November 2009

First impressions: Apple’s Magic Mouse


I picked up Apple’s new mouse, the Magic Mouse, yesterday. It was the first time it was in stock at Apple’s Ottawa retail store when I visited it; I’ve been trying to get one for about a month. Apparently, people have been snapping them up as fast as they come in, no doubt desperate to replace Apple’s previous attempt at a mouse, the shittiness formerly called the Mighty Mouse (but since renamed due to trademark issues).

The Magic Mouse addresses two major irritants of the Mouse Formerly Known as Mighty:

  1. The Mighty Mouse’s scroll ball would get gunked up within months, rendering it unusable in one or more directions (and cleaning it was a pain); nearly the entire top surface of the Magic Mouse — everything north of the Apple logo — is multi-touch, with momentum scrolling. If you have an iPod touch or an iPhone, you’ll recognize the effect.
  2. The Mighty Mouse supposedly had left- and right-button clicking depending on where you clicked the mouse, but this was unusable: if I merely rested a finger on the right side of the mouse, it interpreted it as a right-button click. Needless to say, I had to disable the right mouse button. The Magic Mouse, on the other hand, fixes it — kind of. If you rest a finger on the right side of the mouse and click with your index finger, you’ll get a left-button click. But if you rest a finger on the left side of the mouse and click on the right side, you’ll get a left-button click — in other words, they only fixed half of it. Maybe they decided that fixing the other half created more usability problems than it solved.

I’m still getting used to the shape of the mouse: it feels entirely too flat for my admittedly large hands. And it’s my first wireless mouse; it’s still too early for me to say how well that works.

Blanding’s Turtle habitat threatened in Kanata

A road project in the Ottawa suburb of Kanata may threaten a population of Blanding’s Turtles in the area, the Ottawa Citizen reports; herpetologists are using frankly apocalyptic language to describe the impact of the Terry Fox Drive extension on the local turtles. There’s a rush on to get the extension built before March 2011 to qualify for federal stimulus funding. On the other hand, the turtles, which are listed as a threatened species, should come under the protection of the provincial Endangered Species Act, under which destroying habitat is a distinct no-no.

Here’s a map of the Terry Fox Drive extension:

The area inside the road’s arc will be developed; outside the arc, the land will be left in its natural state.

Blanding's Turtle at Mud Lake Ottawa is a surprisingly good place for turtles, which are still found in awfully built-up areas of the city (see, for example, Michelle Tribe’s photo of a Blanding’s Turtle at Mud Lake, right). They also get quite a bit of positive press, thanks in no small part to a local turtle rescue that pioneered the use of turtle crossing signs. Hopefully, road mortality won’t wipe them out — which is precisely the worry about the Terry Fox Drive extension.

Update, Nov. 25 at 6:05 PM:

Yesterday’s Citizen suggests that the project is going to go ahead anyway, with much mitigation work promised.

The $47.7-million Terry Fox Drive extension should go ahead next spring, despite concerns raised over the threatened Blanding’s turtle, said Kanata North Councillor Marianne Wilkinson, whose ward includes the proposed project. …
“The road is already needed. The road is going to come anyways. Is waiting two years going to make a difference? I suspect not,” Wilkinson said. “If they do that, that will cost the city $46 million because we will not get the federal and provincial money. We lose the funding, we still get the road.”

So apparently it’s a fait accompli, even before construction begins — and this in a city that takes decades to build anything. (How come interprovincial bridges and light rail don’t work this quickly?)


Robert J. Sawyer notes the launch of a new science fiction convention in Toronto: SFContario, the first iteration of which will take place November 19 to 21, 2010 at the Ramada Plaza Hotel in downtown Toronto. (I stayed there last month, oddly enough. Avoid the restaurant.)

Toronto has other SF conventions — in particular, Ad Astra, which takes place in early spring. (The next one is scheduled for April 9 to 11, 2010.)

Though I’m a lifelong SF fan, I’ve never actually been to a convention, despite thinking about it really hard every now and then. Will have to rectify that at some point.

More entries below »

The war on homework

From the sound of it, children are getting assigned a lot more homework than they were when I was going through school. (Not that I ever did any significant amount of it anyway: the problem with being a smart kid is that you end up lazy and unmotivated.) This week, the Globe and Mail’s Erin Anderssen had two pieces on parents — yes, parents — who are fed up with the quantity and apparent repetitive pointlessnesses of their kids’ homework assignments, and are pushing back. Shelli and Tom Milley negotiated a “differentiated homework plan” for two of their children (not surprisingly, the Calgary couple are both lawyers). This article has more parents’ stories and gives a bit of the big picture:

There’s growing evidence that homework may hinder rather than help academic performance especially in early grades, and school boards have been revisiting their approach to it. But parents remain conflicted about how much their kids should do and how hard to push them — trying to balance a desire to see their child succeed against homework hostilities at the kitchen table.
While a survey by the Canadian Council on Learning found that the majority of parents felt that homework enhanced learning, more than 60 per cent said it was a source of stress in their homes. Many parents also quietly admit to offering more than just moral support — in a U.S. survey released last year, 43 per cent of parents (dads more often than moms) admitted that they had done their children’s homework.

One gets the impression that, when you factor in homework and extracurricular activities (team sports, music lessons, what have you), children today are expected to work longer hours than their parents.

There’s water on the Moon

LCROSS impact

The ejecta plume from the LCROSS upper stage 20 seconds after impact (NASA).

The big news in space last week was the announcement that the LCROSS probe, which along with its Centaur upper stage rocket smacked into Cabeus crater on October 9, has discovered water on the Moon.

Now, this isn’t exactly a surprise: the possibility of water is precisely why NASA sent LCROSS there. The idea was that water ice might persist in craters near the lunar poles that never saw sunlight. Water molecules don’t tend to survive on the lunar surface: sunlight tends to break water molecules apart. So the plan with LCROSS was to smack something big — i.e., the Centaur stage — into a crater they thought might contain water and then analyse the ejecta plume spectroscopically (before LCROSS itself crashed). The data revealed at least 100 kilograms of water vapour — which principal investigator Tony Colaprete called “a significant amount.”

Coverage: Astronomy; Bad Astronomer; Sky and Telescope; Universe Today.

The presence of water is everything from the perspective of setting up a permanent base: if there’s water on the Moon, you might not have to take it with you. It has implications not only for potable water, but also for generating fuel for fuel cells and rocket propellants: water ice from craters in permanent shadow could be electrolicized using power generated by solar cells set up on nearby mountains in permanent sunlight. It’s why talk of a permanent lunar base has generally assumed that it would be at the poles — because such talk assumed the existence of water at the poles. That may no longer be merely an assumption.

Cats and snakes in the wild

Bob writes, “I just heard the debate on KQED’s Forum regarding the Sharp Park Golf Course. One of the speakers said that cats may be the principle killer of the [San Francisco Garter] Snake. Do you know if this is a valid statement and if so what is being done to stop the cats?”

Bob’s referring to the debate over Sharp Park, a golf course owned by the City of San Francisco (but is located in nearby Pacifica) that serves as habitat for the endangered San Francisco garter; I covered the story on here and here.

But he’s also talking about the impact that feral and domestic cats have on local wildife populations, which has been an increasing concern among conservationists. No matter how tame, cats are born hunters; if left outside, they will do what they do best. And with 100 million cats in the United States alone, that adds up to a lot of dead wildlife. From the fact sheet Facts on Cats and Wildlife: A Conservation Dilemma:

Continue reading this entry »

Remembering Apollo 12

Pete Conrad at Surveyor 3

Pete Conrad at the Surveyor 3 spacecraft; the Apollo 12 lunar module is in the background. November 20, 1969. Credit: Apollo 12 crew/NASA.

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the launch of Apollo 12, the second manned lunar landing. Each Apollo mission had its own memorable highlights, and 12 had plenty: not least of which the fact that the Saturn V rocket was struck twice by lightning during the launch. It was also the first precision landing, with the lunar module coming down within 200 metres of Surveyor 3.

Apollo 12’s lunar module pilot, Alan Bean, turned himself into a full-time painter after his retirement from NASA. He’s been painting scenes from the Apollo mission for years, incorporating bits of his uniform and moon dust into his paintings, and texturing them with his boot prints. An exhibition of his work opened at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in July and runs until January 13, 2010; I bought the accompanying book, Alan Bean: Painting Apollo (,, which reproduces his work since 1982. It’s interesting stuff, not at all photorealistic — an honest attempt to portray in paint what he saw and experienced, and definitely a change from the books that collect Apollo-era photos that have been published this year.

Miles O’Brien (the former CNN space reporter) has this video of Alan Bean giving a tour of the exhibition:

Here’s a New York Times article about Bean and his art from last June.

MEC expands its bike business

Mountain Equipment Co-op has been selling bike parts and equipment for as long as I’ve shopped there, but now they’re selling bicycles in some of their stores. (Videos here.) Other bike shops are not happy about it, and they’re not taking it well: “Some bike-parts suppliers have even refused to ship to MEC, while one Quebec distributor last month dropped a major Canadian parts manufacturer from its roster because the supplier is selling to MEC.” I had no idea the specialty bike industry was such a closed shop: cheap bikes at Wal-Mart or Canadian Tire are one thing, but MEC’s invading their turf.

Fewer dinosaur species and metaplastic bone

Dracorex hogwartsia. Illustration by ArthurWeasley There may have been a lot fewer dinosaur species than we thought. New research by paleontologists Mark Goodwin and Jack Horner reclassifies two pachycephalosaurid (dome-headed) dinosaurs, Dracorex hogwartsia (pictured; named for the Harry Potter books) and Stygimoloch spinifer, as juvenile forms of Pachycephalosaurus. A number of other dinosaurs have recently been reclassified or proposed as juvenile or elderly individuals of other species, including Nanotyrannus lancensis, which might be a juvenile of some other tyrannosaurid, and Torosaurus, which last month was reclassified as an elderly Triceratops.

Hold on — Torosaurus? How does that work? I thought Triceratops had a solid frill and Torosaurus had an open frill. How could Torosaurus be the same species with those big holes? The answer is metaplastic bone. From the ScienceDaily article:

[T]he so-called metaplastic bone on the heads of horned dinosaurs grows and dissolves, or resorbs, throughout life like no other bone, Horner said, and is reminiscent of the growth and loss of horns today in elk and deer. In earlier studies, Horner and Goodwin found dramatic remodeling of metaplastic bone in Triceratops, which led to their subsequent focus on dome-headed dinosaurs.
“Metaplastic bones get long and shorten, as in Triceratops, where the horn orientation is backwards in juveniles and forward in adults,” Horner said. Even in older specimens, such as the fossil previously named Torosaurus, bone in the face shield resorbs to create holes along the margin.

Metaplastic bone presumably also explains the morphological changes in the pachycephalosauria. Bottom line: dinosaur bone development may well have been quite different from what we’re used to — which makes figuring out which dinosaur was which from the bones a lot harder.

(Illustration by Wikipedia user ArthurWeasley.)

Shawville municipal election results

Municipal elections were held across Quebec yesterday. In Shawville, there was more competition than there has been since I moved here six years ago: the mayoralty and three of six councillor’s seats were contested. Which meant actual campaigning, with brochures, signs, and candidates knocking on the door. There was even at least one get-out-the-vote operation on election day!

Even with all the activity, and despite some awfully close results, all incumbents were re-elected. Here are the results (“x” marks an incumbent):

Armstrong, Albert (x): 545 (61.2%, +199)
Harris, Keith: 346 (38.8%)

Seat 2
Poisson-Hodgins, Sylvia (x): 455 (51.7%, +30)
Tubman, Kirk: 425 (48.3%)

Seat 3
Richardson, Royce (x): 550 (62.5%, +220)
Duggan, Dan: 330 (37.5%)

Seat 6
Hodgins, Jim (x): 444 (50.5%, +9)
Coles, George: 435 (49.5%)

Voter turnout was 69.35 percent: 903 of 1302 voters on the list cast ballots. To me that seems awfully high for a municipal election. Spoilage ranged from 12 to 24 ballots — between 1.33 and 2.66 percent.

John Beimers, Sandra Murray and Frank Stafford were acclaimed to their council seats; Beimers is, I guess, the one new face on council, replacing Keith Harris (who ran for mayor).