3 = 7" is not something God can do, and it is not something God cannot do. It is an incoherent description. It is a phrase that fails to describe anything at all.

Two final points. First, our language allows us to say things that turn out not to make sense, and that is a good thing because it allows us to be creative. We need to be able to put ideas together without knowing whether the combination will work.

Second, it can take a lot of thinking to figure out whether a description makes sense. It doesn't take too long to dispose of "the present king of France" or "2 + 3 = 7," but there are points in higher mathematics and philosophy that the world's best minds have been chewing on for hundreds of years. Our minds are limited.

Some people may be uneasy because they think I've limited God. I have done no such thing. I have just pointed out that some phrases written in ordinary English or ordinary mathematical symbols do not mean anything. It is no limitation on God to say that when we're not making sense, we're not describing things God can do. Orthodox theism does not require you to say "God can qwflqwflqwfl."

FBI versus Apple

There is a legal tussle going on between the FBI, which possesses an Apple cell phone that belonged to a terrorist, and Apple. The FBI wants the encrypted data stored in the phone. But the operating system of the phone, iOS, is programmed to delete the data immediately if more than a few incorrect passwords are entered. This is to prevent other people from guessing the password by brute force (e.g., trying everything from 0000 to 9999).

The FBI has obtained a court order that commands Apple to build a new version of iOS without the automatic-deletion feature, and load it onto the phone, so that the FBI can crack the password and get the data.

Apple responds that if this new version of iOS were created, it would be a menace to the privacy of all of Apple's customers, including those who live under oppressive governments elsewhere in the world. If Apple can be commanded to build and use this cracking tool, which does not presently exist, then Apple's customers have much less expectation of privacy than before. It is like commanding a locksmith never to build unpickable locks.

I am inclined to take Apple's side because I believe in freedom. When privacy is outlawed, only outlaws will have privacy.

But I also think the whole case is very fishy in two respects.

First, as my high-school friend Richard Dasher (of Stanford University) has pointed out, surely the FBI has experts of its own who could rewrite iOS from scratch or retrieve the data by less heavy-handed means. They've also had an offer of assistance from antivirus software developer John McAfee [corrected]. Accordingly, they are probably trying to set a legal precedent, not just get the data. And that makes the whole thing more of a menace to our freedom. It might be convenient for the FBI if citizens can't store data privately in their phones. It is not convenient for the rest of us.

Second, as my very intelligent daughter Sharon points out, the whole case may be deceptive in some larger way. It seems very strange that the FBI would advertise such lack of technical capability, if it's real. They may be trying to manipulate somebody.

Further notes on code signing

A little more about code signing:

(1) The same DigiCert certificate can be used to sign Java and to sign Microsoft installers and executables, but it has to be reissued in a different format. I'll match wits with that in a few days.

(2) The code-signing business is in the middle of an awkward transition between SHA-1 and SHA-2 (SHA-256) algorithms; the former is no longer considered secure. The current best practice involves SHA-1 hashing and SHA-2 signing, both visible if you "View Certificate" in the Properties of a signed file.

The problem is that Windows XP and Vista do not fully support SHA-2. It's a messy situation. My own solution will be to use what DigiCert tells me to, and also make available an unsigned version of each installer, for people with older operating systems.


Code signing comes to Covington Innovations

Until now, I've managed to get along without a digital code signing certificate. But now I have one.

What this means in practical terms is that when you install my software, instead of this frightening warning:

you'll receive this much more reassuring one:

Digital signing means the file contains an encrypted message that proves the file really came from the publisher and hasn't been changed since the publisher let go of it. It is checked against a certificate authority (in my case, DigiCert).

To see if a file is signed, right-click on it (in Windows) and choose Properties. Look for a "Digital Signatures" tab.

I'll explain code signing at greater length some other time. It is closely parallel to, but distinct from the digital certificates used to validate HTTPS web sites. There are three levels of digital certificates:

(1) Self-issued certificates. I can make my own; all it will really prove is that if you get it more than once (such as on more than one piece of software, or different successive versions), they're all from the same guy and are unaltered since he signed it. You have to tell your computer to trust them; they are not registered with a certificate authority.

(2) Ordinary certificates. These are registered and cost about $200 a year. To get one, I had to show my ID to a notary, send the notary's statement to DigiCert, and give them some ways to confirm my identity with authoritative sources. The interesting part was getting "Ph.D." after my name; they confirmed it in a University of Georgia publication that counts as a government source. If I had worked for a private university, I might not have been able to get it.

(3) Extended-validation (EV) certificates. These cost about twice as much and are only issued to businesses. I was going to get an EV certificate, but since I'm not incorporated, I would have had to pay my CPA to verify several aspects of my business and make a statement to DigiCert. Probably not worth the trouble at the moment.

Certificates are renewed annually, but if a signed file is "time-stamped" (which I always do, and highly recommend), then its signature will remain valid forever, even if my certificate expires or changes in the future. All that is required is for the certificate to be valid at the time the signing is done. You might prefer non-time-stamped signing of files that are only for temporary use.

The other thing I can do, now that I have a certificate, is have Java applets on my web site. I'll probably dust off one or two golden oldies from the 1990s and put them back in service.

Program name is garbled in installer UAC prompt

The first time I tried to sign an installer (an .msi file), instead of the reassuring message shown in the box above, I got this slightly puzzling one:

That is, the program name wasn't readable; it looked like a string of hex digits. This happened whether I did the signing with DigiCert's handy utility or Microsoft's signtool.

The explanation is that, apparently, signtool has to be given the program name or description as its /d argument. Here's what worked for me (where XXXXX is the name of my program):

signtool sign /t http://timestamp.digicert.com /d XXXXX XXXXX.msi

It would be handy if DigiCert's utility would automatically pick up the .msi file name and put it in as the description. (Hint, hint...)

Visual Studio installer project (.vdproj) creates .msi file with corrupt signature

I have been creating .msi files (Windows installers) two ways, with InstallShield Limited Edition (with Visual Studio 2013 Professional) and with the new, free installer project (.vdproj) support for Visual Studio 2015 Community, which is upward compatible with installer projects from pre-InstallShield versions of Visual Studio.

When one of my readers tried to download an installer I created the second way, he got an alarming message:

It looked as if I was distributing malware. Microsoft Edge would not let him download the file.

Sleuthing ensued. It turns out that when an .msi file is created with the new .vdproj support package, Visual Studio puts an invalid signature into it! It is apparently self-issued by Microsoft but invalid in some way.

Presumably this is something that was left in the code by mistake. It did me a real disservice by making at least one person (and I don't know how many more) think I was distributing malware.

I have reported the problem to Microsoft.


CoVec is coming

Taking advantage of a lull in several other things, I've been programming. Soon, Covington Innovations is going to have software products. Of course, there have always been a few utilities that I distribute free, such as EXIFLOG (which is about to be updated again).

But something new is coming: a suite of natural language processing tools, the first of which is CoVec, the Covington Vector Semantics Tools. Using vector semantics and working with data files from the Stanford GloVe project, CoVec analyzes whether successive words are commonly used together, enabling you to measure whether a writer or speaker is sticking to one subject or jumping around.

CoVec is a command-line application for Windows, Linux, and MacOS (the latter two require Mono). It is in the testing stage and is being used in some psycholinguistic research. It is going to be licensed software, not freeware. If you think you have a need for it and would like to help me test it, please e-mail me.


Thor's Helmet

In the wide-field picture of Monoceros 2 days ago, I used an arrow to mark an unusual nebula, which is actually in Canis Major rather than Monoceros. This is an emission nebula, but most of it is not the usual red color. It is ionized by a very hot star, and much of the gas was ejected by the star itself earlier in its history, and is now being shocked by the high-velocity stellar wind from the star in its current state. Like supernova remnants such as the Veil Nebula, this gas cloud emits plenty of light at blue hydrogen-beta and oxygen-III wavelengths.

But Thor's Helmet is not a supernova remnant; quite the opposite; it appears to be a supernova precursor. The hot star that illuminates it is a Wolf-Rayet star, a very massive star near the end of its life, powered by fusion of helium since it has run out of hydrogen, and likely to erupt as a supernova before too long. (Which might be millennia, but still, it's something to look forward to.) That star is just left of center, on a curved wisp of nebulosity but not on the edge of the nebula. The star Gamma Velorum (Regor), visible to the naked eye in the far southern sky at this time of year, is also a Wolf-Rayet star.

(Wolf-Rayet is pronounced VOLF rah-YAY; both of the astronomers who discovered this kind of star were French.)

To make it look more like a Viking helmet, the picture is displayed with west up.

This is a stack of sixteen 1-minute exposures with my Celestron C8 EdgeHD at f/7 on a CGEM mount, with a Canon 60Da camera. Guiding was with an 80-mm guidescope mounted on top of the telescope and an SBIG STV autoguider.


Some unfortunate defaults in C#
Unintentionally exclusive access to files

Today, I found out the hard way than when you use new StreamReader(filename), File.ReadLines(), File.ReadAllLines(), or File.ReadAllText(), and possibly some other common ways of reading files in C#, your program grabs exclusive access to the file, and other processes cannot read it at the same time. That is not what should happen if you only want to read the file, not write on it.

Instead, what you have to use is new StreamReader(File.OpenRead(filename)) and construct your own substitutes for ReadLines, ReadAllLines, and ReadAllText.

Curiously, with binary files, File.ReadAllBytes() does the right thing, opening the file with "read shared" access.

After having a program apparently do the wrong thing, how did I find out the details of all this? By looking at the .NET Framework source code, which Microsoft shares freely. That is also a good source of code to copy and modify when you need to construct your own, safer versions of these methods.

I've also communicated with a former student who works for Microsoft and is passing along all of this to the .NET team.


Nebulous territory in Monoceros

This is a stack of thirty-five 1-minute exposures of a starry region in the constellation Monoceros, taken with a Canon 60Da and a Sigma 105/2.8 lens at f/4 on iOptron SkyTracker.

You can see lots of stars; some star clusters; the reddish Seagull Nebula (IC 2177 and environs); some dark nebulosity to the left of the Seagull; and, indicated by the arrow, an unusual nebula called Thor's Helmet about which I'll tell you more tomorrow.

Here's the result of submitting the picture to Astrometry.net for automatic object identification:

By the way, Monoceros is Greek for "unicorn." It means "one horn." Rhinoceros means "nose horn." Now you know. Both are third-declension nouns ending in -ōs. As Greek scholars know, unlike the orderly Latin third declension, the Greek third declension is a pile of all the noun paradigms that were too weird for the first two. This one's genitive is -ōtos in Greek and -ōtis Latinized.


The Orion Nebula and the stars that illuminate it

On Saturday I went to the Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center, home of the energetic eastern chapter of the Atlanta Astronomy Club, to give a talk about Charles Messier. At the last minute I found out that Van Macatee was giving a PixInsight image processing workshop and asked if I could attend. The answer was yes, and I learned some useful things.

In particular, I learned how to use the HDR Multiscale Transform feature of PixInsight to process this picture. It's a stack of 100, yes, 100 two-second exposures of M42 through my 8-inch telescope at f/7. Because the exposures are so short, the guiding is excellent and, more importantly, the image has tremendous dynamic range; I've managed to photograph the nebula and the stars that illuminate it. (To see an earlier attempt at this, achieved by stacking exposures of different lengths, click here.)

Two more handy PixInsight hints: Open your files with "Open a copy..." so you won't accidentally save your processed version back onto the original file. And do Histogram Transformation in several passes, in between other operations on the image; leave some room at the ends of the dynamic range until the very last step.


Soldering coaxial connectors to lamp cord

And now for something completely different (again). The power cords for my telescopes have to carry as much as 3 amps, and they connect to 12-volt batteries. Every tenth of a volt lost in cable resistance can make the difference between a dead battery and one that is still usable, just barely, when I'm at a remote site trying to finish a series of pictures.

For that reason, I've been making sure all my power cables have low resistance. And that means making them out of 18-gauge lamp cord (zip cord) rather than the thin shielded cables that I had been using. 18-gauge shielded cable does exist in the aviation industry, and would be ideal because of its uniform flexibility and ease of use with coaxial connectors, but I haven't bought any yet. I was alerted to its existence by finding some in the output cord of a salvaged laptop power supply.

Accordingly, this evening (Feb. 7) I had to solder a number of coaxial DC connectors to lamp cord. Here are some pictures of how it was done. In some cases the plastic casing of the connector had to be reamed out with a tapered reamer to make it accept larger-diameter wire. Note that the part of the connector that should clip around the cable shield can simply be cut off, and in the phono plug shown here, I've added a bit of vinyl electrical tape around the center conductor. As an alternative, I often paint connections heavily with clear nail polish after soldering them, or even fill the interior of the connector with plastic glue, to make sure nothing will short out.

The reason a phono plug is involved is that that's what I use for 12-volt power. It's more compact than a lighter socket plug or even an Anderson Powerpole. And I contend it's better as a power plug than as a low-level shielded connector, the purpose for which RCA invented it! I could change, but I adopted this as a standard more than 30 years ago, and converting all my homemade accessories to use a different connector might take quite a while.


Is football on the decline?

There is evidence that the popularity of football is declining, especially at the pre-high-school level. Declines at the high-school, college, and professional levels seem to be on the way. I don't think football is going to go extinct, but I wouldn't mind at all if it dropped down to being one sport among several, on the level of baseball and basketball.

The latest concern about traumatic brain injury, I think, just adds impetus to a movement that was already happening. This isn't 1955, and American society has changed.

For one thing, we have an overall higher educational level. As a result, high-school students and their parents are more concerned with education and less willing to divert time or resources toward football. That's not how it used to be. Fifty years ago, many people saw football as practically the main purpose of their town's high school, the focus of the town's identity. Some still do, but not as many.

Related to this is the fact that we simply have more cultural activities and spare-time pursuits than we used to. Football fandom is no longer the only escape from boredom, and playing football is no longer the only way for a young man to achieve recognition.

Better-educated people who like football are more likely to be balanced in their view of it. Yes, playing football can teach you teamwork and the value of self-training. But too much of this or any other sport can distort your view of some important things. It can make you think there has to be a loser for every winner, which is certainly false in the business world, which thrives on mutual benefit. And it can make you think you owe unconditional loyalty to the side you've chosen to root for, an attitude which, carried over to politics, can lead to real foolishness.

A counterargument that has been offered both by Mr. Trump and by one of my friends locally is that our boys will grow up to be cowards if they don't play football in order to "toughen up" and overcome their fear of being injured. And (says Trump) football needs to be more violent; it has already been "softened" too much.

That is, young men need to be injured in order to be "tough." And they need to be trained to be combative, or our nation will lose its military strength and even its economic edge.

Frankly, that strikes me as the kind of thing a Klingon would say. A preliminary point: the human body doesn't work that way. A person who has had multiple concussions or orthopedic injuries is certainly going to be worse off when he's old, not "tougher." And the human body isn't as disposable as it once was. Now that we commonly live to 80, we care about the really long-term effects of injuries early in life.

My bigger concern is that there are other ways to build moral courage, and there are better kinds of courage. Willingness to be hit hard in the head is not, in my opinion, an obvious virtue. And physical fighting is certainly not the best way to resolve conflicts.

If army generals were saying we need more football, and football needs to be more violent, to prepare for our military needs, I would listen to them, though I probably wouldn't agree. But as long as this is just a folk belief, I give it short shrift.

There are also other ways to build physical fitness — how about a sport that won't injure you, and which you can continue playing after school? As for teamwork and self-training, a friend points out that joining a choral group, band, or orchestra confers these benefits, and at the end of a performance, everyone is happy — you don't have to make someone lose. Personally, I learned teamwork from a travel club. Cuique suum.

Last night Saturday Night Live, which is one of the most intellectual things on TV, got away with caricaturing football fans as insane. Maybe our society is finally outgrowing something.

On the other hand, I expect to get bitter complaints from people who have a strong emotional attachment to football that they themselves don't understand. To them I say: Are you sure this is mentally and spiritually healthy?


NGC 2264

[Reprocessed Feb. 8.]

Here's NGC 2264 through the telescope. Same session, same equipment, same techniques as NGC 2261 below.


Hubble's Variable Nebula (NGC 2261)

This picture of Hubble's Variable Nebula may not look very different from the one I showed you the other day, but it was much more of a technical success. This is a stack of the best 15 out of 20 one-minute exposures through the 8-inch telescope at f/7, using my Canon 60Da at ISO 3200. The star images looked good at full resolution; deconvolution was not needed.

The difference is, I was using a Celestron CGEM mount instead of my AVX, and the tracking was much better. The AVX, I concluded, was simply overloaded with the 25 to 30 pounds of equipment I had on it.

For connoisseurs, here's the tracking graph from my autoguider (SBIG STV):

That's right — average error in right ascension, 0.2 arc-second. X is declination and Y is right ascension because the guiding camera is mounted sideways compared to a map.

[Update:] After having tested the equipment further, I doubt that this is what it appears. I think the STV had been told the guidescope focal length in millimeters instead of centimeters and was displaying numbers that were too small by a factor of 10. (Average errors of 1" to 2" are normal.) But it looks impressive on the display! And the photography was successful. Maybe in some way I found a way to trick the STV into performing better.

For non-astronomers, I should explain what that is all about. To make long exposures, my telescope has to track the stars (i.e., track the earth's rotation, which makes the stars seem to move). The motor and gears are not perfectly smooth, and the rotation is not perfectly parallel to the earth's axis, so I have to watch a star continuously and make corrections. Or rather, nowadays, I have a machine do that, an autoguider. It reports the corrections it made. Those shown in this graph are mostly due to the turbulence of the air rather than any real mechanical shortcomings. The reason there is more error in Y than in X is that Y is the dimension in which we have a motor running; in X there would be no corrections at all if the axis were perfectly aligned.



Replacing the battery in an RxTimerCap


Last year I recommended a gadget called an RxTimerCap, a pill-bottle cap with a built-in digital clock that tells you how long it has been since you opened the bottle.

The RxTimerCap is supposed to last about a year and then be discarded when its battery runs down.

Well, I am happy to report that the battery can be replaced. The procedure is like replacing a watch battery and requires miniature screwdrivers.

First, peel off the white label that says TimerCap or RxTimerCap. To lift it up, you may need to insert a miniature slot-end screwdriver under the edge.

Then pry out the clock module and use a miniature Phillips screwdriver to loosen two screws so you can get the button cell out and put its replacement in. The cell is an LR41 (alkaline). The silver-oxide SR41 (384/392) cell will also work and is likely to last a lot longer.

Then stick the white label back down, adding a bit of contact cement if needed.


More Freedom, Opportunity, and Security

Here is a story from page 44 of Freedom, Opportunity, and Security that encapsulates what economics is like, conveys one of the main points of the book, and illustrates the author's dry sense of humor.

Suppose bureaucrat Rosencrantz is charged with raising child caregiver pay, and is empowered to issue a regulation requiring that caregivers be paid at least $200 per hour.

Bureaucrat Guildenstern is charged with making health care affordable, and is empowered to issue a regulation requiring that doctors charge no more than $10 per hour.

Instead of well-paid caregivers, the result is that people can't afford to hire caregivers, and the caregivers become unemployed. The high pay doesn't do the workers any good if they don't have jobs.

Instead of affordable doctor visits, the result is that people can't afford to become doctors. The affordable cost doesn't do the patients any good if there are no doctors available.

Creative people attempt to find ways to get around the regulations. Some doctors offer to give haircuts which happen to include conversations about medical care. Some housecleaners offer to keep an eye on the children in between housecleaning tasks. When the bureaucrats realize that people are taking advantage of these loopholes ... [they] revise the rules so that all workers must be paid at least $200 per hour, and all workers can charge no more than $10 per hour. When these contradictory edicts arrive...

The point is, you can't change prices, wages, supply, or demand just by passing laws, at least not without huge unintended consequences. Again, the lesson is that prosperity and abundance come from productive work, not from requirements, out of the blue, that something must be well-paid or cheaply delivered.

So is the minimum wage an entirely mistaken idea? No, but it only helps when the free market isn't doing its job. Continuing on page 44:

It is important to realize when [the minimum wage] will work and when it won't work. When workers without alternatives are underpaid by monopsony employers, then a minimum wage will help them get higher wages. By contrast, if the minimum wage is raised above the level consistent with productivity, then profit-seeking employers will respond by hiring fewer workers.

Here "monopsony" means "one buyer" (of your labor), analogous to "monopoly" = "one seller."

The word underpaid is crucial here. The minimum wage only helps when workers are paid less than they would get in a freer market where some other employer could choose to pay them more for their labor and still make a profit. Underpaid doesn't mean you wish for more pay; it means you actually aren't getting what you would get if you had a choice of employers. And it works the same way if the minimum wage is raised, not by government, but by workers forming a union. So in some cases it is a good idea to raise the minimum wage, but it is always better to give people alternatives.

Another problem with the minimum wage that the book points out are that some low-skill jobs just don't produce much profit for the employer; if they become too expensive, they just vanish. And some low-skill jobs are easy and pleasant, while others are hard and unpleasant; surely the latter need to be paid more in order to get people to do them.

My own perspective is that the minimum wage (and/or union collective bargaining) is a corrective for the fact that the free market never works perfectly. The Grapes of Wrath is the story of a failure of the free market, where workers were terribly underpaid because they couldn't find out what was going on elsewhere and what their alternatives might be. Similar things can happen on a smaller scale when a tradition of underpayment becomes entrenched or when workers are denied opportunities because too few employers are accessible to them.

There. I could continue reviewing this book for the rest of the month, and I haven't even gotten to the nuts-and-bolts economics. (The part about the 2008 mortgage crisis is especially interesting.) But I should move on to other things. I recommend the book to all of you.


Freedom, Opportunity, and Security

Over the years my good friend Douglas Downing, economist at Seattle Pacific University, has said a lot of intelligent things about economics and public policy. Now he's written them down. The best way for me to review this interesting book is to treat you to some quotes.

Before I do, I should explain that this isn't a "conservative" or "liberal" book. It's not about defending or attacking political traditions. And although it contains a coherent set of ideas, it is not a platform that has to be adopted whole. You can dip into it and pick the parts you find most helpful.

The key idea is that we want our government to provide us with freedom, opportunity, and security. We have to balance the three, and, most importantly, not everything we wish for is possible. There is no substitute for knowing about the world around you and thinking through how things actually work.

So here goes...

[p. 1] Why are there such vehement disagreements about government economic policy? Here are four possible reasons:

   (1) Different people make different value judgments — they disagree about what should happen.
   (2) Different people expect different results from a particular policy — they disagree about what will happen.
   (3) Sometimes people advocate policies to benefit themselves at the expense of others.
   (4) Sometimes people align with a political party or movement and advocate the policies that seem to follow from that alignment, without thinking them through.

My comment: Too many people think politics is purely (1), seeing every policy dispute in moralistic terms, while in fact doing almost nothing but (4).

[p. 9] You need protection from another type of injury: if you're about to eat a slice of bread, you need assurance that someone won't take it away from you. People need to have the right to possess the food they eat, the clothes they wear...

The idea here is that private property follows from not letting people injure each other, which follows from wanting all of them to have freedom, not just some few.

[p. 14] Instead of government deciding on detailed safety regulations, an option that can work in some cases is to rely on the court system to enforce liability for those creating dangerous situations. ... [This] will force those who create dangerous situations to seek insurance. The insurance companies have every incentive to develop safety rules that must be followed if insurance is to be maintained. ... [Unlike the government,] the insurance company is not a monopoly. If you don't like the rules of one insurance company, you can try to get another one. Insurance companies with rules that are too picky will lose customers, but those with rules that are too loose will have to pay too much in claims... The insurance companies have a strong incentive to get it right.

Note that he said "in some cases." Some industries, such as banking, probably always will need government regulation. On the other hand, in other industries, I can see insurance companies not merely making rules but also promoting industry-wide standards made by technical experts who know how the industry works and have no political entanglements. Look at what the fire insurance industry did for fire safety.

I've remarked before that by regulating the tobacco industry, government has protected it from full liability. Those legally required warning labels create a "safe harbor" situation and block lawsuits. If regulators didn't meddle, but the courts enforced product liability, the tobacco industry might be dead by now.

[p. 20] We should be concerned for the poor. If we think that a free economy means more poverty, we will have reason to be against a free economy. However, we need to have a correct diagnosis and an efficacious remedy if we are actually to help those in poverty. Poverty is more likely to be caused by exclusion from markets rather than participation in them.

My perspective: Here's a case of a wishful theory crashing into a hard fact. The bottom line is that prosperity comes from productivity. It is not the case that somebody else already has all the wealth and it just needs to be redistributed. Anything anti-productivity is pro-poverty, whether it's socialistic "leveling" or government subsidies not to grow crops.

[p. 21] Another reason for an instinctive mistrust of a free economy by some people comes from the lingering effects of Marxist analysis. When Marx wrote in the mid-1800s, the lives of industrial workers were truly dreadful. Marx had good reason to write about the oppression of the proletariat when they (and their children) worked 60 or more hours per week under noisy, arduous, crowded, and dangerous conditions for minuscule pay. If the bourgeoisie had continued to oppress the workers, Marx's prediction of the coming revolution undoubtedly would have been proven right. In reality, when the revolution did take place it was in an agricultural nation (Russia) rather than the industrialized ones. To paraphrase Leon Trotsky, Marx's theory of the inevitable course of history needs to be consigned to the ashcan of history.

One key moment when history diverted from its Marxist course came in 1914, when Henry Ford more than doubled the wages of his workers so they could afford cars and would have an incentive to stay on the job. It turns out that capitalists get richer when the workers are richer and can afford to buy more things. Even the greediest capitalists find it in their interests to enrich rather than impoverish the general population.

[p. 23] People who have never lived in societies that lack year-round food, clean clothes, fast travel, instantaneous communication, modern medicine ... may tend to forget that those things did not just happen. ... Schumpeter wrote that the very success of capitalist economies undermines the attitudes of society needed to support the continuation of that success.

Those who claim capitalism is the cause of poverty and inequality need to learn history. To gain perspective ... study the poverty and inequality under the rule of Khufu, Qin Shi Huang, Mithridates VI, Nero, William I, Genghis Khan, Henry VIII, Shah Jahan, Montezuma, Louis XIV, Dom João V, Nicholas II, Stalin, Mao Zedong, and others.

And there are two hundred pages more. Read on to find out why no-fault divorce may be bad economic policy, why taxing corporations may or may not make sense, what caused the 2008 mortgage crisis, why government debt may be either good or bad depending on how it's used, and above all, how to change the political system to elect people who will serve the whole country, not just narrow special interests. There's a lot of good reading here!

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