June 2010

Summer plans

As of today, Jennifer is on summer vacation. I’m not, because as a self-employed yob, I exist in a state of quantum superposition: I have lots of free time and, at the same time, no free time at all, which is to say that I can’t so much as take a weekend or evening off without worrying about tasks left undone. It’s hard for me to leave work behind during a vacation: I’ve blogged about maps during family Christmas visits, for example. (Yes, I’m no fun.)

There were a number of trips we could have taken this summer — family visits, science-fiction conventions, star parties — but in the end we have decided, for the moment, not to go anywhere. We’re just too tired: the past year has been tough on both of us, and we could use a profound amount of downtime. And we’d like to take some time to get the apartment into shape. I’m planning to buy some new furniture — a new couch and new shelves for the kitchen — and we really ought to get the basement a bit more organized. A little paint here and there wouldn’t hurt either. There’s a lot to be done around here — as much as you can do, really, in a rental property — and we’ll probably need the whole summer to do it, if we also want a shot at the aforementioned downtime. And me getting some work done.

Instead, we’re issuing a general invitation to our friends and family to come and visit us this summer. While we’re both big-time introverts, we do need some social contact (especially me, since my work is done in isolation and I get out seldom). We’d enjoy the pleasure of company without having to travel great distances to get it. It doesn’t happen often enough.

(I’m not going to sell the virtues of visiting us because the pool of invitees should already know them. If, on the other hand, you’re reading this and you are neither friend nor family, and in fact do not know us at all, do not visit us.)

Up to our ankles in earwigs

We’ve been dealing with an earwig infestation this month, and we’re not alone: a number of people we’ve talked to in and around Shawville have said that they’ve never seen so many earwigs get into their homes before. While they’re apparently innocuous enough and only get into homes inadvertently, there are so many of them that up to half a dozen a day have found their way indoors — and if you know about my relationship with large insects (hint: total entomophobia), you know that something had to be done about that. So we’ve been dusting window sills, doorways and the foundation with diatomaceous earth, which is non-toxic but nonetheless kills earwigs (eventually). Jennifer also found dozens of them hiding under bags of soil and the garbage can, which she stomped pitilessly. With any luck, we’ll get the numbers down to the point where hardly any will end up in the house. I have no idea why there are so many this year.

See Health Canada’s Earwig Pest Note.

Web design for the iPad

Creating iPhone- and iPad-specific web pages doesn’t require browser detection scripts or coding a special website for them; it can be done in CSS. The trick is the media queries part of CSS 3, which the onboard Safari browser supports. Media queries allows you to create a custom stylesheet based on screen width and height, screen orientation (portrait or landscape), aspect ratio, colour vs. monochrome, and so forth.

An iPad-specific mobile site can be made with a stylesheet limited to maximum device width of 1024 pixels; the iPhone will ignore that stylesheet. You can also create a different look based on whether the iPad is being held in portrait or landscape mode — a website that rejiggers itself as you rotate the screen.

Media queries also allow you to create a web page that dynamically changes depending on how wide your browser window is — and not just in terms of how wide your text columns are. Here’s an article from A List Apart that discusses this topic.

More entries below »

A trip to the Indian River Reptile Zoo

Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake

Speckled Rattlesnake (Crotalus mitchellii) at the Indian River Reptile Zoo.

Thursday was Jennifer’s birthday. As it was also a provincial holiday and Quebec was closed for the day, we decided to mark it by a little trip to the Indian River Reptile Zoo, which we hadn’t visited in five years. It’s a little more than three hours each way, without stopping.

The Indian River zoo has always been a little different from other reptile zoos in Ontario. For one thing, the collection reflects the interests of the owner: if you like rattlesnakes or New World pit vipers, say, you’ll love it; if you can’t appreciate the distinction between a speckled rattlesnake, a rock rattlesnake and a black-tailed rattlesnake, you’ll probably walk around the zoo and say, “Huh, another rattlesnake.” That said, there are some interesting turtles there, as well as Gila Monsters, woma pythons and a black mamba, so if the collection’s emphases are eclectic, they’re at least different.

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Magnitude 5.0

USGS Shakemap

At 1:42 PM today, a magnitude-5.0 earthquake hit about 60 kilometres north of Ottawa. That’s not very far away, and earthquakes in this part of the world can be felt a lot further away because of the geography.

I’m not familiar with earthquakes. I first thought that a large truck had crashed into our building; Jennifer, for her part, thought that something was wrong with the boiler at her school. It was only when references to earthquakes from Ottawa residents started appearing in my Twitter feed that I clued in to what was going on. Then I jumped on Twitter and started reporting myself — yes, I totally became an xkcd comic.

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‘The Gulf was already dying’

Science-fiction writer Peter Watts:

Dead zones suffocating 20,000 square kilometers of ocean. Endangered wetlands, disappearing at the rate of over 300 Ha/day. Clouds of black viscous poison soiling the coastlines of four states.
And then the Deepwater Horizon blew up.
What, you thought those apocalyptic descriptions were of the spill? You thought the Gulf of Mexico was some pristine marine wilderness before those nefarious assholes from BP came along and ruined everything?
What are you, twelve?
Everything I’ve just described was old news long before April 20. Granted, the black tides were dinoflagellate blooms, not oil slicks; the dead zones came to us courtesy of the Mississippi, which delivers agricultural runoff from almost half the continental U.S. The wetlands — 40% of the U.S. total — were being decimated daily: by dredging, by condominiums and golf courses, by the collapse of the very substrate as oil and gas were sucked up from underneath.
Wile E. Coyote ran off the cliff decades back, was already halfway to the rocks below, and nobody gave a shit. Now you start wailing and gnashing your teeth, just because the anvil BP dropped into his arms is making him fall faster?
Me, I prefer to look on the bright side. The Gulf was already dying, just like the rest of the planetary conshelf. The fishers and tour guides were already dead men walking; the wetlands were already doomed. Nobody cared. Now they do, and I think that’s a good thing.

Talking Points Memo’s David Kurtz:

The Gulf is not a pristine environment. If your only exposure to the Gulf has been on the beaches of Florida, you might convince yourself that the Gulf is a deep blue aquatic wilderness. But as you travel west, the beaches give way to the marshes of the Mississippi delta, which are crisscrossed by oil and gas pipelines, manmade canals, and flood control levees. Further west, in Texas, the beaches reemerge, but shipping canals, giant refineries, and petrochemical factories persist. Over the horizon, in the Gulf itself, thousands of oil and gas wells pump night and day. …
The Deepwater Horizon disaster is as organic a product of human processes in the Gulf as Hurricane Katrina was a product of natural processes. Shipping, flood control, and natural resource extraction have taken a nearly century-long toll on the coast. The Gulf has been abused, exploited, fouled and taken for granted for so long and with such consistency that the shock and horror over this one incident becomes in its own way a salve for our consciences.

(On The Map Room, I’ve been posting entries featuring maps and satellite images of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I’ve got another one to post today.)

Street pianos

Play Me, I’m Yours is street art by Luke Jerram that’s going on right now on in New York City and London: 60 pianos in New York, 21 in London, available for members of the public to play. (It was in London last year, as well as a few other cities since 2008.) As a concept it’s neat, but I can’t help but wonder whether, outside artistic centres like New York and London, you wouldn’t end up with one version of “Heart and Soul” after another.

Books read: May 2010

Books read: May 2010 (covers; thumbnails)

So here’s what I read in May:

Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Volume Two: 1982-1984 by Berke Breathed. See this post for volume one. The second volume brings us Bloom County as I first encountered it, as it settles into its big silly prime: Oliver’s computer hacking and Binkley’s anxiety closet (replete with Giant Purple Snorklewacker) make regular appearances, and Bill the Cat dies. Ack!

Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft by Jay Gallentine: reviewed here.

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper. Classic science fiction now in the public domain and available as an e-book in many formats; I read it on my iPad. Light and engaging, on a par with the best Heinlein juveniles (which we’ve been reading a lot of lately), the plot hinges on whether the little fuzzy inhabitants of a colony world are sentient or not. Highly recommended.

Blindsight by Peter Watts also deals with the question of sentience and intelligence but in a far more sophisticated manner. It asks whether it’s possible to be intelligent without being conscious by taking people on the outskirts of human intelligence — including a resurrected vampire able to outthink regular humans by several orders of magnitude, a “zombie” with half a brain, a person who’s deliberately subdivided her brain into four personalities and a person whose brain is not limited to the meat inside his skull — and throwing them into a first-contact situation with an alien intelligence for which inscrutable is an understatement. Not an easy book by any means, but a profoundly thought-provoking one with a strong theme. No surprise it made the Hugo ballot after Watts, fighting obscurity, threw it online for free.

Bloom County: The Complete Collection, Volume 2: 1982-1984 by Berkeley Breathed
Ambassadors from Earth by Jay Gallentine
Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper
Blindsight by Peter Watts

The cost of a trip to Neptune: $4 trillion

Neptune (Voyager 2) How much would it cost to send a manned mission to Neptune before the end of the 21st century? About four trillion dollars. That’s the estimate of a study examining the question of manned missions to the outer planets (PDF), which used Neptune as a case study. The basic premise is to send six people, in living quarters roughly the size of the International Space Station, to and from Neptune within five years — it can’t be longer because of cosmic radiation, and then you’d have to add more shielding (to say nothing of additional consumables). Essentially, interplanetary travel much beyond Mars and the asteroids is pretty much a non-starter barring the development of ridiculously efficient methods of propulsion and preposterously lightweight radiation shielding. Via io9. (Image credit: Voyager 2 image of Neptune, NASA/JPL.)

The Pontiac’s seasonal population

This week’s Pontiac Journal, for an article on garbage collection, listed the permanent and seasonal populations for each municipality in the county. I didn’t know how many cottagers there were relative to the permanent population, so it caught my interest. There are 14,566 permanent residents in the Pontiac MRC, and, it turns out, 12,385 seasonal residents. Which is to say that for every 20 permanent residents, there are 17 seasonal residents — a lot more than I thought.

This seasonal population is not evenly distributed: municipalities with large cottaging areas have a lot more seasonal residents, whereas villages have few or none. This graph shows the raw numbers for each municipality:

Graph: Pontiac's permanent and seasonal population by municipality

It’s easy to see where the cottages are in this graph — and where the permanent residents aren’t. Mansfield is the largest municipality by population, but it also has cottaging areas; Bristol and Clarendon are agricultural townships with cottaging centres at Norway Bay, Richardson and Green Lakes, and Sand Bay.

And in some places the permanent residents are in the distinct minority during the summer. This graph charts the percentage of seasonal residents, where 1 equals 100 percent (i.e., there are as many seasonal residents as permanent residents):

Graph: Pontiac's seasonal population as percentage of the permanent population

Look at Sheenboro, whose permanent population (167) is the smallest of the 18 Pontiac municipalities; in the summer, that population is dwarfed by its 739 seasonal residents — nearly four and a half times as many.

When you have almost as many seasonal residents as permanent residents, you better believe that has implications for how this county runs — for its businesses, for the services provided, and for its politics.