Michael A. Covington    Michael A. Covington, Ph.D.
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Daily Notebook

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What is news?
The recorded-lecture problem
Don't eat the garbage
50th anniversary of my first day at UGA
100th birthday of Charles G. Covington
How to load a dishwasher
Cygnus (wide field)
Cygnus (medium wide field)
Veil Nebula
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Daddy Homemaker's Guide to the Dishwasher

Now that Melody and Sharon are much more mobile, I've almost retired completely from my job as family dishwasher-loader, but a few years ago I got a lot of experience. I've also seen other people's attempts to load dishwashers and have marvelled at how they must think the machine works. So before I give up dishwasher loading completely (hah!), I want to record for posterity some sage advice.

General principles for packing anything, equally applicable to cars and moving vans and computer memories, not just dishwashers:

  • Place the big items first. Including big items that you know are coming, even if they're not there yet.
  • Put everything in the least valuable space that will hold it. By "valuable" I mean "likely to be needed or useful for something else." This is actually a principle that pervades economics, not just home economics.

Some dishwasher-specific guidelines:

  • The dishes must not touch. Water has to get between them! Not only that, but dishes banging against each other will break.
  • Spoons must not nest. That's why cutlery baskets are so divided up. Don't put two spoons of the same size in the same compartment with the same end up. Again, water has to get between them.
  • Dishwashers don't eat. If you're not sure whether something will come off a dish, give it a rinse beforehand. Don't expect the dishwasher to consume lots of food.

Fun fact: Your dishwasher empties into your garbage disposal, above the grinder. If it has to discharge a lot of food, you might want to run the garbage disposal before the food dries and hardens.

One last guideline: Go ahead and run it. Don't let everything harden overnight in case you need to add one more dish in the morning. And don't try too hard to fit just one more thing in.

Modern dishwashers sense whether the rinse water is clear. That way, they use enough water to wash what is actually in them. A lightly loaded dishwasher may use considerably less water than an overstuffed one.


Cygnus, medium-wide field

Some of the astrophotography that I do these days is to confirm that my older equipment still works. This view of Cygnus was taken in my driveway using my ultra-portable setup, iOptron SkyTracker (original model), Canon 60Da, and Sigma 105-mm f/2.8 lens at f/4. This is a stack of 71 one-minute exposures at ISO 640. This picture from September 17 is the central part of the field that I photographed with a shorter lens the other day.


Western Veil Nebula

Continuing the theme of "does the portable equipment still work?" this is the western and central part of the Veil Nebula, a supernova remnant in Cygnus, taken with my AVX mount, Askar 200-mm f/4 lens, Orion SkyGlow broadband filter, and Canon 60Da; a stack of 78 1-minute exposures at ISO 640.


If I'd been a little more alert I would have remembered to turn on the mount's PEC and to expose at ISO 1600 (and/or expose for 2 minutes) to make up for the filter. But I got a good picture anyway. This was in my driveway. I hope to take the same equipment to Deerlick some time soon.


Centennial, Charles Gordon Covington, 1923-1966

Photo by Golden Studio, Valdosta, 1966; colorized by Melody Covington, 2007

Today is my father's 100th birthday. He died all too soon, nearly 57 years ago, when I was just 9. Here I want to preserve some information about him for his descendants.

When my father was born, his parents, Charles Covington (1898-1972) and Nellie Aaron Covington (1902-1976), lived in Millen, Georgia, where the elder Charles worked as a blacksmith. They married around 1920 and had a son, Charles Gordon, called "Gordon" at home, and then a daughter, Vera Covington Lambert.

As a child I was shown where they had lived in town, but I do not know the location; it may be on the 1920 or 1930 Census. I remember a long, fairly straight street with many wooden houses, similar to each other, side by side, maybe mill houses.

My understanding is that during the Great Depression they took up farming, moving south of Millen to Four Points near the Aaron family place and building this house, which is where I visited my grandparents as a child:

Photo by Michael A. Covington, 1976.

The Covington house is no longer standing but has been replaced by a new house whose address is 5 Lans Lane, Millen, Georgia, on a country road roughly north of Elam Baptist Church (Four Points). My grandfather's garage, c. 1964, apparently survives; latitude 32.6921749, longitude -81.9918713 (WGS-84).

The Aaron house is no longer standing, but a palm tree near the road that was in its front yard is recognizable; it is on the north side of Elam-Garfield Road just past McClung Road, about half a mile west of Elam Baptist Church, latitude 32.669460, longitude -82.011047 (WGS-84).

After high school, my father worked briefly for Greyhound Bus Lines in Millen (I know this only because it was mentioned in an Army newsletter that I got hold of) and then served as a tailgunner in the 303rd Bombardment Group, 8th Air Force, which was then part of the U.S. Army and is now honored at the museum in Pooler near Savannah. The 303rd's history has now been written up in some detail. My father won a Distinguished Flying Cross by flying 25 very dangerous missions, and then flew a 26th one, was shot down, and was sent stateside to recover from shrapnel wounds. He came out all right.


We have a Distinguished Flying Cross on display next to his picture in our living room, but it is a replacement. (Not ordered through the military, but simply found by me in a flea market in a foreign country; I snapped it up.) His original medal was lost. Dad was so sick of war that he gave the original medal to my sister and me to play with, when we were very young, without telling us what it was; we assumed it was something obsolete that he no longer needed, and that was probably how he saw it, too. He never talked about his military adventures (except a bit about aircraft) and never encouraged me to play soldier.

Returning to civilian life, he worked in law enforcement, first for the state and then for the Treasury. In the fall of 1946 he was working in Moultrie, Georgia; there he met my mother, Hazel Jeannette Roberts, and married her on December 26.

There ensued many happy years together. The Treasury transferred my father repeatedly from one office to another. So my parents moved to Albany, then to Valdosta (where I was born), then Moultrie (just before my sister was born), then Columbus, then Moultrie again (where I had very good years of kindergarten and elementary school), then Valdosta again.

For me, Dad was first and foremost an encourager, scrambling to learn about science and technology so that he could help me pursue my interests. (We were both very keen on electronics when I was in third and fourth grades, 1964-66. He said I was "the brains of the outfit.") Like many ex-soldiers, he had learned in the Army that he could apply his mind to new things without waiting for special training. He was a lifelong learner, taking a correpondence course in law (by fits and starts) in the mid-1960s in order to better equip himself for his work, and also starting a sideline building houses, including two that we lived in, 1103 and 1113 Lake Drive in Valdosta.

That happy time ended all too soon. He went out on patrol one Sunday night and didn't come back. He is now honored in the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington.

Without going into details, let me just say that this is why I absolutely despise all forms of organized crime, including smuggling and drug dealing. (It's not the dangerousness of their goods; it's their tactics.) And I urge you not to pay attention to a highly fictionalized book called The Thin Gray Line, by T. A. Powell, which claims to tell the story of my father's murder, but does not fit the known facts, and makes unfounded accusations against numerous identifiable people.

In memory of my father I invite you to listen to what he said was his favorite song, Glenn Miller's "Sunrise Serenade." His collection of records did not include this song, so I only came across this song many years later, when online music became available. Enjoy.


And may his memory be eternal.


50th anniversary of my first day at UGA

September 19, 1973, my first day as a University of Georgia student, was one of the most formative days of my life. To commemmorate its semicentennial, I did today what I had been planning for years — I revisited places on the campus that were important that first day.

Some of my earlier writings mistakenly say the first day of classes was September 18. I checked; it was the 19th.

The previous day, the trip to Australia had ended, and I had flown into Athens in the evening. My mother and sister meanwhile had moved from Valdosta to Athens, so I came home to a new house very similar to the old one — they had even unpacked and reconstructed my room. I deeply appreciate the sacrifices that they made to move to Athens. It wasn't just for me to go to college; Mama had other reasons for wanting to get away from town where my father had died, and both she and my sister ended up benefiting from the move more than they expected.

For me, becoming part of the University was like coming home for the first time. It was about affirming my right to develop my God-given talents. No longer would people give me funny looks for being serious about my studies or for believing in something greater than myself. Or if they did, they were greatly outnumbered by those who would give them funny looks for doing so. I was glad to become part of a great institution that was devoted to developing the human intellect and putting it to good use.

This doesn't mean I liked everything about the University of Georgia, of course. There were a lot of people I didn't have anything in common with. But the main thing is, they didn't own the place. The students who came just to party had a certain respect for the serious students; they were, after all, trying to borrow respectability from us. Nobody at UGA tried to claim that being scholarly was inherently abnormal or undesirable — a common theme in the small-town life I had experienced until then.

When I did get encouragement in Valdosta — and plenty of people did give it — it was with the implication that "you're way out of our league," that I was the only something in town and they should not be expected to understand me — that I was headed for some exotic world far away.

At UGA I hoped to be able to develop my talents without standing out so much, in a place where other talented people were also thriving and could understand what I was up to. I did manage to stay out of the limelight for a couple of years, but eventually graduated as co-valedictorian. Still, I was very glad to be surrounded by other talented and hard-working people who did not consider me totally different from themselves.

That day in 1973 started when Mama dropped me off on Baldwin Street for my first class. Here's how Baldwin street looks today:


The Fine Arts (music and drama) building on the right has a Jean Charlot mural which is still worth a visit. But I was headed across the street, to the new wing of Park Hall:


Here is a better view of Park Hall, which houses the Departments of English and Classics.


On the fire door between the old and new parts, there was a helpful sign that said "New Wing." Someone had pencilled in, "For old birds." Fair enough for the Department of Classics, I recall thinking.

The class was Greek 201, using the Loyola University textbooks to begin with Homeric rather than Attic Greek. I already knew a fair bit of Koiné and Attic Greek from self-study in high school, and that gave me a head start. Here, to the best of my recollection, is approximately where the class met, on the ground floor (today it is the Writing Center):


The instructor was James Wagner Alexander, a legend in his own time, now honored by a reading room in Park Hall which was a classroom where I took some courses in the mid-1970s:


Next I was off to Baldwin Hall for a political science class:


The class was general honors political science, and the instructor was Keith Billingsley, with whom I later enjoyed working as a colleague. His position was that we honors students already knew basic politics and history, and we should try to learn about the issues of the future. The assigned readings were Asimov's Foundation trilogy, Heinlein's Revolt in 2100, and a book of readings called Futures: Conditional. Nonetheless, I did a term paper on a traditional political topic (the Electoral College) because I wanted to learn how to do library research in that area.

(Baldwin Hall also happens to be the first UGA building I ever set foot in, because in 1963, my uncle, distinguished educator Ira E. Aaron, and his colleagues had me there to study how I had learned to read as toddler, and to make recommendations for my education.)

I had lunch at the Bulldog Room (snack bar), whose main entrance was covered when Memorial Hall added an elevator shaft in the 1980s or 1990s:


Of course there is now a new Bulldog Café across the street in the Tate Student Center.

I can't remember if I actually got into the super-crowded University Bookstore on the first day. Its old main entrance is in the middle of this picture; it's a small square building now used for administrative purposes, but it was then the lobby of (part of) the much larger building behind it. On the left you see the Tate Student Center, which did not exist in 1973.


I don't think my physical education class met on the first day. It was in Stegeman Hall, which has been demolished and whose site is now the parking for the Tate Student Center, seen here from the Lumpkin Street entrance:


Stegeman Hall is not to be confused with Stegeman Coliseum, which in those days had not yet been named after Stegeman, nor did it have its present glass front.

Anyhow, after lunch I headed for what was then the Boyd Graduate Research Center, the same building in which I later had an office for about a quarter century. Here's how it looks today:


The course was Honors Mathematics for Non-Science Majors, taught by a doctoral candidate (I think) named, to the best of my knowledge, David Phillips, known for his longish hair (fashionable then), his austere office with only a couple of books in it, and his large metal belt buckle that advertised Southern Comfort whiskey (perhaps in questionable taste now, but that was 1973).

The course covered basic concepts from calculus illustrated by PL/1 programming using CPS on the IBM 360/65, accessing the computer through teletypes and IBM typewriter terminals. I took to it like a fish to water. This is approximately where it met, on the third floor:


It was the smallest and most congenial of the three classes, and I can remember making friends with several classmates.

One last thing. In 1973, as now, we relied on free campus buses to get around the big campus. Here is one I rode today, plying the same route as in 1973.


The North-South and Milledge Avenue routes are approximately what they were; all the others have been changed. Also, today many of the buses are electric.

And that was how I commemorated the 50th anniversary of that great day.

Blessed art Thou who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.

This is the last of the 50th anniversaries I will be commemorating here until we get to the 50th anniversary of my meeting Melody, a couple of years from now. But we have a 100th anniversary coming up in a couple of days... stay tuned.


Don't eat the garbage

Fellow Christians:

When secular culture offers you a tainted meal, you don’t fix it by eating the garbage.

I have in mind those of you who think that because you distrust secular culture, you should adopt a whole slew of non-mainstream beliefs about everything imaginable, from vaccines to politicians, climate, moon landings, UFOs, gold, guns, militias, multi-level marketing, pyramid schemes, diets…

This ruins your Christian witness. Who will listen to you about Jesus if the next minute you’re going to give a sales pitch for a politician or a diet?

And some of those opinions are bound to be ill-informed and wrong. If you spout obvious errors about one thing, who will listen to you about anything else?

It is easy to step into beliefs completely contrary to Christian doctrine, such, for instance, “sovereign citizens,” who disobey “Render unto Caesar,” or Christians who buy into Ayn Rand’s atheism.

The underlying attitude is often, “I’m smarter than all those so-called experts.” Or at least, “I want to feel special.” That is not Christian humility. It is not even a sincere desire for the truth. Pride is a deadly sin.

You do not glorify God by setting yourself up as something you’re not. Here’s an example. I don’t know all about climate change. But when people who know far less than I do insist that they’re right – and don’t even know why mainstream experts say something different – they look like fools.

Beneath all that may be a misunderstanding of the sufficiency of Scripture. It means no church authority can overrule the Bible. It does not mean you get to make up your own religion out of whatever pops into your head when your Bible is open on the table. It certainly does not mean that what you make up in your own mind overrules all the wisdom anyone else has.


What is "news"?

[From one of my posts on LinkedIn, with additions.]

"News" (in the media) is not the same thing as knowledge. First of all, even the most innocent and well-intentioned journalist has to be biased in favor of things that are surprising — otherwise they aren't news. That is why people proposing political change make more news than people wanting things to stay the same — often misinterpreted as "left-wing bias," actually simply a bias in favor of whatever is novel.

Second, panic sells. Look at the headlines of Fox's web page and see how many of them contain emotionally charged words, often to the detriment of telling us what actually happened! To a lesser extent this is true of other news sources too. The news sources I prefer, because they stick closer to facts, are APNews, Reuters, and the BBC.

Third, lots of people want narratives, not facts. Facts are complicated and inconvenient. Life is much simpler if you believe a grand narrative that ties everything together, simply disregarding what doesn't fit it. Obviously the Glorification of Trump and the Decline and Fall of Trump are two popular narratives now — you can find news sources that hew closely to either one.

Fourth, there is a bias toward bad news. How many people tell you that hunger, worldwide, has greatly diminished in the past 50 years? But it has! That wasn't an event and so it doesn't get reported. Or even that the US economy, despite recent glitches, is still more stable than almost any economy has ever been, throughout history? And many other major countries are equally fortunate. Again, that's not an event. Lack of serious problems is not an event, so it's not "news."

And fifth, in business news particularly, there is often a false sense of urgency. "Pay attention to the thing we are pushing right now, or your life will be forever ruined!"

I get this in my own profession. Some people think knowing about AI means reading every AI-related news headline the moment it comes out. No; I know how the technology works; I am not headline-driven. Anything important takes long enough to develop that I'll hear about it in an ongoing way.

The recorded-lecture problem

I've come up with a name for another time-management challenge...

The recorded-lecture problem is what happens when it takes as much time or work to review something as to do it in the first place.

I'm alluding to the way that when cassette tape recorders became common, around 1970-75, many students (not me!) brought them to class and recorded the lectures. And then they realized — it takes a whole hour to play back a one-hour lecture! Reviewing notes is supposed to be much faster than that. That's why we take notes.

(I also tell people that you're supposed to understand the lecture during the lecture. Do your learning then and there! It's not something to be saved up and decoded later. It helps a lot if you've already done the readings.)

There are other activities that require too much ongoing time commitment simply to keep them up or to stay in the same place. Those I call instances of the recorded-lecture problem.

You'll recall that I also pinned a name on the high-school art class problem, another time management challenge. It's the problem you have when, as soon as you get into a worthwhile activity, it's time to pack up and move to something else. Art teachers are familiar with having 15 minutes to unpack and set up, 15 minutes to do something, and 15 minutes to clean up — that is, 15 minutes of real work in a 45-minute period. In computer architecture this is called task-switching overhead.


Another year...

Some thoughts on turning 66:

I don't like dividing people up into Boomers, Millennials, Generation X, Generation Z, etc. People are individuals. Stereotypes are not a good way to look at them.

I enjoy the company of people younger than me. Always have, always will.

I don't boast that my generation is oh-so-clever because we know about rotary phones and cassette tapes and cursive writing. That's a thin excuse for not knowing enough about smartphones and online banking.

Those teachers who spent hours drilling us on cursive in the late 1960s should have been teaching us to type. Anybody could have seen it coming. But there are always plenty of parents who want their children educated for the previous century. They're still at it.

At any given time, some aspects of civilization are always declining, but others are improving.

For example, I can't say that popular morality is better overall, but there has been a very welcome development. Women are no longer normally viewed as objects; sexual harassment and abuse are recognized as wrong; and date rape is finally recognized as a crime rather than as part of the game. Those are no longer "things a girl has to live with" while not letting on that they frighten her.

More broadly, there has been a very welcome recognition that rights belong to individuals, not groups, and the many are not allowed to tread on the few. To take an everyday example, smokers no longer claim the right to make everyone breathe smoke, simply because they are (or were) richer or more numerous. But in 1970 they did. Young people today rightly think that is not just wrong but bizarre.


98 minutes of Cygnus

Here some star clouds of the Milky Way in the direction of the constellation Cygnus, with both red (emission) and black (dust) nebulosity. The North America Nebula is conspicuous at the upper left.


The occasion was a "farewell cruise" for my Nikon D5500, which I've sold. I put it on the iOptron SkyTracker and took 100 exposures, of which 98 were good (two were visited by clouds). The lens was the 50-mm Aaron Memorial Lens at f/4, and I did this in my driveway, under not particularly good conditions.



Things I have said recently on LinkedIn:

Human rights come from being human, not from being statistically equal to some other group of humans.

Openness is not a substitute for the rest of ethics.

Nor are data scientists ethics experts. A company's AI ethics team needs to be multidisciplinary.

One of the lessons of Hurricane Idalia is that we are going to need to think about hardship caused by lack of electricity or Internet connections.

I've been following social media from my birthplace, Valdosta, Georgia, which was hard hit. Someone's baby was hungry this morning [last week] because WIC payments (food aid for the needy) were not able to be processed. Lots of people are stuck because credit card processing, gas pumps, and other technology are not working.

It's not just power outages any more — it's Internet outages. Ability to survive disasters needs to be engineered in.

And if (like me) you have a ham radio license, keep it renewed, and keep some equipment (probably a 2-meter HT; an HF rig if you are in a remote area) even if you're no longer active. Ham radio works when nothing else does.

Perils of slang: The other day a colleague told me someone had "killed" a presentation, by which she meant that he had done it very well.

But I thought she meant he had cancelled it, and I wondered why, and whether I had introduced a problem.

Then I figured it out...

It's handy to be able to make ChatGPT do things, but the whole art of "prompt engineering" isn't engineering. It's accumulated knowledge of things that happen to work right now, given the current training state of ChatGPT. It's a bit like knowing where the bends are in the Mississippi River. They didn't have to be where they are, and any other river is going to be totally different.

In place of "prompt engineering" we need language-generation engines that are driven by some kind of intentional, well-understood representation of what we want them to generate, just as other machines are controlled by well-understood inputs, rather than by haphazardly looking for what happens to give a result. Those are coming. So is picture generation from explicit knowledge representations.

Machines replace menial labor. They also help us realize that some things are menial that we thought were distinctly human. Look at what happened to pencil-and-paper arithmetic.


80 minutes of M27, again


This is very similar to a picture I took last year and is basically a "does the equipment work?" picture, not breaking new ground. I am using the same telescope and mount (C8 EdgeHD, GM811G), at the same site (my driveway), with a different camera (the older Canon 60Da rather than newer Nikon D5500), different camera-control software (N.I.N.A.), and a new USB hub.

Results are not very different. One thing I was trying to find out is whether guiding would be better in 1-minute rather than 2-minute exposures, indicating that the remaining error was due to differential flexure. The answer is no. A slight elongation in the east-west direction, not visible in this downsampled copy, is equally present in 1-minute and 2-minute exposures, but not in very short ones (so it's not optical).

I think I know what it is. The guider reported 0.35" RMS error in declination and 0.70" in RA. That is because RA is inherently rougher; it depends on a running motor, while declination depends only on polar alignment and occasional corrections. Further, my pixels were only 0.60".

Bearing in mind that 0.70" RMS is 2" or more peak-to-peak, depending on the distribution, I think that is enough to produce visible elongation of the star images. I'm doing some further mathematical analysis now, but my working hypothesis is that that's the cause of the elongation. It's the kind of thing we didn't experience 10 years ago, because back then, our polar alignment was much less accurate and the declination tracking also required frequent corrections, introducing roughness in that dimension also. A Losmandy firmware update will make the RA tracking smoother soon.


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