Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Popular topics on this page:
High local sales taxes kill stores
Popular Photography — end of an era
A misleading statistic about books assigned in college
How to call the ambulance
Cardmember Service, 866-268-7231, is legitimate
Is your microwave oven spying on you?
XeLaTeX: LaTeX meets Unicode and Windows fonts
Converting LaTeX to other word processors
What it's like to be a hired brain
Is a talking Barbie doll miseducating your child?
Hypocrisy about being alone with women
M105, NGC 3384, NGC 3389
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Hypocrisy about being alone with women


Hypocrisy alert: What was good feminism last week is now being re-labeled as unfair religious prudery.

I'm referring to the media that are pouncing upon Vice President Pence.

Last week, some colleagues and I were talking about a professor out west who is accused of sexually assaulting students. I mentioned my own long-standing policy of meeting with students and colleagues with the office door open, especially if I'm meeting with a woman.

This gives them an extra assurance of safety, and just as importantly, it protects me from false accusations.

This is not prudishness. Not for a moment do I claim that I can't control my passions. But I know there are other men who abuse women in such a setting, so I put people more at ease by not creating the setting.

I'm not legalistic about it. I don't panic if, for some good reason, I do find myself alone with a woman. That's not what any of this is about.

I actually got the idea from Billy Graham, who popularized it. If I were a preacher or a politician, I might be stricter about it, because there are certainly those who try to bring down such people by creating improper involvements or false accusations. I might be stricter about avoiding certain one-on-one social situations even in public places.

When I mentioned all this, several female colleagues and former students (who are clearly feminists) applauded it. They pointed out that it also applies to same-sex meetings (among other things, there is occasionally the risk of someone threatening violence). In fact, some universities have a rule that faculty doors must be open or have windows in them when one meets with students.

That was last week. This week, Vice President Pence announced that he follows a similar policy, and both The Atlantic and the Washington Post are all over him for what they describe as a strange "religious doctrine."

I think they are engaging in a certain amount of doublethink. In fact, as a Christian, I can't help but recall that Jesus didn't like doublethink, and He had another name for it, which was more derogatory.

I must emphasize that I do not allow this policy to limit women's work or study opportunities. Not at all. That's partly because I apply it to people of both sexes. Work sessions behind closed doors aren't our usual practice. We have big, open laboratories and offices.

Also, this rule isn't universal moral law. It is a matter of courtesy, not morality, in the context of American culture and even architecture (air-conditioned corridors, receptionists near offices, and a tradition of keeping doors open). It would be very hard to follow at Cambridge or Oxford, where people are more spread out and many faculty offices are college rooms that are more like apartments, with doors that need to be closed to keep out noise and weather.

The people who are really objecting to the "Billy Graham rule" might be objecting to undue strictness and impractical arrangements. You have to arrange things so that keeping people out of uncomfortable situations does not keep them out of anywhere they need to be.

If Pence's policy really limits women's work opportunities, maybe Washington needs to change its culture just a bit. Colleges and universities have caught on to how to keep people out of compromising situations and opportunities for false accusation. Maybe Washington needs to catch on, too.


The unendingness of several conversations on Facebook shows that many people of good will are not on the same page about this issue. Some have never realized what a relief it is to some women that their male boss never tries to "get them alone." (Abuse is more common than you think!) Others are rightly concerned that the "Billy Graham rule" will interfere with legitimate work, stigmatize innocent activities, and result in women being denied career advancement.

I should make it clear that although I follow such a policy, in attenuated and flexible form, I don't talk about it. I don't want to make people think I disapprove of activities that are almost certainly innocent. As I said earlier, the whole thing is a matter of courtesy, not morality; it is not wrong to be alone with a person of the opposite sex; and I am not a prude, which means I don't see immorality where there is none to be seen. Nor am I going to have my freedom taken away for the sake of other people's hypothetically dirty minds.

Finally, we are learning that a generation or two ago, some people used an exaggerated rule like this to keep women out of "men's" workplace on the ground that all the women were threats to men's marriages! My own feeling is that if you can't be trusted around women other than your wife, you're not mature enough to be married in the first place. In places where this kind of thinking is common, maybe the whole culture needs to do some growing up.

I want to assure my non-Christian readers that the Bible does not say "a woman's place is in the home" — we have no such doctrine — and a Christian businesswoman, Lydia, is mentioned quite early in the New Testament; she was apparently the first person to become a Christian in Europe.


Is a talking Barbie doll miseducating your child?
Or even spying on her?

I've just attended an excellent lecture on computer ethics by Barbara Grosz of Harvard. Her main point was that artificial intelligence is about machines to help people, not replace them, and we shouldn't let concerns about future science-fiction-type scenarios distract us from the ethical responsibilities that software engineers have today.

One of her examples of somebody who did everything wrong was the computerized talking Barbie doll that recognizes speech and carries on a conversation with the child.

It works like ELIZA — that is, it doesn't really understand what is said to it; it just recognizes patterns of words and phrases and responds with sentence patterns that contain the same words.

What could possibly go wrong? Well...

  • The child is sure to think the doll has real human thoughts. Even without other concerns, that kind of deception raises issues. Should a child's best friend be a machine?
  • Conversations with the doll are not like conversations in the real world. The child will quickly learn a strange substitute for human interaction.
  • Remember that you're an adult, and you know what a normal conversation is like. Your child does not. Your child will learn to act like a simple computer program.
  • The doll is always cheerful; you can't hurt its feelings no matter what you say. Is this good training for the human world? Of course not.
  • What about abused or emotionally vulnerable children? How would the doll react to a chronically angry or sad child? What would it teach them to do? Something that might play out very badly among real humans, perhaps?
  • The doll invites the child to share "secrets," then doesn't keep them secret. They are stored on a server for parents to retrieve, and they might be heard by others.
  • Finally, even if you've consented for your own child to be recorded, what about when your child's friend comes over?

It is easier than ever to use computers to trick people into thinking the computer has humanlike thoughts and feelings when it doesn't. But trickery is still trickery.


On not repealing Obamacare

Yesterday I wrote on Facebook: "Trump is looking for a face-saving way to not take health insurance away from the angry rural voters who voted for him but didn't think through that it was their own insurance they were voting to lose."

I think I was right.

Why else the pressure to pass the bill today while it still obviously needs some debugging? He wanted it not to pass, so that he could make a show of giving up in disgust.

Obamacare needs some major reworking. But why, after eight years, did the Republicans not have a well-thought-out, tested, analyzed plan ready to offer, and sell it to the American people? What a lot of the American people have bought, here lately, is a right-wing alignment ("Rah! Rah! Go team!") but not a set of clearly thought-out policies.

What about a complete repeal of Obamacare (the ACA) without a replacement? Someone was asking if that would leave us worse off than we were 8 years ago.

I think it very well could, for several reasons.

  • People who would have kept their old insurance cannot necessarily reinstate it after a gap. They may have developed "pre-existing conditions" or other obstacles.
  • The old insurance might not even still be available. Insurance companies and employee benefit programs have changed in response to Obamacare and also the recession. It does not seem feasible to force them to revert to exactly what they were.
  • People who got insurance have started medical treatments that cannot safely be stopped suddenly.

So let's not be hasty.


Galaxies: M105, NGC 3384, NGC 3389

Picture adjusted March 21 to lighten the background and bring out features.

Finally, after the flu, bad weather, and other interruptions, I'm getting back to astrophotography. This is from last night (March 19). You see three galaxies here, M105 (right), NGC 3384 (top), and NGC 3389 (left). If you look more carefully you will also see two faint galaxies at the lower left.

This was taken with my 8-inch Celestron EdgeHD, in my driveway in Athens, Georgia. Only the two brightest galaxies can be seen visually with the same telescope. The ability of the camera to accumulate light is impressive.

The telescope was used with an f/7 compressor. The camera was a Nikon D5300, and this is a stack of eleven 3-minute exposures, autoguided.



What it's like to be a hired brain

No blog entries for a long time, and then three of them come along at once — just like London buses...

What do I do for a living? Lots of my friends and acquaintances have no idea! Quite a few others have substantial misconceptions, which I want to try to clear up. I want to emphasize that this Notebook entry is not a complaint about anyone at all. It's just a reflection on what it's like to have a job that almost nobody understands.

First: Yes, I work. Covington Innovations is not a tax dodge or an attempt to dignify a hobby. It's my main source of income, bringing in considerably more than my UGA retirement pension. (Retired? Ha! I'm only retired from there.)

Second: I can't tell you much about exactly what I do without breaching my clients' confidentiality. That's a big difference between working for industry and working in academia. At the University, we announced every research result as soon as we got it; in industry, we don't give away the secrets of products under development!

One sad misconception I run into is that some people, if they don't know what my work is like, imagine that I don't work at all. I suppose they think I have one of those rich people's jobs that pay huge amounts of money for no work. (Where are those jobs? It would be great to have one...) To anyone who thinks I don't really work, I would say: you try doing even a little of what I do. You could no more do it than I could do Wallenda's tightrope walk.

A related misconception is that people see my flexible schedule, and even the long breaks I have to take, and think I don't really have to do anything. That is of course a lifelong problem of college professors too — we don't punch a time clock — we don't have to sit at a desk all day — and we can often spare a few minutes, but some people think that means we have unlimited spare time!

It also means that questions like "Do they give you Labor Day off?" are somewhat moot. Like farmers, we get things done when we get things done.

Before going any further, let's tackle an extremely important point: I don't think my specialized education and work make me a superior kind of human being. I don't look down on people whose jobs aren't a bit like mine and who didn't have to go to college for 9 years to do them. Almost everybody — in any walk of life, at any educational level — knows something interesting that I'd like to know more about. I respect anybody who doesn't pretend to be what he's not.

So what do I do? Software-related research and development, much of it involving computer processing of human languages, some of it involving other kinds of advanced computation.

Much of what I do is computer programming — with a research twist — but some of it is even more abstract, solving problems and trying to make new discoveries.

What is it like doing the work? It involves plenty of concentration, creativity, and hard and long thinking. I used to tell people that it was like taking a hard mathematics test every day, but in two ways it's not. First, math tests are rushed; they give you about 6 problems in 45 minutes, or 20 in 3 hours, and you rush from problem to problem. That's why I didn't like them! Second, the problems on math tests all have known solutions. I spend much of my time working on problems nobody has ever solved before, not knowing how much or what kind of effort it will take to solve them.

My friends who are computer programmers, scientists, or even artists will know what I'm talking about. Others may be realizing they've never done anything the least bit like this!

Some people mistakenly imagine that my work consists of talking to people and handling interruptions. Many "office jobs" are like that. You spend your time waiting for people to come up and ask for things — one after another — and if they stop coming, you have nothing to do.

Indeed, there are people, many of them successful in business, who never sit down and solve a hard intellectual problem by themselves. For them, work equals seeing people and talking to them. That is not me. It is one of the most serious misconceptions I have to deal with.

Actually, I do find it stimulating to have other people around, provided they're not wanting any of my attention. I've done some of my best work in libraries, surrounded by other people hard at work. That is a setting in which I'm sure nobody will come up and ask me for anything. But the "hum of the hive," the sound of quiet conversations and occasional movement, helps keep me at the right level of alertness. When working alone, I often listen to classical music, especially Vivaldi, Telemann, and Bach.

But the kind of secretarial support that would be ideal for a salesman would be disastrous for me. I don't want phone calls while I'm working. Curiosity-seekers can leave messages or use e-mail. Taking telephone calls is not my work; it is what stops my work.

It is said that if you interrupt a computer programmer every 15 minutes, he will never get any work done. Some of my work takes more like 45 minutes to settle into, not just 15. Basically, if I know I have only half an hour, I can't even start. Settling into work is often preceded by a half-hour "warm-up" in which I read a few pages of a mathematics book or something similar.

Writers and artists have similar experiences. I heard of a job described as "graphic designer and receptionist." You might as well ask for a brain surgeon and receptionist. Handling interruptions does not mix with work that can't be interrupted.

You will have guessed that my work involves holding a lot of information in my mind at once and thinking it over carefully. Naturally, I use written notes and the computer, but I still have to hold information in my head and work on it there. This often mixes well with taking long walks, provided nobody wants my attention while I'm doing so. I understand why there are so many scholars' gardens in Cambridge.

I do take breaks — I sometimes "come up for air" as often as once every ten minutes. That is why you may see me answer e-mails or pop up in forums during the work day. But at those moments I am not working, nor am I giving anything else any more attention than I feel like giving it. I'm not available to have new things thrown at me. The big job is still "running in the background" in my mind.

This kind of work is hard, and I can't do it when I'm not in good form. Being substantially deprived of sleep will cause me to lose the whole day. So will major upsets or distractions and minor illnesses, or anything that chops up the day so there aren't any uninterrupted 2- or 3-hour work sessions.

Currently I do about 3 billable hours of work per day. That is surprisingly close to a full-time job. Many people put in a full day in their office without concentrating for 3 hours or even 1 hour. And I certainly don't bill for time spent maintaining my own computers, answering random e-mails, and so forth. In the future, I may expand to about 5 billable hours per day, but that would be the limit.

Why do I enjoy such a hard job? Two reasons: an easier job would be boring, and the second reason is a lot like what inspires detectives: there's nothing like the pleasure of finding out important things that no one ever knew before.

And there is no drudgework. Part of the job is to make the computer do everything that is tedious.



XeLaTeX: LaTeX meets Unicode and Windows fonts

If you don't know about LaTeX, the scientists' and scholars' word processor, read this. (And let me add that it is good for long-term projects, since files from the 1980s still work perfectly.)

If you do know about LaTeX, let me introduce XeLaTeX, which is provided with MikTeX and other TeX distributions — you just have to select it.

XeLaTeX buys you two things: you can type in Unicode (so that, for instance, you can type résumé rather than r\'{e}sum\'{e}); and you can use any Windows font. In the example I used Comic Sans, a font with no snob appeal but great legibility.

Hint for converting LaTeX to other word processors

Conversion from LaTeX to other word processors is nearly impossible, but here is a way to get over the worst hurdle.

Natively, LaTeX has its own character set, which is neither ASCII nor Unicode. (It was invented by D. E. Knuth long before Unicode, or even extended code pages, came on the scene.) This results in many common punctuation marks coming out wrong when you try any kind of conversion.

Here's what worked tolerably well for us:

(1) Disable justification using the command \raggedright.

(2) Disable hyphenation using \righthyphenmin 100 and \lefthyphenmin 100.

(3) Use XeLaTeX (see above) with a common Windows font.

(4) Use any PDF-to-text converter or PDF importer for your word processor.


Is your microwave oven spying on you?

Is your microwave oven spying on you? No, because it doesn't have a microphone to pick up sounds, nor the means to transmit signals elsewhere.

(It emits radio waves, but they are unmodulated — they carry no information. They might conceivably be slightly modulated by nearby sounds that vibrate the oven, but special equipment would be needed to pick up the signals, and the sound quality would be terrible.)

I'm talking about a normal, unmodified microwave oven, of course. If someone comes in and plants a transmitter in it, of course a microwave oven could spy on you. But so could a lamp or flowerpot. In what follows, that rare situation is not what we're talking about.

Other devices could be spying on you. In what follows, I'll describe the hazards that are reasonably common and what should be done about them, and also tell you how to catch spies regardless of what technology they're using.

What electronic eavesdropping was like in 1967

Before I tell you more about the hazards of today, I want to review what electronic eavesdropping ("bugging") was like half a century ago.

In those days, in order to listen to you, someone had to plant a microphone and low-power radio transmitter in your room, and then arrange a way to listen to it. The transmitter had to be very low-powered in order to be small, run on batteries, and not attract attention by interfering with TV or radio reception. That meant the listener had to be nearby — in the next room, if possible, or certainly no farther than across the street.

There were a few alternatives, such as running wires to the microphone or tapping an existing telephone line. Miniature video cameras did not exist, but spies sometimes planted tiny cameras that took pictures on film, which they had to retrieve later. Some snoopers experimented with bouncing light beams off windows and measuring the vibration of the glass photoelectrically, to pick up sounds that might be causing vibration, but it wasn't easy to do that secretly. And some buildings were full of pre-installed microphones and wires. But that was no hazard to ordinary people in their homes.

What has changed today

Today's hazards are very different. Six things have changed.

(1) The Internet can send information around the world without special transmitters or wires. All a snooper has to do is connect to the Internet somehow, and his signals can go anywhere he tells them to. There's Wi-Fi almost everywhere; no need for a transmitter that gets farther than the nearest Wi-Fi hotspot.

(2) Internet-connected devices often have cameras and microphones. Your smartphone does. Your laptop does. Anything voice-controlled has a microphone.

(3) Devices that constantly listen to ambient sound have become common. "Alexa!" "Siri!" "Hey, Cortana!" "Hey, Google!"

If you think these devices only listen when you say their name, you're not thinking. How would they know you'd said their name if they weren't already listening?

Even if the device has a push-to-talk button, the button probably just sends a signal to software to activate the microphone. Other software might get to the microphone without relying on that signal.

(4) The software in these devices can change, so that a device that was initially safe can later be used maliciously.

Software can change either because you deliberately install something or because the manufacturer updates it. Either of these can be counterfeited — a snooper could send out a fake manufacturer's update or persuade you to download a genuine app that happens to include malware.

Now you see what the hazard is: Malicious software in a device that you already have could capture sound and images and send them anywhere via Internet.

(5) Automatic speech recognition eliminates the need for a constantly-present human listener.

This is a smaller aspect of the hazard, but let's not overlook it. Spying used to be time-consuming. Not any more; even very imperfect speech recognition can help the snooper figure out which recordings he should actually listen to.

(6) "Privacy agreements" often make you sign away far too much of your privacy.

Far too much new technology has not yet been tested in court. Electronic eavesdropping laws are as strict as ever, of course, unless you have consented to the eavesdropping. And that's the problem.

What can we do?

What should we (as individuals and as a society) do?

Several things...

(a) Avoid panic and superstitious thinking. Some people want to be afraid; they want to imagine that all electronic devices communicate with some kind of "magic" and "you can't do nothin' about it."

Well, let me assure you that devices that are not connected to the Internet can't spy on you. There are only three ways for a device to connect to the Internet: cable, Wi-Fi, or cellular (3G etc.). Anything that uses the cellular network incurs a monthly charge, which somebody has to be paying, so that kind of spying won't be done casually. As for cable — obviously your cable TV box and your router have cables coming into them, but your microwave oven and toaster don't!

What about Wi-Fi? Well, I hope and assume your home Wi-Fi has a password. If that is so, then nothing can connect to your Wi-Fi unless you either put the password into it or press the button on the router telling it to accept a brand-new device. If you don't do either of those things, your Wi-Fi can't be used.

(Note that, conceivably, a device can record you at one time and transmit the recording by Internet at a different time. So watch out for devices that have microphones and that connect to the Internet, perhaps by being tethered to your PC, even if the Internet connection is only present a small part of the time.)

Also, devices without cameras can't see you, and devices without microphones can't hear you. There aren't cameras and microphones in everything. Your Wi-Fi router, for instance, has an Internet connection but not a camera or a microphone.

(b) Be wary of devices that listen continuously. I don't use Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or the like. I think they are fads that need to be rethought and reworked. More about that here. People just haven't thought enough about security yet.

I am especially wary of children's toys and very cheap tablets that have microphones and connect to the Internet. (You need both of those things to create a hazard; either one by itself isn't dangerous.) These are likely to be manufactured and programmed much less carefully than name-brand computers and smartphones.

(c) Check your operating system settings and don't let apps use the camera and microphone unless they actually need to.

In both Windows 10 and iOS (and other operating systems too), you get to decide, app by app, what software can and can't access the microphone and camera. Check your settings. Think before you say yes. (Does a chess game really need the camera? Why?)

(d) Ask for inherently safer technology. I would be much happier if laptops and smartphones had disconnect switches for the camera and microphone that would take them out of the circuit so that no software could use them.

It's not enough to have a push-to-talk button or on-off switch that works through software. I'm talking about physical disconnection so that no matter what the software tries to do, the camera and mic won't work.

Maybe smartphones should to back to a flip-phone design with the camera and microphone disconnected when the phone is flipped shut. Maybe laptops should have a shutter that you can slide in front of the camera (some already do) as well as a disconnect switch for the microphone (which I've never seen).

(e) Ask for better laws and regulations.

As I hinted above, many devices have user agreements that don't adequately warn the customer of the risks. In my opinion, we need laws and regulations to establish that no customer really consents to certain things, no matter what the fine print says. We also need sufficiently large penalties for breaches of privacy that actually happen.

How to catch a snooper

There is a simple method to catch anyone who is spying on you, regardless of how they're doing it, even if you don't know anything about how they're doing it.

I don't think I'm giving away any of the defense secrets of the United States by telling you this...

Simply give the snoopers convincing, false information that they're sure to act on. Then watch them act on it.

It can be as simple as staging conversations that include a few choice sentences, or as complicated as hiring actors to help you fake a serious crime. I heard of one snooper who called police on himself when he thought he heard his children being murdered.

This technique is well known in the military, and it's related to a technique for catching people who leak information to the public or the enemy: Feed different false information to each of the suspected leakers, and see which one gets out.


Short update: New laptop

I have a new Lenovo Z50 laptop, purchased from Microsoft online for just $314 on March 14 (3/14, Pi Day). It is very much like my 6-year-old Z570, but it's newer. That is its main advantage. The old one is already on its second touchpad and third keyboard and I don't trust it to get me through six more years.

It took two solid days to move all my files and software. For file transfer, I removed the hard disk from the old computer, put it in my Kingwin external disk adapter, and attached it to a USB 3.0 port on the new computer. After some wrangling over file permissions, it copied my hundreds of gigabytes of data in just an hour or so.

The slow part was the software. Adobe CS5 and Microsoft Visio had to be deactivated on the old computer before I could install them from CD on the new one. Adobe then took about an hour; Visio, fortunately, was faster. Visual Studio was a download, again taking about an hour to install. Then came about a dozen other pieces of software... And a lot of false starts and minor blunders.

That's what I get for going 6 years without changing computers!

Cough, cough!

I spent the week of February 12 having the flu, a relatively mild case after the first couple of days. But it didn't quite clear up. On March 10 I was diagnosed with bacterial bronchitis and the cough has finally died down, but I haven't gotten my strength back up.

Meanwhile, of course, we brought Melody home, made a minor architectural change to the house (changing a narrow door to a wider portal without a door), and completely changed routine.

I keep busy!


Cardmember Service, 866-268-7231, is legitimate

At first I didn't know whether the letter was legitimate. It was laser-printed, not on a letterhead, and I had heard the name "Cardmember Service(s)," or something very similar, used by scammers on the telephone.

The letter said someone in Duluth, Georgia, had tried to open a credit card account in my name.

I Googled the telephone number and then called it. I am glad to report Cardmember Service, at that number, is legitimate and did not ask me for personal information. It's the investigative service for Kroger (and some other) credit cards. I told them the application hadn't come from me. That's all they wanted to know.

Naturally, a scammer could use that name. A scammer would start asking you things — SSN, bank accounts, what have you. These people didn't. They only wanted my yea or nay about an application for a Kroger credit card from someone giving a Satellite Boulevard (Duluth) address. That is, they gave me information, not the other way around.


Popular Photography — end of an era

It is reliably reported that Popular Photography is ceasing publication. Their March-April issue, reportedly the last, contains no hint of this; it still has postcards asking for new subscribers.

Here you see it next to the copy of their first issue (May 1937) that I was fortunate enough to acquire a few years ago. They had a couple of "girlie" covers at the outset before realizing their people were more interested in cameras.

In the 1970s, before we met, Melody and I both got most of our technical knowledge of photography from Popular Photography (and also from Modern Photography, its rival, which later merged with it). The first issue I actually read was July 1967; I took it everywhere and mined it for information. I remember using a marker to black out some of the more risqué ads for "glamour photos" so that I could take it to school. At age 9 I was only embarrassed by them anyway.

In the 1990s I corresponded a few times with co-editor Herbert Keppler, an expert on the history of lenses.

I don't think I've bought an issue of Popular Photography since about 2000. The Internet keeps us inundated with information. But I am sad to see it go.

The last issue has reviews of new DSLRs, an article about an old-time black-and-white darkroom master, and an article questioning whether one needs a serious camera in addition to one's smartphone. (The answer is: maybe. Much excellent photography can be done with a smartphone.)

In fulfillment of their prophecy, I took the picture above with my iPhone.

Personal updates

I had a mild case of the flu a month ago, didn't quite recover, and found that it had turned into rather severe bacterial bronchitis a few days ago. I'm on the mend now but not up to full strength, and sick and tired of being sick and tired.

In a couple of days we'll find out how soon Melody can get her permanent hip replacement.


Daylight Saving Time — an obsolete fashion?

My personal feeling is that Daylight Saving Time is one of those mid-20th-century fads that caught on because in those days, people would do anything if they heard that they were "supposed to" do it in order to be "modern."

Let's ditch it, or maybe keep it year-round, and stop making awkward switches twice a year.

I'm starting to encounter people who don't realize that the change in the length of the day from winter to summer is not man-made!


Limited government, freedom, and health care

Maximum freedom comes from the right amount of government, not the complete absence of it. The opposite of totalitarianism is not freedom but anarchy.

I am a conservative, and I believe in limited government. But I do not assume that all the legitimate functions of government had been invented by 1776 or 1800. New technological and economic situations arise. For example, the development of modern firefighting led to a government service that we now take for granted but which is not named in the Constitution.

I think that modern medical care, with its life-saving miracles combined with the risk of unforeseeable extreme expense, is one of these new situations.

I don't have a ready-made solution to offer; I'm inclined to favor compulsory private insurance (German- or Swiss-style), but I can see several paths forward. The problem will not be solved by pretending it's 1950 and the new situation simply doesn't exist.


The Aeolic dialect of ancient Greek — did it exist?

Now for something completely different. My original training was in historical linguistics, and sometimes I dip back into it. Here's something interesting I found...

The biggest difference between studying Latin and studying Greek is that Latin is the language of just one city, Rome, but Greek was always spread out, so you have more than one kind of Greek to keep up with.

Traditionally, Greek was thought to consist of three major dialect groups, Doric, Ionic, and Aeolic. (Not Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian — those are styles of architecture.) Most literature was written in Ionic, which included Attic and gave rise to Koiné. Doric and Aeolic were important in poetry.

Twentieth-century scholars recognized a fourth major group, Arcado-Cyprian, not used in classical literature.

I've just come across a paper (whose author I knew in graduate school) that argues convincingly that Aeolic wasn't really a dialect group. It was just a set of old-fashioned local dialects that didn't pick up Doric or Ionic innovations.

Parker, Holt N. (2008) The Linguistic Case for the Aiolian Migration Reconsidered. Hesperia: The Journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Vol. 77, No. 3, pp. 431-464.

The key idea is that local dialects are related if they share a change. Specific changes are distinctive to Doric and Ionic. But according to Parker, all of the distinctive attributes of Aeolic turn out to be mere retention of older features. There's no shared innovation.

And the geography tells the same story. Arcado-Cyprian is a little patch in the middle of Greece, plus a big patch on Cyprus, where colonization took it. Doric is a broad swath across the west and Ionic is an even broader swath across the east. Aeolic is three disconnected patches (Boeotia, Thessaly, and the Lesbos region).

Parker's conclusion is that there was no "Aeolian tribe" that migrated and scattered into those areas. There are just local dialects that preserve older kinds of Greek.

And if there was no Aeolian tribe, a major puzzle disappears. Traditionally, the Greek of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey has been described as Ionic mixed with Aeolic. This raises the question of how the Aeolians got involved and why an epic poet would compose in a mixture of dialects. (Not making different characters speak different dialects, as Mark Twain did, but actually mixing the two dialects throughout.)

If Parker is right, Homer's Greek is Ionic mixed with pre-Ionic elements — which is exactly what we'd expect from the very earliest Ionic literature.

One more bit of Greek dialect trivia. The reason our words machine and mechanical don't have the same vowel in the first syllable is that the Greek word for "machine" was borrowed into Latin twice, once from Doric (māchanā) and once from Ionic (mēchanē).


How to call the ambulance

I haven't had to call an ambulance recently, but talking with people in the emergency medicine profession, and reading blogs like this one, I've learned that lots of people do a poor job of calling the ambulance when they need one. So here's some advice, which I've talked over with experts.

Part 1: WHERE.

(1) Tell the dispatcher where the ambulance is needed. Give a street address if possible, not just a landmark. Also name the nearest cross street if you can.

(2) Use a land line rather than a cell phone if convenient, but don't expect magic. The 911 system will tell the dispatcher where you are, but it's more accurate with land lines than with cell phones. It's not perfect with either one.

(3) Tell them how to get in, and get that gate open! Seriously, living in a gated community can kill you. Ambulances do not have the ability to open every gate in their path. The dispatcher may or may not have gate codes.

Also, tell the dispatcher anything else they need to know about how to get in, such as what building entrance to use.

(4) If you're in a big building, make sure the front desk knows what's happening. Receptionists are often bewildered when an ambulance comes to their building and they don't know why, or where!

(5) Stay with the patient (you may be given first aid to do), but send somebody to meet the ambulance. The crew will be glad to see someone in the street, waving his arms and pointing! What they don't want is to arrive at the address and find everything quiet, with no hint of where they're needed.

(6) Expect police or firefighters to arrive first if the situation is urgent, such as choking, major trauma, or a heart attack. They can pinpoint the location, guide the ambulance in, and administer some first aid. It's not a mistake if the first thing you see is a fire truck!

Part 2: WHAT.

(1) Tell the dispatcher what has happened. Not the whole medical history, but the kind of patient and the kind of need. "Overweight middle-aged man fell off a ladder and may have broken his leg" is a good example.

Of course, if you know the patient has a medical condition that might be the problem, say so. But don't ramble or speculate.

(2) If you send someone else to call an ambulance, make sure they have this information. The dispatcher will need it! "I need an ambulance at 234 Parkside Lane" is not enough.

(3) Be exact. "Can't breathe" is a troublesome thing to describe — do you mean a stuffy nose or malfunctioning lungs? Be equally exact with any other information. If you don't know something, say so — don't guess!

(4) No drama. You won't get better service by wailing and acting incoherent. Keep your wits about you. Take a deep breath and remember that people are depending on you.

Part 3: WHEN.

(1) Stay on the phone. The dispatcher has already sent the ambulance (by typing into a computer, the moment you gave the address). They are not waiting for the phone call to be over! They will probably have more questions for you, so don't hang up until you're told to.

(2) Put your phone on speaker if you easily can, so you can continue to talk to the dispatcher without having to hold it. You may be told how to do CPR or other first aid.

(3) Understand that some calls are handled faster than others. Choking or major trauma is much more of an emergency than a broken ankle. The broken ankle is a perfectly legitimate call — you probably have no other way to get to the hospital — but it's not going to trigger the fastest possible response.

(4) Use judgment as to whether to travel by private car. If it's a heart attack or serious injury, wait for the ambulance — they can begin treatment on the spot before transporting the patient. But if treatment can wait half an hour, and it won't hurt the patient to ride in a car, go ahead and take him to the hospital yourself.

Ambulance crews find it rather frustrating to arrive to someone with a non-urgent minor injury whose family is already lined up to follow the ambulance in their cars!


Melody's home!

After a two-and-a-half-month stay at a convalescent facility for IV antibiotics and physical therapy, Melody is back home. She is still wheelchair-bound; she still has a temporary antibiotic spacer in her hip. In a few weeks it will be replaced by a permanent hip implant and she'll be able to walk.

In the meantime I'm working at home a lot.

High local sales taxes kill stores

One of the reasons cited for the demise of Showcase Photo is the local 8% sales tax, soon to rise to 9%.

It's not the tax per se, it's the fact that it's so easy to avoid by shopping elsewhere. The 9% rate is apparently a peculiarity of Atlanta. People can easily avoid much of it by shopping outside the city, or all of it by mail-ordering.

For my foreign readers, I should explain that under U.S. law, a state cannot tax sales made in another state. (Many of them supposedly impose a "use tax" on such sales, but they have no good way to collect it, and it isn't collected.) So instead of 9%, I can pay no tax at all when I order from B&H or Adorama in New York.

When I order from Amazon, I do pay tax, because Amazon has a physical presence in Georgia, but I only pay the statewide rate of 4%.

Why does this kill camera stores? Because the cost of shipping a good camera from New York is likely to be only 2% or 3% of the price of the camera. If Showcase and Adorama sell at the same price, Showcase comes out about 6% more expensive simply because of the tax, which amounts to $60 on a midrange DSLR. Note that allowing manufacturers to set the selling price would not help; the taxes are still different.

I think the excessive local taxes are an example of what Drucker calls active inertia — responding to a problem by aggressively not solving it. As retailers dry up and tax revenue goes down, the city wants to raise the taxes, which kills off the retailers faster!

There are, however, many other reasons camera stores are disappearing, and while I wax nostalgic for them, I don't feel a real deprivation — I can't point to anything (equipment, supplies, or information) that has actually become harder to get. Remember that the customer's goal is to buy cameras at good prices with good information, not to have camera stores.

Camera stores used to be sustained by selling consumable materials (film, paper, and darkroom supplies) that more or less had to be bought locally on short notice, like groceries. That era has ended.

Further, Internet shopping has changed the nature of mail-order. Fifty years ago (I remember!) you would send off a check, and there was a 90% chance of receiving the merchandise about three weeks later. (There was a 10% chance it would be back-ordered or delayed.) Sears, Roebuck & Co. did a bit better because of their distribution network, but in general, mail-order took two or three weeks. About one week of that was the merchant waiting for the check to clear.

Nowadays I can order on line, give a credit or debit card number, and get 2-day shipping. For a price, I can get even faster shipping, often receiving the item in less than 24 hours. I've done this when something was needed urgently for a consulting job, and actually got electronic parts from Texas in 14 hours. I can track every shipment, too.

It's true that I don't get to go into a showroom, handle the merchandise, and hobnob with salesmen. But who wants one salesman's advice when first-rate reviews are at one's fingertips? Give me DPReview for technical analysis and hordes of Amazon customers for actual usability. So although I fondly remember camera stores as sources of knowledge, I don't feel deprived without them.

What's more, Internet shopping leveled the playing field between big cities and the rest of the country. First-rate camera stores exist only in big cities. Internet shopping is the same everywhere. Many of the reasons I used to want to live near a big city no longer apply. I'm not going to move, of course, but realistically, if I had to relocate to Valdosta or Moultrie (out of daytrip range of Atlanta), I would lose far less that interests me than I would have lost forty years ago.

That's the Sears, Roebuck phenomenon, in a second wave. Now it's the Amazon era. Amazon is craftily interlinked with many other merchants, so if you buy a camera on Amazon's web site, you may end up purchasing from Adorama without having planned to!

A misleading statistic about books assigned in college

The other day someone told me the Communist Manifesto is one of the books most commonly listed on college course reading lists, with the implication that colleges are indoctrinating people with Communism.

I haven't verified the statistic, but I can well believe it. The Communist Manifesto is certainly very commonly assigned as reading in college. I can believe there is no single book about non-Communist economics that is equally popular.

Does that mean colleges are promoting Communism over capitalism? I don't think so. Consider several facts.

  • The Communist Manifesto is historically very important. You can't understand 20th-century history without it.
  • Unlike other economic systems, Communism is all in one book. That is, there's one very important book that launched it. No single book launched capitalism or the free market.
  • Communism is dead or dying. That means we study it historically. Reading the book that started it is much more important than analyzing in detail what is happening today. Not so for living economic systems.
  • Precisely because free-market capitalism is doing so well, it's spread over hundreds of books, not just one. All the college economics textbooks I've ever seen are at least 95% capitalist (maybe more like 99% now that the Soviet Union is gone). No single book makes the bestseller list because there are so many.
  • Knowledge is better than ignorance. Some people talk as if colleges shouldn't assign the Communist Manifesto because people would be better off ignorant of it. Really? This isn't fourth grade. In college you are supposed to be able to read a book without agreeing with it.

If you really want to see what colleges are teaching, let me refer you to the (high-priced!) textbook for Harvard's most popular course, Mankiw's Principles of Economics. (Yes, I know it's expensive, but it's highly regarded. It has lots of lower-priced competitors that are generally similar.)

By the way, I have had my say about the high price of college textbooks. I don't like $300 books. But remember, inflation-adjusted, this is equivalent to $40 in the 1970s, and it's a small part of the total cost of a college education — perhaps not the place to skimp. Besides, economics is a field in which books have to be updated often; we want the author's latest analysis of the 2008 recession and, if possible, even something about Trump's proposed policies. It's not like a Latin textbook that can stay the same for decades.

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