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

Links to selected items on this page:
Missing movement, 3rd Brandenburg Concerto
3-way switches
The great auroral storm of 2024
Aurorae and political manipulation
How to find out if there's about to be an aurora
What complete foolishness looks like
Alfonso Ruiz Johnsson, 1957-2024
How to spot a deepfake
The future of smart telescopes
Aurora borealis from Georgia (2024)
Aurora borealis from Georgia (2003)
Moon (Alphonsus)
Moon (Saussure)
Moon (Vallis Alpes)
Moon (first quarter, wide view)
M51 (spiral galaxy)
T Coronae Borealis (pre-nova)
Many more...

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Outliving buildings

I knew that as I grew older, I would outlive people, but I am taken aback at the rate at which I am outliving buildings. I hear that this week, in Valdosta, the Mathis Municipal Auditorium and also the 1960s public library on Woodrow Wilson Drive are being torn down to expand South Georgia Medical Center.

The auditorium is where my sister's dance recitals took place, and also where I saw a number of shows, including a performance of "Mark Twain Tonight," and in its multi-purpose room I participated in a social science fair. Its parking lot is where I got my first driving lesson and is also where Action Trav'ler trips commonly departed and arrived.

The library was very important to me, particularly in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades, when I was developing my interest in astronomy (Dewey call number 520) and, earlier, electronics (621.38). I first visited it in its old (Carnegie Library) location around fifth grade; that building is now the Historical Society. The new building popped up around 1968 and I frequented it. Of course, the library still exists at yet another location — it moved away from Woodrow Wilson Drive years ago — but I'm sad to see the demolition of a building where I learned so much.

Of course, I'm not an Atlantan. There, every building disappears after a few years, and we joke that the city's motto is, "What used to be there?"


A cloud


Scenery while I was taking a walk for exercise on the evening of the 27th.

T Coronae Borealis

The star T Coronae Borealis, a recurrent nova, is expected to flare up in the next few weeks. So far, though, its brightness has only fluctuated slightly. So I decided to take a "before" picture, for comparison with what I will photograph later.


As befits its name, this constellation really does look a bit like a crown, or at least like a letter C lying on its back. In case it's not obvious which star is T Coronae Borealis, let me also give you this annotated version:


You can see T CrB at the lower left. It's going to get a lot brighter.

(This is not an excerpt from a star map. It is my own picture with map information overlaid on it.)

My technique could be described as overkill. The camera was a Canon 60Da with a vintage-1971 Nikon 50-mm f/2 lens on it (at f/4), on a Celestron AVX equatorial mount. I stacked 67 30-second exposures, calibrated with flats and darks. I did the processing in PixInsight, which also created the annotated version using an online database of star positions.


How to spot a deepfake

It's not the quality of the fake. It's cold hard reality.

Notoriously, AI technology has made it easier than ever to generate fake audio or video recordings of people saying things they never said, or doing things they never did.

There's one simple way to spot deepfakes: Check them against confirmed reality. That, and not any characteristic of the videos themselves, is the key clue.

First, see if you can spot anything that is obviously false. Suppose there's a recording of a politician saying something startling. Did he actually make the speech they claim to have video of? In the place and at the time that the video claims? It should be easy to find out what his speaking schedule was.

Does the video show things in the background that aren't consistent with what is claimed? A speech in Washington won't have the Eiffel Tower in the background. Most deepfake blunders aren't nearly that obvious, but it's worth thinking about.

Have we heard from the audience who supposedly heard the speech live? How did they react?

As with all potentially fake news, is this strange thing reported by only one news source, or a few highly biased ones, and not reported by others? CNN or Fox might have a political bias, but they aren't going to falsify easily confirmed facts about who said things in public, when and where. If they did, others would catch them at it. Don't fall into conspiracy-theory thinking or "they don't want you to know." Don't take orders to ignore information.

It is especially useful to look at news sources that are biased against what you are trying to confirm. If CNN reports something that makes Biden look bad, it's probably real, because they have a bias in the other direction, and because they're big enough that outright factual inaccuracies would be noticed and criticized. But if "Breaking News" from a total stranger on YouTube says something strange happened, take it with a grain of salt.

And does the politician confirm — or do his political opponents confirm — that he made the strange statement? Politicians have web pages of their own, and so do government agencies. You don't have to rely on news sources.

What if the strange statement was supposedly made in private? In that case, there's no public audience and no public reporting to look for. But you can still check against verifiable facts (place, time, etc.). It's also important to ask about motive. Would somebody have a motive to spread a falsehood? If so, make sure you're not gleefully playing right into their hands!

What reactions are coming from people who actually would have a way to know whether it was fake or not? If they don't seem to have even heard of it, that's a big red flag.

In summary: It's all about reality. Not about which news source to believe or who will do your thinking for you. It's about facts you can check and confirm in multiple ways.

Some complain that this is too hard. Well then — if you choose not to be a well-informed person, don't spread what you think is information. It's of low quality. You're not a reliable source.

The future of smart telescopes

"Smart telescopes" such as the Vespera and Seestar do basic astrophotography almost completely automatically. I've written about them before, here and here. I don't have one (yet).

All you do it set up the telescope under the sky and tell it what to photograph. Using computer power and a built-in star atlas, it automatically measures its own position and orientation, then goes to the object you request and takes a series of short exposures, which it then stacks and delivers as a surprisingly good finished image.

What is their future? They work well, but, frustratingly, they are closed systems. There is no upgrade path except to buy a completely different one. And their alt-azimuth mounts limit them to short exposures, making fainter objects permanently out of reach. They do what they do very well, but there is no way to extend them.

The answer, as Dylan O'Donnell points out, is simple: Smart telescopes need to become open systems. Like home audio systems, they need to become something you don't have to buy all at once — instead, standardization needs to make all the components interoperate so you can mix and match, and still get all the automation. When you want a camera with a better sensor, you should be able to install it, just like the stereo enthusiast who gets better speakers.

Above all, what is so impossible about building an equatorial mount that can polar-align itself? You'd have to motorize two adjustments that aren't currently motorized, but there's no mystery about it. Polar alignment and autoguiding would open up photography of much more difficult objects with the same instrument.

For many of us, astrophotography sessions are already almost automated once polar alignment is done manually. From there, software can aim the telescope, focus it, confirm it's aimed at the right object, take exposures, download them, touch up the focus periodically, and even behave intelligently if the sky clouds up. My own workflow is not that automated yet, but what I describe is common.

We already have ASCOM and N.I.N.A. for almost-automating astrophotography the way we do it now. Only a little more is needed to provide Seestar-level automation with fully versatile, advanced equipment. We have the bricks; now let's build the house!


Alfonso Ruiz Johnsson, 1957-2024

Picture Word has reached me, without details, of the death of my high-school friend Alfonso Ruiz Johnsson, of San Luis Potosí, Mexico. We had been in touch at least intermittently since we met in 1971, on his first day in the United States as part of the first group of visiting students in what became an exchange program organized by the Action Trav'lers in Valdosta.

May his memory be eternal.

Lunar crater Alphonsus

Partly as a memorial to Alfonso, and partly because I had good conditions for taking the picture, last night I photographed the crater Alphonsus on the moon, the middle one in this group of three. Like most people named Alfonso, this crater is named after King Alfonso X of (part of) Spain, who was a patron of astronomy.


Stack of the best 75% of 5000 video frames taken in near-infrared light, Celestron 8 EdgeHD, in my driveway.

The mountain peak in the middle of Alphonsus may be "haunted." That is, unusual transient glows have been reported there, and it may be the site of some kind of outgassing. Not volcanic eruptions; we now know the moon doesn't have that kind of activity. But it's possible some kind of trapped gas might occasionally escape and cause small clouds of dust, or there may be shiny rocks that catch the sunlight at just the right angle to look abnormally bright.

Lunar crater Saussure


The flat-bottomed bowl-like crater just to the left of the center of this picture is called Saussure. As a graduate student I wondered if it was named for Ferdinand de Saussure, founder of structural linguistics as we know it. No; it's named for Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, one of the founders of meteorology. Same technique as the picture above, taken in the same session.

The lunar "Alpine Valley"


Toward the bottom of this picture is a striking long, straight valley cutting through a mountain range (known as the lunar Alps). At one time it was thought to have been cut by a grazing meteor. It is much more likely to be a graben, which is a long, straight low area formed by moonquake activity at faults.

If the middle of the picture looks like a river bed, that's because it was once a lava flow, which also flooded the valley, giving it its flat bottom. Same technique as the two pictures above, taken in the same session.

The moon, a wider view

This is an attempt to make a very sharp wide-field picture of the whole visible moon. Stack of the sharpest seven out of ten 1/1000-second exposures, Canon 60Da, Celestron 8 EdgeHD with f/7 reducer. This is something of a technical tour de force, since a single exposure would have given almost the same result, but it worked.


M51 in moonlight


Last night's astrophotography session was largely to make sure the equipment still works and try out new software and firmware. My Losmandy GM811G mount has new Level 6 firmware, which increases the resolution of the motors and makes tracking smoother. Controlling it and the camera, I was using version 3.0 of N.I.N.A. (newly released). So although the moon was high in the sky, I did a long exposure of a spiral galaxy to confirm that everything would work.

I was pleased with the result, although the background is a bit grainy because the moon contributed so much stray light. Stack of 27 2-minute exposures, Celestron 8 EdgeHD at f/7, Canon 60Da at ISO 800.


What complete foolishness looks like

I've just been shown a dialog from an online forum in which someone asserts that the aurora was fake, the eclipse was fake, other things in the sky are fake, and it has something to do with someone impersonating Jesus.

What stands out about these mad rantings?

The person saying them gives no reason at all why we should believe them.

We're just supposed to believe them because their mouth is running.

If asked, "Why should I believe that?" such a person could not give a coherent answer.

That is what complete foolishness looks like.

And, with that in mind, we can recognize a lot of complete foolishness that does not look quite so crazy!



How to find out if there's about to be an aurora

In case we continue to have unusually strong aurorae for the next month or two, I'm putting some information here for future reference.

In brief: Click on the map below to see current conditions, and if it's red within 1000 miles of you, you have a good chance of seeing an aurora.


This is a screenshot of the map during the great auroral storm.

Contributed by Clay Turner.

Note that dates and times are UTC, which is 4 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. So 02:59 on May 11 was 10:59 p.m. EDT on May 10 in Georgia. I've seen lots of people accidentally jump a day by misinterpreting this.

The auroral oval rotates clockwise as the earth turns. What's over northern Europe now will be over Canada in a few hours, and so on. Keep clicking on the map, once an hour or more, to watch conditions develop.

Note that the map color is an overall average; aurorae actually come in unpredictable bursts that last an hour or two. Sometimes, in a red area, all you'll see is an overall brightening of the sky. Sometimes, even when the red area is hundreds of miles away, you'll see dramatic streamers or curtains.

It's possible to observe the clouds of charged particles being ejected from the sun before they get to earth. That means prediction, especially over a timescale of hours, is often very good. But observers want to be warned if there's even a small chance of an unusual event. So if it sounds like scientists "cry wolf" and predict too much, it's because they do. They'd rather not miss a rare event, even if they don't always get one when they expect it.

Other current information about aurorae is at https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ and https://www.spaceweatherlive.com/.

You cannot see aurorae in the daytime or amid bright city lights. But, at night, a camera (even a cell phone camera) will often pick them up better than the human eye does. Use Photoshop, Affinity Photo, or GIMP to brighten up pictures that come out dark.


Aurorae and political manipulation
"They" didn't want you to know...

[Slightly revised.]

In listening to the chit-chat on Facebook, I saw that the aurora gave some people a much-needed reminder that there are events in the world — in the universe — that aren't man-made and don't arise from human thought or mass communication.

The auroral storm was not caused by Democrats, Republicans, CNN, Fox, climate change, or any human activity. It did not obey schedules made by human beings. It was certainly not a show put on by NASA. It was there, and if you wanted to see it, you had to take it the way it actually was.

Lots of us saw it with our own eyes. It was not a hoax. It was not something on TV or the Internet.

In fact, one of the biggest things people learn from any kind of nature study is: There are things out there that weren't MADE to entertain YOU. Take them on their own terms.

I've already seen people circulating fake aurora pictures with the colors in the wrong order. I suppose their motive is to cut the link to reality — to deny that it was real after all. The same may be true of fake eclipse pictures.

Some complained that they did not hear about the aurora on "the news." It turned out that "the news," for them, was nothing but political commentary. They had stopped watching media outside their political bubble and were simply not hearing about events.

I would urge them to ask: Are you really a well-informed person? Or has somebody told you not to watch general-coverage news media, and thereby manipulated you into being ignorant? What else do "they" not want you to know?

Well-informed people should want to hear about events unconnected to their political interests, and hear the best that can be said for political positions with which they disagree. Hiding in a bubble won't do.

Last time: The aurora in Georgia in 2003

There were two auroral storms visible in Georgia in the fall of 2003, and I got enough advance warning of them to go out in the country, see them, and take pictures. The first one, on October 30, 2003, first caught my attention as a reddish glow in the sky ahead of me as I drove northeastward. My car had a red interior, and at first I thought it was a reflection, but no; it was real. Film photograph from Danielsville, Georgia:


Just two weeks later, on November 12, there was another, and from the same site, I saw and photographed much more elaborate displays — still probably the finest I've seen, though the 2024 display surpassed them in sheer bulk. Here's a classic auroral curtain, again photographed from Danielsville:


Apart from that, my experience with aurorae is very limited. Some time back in the 1990s I did some wide-field deep-sky photography from out in the country, noticed that the sky was abnormally bright, and then found a vivid red background on my pictures — aurora borealis, though I did not see or photograph any structure. And I saw a fine auroral curtain over Goose Bay, Newfoundland, from a jetliner on the way to London in 1980; aurorae are common there. And that's it.


The Great Auroral Storm of May 10-11, 2024



Last night I witnessed a very rare and somewhat unexpected celestial event, a strong aurora borealis visible in Georgia. Not only that, but it was actually seen and photographed as far south as Miami.

If this were Minnesota, an aurora wouldn't be all that noteworthy, uncommon though it might be. But aurorae in Georgia are rare. I last saw one in 2003.

I found out several days in advance that there was a chance of an auroral storm caused by a large sunspot group. On May 10, NOAA predicted extremely strong auroral activity, and on Facebook I started seeing reports of aurorae from England (where they are quite uncommon) and as far south as Brindisi, Italy. That is appreciably farther from the north magnetic pole than I am.

So Melody and I started making plans. I didn't want to go to Deerlick because of the distance and because a major star party was in progress there. My cousin Aaron Paul invited us to his house near Good Hope, Georgia, and then took us to a sod farm in Bostwick, Georgia, that had good dark skies. There we were joined by his friend Alec Johnson.

As soon as darkness fell, there it was! Of course, the colors were much less vivid to the eye than to the camera — and, apparently, less vivid to my eyes than to the other people's.

For about an hour we watched auroral streamers moving around, especially high overhead, and then the activity slowed down. I should explain that while the NOAA maps plot probability of aurorae, the actual aurorae come in bursts whose length is on the order of two hours, and this one had started before it got dark.

That was the Great Auroral Storm of 2024. As I write this, the prospect of a second night of it is dwindling, and past experience suggests that if there is another one, it will be in three or four weeks (when the same sunspot group rotates toward us again) or else not for twenty years or more.

The sunspot group that caused the storm


The aurora was caused by charged particles emitted from the sun, and especially from an exceptionally large and active sunspot group. Yesterday afternoon (May 10) I took a picture of the sun in the usual way with my Celestron 5, Thousand Oaks solar filter, and Canon 60Da.

The giant sunspot group is obvious. Sunspots like this do not come along in every solar cycle. This one was visible through eclipse glasses without other optical aid.


Short notes

I seem to be spending the weekend having the flu, or some other minor febrile illness. At least I had a fever yesterday, along with some other symptoms, but they are subsiding. While having to stay home, I will at least catch up on the Daily Notebook...

Was part of the Third Brandenburg Concerto lost?

Bach's Brandenburg Concerti are among my favorite pieces of music, but I haven't paid equal attention to all parts of them. So I was only dimly aware of a real peculiarity until a friend brought it to my attention.

As written by Bach, the second movement of the Third Brandenburg Concerto consists of just two notes (with harmony, so actually, two chords). Here is what Bach wrote:


That's it — just two notes, between the first movement and the third movement.

What happened? Was Bach intending to unveil a "surprise" piece of music to be performed at that point in the concert? Was the harpsichordist or violinist supposed to just improvise? Was most of the movement a solo, not included in the orchestra's score? Or was it really an extremely short movement?

I got out all my CDs and records of that concerto and listened carefully.

The Chamber Orchestra of the Saar, on a Nonesuch budget album (HB-73006) that I bought in college, simply plays the two chords slowly (taking 20 seconds) and doesn't count them as a movement; they list that concerto as having two movements rather than the usual three. Click here to hear how they did it — the end of the first movement, the two chords, and the beginning of the last movement.

The Berlin Philharmonic plays the two chords somewhat more broken, taking 14 seconds; that's the performance I've listened to the most, and I always considered that part to be the introduction to the last movement, although they count it as a movement in itself.

And the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields substitutes a little-known Bach sonata, which is fine and makes the movement have normal length, but it doesn't really match the style of the Brandenburg Concerti. On YouTube I find plenty of variations of all these approaches. Anything more than half a minute long is going to be a substitution from elsewhere in Bach's works.

We may never know what Bach actually intended. Personally, I prefer the way the Chamber Orchestra of the Saar did it. Short and to the point. The two chords work well introducing the next movement. Maybe that's what Bach meant for us to hear.

Shenanigans with 3-way switches

While brushing up my knowledge of house wiring in preparation for another visit from the electricians, I came across some odd ways of wiring 3-way switches (that is, two switches wired so that if you flip either of them, the light will either turn on or turn off). (They are called 3-way because they connect to 3 wires; each switch has only 2 positions.)

First, here's the normal way to wire them, and until now, the only way I had ever thought of:


Each switch chooses one of the two parallel wires. If they both choose the same one, the load receives power.

A "dead-end 3-way" is the same thing, with one of the switches placed at a distance and connected via a 3-wire cable. This is a difference in placement, not connections.

But there's a strange variation, the "California 3-way," permitted in some places and not others:


I had to think for a moment to see that this one works. It does. When the two switches choose the same parallel wire, the load does not receive power; when they choose different ones, it does.

Although odd, it is safe. If one of the switches were to short internally, joining all three of its terminals, the load would receive power normally; you just wouldn't be able to switch it off.

The California 3-way has an evil twin, the "Chicago" or "Carter" 3-way, which is not recommended practice anywhere. Here's how it's wired:


It works, but you can't control which side of the load is live and which side is neutral. That is not safe. When both switches are up (as shown in the diagram), the load is not powered, but both sides of it are connected to "live" and would be likely to deliver an electric shock if someone accidentally made contact with them.

We always want to cut power on the live side, not the neutral side, when something is turned off. That doesn't rule out shocks totally, but it makes things safer. More about that here.

There's also a worse problem. If one of the switches were to short internally, live would be shorted to neutral, and either the fuse would blow, or there would be a fire. The Chicago 3-way absolutely assumes each switch will disconnect from one of the parallel wires before connecting to the other ("break-before-make"). That is not necessarily a specified or reliable property. With the other two methods, if the switch isn't break-before-make, you won't even notice anything different.

How extremism grows through a vicious cycle

In a recent magazine piece, my friend Donald Williams was explaining how the word "fundamentalist" came to denote hyperconservatism rather than merely conservatism. His context was church history, but he pointed out a phenomenon we should all know about.

The fundamentalists started practicing "secondary separation." That means they separated themselves not only from those they considered unorthodox, but also from those who did not separate as strictly as they did from those they considered unorthodox.

And then, of course, you consider the second group also unorthodox, and you have to separate not only from them, but also from others who do not separate from them...

And it snowballs, and soon almost nobody is conservative enough for you.

We've seen this in politics, too, haven't we?


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