January 2010

Gaboon viper seized in Toronto

In Toronto yesterday, police responding to a noise complaint found a Gaboon viper in an apartment. Here’s the twist: the viper was being kept by the person making the complaint — the cops stopped by as part of the investigation. Of course, keeping venomous snakes is illegal in Toronto, so things happened, and the snake has been surrendered to the Toronto Zoo.

Moral: if you keep illegal animals, you may want to think twice about calling the cops. Or at the very least, you might want to keep your ferociously venomous snake discreetly out of view.

At least the snake wasn’t loose, like a certain cobra three years ago.

Snakes and orchids

Many people who want to get a pet snake find the idea of snake keeping a bit intimidating. This feeling isn’t helped when, as they surf the Web and read the pet manuals, they learn all the things that can go wrong with a pet snake. The health problems alone are enough to scare anyone stiff: mites and ticks, internal parasites, mouth rot. They may panic at the idea of shedding problems or wonder whether a cage is escape-proof. They worry about getting things just right: how much and how often the snake needs to be fed, the exact temperature of the cage.

If this sounds a bit neurotic, you’re probably right. The people who worry to death are the people who ask questions — so they’re the people I hear from. The people who don’t worry, the people who buy a snake without doing their homework — I don’t hear from them at all, and I don’t think very much of them either. Given a choice, I’d rather that they worry too much than not enough.

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Magic Mouse issues


Patti writes to share her frustrations with Apple’s new Magic Mouse:

So, I’ve decided I hate my Magic Mouse. It’s very cool in concept, but in actual use, it falls flat on its face. It goes through batteries like crazy (I think you’d mentioned that). But the worst thing is that it seems to take only the lightest touch to send a page reeling off into no-man’s land. I’m constantly pulling my pages back where I want them and it’s driving me nuts. I can’t seem to train myself not to rest my fingertips lightly on the mouse at times and that’s all it seems to take to get the scrolling going. I think I’m going to switch (regretfully) to a standard two-button mouse with scroll wheel. I’ll lose the cool factor, but at least I won’t spend 20 percent of my time putting pages back where they belong!
Have you any further thoughts on the thing now that you’ve been using it a while longer?

In my last entry about this mouse I mentioned that I found scrolling to be crazy sensitive; I’m hoping they tone it down somewhat in a software update or at the very least allow users to control it. It’s as though Apple’s test case was scrolling through documents or photo libraries, but they didn’t check to see if it was too sensitive for other applications.

Battery life has been shorter than expected: I’m already on my third set of batteries, though I’m using ordinary brand-name alkaline batteries. I suspect I’ll have to use rechargeables. There are reports that the Magic Mouse reports its batteries as dead when there’s still a 40 percent charge, and Magic Mice have been implicated in a recently fixed firmware bug that drained the batteries on Apple wireless keyboards. Magic Mouse power management may not be ready for prime time. Again, I’m hoping for a fix.

It’s still better than Apple’s previous mouse, though. Not that that’s saying much.

Previously: More Magic Mouse observations; First impressions: Apple’s Magic Mouse.

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The difference between Ganymede and Callisto

Ganymede, Callisto, Io, Europa (NASA/JPL/DLR)

A composite image of the four largest moons of Jupiter. From left to right: Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa. Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR.

Ganymede and Callisto are the two largest moons of Jupiter. They’re similar in size and chemical composition (half rock, half ice), and both may have subsurface oceans, but their differences — Ganymede has a differentiated core and is the only moon in the solar system with a magnetosphere — have been confounding planetologists. Researchers at the Southwest Research Institute have proposed an explanation that has to do with the Late Heavy Bombardment, approximately four billion years ago, when comets and asteroids pelted the Earth’s Moon and other terrestrial planets. When these impactors hit Ganymede and Callisto, the ice at the impact site melted. Ganymede is a lot closer to Jupiter than Callisto; according to the researchers’ model, thanks to Jupiter’s gravity, about twice as many impactors hit Ganymede than hit Callisto — and they hit a lot harder, too. The net effect is that a lot more of Ganymede’s ice turned to liquid water, and the remaining rocky materials sank and settled in the core. Neat. News coverage: Astronomy, CBC News, Universe Today.

Callisto escaped a lot of the Late Heavy Bombardment because it’s so far away from Jupiter — at about 1.9 million kilometres, it’s the most distant of Jupiter’s four major (Galilean) moons. That distance means it’s not in an orbital resonance with the other three moons (Io, Europa and Ganymede are in a 1:2:4 resonance, which means that Io completes four orbits for every two of Europa’s and one of Ganymede’s). It’s still tidally locked, though. Callisto is also far enough away that it does not receive nearly as much radiation as the other major moons. Its 0.01 rem per day is a lot more manageable than Ganymede’s 8 rem per day (nearly six times the yearly limit for radiation workers), Europa’s 540 rem per day (60 percent fatality after 30 days), or Io’s 3,600 rem per day (100 percent fatality after seven days). If human beings are going to set up a base in the Jupiter system, it’s going to be on Callisto.

Make model trains pink, so girls will like them

A pink GG-1 The strangest example of what Matt calls “the ‘make it pink so girls like it!’ treatment” are a pair of pink O-scale train sets — a pink GG-1 and a pink steam train — from the Williams division of Bachmann Trains that we saw (and flinched at) in the latest Micro-Mark catalogue. I’m not sure what making a GG-1 pink does, other than maintain model railroading’s male and retrograde image. How long have these been in production? Decades?

Astrophotography is about more than just equipment

The Daily Telegraph has a story about British astrophotographer Peter Shah, who’s taken some awfully good photos with amateur equipment. I don’t think the Telegraph knows much about amateur astrophotography: while Mr. Shah’s work is pretty good, comparing it to Hubble imagery is a bit much; there are plenty of astrophotographers out there doing equally good work — or better. (Mr. Shah is, on the other hand, better at promotion: he’s self-published a book of his photos. Nice!)

And calling Mr. Shah’s equipment “modest” is a bit misleading: £20,000 (about $34,000 Canadian) is well within the range of the astrophotographers’ kit I discussed in September. It’s “modest” in the way that spicy food is “medium” — i.e., it’s not synonymous with “mild”: it packs a punch, but it’s not nearly as lethal as some other stuff out there. Mr. Shah shoots with a very good astronomical CCD through an eight-inch astrograph on a Losmandy G11 mount, attached to a concrete pier in a dedicated observatory (the telescope is the cheapest part of this package). This, or something equivalent, is the most that most astrophotographers will realistically be able to aspire to. Fortunately, Mr. Shah’s example shows us that you can do very, very good work with what is good-quality, not-inexpensive but attainable equipment.

My own astrophotography rig is about one-tenth the cost of Mr. Shah’s, but with practice I should be able to do some serious work with it. I’ve been poking through a couple of astrophotography groups on Flickr, and I’ve been amazed at the results some astrophotographers have gotten with inexpensive 80mm apo doublet refractors — which bodes well for me. Short of an imaging light-pollution filter and an autoguider, I already have everything I need in terms of equipment.

On the other hand, I’ve seen some pretty mediocre work — even from people using high-end gear. Owning a 16-megapixel cooled astronomical CCD and a 24-inch Ritchey-Chrétien does not automatically make for good astrophotography, just as owning a Hasselblad or a Leica does not automatically make you a good landscape photographer. Astrophotography is not a point-and-shoot affair: there are a lot of tasks — collimation, polar alignment, accurate focusing, image processing — that take time and practice to get good at. I’m just getting started, and I figure it’ll take me years to exhaust the capabilities of my current gear.

It’s easy to focus on the equipment, but you can accomplish an awful lot with modest gear if you know what you’re doing, and the best gear won’t help you much if you don’t.

Rite of Passage

Book cover: Rite of Passage Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage — a hidden gem of a young-adult novel that won the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1968. A thoughtful book that charts the development of Mia, a girl aboard a city-sized Ship that travels between backwater colony worlds, who is about to embark on her Trial — a month spent trying to survive on one of said colony worlds, whose residents barely tolerate Ship citizens. It holds up well against successors in the same genre, i.e., novels about juveniles that aren’t really juveniles, with young female protagonists, such as John Barnes’s Orbital Resonance, Joe Haldeman’s Starbound, or John Scalzi’s Zoe’s Tale. Personally, I think it compares favourably to Ender’s Game.

Panshin is a science fiction critic well-known for his work on Heinlein, including a controversial book-length study of Heinlein’s works, Heinlein in Dimension, which won a Hugo. It’s possible to think of Rite of Passage as following in the tradition of Heinlein’s juveniles — it has resonances with many of the Heinlein juveniles I’ve read, particularly Starman Jones — but, as Panshin recounts in his essay, Rite of Passage and Robert Heinlein, Rite of Passage was a reaction to Heinlein, not a pastiche of him.

I wanted to write a science fiction story that would use everything I’d learned about SF storytelling from Robert Heinlein to present a situation of relative power in which I could imagine Heinlein supporting an abuse of strength taken as a matter of right and privilege, but my character, because of the events of the story, would not.

As it turns out, Panshin was reacting to the shift in Heinlein’s attitude that came between Have Spacesuit — Will Travel and Starship Troopers — that latter book having generated more award-winning responses than any other novel in the field (see also Haldeman’s Forever War). The result is a deeply moral book that explicitly rejects Heinlein’s might-makes-right attitude.

You should also read Jo Walton’s entry on Rite of Passage.

Rite of Passage by Alexei Panshin

Why I spend a lot on computers


Charlie Stross on why he uses Macs. Never mind what he says about appreciating good industrial design, what rings true for me is his argument that if he’s going to spend 60 hours a week looking at a computer, he’d rather be working with a well-designed system.

I have better things to do with my time than nurse a balky, badly designed system that shits itself all over my hard disk on a regular basis, or spends half its time running urgent maintenance tasks that stop me getting stuff done.
I could write while sitting on a cheap IKEA stool in front of a kitchen table, banging away on a netbook loaded with Windows XP. But after a week, my back and my wrists would hurt and I’d be bleeding from the eyeballs every time I looked at the screen. It’d be like spending sixty hours a week driving a cheap Chevrolet Shitweasel instead of a Mercedes: sure, think of the savings — but the pain will get to you in the end. … If you drive to and from your day job for an hour a day, you’d seriously consider buying a more comfortable car. A better, more comfortable computing environment costs peanuts in comparison.

I spend all day in front of my computer, and I use the heck out of it; it’s worth it to me to spend a lot of money on a good computer (and a decent desk and chair, for that matter). As it happens, I consider Macs to be good computers, and I feel happy and productive using them, so I have no qualms spending extra to buy them.

Concomitantly, I spend less than other people do in other areas: I work from home and don’t get out much, so I don’t buy a lot of clothes and don’t have a monthly cellphone plan. If I had a job that required me to be on the road a lot, my clothes-and-mobile-phone budget would be a lot higher, and we’d probably have more than one car. Similarly, if I used my home computer only occasionally, I might care less whether I had a Mac, and I’d probably have a less powerful machine.

The end of the Ottawa Valley Railway

In 1996, the Ottawa Valley Railway took over operations on the Canadian Pacific’s former secondary main line between Smiths Falls and Sudbury under a 20-year lease. If I recall correctly, the OVR’s traffic was largely between Témiscaming and Sudbury; traffic between Mattawa and Smiths Falls was almost entirely CPR bridge traffic, taking a short cut between Montréal and Sudbury rather than taking the long way through Toronto along their main line.

With the recession, rail traffic is down, and the CPR has consolidated all of its trains along its mainline. There hasn’t been any bridge traffic along the OVR in months (I noticed something was up in Renfrew last weekend, when I saw that the tracks were completely unplowed). And indeed, something was up: RailAmerica, the OVR’s parent company, has filed for early termination of its lease on the line. Up and down the line in the Ottawa Valley, communities are freaking out about the possibility of losing their rail line: see the local media coverage in Sudbury, North Renfrew, Pembroke, Arnprior, West Carleton and Smiths Falls. From what I can tell, traffic between Témiscaming and Sudbury will continue, at least for now, but the CPR is now deciding whether to restore traffic on the line between Pembroke and Smiths Falls.

CN tore up its competing track between North Bay and Pembroke years ago; if this line is abandoned, the only track remaining in the Ottawa Valley will be the CN line (formerly the Ottawa Central) between Pembroke and Ottawa, which runs through Pontiac County — and these articles make passing reference to its potential demise (though I haven’t been able to track that down online).

Having said that, the OVR has had no local traffic between Mattawa and Smiths Falls, so — as is often the case when rail lines face abandonment — the impact is more potential than actual. Doesn’t stop local politicians from fretting.

University administration: a growth industry

It comes as no surprise that university administration has expanded so dramatically over the past two decades, to the point where “20 cents is now spent on central administration for every dollar spent on instruction and non-sponsored research; back in 1987-88, 12 cents went to administration.” (I recall similar things being said about the growth of university administration during faculty contract negotiations at the University of Winnipeg in the early 1990s.) Perplexingly, administration seems to be the only thing growing at universities, apart from externally funded research: as a percentage of total funds spent, teaching, unfunded research, libraries and suchlike are down, though it’s possible that spending is up in real terms.

Well, one other thing has grown at universities: tuition fees. Twenty years ago, tuition cost about a third what it does now — about $1,500. (By the time I hit grad school, that number had doubled, mind you.) Now you know what your tuition pays for.

The bureaucracy is expanding to support the needs of the expanding bureaucracy — so what else is new? I’ve been dismayed to see central administrations expand at just about every institution I’ve seen, and they all have one thing common: a complete disconnect from what the institution is supposed to be doing. A lot of reports and consultations, a lot of self-interested careerism, and if there’s an impact on operations, it’s rarely to the good.

It is, in other words, a cancer.


I’m quite susceptible to positive feedback; when I get it, I’m encouraged to keep at whatever it is I’ve gotten it for. I’ve been getting a lot of positive feedback for my astrophotography. On Flickr, the most popular photos I took in 2009 were, by far, this shot of the Moon and this attempt at star trails photography. Even if I’ve been posting my photos to all the relevant astrophotography groups, the resulting feedback has been gratifying — and maybe a little surprising: I didn’t think they were all that good. I’ve seen better, and want to do better (which, you will agree, is the right attitude to take if you want to get good at something).

Framed This year’s Christmas gifts were in the same vein. First, that Moon photo was surreptitiously, printed, framed and presented to me as a gift. It now hangs above my piano. And second, Jennifer presented me with a Sky-Watcher eight-inch Newtonian reflector, with the intent of my using it for astrophotography. It’s not a true astrograph, and may need a new focuser and a Paracorr to really excel at that task, but from all accounts it’s a very good scope with a great bang for the buck, and it should be light enough for the HEQ5 Pro mount (I’ll find out soon enough, probably in the spring).

I’m getting the distinct impression that I should keep at the astrophotography.