Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything
↳ February 2012

How Iapetus Got Its Ridge

Iapetus' equatorial ridge

Saturn’s moon Iapetus is bizarre for many reasons, one of which is its 13-kilometre-high ridge along its equator (which makes Iapetus look rather like a walnut). A scientific paper now in press has a theory as to how it happened, which Emily Lakdawalla explains in detail: Iapetus may once have had its own moon (or submoon), which was drawn too close, torn apart, and formed into a ring. The ring particles de-orbited gently over time, building up the ridge. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Two Short Beethoven E-Books

Ever since he ripped my still-beating heart out of my chest more than 20 years ago, I’ve had this … thing for Beethoven. It’s only gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, and lately I’ve been reading an awful lot of books about the man and his music. I’ve read a bunch about the Ninth Symphony that I may post about later; in the meantime, here are a couple of e-books for the Kindle.

Journeys with Beethoven: Following the Ninth, and Beyond is a self-published collaboration between the documentary filmmaker Kerry Candaele (whose Following the Ninth is still not out) and rock-and-roll writer Greg Mitchell. Candaele’s half is essentially the accompanying text to his unreleased film; if you’ve seen the trailer it’ll be familiar territory. Mitchell, on the other hand, deals with his own, late-in-life conversion to all things Beethoven, and lives up to the adage that there’s no zealot like a convert. He’s hyperbolic in his reverence — but, you know, not wrong. (Mitchell also writes the Roll Over, Beethoven blog.)

Also see Beethoven’s Shadow, a short essay by pianist Jonathan Biss in which he shares his thoughts about learning, playing and performing Beethoven, written as he began undertaking a recording of all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (which is apparently something that professional classical pianists do). He posts updates on the recording process on his website.

Fungus Spreads to Wild Snakes

One excellent reason that you should never release a pet reptile into the wild is the risk of spreading diseases into wild populations. Even if the species is naturally found in the area, captive and wild populations carry different pathogens and have different immune responses. A well-known example is what happened when captive desert tortoises were released into the wild, which has had devastating effects on the wild populations.

Now there may be another example. Wild eastern massasauga rattlesnakes in Illinois have been discovered suffering from a fatal fungal infection. The Chrysosporium fungus involved has been matched to a variety found in captive black rat snakes; Chrysosporium is found in captive reptile populations, but it’s not normally seen in the wild. The implication is that released pet snakes may be the disease vector, though I wouldn’t rule out other ways for the fungus to have made its way from captive to wild snakes (say, piggybacking on unhygienic herpetologists). Article, press release, Scientific American. Via Joan Slonczewski.

The Pontiac’s Population

Population counts from the 2011 census are now out, and I thought it would be interesting to see how the local population has changed. The usual thing is to compare the numbers to the immediately preceding census (in this case, 2006) and see if they’ve gone up or down. More useful, I think, to take a longer view: a village that saw its population go up by five percent from census to census may only be gaining back what it lost before. So, in the following table I’ve compiled population numbers for the MRC de Pontiac for the past five censuses, back as far as 1991. (This is as far back as I could go with online sources.)

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Rattlesnakes’ Family Ties

Baby Shower .  .  . sort of The social life of snakes, such as it is, is not generally well understood. There are some tantalizing hints that there may be more going on than we thought. Pregnant live-bearing snakes, such as rattlesnakes, have been known to aggregate at basking sites, and there are reports of what might be called parental protective behaviour among rattlers. To which might be added new research showing that timber rattlesnakes tend to prefer the company of close relatives: pregnant females aggregating at basking sites were often found in the company of their sisters, daughters and mothers; juvenile snakes seem to prefer their siblings’ company to that of other snakes as well. Presumably they’re identifying one another by scent. This is exciting stuff, if true. Image credit: Richard Bonnett (CC licence).

More Moon Maps

Chinese scientists have released a high-resolution map of the Moon based on images from the Chang’e 2 spacecraft; the maps are at a resolution of seven metres (MoonViews, Universe Today). Phil Stooke compares the Chang’e 2 images with those from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC). Meanwhile, and speaking of the LROC, Jeffrey Ambroziak is making 3D anaglyph maps based on LROC data; he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a 3D digital map of the entire Moon.

How Snakes Drink

People who watch a snake drink for the first time invariably think it’s one of the coolest things they’ve ever seen, even though a vertebrate drinking water should in theory be nothing special. But it turns out that it is something quite special after all: a new study has found that three different North American snake species — eastern hognose snakes, cottonmouths, and rat snakes — use skin folds in their lower jaw like a sponge to lap water up when they drink. They can’t, after all, lap up much water with those tongues. (Boa constrictors, on the other hand, suck up water as though through a straw.)

2011 Nebula Ballot Announced

The nominees for the 2011 Nebula Awards, voted on and presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, were announced this morning. Like last year, I’ll be blogging about the nominees in the short fiction categories between now and the award ceremony on May 19; this time, it looks like I’ll be able to read all the short fiction nominees without too much trouble, and I may be able to write about most of the novel nominees as well.

I’ve already written about a few of them. Jo Walton’s Among Others is on the ballot; I adore this book and sang its praises when it was released. Because it’s a story about maps, “The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Beesdrew my attention when it was published in Clarkesworld last April, and I’m delighted to see that on the ballot as well. And in December I reported on Catherynne M. Valente’s excellent novella, Silently and Very Fast (Kindle).

Which is not to say that there aren’t other great stories on the ballot; I’ll be sharing my thoughts on them shortly.

Update: It’s 2012, but these are the 2011 Nebulas, in that they recognize work published in 2011. I call them by the wrong year roughly half the time. I’ve updated this post.

An Ancient Map of the Mesopotamian World

The Oldest Known World Map I’ve encountered plenty of claims for something to be the “world’s oldest map” (most of which depend on how broad or narrow your definition of “map” is). One I wasn’t aware of until recently is this Mesopotamian map on a cuneiform tablet, which dates from between 700 and 500 BC, currently held by the British Museum. “The map is sometimes taken as a serious example of ancient geography, but although the places are shown in their approximately correct positions, the real purpose of the map is to explain the Babylonian view of the mythological world.” More at Visual Complexity. Via Cartophile.

For other claims to the world’s oldest map, see the following Map Room entries: Engraved Rock Is 14,000-Year-Old Map: Researchers; Candidates for the World’s Oldest Map; The Other World’s Oldest Map; The Western World’s Oldest Map.

Update, Feb. 20: John Padula points to this reconstruction.

A Health Update

Had my annual physical yesterday, which produced some reasonably good news. My weight was up three pounds since my last examination, and while I’d have preferred that it was lower (I’m not being sizeist: excess weight and arthritis is not a good combination), I’d been afraid that it was much higher. But the big news is that my blood pressure appears to have come down: 124/75 — again, I’d been afraid that it hadn’t.

Previously: Hypertension; Hypertension Update.

Smallest. Reptile. EVAR.

Brookesia micra on a matchhead Four new species of leaf chameleon, genus Brookesia, are described in a new article published this week. Brookesia are tiny lizards; these species are even tinier: “The newly described Brookesia micra reaches a maximum snout-vent length in males of 16 mm, and its total length in both sexes is less than 30 mm, ranking it among the smallest amniote vertebrates in the world.” Via National Geographic News.

How Readers Use Fantasy Maps

It occurs to me that how readers use fantasy maps should be another line of inquiry for my science fiction and fantasy maps project. Take, for example, Donald Petersen’s comment on the Boing Boing post about Victoria Johnson’s map essay (posted here last week).

One of the few downsides to reading Game of Thrones for the first time on a 2nd generation Kindle was that it was inconvenient to flip to the map every now and then to reorient myself when the action moved to a new city or battlefield. Like books with lots of footnotes, I think I’ll do most of my map-heavy fantasy book reading on dead trees.

My father experienced the same thing reading A Dance with Dragons on the Kindle. The insight here may not be particularly profound, but it is useful: fantasy maps may be largely illustrative, but they’re also referred to when reading the text. They may be an intrinsic part of the reading process — at least as far as “fat fantasy books with maps” are concerned. (Will electronic versions of said books need to have their text georeferenced, so that you can push a “map” button at any point and be placed at the proper position on the map? I have to admit that that would be kind of cool.)

What do you think? How do you use maps when reading fantasy fiction?

Mercury’s Hovnatanian Crater

Mercury Close-up: Hovnatanian Crater (NASA, MESSENGER, 01/16/12)

Mercury’s unusual Hovnatanian crater, the result of an oblique impact, as captured last month by the MESSENGER probe. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Other pretty space pictures this week: a Hubble image of the centre of globular cluster NGC 6752; and an ESO image capturing the magnificent Carina Nebula in infrared.

Pets vs. Collections

On kingsnake.com, Cindy Steinle asks why the reptile community has such an issue with calling its animals “pets” instead of “collections,” since what we do with our reptiles certainly fits the definition of petkeeping.

I think we use the word “collection” to elevate what we do above petkeeping, as though maintaining a reptile collection is a more scientific pursuit than merely keeping a pet. But what we do isn’t really science, in that we’re not keeping them for a research program, conservation, or any other scientific purpose; at best, what we do could be called amateur zookeeping.

If the general public has a hard time understanding what we do, it’s in large part because keeping a reptile “collection” is so difficult to categorize. If they’re pets, why do we interact with them so little, and why don’t they all have names? If it’s a zoo, why isn’t it open to the public? If it’s a breeding operation, how is it different from a puppy mill? If they’re exotic, how is this different from keeping a tiger? If there are so many of them, how are you not a hoarder?

Answering these questions is doable, but it takes some explaining, and explaining isn’t always reptile keepers’ forte. And applying “collection” to live animals can make people who associate collecting with stamps and Beanie Babies rather uncomfortable. People understand “pet,” though; I think that’s a safer starting point.

Never Mind the Bears

Brown Tree Snake According to a study published 19 years ago in the Journal of Chemical Ecology and unearthed today by Neurotic Physiology, brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) are attracted to human menstrual blood — in the study, the snakes’ flick rates increased when presented with, um, a used tampon, and one snake even attacked and, um … ate one. It’s unknown whether the attractant was menstrual blood, human blood or blood in general, but it’s worth noting that brown tree snakes (the scourge of Guam) will eat just about anything. Via @Laelaps. Photo credit: teejaybee (CC licence).

‘The Maps We Wandered Into as Kids’

Over on The Awl, Victoria Johnson has an essay about maps of fictional places, which of course is relevant to my interests. Johnson has chosen some very unique and distinctive maps to discuss — Winnie-the-Pooh, The Phantom Toolbooth and The Princess Bride among them — rather than the sort of standard fantasy maps you get in standard fantasy (which, I suppose, aren’t worth discussing unless you like the fantasy world being mapped; certainly not as maps). Via Boing Boing (which sends a link in this direction).

Duct Tape and Science!

Duct tape and SCIENCE!

This is a picture of a bucket duct-taped to my office window. I took it on Friday night, when we duct-taped said bucket to said office window. You may wonder why we duct-taped a bucket to my office window on a Friday night; presumably you thought we had better, or at least more interesting, or at least less weird things to do on a Friday night. I will explain.

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Ottawa’s Urban Planning

If you’re interested in urban planning, public transit or Ottawa in general, you really should read Richard’s excellent rant about all of these things.

Circus Galop

Circus Galop is a mad piece for player piano composed in the early 1990s by Marc-André Hamelin. It is absolutely unplayable by a single human being — it makes the Rach 3 look like “Chopsticks” — so don’t even try. If the above video doesn’t convince you of that, there are plenty of others online. Madness, I tell you, madness. Via Boing Boing.

Orion Makes Its Autoguider Mac-Compatible

Orion has announced Mac-compatible drivers for its StarShoot autoguider. An autoguider is a small camera that keeps a telescope pointed consistently on its target (for an explanation, see this post); it’s a must for long-exposure astrophotography. Most autoguiders on the market use the free program PHD Guiding. It’s available in a Macintosh version, but most inexpensive autoguiders have Windows-only drivers; those guiders with Mac drivers have tended to be much more expensive. So this is an interesting development: astrophotography has been one of the few niches where the Mac platform remains at a comparative disadvantage versus Windows.

NGC 3324

NGC 3324 (ESO)

Oh look, another nebula picture from the European Southern Observatory. Again? Yes. I make no apologies, people. This little beauty is NGC 3324, a stellar nursery some 7,500 light years away in the southern constellation Carina. This pretty picture comprises light through visual, oxygen-III and hydrogen-alpha filters captured by the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at La Silla. Nancy Atkinson thinks it looks like Alfred Hitchcock. Image credit: ESO.

Other pretty space pictures I spotted this week: barred spiral galaxy NGC 1073, courtesy of the Hubble; and, closer to home, Saturn’s moon Dione in front of an edge-on look at the rings, courtesy of Cassini.

Two Writing Workshops

A couple of science fiction and fantasy writing workshops to tell you about: one in Ottawa, the other in Montreal. The one in Ottawa takes place on February 26 on the University of Ottawa campus. It’s a day-long affair led by local authors Derek Künsken, Matt Moore and Hayden Trenholm. It costs $40, with proceeds going toward Can-Con, the local SF convention. Here are the details. I’m going to this one. The one in Montreal, which I can’t attend, takes place on Tuesday evenings from April 3 to May 22. Called Sense of Wonder: Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories, it’s led by Claude Lalumière. It costs $175 (less if you’re a Quebec Writers’ Federation member).

2011 Science Fiction and Fantasy Recommendations

More roundups of the best science fiction and fantasy of 2011 (see previous entry); now we’ve moved past the “what will end up in the year’s best anthologies” phase and entered the “what will people nominate for awards” phase. Author Rachel Swirsky offers her recommendations for the short story, novelette and novella categories, with more presumably to come. Also, the Locus recommended reading list came out yesterday.

Gondwanaland Ho!

The Royal Ontario Museum has announced a new exhibition, Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana, that I think I’m going to have to make time to see:

Surrounded by life-like environmental murals, the exhibition features real fossils, skeletons and 17 full-scale skeletal casts, many of which have never been seen before in Canada. ROM visitors will experience the world’s first display of Futalognkosaurus, a giant long-necked sauropod, one of the biggest animals to have ever walked the earth stretching 110 ft. long and weighing as much as 10 elephants. Also on display are Giganotosaurus, possibly the largest land predator to have ever lived, as well as the crocodile-faced spinosaur Suchomimus, and horned meat-eater Carnotaurus, and many more.

It’ll run from June 23, 2012 to January 6, 2013; I should be able to manage a visit to Toronto during that time. (Should I mention that the Canadian Museum of Nature has a Carnotaurus? They do.)