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.

The Return of the Eighties

Check out this bootleg upload of The Ronnie and Nancy Show, a Spitting Image special broadcast in January 1987. We’ve come full circle: NBC making fun of the befuddled and bewildered occupant of the White House—though Reagan’s vibe was more amiable dotard than raging toddler. For all of Trump’s complaints about Saturday Night Live, this Spitting Image special was an order of magnitude more savage about Reagan—and it ran in prime time.

Of course, jokes about a dunderheaded president getting us all killed are a bit too on the nose right now.

I’m not in the least nostalgic for the Eighties, even if I grew up in them. The fact that the Eighties are making something of a comeback, at least politically speaking—the U.S. president’s mindset seems permanently stuck in the Eighties, the Quebec premier seems nostalgic for the days of the Meech Lake Accord—is not, in my books, a good thing.

A Herpetological Roundup

Brown-snouted Blind Snake (Ramphotyphlops wiedii or nigriscens), November 13, 2015. Photo by Will Brown. Creative Commons Licence.
  1. Known from only a handful of specimens since its discovery in 1937 and feared extinct, the Albany Adder (Bitis albanica) was found alive and well—at least four specimens were—last November, in a South African location that is being kept secret to deter poachers. Because yes, poachers will collect the shit out of these snakes.
  2. The plan to reintroduce Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts has been suspended in the face of local opposition; the Worcester Telegram’s outdoors writer Mark Blazis is disappointed.
  3. Ontario Nature has announced its new and improved Ontario Reptile and Amphibian Atlas app, which isn’t so much an app as it is a mobile website that supports offline data. Anyway, it’s got a field guide and lets you enter species sightings.
  4. Fossil snakes are generally known from their vertebrae, which makes their study a little less exciting to the lay reader than dinosaurs; still, it’s rather exciting that a new extinct species, Zilantophis schuberti, has been described from a fossil found in eastern Tennessee. “Zilantophis bore uniquely broad wing-shaped projections on the sides of its vertebrae. In life, these were likely attachment sites for back muscles. These features are what inspired the name of the new genus, derived from Zilant, a winged serpent in Tatar mythology.” [Journal of Herpetology]
  5. Blind snakes (Scolecophidia) are tiny, secretive and easily overlooked; even so, there’s something of a blind snake renaissance going on, says Andrew Durso. “I recently noticed, much to my surprise, the the number of described species of blindsnakes has doubled in the last 13 years, from 305 in 2004 to 599 today; that’s 16.5% of all snakes! There are certainly many undiscovered species of blindsnakes, so it’s likely that their numbers will continue to grow.”
  6. A fascinating article in The New York Times Magazine from Daniel Engber that looks at the increasing use of the Burmese Python (Python molurus bivitattus) as a laboratory animal, and the possibility that its extraordinary digestive system—which has to flip from inactive to a 50,000-calorie meal all at once—may help find a cure for diabetes.

J’y suis, j’y reste

“You’re from the city, aren’t you?”

That was the then-mayor of Shawville, watching me walk gingerly through the mud during the groundbreaking ceremony for what would soon become the village’s day care centre. It was the fall of 2003 and I was covering the event as a reporter for the local newspaper. For various reasons I lasted all of five months in that job, but it gave me a crash course in the town, the surrounding countryside and the MRC du Pontiac in general.

Yes, I was from the city—I grew up in suburban Winnipeg—but Shawville, a town of some 1,600 people, most of whom anglophone, about 75 km northwest of Ottawa, seemed somehow familiar. I spent a lot of my childhood staying with my paternal grandparents in Hartney, Manitoba, a village two thousand kilometres away and about one-third the size. But there were some similarities: both communities served as service centres for the surrounding farms. And both had demographics that tilted elderly. To me, it felt like moving to Shawville was like moving in with elderly relatives with whom you had to mind your manners and steer the conversation away from politics as much as possible, but apart from that you loved each other to bits.

Continue reading “J’y suis, j’y reste”

Are Conventions Necessary?

The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.

Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:

I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.

Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?

Continue reading “Are Conventions Necessary?”