Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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The digital Dark Ages

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Is Congress legislating or playing soccer?

I want to raise my voice loudly in support of Senator McCain's exhortation for Congress to get back to normal methods of legislating — hold hearings, study issues, build consensus, talk to both parties — as opposed to the steal-the-ball-and-rush-something-through that has prevailed since the beginning of the year.

Why are legislators so in a hurry to pass health-care legislation that they don't understand, the CBO has not analyzed (or has pronounced to be bad), and their own constituents don't stand to benefit from?

Simple: They've stolen the ball and they want to score. The object of the game is to represent about half of the American people and to disenfranchise the rest.

That is not good citizenship, nor competent politics.

Why national health insurance is such a problem

Many, perhaps most, of the people debating health-insurance legislation do not understand some Econ 101-level facts about health economics. Here are points to note.

(1) The free market does not work for health care.

A successful free market requires consumers to be able to choose and evaluate their own goods and services. But with health care:

(a) Consumers cannot judge the need for the goods and services.

(b) Consumers cannot judge the quality of the goods and services.

(c) The cost of health care has many other economic peculiarities that even experts do not understand very well. For example, comprehensive care may be cheaper than catastrophic care.

On the other hand, there is increasing thought in the medical community that many people are getting too much health care. Breast cancer and prostate cancer, for instance, are thought to be overdiagnosed — more harm comes from treating false positives than from failing to treat asymptomatic slow-growing cancers. There's an overall feeling that people with no bothersome symptoms and no known serious conditions are getting more medical care than they need. (This is some people's opinion; it is not necessarily mine; I am not an expert. The point is, neither are you.)

(2) Conventional insurance does not work for health care.

(a) Insurance companies have incentives that are not in the public interest. They benefit economically from cherry-picking people who don't have pre-existing conditions (even using genetic testing for this) and insuring only the healthy. But that is not the purpose of health insurance.

(b) Health insurance is needlessly tied to employment because of a loophole in World War II wage controls. There is no reason to expect employers to provide health insurance today. (It just makes trouble when people change jobs.) But it's written into Obamacare.

(3) Health insurance involves moral issues that other insurance doesn't.

(a) A compassionate society does not leave people to die just because their medical treatment is expensive, though available.

(b) A compassionate society does not engage in Nazi-style eugenics, trying to eliminate the people with hereditary risks.

With any other kind of insurance, if a building is too much of a firetrap or a business venture is too risky, then instead of getting insurance, you can tear down the building or cancel the business venture. But we don't treat people that way — I hope!

(4) Whatever worked in 1950 won't work today.

The reason is simple. Today, everyone faces some risk of needing an extremely expensive life-saving treatment.

I am not talking about futile overtreatment of the dying elderly (though some people try to sidetrack the discussion in that direction). I'm talking about heart bypasses, kidney transpants, etc., that give people decades of productive life, but cost more than ten houses.

In 1950 you almost didn't need health insurance at all. These life-saving treatments had not been invented. If you had a serious heart attack or kidney failure, you just had to die. Even the harms of tobacco were not appreciated because people just weren't living long enough to experience them. Progress in public health in those days meant keeping children from getting infectious diseases. Making it to age 65 was considered an accomplishment.

So what should we do?

I don't have a ready-made solution, but I think the key is going to be to pool the entire population together and eliminate cherry-picking. Yes, that means you will pay for other people's health care. Let me say this very loudly:


When you buy fire insurance, you're paying to rebuild other people's houses, not just your own. Same for almost any other kind of insurance. Some people don't realize this! They think they are just making a bet (somehow) that their own house won't burn down, and that's all there is to it. No — insurance is the pooling of risk among many people.

I tend to favor a Dutch-style must-have must-carry private insurance system, where you are enrolled in private insurance as a baby and the insurer has to keep you for the rest of your life, no matter what happens. But I am also intrigued by the possibility of opening up Medicare to the whole population, perhaps at higher prices than the elderly pay, but at prices that aren't exorbitant and don't depend on your condition. Medicare has already been implemented, and its interaction with private supplemental insurance and private health care providers is well worked out.


Busy times

The unprecedented 8-day hiatus in the Daily Notebook gives you some indication how busy we've been. On the 17th, Melody had her hip joint opened up and cleaned out and was sent home with a Wound VAC attached, so that any bacteria swimming in her bodily fluids near the wound will find themselves washed away.

Also, every morning, I give her an IV antibiotic. This will go on until August 28.

During her visit, Cathy did some major cleaning up of the flowerbeds and gardens (which were full of unwanted small trees, mostly redbuds), and we have just today (the 25th) had the cuttings hauled off (two pickup truck loads). I will continue the efforts using my pole saw and pole pruner.

She also did a lot of cleaning up of the house, especially her room and the living room, and a load of donations is about to go to Habitat for Humanity.

What I'm behind with is work, so I'm going to be programming, not writing Notebook entries, for the next few days. But first...


Today is our 35th anniversary. Melody, thank you for everything!


While cleaning up a garden area in the back yard the other day, I encountered a 3-foot copperhead snake. This may be Georgia's most common snake, and is poisonous, so I set out to kill it with a shovel, but it got away.

I was rather sad to have (as I thought) killed an animal that only wanted to get away and leave me alone, but I couldn't leave it for the dog or the grandchildren to find. The curse of Genesis 3:14-15 came to mind: in this fallen world, humans and (some) snakes are mortal enemies even though we didn't set out to be.

Today (the 25th) we had Byram Wildlife Removal come to search for snakes and also dig up two big underground yellow jacket nests.

Mr. Byram caught the snake, alive, and it didn't even have a wound on it. Apparently, when I thought I was chopping it with a shovel, it was so effectively tangled in some roots that I was only chopping roots. The snake will be relocated, alive, in a remote forest where copperheads are welcome.

It is the same snake. Note the irregularities in some of the saddle-shaped markings, especially the 10th one.


"You have such an expensive hobby..."

I never know how to respond when someone sees my astronomy equipment (like the setup shown below) and says, "You have such an expensive hobby!"

Are they admiring the advanced equipment, admiring my supposed wealth, or trying to say they could never afford to do astronomy?

The fact is, my eclipse equipment cost maybe 1/10 as much as the car I'll be transporting it in, which is a rather cheap car. My astronomy hobby is less expensive than any kind of boat or motorcycle, or going to Florida every year, or trading cars even slightly more often than I do.

It's true that a good telescope and mount cost a couple of thousand dollars. But that's a one-time expense. The telescope doesn't eat. It doesn't consume supplies and maintenance. One of my telescopes has been in regular use for 37 years. It cost $750 back then, so, adjusting for inflation, it has cost me about a dollar a week. That's less than I spend on vending-machine snacks.


Latest granddaughter

With Melody's inability to travel, we actually had not yet met our newest granddaughter, Emily Elizabeth Barrett, who is a few days short of one year old. To remedy this, Cathy and Emily flew in on the 14th and are here for a long weekend. Together Cathy and Sharon cooked pasta bolognese, and we had dinner with guests at the dining table (nephew Aaron Paul and his wife Emily) for the first time in several years.

Paradoxically, even though she's facing surgery, Melody is in better physical condition than she has been in a long time. She goes to the hospital on Monday. We appreciate everyone's prayers and best wishes.


How I am going to photograph the eclipse

Today (July 15) I did a "dry run" with my setup for photographing the eclipse. It is the right time of day, we have good weather, and there is a sunspot, enabling me to check the sharpness of the pictures. (A spotless round sun looks about the same whether it is critically sharp or not.)

First, note that I am more interested in seeing the eclipse than photographing it. I am only going to devote 1/4 of totality to photography. If I don't have good pictures by then, I'll stop trying. Most of the time I want to just look, to see the things pictures don't show very well.

Second, no telescope is involved. This is a camera with a telephoto lens. The telescope mount will make it easier for me to keep it aimed at the sun during the whole eclipse, but a plain camera tripod would work as well.

Here's the gear:

From top to bottom:

  • Canon 300-mm f/4 telephoto lens in tripod collar.
  • Short ADM dovetail to hold the tripod collar to the mount.
  • (Not visible:) Thousand Oaks Solarlite filter, for partial phases, to be removed for totality.
  • Canon 60Da camera body.
  • Cable release (including a timer).
  • Celestron AVX mount head.
  • Small iOptron counterweight (because Celestron's counterweight is too heavy to balance this camera and lens).
  • Tripod.
  • 12-volt battery pack.

One detail: Compared to what you see here, the camera and lens will be rotated 90 degrees counterclockwise in the tripod collar so that the pictures will extend east-west rather than north-south. The corona is likely to extend farther east-west, and tracking errors in that direction are more likely.

The exposures I'm going to use are:

ISO 200, f/10, 1/2000 second
ISO 800, f/10, 1/15 second ± 2 stops

The exposures in the test run were slightly different. The lens is being used at f/10 rather than wide open in order to make it more forgiving of focusing errors.

I will use Canon automatic bracketing (AEB) so that all I have to do is press the button 3 times and I get 3 exposures over a range of ± 2 stops. During totality, all I will have to do is press the button three times, then maybe do the same thing again once or twice.

Here is a picture from the practice run, first the whole field and then the center, showing that the sun image is reasonably sharp. If I were going for higher quality, I could stack several images, but this is good enough.


Melody's update

As Melody continues to recover from revision (reworking) of an infected hip replacement, first let me give you the good news:

She can walk with a walking stick.

The other day, she cooked for the first time in more than a year. She made corn pie, which is cornbread with corn grains and other goodies in it.

And tonight (July 12) we went out to dinner for the first time in more than a year. We went to Fatz Café (Athens) and had grilled salmon.

But there's bad news. The infection doesn't seem to be gone, and on short notice she is going to have another operation to clean out the hip joint prosthesis and replace parts of it. That will be Monday. Your prayers are appreciated.

Jessica the box turtle returns for a visit

About 20 years ago, we kept box turtles as pets, not realizing that the laws of Georgia did not permit it. Over the years, a few of them escaped. One of the escapees was a young female box turtle with unusually dark coloration which we had named Jessica because she was given to us by a neighborhood boy named Jesse.

Yesterday (July 12), I saw a box turtle in the side yard and took a picture. When I came back in a few minutes, the turtle had vanished, but I saw several unfinished nests in the soil, along with a couple of spots that might be a finished nest. (Box turtle nests are holes in the ground, well disguised, and in the late autumn the baby turtles dig their way out.) Aha, I thought, we have a nesting female.

I sent Cathy the picture, and she confirmed that this is Jessica. (It's hard to see in the picture, but she has deep red eyes rather than the usual yellow.) She has probably been living in the wooded northwest corner of our yard the whole time. We'll keep our eyes open for her, and for her babies.

The lifespan of a box turtle is slightly longer than that of a human being, and this one looks the right age to have been adolescent 20 years ago.

Cathy points out the distinctive shell pattern, which looks almost like a set of asterisks. (I hadn't noticed it because box turtles in Valdosta, where I grew up, often looked like that, but it's not common here.) We think Jessica is a crossbreed of Terrapene carolina carolina with Terrapene carolina bauri; our recollection is that the boy who gave her to us had brought her up from farther south. Click here to see what box turtles in North Georgia more commonly look like — more like the shell of a true tortoise.

[Further update:] Later the same night, I stepped out to look briefly at the stars and heard something like a pig snorting. It turned out to be an armadillo, right where I had found Jessica. Fortunately it did not dig up the nests. As I shined a flashlight on it, it slowly ambled across the back yard, as if it weren't afraid of me at all. This is the first armadillo I've seen in our yard, though they have been common as nearby roadkill for several years.


The digital Dark Ages

If you've studied history, you know that it is relatively hard to find out what was going on in Europe between about 500 and 1000 A.D. Compared to earlier and later periods, not a lot of records survive. Those are the Dark Ages, so called not because they were dark, but because we can't see into them.

In the same way, I'm afraid scholarly research published between 1980 and 2000 has become too hard to find. It's not old enough to be mentioned frequently in later publications, and not new enough to be available in digital form on line (most libraries' digital collections start around 1995 to 2000).

Since the digital Dark Ages span the first 20 years of my academic career, I'm concerned. Libraries need to digitize and index publications back to at least 1950 as the opportunity arises.


How I fixed Chrome when it was slow

I use Google Chrome for web browsing and use my Google account to synchronize the bookmarks and settings between different computers, both Windows and Linux systems.

On one laptop, an Asus UX32A, Chrome had gotten slow, especially when browsing sites that load many ads or other components separately, such as www.cnn.com. It was taking 2 minutes to load CNN's main web page, as opposed to 15 seconds with Microsoft Edge.

Why was only one laptop slow? Its disk was over 75% full, which spurred Chrome to cut back the space it was using for the cache. I don't know if 75% is the threshold; what I know is that freeing up some disk space made a big difference. To learn more about Chrome's cache, see this link. In Chrome, type chrome://net-internals/#httpCache and look at "Max size," which should be about 300 million bytes.

To free up disk space on your Windows 10 system, in File Explorer choose This PC, right-click on drive C, Properties, Disk Cleanup, Clean Up System Files. I had about 40 GB of previous Windows versions, which I gladly tossed. (Windows 8.0 no more!)

I did some other things that also improved performance:

  • Got rid of the obsolete OneWindow extension in Chrome, which I used to need in order to view some badly designed web pages. (OneWindow turns pop-up windows into pop-up tabs. If you need it, keep it.) In Chrome, click More Tools, Extensions.
  • Forbade cnn.com and a few other sites from using cookies. (This is a good thing to do if you regularly visit a site that loads slowly because it's covered with ads.) In Chrome, click Settings, scroll all the way down, click Advanced, scroll up to Content Settings, Cookies, Block.
  • Blocked Adobe Flash (Macromedia Flash), which is obsolete and was crash-prone on some sites. That's also in Content Settings, Flash.

Slightly more retired

Very alert readers will note that the title "Adjunct Professor of Computer Science" has disappeared from the masthead of the Daily Notebook.

I've decided to give up that title (probably retroactive to July 1, if you look at the personnel records), since I don't really need it for any privileges, and it does not accurately describe any work I'm currently doing.

It doesn't make a lot of sense to have a faculty title and an adjunct title at the same university, anyhow. It is a historical artifact, dating from when the Institute for Artificial Intelligence was not part of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and its one and only faculty member (me) was therefore not part of the College faculty.


Short notes

 Happy 150th, neighbours to the north!

Other writing projects are taking the bulk of my time, and the Daily Notebook may languish this month while I get other things done. But it won't stop completely.

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