May 2009

The youngest snake in the collection

New acquisition

I expected that the size of our reptile collection would shrink through attrition, but I expected it to be a result of snakes succumbing to old age (some of the garter snakes are starting to get up there, for example). I did not expect to find the male Cape Gopher Snake (Pituophis catenifer vertebralis) dead in his cage this morning, from unknown causes. He was the youngest snake in our collection and our most recent acquisition; we acquired him in November 2007 (the picture above dates from that time).

This isn’t just an unexpected shock; it’s annoying. Pituophis are so robust, you don’t expect anything like this to happen: we’ve kept four pairs of them and raised an additional five babies, and this is the first loss we’ve had of this genus, ever.

Meanwhile, George is still not dead (previously).

Gainful employment

Today was my first day back at work at Health Canada, doing the same job I did there between July 2007 and June 2008. They called me a couple of weeks ago, wondering whether I’d be interested in coming back. A quick look at my bank balance and the recent performance of my website revenues (Google AdSense is down by half from what it was two years ago) suggested that, yes, I’d be very much interested in coming back. So off I went.

It’s been almost 11 months since I was last there, and it’s almost like I never left. It’s surprisingly good to be back.

My blogging rate is about to take another nosedive, though. Just sayin’.

Whither NASA?

Via Bad Astronomer, a trio of op-eds in the New York Post on where NASA goes from here, particularly in the context of manned spaceflight:

The status of the Constellation program (especially the Ares booster) is causing no shortage of angst, it seems, but the big picture is of concern either way: insufficient funding, insufficient vision.

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The Glorfindel Syndrome

James Bow refers to what he calls the Glorfindel Syndrome, which appears to be what happens when the law of economy of characters is applied to a sprawling epic with a huge dramatis personæ when it’s adapted for the silver screen:

The name is taken from J. R. R. Tolkien’s [elven] character of the same name, who rides out from Rivendell to meet the Hobbits and Aragorn, and takes Frodo back to the Elvish kingdom, facing down the Dark Riders along the way. In Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy, Arwen takes Glorfindel’s role, giving her valuable extra screentime. In the 1970s animated version, Legolas steps up to the plate, for roughly the same reason. Glorfindel is, basically, chopped liver.

During the heyday of the Peter Jackson movies, I actually conceived of a related idea: a Web site protesting the exclusion of Glorfindel from movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, replete with foaming invective against the characters that replaced him. (For example, impugning Arwen’s racial purity — she’s only 78.12 per cent Elf!) I never finished it, probably because I couldn’t make it funny enough to make it worthwhile. I also imagined it as a satire of nitpicking fans (the kind who were upset at the omission of Tom Bombadil or “The Scouring of the Shire”); there was too much risk of it being taken literally. So it never came into being.

Michael Giacchino’s Star Trek score

Star Trek album cover (thumbnail) I’ve been listening to Michael Giacchino’s score for the new Star Trek movie (,, iTunes). It’s quite distinct from previous Trek movie scores by, say, Jerry Goldsmith or James Horner. The tone seems lighter, the tempo much faster, than those other scores; and with cues redolent of the 1960s (I was reminded of Elmer Bernstein at a couple of points), the music seems a throwback to the music of the original series. Even Fred Steiner’s cues for “The Corbomite Maneuver” or “Balance of Terror,” looped again and again for ominous enemies in subsequent episodes, had a briskness to them, to say nothing of the fluffy fun inherent in Jerry Fielding’s music for “The Trouble with Tribbles.” I quite liked it — a good fit for this less ponderous and less earnest reinvention of Star Trek.

Even if you haven’t heard of Giacchino, you’ve probably heard his work. He also scored a few Pixar movies: his score for The Incredibles was, I thought, very good, and he’s also done Ratatouille and Up.

Cat vs. paper

I know some cats like to shred rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, but the Doofus is particularly fanatic about it. You cannot leave any toilet paper or paper towel roll out anywhere in this house, for any length of time, before he silently and methodically tears it apart. None of my cats has ever done this before, so I’m insufficiently trained, but Jennifer’s cat in Baie-Comeau, Fritz, did this as well. Every so often (like today), I slip up and have to clean up the confetti.

Thoughts on the new Star Trek

Star Trek movie still

The new Star Trek movie was outstanding, exciting and tremendous fun to watch, unlike too many of its predecessors, which were frequently earnest, flat and mediocre, if not outright calcified. “The near-universal enthusiasm for Abrams’ film,” says Slate’s Dana Stevens, “may partly spring from sheer relief that it isn’t awful.”

John Scalzi’s impression of the movie was that it was “big and pretty and noisy and didn’t look like a TV episode blown up to movie size, which was what sunk the series in the first place. No one wants to pay movie ticket prices for TV.”

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Star Trek and reality

Enterprise shuttle and Star Trek cast, September 17, 1976 (NASA)

Star Trek cast members attend the rollout of the Space Shuttle Enterprise at its Palmdale manufacturing facility on September 17, 1976 (NASA).

Paul Wells:

I wonder whether the people who put the original Star Trek series together had any inkling that, nearly 43 years after the first episode aired, humanity would have travelled such a great distance in depicting wide-scale human space travel — and such a paltry distance in achieving it.

In that vein, a comparative timeline:

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Mirror lock-up on the Nikon D90

There is no mirror lock-up mode per se on the Nikon D90; instead, there is a feature called “exposure delay” (menu item d10, under custom settings) — it lifts the mirror up a second or so before the exposure is taken. (The D80 also had this, but the delay was apparently shorter.) Mirror lock-up is used to reduce vibration from mirror slap. In a single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, the mirror flips up and down with each exposure; this can jiggle the camera on long exposures. So night photographers and astrophotographers like having mirror lock-up available. On the other hand, on really long exposures of several minutes, a second’s worth of vibration won’t be noticeable.

Astronomical addenda

I forgot to mention that, during the high school observing session, I made one hell of a misidentification. The kids pointed to a bright star in the east, which I immediately dismissed as a plane. Except it didn’t move. It turned out to be Arcturus, the second-brightest star in the northern sky. I should have gotten that, but in my defence, my usual observing sites have obstructed views of the east. I don’t normally see anything east of Spica at this time of year.

Setting up for that session was much easier than I thought it would be: driving to the site and bringing stuff from the car in several trips is a hell of a lot less effort than trying to carry everything in your arms or on your back over several hundred metres in one trip. Who knew? Anyway, considering that we’ve had several offers of open, rural sites to observe from, car-based observing looks like a viable option. Which means that telescopes that would ordinarily be far too heavy to lug to the nearby field are back on the menu. Which means that Dobsonian telescopes — big, lots of aperture, not very expensive — are back on the menu.

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