July 2009

More flooding

The basement flooded again last night, thanks to a heavy downpour that backed up the town’s sewers. Almost every unit in our building was affected. (The landlord is in contact with the town about it.)

It happened while we were in Ottawa: our neighbours called us to let us know; we aborted our plans and headed home (through the storm that caused the flood, which was exciting) to deal with the mess. Which actually wasn’t all that bad. For one thing, our neighbours had, in our absence, gathered up as much as they could from the basement floor, which had around an inch or so of water. For another, after our last flood, three years ago, we made sure that anything directly on the floor down there was either in waterproof containers, could handle an inch or two of water, or was eminently disposable, so there was no real damage to speak of.

If you can believe it, we shovelled out the water — we used the snow shovel to fill buckets of water. It was more effective than anything else we had on hand.

The landlord will probably either replace the basement drain’s valve or stop it up completely: more water comes up from that drain than has ever come out of it.

Windows developers’ sub-$1,000 opportunity


Joey deVilla’s suggestion that, for Windows developers, “the fact that Apple pretty much owns the $1000+ computer market is in fact an opportunity” sounds very much like trying to make lemons from lemonade. DeVilla is, of course, referring to news that Apple’s revenue market share for computers costing more than $1,000 — revenue share is the share of total dollars spent, not the share of units — was 91 percent in June.

That is to say, for every $100 spent on a computer that costs more than $1,000, $91 were spent on a Mac. The average selling price for a Windows PC in June was $515; for a Mac, it was $1,400. There are Windows PCs that cost more than $1,000, but people aren’t buying them. Now more than ever, Windows PC buyers are much more price-conscious than Mac buyers: hardly anyone who is willing to lay out real money for a computer spends it on a Windows PC; they’re either getting enough computer for their needs at a lower price point or they’re buying a Mac.

This is a problem for Windows developers — especially those who hope that people will buy their software. Their potential market has shrunk to a much more price-conscious base. If Windows users aren’t going to spend a lot of money on a computer, will they spend money on software?

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Remembering Apollo 8

Earthrise taken by Apollo 8

Earthrise from the Moon, Apollo 8, December 1968 (NASA).

Apollo 11 was not the alpha and omega of the entire Apollo program; last December, there was another 40th anniversary commemorated: that of Apollo 8, the first manned space mission to leave the vicinity of Earth and orbit the Moon. Subsequent events — i.e., six successful moon landings — have obscured just how significant that was seen at the time. Apart from the achievement in and of itself, the flight of Apollo 8 was seen as one bright spot in a year that saw a lot of pain — war in Vietnam, the Prague Spring, riots in France, the assassinations of MLK and RFK. The crew of Apollo 8 — Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders — were selected as Time’s men of the year for 1968 (cover).

Nowadays, Lovell is better known as the commander of Apollo 13, thanks to the movie; Borman and Anders have comparatively low profiles among the moon voyagers, since neither of them landed on the Moon. (I was disappointed, for example, that neither of them appear in In the Shadow of the Moon.) All three astronauts did, however, reunite for talk about Apollo 8 at 40th anniversary celebrations at the Newseum in Washington last November. NASA has video from the event on YouTube: part one, part two, part three.

PBS’s American Experience had an episode on Apollo 8 (Amazon.ca, Amazon.com), but I haven’t seen it.

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Apollo 11 crew at the National Air and Space Museum

Neil Armstrong

A public appearance by Neil Armstrong is rarer than a sighting of a megamouth shark, but he joined his Apollo 11 crewmates last night for the annual John Glenn lecture at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing. The Times has coverage of the event; NASA has video of the entire evening on YouTube and a photoset on Flickr.

(Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.)

The old men of Apollo

Apollo 14 crew back home

Apollo 14 astronauts in the Mobile Quarantine Facility aboard the USS New Orleans after their return from the Moon in February 1971. Left to right: Stu Roosa (command module pilot); Alan Shepard (commander); Ed Mitchell (lunar module pilot). Mitchell is the only surviving member of the crew: Roosa died in 1994 and Shepard died in 1998. (NASA)

I grew up in a world where people used to walk on the Moon. I was born two months before Apollo 16; the last moon landing, Apollo 17, took place before my first birthday. The moon landings took place in what was virtually a historical instant: only four brief years separated the first flight to the Moon, Apollo 8 in December 1968, from the last, Apollo 17 in 1972. We pivoted, as a species, from dreaming of going there to leaving it behind in hardly any time at all.

The astronauts who went there, from the first five NASA astronaut groups, were roughly the same age — peers who, for the most part, fought the same wars and flew the same aircraft before their selection as astronauts. And, as I’ve said before, they’re getting all getting old together, too. The surviving moon voyagers range in age from 73 (Charlie Duke) to 81 (Frank Borman); of the 24 who have travelled to the Moon, 18 are still alive, and of the 12 who have walked its surface, nine are still with us.

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My self-restraint is unstoppable

Over the past 24 hours, I have decided against buying several things that I can afford, would enjoy, and can make a case for using, but I just don’t need them badly enough right now. So, for now at least, while it would be fun to get some more camera lenses, a MacBook Pro, or an iPhone (which many of my friends seem to be getting), I’m going to hold off from buying any of them. There are scenarios in which each of these purchases would be justified, but they haven’t come to pass yet — I shouldn’t jump the gun. My bank account thanks me for allowing it to remain flush for a little while longer.

I will, however, be splurging on astrophotography gear (despite the fact that clear skies have been rarer than hen’s teeth lately). I have to have some fun — and astrophotography is something I’m really, really keen on right now.

LRO photographs Apollo landing sites

LRO image of the Apollo 14 landing site, with labels

I definitely love the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Even though it hasn’t achieved its final mapping orbit (which will result in images with two to three times greater resolution than at present), it’s managed to photograph five out of the six Apollo landing sites. I can’t wait to see what it’ll catch when it’s operating at full resolution; I’m already impressed. Via Bad Astronomy.

(Image credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center/Arizona State University.)

A classical music festival in the Pontiac

This is interesting: a six-concert classical music festival taking place not too far from here, on a farm just outside Luskville (about halfway between Shawville and Ottawa). Festival Pontiac Enchanté’s concerts take place in a converted hayloft that seats about 100 people; accordingly, the music program focuses on solosts, duets, trios and quartets. I may try to take one or two of them in, if I can find the time. Starts tomorrow. Via Classical Ottawa.

Belated eighth anniversary

I almost forgot: yesterday was this blog’s eighth anniversary. If you’ve been reading me for that long, or even for a substantial portion of those eight years, I’m quite frankly astonished: I’ve covered a lot of ground in that time, and the focus of my blogging has changed with my interests. When you add new interests and hobbies, diving into them wholeheartedly each time, as often as I do, you know you run the risk of trying the patience of your regular readers. A few of which, apparently, I have. Not many — most of you, I believe, are coming here from search results — but enough to keep doing this.

So … what should I write about next?

Delicious Library for the iPhone/iPod touch

Screenshot The iPhone/iPod touch version of Delicious Library has been pulled because it ran afoul of Amazon’s terms of service. This is a real pity, because the iPhone/iPod touch version of Delicious Library is fantastic. It syncs up with the desktop version via WiFi (sidestepping the iTunes sync), downloading your collection data onto your device. This is extremely handy when you have an iPod touch, because it means you don’t need a network connection to browse your own library — and browsing your own library is really handy in a bookstore when you’re trying to remember if you already own a book. Really well-implemented search, too. So: a real pity. Good thing it can’t be undownloaded — I’ve already got mine, and I won’t give it up!

Science fiction magazines and aspiring writers

A minor kerfluffle about whether or not The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction will be paying the writers for the stories that make it out of their forthcoming writer’s workshop (short answer: yes) reveals something about what has happened to the institution of the science fiction magazine in recent decades.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden’s response to the news that F&SF is running a writer’s workshop in the first place is that it’s “another step down the road to being a literary magazine oriented primarily to aspiring writers. Which is arguably a direction in which the ‘big three’ science fiction magazines have been going for a while.” That caught my attention: there’s something to that, I think. For one thing, it turns out that the circulation numbers for the “big three” science fiction magazines — Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction and F&SF — are comparable to those of the higher-end literary reviews (e.g., the Paris Review). For another, I think it’s extremely telling that the issue is whether workshop participants will be treated fairly — not whether the stories F&SF get from the workshop will be any good.

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Same snake, different lid

Shot while trying to escape

My Baird’s rat snake is apparently something of an escape artist. On October 12, 2002, I found him in my bathroom; he’d managed to muscle his way out of his cage thanks to loose knobs on the lid. And now he’s done it again: this morning, right in front of me, he managed to find a weakness in his lid and very nearly got out of his cage — as you can see in the poor shot I took above (I was working fast for obvious reasons). Now, I’m not entirely sure how he did this: I thought those snap-on grille lids were escape-proof, but clearly there was a weak point somewhere (possibly in the middle). I’ve weighted the lid down for now, but a more secure solution is no doubt required.

I’ve had a few snakes escape on me before, but not very often — the last time was, in fact, the October 2002 incident with this very snake. And I’ve never had an escape where I’ve lost the snake; I’ve always caught the snake in the act, or found the snake hanging around where it shouldn’t be. In other words, I’ve been a lucky bastard.

Equatorial mounts and polar alignment

On the astrophotography front, now that I’m reasonably flush again, it’s likely that I will be buying that equatorial mount some time this year (though, given the kind of weather we’ve been having, there hardly seems any point). So it behooves me to do a little research into how to perform a polar alignment on an equatorial mount. A rough alignment seems straightforward, though I’ve never done it; astrophotography requires something more precise. Astro Baby has a tutorial on using the polar scope to align the HEQ5 Pro (which is the mount I’ll almost certainly be getting). Andy’s Shot Glass has what looks like an excellent video tutorial on drift alignment, which is for when you need really exacting alignment — i.e., for astrophotography. But then, you don’t need an equatorial mount unless you’re doing astrophotography.

Previously: Gearing up for astrophotography.

The endangered highway rest area

Some states, facing budget shortfalls, are closing down highway rest areas they’ve been maintaining for decades. The Wall Street Journal and Good Magazine cover what is apparently the passing of an icon of the Interstate highway system (if you really want to wax nostalgic, there’s restareahistory.org). Here’s Good Magazine:

Across the country, rest areas like this one have been losing a long-fought battle to commercial alternatives, super-sized stops with eight blends of caffeine, free wifi, burgers, and gas. Traditional rest areas cost money to staff and maintain, and aside from the odd vending machine, don’t generate any direct revenue; Virginia expects to save $9 million (much of which has gone to minority- and female-owned maintenance contractors) by not maintaining these buildings. It’s a public expense, originally conceived when the highway system was new and the opportunities to stop far between. That’s harder to justify now that there’s a McDonalds and a gas station at every interchange. The flailing economy today has only made matters worse.
Last year, Louisiana closed 24 of its 34 stops, and Vermont has already shuttered four this year. In April, Wisconsin stopped staffing its welcome centers. South Carolina, meanwhile, is closing its stops two days a week (“budget cuts” say the signs on locked doors) and North Carolina one day a week (“budget shortfalls”).

Day by day, travel keeps getting just a little bit meaner. Via MetaFilter.

Eyes and eyeglasses

My retinas

My retinas: let me show you them. I had an eye exam on June 16, my first since 1994; my optometrist just sent me the images from the retinal screening. Apparently my retinas are healthy. My vision, on the other hand, has gotten a little worse over the past 15 years: it’s now +2.50/-0.75 — worse than the +1.50/-0.50 it was 15 years ago. Yes, you read right: I’m nearsighted in one eye, farsighted in the other; I believe I already told you that.

So now it’s time to replace my hideously beat-up, uncomfortable, unfashionable and now wrong eyeglasses with something new and up-to-date and suitable. Damned if I can figure out what looks good on me; everyone’s wearing these glasses with small, rectangular lenses and ginormous frames, which I’m just not used to. Kids these days, et cetera.