The German Federal Election and Electoral Reform

Advocates of proportional representation in Canada tend to be supporters of parties that would benefit if our electoral system switched from the current first-past-the-post system to a system that allocates at least some seats based on parties’ popular vote. But what’s sauce for the goose is, unfortunately, also sauce for the gander, as the results from yesterday’s federal elections in Germany remind us.

Germany elects its Bundestag by a mixed-member system that combines members elected via single-member constituencies in a first-past-the-post system with additional members elected by state-level party lists. Each voter gets two ballots: a constituency ballot and a list ballot. When a party wins fewer seats via the constituency ballot than its popular vote would entitle it to, additional members are added from the party list.

In yesterday’s election, those list votes enabled not only the Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and the Left Party (Die Linke) to go from one and five seats to 67 and 69 seats, respectively, it also allowed the centrist FDP to re-enter the Bundestag with 80 seats: despite getting nearly 3.2 million constituency votes, the FDP failed to elect a single member via the constituency ballot, whereas FDP lists got nearly five million votes.

But the German system also enabled the far-right Alternative für Deutschland to add 91 seats to the three seats elected via the constituency ballot. And here’s the problem: that which gives smaller centrist, leftist and environmentalist parties a voice in national politics also enables the extreme right.

In favour of an electoral system because you think it’ll benefit your side? Be careful: any system you create can also be turned by your opponents to their advantage.

Amatka

Karin Tidbeck first came to my attention in 2012, with the publication of Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg), a slim collection of quietly disturbing stories. Tidbeck, a Swedish sf writer, manages the difficult task of writing in both English and Swedish, writing in one language and translating to the other as required. Her first novel, Amatka, was also published in 2012, but because it was written in Swedish and published in Sweden it escaped my attention. But earlier this summer an English translation by the author was published by Vintage Books, and it’s no less quiet and no less disturbing.

Amatka is set on a bleak and austere colony world; as it opens a young woman, Vanja, is sent to the outlying community of Amatka to conduct some mundane market research. But we quickly see that for all the flat affect of it and its inhabitants, this is not a mundane world. Objects manufactured on this world, from the raw (fungal) materials, fall apart if they are not “marked” (i.e., named) by their owners on a regular basis, as though they need to be constantly reminded of what they are. Mass-produced consumer goods, toothbrushes and suitcases, each, like golems, brought into being — and kept there — by a word.

There are pre-colonial products that don’t do this — “good paper,” for example — but they’re growing increasingly scarce. There is other evidence that society is beginning to become frayed. Life is tightly structured, disciplined and conformist, especially, Vanja learns, in Amatka, a liminal space where laxity has greater consequences: she could get away with sloppiness in the capital, but not here on the margins. Bored, Vanja begins digging into the truth; she learns that the objects manufactured on this world are not only kept together by their thoughts; on this world thoughts create reality, and uncontrolled thoughts can lead — and have led — to literal destruction.

Tidbeck’s prose is as austere as the world she creates, and it’s devastatingly effective in its control and restraint. She paints a society whose totalitarianism is utterly convincing down to the smallest, lived detail. This novel reads like it was written behind the Iron Curtain; the parallels to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four cannot be ignored. But Tidbeck is far more existential than Orwell: in Amatka we see a society engaging in rigid self-control, to the extreme of lobotomizing its dissidents, not in an attempt to maintain the political order, but to sustain reality itself. It questions the extent to which reality is consensus-based, and explores the desperation that can lead to authoritarianism. In the end, it is a parable of thought control of startling wisdom and profoundity, one I expect we’ll be reading for years to come.

I received an electronic review copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

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Photographing the Eclipse

So I mentioned that I might try to get a photo of the solar eclipse, weather permitting? In the end, weather permitted — in fact, everything that could have prevented us from observing or photographing the eclipse failed to do so: clouds were intermittent until after the maximum, the tall trees around our house didn’t block our view, and we were even able to find all the gear we needed in time (some hadn’t been unpacked yet).

I used my usual method for photographing the sun: a digital SLR connected to my 5-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope at prime focus, using a visual solar filter. It turned out well: despite the heat (atmospheric shimmer, you see), the filter (Mylar) and the need to focus manually, I managed more than a few clear shots. Above is a shot from the eclipse’s maximum extent (it was a partial eclipse here). I’ve uploaded a few other photos here.

You know, I think this is the first time I’ve done any solar observing or photography in more than five years. I’m glad I found an excuse to do it again.

A Herpetological Roundup

Turtle-headed Sea Snake (Emydocephalus annulatus), Okinawa, Japan, July 2011. Photo by Klaus Stiefel. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. The Christian Science Monitor reports on how the residents of the town of Glastonbury, Connecticut learned to live with—and help protect—the endangered Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus).
  2. When cicadas emerge, they’re a plentiful food source for many species—including, as the Houston Chronicle’s Shannon Tompkins learned, Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix), which aggregate in large numbers and stuff themselves silly.
  3. Pollution is turning sea snakes black. The Turtle-headed Sea Snake (Emydocephalus annulatus) normally has a banded pattern (see above), but individuals found in polluted waters around New Caledonia are increasingly melanistic. It’s a phenomenon called “industrial melanism”: melanin tends to bind to metal ions of trace elements like arsenic and zinc; melanism and an increased shed cycle allows these snakes to rid themselves of toxic metals. [Current Biology]
  4. Speaking of sea snakes, say hello to the Yellow Sea Snake (Hydrophis platurus xanthos), a newly discovered subspecies of the Yellow-bellied Sea Snake that is found in the warm, turbulent, anoxic waters of Golfo Dulce, off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica [Zoo Keys]
  5. When it comes to invasive reptiles in Florida, Burmese Pythons get all the press, but they’re not the only ones; CNAH lists 65 alien reptiles and amphibian species introduced to North America, most in Florida. Three of those species are chameleons. As invasive species go, they’re pretty innocuous, but still. National Geographic has a look at Florida’s chameleon hunters, who adopt out the chameleons they catch.
  6. Meanwhile, across the Straits of Florida, the Washington Post looks at an unlikely refuge for rare snakes like the Cuban Boa (Chilabothrus/Epicrates angulifer): Guantanamo Bay.
  7. A Manitoba couple caught a Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix) in the act of gobbling down an Eastern Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma tigrinum). Small problem: the salamander’s endangered. That snake is in serious legal trouble.
  8. And what is almost certainly the weirdest reptile story ever to come to my attention: a story about turtle boners. No wait, it’s better than you think! It’s really difficult to figure out a turtle’s sex. So researchers came up with the idea of—oh boy—using a vibrator to stimulate the turtle: male turtles would get an erection. So: turtle boners. In the study, the method had a 100 percent accuracy rate. Because: turtle boners. Science is awesome. That is all. [Acta Herpetologica]

Remembering the Eclipse of 1979

I’m outside the path of totality for next week’s solar eclipse, but don’t feel bad for me: I’ve already had my total eclipse experience. I had just turned eight years old when the total solar eclipse of February 26, 1979 came to my home town of Winnipeg, Manitoba. In 2009, I remembered the event in a blog post:

Some people spend thousands of dollars to see a solar eclipse; I was lucky: the eclipse came to me. But to see it, I had to stay home from school that morning. My father’s recollection is that for some nonsensical reason or other, the schools were going to keep the kids inside during totality. Screw that, said my parents, who had three science degrees between them. So I saw the last few seconds of totality from my front porch.

Since then, video of CBC Manitoba’s coverage of the eclipse has been uploaded to YouTube (see above). I remember watching this. (Even weirder, the meteorologist showing the satellite image at the start of the coverage is a friend of the family.)

If you’re in the path of totality, enjoy the eclipse on Monday (weather permitting). As for me, I’m going to be all nostalgic about the one I already saw.

(I think I might try to get a photo of the partial eclipse—again, weather permitting. I do have the gear for solar photography.)

At The Map Room: Mapping the August 2017 Solar Eclipse.

The Delirium Brief

I don’t make a habit of reading series, especially if they go more than two or three books, mostly because I’m unwilling to make the kind of investment required to keep all the books’ moving parts front of mind. One series I have made an exception for is Charles Stross’s Laundry Files, a trope-busting mishmash of spy thriller, bureaucratic satire, deadpan humour and Lovecraftian horror in which demonology is a branch of higher mathematics and Chthuloid threats are dealt with by a government bureaucracy, with all that implies.

In The Delirium Brief (Orbit/Tor.com, July) the eighth book in this series, the threat is the British government itself. The story picks up in the immediate wake of The Nightmare Stacks (2016), in which an invasion of, well, elves from a parallel Earth has left the city of Leeds in ruins, thousands dead, and the British public suddenly very much aware of the existence of the Laundry, as the British secret agency dealing with occult threats is known.

Thrust into the spotlight to deal with the incipient PR nightmare is—oh, hello again—Bob Howard, back in the protagonist spotlight for the first time in three books. The Laundry, blamed for the slaughter in Leeds, is at real risk of being privatized by an austerity-minded British government, and a private sector group headed by the Rev. Raymond Schiller, back after being seemingly left for dead at the end of The Apocalypse Codex (2012), makes its play. Things spiral downward fast: the Laundry is disbanded without a succession plan, and Bob and his co-workers and allies, many of whom are coming back from earlier books, have to go to ground. Schiller has, of course, grander and more sinister plans than contracting for government services—the means to his ends are much squickier than they were last time around. To defeat him, what’s left of the Laundry are forced to make uneasy, lesser-evil alliances with other villains, also from earlier books, that we thought we’d seen the back of.

This is where Calvin says “His eye twitches involuntarily.”

To a certain extent The Delirium Brief justifies my ambivalence about long series, because I can’t see any way you can follow this book unless you’ve read every previous book in the series. (Hell, I’ve read all the books, and the short stories too, and I had a hard time keeping up, because: keeping track of moving parts, problems with; see above.) This is not an entry point. What The Delirium Brief is, is the payoff book, the one that brings together several previously developed narrative threads, with explosive effect. It is to the Laundry Files what The Avengers is to the MCU: the book in which the team, whose members we’ve seen in action before, gathers to form Voltron deal with the big boss threat.

A thing I appreciate about the Laundry series is that it’s about the approaching darkness but still manages to approach the darkness—it’s not a static situation fit for endless sequelizing. There’s an end point, and in the Laundry universe we’re getting there sooner than we’d like or are ready for. The Delirium Brief is, believe it or not, not that end point: CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN is still to come. But it’s necessarily a darker and grimmer tome than previous iterations, but in Charlie’s hands it’s not depressingly dark or grim, or grimdark. Black humour has always been a hallmark of this series, and that’s no less the case here as the bodies pile up and the geopolitical situation implodes. The Delirium Brief ends on a messy note, but then so have the last few books. It’s only going to get worse from here.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Herpetological Roundup: World Snake Day Edition

It’s been a while since my last roundup, so there’s a lot to tell you about.

  1. Amphisbaenians—sometimes called worm lizards, though they’re neither, nor are they snakes—are the weirdest reptiles. And the mole lizards (Bipes) of Mexico, known locally as ajolotes, are the weirdest amphisbaenians, because while most amphisbaenians are legless, Bipes has forelimbs. Just forelimbs. You don’t see them very much because they’re so fossorial, but herpetologist Sara Ruane managed to catch one on video last month. Yes, it’s real. National Geographic has more.
  2. Speaking of legs, snakes still have the gene to grow them—the so-called “sonic hedgehog” gene. [Current Biology]
  3. It was long understood that snakes use the ZW sex chromosome system: the ovum determines the sex; males are ZZ, females ZW. Only a recent paper found that boa constrictors (Boa constrictor) and Indian rock pythons (Python molurus) have XY chromosomes—the sperm cell determines the sex, as it does in humans. [Current Biology]
  4. Ontario is extending Highway 400 toward Sudbury—through the territory of the threatened Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus). This CBC News article reports on the precautions taken by work crews as they work in massasauga habitat. Meanwhile, Lethbridge’s rattlesnake hotline—yes, they have a rattlesnake hotline—had a busy start to the summer.
  5. Turtle mortality along a stretch of road near Long Point, Ontario was so bad that local residents decided to do something about it. And after taking in nearly 600 injured turtles this year (up from fewer than 400 for all of 2016), the Ontario Turtle Conservation Centre, just outside Peterborough, has declared a “state of emergency” : they’re simply overwhelmed. Here’s a 2010 video from the Toronto Zoo showing how to help a snapping turtle cross the road.
  6. A turtle found wandering the streets of Burnaby, British Columbia turned out to be a threatened Wood Turtle (Glyptemys insculpta), which is not native to B.C. Showing signs of metabolic bone disease, the turtle was almost certainly an escaped or released pet kept illegally; it’ll be sent to a wildlife sanctuary in Ontario.
  7. The Guardian has the story of New Zealand’s cobble skink. The undescribed species was down to a few dozen individuals before wildlife officials tried to capture as many as they could before their habitat literally washed away. The entire population may now reside at the Auckland Zoo, awaiting reintroduction.
  8. Snake fungal disease has been found in more than 30 species in North America. Now it’s crossed the Atlantic: researchers have detected both the fungus and the lesions in wild snakes in both Great Britain and the Czech Republic. [Nature]
  9. Meanwhile, to prevent the spread of a fungal disease found in salamanders, the Canadian government has prohibited the importation of foreign salamanders, which will have an impact on the lab supply and pet trades. [Canada Gazette]
  10. In the Great Lakes region there are all-female populations of mole salamanders (Ambystoma) that are hybrids of several related species, e.g. the Blue-spotted (A. laterale), Small-mouthed (A. texanum) and Eastern Tiger (A. mavortium) Salamanders. A new study suggests that these female hybrids reproduce in a thoroughly curious manner: by mating with males from all three species, taking roughly equal parts of the donor males’ genetic material from each—a process called kleptogenesis. There are science fiction writers who’d have a hard time coming up with this. [Genome Biology and Evolution]
  11. Do snakes hunt in packs? A recent paper suggested that Cuban Boas (Chilabothrus/Epicrates angulifer) hunting bats in caves exhibit behaviour consistent with coordinated hunting. But David Steen is skeptical. “Snakes swallow whole. So when would ‘pack’ hunting be good? Only when there are lots of resources; no competition. Bat cave may qualify,” Steen adds on Twitter. [Animal Behavior and Cognition]
  12. Are snake bites on the rise? CNN’s alarmist headline and article gets smacked down.
  13. A question I answered on Quora: Why do snakes use constriction?

Bus Service in the Pontiac

The Pontiac’s commuter bus service—a single line running the 148 from Isle-aux-Allumettes to downtown Ottawa—was for many years run by Transport Thom. But finding out about the service took some doing: there was never a web page listing fares and schedules. (I had to go to the service station that serves as Shawville’s bus stop.) Now that the service has been taken over by Transcollines, we have that web page.

We like having friends visit, but many of them are urbanites without cars. The current schedule doesn’t necessarily solve that problem: the morning bus passes through Shawville at 6:00 and the afternoon bus leaves Ottawa’s bus terminal at 3:30 (unchanged since the Thom days). A single one-way ticket is $17. (Weekly and monthly passes are much cheaper per trip: it’s a commuter bus, after all.) There’s a reason we usually just drive in and pick people up. But Transcollines will be revamping the service next year; it’ll be interesting to see what changes.

Snakes of the Eastern United States

The short version of this review: remember Snakes of the Southeast, the field guide by Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas, the second edition of which I reviewed last year and thought so highly of? Well, now Gibbons has done the same thing, only covering the entire eastern United States, with (appropriately enough) Snakes of the Eastern United States (University of Georgia Press, April 2017). Go get it.

But maybe I should expand on that a bit.

What impressed me about Snakes of the Southeast is that it knew its intended audience: not scholars, not hobbyists, but the general public. And in pitching itself at that audience, it knew what questions needed answering. As I said in my review last year:

The core of the book, the species guide, is detailed but plain-spoken, and does not drown the reader in scholarly references. It’s beautifully laid-out, with full-colour range maps and photographs of the region’s snakes. Its identification guide eschews the detailed scale counts used by professional herpetologists in favour of emphasizing distinctive traits and other factors more easily recognized by amateurs. And with two additional chapters explaining basic snake biology and exploring the relationship between snakes and humans, Snakes of the Southeast becomes a one-book solution: the book that tries to cover all the bases and answer all the questions about snakes that someone in the region might reasonably have.

Snakes of the Eastern United States follows that prescription down the line, which is no surprise given that it shares an author and a publisher with the previous book. The many virtues of Snakes of the Southeast, above and beyond being a species guide, are now accessible to people from outside that region. I’ve got a book I can recommend to more people.

In terms of its function as a species guide, as well as on field guides in general, though, I have a few thoughts.

Once again, this book takes an extremely conservative position on snake taxonomy. Rat snakes, for example, are called Pantherophis instead of the old Elaphe, but the traditional subspecies are maintained “because in most cases ratsnakes from particular geographic regions are easily identifiable based on color and pattern” (p. 198). Neither does Gibbons separate out the Common Kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) into separate species, nor adopt the more recent taxonomic changes to swamp, crayfish and milk snakes. One gets the impression he sees these changes as for change’s sake.

Regional field guides have interesting edge cases, especially when they’re defined by political boundaries (a country, state or province) that don’t necessarily line up with bioregions: there’s always something atypical living in the borderlands. Gibbons defines the eastern United States as every state east of the Mississippi, excluding Minnesota but including Louisiana. So in this case we get central and western species like the Western Worm Snake (Carpophis vermis), Western Hognose Snake (Heterodon nasicus), Great Plains Rat Snake (Pantherophis emoryi) and Lined Snake (Tropidoclonium lineatum) at the edges of Gibbons’s maps. Illinois is usually the culprit.

(Speaking of maps: the map for the Butler’s Garter Snake [Thamnophis butleri] doesn’t include its Wisconsin range—a surprising omission given its politically charged status in that state.)

Then there’s the question of how the species are organized. This is actually an important consideration when the guide covers a large area or a large number of species. Some guides, simply list them in alphabetical order after sorting them by family (e.g. boas, colubrids, pit vipers) or separating the nonvenomous from the venomous snakes: this is the approach taken in Ernst and Ernst’s Snakes of the United States and Canada, Rossi and Rossi’s Snakes of the United States and Canada (no relation), and Werler and Dixon’s Texas Snakes. Others, like Alan Tennant in his state and regional field guides, categorize them in some fashion, e.g., small snakes versus aquatic snakes versus large terrestrial snakes.

Gibbons takes the latter approach, which necessitates some odd judgment calls, like splitting the kingsnakes between the midsize and large terrestrial snakes categories, or putting the closely related (and not that different in size) Short-headed Garter Snake (Thamnophis brachystoma) and Butler’s Garter Snake in the small and midsize categories, respectively. It’s the edge cases that’ll get you every time.

But these are quibbles, and there are always quibbles in books like these, which involve the compilation of a huge amount of field data, scientific knowledge, photography and text that must somehow come together in a whole that is not only coherent, but readable. This book achieves that end result far better than most.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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The Unfeathered Tyrannosaur

Albertosaurus diorama, Royal Tyrell Museum, Dec. 27, 2008.

Ever since tyrannosauroid fossils (namely, Dilong and Yutyrannus) started turning up with evidence of feathers, the idea that the Big T and its close relatives were at least partially feathered themselves was awfully intriguing. I mean, basal coelurosaurs had feathers, early tyrannosauroids had feathers—it stood to reason. But a new study examining fossilized tyrannosaur skin impressions concludes that Tyrannosaurus and its close relatives Albertosaurus, Daspletosaurus, Gorgosaurus and Tarbosaurus had scaly skin rather than feathers. Size may be one reason why: large mammals are less hairy for heat-loss reasons (the exceptions being arctic dwellers like mammoths).

I admit to some disappointment: I was more invested in the idea of a feathered T. rex than I ought to have been.