December 2009

Aperture fever has entered the pneumonic stage

Orion Monster Dobsonian Orion has lost its mind: the telescope and binocular company has announced three “monster” Dobsonian telescopes, with apertures of 36, 40 and 50 inches. Yes, 50. The 50-incher, which won’t be available for a year and a half, will have a 500-pound mirror and, fully assembled, will weigh 900 pounds and be more than 14 feet long. It will also cost $123,000 (U.S.).

These are easily the largest commercially available telescopes out there; even Obsession maxes out at 25 inches (Obsession discontinued its 30-incher a while back, and made a grand total of four 36-inch telescopes before the difficulties of manufacturing nearly killed them). There are observatories with smaller scopes than this; in the 50-incher’s product description, Orion says that they’re aware of only three 48-inch scopes in amateur hands.

Now we won’t be able to pick these up at a local telescope dealer: they’re built to order, with a 75 percent down payment. If Orion sells more than, say, five of these in a single year, I’ll be shocked. These are clearly halo products intended to build Orion’s brand equity — the telescopic equivalent of a fancy sports car at the top of the marque to help push sales of compact cars. For a company that mainly imports inexpensive Chinese-manufactured scopes, this is an interesting move. And by “interesting” I mean, of course, “batshit crazy.”

One more example of holyshittery: all telescopes come with a warning not to point it at the sun, because it could damage the scope or, worse, blind you. These telescopes’ warning is a bit more insistent: not only could this thing blind you, it could start fires: “Don’t point a Monster Dob at the sun! Just pointing this at the sun can instantly damage eyepieces and cause irreversible eye damage and burns. Use extreme caution leaving it uncovered during daylight. Concentrated sunlight from this much aperture can damage the telescope or set its surroundings on fire!”

McNally Robinson closes stores, seeks bankruptcy protection

Winnipeg-based independent bookseller McNally Robinson has filed for bankruptcy protection and is closing two of its stores — one in the Don Mills area of Toronto and one in Winnipeg’s Polo Park Shopping Centre. Two stores remain: its Saskatoon location and its flagship Grant Park Shopping Centre location in Winnipeg, the latter of which I’ve visited — great store. I have a lot of affection for this chain, having grown up bookish in Winnipeg and given them a not-insubstantial amount of my money, and am sad to see this happen. News coverage from CBC News, the Financial Post and, of course, the Winnipeg Free Press (follow-up stories here and here); see also McNally Robinson’s blog entry on the situation.

Update, Jan. 26: That was quick: McNally Robinson emerges from bankruptcy protection.

The system worked

People are pointing to last week’s attempted bombing of a Detroit-bound flight as evidence that the aviation security system failed. Narrowly defined, it did fail, in that someone with explosives managed to get on board a plane and tried to set them off. But I would suggest that we’re defining the subject too narrowly.

The fact that the airport screening system failed does not mean that Al Qaeda therefore succeeded — because, obviously, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab did not blow up the plane. If you consider passengers and flight crew part of the air security system, then the system worked, because they subdued him before he could carry out his plan. (Since 9/11, passengers have known that they have to resist terrorists, not cooperate with them, in order to survive.)

It comes down to what your security system’s goal is. Are you trying to prevent terrorists from commandeering or blowing up planes in mid-flight? Then it’s okay if they’re stopped in the plane by the flight crew, other passengers or air marshals. But if your goal is to prevent them from even boarding the aircraft, then you’ve got a much taller order. You can’t harden every target in the aviation sector.

So instead we get the latest round of lunacy applied to every passenger, and argue whether keeping everyone seated or shutting down all their electronic devices an hour after takeoff or an hour before landing, or banning carry-on bags, will make any difference at all. It won’t, if only because terrorist attacks are so profoundly rare. And because, as Bruce Schneier points out, we’re spending all our time trying to prevent a recurrence of the specific tactics of the last attempt — about which see this Globe and Mail article and this opinion piece by Schneier. Lots of individual freedom taken away for hardly any benefit.

We’re making a big mistake by focusing on airport screenings and no-fly lists. (You might have noticed that the bombings in London, Madrid, Bali and Mumbai had nothing to do with airplanes.) Counter-terrorism is more than that.

The point is to stop them. Does it matter that the passengers and flight crew stopped him, so long as he was stopped?

If we freak out because we foiled a bombing attempt, then the terrorists don’t have to succeed in their plots to win. They don’t even have to try very hard.

More entries below »

Bloom County: The Complete Collection

Book cover: Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Volume 1

I’m as happy as a clam at high water that the entire run of Bloom County is being published in book form for the first time (the original collections didn’t include every single strip). The first of five volumes is now out — my brother gave it to me for Christmas — with the second volume coming in April, which isn’t soon enough.

Volume one contains strips we haven’t seen since they ran in the newspapers — they didn’t make it into Loose Tails or Bloom County Babylon (, Some even had to be reproduced from less-than-pristine or low-resolution copies, but at least they’re there.

The early strips project a lot of exuberant chaos, and feature characters that disappear not too long afterward: Major Bloom, Limekiller, Bobbi Harlow, a local member of the Moral Majority, a local Ted Turner clone. Opus and Bill the Cat make early appearances, and we’ll have to wait until volume two for the Giant Purple Snorklewacker. Also, Chuck and Di show up an awful lot for some reason. As Berke Breathed himself notes in the annotations, the strip hadn’t found its voice yet.

About those annotations. Some of them are by the author; some of them are there to explain the early-eighties gags — thirty years later, the political and cultural figures that served as the butt of Breathed’s jokes are now apparently too obscure. Bloom County was a product of its times; are they really expecting to find a receptive audience for it among people who don’t know, for example, who Alexander Haig was?

Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Volume 1: 1980-1982 by Berkeley Breathed

A turducken update

Operation Turducken 11

I know that several of my readers are wondering how the turducken we had for Christmas dinner turned out. So, how was it? Apart from the fact that the cooking directions on the box were different from those on the packaging (and actual cooking time was something different still), and the fact that $70 is still an awful lot for holiday poultry, no matter how boneless it is and how much meat you end up getting, it was pretty good. Turducken is, in fact, pretty fucking delicious — in no small part due to the heavy seasoning on the outside of the turkey and in the pork sausage stuffing and the fact that the ambrosia that is duck fat ends up pervading everything. Aaah. I know you’ll want a good look at it: here are my photos of the cooking and carving. Don’t know if we’d do it again — as I said, $70 is an awful lot, especially for just three people — but I’m very glad we did it this time.

More Magic Mouse observations


After a month of using Apple’s new Magic Mouse, a couple more observations:

  1. The mouse’s touch surface can be crazy sensitive in some applications. Page scrolling seems to be fine, but when scrolling is used for zooming in, for example, games and online maps, a light nudge — even an inadvertent graze of the edge of the mouse — can be enough to zoom in or out halfway, as I found in Civilization IV and Google Maps. It’s actually quite hard to keep things under control.
  2. One unforeseen usability problem with the mouse’s symmetrical design: it’s possible to grab the mouse backwards if you’re not looking. Hilarity ensues when you try to use it that way and your mouse movements are flipped 180 degrees, and you wonder what the hell is going on until you see that faint gray Apple logo upside-down …

Previously: First impressions: Apple’s Magic Mouse.

As if the sickle claw wasn’t enough

Sinornithosaurus (model)

Sinornithosaurus was a small member of the dromaeosaurid family of dinosaurs — i.e., the raptors (think Deinonychus and Velociraptor). They were agile, fast predators with sickle-shaped claws — and, it increasingly seems, feathers: in 1999, a Sinornithosaurus millenii fossil was discovered in China with feather impressions, and other discoveries of fossil dromaeosaurids with feathers followed.

Now we may have to add another attribute to the feathers and the claws: a new study suggests that Sinornithosaurus was venomous. The researchers’ investigation found that “its upper teeth are grooved, long, and fang-like, and its upper jaw contained pockets that could have housed venom glands. These pockets are connected to the base of the teeth by narrow ducts.” If Sinornithosaurus was venomous, its fangs would have been more like those of a rear-fanged colubrid rather than a viper’s: venom flowing along grooved teeth, rather than being injected by ginormous, syringe-like front fangs.

Venomous snake dentition is still a rather new development in evolutionary terms, I guess, but venom itself may be 200 million years old, predating snakes, lizards and most of the dinosaurs.

Via io9. I took the above photo of a Sinornithosaurus model at the Canadian Museum of Nature in July 2008.

Not so idyllic

It’s a safe bet that most rural residents tend not to use words like “bucolic” to describe their surroundings, but urbanites who flee city life, chasing after visions of idyllic country settings, certainly do. Boy are they in for a rude awakening, as Martin Mittelstaedt reveals in Saturday’s Globe and Mail.

Rural life often has a bucolic image of neat farm fields and undulating hills, especially when contrasted with the crowded housing and traffic jams of urban living. People flee the degradation of cities for the countryside, but when they get there, they find anything but clean, green open spaces. From sewage-spreading to wind farms and gravel pits to garbage dumps, many people in rural areas are finding themselves involved in environmental issues that almost never afflict urban dwellers.

Maybe the cities aren’t so degraded, and the countryside quite so idyllic, as people think. Who’d have thunk it?

The cheap land afforded by rural areas means that a lot of eyesores get dumped out in the countryside, away from the madding crowds. And then there’s the dirty business of the rural economy — resource extraction, agricultural practices — that can ick out a city-dweller. And, as the article points out, local environmental activism doesn’t tend to get any help from national environmental groups — rural residents tend to be a little more disempowered. I know quite well what local environmental activists had to do on the two most recent files — uranium mining claims and an engineered landfill that would take trash from all of Gatineau.

Rural areas generally aren’t rich; what urbanites see as despoiling wilderness or ruining an area’s “quaint” rural character — everything from logging and mining to opening a big-box retailer — country folk often see as gainful employment that can be kind of scarce to come by. They don’t worship nature; they have to live in it. So there can be tensions between the people wealthy enough to retreat to the countryside and those who are too poor to leave it.

Operation Turducken

Operation Turducken 1

So I felt like doing something other than a turkey for Christmas dinner this year. Maybe a ham, maybe a duck, maybe a goose. Or, if I’m feeling particularly indecisive, how about three things in one: a chicken stuffed inside a duck inside a turkey — a turducken?

I’d heard about turduckens, but, since I had never seen one in the stores, I assumed they weren’t available here. Well, they are, and we’ve picked one up. So it’s turducken for Christmas this year — an odd choice, even more so because they seem to be a Thanksgiving item in the U.S. — but odd is interesting in our books.

It’s a U.S. import, which I guess makes sense — and, I guess, also explains the $70 price tag. It also comes in a box, which I didn’t expect.

More anon. Operation Turducken is under way. The bird bundle has been acquired; cooking and eating to follow at the appropriate juncture.

30 Doradus

R136 in 30 Doradus (Hubble image)

The huge stellar cluster R136, comprising massive O-type stars that will explode as supernovas within a few million years, resides within the Tarantula Nebula in 30 Doradus, about 170,000-190,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It’s the largest star-forming region in the Local Group of galaxies. The Hubble Space Telescope took this false-colour image between October 20 and 27, 2009, with its new Wide Field Camera 3; the view spans about 100 light years. Via Gizmodo and Universe Today. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O’Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee.

The trouble with Twilight

Dogshit Any book or movie that achieves popular success is bound to have its detractors and generate a certain amount of hate, especially when its popularity is fuelled mainly by teenage girls. But the hate on for Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series is something else. Meyer’s novels have been derided even by fans and writers of the young-adult, romance and vampire genres, with, it seems, special ick reserved for the last book of the series: see, for example, this very bad review by fantasy writer Elizabeth Hand (“Reader, I hurled.”) in the Washington Post.

The best bit of mockery I’ve seen is in the online comic strip Head Trip: see this one and this one.

But recently (no doubt due to the release of the second Twilight film, New Moon), the critique of the Twilight series has gone beyond simply calling it out for its insipidness. LiveJournal user kar3ning compares Bella and Edward to an emotionally or physically abusive relationship (via io9). And Wired’s Underwire blog has the 20 lessons girls learn from Twilight — see, for example, number four: “If a boy tells you to stay away from him because he is dangerous and may even kill you, he must be the love of your life. You should stay with him since he will keep you safe forever.”

Okay, that’s kind of creepy. And while I haven’t read the Twilight series, it does not sound like the kind of thing I’d be interested in reading, even if it didn’t sound relentlessly inane. I’m not into vampire stories, for one thing, and teenage girls and I tend not to share the same tastes. But when people start talking about the kind of messages girls are getting from the books they read, no matter what I think of the books, I start flinching. Because that sounds to me like that old Victorian reflex that says that girls need to be protected from inappropriate reading material — the reflex that, for example, bowdlerized Émile Zola’s novels when they were translated into English in the late 19th century. We are, in other words, in the middle of a latter-day moral panic.

Because, let’s face it: young girls have plenty of other ways to learn how to have a bad relationship.

Enough with the creepy. Let’s get back to the mockery.