May 2010

Ambassadors from Earth

Book cover: Ambassadors from Earth The fifth volume of the University of Nebraska Press’s Onward Odyssey: A People’s History of Spaceflight series, Jay Gallentine’s Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft is intended as a history of the exploration of space using unmanned space probes from the Explorer and Sputnik programs to the Voyager program. Like the other two books in this series that I’ve read, it’s largely based on interviews with the key people involved. This is, in other words, an oral history rather than a definitive account. Also like those other books, it gives a vivid, behind-the-scenes look at how these programs were developed, in all their improvised, chaotic and bureaucratic glory.

There is much of interest here, but Gallentine’s coverage is surprisingly patchy: for example, it covers the early Luna, Mariner and Venera probes in some detail, but omits the later craft, as though the early failures were more interesting than the later successes. Much attention is given to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory: the development of the Grand Tour — what eventually became JPL’s Voyager 1 and 2, is described in loving detail, but only passing reference is made to Pioneer 10 and 11 (Ames projects), and the Viking program (run from Langley) is barely mentioned at all. A substantial amount of attention is given to Mike Minovitch’s campaign to be recognized as the “inventor” of gravity-assisted spaceflight — a bit of dirty laundry that did not warrant so much detail. Gallentine may well have been a prisoner of his source material: not enough on some subjects, too much on others, and reluctant to throw away or to winnow out what he has.

Nor is the book improved by Gallentine’s style: I’m a big fan of informal writing, but Gallentine’s prose is not only too casual, it’s purple, and verges too far at times into the smart-assed or chuckleheaded; the result is a jarring sense of bathos.

Ambassadors from Earth by Jay Gallentine

Andy Horner, 1961-2010

Someone we know was killed over the weekend. Andy Horner died in a highway accident Sunday morning when his motorcycle collided with an SUV making a left-hand turn on Highway 28 near Bancroft, Ontario. Here is the initial coverage from the Peterborough Examiner; here is the follow-up story identifying Andy. Here’s the obituary.

We were fond of Andy, and thought he was a real stand-up guy, but we didn’t know him that well. He was our auto mechanic, and we swore by him; he was the kind you trust and recommend and follow if he changes garages. A man of integrity and decency. From what I can tell, his loss has shaken everyone up around here.

Canadian iPad data plans

Last month, I said that “if the Canadian iPad data plans are anything like those offered by AT&T in the U.S., I’m in trouble.” Lo and behold, Rogers unveiled its iPad data plans yesterday, and they are basically similar to those from AT&T: 250 MB for $15 per month, or 5 GB for $35 (both plans including access to Rogers’s Wi-Fi hotspots, not that there are all that many). No contracts.

Not everyone is happy about it. Canadian mobile phone companies don’t offer unlimited data. It didn’t help that a $20 plan that allowed you to share an existing data plan with an iPad was posted on Apple’s page yesterday in error — no such plan exists, says Rogers, but it didn’t stop people from fulminating against it. Or against it not being there.

The people doing the most complaining are those who already have a data plan from Rogers, but I doubt that most people with an iPhone also need a 3G-equipped iPad, because they’re already going to have a healthy data plan included in their monthly phone bill. In that case, if you must have an iPad, get the Wi-Fi-only model instead, and use your iPhone when you’re not near Wi-Fi.

I see the 3G data option as a fall-back for when you can’t have Wi-Fi. I’m mostly around a Wi-Fi network, but there have been times when I’ve wanted Internet access where there was a cellphone signal but no open Wi-Fi. It would cost me $180 a year (or less: with no contract, you can switch the plan off and on as needed) for occasional on-the-go Internet. I’m not sure that’s a bad deal. I doubt I’d need more than that unless I was on a contract — during which I could easily switch to the 5 GB plan.

Yes, I’m probably in trouble here. I’ve got until the 28th.

Update: Noting for future reference the following iPhone Central articles on using the AT&T 250 MB data plan, which will be applicable here: How much does 250 MB get you? and Managing your 250 MB iPad 3G plan.

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PHP superglobals as register globals workaround

My hosting company is upgrading those few remaining domains still running creaky old PHP 4 to PHP 5. That means me: I’ve been with them long enough that PHP 4 was the default when I set my websites up, and I never bothered to upgrade. It’s happening in about two weeks, but this week I decided to get ahead a bit — upgrade to PHP 5 myself and see what happens (read: see what breaks). My main concern was whether my ancient install of Movable Type would still run under PHP 5 (spoiler: yes), so I backed up my blogs and pulled the switch. Everything on the blog side still worked.

But it turns out that a number of my pages still used register globals, which are disabled in newer versions of PHP (or at least less ancient versions) for security reasons. The PHP Group: “When on, register_globals will inject your scripts with all sorts of variables, like request variables from HTML forms. This coupled with the fact that PHP doesn’t require variable initialization means writing insecure code is that much easier.”

Without register globals, my contact forms and the Trails section, among other things, stopped working properly. Fortunately, I was able to get them working again quickly without major code rewrites, which is good because I’m a lousy coder. (This site is what you get when a writer thinks he can design web pages.) The workaround is to use superglobals like $_GET["var"] and $_POST["var"] — essentially, if I want to do something like burstall_pass.php?photo=1, I have to add $photo = $_GET["photo"]; at the appropriate point in the page. Which is what I did, and it works fine.

This is, shall we say, not new, but I’ve never been on the bleeding edge of web design.

Some Canadian advice about the British election

Watching the British elections, and the rather strong performance of the Liberal Democrats, I’m reminded of a couple of provincial elections that took place in Canada: Manitoba’s in 1988, and British Columbia’s in 1991. Both of those elections have the following in common with the current British election campaign:

  1. The incumbent party is deeply unpopular and is facing electoral defeat.
  2. The official opposition party, however, is still held in suspicion by a large part of the electorate.
  3. The leader of the third party puts in a strong performance during a televised debate, introducing an unpredictable element into the campaign.

In 1988, the Manitoba NDP was facing collapse, but unpleasant memories of the last Tory government were fresh enough in enough voters’ minds that they more comfortable voting Liberal, particularly given the high personal popularity of their leader, Sharon Carstairs, who’d clobbered the two main leaders in a debate during the previous election in 1986.

British Columbia’s Social Credit party was also imploding in 1991, but the electorate was sufficiently polarized that traditionally right-of-centre voters were unwilling to vote for the goddamn socialists (i.e., the NDP). Again, a strong debate performance by then-Liberal leader Gordon Wilson gave voters an alternative to holding their noses. (Wilson had to go to court to be included in the debates; he made the most of it when he got there.)

In both cases, the third party finished a strong second, with the incumbent party reduced to third place. We’ll see what happens in the U.K. tomorrow.

Now, televised debates are old hat here, as are three-way campaigns; the Brits, never having had debates before the three held during this campaign, lack such experience. I doubt these conditions will ever be repeated: the two top parties, whoever they are, will not underestimate the third-party leader again. The dynamic of the scrappy third-party leader calling bullshit on the other two will simply not recur.

Similarly, Nick Clegg’s challenge will be to avoid losing momentum: lightning does not strike twice. The Manitoba Liberals dropped to third place in the following election two years later. And while the B.C. Liberals eventually absorbed the remnants of Social Credit and took power in 2001, Gordon Wilson lost the leadership only two years after that breakthrough election in 1991, for rather sordid reasons. If the electorate hands you a gift, do not fritter it away.

Pretzel puts herself through it again


Say hello, again, to Pretzel, our oldest female corn snake and the first snake I bought when I got back into snake-keeping in 1999. (She was at least a young adult back then, so she’s at least 13 or 14 now, and probably older than that.)

You may remember that we stopped breeding Pretzel a few years ago because she was putting everything into egg production. After she laid her clutch, she’d be extremely gaunt, and needed lots of feeding up before she looked normal again. This is one thing when baby snakes are part of the bargain, quite another when some or all of the eggs fail to hatch. She was putting her body through all that for nothing, so we got her away from her mate, Trouser, and kept her by herself (or, as now, with another female corn snake).

Anyway, after a few years of feeding her up and keeping her away from any and all corn snake males, she seems to have gone and ovulated again: she’s fat and squishy at the back end and has been refusing meals. The eggs are almost certainly not fertile, unless her cagemate is a secret male or she’s been retaining sperm for three years, which means she’s putting her body through all this for nothing. Again.

In the wild, snakes only reproduce during good years: if times are lean and the hunting is poor, females simply don’t ovulate; they retain the sperm until the following year, if necessary. It seems that, beyond a certain point, excess nutrition is put into egg production regardless of whether the snake has mated. Not every snake in my care has done this, but a few have: Big Momma, my original female red-sided garter snake, dropped slugs in her first year with us, and Lucy the bullsnake once dropped infertile eggs before being introduced to a male.

But it’s really annoying when Pretzel does it, because she leaves nothing behind for herself — and if you feed her up too much afterward, she’ll simply put it back into egg production. No wonder she’s as small as she is, even at her age.

Previously: Pretzel’s bad eggs; Pretzel lays 17 eggs; More evidence of an early mating season; Snakes in autumn; Mites, eggs and hibernation plans.

Introducing Prime Focus

I told myself I wouldn’t start any new projects. However, in an effort to prevent pretty space pictures from completely taking over this blog, I’ve started a tumblelog on the subject of space photography. It’s called Prime Focus. It’ll be a spot where I can post my look-at-the-pretty gushings over the latest imagery from Hubble and other space telescopes, Cassini and other spaceprobes, ground-based observatories, and amateur astrophotography; it’ll also be where I can dump astrophotography-related links.

It’s a tumblelog, so it’s strictly links and photos (with captions); if I have anything more substantial to say on the subject, it’ll still be here.

Books read: April 2010

Here’s what I read in April:

Book covers for books read in April 2010 Starbound by Joe Haldeman (2009): sequel to Marsbound, which I blogged about in October 2008. Some familiar characters, plus some new ones, travel to a distant star to plead humanity’s case before the Others, who nearly wiped humanity out at the end of the last book; meanwhile, Earth is building an armada in case their mission fails. With the same quotidian (if downright pedestrian) detail of its predecessor and the tropes and techniques found in many of Haldeman’s works (humans facing aliens’ judgment, multiple narrative viewpoints). Enjoyable but not his best.

Accelerando by Charles Stross (2005): seminal novel of the Singularity (AKA “Rapture of the Nerds”), as important a book as Neuromancer in its time, more infodense than an augmented Bruce Sterling on amphetamines. Redolent in many ways of Clarke’s Childhood’s End, but for the Internet age, and with better characters (human and otherwise). And, unlike Clarke’s novel, it asks the next question: human transcendence? Now what? I read this as an ebook; it’s available as a free download.

Starbound by Joe Haldeman
Accelerando by Charles Stross