Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ September 2011

Vesta’s South Pole

Vesta's South Pole

Here’s a view of the south pole of Vesta, which reveals the weird circular structure that scientists are still trying to puzzle out: is it the result of a collision, is it volcanic in origin, or is it something else? APOD, Bad Astronomy.

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Spondylitis News: September 2011

On a personal level, I continue to do well on piroxicam; I haven’t felt this good — this mobile, this energetic — in years. It’s important to share good news when it comes, I think.

Speaking of news:

Britain’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended golimumab (Simponi) for the treatment of ankylosing spondlyitis in certain circumstances; it joins fellow TNFα blockers adalimumab (Humira) and etanercept (Enbrel).

Meanwhile, the FDA announced that the boxed warning for TNFα blockers as a class will be updated to include the increased risk of infection from Legionella and Listeria. AAP News, Clinical Advisor, MedPage Today.

I’ve always been ambivalent about these despite-his-limitation stories that are meant to inspire the healthy. Here’s another one: the Ventura County Star profiles 18-year-old Zachary Payer, who was diagnosed with AS seven years ago.

Middle-Earth’s Columbian Exchange

Right now I’m in the middle of reading Charles Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, which deals with the impacts of the Columbian Exchange, where large-scale contact with the New World spread cultures, crops and organisms all over the world. Malaria and smallpox made it to the New World, tobacco and latex to the Old, and so on. Crops are a big part of the Exchange, especially maize, potatoes and tomatoes — New World crops that became staples on which so much of the Old World would come to depend on to avoid starvation.

In the midst of all this comes thoughts about Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Because here’s the thing: Hobbits make use of New World crops.

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Holmberg II

Holmberg II (Hubble; NASA/ESA)

Check out this newly released image of Holmberg II, a dwarf irregular galaxy 11 million light years away. The galaxy itself can be a little hard to see: it’s a shapeless speckling of stars, a bit thicker than the surrounding sky. But its glowing shells of gas are harder to miss. This image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope through visible-light and infrared filters. Image credit: NASA and ESA.

When Saving Costs You Money

Maclean’s asks: what’s the use of saving money? Interest rates are so low right now that saving actually loses you money, thanks to inflation. This encourages consumption — no point in socking the money away, might as well spend it now! — which stimulates the economy. But the fact that borrowing has never been so cheap is not going to help the household debt problem, and that’s going to bite an awful lot of us in the ass when the rates go back up. I can’t help but wonder: haven’t we learned our lesson yet?

‘A Great and Cold Space About You’

Australian fantasy author Sara Warneke, who wrote as Sara Douglass, died of cancer earlier this week at the age of 54. Via Twitter I stumbled across “The Silence of the Dying,” a startling essay she posted to her blog in May 2010, which deals with how terminal and chronically ill patients are expected not to complain, and the isolation they face. Here’s a passage that resonated with me (though naturally you should read it all):

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It’s Only a Colour-Saturated Moon

The Moon in colour (Aug. 2, 2009) Mike Salway’s guide to creating a colour-saturated moon photo seems a little too complex for me. You don’t necessarily need to stack images or muck about with Photoshop, though that’s certainly going to get good results. I didn’t do too bad a job of this myself two years ago, and all I really did was increase sharpening and saturation. Though I tend not to want to overdo it: I like to bring out the different colours of the maria, rather than go for an Instagram effect: other examples here and here. Via Phil Plait.

Biting Your Cagemate Is Wrong, Snake

The odd couple

Every now and then, one of our snakes goes and does something interesting. Last night’s definition of interesting involved a four-foot male Gray Rat Snake named Spook deciding to bite the head of his cagemate, Nic, a six-foot male Everglades rat snake.

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An Aurora from Orbit

Seeing Red

Thanks to some crackling activity on the Sun on Saturday, Monday night was, from all accounts, ideal for observing auroral activity — so long as you were far enough north or south and had a clear sky. Or if, say, you were on the International Space Station. (Auroræ are usually green due to solar wind collisions with oxygen atoms; the red is the result of lower-energy oxygen collisions as well as nitrogen collisions). Image credit: NASA.

The Farthing Party Map Panel

A Map of Every Fantasy World Ever

The Farthing Party map panel (see previous entry) came off surprisingly well. I was actually shocked to discover that what I thought were my controversial thoughts about maps were actually not that controversial: I knew it was going to be a good panel when both Lila and Emmet said in their opening remarks that they were opposed in principle to fantasy maps.

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Why Do Scholarly Journals Cost So Much?

I’ve been out of academia since 1999; it’s only recently that I’ve really appreciated just how expensive online access to scholarly articles can be outside the context of a university library. (Mind you, in my day, this was a moot point. Yes, I’m old.) Anyway, read this article about the high cost of journal subscriptions and the move toward open journal access. While journals go on about their high production costs, it’s not like they aren’t profitable: Elsevier made a profit of £724 million on revenues of £2 billion last year — a profit margin comparable to Apple’s. (And they don’t even pay their authors.) Via io9.

The Wimpy Arms of Carnotaurus

Carnotaurus sastrei (detail)

You think T. rex had wimpy little arms? Check out Carnotaurus, a South American theropod whose arms are even smaller, though those arms were robust and ended in four fingers. A new study examines the hand structure of Carnotaurus in the context of its abelisaurid relatives. Via Brian Switek.

Cassini’s Hall of Fame

The Greatest Saturn Portrait ...Yet

The Cassini Hall of Fame features images hand-picked by mission scientists as the best of the thousands taken during Cassini’s long mission to Saturn (it arrived in July 2004). Via Universe Today. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Live Snakes on the Path

Garter Snake on the PPJ

Some good news from our walk yesterday afternoon: we spotted two live garter snakes along the PPJ bike trail. They represent the first live snakes we’ve seen in Shawville since moving here. A damn sight better than finding a dead snake on the trail, let me tell you.

My guess is that they were sunning themselves on the asphalt: now that the PPJ is paved through Shawville, I suspect that more garter snakes will be encountered along the trail. I just hope this won’t simply make it easier for my neighbours to thwack them.

We could only grab the second snake, photo above: a male who promptly musked all over Jennifer. (It’s her mandate to be musked on, mine to record the musking.) He’d eaten recently, which is also a good sign. The PPJ passes above several ponds and wetlands in the town proper that in the spring have a deafening number of spring peepers and treefrogs, so garter snakes are not hurting for food around here.

Previously: Dead Snake on the Path.

Maps in Science Fiction and Fantasy

I mentioned this on Facebook, Google+ and Twitter yesterday, but I didn’t mention it here: I’ve created a project page for my research into the use of maps in fantasy and science fiction, and it’s now more or less complete enough to share with you. So far all it has is an introduction and a reading list that includes many articles, blog posts and stories I’ve mentioned before. It will grow and change as I learn more things.

On a related note, I’ll be on a panel about maps at Farthing Party tomorrow (“Maps and territories: What’s good and bad about the maps in our fiction, and why are they there in the first place?”) which I’m hoping will generate all sorts of ideas and things to check out. I’ll probably talk too much, of course, but I want to take lots of notes, too.

Translating Hatteras

Despite blogging about it last month, I’m not quite done with Jules Verne’s second published novel, The Adventures of Captain Hatteras. William Butcher’s modern translation turned up in the mail today; I’d ordered it to have a better translation on hand. Flipping through it, though, I paused over how he translated the last line of the book.

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Mercury’s North Pole

Mercury

MESSENGER’s arrival at Mercury has allowed those portions of the planet not observed by Mariner 10 in 1974 to be mapped. But because of MESSENGER’s orbit, getting good images of the north pole is tricksy: the sun casts long shadows. Here, for example, is a look at a 57-kilometre wide crater near Mercury’s north pole. The centre of this image is 87.23° north. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Previously: Crescent Mercury; Orbiting Mercury.

Sharks Get Cancer

The shark cartilage industry is predicated on the notion that sharks don’t get cancer. It’s horseshit. Even if shark cartilage contained proteins beneficial to cancer treatment — and that hasn’t been proven — they would be broken down (i.e., digested) once you swallowed the pill. And one other thing: sharks do get cancer. Christie Wilcox takes down this myth.

The notion that sharks may hold they key to curing cancer rests on the idea that sharks don’t get cancer. Out of all they myths in the world, there are few that have been more ecologically damaging and pervasive despite unequivocal scientific evidence to the contrary. This simply untrue statement has led to the slaughter of millions of sharks via the industry for shark cartilage pills, which are sold to desperate cancer patients under the false pretense that they can help reduce or cure their illness.

Sharks are in deep trouble: they don’t reproduce fast enough to replace the numbers being taken each year. I have no idea what the size of the take for the shark cartilage industry is relative to the total commercial shark fishery, but it’s not helping.

Disease and Freedom

What an unusual argument: does disease cause autocracy? The gist is that adversity (like high disease incidence) encourages social conformity and a willingness to accept authority, and that there is a connection between reduced risk to life and health and greater liberalization: if people are safe (and healthy), they’re more likely to be open. Not a correlation I would have expected. Via Andrew Sullivan.

Lifelode

Book cover: Lifelode On Friday we’re off to Montreal for Farthing Party, Jo Walton’s mini-convention. In preparation for which I’ve been madly reading books by other participants and by Jo herself, so as to feel properly up to speed.

One I recently finished is Walton’s Lifelode, which won the Mythopoeic Award in 2010. It’s an odd and interesting book. It’s what might be called domestic fantasy, says Sharyn November in the introduction, and at least it starts that way, but Story inevitably manifests itself. “What I was trying to do was write a small scale story about everyday life in a high magic medieval village,” Jo wrote on her LiveJournal in 2008. “What actually happened was that Hanethe came back from the East and took over the plot, because she had the plot nature, and nobody else did.”

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Uranus and Neptune in Infrared

Uranus in infrared (Mike Brown, Keck telescope) Neptune in infrared (Mike Brown, Keck telescope)

In the process of obtaining spectra for Neptune’s moon, Triton, and Uranus’s moon, Miranda, Mike “Pluto Killer” Brown imaged both Neptune and Uranus in infrared (above) using one of the Keck Observatory’s 10-metre telescopes. Uranus is the one with visible rings; Miranda is the bright moon to its left. See also this image of Neptune with Triton. Via Universe Today. Image credit: Mike Brown/CalTech.

Previously: Neptune’s Anniversary.

NGC 2100

NGC 2100 (ESO)

The European Southern Observatory’s Hidden Treasures competition, held last year, continues to bear fruit of the awesome-space-picture kind. Take, for example, this image of NGC 2100, an open cluster in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It was selected from data in the ESO archives captured by the (since-decommissioned) ESO Multi-Mode Instrument (EMMI) through the 3.6-metre New Technology Telescope at La Silla, and comprises imaging through seven colour channels: red (mapped to orange in the final image), green, blue, hydrogen-alpha (red), sulphur-II (naturally red but mapped to green), oxygen-III (naturally green but mapped to blue) and nitrogen-II (violet). Image credit: ESO.

The Paleoart of Adam Stuart Smith

Dave Hone interviews Adam Stuart Smith, a paleontologist who specializes in plesiosaurs and who’s also a keen illustrator of plesiosaurs, dinosaurs and other extinct beasties.

Previously: Paul Heaston’s Dinosaur Art; Nobu Tamora’s Dinosaur Drawings.

Are Rocky Planets Downsized Gas Giants?

How are planets formed? The currently accepted model posits that planets coalesce from the protoplanetary disk of matter surrounding a young star; this is called core accretion. Rocky planets are formed closer to the star and gas giants form further out, safely past the frost line. But a new theory suggests that rocky planets may have started out as gas giants that formed further out and migrated closer to their parent star — at which point the lighter elements and hydrogen-based compounds would be boiled away, leaving the rocky core behind. This is called the tidal downsizing model; it’s being presented as another way planetary systems may have been formed, alongside (but not replacing) core accretion. Neat. Via io9.

The Nile Crocodile Is Two Species

“Some of the Egyptians consider crocodiles sacred; others do not, but treat them as enemies,” wrote Herodotus in his Histories more than 2,400 years ago. “Those who live near Thebes and Lake Moeris consider them very sacred. Every household raises one crocodile, trained to be tame; they put ornaments of glass and gold on its ears and bracelets on its forefeet, provide special food and offerings for it, and give the creatures the best of treatment while they live; after death, the crocodiles are embalmed and buried in sacred coffins.” (II: 69)

Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus) Crocodile mummies 2,000 years old have helped reveal a second, cryptic species of crocodile where there was once thought to be just one: the Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus). Recent research by a team led by biologist Evon Hekkala has discovered, by sampling DNA from living, preserved and mummified specimens, that the crocodile referred to in Herodotus was not the fearsome Nile Crocodile, but a smaller, less-aggressive species that has since disappeared from the Nile valley (but is found elsewhere in Africa). The naturalist Geoffrey Saint-Hilaire identified it in 1807 as the Sacred Crocodile (Crocodylus suchus), but his proposal was not widely accepted. The ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, appear to have known the difference. Details at Nature News and Not Exactly Rocket Science. Photo credit: Arno Meintjes (CC licence).

The Moon’s North Pole

The Moon's North Pole

This image of the Moon’s north pole is a mosaic assembled from 983 images taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter over a one-month period. Neither the scale nor the field of view are indicated, but I’m guessing that the prominent crater with the well-defined central peak at left is Pythagoras, which would put the outer edges of this image at roughly the 60th parallel. Image credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.

You Are Not a Photographer

Via Andrew Sullivan, You Are Not a Photographer, a blog that mocks bad photos from photography businesses:

How many people do you know that bought a nice camera, started a Facebook page and called it a photography business? Having a DSLR does not make you a professional photographer. We’re outing these no talents with daily pictures from the worst of the web. We only post pictures that were from a photography “business,” and we use that term lightly.

I’ve long been uncomfortable with the dichotomy between “amateur” and “professional” photography, which I think is more aspirational than anything else. It’s not the gear: you can get a pro-quality photo from amateur equipment, and amateur results from professional equipment. While I’ve been paid for my photos (licensed after the fact, rather than hired for), I don’t consider myself a pro; I’m just some guy with a nice camera. But there are an awful lot of people out there with an entry-level digital SLR, a kit lens and a pirated copy of Photoshop who dream of starting a photography business. More power to you, says I, but learn the craft.

Meaningful Work Is Happy Work

Steve Denning lists the 10 most hated jobs and the 10 happiest jobs. The key difference? Not pay: many of the happiest jobs pay very poorly. “One set of jobs feels worthwhile, while in the other jobs, people can’t see the point. The problems in the most hated jobs can’t be solved by job redesign or clearer career paths.” In other words, high-paying but pointless work is less happy-making than low-paying but meaningful work. (Hint to employers: this does not mean that the problem is high pay.)

Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography

Book cover: Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography I picked up a used copy of William Butcher’s biography of Jules Verne, helpfully titled Jules Verne: The Definitive Biography, to help me in my travels through Verne’s Extraordinary Voyages. There is a lot of interest here, about Verne’s childhood, politics, struggles as a playwright, passion for sea travel and so forth. But if you’re expecting an exegesis of Verne’s novels, well, you’re not going to get that: some titles fly by with the briefest of mentions.

Which is not to say that this book ignores the literary: Butcher, who’s done several new translations of Verne’s works (and has fulminated against many existing translations), explores Verne’s writing career in considerable detail, especially his relationship with Hetzel, his publisher. We learn that Hetzel edited anything the least bit controversial from Verne’s works; one result was that none of the works published in Verne’s lifetime is actually set in France. Butcher’s anger at this and at Hetzel’s financial exploitation of Verne is palpable and unrestrained; this is not a disinterested biography. Butcher also argues provocatively that a number of Verne’s works were written by others or were outright plagiarisms, and that Verne should not be seen as a science fiction writer, but rather a writer of geographical adventure fiction.

Less appealing to me was the focus on psychosexual matters and Butcher’s tendency to emphasize that a point of research was exclusive to his book, which to this lapsed historian seems aggressive and unseemly. In the end, a useful read, if not exactly a gripping one.

Can-Con 2011

Can-Con was the smallest convention I have yet been to. It was held, for the most part, in a corner of a basement of an Ottawa hotel: just a ballroom, two small meeting rooms, a dealer’s room and a claustrophobic hallway. (I never made it to the con suite.) There were issues with programming, which had to come together at the last minute; as a result, panels were uneven, and there were different schedules floating about that conflicted with one another.

But I still had a great time, because conventions are about people, and we have now been attending conventions long enough that there will always be people we’ve met before, authors we’ve read, and new people to befriend.

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George: No Longer Still Not Dead

George

George, our lumpy, floppy, semi-paralyzed, nearly incontinent male Plains Garter Snake (Thamnophis radix), a snake that I’ve been expecting to drop dead any day now for the last five years, finally did so last night. George had a huge lump just past the cloaca that started oozing the other day, which made us think his time was finally up. This time it was.

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The Dumbbell in Infrared

M27, the Dumbbell Nebula, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope

Messier 27, the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula 1,360 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. It’s a familiar sight to amateur astronomers; I’ve seen it many times through the telescope myself. But this view from the Spitzer Space Telescope is nothing like what I’ve seen through the eyepiece, and that’s because it shows it in the infrared. In this false-colour image, red represents infrared light at a wavelength of 8 µm, green 4.5 µm, and blue 3.6 µm. (Visible light, by comparison, is found between wavelengths of around 0.38 and 0.74 µm.) Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA. Via Bad Astronomer.

My Can-Con Schedule

Looks like I’ll be going to Ottawa’s science fiction convention, Can-Con, this weekend. Especially since I’ve managed to horshack my way onto a panel. You won’t be surprised which one:

Construction of Artificial Maps in Speculative Fiction (Friday, 9:00 PM - 10:00 PM). Leonard Kirk, Dwight Williams, Jonathan Crowe. Speculative or imaginary maps and cartography (included or implicit in speculative fiction).

(I’ll update this post if this changes.)

Other than that, I expect I’ll just be hanging out and making a nuisance of myself with my camera, since much of the programming does not appear to be relevant to my interests. But it’s the local con, and I expect to have fun and meet interesting people. (So you’d better be fun and interesting, you local convention-attending people, you. I mean it.)

Jerry’s Map

Jerry Gretzinger’s map began as a little doodle. Then it began to take on a life of its own. Jerry uses a deck of cards to determine how the map is revised, with near-mystical results. “Yes, it’s alive. It changes. My hand puts the paint on the paper and then I step back and say, ‘Wow, look at that,’ as though I was not the perpetrator. I’m just the observer.” I could see myself having this much fun. Via MetaFilter.

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Book cover: The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris Theodore Roosevelt was a fucking space alien. He had to have been. That’s the only conclusion I can draw having read The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, the engaging, readable and addictive first volume of Edmund Morris’s three-book biography of America’s youngest and funnest president. It covers the period from his birth to his ascension to the presidency upon the assassination of William McKinley.

Despite a fairly sickly childhood, the man had more energy than a whole platoon and produced more intellectual output, in more diverse fields, than some small colleges. He was a walking Tesla coil: you could power a small city with him. He bounced from task to task: state assemblyman, rancher, federal civil service commissioner, New York City Police commissioner, assistant navy secretary, rough rider, governor, vice president — rarely staying for more than a few years.

With a book that is 960 pages long in hardcover (I read the Kindle edition) it’s hard to complain about the gaps in the narrative — his family fades into the background as his career takes off, for example. Roosevelt led a life so full and interesting, I can see why it’s taken Morris three volumes to chronicle it. Worth reading.

Hyperion

Hyperion

That Hyperion is a weird moon has already been established; new (raw) images from Cassini’s flyby on August 25 do nothing to dissuade me from that opinion. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute; I processed this raw image with unsharp mask.

Steve Irwin Anniversary

Five years ago today, Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray. I wrote a blog post in response to some of the reactions to his death, the ones that essentially said that Irwin was a reckless thrill-seeker whose death was poetic justice. I also had a few things to say about the rather patrician nature of wildlife conservation, and the class issues revealed by the criticisms of Irwin. I have to confess that I’m rather proud of that post; if you haven’t read it before, why don’t you read it now? I won’t mind.

Five Weeks of Piroxicam

Five weeks ago, my rheumatologist put me on piroxicam, which she feels is more effective against ankylosing spondylitis than naproxen. With the exception of one year during which I experimented with other NSAIDs, I’ve been on naproxen for nearly 14 years, and until five weeks ago, I’d been taking a minimum of 1,000 mg a day for more than a decade.

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OpenStreetMap in Ottawa

I nearly forgot to mention that last Sunday I gave a presentation on the state of OpenStreetMap in Ottawa to the SummerCamp 2011 Mapping Party. It was a small group — five of us, the majority of whom knew more about the subject than I did — and, due to technical snafus with the meeting location, was held in a Bridgehead coffee shop on Bank Street. All the same, my spiel was well received. I made three points in the presentation: that OpenStreetMap was a lot less complete than some make it out to be; that the OSM map of Ottawa needs a lot of work; and here’s what to do about it.

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Cable vs. Antenna

So we’ve been talking about getting rid of cable TV. Between using the Apple TV for Netflix, movie rentals and YouTube on the one hand, and the fact that broadcast television is lately even more of a wasteland than usual on the other, we’re not watching cable very much any more — enough that the $80 or so we spend on it each month is starting to look wasteful.

Then I read this article in the Ottawa Citizen about the conversion of over-the-air TV transmissions to digital high definition, and suddenly the thought of using a TV antenna doesn’t seem quite so quaint. Consider: our cable company doesn’t offer HD in this area (though it does elsewhere), so while the selection of channels would go down, the picture quality on those channels we could get, which is to say, local Canadian broadcast stations, would go way up. (Based on TV Fool’s signal locator, we wouldn’t have too much trouble getting the signals from the Camp Fortune transmitter, and could probably get the Metcalfe transmitter with a small roof-mounted antenna.) This might involve going to a place like this and spending anywhere from $50 to $300 on an antenna package — but at least that’s a one-time charge (plus some scary moments on a ladder), versus nearly a thousand dollars a year for cable.

Top 20 Steampunk Books

For future reference, Ranting Dragon’s list of 20 steampunk books, designed to serve as an introduction to the subgenre. Since a lot of my work seems to be veering in the direction of the 19th century, it’s probably wise for me to pay attention to this sort of thing.

Secretariat

My issue with the movie Secretariat isn’t just that John Malkovich’s French accent isn’t even remotely Québécois, it’s that the story has very little dramatic interest or tension, even for a biopic whose outcome is not only known, but famous. Essentially, the movie shows Penny Chenery (played by Diane Lane) being proved right in all things; when the apotheosis of a story is “I told you so,” there’s a problem in storytelling. Secretariat may have been a better race horse than Seabiscuit, but Seabiscuit was the better movie.