Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Why politics has become so painful
What comes after post-truth?
Disabling Cortana
Software patents
A plea for political sanity
Space bar works only in middle
Orion (narrowband)
Barnard's Loop
Monoceros (narrowband)
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Swing-clear hinges

Melody's brief visit home was a success, and in a week we will move her home to stay while awaiting the next hip operation. She is still wheelchair-bound, and during the visit we temporarily took down three doors so she could get through. One of them will be eliminated permanently — it was a door we never closed — but the other two are now back up, with swing-clear hinges like the one shown above.

These hinges go in place of regular hinges and allow the door to swing completely clear of its frame. If your existing hinges have square corners, you can use Stanley swing-clear hinges, available at many hardware stores. Ours, however, were round-cornered, so we used the ones from Stone Harbor Hardware that you'll see if you click on the picture.


Turbulence in a distant galaxy

Now back to the sky — for the first time in more than 3 weeks I've taken an astronomical photograph. This is the galaxy Messier 66 (M66) in Leo, which is a spiral with obviously irregular structure thought to have resulted from an encounter with another galaxy.

Celestron 8 EdgeHD, CGEM mount, Nikon D5300, stack of nine 3-minute exposures at ISO 400, autoguided with a 60-mm f/4 guidescope, DMK camera, and PC with PHD2 software. Stars are visible down to magnitude 18.0.

Personal update

You may recall that, starting about a year ago, Melody gradually lost the ability to walk without a walker. For a long time the cause was unclear. It turned out to be an infection in her right hip, which had received an artificial hip joint in October 2014 and which had a problem with an infection that required it to be cleaned out surgically in November 2014.

Just before Christmas, Melody had surgery again, to replace the infected implant with an antibiotic spacer. She is wheelchair-bound and has been at a convalescent center for physical therapy.

In a few days, if all goes well, she will come home, still wheelchair-bound, while awaiting the next operation. Tomorrow (Feb. 25) she will come home for a couple of hours to assess how well she can function and whether the house is sufficiently wheelchair-accessible, then go back to the convalescent center for her last week of therapy.

Her wheelchair confinement is only for a few weeks, and then the regular hip implant goes in. Of course, if she's in a wheelchair longer, we can modify the house further, but for now, we're avoiding remodeling. I may, however, end up dissecting a door frame and casing to make it into a portal wider than the original door, which is not actually needed.


Why politics has become so painful

[Revised for conciseness.]

Today's XKCD puts its finger on one of the biggest reasons politics has become so painful this year: thanks to smartphones, we are immersed in low-quality "news" and discussion all the time, everywhere, not just when we read the evening news.

I would add: because of social media, far too much of what we hear is non-expert, amateurish, irresponsible, and ill-informed. We aren't just hearing statements from organizations that have established some reputation for knowledge. Everybody has something to say, and lots of them think having strong feelings is enough, whether or not you know anything. What's more, entirely too many are gullible, eagerly spreading unconfirmed gossip and "memes."

Some of it even comes from people who are proud of their ignorance and actually think that if they knew anything about the "other" side, it would contaminate them somehow. Naturally, reading my balanced accounts of issues, they think I'm terribly contaminated.

All this creates a social dilemma: what do we do when we want to keep in touch with someone but don't want to hear his or her political opinions constantly? Social media have turned too many good people into blowhards.

I've enumerated many related follies in other entries, so I invite you to scroll down. But in a nutshell, the problem is that new media have made it easy to be loud and foolish, and a lot of people are doing it.

So what should people do? Do your own job, take care of your own family, do the good you can where you can, and don't spend all your time on politics. (Which can be difficult when people are bombarding you with challenges that demand answers!)

I won't say "never talk about religion or politics" because my Bible says to talk about religion and our Constitution says to talk about politics. But I do think a lot of people should stop trying so hard to save the world by fighting for their non-expert personal opinions. Always remember you don't know it all.

In short, be humble.


More about how to find our way home from "post-truth"

From David Mills I have five more pointers on how to stay out of the "post-truth" mindset. A couple of them are specifically aimed at Christians, but I think all five, with suitable adaptation, should make sense to everyone. I've adapted them a little.

(1) Remember that you're accountable to God and to society; God and people remember what you say.

(2) Value your own credibility. You won't convince anyone if you talk like a fool.

That means not using "arguments" you don't understand. In other controversies, especially young-earth creationism, we often hear people parroting assertions or questions they haven't really thought through, some of which are very silly, and expecting to knock down the opposition.

That is not how rational argument works. You win by understanding both sides and showing which one is right, not by using tricks that you yourself don't understand.

(3) Take care of your family, do your job, do good where you can and when you can; don't spend your time in arguments that are beyond your qualifications.

(4) Educate yourself. Take courses or read books and learn about logic, logical fallacies, and important philosophical issues.

(5) See opponents as human beings like yourself. Imagine they will read, hear, and reply to your comment and that you will have dinner with them after your comment on their views.

By the way, if you followed the link in (4), don't laugh. Despite its unpretentious title, Philosophy for Dummies is a good book, written by a Christian philosopher who was a professor at Notre Dame. I should add that it is a mainstream philosophy textbook, not a religious book.

Michael Novak, 1933-2017, on yet another problem with "post-truth"

I am sad to learn from a mutual friend that Catholic philosopher Michael Novak has died. This is a good time to look back at Novak's book Business as a Calling, which I reviewed in 2005.

We didn't have the "post-truth" controversy then, but nonetheless, Novak hammered home a very important point: to succeed in business, you have to believe in objective truth. There are no postmodernists making fortunes. Success requires you to face the truth, pleasant or unpleasant, about your work, your market, your sales. You cannot live in a fantasy world or simply ignore unpleasant facts. Victory goes to the one who keeps up with reality the best. That is why information is such a precious commodity in business. (It's why people pay me to do big-data analytics now.)


What comes after "post-truth"?

[Minor update.]

I am glad the terms "post-truth" and "fake news" and "alternative facts" have entered popular parlance because it is much easier for people to beware of something when they have a name for it. The latter two of these are, of course, variations on the first one, so that's what I want to write about.

"Post-truth" is the attitude that something else matters more than factual accuracy. Instead of believing and saying what is actually true, you believe and say something else, just because you want to.

Described that way, "post-truth" sounds so foolish that nobody would touch it with a ten-foot pole. But in fact it is common. Let me give you an example.

Suppose the issue is welfare reform. A wise person would gather information about how the system works now, what happens to the people on it, what kinds of abuses are and are not common, whether it's outgrowing its funding, and so forth, and then advocate something with this information in mind.

But a post-truther skips the information-gathering step, and just says "I heard" the housing projects are full of "welfare queens" and illegal immigrants, so we've got to cut the programs. Or a more liberal kind of post-truther might say "I heard" there are babies starving... Either way you get a recommendation not based on any knowledge of reality.

Why "post-truth"?

So why would anybody want to be a post-truther? Several reasons.

  • It's easier. No need to bother with facts. Just go with what you "heard" or what you want to imagine. It's an epistemology for lazy people.
  • Some people can't distinguish a vivid mental image from a fact. An example is the "welfare queen" stereotype that I mentioned. News media, especially slanted ones, exploit this. They show you one (purported) example of something, and that's supposed to be all you ever need.
  • Many people have an ideology or a narrative — that is, a theory, or a story they tell themselves — that explains everything and tells them what to think. (For some people, "I'm conservative" or "I'm liberal" means "I want a simple narrative uncluttered with facts.")

    Now, there's nothing wrong with wanting to have a broad perspective on the issues and a clear value system, but in real life, you have to check your judgments against reality.
  • Some people just want emotional entertainment. Politics, for them, is about feeling thrills of anger. They don't care whether facts are accurate as long as they produce the feelings. This fact has been exploited by radio commentators for 30 years or more.
  • For many post-truthers, it's all about taking sides. Everybody is either friend or foe. If they're on "our side" you have to support them 100%, and if they're on the other side, you have to oppose them 100%.

    Such a person is afraid of facts that might interfere with his choice of sides but thinks it's OK to distort facts to help "our side" win.
  • Last, too many people just don't know how to think through a controversial issue. They think that "consider both sides" means "never make a choice" or even "compromise with evil."

    To them I would say, remember what goes on in a courtroom. The judge and jury want to hear the best that can be said for both sides of the dispute. That doesn't mean both sides are going to win. But they have to know the arguments on both sides before they can decide.

Where did "post-truth" come from?

I think "post-truth" is a combination of several things.

As Internet social media have become our main form of political discussion, lots of people haven't accepted the responsibilities that go with reaching a wide audience. Taking wild guesses about facts might be OK if you're sitting on the porch after dinner, speculating, and you don't have any information sources handy. But when you post on Facebook, you are often reaching as many people as a small-town newspaper (through "friends of friends") and you're close to excellent information sources on the Web. It is both easy and necessary to check your facts. Web information sources aren't perfect, but at least they will keep you out of abject ignorance.

Meanwhile, a lot of people today have swallowed postmodernism, a philosophy (popular in literature departments, not philosophy departments) that says everything depends on your point of view, there are no objective facts, so we might as well believe anything we want. (That may be a caricature of postmodernism, but it's what lots of people have swallowed.) I reply that although we all have our point of view, objective facts can overcome our point of view, and that's why we call them objective facts!

A popular postmodernist catch-phrase is, "You have no right to impose your beliefs on me." It can easily degenerate into the notion that you have a right to make up your own reality. To which I would reply: Are you giving up on science, mathematics, jurisprudence, and even day-to-day survival on the ground that everyone is entitled to his own reality? Can you drive on the wrong side of the road and just imagine the other cars aren't there? If you do, they will immediately "impose" some beliefs on you. Facts matter.

A weaker form of this is, "I have a right to my own opinion." Well, you do, but opinions are estimates of facts, which we use when completely confirmed facts are not available. We care how accurate your estimates are. You could have the "opinion" that 2 + 2 = 5 but that wouldn't make it true.

Finally, of course, "post-truth" is a good cover for just plain dishonesty. If you convince people truth does not matter, it's OK to lie.

How to find our way home

So how do we get out of "post-truth" and back to a healthy and logical approach to knowledge and reality?

That almost calls for a complete course in logical thinking, but let me just hit a few of the high points.

To stay in touch with reality, you have to cultivate factual accuracy as a habit of mind. Honesty is more than just absence of bias. Honesty is an active preference for accuracy even when accuracy costs something. It means taking the extra minute to check facts and sources. It means not passing off guesses as knowledge.

That means avoiding exaggeration and trash-talk. Unfortunately, some people seem to think in exaggerations. Instead of telling you what something is like, they will always tell you it extremely big, or extremely small, or extremely bad, or extremely good. And they think it is their duty to say the worst things possible about things they oppose.

That is not the path to clear thinking. Exaggerations are not truth.

A habit of accuracy implies knowing where facts come from. When you "hear" something, where did you hear it from? Who is taking responsibility for it? Can you confirm it from more than one source? If it were false, would you know?

The essence of the "fake news" problem is that people don't care about sources. People who don't read very much will often swallow anything that looks well-written, even if they don't know who wrote it. And anyone can set up a web site with a name like "World News Today" and decorate it with "Breaking News" or with pictures stolen from other news media, and then say anything they want.

Distrust those who say, "Only trust me, not anybody else." They're trying to take you for a ride. Would you put your money in a bank that said, "All the other banks are corrupt and we're the only one you can trust"? Or would you consider them a bit fishy? The same goes for information sources.

Professional news media don't report complete lies, but they do have a slant; they emphasize some facts and events and downplay others. To get a balanced view, I often look at Google News, which combines a large number of other sources, and Reuters, which is relatively unbiased and to-the-point. Of course, nobody gets to do all my thinking for me, and I don't confine myself to media that support my opinions. I don't want "conservative facts" or "liberal" facts — I want fact facts!

Second big point: Learn how to say "I don't know." Much time and foolishness could be saved if people didn't try to have opinions when they don't know enough facts. Ignorant opinions are worse than none at all. So resist pressure to take sides on every issue that flits past you in the newsfeed. It's perfectly reasonable to say, "I'll think about that and look for more facts." That's how you keep from jumping on bad bandwagons. Simply don't jump on bandwagons.

(That saves a lot of work, doesn't it?! Just when you thought I was going to burden you with full-time study of current events — No! You don't have to have a position on everything. You can simply keep quiet and keep your eyes open.)

In fact, even on issues you know a lot about, don't take sides prematurely or too strongly. Stand for what you stand for, but don't try to divide the whole world sharply into friend or foe. The real world is complicated and subtle, and most things in it have mixtures of good and bad properties. If all you want to do is cheer one side and boo the other, you're looking for a football game, not a way of thinking.

And get out of the gossip business. If you can't tell whether something is true, don't spread it.

Particularly on media such as Facebook, a lot of people spend too much time spreading inaccurate information, just because it came along and said "share this" or "copy and repost" or "97% of you won't have the courage to share this." Don't do that. Speak with your own voice and only tell us what you know. Don't pass things along that you can't take responsibility for.

Now for something harder.

There is a joke about someone who got a headache trying to follow the directions on a can of frozen orange juice because it said "concentrate." What I'm about to describe will give some people headaches, too, but it's vitally important:

Do your best to understand the side that you disagree with.

Many people find this notion frightening for either of two reasons. Some feel they'll be compromising with evil if they admit that the "wrong" side makes any sense at all. Others feel that they'll be misled if they start listening to enemy propaganda.

But that's not how it works.

Earlier I mentioned how, in a courtroom, the judge and jury have to hear the best that can be said for both sides before they can make a decision. They don't just hear the arguments, they test them against the evidence.

The same goes for any thinking person. I can't choose between two sides unless I know what they both are! And I have to test both of them against the facts.

And, second, even when something is clearly mistaken and wrong-headed, I can learn a lot by analyzing the mistake.

Suppose you're teaching elementary school arithmetic and you have a student who thinks 2 × 3 = 5. To help this student, you need to know why he thinks that. Did he just memorize the wrong number in the multiplication table? (Did someone give out a printed table with a typo in it?) Or does this student think multiplication is addition? You can't set the student straight until you find out how the error arose. And when you do, you haven't dirtied yourself with bad arithmetic — on the contrary, you've helped someone else think more clearly. The other good thing that happens is that you appreciate the student, even with his mistake, as a rational human being; you don't look down on him as "dumb."

That is how thinking people deal with positions with which they disagree.

A special warning to my fellow Christians

I have some additional cautions for my fellow Christians, especially those who embrace the concept of "culture war."

There is, of course, an ongoing conflict between good and evil, godliness and ungodliness, in our (or any nation's) culture. And some culture wars have been fought and won in the past, such as the abolition of slavery.

But it is a terrible mistake to think of one side in an earthly political conflict as "God's side." Normally, a Christian's (or any thinking person's) attitude toward an earthly political conflict is, "Neither side is quite right, but one of them is better than the other." (Sometimes better by a large enough margin to warrant working in a campaign; sometimes not.)

When Christians identify godliness with a secular party or candidate, bad things happen:

  • Christians demonize the "wrong" side. They start feeling contempt and even hate for fellow human beings, even fellow Christians. This is soul-destroying.
  • Christians call each other bad Christians for disagreeing about politics.
  • Christians lower their moral standards regarding the "right" side, ignore its faults, and may even cheat to help it win. (Spreading unconfirmed facts is cheating.)
  • Christianity starts being presented to the outside world as mere partisan politics, with all its faults, and often with quite visible hateful attitudes.
  • Organized Christendom starts following non-Christian leadership.
  • Nationalism gets put higher than God. That is idolatry.
  • Worst of all, people start thinking they're Christians when they are merely patriots or political activists.

To much of this, Matthew 7:21-23 applies.


Gadget of the day: USB data blocker

Sometimes you want to plug something into a USB socket just for electric power, without any data communication.

In my case, I wanted to power my GPS from the car's USB socket, so it would be on when the car is on, but if I used a regular USB cable, the two devices would get into a quarrel. The GPS wanted to be updated and the car's audio system wanted music. Each waited for the other.

The same need arises if you want to plug your smartphone into a stranger's computer to charge it, without any risk of transferring a virus or any data in either direction.

The solution is a USB charging-only cable or data blocker.

One way to make one is to cut into a USB cable and cut the green and white wires, leaving red and black unaltered. Then I'm told it is a good idea to tie green and white together on the device (smartphone) end, not on the host (computer) end, to keep any stray signals from being mistaken for data.

If you're doing it that way, the host won't know what device you're using or how much charging current it wants. A smarter solution contains a chip that communicates with the host and requests maximum power. Amazon sells one that I have had good results with.


Laptop repair: space bar works only in middle, not at ends

Lenovo Z570 laptop. The space bar on a relatively new keyboard was acting unresponsive, and on experimenting, I found that it only responded when pressed in the middle, not at the ends. Since I almost always press it well to the right of center because of the way this keyboard is laid out, that was an annoyance. (Do other typists space with both thumbs? I only use the right thumb, but this may be a relic of the way I typed before I worked through a touch-typing book in 1972.)

Solution: Pop off the key cap and look at the two metal rods that serve as hinges; the key cap attaches to these rods. Bend them so they will be a little lower in the middle. Then the ends of the space bar can't go down without pushing the middle far enough down.


A plea for political sanity

I posted this on Facebook, and it got "likes" from all over the political spectrum (from strong liberals, anti- and pro-Trump conservatives, and even someone who knows Mr. Trump and was active in the campaign). But it also elicited a few examples of the kind of narrow thinking that it refers to. Read on...

There are people to whom if I said 2+2=4, they would ask me if that was the pro-Trump or anti-Trump position.

What's getting tiresome is the number of people for whom everything is either pro-Trump or anti-Trump, and nothing can be discussed from any other perspective.

And I think that's what a lot of us mean when we say we're tired of politics. We will be glad to talk politics, if you mean discuss facts about current events. We aren't into re-fighting the election or forbidding people to criticize one side or the other. If you just want to root for one side and boo the other, you're looking for the Super Bowl, not statesmanship.

In the comments I threw a harder punch:

Here is something else that troubles me. Before the election, lots of people were telling me to vote for Trump as a last resort — although not very good, he would implement some important conservative policies. Well, many of those people are now acting as if Trump is their object of worship! We're not to criticize him or his staff at all! If they really voted for him as a last resort, they should be among his harshest critics, trying hard to make him a better president than he would be without being prodded. What happened?

That continues to bother me. Why is no one saying, "Mr. Trump, we supported you, and we expect the best that you can give us. You should stop posting inflammatory remarks on Twitter and get a better spokesperson than Kellyanne 'Bowling Green' Conway"?


Monoceros, narrowband

Here's a narrowband (hydrogen-alpha) view of gas clouds in Monoceros, with the Rosette Nebula at the lower right and the Christmas Tree Cluster at the upper left. Compare this color image. This is a stack of 15 3-minute exposures, Canon 60Da, Sigma 105-mm f/2.8 lens, and B+W 091 filter.



Software patents


I am happy to report that the case law of software patents has continued to develop more or less the way I said it ought to.

Software ought to be patentable because software is more than just mathematics. Indeed, software is an essential component of most complex machines today. Your thermostat has software in it. So does your washing machine. Software is a way of configuring and using a machine, even if the machine is just an ordinary desktop computer.

It makes just as much sense to patent software as to patent a specially shaped cam that makes a machine go through a special kind of motion. They are the same thing — encoded control sequences — except that one is written in binary code and the other is carved in metal.

At the same time, merely computerizing an existing process should not be patentable. Patents are supposed to be distinctively new inventions, such that an ordinary craftsman or technician, using his normal tools, does not risk accidentally infringing them. Taking an existing business process and computerizing it is not inventing. It is just building. It's what computer programmers do.

My objection to many software patents is that they weren't inventions; they weren't creative new ideas. And indeed they have died off like flies, overruled one by one — not because software can't be patented, but because patents have to be original ideas, not routine work that could be assigned to any programmer.

That is indeed the way things have played out, after the Bilski case, the Alice case, and subsequent developments related to Alice.


Hey Cortana! Go away!

Windows 10 Anniversary Update turned on Cortana for all of us, even those of us who had had it turned off. Now we can't turn it off. Or can we?

For privacy and safety, I turned off Cortana's access to the microphone long ago. I don't want a piece of software — which isn't mine and which changes frequently — to be listening to all my speech and responding to some of it.

I've written already about why I don't use speech-enabled apps or devices, or at least don't leave them on all the time. I think the industry has been incredibly naive about the privacy risks.

(By the way, if you think Cortana only listens when you say "Hey, Cortana," you're not thinking. How can it know you said "Hey, Cortana" unless it was already listening?)

Today, though, on four different computers, Cortana popped up a Windows notification offering to help me buy snacks for the Super Bowl.

No thanks, Cortana. You're a computer, and I'm at work. Be professional, please.

Anyhow, I have found out how to disable Cortana and have done it on four computers. Click here for instructions. If the instructions are too technical, take them to any computer service shop along with your computer. And use the gpedit.msc method if your computer supports it; only use the registry method in Windows 10 Home. The reason is that gpedit (or rather Group Policy) might override the registry if it's present.

If the search box at the bottom of your screen says "Search Windows," Cortana is gone. If it says anything else — such as "Talk to me here" or "Search all the things" — Cortana is still running the show.


Barnard's Loop

Here's a better view of Barnard's Loop, a curved nebula thought to be a supernova remnant. It's an excellent example of a photographic object, a celestial object that would be easily visible without a telescope if it were brighter, but in fact can't be seen by the human eye (at least not normally). The picture covers an area comparable to a hand at arm's length; you're not looking at a magnified view of the sky. Instead, you're taking advantage of the camera's ability to accumulate light. The nebulae in the Horsehead region shine brightly at the lower right; at the upper left corner is Betelgeuse.

Same narrowband technique as the picture below. Stack of 15 3-minute exposures.


Narrowband Orion

Here's much of the constellation Orion, photographed in narrowband red light (640-700 nm) to cut through the glow of the city lights. The Orion Nebula is at bottom right. At center is a complex of nebulosities including the Horsehead (which is a notch in a streamer; it needs more magnification to show its horsehead shape). Across the left is part of Barnard's Loop. Connoisseurs will also find M78 in the picture.

This is a stack of seven 3-minute exposures. I had begun to suspect that my 1-minute exposures weren't long enough, and I wanted to prepare for a dark site where I could certainly expose longer, so I put the camera on my AVX mount rather than my iOptron SkyTracker. Canon 60Da, ISO 1600, Sigma 105-mm f/2.8 lens, B+W 091 deep red filter.

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