July 2008

DFL will return

A brief note here — though I’ve mentioned it elsewhere — that yes, I will be doing DFL again for the Beijing Olympics. I’d been hemming and hawing about it until Monday night, when a conversation about it turned into a long rant by me about the Olympics — that clinched it. On Tuesday I redesigned the blog template — it’s still off the shelf, just different — and started up a DFL page on Facebook. New posts will not appear on the blog until Friday, August 8, but I’m already getting ideas for material to relaunch with.

Authentication vs. filters

You know authentication alone is effective in preventing spam when you look in Movable Type’s junk comments folder and the only things you see are legitimate comments. So I’m turning off the spam filters system-wide: too many false positives. And some very old comments have just been published.

Astrophotography gear lust alert

Orion 190mm f/5.3 Maksutov-Newtonian. Nom.

Would I ever like to lay my hands on one of Orion’s newly announced 190-mm f/5.3 Maksutov-Newtonian astrographs (an astrograph is a telescope specialized for photography). Of course, I’d need a fairly robust equatorial mount first, and a place to put it on a semi-permanent basis. Oh, and $1,300.

As usual, I gravitate towards the obscure and unique corners of my interests. Maksutov-Newtonians are weird telescopes: most Maksutovs on the market are Maksutov-Cassegrains; Mak-Newts combine the Maksutov corrector plate with a Newtonian reflector configuration. The upshot is that they have a reputation for superior image quality — certainly better than other catadioptric telescopes (e.g., Schmidt-Cassegrains), and approaching that of premium Dobs and apochromatic refractors, as this comparison demonstrates. In short, damn good for astrophotography, which seems to be Orion’s target lately — they’ve announced a six-megapixel CCD and a cheap autoguider, for example, while Celestron and Meade futz around with handheld planetariums.

Most Mak-Newts come from Russia, although Ottawa-based Ceravolo used to make them. Orion imported several from Intes a while back; I wonder where this new one comes from. Orion’s marketing copy highlights its component quality; earlier Russian imports apparently had first-rate optics but were a little unrefined otherwise. I look forward to reading the reviews. With any luck, it’ll still be on the market when I’m ready for one.

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Our home is not a zoo

So one of Jennifer’s co-workers gave our phone number to one of her friends, who just called to ask if he could bring his granddaughter to visit the snakes.

I don’t know what gave her co-worker the right to do such a thing. It’s as if she had a swimming pool, and I invited my friends to swim in it.

I mention this in my reptile FAQ, and it seems I’m going to have to be more explicit about this from now on: we’re not a zoo. You don’t have the right to so much as ask to see our reptile collection, because you’re essentially trying to invite yourself into our private home. It’s especially inappropriate if, as is often the case, we haven’t met — or you’re calling us because a friend, or a friend of a friend, gave you our number.

If you’re a friend of ours and have a nephew or granddaughter who’s interested in snakes, we’ll probably give you an invitation. But it has to come from us, and be on our terms. If friends start passing out our number without our permission, they won’t be friends for much longer. And if co-workers start doing it, there will be consequences in that arena, I promise you.

We do not let strangers into our home — and for good reason: we’ve even been robbed by a delivery guy. And while we’re happy to teach people about snakes, we draw the line at letting strangers into our home to do it.

Especially when it’s clear that what people really want is a free one-on-one tour. Little Ray’s costs $10, and if you want that level of one-on-one attention, pony up for a birthday party or something. I’m sorry, but our time is valuable — we each bill at around $30 an hour — and it belongs to us.

At the Biodome

At the Biodome this afternoon (I’m in Montreal for the weekend), I came to the following two conclusions:

  1. The presence of entirely too many children emphasizes the problem with public education facilities like libraries, museums, zoos and suchlike: anything to do with education — and especially science — is seen as for children only. As though adults, once grown up, have but to sit at home and cultivate their ignorance, and only through their offspring are they allowed to expose themselves to knowledge.
  2. Digital cameras are ruining everything — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone. Everyone was crammed against the railing or the glass, camera, video camera or cameraphone in hand, as we jostled to take our precious photos. We don’t visit any more; we’ve turned ourselves into photographers on assignment. It’s rather risible to see people try to take photos in dark rooms with cameraphones and pocket cameras under a no-flash rule; I was using an f/1.4 prime lens at ISO 1600 with as slow a shutter speed as I thought I could get away with, and I’m 50-50 as to whether any of them will turn out.

Any photos that turn out will be processed once I’m back home; there’s no way I’m working on 400 photos on this Asus Eee PC.

The Dark Knight

About The Dark Knight, which we saw on Saturday and by which we were suitably awed, impressed and overwhelmed: it’s an interesting sign that those who know their Batman — steeped in the mythology, own all the key graphic novels, have been reading the comics for decades — like this movie an awful lot. My brother, for example, who loved it. Lou Anders calls it “perfect”: he loved Batman Begins, and says The Dark Knight “even makes Batman Begins look silly by comparison.” Or have a look at Gary Westfahl’s self-described obsessive review of the film.

There are novels less dense, with fewer layers. This is a great movie; it makes the Tim Burton Batman look like the Adam West Batman. This is Batman for grown-ups. It is not, however, a concise movie.

Astronomy at dusk

Astronomy at dusk 1

Nothing is wrong with this picture. Yes, we were looking through the telescope before sunset last Friday, and no, we don’t have a solar filter yet. We were looking at the Moon, which looked pretty good.

Our plan was to look at and photograph the Moon before sunset, and then turn to Jupiter once it got high enough. (We stayed in the backyard because the path to our observing site was too muddy to carry a telescope along it, so solar system objects only that night.) But we never got that far: the onslaught of mosquitos chased us back inside before Jupiter was favourably positioned. I got bitten more in two hours than I had in five days of camping the previous week.

Note also the presence in the above photograph of one of my new toys: an Asus Eee PC, a Linux-based subnotebook with a solid-state drive. Basic, but cheap. Of particular note is that it comes preinstalled with KStars, the open-source planetarium application. One goal of last Friday’s observing session was to see if I could connect to the telescope, which was at least partially successful: the program recognized the telescope, but I didn’t do anything beyond that. Next time.

The social life of snakes

When you go against the supposed rules and keep snakes two to a cage, you start accumulating anecdotal evidence about how snakes interact with one another. For the most part, a snake encountering another snake will either (1) eat it, (2) fuck it, or (3) ignore it. I do my best to avoid number one and keep breeding pairs together in hopes of number two; it’s number three that gets interesting, particularly in the cases of our four same-sex pairs of compatible rat and garter snakes.

The odd couple Many snake keepers have observed that a pair or trio of snakes will invariably hide in the same hide box, even if there are other, unoccupied hide boxes available. In other words, even when there’s plenty of room and plenty of places to hide, you’ll usually find two snakes curled up together. Forget about any ideas of snuggling or affection: that’s anthropomorphic thinking; as far as we know, snakes haven’t got the cognitive ability for that level of emotional interaction. What might be happening is one of the following: (1) two or more snakes independently conclude that a given spot is the perfect place to be right now, and they’re not put off by the presence of another snake; (2) the presence of another snake is confirmation that a given spot is a good one; or (3) the presence of another snake is reassuring and safe.

Butler's Garter Snakes It’s probably number one, though numbers two and three are intriguing. Snakes aggregate in the wild when good locations are scarce: Timber Rattlesnakes bask communally at good sites; northern species of every sort hibernate together in mass hibernation dens because safe places to hibernate aren’t easy to come by at those latitudes (this is the reason behind the Manitoba garter snake dens). I can’t help but wonder if the presence of other snakes has any impact on a snake’s decision making (“this must be the right spot if you guys are here”).


Incidentally, today marks this blog’s seventh anniversary. Neither obscurity nor irrelevance nor gainful employment shall keep me from my appointed task.

FriendFeed and del.icio.us

About a month or so ago, del.icio.us stopped posting a daily digest of my links to this blog, a feature that’s been working for years. Rather than tinker with it to get it working again, I’ll just move these links over to the sidebar. Lots of interesting things on the sidebar, you know.

I also now have a FriendFeed account, which could help you keep track of my scattered Internet activities.

Inconveniently clear skies

It would figure that, after nearly two months of clouds and rain and generally unsuitable-for-amateur-astronomy skies, I am presented with clear skies when otherwise occupied. Four glorious cloud-free nights while camping over the weekend, and I didn’t even bring so much as a pair of binoculars. And last night was pretty good too, once the moon approached the horizon, but at midnight I was too tired to set up the telescope.

Even from our back lane, though, with a very bright back porch light nearby, the skies were really impressive last night: magnitude 5.0 visibility (I can just barely make out Eta Ursae Minoris) and a clearly visible Sagittarius Arm. Probably even better from our observing location. Now if only the skies and my schedule could coincide.

Bringing Tim Hortons to the Pontiac

Yesterday at the post office there was a petition to bring a Tim Hortons to the Pontiac. Yes, it’s hard to believe, but there’s a corner of Canada that doesn’t have one. We’re it. Hi there.

Here’s the thing: if there was a business case to be made for a Tim Hortons in the Pontiac — be it in Shawville, in Fort Coulonge or wherever — we’d probably have one already. Tim Hortons is not a public utility: they’re not going to come here if they can’t make money here. Maybe they can, but a petition won’t convince them. The problem is that we’re not on the highway to somewhere else: all traffic along Route 148 is local traffic. And I don’t think there are enough of us. All a Tims would do would put a lot of local restaurants out of business before closing its own doors.

Some people have a serious and specific addiction to Tim Hortons coffee. That’s what’s behind this. You people need to find better stuff.

(Ironically, the Tim Horton Children’s Foundation has a children’s camp in Quyon.)

The problem with limited data

The iPhone 3G is coming to Canada this month, and Rogers posted its iPhone rate plans last week. As Richard (among many others) notes, unlimited data — taken for granted on U.S. iPhones and other smartphones — is nowhere to be seen. Data caps range from 400 MB to 2 GB, with overages costing 50¢/MB for the first 60 MB, then 3¢/MB after that. This has caused a considerable uproar, including an online petition site that has since gone 404.

Not everyone who wants unlimited data wants to use it in an unlimited fashion; indeed, I would imagine that the majority of Rogers subscribers will not exceed the data caps. The problem is, people imagine that they could, and worry what would happen if they did. It’s easy to avoid exceeding your monthly minutes: you call less. But data is charged by the megabyte, not the minute: when you check your mail, you don’t know if someone just sent you a 20-MB attachment or if you’re downloading a pile of spam; you don’t know how much bandwidth you’re using when you download a single page. You don’t have the same direct control over your data usage as you do over your voice usage.

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