Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ December 2011

A Peregrine Falcon Attacks!

Peregrine Falcon Catches a Starling 4

A bit of excitement this morning. I suppose it was only a matter of time before something that predated on birds made an appearance around here, what with all the birds we’ve been attracting to the feeders and especially the sheer number of finches and starlings we’ve seen around here. That something, this morning, was a peregrine falcon, which took down and eviscerated a starling only a few metres from our living room window. We’re 90 percent sure that this is a juvenile peregrine falcon rather than, say, a merlin; Jennifer went through all her field guides to be certain.

I took plenty of photos, though their quality was hampered by the fact that I was shooting with a 55-200mm zoom through spotty window glass. (I need a longer lens.) I also captured about a minute’s worth of video in which the falcon was busily ripping flesh from the still-thrashing starling. Nature red in tooth and claw, et cetera. But so damn cool.

It boggles my mind that we can see, just by looking through our living room window, what others have to travel long distances to get a glimpse of.

Comet Lovejoy Lives!

Sungrazing comet C/2011 W3 Lovejoy passed through the Sun’s corona and survived. It is now providing a spectacular sight to viewers in the southern hemisphere and on the International Space Station. Above, a time-lapse video of Comet Lovejoy rising above the Andes, by Stéphane Guisard (via Bad Astronomy). It looks huge; I’m very sorry this can’t be seen from the northern hemisphere.

Books Read in 2011

This is a list of the books I’ve read — and finished — in 2011. It’s as complete as I can make it; I wasn’t keeping close track before I signed up for Goodreads. Links are to my reviews.

Some interesting stats: 45.8 percent were ebooks of one format or another; 37.5 percent were written, edited or co-edited by women; half were science fiction or fantasy novels, collections or anthologies (not counting the Verne).

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Reading Short SF and Fantasy 2

Analog (1-2/12). The January-February double issue includes the first part of Robert J. Sawyer’s new novel, Triggers, a near-future thriller involving an accident that causes people to be able to read the mind of a nearby person — including the U.S. president. It starts slowly and awkwardly but rapidly picks up speed; by the end of the first part I was looking forward to the rest. Two novellas are sequels to earlier work I haven’t seen: “Project Herakles” by Stephen Baxter combines Chinese giants with an attempted coup in 1968 Britain, with all the things I find problematic about alternate history starring real historical figures; Rajnar Vajra’s “Doctor Alien and the Spindles of Infinity” is a pan-galactic romp with interesting aliens, but the resolution is a bit too simple. Sean McMullen is back with another piece of steampunky alternate history: “Ninety Thousand Horses” posits a rocketry project in turn-of-the-century Britain. The short stories were rather frothy and the Probability Zero piece was a fatwa-inducing Feghoot.

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Quiet Holidays

The holidays were quiet for us this year: it’s the first time since 2004 that we didn’t visit family or have company over. Couple that with an exhausting school year for Jennifer, and my being somewhat overwhelmed with health issues (I’ve been in flare for the last couple of weeks), and things were even more low-key. We didn’t do much, but we didn’t mind that: we can handle the quiet. We did put together a hell of a meal: roast duck with potatoes and carrots roasted in the fat. You couldn’t have asked for better.

Crash on the 148

A four-car collision on Route 148 east of Quyon last night left three people dead and another two in hospital and closed the highway overnight, the Ottawa Citizen reports. What appears to have happened: “a car headed towards Shawville collided head-on with a second vehicle carrying four people headed to Gatineau. The first vehicle was attempting to pass a car, police say.” Local residents complain about frequent illegal passing on that stretch of highway. (See also CBC News coverage.)

This is a terrible event, but not the first of its kind. Route 148 has a surprisingly high mortality rate, but I don’t think it’s simply because of a poor highway. The drivers on the highway have a lot to do with it, at least in my experience. There are two types: drivers who insist on going way too fast; and drivers who won’t go faster than 80 km/h and who slow down when it’s dark, raining, snowing or if there’s any oncoming traffic. Combine that with heavy traffic during the commute — a lot of people out here work in Ottawa — and you have impatient drivers with long commutes who might be tempted to take risks because they’re getting frustrated with slowpokes blocking their way.

As for upgrading the highway, we don’t have the population or economic activity for even a super two, much less a freeway. It might help if we didn’t have quite so many bad drivers, but there’s not much that can be done about that. It probably wouldn’t hurt to add one or two passing lanes to the 42-kilometre stretch of highway between Shawville and Luskville, though.

Update, Dec. 22. The crash victims have been identified; the two injured children now in hospital attend Jennifer’s school, so you can imagine the mood. CBC News reports that the driver responsible for the crash had a previous conviction for refusing a breathalyzer; toxicology won’t be available for a few weeks in this case. And the Ottawa Citizen has a few questions about the driver as well.

Deep Sky Roundup

Star-Forming Region Sharpless 2-106

For some reason, it’s the time of year when too many goddamn awesome space pictures get posted. Here are a few of the DSO variety. Above, a newly released Hubble image of Sharpless 2-106, a star-forming region 2,000 light years away. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

Elsewhere in our galaxy, amateur astrophotographer Rogelio Bernal Andreo takes the most amazing wide-field astrophotos: don’t miss this stunning image of supernova remnant Sharpless 2-240. Puppis A is another supernova remnant; WISE imaged it in infrared. Another gem from the Sharpless catalogue, 2-239, made APOD on December 8.

Much further afield — 480 million light years, to be more or less exact — the Chandra X-ray telescope imaged gas “sloshing” around galaxy cluster Abell 2052; Phil Plait explains the enormous scale involved. Finally, closer to home, Tycho’s Supernova shines in gamma rays.

On Science Journalism

A couple of items on science journalism and the quality thereof: this Nature editorial examines some shortcomings of reporting about science, from driving stories to fit a particular agenda rather than the facts to torquing stories in the service of sensationalism; Brian Switek complains about the press’s inability to call out scientific bullshit — that science journalists aren’t necessarily able to probe and challenge controversial claims.

Previously: Churnalism: PR as News.

On Muppet Nostalgia

I haven’t managed to see the new Muppet movie yet, which seems strange considering my often-reverential attitude toward all things Muppet. (I might get a chance to do so this weekend, though.)

Truth be told, I’ve long been ambivalent about the Muppets of the post-Henson era. That dates back to when Steve Whitmire, whose previous Muppet characters include Rizzo the Rat and Wembley Fraggle, was tapped as Jim Henson’s successor. It was hard for me to accept performances of Kermit with Whitmire’s voice; from my perspective, Kermit “died” when Jim Henson did.

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Cassini’s Dione Close-Up

Dione, Epimetheus and Pandora (Cassini)

The Cassini spacecraft performed its closest-ever flyby of Saturn’s moon Dione yesterday. In the above image, taken from a distance of 112,636 km from Dione, the moons Epimetheus and Pandora, as well as Saturn’s rings, can also be seen. This image was taken from a distance of 77,682 km. And this image reveals Saturn’s moon Mimas poking out from behind the dark side of Dione. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute; I added some sharpening and highlight correction.

That’s Gross, Snake

A bit of excitement on the snake front this evening. The two male red-sided garter snakes, who have been with each other (or their siblings) since they were born nine and a half years ago, decided to get into a tussle. Rather than attacking one another, which was my initial fear, it turns out that they were fighting over food. Problem is, we fed them on Friday. One of them had regurgitated his meal and they were both trying to swallow it back down. Yum. Of course, we had to separate them for a while — food fights can be serious business with snakes — but we couldn’t stop Thing Two (the lumpy one) from eating it. Double yum.

And I bet you thought only cats tried to eat each other’s barf.

Previously: Biting Your Cagemate Is Wrong, Snake.

Update, Dec. 13: It happened again this morning. Looks like Thing Two can’t keep his food down, which is to say that he’s not doing at all well.

An Evangelist for Climate Change

Katharine Hayhoe is an ostensible paradox: a climate scientist who has no doubts about the science and an evangelical Christian. She’s made it her mission to speak to the evangelical Christian community, who are among the biggest climate change doubters out there:

Most climatologists refuse to answer skeptics, preferring to let the research speak for itself. Hayhoe is one of a small but growing number of scientists willing to engage climate change doubters face to face. Unlike most of her colleagues, she is driven as much by the tenets of her faith as the urgency of the science. […]
Like any climatologist, she is armed with data. Yet Hayhoe also speaks of climate change in a language to which conservative Christians can relate, about protecting God’s creation and loving one’s neighbors. Hayhoe is a climate change evangelist here in the West Texas Bible Belt, compelled by her faith to protect the least among us by sharing what she knows, even if it’s science that many around her reject.

Via Phil Plait.

More Skiffy Bits

Charles Stross keeps scoring hits against the shibboleths of space-based science fiction because he keeps looking at whether they’re viable from an economic standpoint. You’d have thought that interstellar communications would be less costly than interstellar travel (at least I did), that is, that pointing a laser at a nearby star system must be more efficient — i.e., consumes less energy per bit of information sent — than sending that data via a starship. Turns out? Not so much, not by a long shot, when you factor in the cost of bandwidth. It’s the application of Tanenbaum’s law — “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway” — to space. (After all, it wasn’t so long ago that it would have been faster to get a DVD-ROM in the mail than to download four or five gigabtyes.)

A Locus roundtable on the tension between commercial writing and writing for love and/or art.

Original anthology calls for submission: Biblioteca Fantastica seeks stories about “lost, rare, weird, or imaginary books, or any aspect of book history or book culture” (2¢/word, March 31); Blood and Water deals with “conflicts (and their resolutions) arising because of water, food or pollution” (Canadians only, $50-100, March 4); and Tesseracts 16, with its theme of “Parnassus Unbound,” wants stories focusing on “art, music, literature and cultural elements which are integral to the story” (Canadians only, 3¢/word, Feb. 29). I will try to submit to at least one of these.

The BBC’s 1973 radio dramatization of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy is available for download online. Via MetaFilter.

Mercury’s Bartok Crater

Behold Bartok

An oblique, high-resolution view of Mercury’s Bartok crater, about 117 km across, courtesy of the MESSENGER probe. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Personal Geographies

Book cover: Personal Geographies If you’re interested in maps as art, you probably already have copies of books like You Are Here and The Map as Art, excellent collections of map art curated by Katharine Harmon (if you don’t have these books and you’re interested, now you know; off you go). If, on the other hand, you’re a crafty sort and are interested in making art with maps — whether as raw material or as theme — then a new book by Jill K. Berry, Personal Geographies: Explorations in Mixed-Media Mapmaking, may be worth your attention.

Personal Geographies is a short guide to making maps about personal subjects using the techniques of mixed-media artwork. Let me unpack that a bit. Mixed media involves combining several different art forms: paint, pen and ink, photography, collage; different materials and textures. Berry, lists as supplies a number of different kinds of paper and cardstock; pencils, crayons and paints; adhesives; tools; and embellishments like ribbons.

These are the raw materials. Berry chooses as her theme so-called personal geographies, broken up into three chapters: maps of the self, in which the personal is mapped to pictures of the head, the hand, the heart or the body; maps of personal experiences, such as trips; and art pieces made from real and fictional maps. Each lavishly illustrated chapter gives sample projects with step-by-step instructions; each chapter also collects map projects from a number of different artists to show you what else might be possible.

I received an electronic review copy of this book.

Buy at Amazon.com (Canada, UK)

Jupiter Rotation

One full rotation of big scary Jupiter, observed over a week in October by the one-metre telescope at the Pic du Midi observatory. Via APOD. Credit: S2P IMCCE/OPM/J.-L. Dauvergne/Elie Rousset/Eric Meza/Philippe Tosi/François Colas/Jean Pajus/Xavi Nogués/Emil Kraaikamp.

Rattlesnakes and Climate Change

Rattlesnakes won’t be able to keep up with climate change, according to a new study, which doesn’t bode well for other species.

Increasing temperature does not necessarily mean expanded suitable habitats for rattlesnakes. For example, Crotalus horridus, the timber rattlesnake, is now found throughout the Eastern United States. The study finds that, with a temperature increase of 1.1 degree Celsius over the next 90 years, its range would expand slightly into New York, New England and Texas. But with an increase of 6.4 degrees, its range would shrink to a small area on the Tennessee-North Carolina border. C. adamanteus, the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, would be displaced entirely from its current range in the southeastern U.S. with a temperature increase of 6.4 degrees.

The problem is that rattlesnakes adapt too slowly: their ranges have only shifted by a couple of metres a year over the past 320,000 years, which means they can’t migrate to new territory fast enough; and it would take even longer to adapt to new temperatures. Climate change is happening too fast for them.

First Habitable-Zone Planet Confirmed

Kepler-22b (NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech)

Kepler-22b, the first planet outside our solar system confirmed to be within its star’s habitable zone by the Kepler spacecraft, orbits a G-type star 600 light years away, and has a day 290 Earth days long (we’ll probably never learn how long its own day is). That doesn’t sound too different from our own planet, but at 2.4 times Earth’s radius it’s substantially larger, which is to say it’s a super-Earth. Questions probably never to be answered: whether it has a breathable atmosphere or liquid water, whether it’s rocky, watery, metallic or gaseous, or whether it’s inhabited. It’s out there: that’s about it. Image credit: NASA/Ames/JPL-Caltech (artist’s conception).

Hypertension Update

Saw my family doctor today about my hypertension, for which she has prescribed me diltiazem. This is instead of a thiazide-class diuretic or ACE inhibitor, because I’m worried about them interacting with the piroxicam, which is almost certainly the culprit: my blood pressure was fine until I started taking it. This is, in other words, secondary rather than essential hypertension. A side effect. I’ll start on the diltiazem tomorrow and keep monitoring things until my annual physical in February.

Ce dont le Québec a besoin

Après avoir entendu Dany Laferrière déclare que le Québec, selon lui, « a besoin de sortir du Québec », Martin Coiteux a des pensées sur le sujet :

Le Québec a besoin de s’aérer. Le Québec a besoin de larguer ses préjugés. Le Québec a besoin de cesser de tourner, contemplatif, autour de lui-même. Le Québec a besoin de reconnaître l’apport de toutes ses communautés, des anciennes aux nouvelles. Le Québec a besoin de mettre un terme à cette chasse honteuse à l’autre à laquelle se livrent depuis quelques jours tant de plumes et de voix locales….

De plus, il croit que l’on doit lire ce discours de Jérôme Lussier : Doléances pour un Québec dépassé.

Orthographic Mercury

Mercury Globe: 0°N, 180°E

This image of Mercury is a mosaic assembled from thousands of MESSENGER images (with the missing gaps filled in by older imagery from Mariner 10) and made into an orthographic projection showing half the planet. Caloris Basin can be seen prominently in the northern hemisphere. Like the Mars mosaic I linked to last March, this is more like a globe than an actual photo. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington. Via Emily Lakdawalla.

Hellbenders Bred in Captivity

Baby hellbenders - Mark Wanner/Saint Louis Zoo To continue my exhaustive coverage of all things snot otter: the Saint Louis Zoo has successfully bred Ozark hellbenders in captivity — a first for either subspecies of hellbender (aka snot otter). Hellbenders are giant aquatic salamanders; they appear to be sensitive to river pollution: the Ozark hellbender is down to fewer than 600 individuals in the wild and is now on the U.S. endangered list. Which is to say that this is a good time to start a captive breeding program. Image credit: Mark Wanner/Saint Louis Zoo.

Previously: Snotty the Snot Otter.

Skiffy Bits

Read Karl Schroeder’s take on the Fermi paradox, which makes my head swim: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature” — the idea being that an advanced civilization will be so efficient as to be undetectable “SETI is essentially a search for technological waste products: waste heat, waste light, waste electromagnetic signals. We merely have to posit that successful civilizations don’t produce such waste, and the failure of SETI is explained.”

Entry-level science fiction — the sort of stuff that you can read, enjoy and understand without having been immersed in the long history of the genre — is getting some discussion lately. Elizabeth Bear isn’t the only one to argue that SF has become too inwardly focused, as she does in this interview. John Scalzi has repeatedly made the point that he wants to write SF his in-laws can enjoy, and his commercial success seems to bear that out; I’d argue that Robert J. Sawyer works a similar vein. Lev Grossman points to this Locus roundtable discussion on genre accessibility, which you should read if you’re at all interested in this subject.

Online magazines Fantasy and Lightspeed, both edited by John Joseph Adams, are merging into a single publication, going forward as Lightspeed: “each issue of the combined magazine will contain Lightspeed’s four science fiction stories and four fantasy stories from Fantasy. We won’t be reducing the number of stories, or replacing any Lightspeed content with Fantasy content; this will be a true merger.” The combined e-book edition goes for $4, a dollar more than each of the previous magazines’ editions, but now Adams is adding a novella to the e-book versions. It’s a good idea in terms of driving revenues for a magazine that is otherwise freely available online, but $48 a year is more expensive than the electronic editions of Asimov’s or Analog.

We Should Be Skeptical About This

The Pontiac is an economically depressed region with high unemployment. The kind of region that is desperate enough to think that pig farms and prisons would be a good idea — and, it must be said, the kind that is susceptible to boondoggles and schemes that offer hope but not much else.

That’s what came to mind when I read that local officials are excited about a proposal to bring a green technology and entertainment complex to the region. The Pontiac Technology Centre and Resort would invest billions of dollars to attract hundreds of businesses to the area, creating thousands of jobs and doubling the local population.

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