October 2007

How to break your external flash

Take seriously the camera manufacturer’s warning not to store your speedlight without removing your batteries first. I discovered last night that the batteries still inside my SB-600, which I had not used in three months, had corroded inside their compartment. The SB-600 is, as a result, all busted up. Oh, poo. And my own fault too, in a real and warranty-voiding sense. It’s some small consolation that an external flash is not a mission-critical camera accessory for me (otherwise it wouldn’t have been left unused for three months). For bounce flash purposes, I’ll probably replace it with the considerably cheaper, but much less capable, SB-400, which will be sufficient in much more cases, and more portable as well.

Picking a telescope

When it comes to buying a telescope, I’m stumped, simply because there is no one single “best” telescope to buy. In The Backyard Astronomer’s Guide, authors Dickinson and Dyer recommend that a first-time scope be portable and simple enough that it will actually be used. I’ve narrowed it down to three candidates, each with their own pros and cons. Trouble is, Dickinson and Dyer recommend all three (or their equivalents) in their book. Picking one is proving difficult as a result: all are probably good choices, but one is probably more suitable for our needs.

The three candidates are Sky-Watcher’s Dobsonian reflector (in either the 8-inch or 10-inch versions), Celestron’s NexStar 5 SE, and Sky-Watcher’s 5-inch Maksutov.

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The decline of the science fiction magazine

The decline in science fiction magazines’ circulation has been going on for decades. In the mid-1980s, when I first began reading the magazines, Analog’s circulation was around 150,000, Asimov’s was around 100,000, and F & SF was, I think, somewhere around 60,000. (I’m quoting from memory so these figures are almost certainly off.) In 2006 — twenty years later — not one of them has a circulation north of 30,000. In response, Warren Ellis has issued a cri de cœur that has been picked up by others.

Two posts by blogging SF writers — or, if you prefer, SF-writing bloggers — argue that the magazines are less relevant to the field than they once were: Cory Doctorow says it’s because the buzz is being taken away by their online competition; John Scalzi suggests that their loss of influence can be measured by the number of authors who make it as successful novelists without passing an apprenticeship in short fiction published in the magazines.

I think that the problem can be explained economically, at least in part. Let me take a stab at it.

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The rudest city in Canada

The Ottawa Citizen waxes indignant about a recent Reader’s Digest feature that ranked Ottawa the least polite city in Canada, a ranking that I myself would find hard to disagree with. Indeed, I heartily endorse the assessment: I’ve long felt that Ottawa is a cesspool of passive-aggressive public snottiness, derived, I suspect, from the critical mass of so much latent tension from so many unhappy public servants.

The comments on the Citizen piece are instructive, split between the people who’ve moved to Ottawa and, like myself, cannot get over how rude the people are here, and the lifelong Ottawans who blame the rudeness on all the provincials and immigrants who’ve moved here in the last 10-15 years.

You know which side I’m on: I’ve lived in too many places where people were nicer in public to random strangers, whereas in Ottawa I’ve been nearly run over a half-dozen times, physically assaulted on a bus, and even gotten into a road-rage incident while on a bicycle. The rudeness is most manifest on the roads and sidewalks, which is where I believe that repressed public-sector anger releases itself. Even people in Shawville notice it when they come — reluctantly — into the city.

Ottawa: big-city rudeness without any associated big-city appeal.

Previously: Welcome to Ottawa. Now fuck off.


Milky Way My interest in astronomy has been lifelong, though varying in intensity over the years, but I only saw the Milky Way for the first time a couple of months ago. It was an epiphanic moment akin to the ending of Isaac Asimov’s classic short story, “Nightfall,” in which a civilization sees the stars for the first time in millenia. Knowing that it’s there in theory is one thing; seeing it for yourself is quite another.

My earliest observation was the 1979 solar eclipse, which I saw from my front porch in Winnipeg, but most of my astronomy, growing up, was theoretical rather than observational. In other words, I read a lot of books. Family finances precluded me from ever owning a telescope (especially in the early 1980s), so all my childhood observations were naked-eye views from my backyard, usually in winter (so that I was awake when it was dark). Because it was a suburban sky, and with considerable light reflected from the snow, I didn’t see much. Nor did I necessarily appreciate how much I wasn’t seeing. Milky Way? Forget about it: sky conditions were so poor that I couldn’t even see the Little Dipper.

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On trademarks and trademark symbols

A trend I’ve noticed, not only in a book I reviewed recently but in other situations, is the profligate use of trademark symbols (® and ™). Unless you’re the trademark holder yourself, there is no real need to use them: just capitalize trade or brand names if you’re referring to them specifically, or use the generic equivalent if you’re not.

Here is what the Chicago Manual of Style has to say about this:

Brand names that are registered trademarks — often so indicated in dictionaries — should be capitalized if they must be used. A better choice is to substitute a generic term when available. Although the symbols ® and ™ often accompany trademark names on product packaging and in promotional material, there is no legal requirement to use these symbols, and they should be omitted wherever possible. Note also that some companies want people to use both the proper and the generic terms in reference to their products (“Kleenex facial tissue,” not just “Kleenex”), but here again there is no legal requirement. (Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, 8.162, p. 365)

I think that writers feel they must put the symbols in because the trademark holders do so, especially if, as was the case with one of the authors of Arthritis Without Pain, they have an ongoing relationship with the company holding the trademark. But the trademark holders insert them because they have to, to assert their trademark rights; you don’t, because it’s not your trademark.

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Keeping breeding pairs together

Claire asks, “Do you ever keep your breeding pairs together all year round? Does this seem to cause any problems?” For the most part I do, although reptile keeper conventional wisdom suggests otherwise.

The rule of thumb is that keeping breeding pairs separately increases the chances of reproductive success when you do put them together. It’s part of the conditioning process, like hibernation: it apparently makes them more eager and receptive. Of course, many reptile keepers prefer to keep their snakes separately regardless of whether they’re breeding them. While that’s a full discussion in and of itself, it’s relevant in that introducing breeding pairs for brief periods is frequently done in that context.

I’m a dissident in that I will keep snakes two or three to the tank in the first place: I keep siblings and breeding pairs (or trios) together, and I have been known to keep compatible snakes of different species together (so long as they’re similar in terms of size and habitat, won’t eat each other, and are the same sex so that they won’t hybridize). But, when I had a breeding pair of Wandering Garter Snakes, I kept them separately, because they’re cannibalistic. Introducing them for breeding purposes worked: they were interested in screwing one another, rather than eating one another. (I’ve had worse luck with kingsnakes in that regard.) With other snakes that have little to no risk of cannibalism — such as my corn, pine, gopher and garter snakes — I frankly couldn’t be bothered. They’re kept together, and they breed if and when they feel like it.

Most of the time they do breed; my problem of late has not been one of interest, but of fertility — I’ve seen a lot of bad eggs over the past two years. Personally, I think hibernating them is far more important to breeding success than keeping them separately. Especially since keeping them separately can impede breeding success in at least one scenario: your snakes may be interested in breeding, but not necessarily at the moment you’ve put them together. If you don’t make sure they’re together during their breeding window, you don’t get eggs.


Apparently I’ve been doing a good job at work: they’ve extended me until the end of the year. This is very good for my bank balance — I’ll finally be out of debt some time in early November. But it’s been less good for my blogging, which will have to be on life support for a little while longer. The job has been busy enough that I don’t have much energy left at the end of the day to look after my web sites as much as I would like.

But the decision to stay is a no-brainer, at least in the short term: I make more than five times as much at the real job than I do from my web activities. In the long term, though, there are two paths ahead of me: either I will resume my web projects once this contract is over, or I will enter the world of permanent, full-time work. The former option leaves the door open to future, short-term contract work; the latter option would likely entail shuttering many of my projects, or reducing them to occasional pastimes rather than regular work. I have a choice ahead of me, one that is by no means easy.