Shallow Thoughts : : Aug

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 25 Aug 2006

Pluto is too a planet

The BBC had a good article today about the International Astronomical Union vote that demoted Pluto from planet status.

It was fairly obvious that the previous proposal, last week, that defined "planet" as anything big enough that its gravity made it round, was obviously a red herring that nobody was going to take very serious. Fercryinoutloud, it made the asteroid Ceres a planet, as well as Earth's moon (in a few billion years when it gets a bit farther away from us and ceases to be considered a moon).

But apparently there were several other dirty tricks played by the anti-Pluto faction, and IAU members who weren't able to be in the room at the time of the vote are not happy and are spoiling for a rematch. The new definition doesn't make much more sense than the previous one, anyway: it's based on gravitationally sweeping out objects from an orbit, but that also rules out Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune, all of which have non-satellite objects along their orbits.

And of course the public is pretty upset about it for sentimental, non-scientific reasons. Try searching for Pluto or "Save Pluto" on Cafe Press to see the amazing selection of pro-Pluto merchandise you can buy barely a day after the IAU decision. (Personally, I want a Honk if Pluto is still a planet bumper sticker.)

It'll be interesting to see if the decision sticks.

So do I have a viable definition of "planet" which includes Pluto but not Ceres or the various other Kuiper belt objects which are continually being discovered?

Why, no, I don't. But the discussion is purely semantic anyway. Whether we call Pluto a planet doesn't make any difference to planetary science. But it does make a difference to an enormous collection of textbooks, museum exhibits, and other science-for-the-public displays.

Pluto is big enough to have been discovered in 1930, back in the days before computerized robotic telescopes and satellite imaging; it's been considered a planet for 76 years. There's no scientific benefit to changing that, and a lot of social and political reason not to -- especially now with New Horizons headed there to give us our first up-close look at what Pluto actually looks like.

There are two possible bright notes to the Pluto decision. First, Mark Taylor pointed out that it has become much easier to observe all the planets in one night, even with a very small telescope or binoculars.

And second, maybe Christine Lavin will make a new updated version of her song Planet X and go on tour with it.

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[ 22:56 Aug 25, 2006    More science/astro | permalink to this entry | comments ]

PyTopo 0.5

Belated release announcement: 0.5b2 of my little map viewer PyTopo has been working well, so I released 0.5 last week with only a few minor changes from the beta. I'm sure I'll immediately find six major bugs -- but hey, that's what point releases are for. I only did betas this time because of the changed configuration file format.

I also made a start on a documentation page for the .pytopo file (though it doesn't really have much that wasn't already written in comments inside the script).

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[ 22:10 Aug 25, 2006    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sun, 20 Aug 2006

The Long-Awaited Microsoft Rebate

I finally got my Microsoft Rebate voucher!

Remember the California Microsoft antitrust case, oh so many years ago? A bit over three years ago (seems longer) it was determined in a class-action suit that Microsoft had been abusing their monopoly in order to overcharge for their software. Any Californian who had purchased Microsoft products between February 1995 and December 2001 could apply for a rebate based on the number of MS products purchased.

(Curiously, no one ever seemed to point out that Microsoft did not reduce its prices after this decision, nor did I ever see anyone question why it's okay for them to overcharge now when it wasn't okay then. That has puzzled me for some time. Perhaps questions like that show why I'm a programmer instead of a lawyer or corporate exec.)

Over the years since the decision I've periodically wondered what ever happened to the rebate vouchers we were supposed to get. But a few weeks ago they started appearing. I got mine late last week.

The voucher is only redeemable for purchased software (from anyone, not just Microsoft) or a fairly restrictive list of hardware: computers (but not components to build a computer), printers, monitors, scanners, keyboards, mice or trackballs. For a Linux user who builds computers from parts (to avoid paying the "Microsoft Tax" or to get a better price), it's a little tough to use up that voucher. Now where did I put the receipt for that printer I bought a few years ago? Or maybe it's time to buy a copy of Crossover Office for testing web sites against IE.

In any case, if you sent in your rebate claim way back when and haven't heard anything, watch your mailbox. They say most people should receive their vouchers this month (August). If you don't, you can find more information at

[ 10:58 Aug 20, 2006    More tech | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Sat, 19 Aug 2006

A Week of Linux Get-Togethers

It's been a week jam-packed with Linuxy stuff.

Wednesday I made my annual one-day trip to Linuxworld in San Francisco. There wasn't much of great interest at the conference this year: the usual collection of corporate booths (minus Redhat, notably absent this year), virtualization as a hot keyword (but perhaps less than the last two years) and a fair selection of sysadmin tools, not much desktop Linux (two laptop vendors), and a somewhat light "Dot Org" area compared to the last few years.

I was happy to notice that most of the big corporate booths were running Linux on a majority of show machines, a nice contrast from earlier years. (Dell was the exception, with more Windows than Linux, but even they weren't all Windows.)

Linuxworld supposedly offers a wireless network but I never managed to get it to work, either in the exhibit hall or in the building where the BOFs were held.

Wednesday afternoon's BOF list didn't offer much that immediately grabbed me, but in the end I chose one on introducing desktop Linux to corporate environments. Run by a couple of IBM Linux advocates, the BOF turned out to be interesting and well presented, offering lots of sensible advice (base your arguments to management on business advantages, like money saved or increased ability to get the job done, not on promises of cool features; don't aim for a wholesale switch to Linux, merely for a policy which allows employees to choose; argue for standards-based corporate infrastructure since that allows for more choice and avoids lock-in). There was plenty of discussion between the audience and the folks leading the BOF, and I think most attendees got something out of it.

More interesting than Linuxworld was Friday's Ubucon, a free Ubuntu conference held at Google (and spilling over into Saturday morning). Despite a lack of advertising, the Ubucon was very well attended. There were two tracks, ostensibly "beginner" and "expert", but even aside from my own GIMP talk being a "beginner" topic, I ended up hanging out in the "beginner" room for the whole day, for topics like "Power Management", "How to Get Involved", and "What Do Non Geeks Need?" (the last topic dovetailing into the concluding session Linux corporate desktops).

All of the sessions were quite interactive with lots of discussion and questions from the audience. Everyone looked like they were having a good time, and I'm sure several of us are motivated to get more deeply involved with Ubuntu.

Ubucon was a great example of a low-key, fun, somewhat technical conference on a shoestring budget and I'd love to see more conferences like this in the bay area.

Finally, the week wrapped up with the annual Linux Picnic in Sunnyvale, a Silicon Valley tradition for many years and always a good time. There were some organizational glitches this year ... but it's hard to complain much about a free geek picnic in perfect weather complete with t-shirts, an installfest, a raffle and even (by mid-afternoon) a wireless network. Fun stuff!

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[ 20:52 Aug 19, 2006    More conferences | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 15 Aug 2006

GIMPing a "favicon"

"Favicons" are those little icons you see to the left of the URLbar in a browser, and for each site in the bookmarks menu or toolbar. They're just a file named favicon.ico in the top level of a web site, and they're a nice addition to a site. (More details in the Wikipedia entry.)

I'd made a few favicons in the distant past by creating a 32x32 image, saving it as ppm, then using ppmtowinicon. But when I tried it in GIMP recently, I ran into trouble.

GIMP can save ICO files: Save As, click Select File Type and choose "Microsoft Windows icon (ico)". That gets you a dialog where you have to choose a color depth and palette. I tried different settings, but the resulting images never showed up properly in Firefox.

But then I tried saving as ppm and using ppmtowinicon and that no longer worked either. Argh! What's up?

The silly answer, it turns out, is that it had nothing to do with how GIMP was saving the images. The problem was that Firefox caches favicons, and shift-reload or Clear Cache doesn't help. When you're testing a new favicon, you have to load the url for the favicon.ico itself (and reload it if necessary). Success at last! It even handles transparency, so you can make shaped favicons that show up nicely against a tab, menu or toolbar background.

Of course, editing a 32x32 pixel image is a fun exercise in itself. I recommend using a second view (View->New View). Expand one view a lot (800x works well) so you can edit individual pixels, while the other view remains at normal size so you can see your final icon as others will see it in the browser.

[ 11:57 Aug 15, 2006    More gimp | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Fri, 04 Aug 2006

Disabling mailto links

Every time I click on a mailto link, Firefox wants to bring up Evolution. That's a fairly reasonable behavior (I'm sure Evolution is configured as the default mailer somewhere on my system even though I've never used it) but it's not what I want, since I have mutt running through a remote connection to another machine and that's where I'd want to send mail. Dismissing the dialog is an annoyance that I keep meaning to find a way around.

But I just learned about two excellent solutions:

First: network.protocol-handler.warn-external.mailto
Set this preference to TRUE (either by going to about:config and searching for mailto, then doubleclicking on the line for this preference, or by editing the config.js or user.js file in your firefox profile) and the next time you click on a mailto link, you'll get a confirmation dialog asking whether you really want to launch an external mailer.

"Ew! Cancelling a dialog every time is nearly as bad as cancelling the Evolution launch!" Never fear: this dialog has a "Don't show me this again" checkbox, so check it and click Cancel and Firefox will remember. From then on, clicks on mailto links will be treated as no-ops.

"But wait! It's going to be confusing having links that do nothing when clicked on. I'm not going to know why that happened!" Happily, there's a solution to that, too: you can set up a custom user style (in your chrome/userContent.css directory) to show a custom icon when you mouse over any mailto link. Shiny!

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[ 21:19 Aug 04, 2006    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]

Tue, 01 Aug 2006

Javascript Warnings Everywhere

I'm working on some little Javascript demos (for a workshop at this summer's Get SET girls' technology camp) so I've had the Javascript Console up for most of my browsing over the last few days. I also have Mozilla's strict Javascript checking on (user_pref("javascript.options.strict", true); in prefs.js or user.js) since I don't want to show the girls code that generates warnings. (Strict mode also reports errors in CSS.)

It's been eye opening how many sites give warnings. You know that nice clean ultra-simple Google search page? One CSS error and one JS warning. But that's peanuts to the pages of errors I see on most sites, and they're not all missing "var" declarations. I have to hit the "Clear" button frequently if I want to be able to see the errors on the pages I'm working on.

And my own sites? Yes, I admit it, I've seen some errors in my own pages too. Though it makes me feel better that there aren't very many of them (mostly CSS problems, not JS). I'm going to keep the JS Console visible more often so I'll see these errors and correct them.

[ 00:06 Aug 01, 2006    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]