April 2009

Back to their respective cages

It’s been about a month, so we’ve separated our breeding pair of checkered garter snakes. The albino male is now back in his old cage. If they were going to breed this year, they would have done so by now; most of the tell-tale mating behaviour occurred in the first week or so. There is now no longer any point in risking a cannibalism incident, though they do seem to have been getting along rather well. For all I know they’ve already mated — they may just have been more subtle than some garter snakes I’ve known.

Demonstrably true

The following things are demonstrably true:

  1. Evolution through natural selection is a scientific fact.
  2. Approximately six million European Jews were killed during the Second World War.
  3. Between 1969 and 1972, 12 American astronauts walked on the Moon.
  4. Everyone should get their child vaccinated; vaccines save countless lives.
  5. Human activity is raising the temperature of the planet.

That some people refuse to believe these demonstrably true things is both sad and frustrating. Sometimes it’s because they’ve been convinced by people whose interests are served by replacing a truth with a lie (promoting religious doctrine or a quack cure for autism, economic self-interest, rehabilitating Nazism), but sometimes nutbaggery has no agenda.

Either way, the end result is considerable effort spent defending, proving and reproving what is demonstrably true. What a waste.

The biggest model ever of the biggest rocket ever

Earlier today, Steve Eves’s 1:10-scale model of a Saturn V launched from a farmer’s field in Maryland. Eves’s rocket is one for the record books: at 725 kg and nearly 11 metres in height, it’s apparently the largest model rocket ever built by an amateur. It seems fitting that it’s a model of the largest rocket ever built, the Saturn V. Apart from this YouTube video (above), which covers everything from countdown to the parachute landing of the rocket’s three pieces, Gizmodo has photos and video from the launch. A long article from the February 2009 issue of Rockets tells the story of how this monster came into being. Via NASA’s Twitter account.

Update: Jeff Foust’s Flickr photoset of the launch.

More entries below »

High school astronomy

Had a bunch of kids look through the telescopes last night, as part of the programming for the 30-hour famine at Jennifer’s high school. It almost didn’t happen: as so often happens, the clouds came rolling in as the sun set. But I’d already packed the telescopes and associated gear into the car, and the clouds were patchy, so what the hell.

We had some sporadic clear patches of sky to look at, but observing time was brief — in no small part because eager/goofball students kept twisting the focus on the Schmidt-Cassegrain way out. While I tried to fixed things, a lot of kids lost interest, but there was a hard core of one or two of them who stuck around until the clouds covered the entire sky. Fortunately Saturn was up, and visible most of the time: you can’t go wrong with Saturn as a first thing to look at through the telescope. And they didn’t break anything, which is always good.

The real surprise is that I actually have readers

Imagine my surprise. Last Saturday afternoon, as I’m sitting in the car and just about to start it, there was a tap on my windshield: it was long-time reader Moira, with whom I’ve exchanged e-mail but who I’ve never met in person before, saying hello. She’s been following this blog closely enough, and knows the area well enough, to recognize where I live, and spotted us on our way out as she drove by. I’m afraid my first reaction was to try to crawl under the clutch pedal; I’m not used to the idea of having a fan base, and Moira was the first (non-media) individual to approach me in person as a result of my online writing. So I got just a little bit self-conscious, which I’m wont to do when faced with, you know, attention. Jennifer, meanwhile, was enjoying every minute (even though she reacts to attention in roughly the same way; I’ll get her for that).

It’s funny because it’s true

The Onion, last Friday: NASA embarks on epic delay. “Top officials at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration unveiled plans this week for a comprehensive, multibillion-dollar delay — the agency’s most ambitious postponement of cosmic exploration ever.”

The New Scientist, also last Friday: NASA may need extra $30b to stay on schedule to moon. “Without an influx of cash, cost overruns could delay NASA’s return to the moon or prompt cuts to the agency’s science missions to try to keep its moon plans on track, according to a government report issued on Thursday.”


The shadow of the torturer

The U.S. Department of Justice has made public four classified memos, issued to the CIA between 2002 and 2005, that provided the legal basis for the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” — torture — applied to terrorism suspects in their custody. The memos are available, in PDF format, on several Web sites (see, for example, the ACLU and the New York Times). Coverage: CBC, CNN, Marc Ambinder, New York Times.

One technique, from the memorandum of August 1, 2002, relating to the interrogations of Abu Zubaydah, an Al Qaeda operative who had been captured in Pakistan earlier that year, immediately grabbed my attention. Abu Zubaydah had a fear of insects that interrogators wanted to exploit:

In addition to using the confinement boxes alone, you would like to introduce an insect into one of the boxes with Zubaydah. As we understand it, you plan to inform Zubaydah that you are going to place a stinging insect into the box, but you will actually place a harmless insect in the box, such as a caterpillar. If you do so, to ensure that you are outside the predicate act requirement, you must inform him that the insects will not have a sting that would produce death or severe pain. If, however, you were to place the insect in the box without informing him that you are doing so, then, in order to not commit a predicate act, you should not affirmatively lead him to believe that any insect is present which has a sting that could produce severe pain or suffering or even cause his death.
[redacted] so long as you take either of the approaches we have described, the insect’s placement in the box would not constitute a threat of severe physical pain or suffering to a reasonable person in his position. An individual placed in a box, even an individual with a fear of insects, would not reasonably feel threatened with severe physical pain or suffering if a caterpillar was placed in the box. Further, you have informed us that you are not aware that Zubaydah has any allergies to insects, and you have not informed us of any other factors that would cause a reasonable person in that same situation to believe that an unknown insect would cause him severe physical pain or death. Thus, we conclude that the placement of the insect in the confinement box with Zubaydah would not constitute a predicate act.

The New York Times reports that this particular tactic was not, in the end, used. But as someone who has an irrational fear of insects myself, I still have a thing or two to say about this.

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The Nikon D5000, plus a new 10-24mm lens

Nikon D5000 Nikon announced a new consumer-grade digital SLR this morning: the D5000. Contrary to expectations, this is not a replacement for the D40; instead, it sits squarely between the D60 (which, with the discontinuation of the D40, now becomes Nikon’s low-end SLR) and the D90.

The D5000 appears to be a lot like the D90: same 12-megapixel sensor, 11-point autofocus and HD movie capacity, as well as compatibility with the GP-1 GPS unit and the MC-DC2 remote (I knew they wouldn’t have released those for just one camera). On the other hand, it’s a lot like a D40 or D60: no top LCD, no second dial, no ability to autofocus AF lenses, no commander mode for the built-in flash, no ability to use an external battery grip. And then there’s the D5000’s swivelling rear LCD, which no other Nikon DSLR has.

The D5000 is considerably more expensive than the D60: when both are bundled with the 18-55mm VR lens, the D5000’s Canadian MSRP is $430 more than the D60’s. On the other hand, it’s a lot closer to the D90’s price point: the D5000 with the 18-55mm VR lens is $220 less than a similarly equipped D90; that gap drops to $200 when both are bundled with the 18-105mm VR lens. I wonder how many buyers won’t opt for a D60 (to save money) or a D90 (to add features) instead.

Early previews: Digital Photography Review, PhotographyBLOG.

Meanwhile, Nikon also announced a new wide-angle lens for DX cameras: the AF-S DX Nikkor 10-24mm f/3.5-4.5G ED goes a little wider than my 12-24mm f/4 lens, and is slightly cheaper (by $80 according to the Canadian MSRPs). It’s equivalent to a 15-36mm lens on a full-frame camera, and is probably the widest zoom we’re ever going to get on a DX camera.

Gearing up for astrophotography

All the positive feedback I’ve received for my recent attempts at lunar photography have made me more enthusiastic than ever about getting into astrophotography. I’ve already got a few books on the subject; truth be told, there’s a bit of a learning curve. It’s going to take me a while to get good at this. And that’s not a bad thing, because astrophotography can be awfully expensive: it’s going to take me a while to assemble all the equipment required for a basic astrophotography rig that can do more than just photograph the Moon.

I’ve already got two main pieces of equipment. I have a telescope geared towards astrophotographers: an 80mm Sky-Watcher Equinox apochromatic refractor, with really good colour correction (as far as I can tell) and a short (500mm, f/6.25) focal length. I also have a digital SLR sufficient to the task: a Nikon D90. (Most astrophotographers use Canon, whose noise reduction algorithms are better for stars, but a Nikon is hardly unacceptable.) In addition, I have a number of accessories for the D90 that will help: an external battery pack (to aid with multiple long exposures in the cold), a corded remote (to reduce camera shake when pressing the shutter), and a right-angle finder (to aid in focusing and allow me to see through the camera when it’s attached to a refractor or catadioptric telescope). I also have T-ring adapters to connect my camera to a telescope: one for a two-inch focuser (like my refractor), and one for Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes.

So, what else do I need?

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Turtles in space!

On September 18, 1968, the Soviet Union’s Zond 5 spacecraft orbited the Moon and returned safely to the Earth; it was one reason behind NASA’s decision to change Apollo 8’s flight into the first manned spaceflight to orbit the Moon.

Zond Zond 5 was an unmanned spacecraft, but it was not uninhabited: “A biological payload of turtles, wine flies, meal worms, plants, seeds, bacteria, and other living matter was included in the flight. … It was announced that the turtles (steppe tortoises) had lost about 10% of their body weight but remained active and showed no loss of appetite.” That’s right: the first vertebrates to visit the Moon were Russian Tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii). They apparently survived their trip (unlike Laika); I wonder if they’re still around — they’re tortoises, after all.

More on the Soviet Zond program.

Two snakes for sale

Leucistic Texas rat snakeRed milk snake

We’ve decided to part with a couple of snakes that we’ve had for a few years. The following snakes are now listed on the price list page:

  1. A male leucistic Texas rat snake, born in 2005; he’s jumpy and feisty as only young rat snakes can be, but will probably settle down in the hands of someone whose attention is spread across fewer snakes. He started out as a problem feeder but now has one of the most voracious appetites in our collection. $120.
  2. A female red milk snake, born in 2002. She was originally acquired as part of a breeding pair that turned out to be two females. Small and gentle, she’s still eating fuzzy mice. This subspecies of milk snake isn’t commonly seen in captivity. $180.

Let me know if you’re interested. Local sales only! And be sure to consult the reptile FAQ and terms and conditions before contacting me.

An update on the trinket snake

The trinket snake died this afternoon. You may recall my entry last February in which I described how she was bleeding and shedding her skin at the same time. Despite our attempts at treatment, an eventual second shed was just as bloody as the first; by that time, it was almost certainly too late to do anything else.