Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ October 2011

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Journey to the Centre of the Earth (Voyage au centre de la Terre) is the third installment in my read-through of Jules Verne’s novels, but the first that most people are likely to have read, if they’ve read a Verne novel at all. First published in 1864 while The Adventures of Captain Hatteras was still being serialized, Journey is considerably shorter (Hatteras was 130,000 words long) and, I’d argue, less successful as a story, though of course it’s far better known.

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Snakes in a Cave

Here’s a short video of Puerto Rican boas snatching bats in mid-air as they emerge from their guano-covered cave. This will either be profoundly cool or profoundly icky, depending on your temperament. Via National Geographic News Watch.

Master of the House of Darts

Book cover: Master of the House of Darts by Aliette de Bodard Master of the House of Darts is the third and final book in Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec mystery fantasy novels. We rejoin Acatl, High Priest of the Dead and sometime investigator of magical murder and intrigue, some four months after the events of Harbinger of the Storm. The Mexica emperor, Tizoc, has returned from his coronation war with too few prisoners to offer up as sacrifice, and Acatl is again worried that the balance between the heavens, the earth and the underworld is at risk. (The world of Obsidian and Blood seems to be on the constant edge of a Mesoamerican Ragnarök.) When a plague strikes the Sacred Precinct and threatens to spread across Tenochtitlan, Acatl is once again called upon to save the day.

Selfless, utterly sincere and a bit colourless, Acatl is in stark (and necessary) contrast to a cast of self-interested and scheming priests, warriors and politicians, and a vividly painted society in which blood sacrifices are necessary to keep the sun in the sky and ensure the survival of life on earth, and the gods are neither imaginary nor distant. As enjoyable as the first two books — which is to say, yes, read them.

Previously: Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec Mystery Novels.

Buy at Amazon.com (Canada, UK, Kindle).

Messier 96

Messier 96 spiral galaxy (ESO/Oleg Maliy)

It’s true that I post too many pretty space pictures, but it’s also true that not enough of them are of lovely spiral galaxies like Messier 96. This one is from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope, and was processed from visual and infrared data by Oleg Maliy. Via Bad Astronomy. Image credit: ESO/O. Maliy.

The Bilingual Elite

I speak both English and French, though my French isn’t as good as I’d like it to be and I stammer dreadfully when I speak it. I think that speaking both English and French is a good idea in this country. But I’m not at all comfortable with the notion that bilingualism must be a job requirement for top public-sector positions in Canada, whether it’s the auditor general or a Supreme Court justice. According to 2006 census numbers, only 17.4 percent of the Canadian population — about five and a half million people — speak both English and French. In the context of this country’s history, that’s not bad. But if the top tiers of the public sector can only be drawn from this country’s bilingual population, which is what opposition MPs appear to be demanding, then that 17.4 percent (or at least its educated subset) becomes a privileged elite — a governing caste. That’s not healthy for a democracy, and there are all kinds of ways for that situation to go very, very wrong. Having a few interpreters around is a small price to pay to prevent that, I think.

Two Lost Snakes Turn Up in Toronto

I look forward to the day when a lost snake is treated the same way as a lost dog or cat. We’re not there yet, if this story of two snakes — a corn snake and a python — turning up in neighbouring apartment buildings in Toronto is any indication: a lost snake is still man-bites-dog news, more so when it’s two nearby snakes a day apart. (I bet they’re from the same collection.) But I take heart from the police statement: “Like finding a stray dog, now we’re finding stray snakes.” It’s unusual (man bites dog) but hardly a city-wide freakout. Not in Toronto, anyway.

A Supernova Remnant in Infrared and X-Ray

RCW 86 in infrared and X-ray

Here’s RCW 86, the remnant of supernova SN 185, as seen in infrared and X-ray light by four different orbital observatories. Compare with this infrared-only image to see how much the surrounding interstellar gas has been heated by X-ray radiation. RCW 86 is 8,000 light years away in the southern constellation Circinus; SN 185 was observed 1,826 years ago by Chinese astronomers. Image credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/CXC/SAO.

Using Camera Lenses as Telescopes

I connect telescopes to cameras all the time: a simple adapter turns the telescope into a ginormous manual telephoto lens. But I was not aware that adapters existed to turn a camera lens into a telescope or microscope — replacing the camera with an eyepiece. See Nikon Rumors and Photo Rumors.

Snake Parthenogenesis

From time to time I hear about a female snake who gives birth in captivity even though she hasn’t encountered a male in years. Now female snakes can retain a male’s sperm for quite some time, keeping it handy until they ovulate, so it’s hard to parse out the cases of sperm retention from true cases of parthenogenesis — where the female snake reproduces asexually. Snake parthenogenesis is being researched by Kansas State University professor Eva Horne, the Topeka Capital-Journal reports. In the case of a copperhead that gave birth to two offspring in 2001 without the benefit of midichlorians a male, DNA tests confirmed that the babies were genetically identical to their mother — clones, in other words — which confirms this as parthenogenesis, not sperm retention. So it happens. How often it happens is still to be determined.

Shatnerian Rhapsody

The consensus on MetaFilter appears to be that William Shatner’s cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody” — found on his new album, Seeking Major Tom (Amazon, iTunes) — is a great big stinking pile of shat. Now that you’ve seen the video, what do you think?

My Kryptonite

As I said on Twitter yesterday, outages are my kryptonite. I can put up with a lot of crap, and I don’t whine nearly as much as some people I know, but outages invariably send me around the bend, probably due to the feeling of powerlessness they engender. For example, over the last three days my web server has been imploding like clockwork every morning. Which means that I’ve been starting every day for the last three days all freaked out and grouchy. They moved my account to another server today, which should be the end of it unless something running on my account is to blame. (Can’t think what.)

Three kinds of outage affect me on a semi-regular basis: power, Internet service provider, and website. Power outages are the worst: they happen surprisingly frequently out here, so much so that we have UPSes for the computers, which don’t help for longer, multi-hour outages (and we’ve had a few of those over the past year). ISP outages are common enough that I have Eastlink on speed-dial, but my anxiety over their occurrence has largely been assuaged by having 3G on my iPad: it’s not often that 3G and cable are out at the same time. Even when the power is out, I can usually stay connected via the iPad.

For some reason, my long-term plans include off-grid backup power.

1493

Columbus triggered the Little Ice Age. Malaria invented African slavery in the Americas, set the position of the Mason-Dixon line and helped the colonies win the American War of Independence. Silver from the New World wreaked havoc on the Chinese monetary system. Potatoes allowed Europe to take over the world.

Book cover: 1493 These are some of the provocative gems found in Charles C. Mann’s 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. It’s a sequel of sorts to 1491, a book on the Americas before their discovery by Europeans that impressed the hell out of me. It’s essentially a popular history of the Columbian Exchange — where peoples, species, and goods previously separated by geography came together in a new period some have dubbed the Homogocene — where, for example, Africans outnumbered Europeans in the Caribbean and a substantial population of Asians lived in 16th-century Mexico, and crops like tobacco, sugar, rubber, potatoes and maize expanded across the world. Globalization, Mann argues, is not a new thing: the global economy can be traced to post-conquest Mexico, where Andean silver not only crossed the Atlantic to Spain, but also the Pacific to the Philippines, where Spain traded it for Chinese silk and porcelain. The world knit itself together on the bounty of the Americas.

It’s by necessity an incomplete look. The Atlantic triangle gets short shrift, and cod is not once mentioned. A comprehensive survey of the Exchange would have to be textbook-superficial, or come in twenty volumes. Mann takes one thing at a time — rubber or sugar or malaria, or racial mixing, or escaped slave colonies like the black Seminoles — and goes into considerable depth. Neither is this a history of the period immediately after contact: the Conquistadors share time with modern-day rubber plantations in Indochina. What 1493 is, like 1491 before it, is an immensely stimulating and accessible read, hard to put down, provocative of much thought. Go read it.

Buy at Amazon.com (Canada, UK, Kindle).

Tree Planting Along Route 148

Tree planting along Route 148

Work on rebuilding Route 148 through Shawville wrapped up months ago, or so I thought; today I spotted work crews planting trees along the side of the highway. I’d heard that this was coming but assumed it had been dropped: after all, they finished road work in July and laid down turf in August, and it’s now October. Is there a reason to wait until late fall to plant trees?

(I also assume they’ll straighten out some of the crookedly planted ones before they’re done; they can’t be that sloppy.)

My SFContario Schedule

To my considerable surprise, I am tentatively scheduled to appear on the following panels at SFContario next month. This list is subject to change — particularly if they find me out and realize the horrible, horrible mistake they’ve made.

Social Media and How to Use It — Saturday, 1:00 PM, Parkview
Writers know the internet, but not all writers take advantage of its full potential. With the emergence of social media potential readers are just a click away. What is social media about and how can it help you? What should you do and what are the pitfalls to avoid? (Suzanne Church, Jonathan Crowe, Karen Dales (M), Matt Moore, Brett Savory)

The Lord of the Rings — 10 Years Later — Saturday, 7:00 PM, Room 207
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring was released in North America on December 19, 2001, almost exactly 10 years ago. Now that we’ve had some time to put it into perspective, how has the Lord of the Rings trilogy held up? Come join our round table discussion. (Suzanne Church (M), Jonathan Crowe, David Nickle, Jane Carol Petrovich)

Is Privacy Possible in the Digital Age? — Sunday, 11:00 AM, Ballroom A
“Privacy is dead, deal with it,” Sun MicroSystems CEO Scott McNealy is reported to have said. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has declared that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” Our love affair with all things technological has led to a seemingly unstoppable encroachment on our personal privacy. Have we already created Big Brother? Can we, the public, effectively watch the watchers? (Kathryn Cramer, Jonathan Crowe, Neil Jamieson-Williams, Alex Pantaleev (M), Adam Shaftoe)

(Updated.)

Hubris and the Times Comprehensive Atlas

When the publishers of the Times Comprehensive Atlas of the World announced that the newly released 13th edition showed that Greenland’s ice sheet had shrunk by 15 percent, climate scientists went ballistic. While Greenland’s ice is retreating, it’s not nearly by that much, and this is just the sort of error that encourages climate-change denialists.

How did Collins Geo allow this to happen? This is the question Mark Monmonier explores in a piece on the New Scientist website. Monmonier, the author of How to Lie with Maps and many other books, argues that hubris was behind the mistake: that the towering reputation of the Times Atlases led to overconfidence.

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Writers Writing About Writing

A couple of things about how writing about writing has turned into writing about the writing business. Catherynne M. Valente is sick of talking about ebooks: “But remember how when we were all kids and wanted to be writers and a big part of that was sitting around with other bookish people and talking about literature? Yeah, me too. Nowhere in there was a deep longing to talk about epub vs MOBI until I can’t remember which one makes techno music.”

And Paul Jessup says that he’s “sick of the focus, always the focus, on the business side of things, on the making the money side of things.”

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Fortyn’s Orinoco Crocodiles Head South

The fate of the Seaway Serpentarium’s two Orinoco crocodiles has been decided, the National Post reports. The rest of the late Karel Fortyn’s collection was split between Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo in Ottawa and Reptilia in Vaughan, but the crocodiles, representatives of an extremely rare species, were being packed up over the weekend for shipment to the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas.

Fortyn died last May; the fate of his 200 or so reptiles, including the crocodiles and a number of venomous snakes, was the subject of a legal battle earlier this year. Previously: Seaway Serpentarium Reptiles in Custody Battle; Judge Rules on Seaway Serpentarium Reptiles.

Reg Alcock

As one of many young Liberals whose neck he regularly threatened to snap during his time at the Manitoba legislature in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I would be remiss if I did not note the passing of former Liberal MLA, MP, and cabinet minister Reg Alcock, who died today at the age of 63. According to CBC News and the Winnipeg Free Press, he collapsed from an apparent heart attack at Winnipeg’s airport this morning. A giant of a man in every sense of the word.

Electromagnetic Hypersensitivity

Further to last week’s post about cell phone radiation and brain cancer, here’s a Maclean’s article about people who are fleeing into the wilderness to avoid exposure to electromagnetic frequencies (EMF). These are people who say they have electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS): radio towers, cell phones, wireless routers all make them sick.

The article’s comments — I know, I know — have a depressing sameness to them: EMF sensitivity is just like cigarettes and cancer 40 years ago; and anyone who expresses skepticism or disagrees with them is either “addicted” to wireless technology or in the pay of industry. These people genuinely believe that wireless technology is making them sick, and can’t understand why people are defending something so obviously dangerous.

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Sunspots!

Sunspots

What better way to spend an unseasonably warm and sunny October afternoon, with temperatures in the high twenties, than staring at the Sun through a telescope? I’ve been meaning to observe (and photograph) the Sun for a while but it was never clear enough when I wanted to, until today. We saw a good crop of sunspots — at least five of them, with a sixth on the upper left limb of the Sun if you look closely. Neat stuff.

Cell Phones and Cancer

I’m so disappointed with my former employer. Health Canada has issued a recommendation that parents limit their childrens’ cell phone usage due to concerns about radiation exposure. This is a result of the IARC listing radiofrequency electromagnetic fields as one of 267 possible carcinogens — a list (see Group 2B) that also includes coffee, engine exhaust, nickel and pickled vegetables. See Technology Review.

I appreciate that we’re only talking about possibilities and concerns, but this is only going to be grist for those who are freaking out about microwave radiation, whether it’s from cell towers, cell phones, or Wi-Fi networks.

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How Uranus Got Its Tilt

Uranus Uranus’s 97.77-degree axial tilt has been hypothesized as the result of a single large impact that knocked the ice giant on its side. But a team of researchers argue if that were the case, Uranus’s moons would be left orbiting in their original position, instead of matching Uranus’s weird tilt. They suggest, based on computer modelling, that Uranus was smacked while still in possession of its protoplanetary disk (i.e., before its moons formed) and that it was smacked more than once (because a single hit would have had the moons orbiting in the opposite direction). Which means that large impacts may not have been rare in the early solar system. Via io9 and Universe Today. Image credit: Lawrence Sromovsky, (Univ. Wisconsin-Madison), Keck Observatory.

Map Books for Fall 2011

Here are a few map-related books coming out this fall. They include books by a game show legend and a highly regarded artist, and an atlas that has already encountered more than its share of controversy.

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Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs died today at the age of 56. Obituaries: CNN, Los Angeles Times, Macworld, New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle. Steve resigned as Apple CEO only on August 24. His final public presentation, as far as I can tell, was at WWDC on June 6; this extraordinary shot was taken afterward.

In 2005 he gave the commencement address at Stanford, a year after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Here’s the video; here’s the transcript. Of note:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important thing I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life, because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

In our household, which contains four working Macs, five iPods, an iPad and an Apple TV, Steve’s impact goes without saying. At least for tonight.

A Jennifer-Proof Camera

The Canon PowerShot SD780 I picked up two years ago suffered death by drowning last Friday. Jennifer took it with her to a school canoe competition in Low, Quebec; it was raining, and the camera got soaked, and that was that. I wasn’t as annoyed as I could have been: in two years I got an awful lot of use out of it (which is interesting when you consider that I primarily shoot with a digital SLR) and it was getting awfully beat up. It was a reasonably good run for a piece of consumer tech.

Nikon Coolpix AW100 The silver lining to busted gear is that you get to go shopping for its replacement. Yesterday, Jennifer bought the camera she should have had with her on Friday: a waterproof, shockproof and generally Jen-proof compact camera. She decided on the Nikon Coolpix AW100, which Henry’s had just got in stock; the runner-up was the Panasonic Lumix DMC-TS3. The cameras are very similar in specs and cost the same; in the end she preferred the user interface on the Nikon. I’ve been hinting that she ought to get a ruggedized waterproof camera for some time; that sort of camera fits in with her sort of thing. And she won’t be afraid to use it — as she’s been when, for example, I’ve handed her my old digital SLR.

I’m interested in seeing how the AW100 turns out; it’s so new it hasn’t really been reviewed yet. And yes, it has GPS: this represents the eighth GPS receiver in our household.

Previously: The Coolpix AW100 and the Competition.

Chronic Pain in Canada

A series on chronic pain in Canada (and how poorly it’s being dealt with) by health reporter Sharon Kirkey has been running over the weekend in the Postmedia papers (e.g. the Ottawa Citizen and the Calgary Herald). Relevant to my interests, as you might have guessed.

Organic Farming Is Just as Productive

A report from the Rodale Institute argues that organic farming is not only less toxic, less energy-intensive, and more profitable than conventional farming, it also generates comparable yields — which is one argument made in favour of conventional farming — and actually outperforms conventional farming during droughts. More from the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix.