Here’s an infrared look at the Cygnus X star-forming region, 4,500 light years away, home to a number of OB associations — loose groups of hot, short-lived stars. More from the mission page of NASA’s Fermi gamma-ray telescope (though this is, as I said, an infrared image — 8 µm, to be exact). Image credit: NASA/IPAC/MSX.
I think that more needs to be said about reading science fiction and fantasy short stories. Plenty is said online about the writing of it, simply because there are so many wannabe writers like me out there, with the result that science fiction and fantasy magazines are spoken of more as markets than as sources of good stories to read. And while there are short SF and fantasy reviews out there, more couldn’t hurt. So I think I’ll write frequent but irregular blog entries about the interesting stories I read in the magazines, as I read them. If it encourages me to keep up with my reading, so much the better. Onward.
In the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik says some sharp things about how modern fantasy, particularly young adult fantasy, makes otherwise dull and dreary mythology potent and appealing to children. Here’s something about Tolkien’s “bright foreground” — the Hobbits and pipe-weed layered over his more abstruse legendarium:
This is surely the most significant of the elements that Tolkien brought to fantasy. It’s true that his fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and “The Wind in the Willows” — big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied.
His comments about Christopher Paolini and Stephenie Meyer are similarly illuminating.
Last week I received in the mail a review copy of Derek Hayes’s latest book, the Historical Atlas of Washington and Oregon. Now, except for a day trip to Mount Baker in 1993, I haven’t so much as visited either state, so my review is not as informed as a local’s could be. What I can say is that this is the latest in a series of historical atlases by Hayes, whose previous works include historical atlases of North American railroads, California and the U.S. in general, among others. It’s an attractive and reasonably priced hardcover, densely packed with contemporary maps.
On that point: Hayes uses actual, contemporary maps to describe the period. This differs from what I usually expect from historical atlases, which use modern cartography to display historical information. I’m not entirely convinced of Hayes’s method: contemporary maps may not necessarily be accurate; and they’re frequently reproduced at a scale too small to be of any informative use; and the map needed to tell a story may not always be available. But when considered as a thematically and chronologically organized collection of antique maps, it works very well indeed, though I think several subjects, such as the period before European (or as Hayes puts it, “EuroAmerican”) contact, get short shrift.
Still, I cannot emphasize enough the wealth of cartography on display here (Seattle, Tacoma, Portland and the Pacific Northwest rail lines get particularly lavish treatment); this is the sort of thing that would do well as an iPad app or enhanced ebook, where you could zoom in to a full-scale reproduction of all these maps.
I’ve been quite bad at keeping up with reading the science fiction magazines this year; that’s something I hope to do better on from now on (watch this space). In the meantime, it’s a daunting thought to go back and read through all of the past year’s issues. I could use short fiction reviews as a guide: Locus, for example, publishes short fiction reviews by Gardner Dozois and Rich Horton in each issue. Both edit best-of-the-year anthologies, so reading all the genre’s short fiction is part of the job requirement. And now that it’s the end of the year, those best-of-the-year editors are starting to sum things up. Horton has published roundups of the best stories published in Asimov’s and Analog; I presume more summaries of more sources are to come. And just today, Jonathan Strahan has announced the table of contents for his upcoming best-of-the-year anthology. If nothing else, these are starting points, i.e., if I’m going to try and catch up, where do I start?
Update, Dec. 5: Rich Horton’s look at the year in F&SF.
Update, Dec. 8: Gardner Dozois has announced the table of contents for his best-of-the-year anthology; Michael Swanwick reprints it.
Update, Dec. 16: The table of contents for Rich Horton’s best-of-the-year anthology has been announced.
Update, Dec. 20: Lois Tilton’s picks for the best short SF, at Locus Online.
In the course of story research, I spent some time looking into poisonous or otherwise deadly food items, which brought me back to our friend hákarl, the Icelandic decomposing poisonous shark that at one point made Gordon Ramsay pook his fookin’ goots out. Hákarl is one dish that makes up a þorramatur, a selection of traditional Icelandic food served during the reconstituted invented-tradition holiday of Þorrablót.
In a moment of pure dementedness I thought it might be fun to host a Þorrablót party in January, in lieu of our occasional Lunar New Year feasts. But even the more mundane ingredients — and only in the context of hákarl are ram’s testicles and blood sausage mundane — are surprisingly hard to find or make, according to the Ethnic Food Project, who tried their best. Even skyr, an Icelandic dairy product somewhere between yoghurt and cheese, requires a bit of skyr to make more skyr — sort of a dairy sourdough, I guess.
So, while it may be possible, it’s probably impractical. Friends who were dreading an invitation may now breathe easier.
Previously: I’m Thinking About Some Vínarterta.
Brian Switek addresses a question that has preoccupied me for some time now: did tyrannosaurs have feathers, as some modern reconstructions have them? While no fossil tyrannosaur feathers have been found, tyrannosaurs were coelurosaurs, and nearly every kind of coelurosaur had feathered representatives. “What we can say is that the idea of a feather-covered Tyrannosaurus is a reasonable hypothesis.” But that covers a lot of possibilities, including partially feathered animals and feathered babies that lost their plumage as they grew up.
Convention organizers wanted photos of the Aurora Awards ceremony, so I volunteered to take some. My photos of the ceremony are now online; above, Robert J. Sawyer accepts the Best English Novel award for Watch. I expect there will be other photos circulating online; a lot of us were taking pictures during the ceremony.
Every time I go to a science fiction convention, I worry that I’m going to say something stupid and make an ass of myself, usually in the form of being a bonehead in the presence of an author I revere. I have to remind myself that I’m not that socially maladjusted, especially not in the context of science fiction fandom. But now that I’m participating on panels, my new worry is that I’m going to say something stupid and/or offensive in front of an audience (and end up getting denounced on LiveJournal or something). I think my panel appearances went okay, though: I said a lot and I said it loudly; and while there were a couple of things that I blurted out that in hindsight were kind of dumb, it’s possible that I’m worrying too much about it. As usual.
Jennifer and I remarked that while we certainly enjoyed ourselves, this convention wasn’t nearly as over-the-top amazebeans as the first SFContario, and I suspect that that’s largely due to familiarity: we’ve done this before, with people we’ve met previously, or at least seen from a distance. There was absolutely too much to do, particularly on Saturday, which meant that we both ended up getting only a sliver of the total experience. As though we needed to split ourselves into multiple surrogates, à la Stations of the Tide, and reintegrate the total con experience afterward.
Of course I took photos: they’re here. Jennifer took a few as well: they’re here. More are still to come: we have a bunch more from Sunday that still have to come off the camera — in particular, my photos of the Aurora Awards ceremony. Stay tuned.
Over the weekend, when I wasn’t looking and couldn’t freak out about it, the server on which this website is hosted took a bit of a tumble and had to be restored from an earlier backup. For a while there the most recent posts from the last week were unavailable. Things should be okay now, but there may be one or two issues here and there that linger until I stumble across them.
A new topographic map of the Moon from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: “Today the LROC team releases Version 1 of the Wide Angle Camera (WAC) topographic map of the Moon. This amazing map shows you the ups and downs over nearly the entire Moon, at a scale of 100 meters across the surface, and 20 meters or better vertically.” Late last year lunar topo maps were released that were based on laser altimeter data; presumably the WAC data, based on stereo observations, is better. Image credit: NASA/
Here’s an in-depth review of the Nikon Coolpix AW100 from Photography Blog. Their conclusion: so-so picture quality comparable to other compact cameras, which is what I’ve been noticing. (More or less equivalent to the Canon PowerShot SD780 it replaced.) They like its video performance, which I haven’t tried yet. On par with cameras in the ruggedized/waterproof category, basically.
Word first came in early 2009 that Jeopardy whiz Ken Jennings was writing a book “exploring the world of map nuts and geography obsessives.” That book, Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, came out in September, and now I’ve had a chance to read it.
Maphead isn’t really (or just) a book about maps; rather, it’s a book about the people who obsess about matters geographical, including maps. The subject is pretty broadly defined. He begins straightforwardly enough. After a chapter on spatial awareness, Jennings looks at the scandal that erupted when a University of Miami professor discovered his students couldn’t locate anything on a map, and at map literacy in general. There’s a chapter on borders and placenames. But things really get cooking when Jennings turns to things people do. A chapter on map collecting. On maps of imaginary places. The National Geographic Bee. Roadgeeking. Geocaching. Even the Degree Confluence Project.
In its cheerful enthusiasm for all things map, Maphead reads a lot like Mike Parker’s Map Addict (which I reviewed in 2009). This is a good thing. Like Map Addict, Maphead covers a lot of what for me is very familiar ground: I sometimes felt like I was reading my own blog archives, which is something I felt while reading Map Addict. But then Jennings goes and finds something I didn’t know, like the fact that Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” was not the only work to play with the idea of a 1:1 scale map: Lewis Carroll and Umberto Eco did it too. Ken Jennings has managed to pull off a minor miracle: a profoundly erudite, well-researched book, written in a breezy, accessible and downright witty manner that is invariably entertaining. A pleasant book that you should look at, if you have any interest in maps.
Previously: Map Books for Fall 2011.
At this time of year, for the last couple of years, I’ve put together a gift guide listing noteworthy books about maps published over the past year. Even though I’m not regularly blogging about maps any more, this year is no exception. This year’s list includes the scholarly and the popular, the technical as well the artistic. Here’s the U.S. list, here’s the U.K. list, and here’s the list for Canada. Selection and editions vary by store. As usual, books bought through these Amazon affiliate links make me a bit of money. Thank you for your support.
If you hang around the astronomy-obsessed corners of the Interwebs like I do, you’ve probably already seen this five-minute time-lapse video compiled from footage taken by astronauts on the International Space Station. Gape at the pretty aurorae, watch the flickr of the thunderstorms, try to figure out where you are from the pattern of the city lights — one way or another, you’ll be impressed. Via Bad Astronomy.
Previously: An Aurora from Orbit.
A few minor updates:
I’ve started using Delicious again: here’s my account; interesting links will now appear on the sidebar of the front page.
The Reading Jules Verne project now has its own project page separate from the blog archives. The project page lists all the books to be covered and provides links for each (Amazon and Wikipedia links, places to download the book for free, and so forth).
(On a related note, I have to figure out how to make project pages more visible within the context of this site’s design.)
Flare season seems to have come at last: I’m stiff and sore, but so far not as bad as it has been in the past. As usual, the piroxicam seems to be doing a better job of it. My ability to cope has improved considerably.
But the piroxicam may also be responsible for hypertension. My blood pressure has gone up. Way up. I’ve been monitoring it regularly over the past month or so, and it’s been consistently around 160/100. Which is, shall we say, not good. I’ve been told to see a doctor, but it’s going to take another month before I can see my family doctor. (The health care system does send mixed messages: “You really should see a doctor! In about six weeks!”) I’ve also been told that it’s not so high that I should rush off to the emergency room. Even so, this is somewhat unnerving, and I’ve been doing my best not to panic. Ankylosing spondylitis is serious but not, generally speaking, fatal; you can’t say that about hypertension.
At our last meeting, my rheumatologist said that she felt it was better to treat the hypertension than to stop taking the drug, and at this point I’m still inclined to agree. We’ll see what happens after I’m given something for the hypertension.
A lump on a snake that isn’t a mouse just passing through is usually cause for concern. One of the two male red-sided garter snakes has one (see above). It’s been long enough since his last meal that it’s almost certainly not that. It’s a little too round to be an intestinal blockage. It’s far enough down the body that I don’t think it’s an organ. My first thought is that it’s a growth of some sort; whether it’s a benign cyst or an ominous tumour is something that remains to be seen.
His mother died of a golf-ball-sized liver tumour in 2002, and the Butler’s garter snake presented a rather large lump before dying earlier this year. Lumps are bad, and there’s generally nothing to be done about them.
If nothing else, his behaviour — rapacious and in constant motion — is certainly unchanged. This is, incidentally, one of the 42 baby garter snakes born in 2002, only now this baby snake is nine and a half years old. For a garter snake, that’s getting up there.
Steve Jobs was no Santa Claus.
I didn’t need Walter Isaacson’s new biography of the late Apple CEO, simply titled Steve Jobs, to tell me that. I was already well aware of Jobs’s many character flaws: his abandonment of his first daughter, Lisa; his lack of empathy; his unpleasant behaviour to virtually everyone around him; his odd dietary habits and other quirks. All of these traits were already catalogued in excruciating detail in Alan Deutschman’s 2001 biography, The Second Coming of Steve Jobs, which catalogued, in vivid detail, the period between Jobs’s ouster from Apple in 1985 and the first few years of his return.
A friend of mine asked whether asteroid 2005 YU55, which will pass between the Earth and the Moon tomorrow, will be visible to the naked eye, since it’s bigger than the International Space Station (which we can see passing overhead).
The short answer is no. At 400 metres in diameter, 2005 YU55 is bigger than the ISS, which is 109 metres wide along its truss. But the space station is a lot closer: it orbits at an altitude of between 376 and 398 kilometres. 2005 YU55, on the other hand, will pass by at a distance of around 325,000 kilometres — more than 800 times further away.
There are additional complications. 2005 YU55 is a C-type asteroid made of carbonaceous materials and is as such very dark. Universe Today’s Jason Major says that it’s “effectively darker than coal, reflecting less than 1% of the sunlight that it receives.” And we’re approaching full moon, which will wash out dimmer objects in the sky. Observing guides suggest that a telescope with at least six inches of aperture will be required to see it (Astroguyz, Space.com). That’s not to say that there aren’t plans to observe it or image it, but Hale-Bopp this ain’t. You’ll need equipment.
When Phil Plait reported yesterday that a big cluster of sunspots named Solar Active Region 1339 was coming into view, Since it was a clear day, I thought we should have a look for ourselves and see if we could get some good photos. So we did, with the above results. (I’m not entirely sure I should have tinted the image; it was something different to try.) For a full-disc view of the Sun (from which the above photo is taken), see this photo.
I’ve created a Flickr photoset about solar observing and photography to collect shots like these.
While trolling for awesome space pictures, I’ve noticed something a bit unusual. Images from sources like the Hubble Space Telescope or the European Southern Observatory are frequently public domain or released under a Creative Commons licence, which makes them a cinch to repost here: just give them credit and everyone’s happy. Amateur astrophotography, on the other hand, is usually much more restrictive: the photographer usually has a strict injunction on their website prohibiting republishing their photos elsewhere without prior permission. This is the opposite of other forms of photography: now it’s the pros who are giving their stuff away, and the amateurs watermarking their photos and invoking copyright. There’s lots of good amateur astrophotography on Flickr, for example, but hardly any of it is CC-licensed. Odd.
I’ve been having a hard time sympathizing with the wave of “occupy” protests in Canadian cities, because they seem to be mirroring American protests without our country sharing the American pain. The situation in Canada is simply not as dire, as Andrew Coyne points out:
Canada did not have a housing bubble, hence had no housing collapse, nor the resulting epidemic of mortgage failures. Our banks did not get overextended, did not have to be bailed out, and are lending, again unlike the U.S. banks, at a good clip. Unemployment is not rising in Canada, but has been falling steadily for more than two years: at 7.1 per cent, it is still above its pre-recession lows, but remains lower than at virtually any other time since the 1960s. Ditto for poverty: even when measured against a moving target like Statistics Canada’s low income cut-off, it is just off its 40-year low, at 9.6 per cent, from a peak of 15 per cent in the mid 1990s.
Which is to say that we’re not nearly as fucked as our American neighbours. Also, we have universal health insurance. And while university tuition has tripled since my undergrad days, it’s not nearly as ridiculous as it is in the U.S. unless you’re in a professional program.
Coyne goes on to discover that the growth in income among the so-called one percent (which in Canada includes everyone making more than $170,000, versus $400,000 in the U.S.) is really limited to “a few hundred people earning exceptionally high incomes,” which is an uncomfortably small number to demonstrate against. The kind of income stratification seen in the U.S. just isn’t happening to the same extent here.
In other words: Canada is a different country. (News flash!)
For anyone whose relationship with one or both of their parents is, shall we say, problematic, the case of Shirley Anderson, the 73-year-old British Columbia woman who for the past 11 years has been seeking support payments from her estranged adult children, is a nightmare scenario. Anderson is seeking support payments of around $300-350 a month from each of four children, one of whom says he was abandoned at age 15, under section 90 of B.C.’s Family Relations Act, a measure that apparently predates the CPP and OAS (CBC News, National Post). Earlier this week her children failed to have the case tossed out on the grounds of excessive delays, but Mrs. Anderson must provide financial records and submit to the discovery process by a deadline or the case will be dismissed (CBC News, Vancouver Sun). To call this ugly would be an understatement.
I probably shouldn’t be too surprised about this: Orion is selling an iPhone-to-telescope adapter. It costs $60 and is basically a bracket that holds the iPhone at the right spot so that its camera lines up with the eyepiece. It’s long been possible to use the iPhone (or any other cameraphone, really) for short-exposure or video astrophotography (lunar, solar, the easier planets like Jupiter) using the afocal method; it’s just that you’d either have to hold it up to the telescope or build your own bracket. That Orion’s making a commercial bracket means that they figure there’s enough of a market to tool for one. The iPhone market is much bigger than the telescope market, and iPhone photography is a big deal. Maybe this is a gateway product to draw iPhone users into the rest of their catalogue.
So far we’ve been pleased with the performance of the Nikon Coolpix AW100. For a compact digital camera, it’s more responsive than I expected — less shutter lag, for example, and the GPS seems to find itself faster than the Nikon GPS-1 logger I use with my D90 (though I haven’t run a proper test to compare them). I’m pleasantly surprised by the image quality, too: see this macro shot. Not bad for a 1/2.3-inch sensor.