Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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1970s music: What we had no way to know
USB: It's your laptop, not your equipment
Advice for software developers, writers, musicians...
California Nebula
Flaming Star Nebula (IC 405), IC 410, M38
Horsehead Nebula, Orion Nebula
Pleiades (M45)
M35 and NGC 2158
Comet Leonard C/2021 A1
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End of a strange year


2021 is ending with a series of warm, rainy days. By some measures, it may be the worst year the United States has had in decades, with the combination of the COVID pandemic and political lunacy, yet many of us are prospering. On the positive side, FormFree is doing well, Cathy and Nathaniel have a new house and have given us a new grandchild, we are at low risk of severe COVID thanks to vaccination, and most activities are proceeding more or less normally, though our lifestyle involves much less contact with other people and much less travel than it normally would.

On the negative side, we've now had nearly two years of the COVID pandemic, and I spent about three months (September-November) sick though not incapacitated with bronchitis that may have involved the COVID virus, though it wasn't detected at the time. (Working a full schedule but without extra energy for anything else; that took a lot of the wind out of my sails.) Just lately the COVID infection rate has skyrocketed, though this spike can't last long. What's behind it is the fact that the omicron variant can infect vaccinated people, though it rarely makes them seriously ill; and it appears we now have a voluntary pestilence, where people who refuse to get vaccinated can still die if they want to, and many of them do.

Georgia DPH; national graph is similar.

The riot at the Capitol last January 6 is still one of our main concerns, especially with reports that there are plans to dispute all future elections (that the Republicans lose) the same way (i.e., without evidence), and that something like a third of Republicans still think (without evidence) that "the election was stolen." I think part of what this statistic tells us is that people who are not loony no longer call themselves Republicans; we now have a lot of what might be called displaced conservatives (including me), with moderately conservative political views and no desire to belong to a delusional cult.

This is the first year since perhaps 1865 that I and many other knowledgeable people can no longer confidently describe the United States as an exceptionally stable republic. We're holding up OK, but we've faced political hazards we never thought possible.

By Tyler Merbler; from USA - DSC09254-2, CC BY 2.0, Link

What is different nowadays is that loony talk is not being shoved at me. It still exists on extremist media outlets, but my Facebook acquaintances are no longer saying "ya gotta watch this video." Partly because I blocked a good many people, including, sadly, a couple of old friends, in order not to hear their ranting!

People are returning to reality as (1) they get back into the workplace and have to associate with people who don't share their delusions; (2) their friends die of COVID (some of mine did back in January); (3) the insurrectionists are investigated and prosecuted by law enforcement (hundreds by now, many more coming); (4) as more evidence comes out, it is impossible to continue believing that the insurrection was fake or largely misreported, and when televised Congressional hearings start in a few weeks, people will be able to see something on TV other than just news reportage. Televised hearings are what made Watergate have its consequences, and this is a much more serious incident than Watergate.

I end the year praying for the health of our people and of our system of government.



Happy holidays!

A stern warning to my fellow Christians: Do not pretend to be "offended" when people wish you Happy Holidays.

They're not "taking Christ out of Christmas." They're wishing you well for more than one holiday: Thanksgiving, Hanukkah (which Jesus celebrated), Christmas, New Year's, Epiphany, and maybe some others.

And they're being polite to their non-Christian neighbors. There are people among us who are not Christians. We are not supposed to stomp on them.

People are telling you to object to "Happy Holidays."

That's manipulation. They want you to be rude to people who wish you well.

You do not display the spirit of Christ by saying "No, no, don't say Happy Holidays to me, only Merry Christmas." You look like an intolerant fool. That is what you have been maneuvered into.

Don't be maneuvered.

It is indeed objectionable when people, in a flurry of political correctness, won't call Christmas by its right name. But that is rare and has largely blown over. It's not what "Happy Holidays" is all about.


Advice for software developers,
writers, artists, and musicians

Some of the best advice I've ever heard for software developers probably also applies to writers, artists, and musicians.

That advice is: What you are creating occupies nearly your whole mind and life right now. It must not demand the whole mind and life of the users (the audience). Quite the opposite.

That is, you're spending months creating something elaborate. The software user should not have to spend months learning all the arbitrary details you've created. Your job is to work hard so the user doesn't have to.

The same goes for writing about other things. It was much harder work to write The Lord of the Rings than it is to read it. And that's why it's great! Tolkien uses Middle-Earth as the setting of a story, not as a thing you are required to study and master.

And for the other arts. Musicians and painters: We hear or see what you actually deliver to us. We shouldn't have to seek out a complicated, semi-secret back story in order to "understand" it. If your work needs explaining, put it in a clear artist's satement delivered to everybody, not to the gossip mill.

All this occurred to me in the context of a couple of conversations about 1970s songs that are prima facie incomprehensible and require an unconfirmed back story (or one of several rival back stories) to make them understandable. When listening to music back then, I didn't dig for back stories and trivia. I just listened, and if I didn't enjoy a song, I'd listen to something else. That's how it should be.

Of course it's good to educate yourself about styles and genres so you can appreciate more art or music or literature, just as when using software, you should educate yourself about the concepts behind what you're doing. All that is very different from the kind of trivia I'm talking about.

Three Hallelujahs

I never resumed "Song of the Day" on facebook, but I have posted some songs of interest, with comments. Here are three.

Nov. 16 — Leonard Cohen, "Hallelujah"

Song of the day — not actually one of my personal favorites, largely because I've heard it too much, but I want to write about it.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is NOT a Christian hymn. I keep running into people (and even radio stations) who think it is. It seems to be catching on as a Christmas song.

If you want to adapt it to make a hymn, you should do so with your eyes open, knowing the entire context. For me, the best reason for not doing this is that it is already something else — a very well-crafted song in its own right — rather far from being a hymn. But there are some good adaptations out there (my friend Diane Crosby composed one).

Cohen is a secular songwriter (and is Jewish). Many of his songs are about romantic or sexual encounters (e.g., "Suzanne"), and this appears to be one of them. It is certainly about some kind of encounter with someone. "I didn't come to London just to fool you..."

People hear the Biblical words in it and assume it's a hymn. It's a song about (among other things) King David and his adultery with Bathsheba — except that for one line he seems to turn into Samson and get tied to a kitchen chair. "Hallelujah" is Hebrew for "Praise the Lord" and in this song seems to be intoned as a question or expression of doubt rather than an acclamation.

"Well, maybe there's a God above," it says. That's a reflective song, and maybe a good one — but not a hymn.

You can see the full lyrics here among other places. Read carefully. Again, I'm not saying you shouldn't like this song, only that you shouldn't mistake it for a hymn.

Dec. 19 — "Light of the Stable"

Sacred music for Sunday. "Hail, hail, to the Newborn King" a.k.a. "Light of the Stable" is a new(ish) Christmas song from 1975, which I rather like. Its lyrics are very short, which is perhaps its biggest weakness.

I am posting it here, actually, as background to the next song (below). You can see the full lyrics and other information here.

Dec. 21 — Nana Mouskouri, "Alléluia"

This song has the same tune as "Light of the Stable" but is quite different. Though it's about thanking God, this is not a hymn. By happenstance, because of when we first encountered it, it became, for me, a song of thanks after Melody's difficult heart surgery 20 years ago.

The lyrics are in French; click here to see them. (Bizarrely, several other lyrics sites give, under this title, the lyrics to completely different, unrelated songs. The ones you want start with "Merci pour l'enfant qui rit.")

Below is my rough translation, which is not singable:

Thanks for the laughing child,
For the sky that cries a few tears,
Thank you for the evening wind,
For the song of hope of a woman.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Thanks for the friend for a day
That still lives in my memory
And for these millions of loves
Of which history will not speak.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Thanks you for your eyes so clear
And for the way they sing
Thanks for you and for everything,
For chance meetings.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

Thanks for this universe
Which goes wrong but turns around,
Thanks for the life that keeps you busy
Until the last breath.
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah!

And a couple more songs

Also from things I shared on Facebook.

Dec. 22 — Bach, Toccata and Fugue in F Major

This is another Bach toccata and fugue, not the dramatic one you've heard so often. This one sounds a lot more like Bach's other work.

Dec. 26 — Dan Fogelberg, "Yule Dance"

Song of the day. Presented without comment. It's good. Listen to it.

Dan Fogelberg's Christmas album is possibly the only one by a popular non-religious performer on which I don't skip ANY of the tracks. Along with traditional songs, he has original compositions such as this.

I think part of Fogelberg's character is great respect for the audience and for the music he is performing (whether or not he composed it himself). He delivers good things for us to hear, not things chosen to cultivate his image or his fan base. He doesn't turn everything into a Fogelberg song the way Elvis turned everything into an Elvis song. He performs the music.




There are quite a few spots on the sun now. Here you can see many of them, along with some faculae (light patches, especially at lower left) and granulation.

Celestron 5, Thousand Oaks solar filter, Canon 60Da. I was going to use my Nikon D5300, but in Live View, when the field is filled with the solar disk, the screen auto-dims to make focusing impossible, because of the mistaken notion that I must be looking for bright features in the image, of which there are none. I later confirmed that the D5500 does not have this uncouth habit, and that in the D5300 it can apparently be worked around by enabling Manual Movie Settings and changing the ISO setting and/or shutter speed to get a bright image.

Why are Manual Movie Settings involved? Partly because Live View is as much for movies as for still pictures, and partly because Nikon's firmware is a bit wrongheaded here. Be sure to turn Manual Movie Settings back off if you're going to be taking exposures longer than 1/60 second, or some settings will behave annoyingly (more about that here).

Christmas came


Christmas came, and we are thankful that unlike five years ago, no hospitals or convalescent centers were involved! We used our little ceramic tree, and our main present from all of us to all of us was the new driveway.

Melody and Sharon gave me memorable surprise presents. From Melody I got a blanket that looks like a poster with declarations of love all over it — proof that in at least one case, if you take a teen-aged nerd and age him another 50 years, at least one beautiful girl his own age will really like him. (Whether any others would, I have no idea; I got the one I wanted!)

From Sharon I got a very fine set of baroque music CDs, Grand Tour, by Trio Settecento. This is four CDs of very uniform music — although many composers are represented, the performance style is quite constant, making it good music to work by. The performances are excellent.




Comet Leonard C/2021 A1

Here's the comet you've been hearing about. Actually, this comet is much less spectacular than the one we had in mid-2020, and I have not managed to see it with the unaided eye, though our friends in New Zealand are getting better views.

The comet is very close to the sun and is low on the west horizon after sunset. Tonight, to get an unobstructed horizon, I went up on top of UGA parking deck S11 (Georgia Center), where I have photographed other comets. Lights were shining on me, there was a bitter wind, and I never did catch the comet in binoculars, though I did get pictures that show it.


This is a single 2-second exposure with a Nikon D5500 (H-alpha modified) on a fixed tripod at ISO 200, with a 105-mm lens at f/2.8. (The H-alpha modification probably did not help; it picked up more red twilight; I should use an unmodified camera.)

The comet is in the center. The streaks across the bottom are an airplane trail.

The bright star at the lower left is Alpha Microscopii. If Microscopium doesn't sound like a constellation the ancient Romans would have made up, you're right — it is a patch of far-southern sky with no bright stars in it, and was named by Lacaille in the 1700s. It is south of Capricornus. It is one of several constellations that were named after scientific instruments, including also Telescopium and even Reticulum ("the net," or rather the reticle — the crosshairs or grid pattern — in an astronomer's eyepiece).


And the war isn't over

After nearly two years of pandemic, the 5th wave of COVID is starting up in Georgia. It is already much farther along in the Northeast.


The 4th wave was largely confined to unvaccinated people, but nonetheless managed to kill almost as many people as the 3rd. The 5th wave is dominated by the new Omicron mutation of the virus and will probably infect a good many vaccinated people but not make them severely ill. That means the vaccine won't keep it from spreading, and the only way for a person to be protected is to actually, personally, be vaccinated.

I am hearing a great deal less foolishness publicly nowadays, but there are still too many people in this war on the side of the virus. They won't get vaccinated, they won't wear masks, and if you ask them why, they'll quote random foolish gossip that they themselves probably don't sincerely believe. My words to them: You can't handle the truth, can you?

(People with serious and well-thought-out objections to the vaccines should be willing to take stronger than normal precautions of other kinds — wearing masks, frequent testing, more limits on gatherings. It is one thing to object to a vaccine; it is another to promote a disease!)

Life is a strange mix of restriction and normalcy. There's little or nothing we actually can't do. Restaurants are open, schools are open, UGA is open (with a remarkably low COVID infection rate), but nonetheless, to limit our total risk, we spend more time at home and are wary of crowded places and especially of crowds of strangers.

I think UGA achieves its unusual level of safety by being a vaccinated community. If you live on campus, you won't have contact with many unvaccinated people during the course of your day. Out in the town, the proportion of obstinate unvaccinated, non-mask-wearing people is much larger.

What has happened to me is that, for the first time since high school or earlier, I've become accustomed to spending several days each week almost entirely at home. The instinct to get out and do things every day — firmly established when my family moved to Athens and I entered college, so that for the first time my home was not my normal hangout — has been overruled.

I miss contact with people. Thankfully, using social media I have lots of conversations with friends every day. But it's not quite the same as seeing people in context, in space and time. Simply opening a door for someone and being thanked for it, when UGA started to reopen, was a new and gratifying experience, part of what I'd been missing and still miss.


Pleiades, M35, NGC 6128, and the moon

This was meant to be an equipment test (on the evening of the 12th), but the pictures came out presentable, so I'll show them to you.

I wanted to see if I could guide my AT65EDQ refractor (6.5 cm, f/6.5, focal length 422.5 mm) with an Svbony 30×120mm mini-guidescope. The answer is yes; the ratio of focal lengths is only 3.5, well under the recommended maximum of 5 or maybe more; but I don't think it would be sufficient for a larger telescope. Here's a crude snapshot of the equipment, taken just for record-keeping purposes; the mount is an iOptron GEM45, the guide camera a ZWO ASI120MM-S connected with a USB 2 (not 3) cable running through the mount head (white and red cables in the picture), and the imaging camera, an H-alpha-modified Nikon D5500. The gibbous moon was in the sky.


(As best I can find out, "Svbony" is pronounced "S. V. Bony" by the U.S. distributor. Apparently, someone in the Far East made up a name without quite realizing how unpronounceable it would be in English. Svbony products are also sold under other names at higher prices.)

The guiding went well. Here is a stack of 17 2-minute exposures of the Pleiades (in moonlight):


Here's a stack of 12 2-minute exposures of the star clusters M35 (nearer to us) and NGC 2158 (much farther away):


The guiding was so good that I used 100% of the exposures taken. Of course, the quality of the pictures is degraded by the moonlight, which obscured faint details, particularly in the nebulosity around the Pleiades.

Then, to see how sharp this telescope would be, I took a picture of the moon (a single 1/640-second exposure, subsequently sharpened in Photoshop). I think this will do, although the telescope is the smallest that will photograph the moon well. A focal length around 800 mm would be better.



The California Nebula

Serious astrophotography here is resuming, I hope. Readers may recall that we had a long spell of cloudy weather in the summer, and then I got bronchitis in early September and took three months to completely recover. (COVID not involved.) On the evening of the 8th I finally had time, energy, and reasonably suitable weather all at once. Here's the result...


Specifically, I was trying an Orion SkyGlow filter mounted inside my SharpStar Askar 200-mm f/4 telephoto lens. Good news: I didn't see any stray reflections. The purpose of the filter is to reduce the total glow of Athens' city lights by blocking some wavelengths at which the nebulae do not emit light, but the streetlights do.

This is the California Nebula, so called because it looks like a map of California. Stack of 20 2-minute exposures, Askar 200-mm f/4 lens with Orion SkyGlow filter, Nikon D5500 (H-alpha modified) at ISO 200, Celestron AVX mount with PEC and no guiding corrections. This was taken in my (newly repaved) driveway in Athens, Georgia.

The Flaming Star and nebulae in Auriga


The star in the red cloud at the right is AE Aurigae, which formed in the Orion Nebula but has subsequently traveled quite a distance across the sky and has run into a cloud of hydrogen gas unrelated to its formation. Same equipment and technique as the preceding picture (above).

A walk across southern Orion


Finally, here you see an expanse from the Horsehead Nebula (notch in the red streak at the upper left) to the great Orion Nebula at the lower right. I know this picture is too big for your browser; enjoy scrolling across it. Same equipment and techniques as the 2 preceding pictures (above).


1970s music: What we didn't and couldn't know

[Comments added in smaller type.] [And extended.]

One big difference between listening to 1970s music in the 1970s, and listening to it now, is that back then, we didn't have the Internet on which to look up the stories behind songs, the exact lyrics, or even the meanings of words.

Back then, if you didn't know what was behind a song, and the record company didn't put it on the liner notes, you were just out of luck. Intelligent, well-informed people didn't have this information because there was nowhere to get it. There were magazine articles and interviews, but what were the chances you'd stumble on the thing you were curious about? Most of us didn't even try, since there was far too much new music coming out all the time. We just heard songs on the radio and liked them or not.

I've been asking people my age who listened to the Doobie Brothers whether they knew at the time that "doobie" referred to marijuana. Maybe half didn't. Some people gave up on them in disgust when they found out what the name meant. How were we supposed to know? Most of us didn't smoke marijuana and seldom heard people talking about it. And the Doobie Brothers didn't sing about marijuana, so there was nothing to raise our suspicion. "Doobie" looked like a nonsense word that might mean anything, or nothing. It was not in dictionaries then, though it is now.

I think the Doobie Brothers benefited from this situation, since if their name had been understood as Marijuana Brothers, a good many radio stations, department-store record departments, and ordinary people would have shunned them. Remember, in the 1970s, most of us were not hippies or potheads, even if we would let such people entertain us. It's similar to the way the song from Midnight Cowboy was more popular because people didn't know what the movie was about.

Then there were songs that needed back stories to explain them. All too often, by word of mouth and even in published commentary, we got endless shaggy-dog stories about how a song "really meant" something other than what it seemed to say, but no, someone else said it "really really meant" something else entirely. Some musicians encouraged this by refusing to say what their own lyrics meant (e.g., "Stairway to Heaven"), or, in the style of modernist poets, threw incomplete lyrics at the audience for the hearers to assemble and interpret. The more sensible among us ignored the gossip and speculation and listened to what we actually heard.

A few songs did have hidden political messages (or claimed to), but many more were just obscure. One of my quarrels with mid-century culture (modernist poetry and art, and, slightly later, 1970s music and cinema) was that obscurity was often passed off as sophistication. If something's hard to understand, it must be deep, right? No; maybe someone just communicated poorly or didn't quite finish composing the lyrics.

A striking example of failure to communicate (in a song of a different type) is the Christmas song "Do You Hear What I Hear," which, believe it or not, supposedly alludes to the Cuban missile crisis — the "star with a tail as big as a kite" is supposed to be a bomb. To which I reply: "Having something in your mind is not the same as communicating it. You didn't actually put even a shred of your hidden message into the song, and the audience didn't get it because it wasn't there."

Some songs were seldom understood because they required a back story that was not widely known. An example is Loggins & Messina's "Whiskey." It is actually about a place in Hollywood where rock musicians launched their careers, and its message is that the music establishment at the time would not tolerate soft rock (which Loggins & Messina sang). The song doesn't actually refer to drinking at all. But who knew? For most, it was just a puzzling song.

Since this one decodes perfectly once you have the key, I don't classify it as poor communication. It is like a roman à clef, in this case a message to other musicians and music aficionados who can recognize a nickname. Once you do, it's perfectly clear.

New driveway!


"Instead of a diamond, this Christmas I'm giving you a much larger stone, but it's artificial," I said to Melody. Namely a new concrete driveway. The old one was badly worn and broken up.

In a couple of days we'll be allowed to drive on it.

USB problem: The laptop, not the telescope mount!
iOptron Commander cannot find any supported iOptron devices

Yesterday, my iOptron GEM45 suddenly started refusing to connect to the computer from which I control it — at least most of the time. Occasionally I would get a good connection, but most of the time, iOptron Commander gave me this ominous message:


Occasionally Windows gave me something even worse:


The received wisdom is to try a better USB cable, so I did. No progress. Then I tried a different laptop and, voilà, everything worked fine. Back to the first laptop, and the problem came back.

Updating some drivers on the first laptop didn't cure the problem either, though they did make a few other things in Device Manager look neater. Whether there was any improvement in performance, I don't know.

Then it occurred to me to connect the external power supply to the laptop, as I usually do when using it at the telescope. Voilà autre fois, the problem was cured.

Fiddling with the power-saving settings on the laptop — changing the battery-powered mode to "high performance" — also appears to have given me reliable connections, though I haven't tested it thoroughly. I suspect this had been set until recently, and a Windows update may have put it back to default.

But I decided that even if I can't fix it, I can document it. So:


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