March 2008

Dark sky vacations

The night sky in Shawville is darker than Ottawa’s, but it’s not as dark as I would like; there’s still a bit of ambient light pollution, some from the town itself, some a result of being an hour’s drive from a million-strong metropolis. (For more on light pollution, see this post on The Map Room.)

So it has occurred to me that I could tie my desire to see the stars under some truly dark skies with my often-procrastinated desire to get some camping in. Problem is, most campsites are in wooded areas, presumably because most people aren’t comfortable camping in open, unsheltered spaces. Some investigation, I thought, would be in order: it would be nice, for example, if Bon Echo Provincial Park had campsites with good astronomical sight lines, because according to the maps it’s in a really dark area.

Fortuitously, there was this Ask MetaFilter question about where to travel to observe under dark skies, which I stumbled across the very same day I had been reviewing SkyNews’s list of dark-sky observing sites in Canada. From the former came a link to a brief list of dark sites (PDF) from the International Dark Sky Association; from the latter, a link to Gordon’s Park, a site on Manitoulin Island. Gordon’s Park caters to astronomers, providing a dark-sky campsite and cabin, plus interpretative programs. It’s also the subject of the Arrogant Worms song, “Mounted Animal Nature Trail,” which is a weird coincidence. It’s a seven-hour drive — and, suddenly, on our summer to-do list.

Update, April 6: I should also mention Phil Harrington’s, which includes a reference to a site in the nearby La Vérendrye reserve.

A snake named Piss-Boy

Piss-Boy I named him “Piss-Boy,” awkwardly, after a character in History of the World, Part I: one day shortly after I got him, I noticed he’d soiled his cage four times in the six hours since I had last cleaned it. It always made it problematic to use him in reptile shows, when kids would ask what his name was.

He was an adult male Red-sided Garter Snake, one of four Jeff brought in for me in early 2000, along with two Wandering Garter Snakes (one of which, Extrovert, I still have) and a Checkered Garter Snake that died later the same year from an internal parasitic infection. May 12, 2000: that’s when I took possession. He was at least three years old at the time; fully grown. I don’t think he’s done any growing since then: his metabolism was geared for activity and reproduction.

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Webcams, astrophotography, and the Mac

You may be surprised to know that a key tool in astrophotography is the lowly USB webcam. In fact, most amateur lunar and planetary photography is done with webcams: the Celestron NexImage Solar System Imager, widely considered the best camera of its class, is from what I’ve read, essentially a Philips ToUCam Pro modified to fit into a 1¼-inch eyepiece barrel. Webcam astrophotography is essentially a low-cost exercise in adaptive optics: the camera shoots 640×480 video, and you use software to select the best frames (shot in rare moments of atmospheric stability), stack them to reduce noise, and apply an unsharp mask to draw out features. The results are surprisingly good, considering. (For more on lunar and planetary imaging with webcams, see these presentation slides (PDF).)

The software is the key link, and of course the fact that I use a Mac complicates things somewhat, because the telescope companies bundle their lunar and planetary webcams with Windows-only software. Doing it on a Mac requires a couple of extra steps.

Stop right now and read Webcam Astrophotography on the Mac, which covers the same ground that I’m about to (and is actually written by someone who knows what he’s talking about).

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’Tis but a scratch

So, the Doofus was de-nutted on Wednesday. Didn’t seem to slow him down any: by the time I saw him that evening, he was just as psycho as he normally is, if a bit wobblier. He’s still a playing, bouncing machine. I guess just being a kitten has more of an impact than whether or not he owns a pair of testicularities.

Why travel writing sucks

Let’s face it: travel writing, for the most part, sucks. It’s vapid, junket-driven, cliché-laden dross in which anything remotely interesting is boiled away for fear of offending the travel industry whose ads pay for said junkets and for the travel sections of the weekend editions of newspapers in which this stuff appears. Chuck Thompson makes this point in his new book, Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer. Not even the Lonely Planet guides (“Lonely Planet is the only publisher I know of that seems to actively dislike its readers”) are exempt.

It’s an entertaining read, but it doesn’t quite make it. Attacking the clichés of the genre would make for a pretty slim volume; there are chapters sharing his experiences as a travel magazine editor, as a travel writer, and as a traveller, full stop. They seem like padding to me, but if nothing else, they explain how easy it is to become jaded by the travel industry. His realization that his dislike of the Caribbean is because of the juxtaposition of luxury resorts and endemic poverty resonates with my own ambivalence about the idea of vacationing there. His off-colour, disaster-laden travel stories are just the sort of thing that would be unlikely to appear in the travel section of a newspaper, but it’s hardly transgressive that they’re seeing print — Paul Theroux was writing stronger stuff 30 years ago.

And there’s a point there: there are two genres of travel writing, the literary sort (Chatwin, Naipaul, Theroux) and the advertorial sort; this book is about the latter (even if, in one telling passage, Thompson nails Theroux for writing the advertorial pabulum that his overall body of work seems to stand against).

Smile When You’re Lying: Confessions of a Rogue Travel Writer by Chuck Thompson

Another by-law update

My presentation in front of the town council tonight might have gone better if I had known beforehand the origins of the list of banned animals — and if I’d known that the current (circa 2005) by-law also prohibits boas and pythons. Oh, hell. I still think I did all right in front of somewhat skeptical councillors, but I would have liked to have done better.

The bottom line is that there will not be any limits on animals other than dogs and cats, but they’ll think over my proposal to use the provincial restrictions instead of the municipal list. About which I’m not optimistic. We may have to divest ourselves of our two boas and one python, which, all things considered, I can manage. Could have been a lot worse — as I said, we won’t have to move.

It may well have been better not to have addressed council tonight, but what’s done is done.

Previously: A brief by-law update; My response to the Pontiac MRC animal control by-law.

Seeing in the Dark and amateur astronomy

I just finished reading Timothy Ferris’s Seeing in the Dark, a book about amateur contributions to astronomy. This is something I’ve been struck by the more I get into astronomy: it not only accepts amateur contributions, it relies on them. While professional astronomers compete for limited time on research telescopes, the sheer number of amateurs looking skyward allows them to do things that professionals simply can’t (because there are fewer of them looking through fewer telescopes). Such as long-term observations of single objects (like variable stars), and searching for asteroids, comets and supernovae. (The subsequent PBS documentary did not emphasize this point to the same extent.)

I’m struck by this partly because it’s not the same with herpetology, or at least the wildlife conservation part of it, where amateurs are frequently seen as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution — with the notable and important exception of frog monitoring. (On the other hand, you can’t poach a comet.)

But Ferris points out that amateur astronomy is a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of larger apertures and digital cameras passing into amateur hands; a half-century ago, amateurs were limited to long-focal-length, small-aperture refractors and reflectors, and planetary observations. A lot has happened to empower amateur astronomers since then. In the meantime, amateur herpetologists have been facing increasing regulations and sharp professionalization, both of which restrict the lay enthusiast from doing meaningful work in the wild, and send many of us to our basements to focus on exotics.

Seeing in the Dark by Timothy Ferris
Seeing in the Dark (DVD)

A brief by-law update

Some news about the by-law situation I mentioned before; I don’t want to jump the gun and announce anything before next week’s town council meeting, but things look reasonably positive at the moment. I may not get absolutely everything I want, but it looks like we won’t be forced to choose between moving and getting rid of all our animals.

The incredible shrinking Trains

The April 2008 issue of Trains arrived in the mail today, and I was surprised at just how thin the magazine has gotten: it’s only 68 pages long. Compare:

April 2004116 pages
April 200588 pages
April 2006108 pages
April 200784 pages
April 200868 pages

Since a magazine’s length is generally a function of the amount of advertising contained therein, I’m not sure this is good — even by the standards of the beleaguered magazine industry.

In our neighbourhood

At home today, thanks to heavy snow. An SQ officer stopped by this morning: Atkinson’s, the bar across the lane from us, was broken into held up last night. Since the ATV theft from Bean’s a couple of years ago, the restaurant next door has been broken into a couple of times, and Bean’s was robbed again over the Christmas holidays (snowmobiles that time). Homes don’t get broken into in the middle of the night because they’re usually, um, occupied, and during the day our neighbours watch out for one another, so I’m not terribly worried. Also, we don’t have cigarettes, significant quantities of alcohol, or ATVs. It’s still a little disconcerting to be living right next door to what is apparently the high-crime area of Shawville.

(Updated March 6 to reflect the fact that it wasn’t a break-in, it was an armed robbery; also added the thing about the snowmobile theft.)

Free e-books, literacy and piracy

The problem, says Neil Gaiman, “isn’t that books are given away or that people read books they haven’t paid for. The problem is that the majority of people don’t read for pleasure.” The argument for giving away free e-books is that it encourages people to buy your other works; the broader argument is that it encourages people to read, full stop. There are social benefits to having a population that reads; it’s why there are libraries, and it’s why online e-book piracy must be dealt with more carefully than movie or music piracy. Via Boing Boing.