My Correct Views on Everything >> April 2012
In December 2003, when she was 12 years old, Laura Nicholson’s father shot her mother to death, then killed himself. Now a journalism student at Carleton University, she explains in a long article published in Saturday’s Ottawa Citizen how the media’s coverage of her parents’ murder-suicide got so much wrong and did so much wrong — and what she will do differently as a journalist when the time comes for her to report on a story like her family’s. An astonishing read from a singular perspective.
Just look at this Hubble image of the Egg Nebula, a protoplanetary nebula on its way to becoming a planetary nebula: in particular, note the searchlight beams emanating from the dying central star, itself hidden by a surrounding dust cloud. Wow. Image credit: ESA/
Other recent awesome space pictures include MESSENGER’s look at Mercury’s Donne crater; the ESO’s wide-field view of star cluster NGC 6604; and two infrared views of Messier 104, the Sombrero Galaxy, from the Spitzer Space Telescope that reveal that its well-known disk is actually enveloped by an elliptical galaxy structure: one, two.
Go read Popular Science’s profile of teenager Taylor Wilson, who became, at age 14, “the youngest individual on Earth to achieve nuclear fusion,” and who’s already generated new ideas in nuclear medicine and dealing with nuclear terrorism. When hyper-smart kids aren’t held back, as too often happens, amazing things can happen. Via Tobias Buckell.
The public reaction to the HPV vaccine continues to confuse me. Our society is in a state of panic about cancer, so you’d think that something that prevented cancer would be hailed from the highest of heights and universally taken up, but it turns out that the vaccination rate among Grade 8 girls in Ontario is only 59 percent, the Ottawa Citizen reports. Among other things, anti-vaccine hysteria is blamed. “Many theories attempt to explain the low inoculation rates, including the misplaced trust put in Dr. Google, which erroneously ties the vaccine to side effects such as death, mental retardation and seizures, to name a few. Some say the vaccination program was rushed into place, and the ensuing suspicion about both speed and safety lingers among parents; others may fear that giving the vaccine to their daughters offers a license to promiscuity.” That last one I can attest to: there’s a disturbing minority out there that thinks that getting cervical cancer is a just punishment for wanton behaviour.
Last fall I picked up a Think Tank Retrospective camera bag, after dithering for months over the right size. The Retrospective 10 was big enough to hold an iPad in one of its pockets, but it was also kind of big to carry; the Retrospective 5 was too small for an iPad, but otherwise good for a D90-sized digital SLR and a couple of extra lenses while being nice and compact. In the end I went for the 5, but thought at the time that what I really wanted was a Retrospective 7, which didn’t exist. Only now they’ve gone and made one: a Retrospective 7 has been announced, with a special rear pocket to hold an iPad. I guess I wasn’t the only one. It sounds perfect. (The whole series is really well designed, I have to say. Think Tank makes good and durable kit. But pricey.)
Filmmaker Kerry Candaele reports that his documentary about the modern-day impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Following the Ninth, is finally done and should be out later this year; moreover, he’s posted a couple of short clips from the film on the Kickstarter project site here and here. I can barely wait for this film to come out.
Via Action Pontiac, news that the Quyon Ferry, which crosses the Ottawa River between Quyon and Fitzroy Harbour, will be replaced with a new, year-round ferry and new dock facilities in about a year: our MNA, Charlotte L’Écuyer, told Le Droit that funding under a federal-provincial agreement will soon be announced. I’ve heard rumblings of a new and improved ferry for years; I believe the current one can’t handle large trucks, which is a problem. Now, announcements are one thing, and timelines around here never seem to be met, so we’ll see it when we see it.
Pianist Roberto Prosseda is on a one-man mission to revive the pedal piano, the Wall Street Journal reports. Historical pedal pianos included a pedalboard similar to that of organs, allowing bass notes to be played with the feet. They pretty much disappeared during the 20th century; the modern variant Prosseda plays, the beastly Doppio Borgato, literally slides a second piano with 37 keys underneath a concert grand. Playing it apparently takes some getting used to; also, because pianos are more sensitive than organs, Prosseda has to wear Vibram FiveFingers to play the keys. Via Ted Gioia. Photo credit: Gott34 (CC licence).
If last week’s look at the Tarantula Nebula wasn’t enough for you, and I suspect it might not have been, then your dissatisfaction may be cured by this composite image assembled from three different orbiting telescopes. It shows the exact same view as last time, only this time visible-light observations from the Hubble (now coloured green) have been combined with infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope (here coloured red) and X-ray data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (here coloured blue). Image credit: NASA/
Ian Tattersall’s Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins can be read as a primer in human paleoanthropology, and is in fact useful on that level, especially for someone like me whose reading in the subject is several decades out of date. But it’s also a book-length argument that explores the question of why Homo sapiens, and not some other or predecessor hominid species, went on to take over the planet.
What’s the dividing line between bipedal ape and human? There is evidence of tool use, meat consumption and large social groups even among australopithecines; evidence of controlled fire and cooking goes back hundreds of thousands of years. Neanderthals had larger brains than we do. But none of these species dominated the planet in as short a time as we did. None of these species wiped out all other hominid competition; we did.
Tattersall argues that the development of symbolic thinking among a small group of Homo sapiens made the difference. Other hominid species, including Neanderthals, lacked the ability for abstract thinking, art, language or long-term planning and were cognitively limited, he argues, but so were early Homo sapiens. The development of symbolic thinking was a major cognitive development that allowed that group to spread very rapidly across the globe and displace every other hominid — other Homo sapiens in Africa, Homo neanderthalensis in Europe, and the remaining Homo erectus and Homo floresiensis in Asia.
This was quite readable and persuasively argued; I never once lost the plot. Tattersall has apparently published a number of popular science books on human evolution, but this is the first one I’ve encountered. I may have to track down the others.
Review copy received through LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
In 2006 pianist András Schiff recorded a series of lectures for the Guardian’s culture podcast in which he discussed each of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. I’m delighted to discover that they’re still available for download. I’ve listened to two of them so far and I’m hooked: Schiff talks about some of the performance controversies, compares one piece to another, and, it has to be said, plays excerpts of them awfully, awfully well. Very insightful, and helpful for understanding how to play these pieces. He’s also recorded them, as well he should: here are the CDs on Amazon; here are the albums on iTunes. But you know, I’ve got three sets of these sonatas already; do I really need a fourth? Possibly. (I’m a little obsessed, okay?)
Yesterday the space shuttle Discovery was ferried from Cape Canaveral to Washington Dulles International Airport, on its way to its final resting place at the Smithsonian’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center. It’s trading places with the Enterprise, which is moving to New York next week to take up residence at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. The Shuttle Carrier Aircraft ferrying the Discovery flew low over Washington, D.C., allowing for much photographic eye candy, both from the ground and from the accompanying T-38 aircraft. See NASA’s Flickr set and this Washington Post gallery; more dramatic photos can be found at today’s APOD and In Focus. Photo credit: NASA/Michael Porterfield.
The Toronto Zoo has lost its accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums over how it handled the closure of its African elephant exhibit. Last October, after zoo officials couldn’t find an AZA-accredited facility to take its three aging African elephants, Toronto City Council stepped in and voted to send the elephants to PAWS, a California refuge that isn’t AZA-accredited. But PAWS’s status wasn’t the issue: as one commenter on the Globe and Mail article pointed out, the AZA’s standards require zoo professionals to be the ones making decisions regarding the animal collection, not the politicians they report to. Overruling zoo managers is a big no-no in the AZA’s eyes. The zoo can reapply in one year; failure to reacquire accreditation will put at risk the zoo’s ability to participate in endangered-species programs and animal loans with other zoos. Photo credit: Ken Nickerson, Creative Commons licence.
What’s that you say? Another Hubble image of 30 Doradus, the Tarantula Nebula? I don’t know, I’ve posted an awful lot of images of that nebula before … oh, what the hell. The Tarantula Nebula is awesome. It’s 160,000 to 180,000 light years away in the Large Magellanic Cloud. It’s huge: this image is 650 light years across. It’s so bright that if it were as close to us as the Orion Nebula (a relatively puny star-forming region, but the closest to us at 1,500 light years), it would cast shadows. And I can’t see it through my telescopes because I’m in the wrong hemisphere. Bummer.
This image is a mosaic assembled from infrared observations by the Hubble and ground-based observations of the hydrogen-alpha oxygen-III emission wavelengths by the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO’s La Silla site. It was released to celebrate the Hubble’s 22nd anniversary.
Image credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (Sheffield), A. de Koter (Amsterdam), C. Evans (UKATC/STFC, Edinburgh), A. Herrero (IAC, Tenerife), N. Langer (AifA, Bonn), I. Platais (JHU) and H. Sana (Amsterdam).
The Ottawa Citizen was curious about the National Research Council’s joint study with NASA on snowfall measurement. They asked a NASA scientist about it and got useful answers in a 15-minute phone call. It sounded like a fun story. Then they contacted the NRC. Oh boy. The bureaucratic second-guessing and overthinking that ensued, now revealed for all to see thanks to an access to information request, is just baffling — I mean, come on, it was just for an interesting little story. But not necessarily surprising. Are most government communications units this clumsy, inefficient and tone-deaf?
A coronal mass ejection is under way on the Sun right now, and NASA has posted ultraviolet-wavelength image and movies of the event from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. The solar flare with which this is associated is only considered medium-sized. Boggle. Image credit: NASA/
Over the weekend we attended Ad Astra, the Toronto science fiction convention, where despite some fairly significant organizational problems involving the program schedule, as well as some other issues, we managed to enjoy ourselves. This was our third Ad Astra; had it been our first I think we might have been disappointed: the fewer people you know at a convention, the more you rely on programming, and the issues would have been much more in our face. I’d also have been more bothered had I been a panel participant. I’ll follow up with the convention committee rather than go into all the details here; one must be gentle when volunteers screw up and not blast them too much in public.
It was good to reconnect with, scheme with, drink with and instigate mayhem with friends we hadn’t seen since … well, since our last convention. At least two mad projects may result. We attended book launches and readings, as well as a few very interesting panels, but for the most part we spent our time being social with our tribe. I could drop names, but I won’t. Suffice to say that I often find my awesome people at conventions, though sometimes you have to get around That Guy to find them.
The Aurora Awards are awards for Canadian science fiction and fantasy that are roughly analogous to the Hugos in that they are voted on by convention members (whereas the Sunburst Awards are juried). The finalists in the English-language categories were announced last Friday; the list includes some friends of ours and many familiar faces. (This will make writing about the nominated works somewhat more of a challenge.)
Finalists in the French-language categories have not yet been announced; nominations only closed last Wednesday. The French-language awards will be handed out next month at Congrès Boréal in Montreal. The English-language awards come later: they’ll be handed out in August, at When Words Collide in Calgary.
Calling it “the first entirely new globe of the lunar surface in more than 40 years,” Sky and Telescope has announced a new Moon globe based on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery. Replogle’s Moon globe has been the standard for decades, but it’s based on 1960s-era charts and, as I said in my review three years ago, doesn’t have a lot of contrast and doesn’t look much like the Moon. Mind you, the new globe costs almost twice as much.
Alejandro Polanco Masa, whose map blog La Cartoteca is one of the finest on the subject in any language, has announced the availability of his speculative fiction novel El Viaje de Argos, in which maps play a prominent role. Here’s the description in Spanish:
Desde antiguo un enigmático astro llamado Argos siembra la atmósfera con una substancia muy especial. Sólo un pequeño grupo de sabios sabe cómo recolectar y emplear esa esencia de los cielos que permite la vida eterna. Pero en pleno auge de la Roma imperial, un desastre sacude a la hermandad de sabios. Desperdigados por el mundo y sin los conocimientos necesarios para mantener la inmortalidad, vagarán sin rumbo, condenados al olvido. Hasta que en el siglo XXI, una inquieta historiadora, Irene Abad, descubre un antiguo mapa que, sin saberlo, conduce hasta el peligroso secreto que los Hijos de Argos han perseguido durante dos milenios.
I wish I could say more about this, but I never studied Spanish and can barely navigate Spanish-language websites, much less read novels. El Viaje de Argos is available in ebook form via Amazon and iTunes.
The Hugo nominations were announced this afternoon. Copies of the list of nominees are everywhere: here it is on the Hugo Awards website. A few preliminary thoughts.
Some of my nominations made the final ballot, others didn’t, mostly those that went against the grain. Three out of the five short story nominees, four out of the five novelette nominees, five out of the six novella nominees, and two out of the five novel nominees are also on the Nebula ballot. In all, fourteen pieces of fiction have been nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula this year, compared with just nine last year, so there seems to be more consensus this year.
A couple of nominations are quirky. John Scalzi’s April Fool’s story is nominated for best short story, and James Bacon and Chris Garcia are on the ballot for best dramatic presentation, short form for their rather famous performance at last year’s Hugo award ceremony when they won best fanzine. But the Hugo nominations haven’t gone so much silly as meta. David Goldfarb argues that with these nominations and Jo Walton’s best novel nomination for Among Others, “it’s sort of an inward-looking slate.”
We also have some blurring of the categories: one podcast up for best related work rather than best fancast; one TV show (Game of Thrones) up for best dramatic presentation, long form for the entire series instead of being up against three Doctor Who episodes in the best dramatic presentation,
Doctor Who short form category.
And it may also be the year of the pseudonym: Seanan McGuire has been nominated four times, twice as Mira Grant, her horror-writing persona; James S. A. Corey, up for best novel for Leviathan Wakes, is the joint pseudonym of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.
Christopher Priest’s screed about the Clarke Awards reminded me that I’d been meaning for some time to read his most recent novel, The Islanders, about which I’d heard the sort of good things that made me think, yeah, baby, this sort of thing is my bag (for one thing, maps play a role).
The Islanders reads as a travel guide, with entries on various islands in the Dream Archipelago, the setting of two of Priest’s previous books (though he says you don’t have to have read them). The Archipelago is a massive collection of thousands of inhabited islands on another world, positioned between two great continents, one north and one south. The mainland nations of the north pass through the Archipelago to the southern continent, the battlefield of their constant wars. The Archipelago is neutral territory, mostly, its inhabitants preoccupied by artistic pursuits.
Of the seven stories on the Nebula ballot for best novelette (7,500 words to 17,500 words), four are by men and three are by women. One was first published in an anthology, two came from the traditional print magazines, and four came from online venues. I note with considerable interest that one of those online venues, Giganotosaurus, managed to land two novelettes on the ballot despite the fact that it isn’t an SFWA qualifying market. Alec has pointed out how few online markets there are for novelettes and novellas: there are plenty of places for a writer to sell their story, so long as that story is less than 5,000 words. Usually this means that the traditional print magazines tend to dominate in the longer categories, along with original anthologies (and in the case of novellas, standalone books). But not this year, not this category.
More information today on a book I’d heard was coming: The Lands of Ice and Fire, a definitive atlas of George R. R. Martin’s fantasy world from A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones, et cetera). The publisher: “The centerpiece of this gorgeous collection is guaranteed to be a must-have for any fan: the complete map of the known world, joining the lands of the Seven Kingdoms and the lands across the Narrow Sea for the first time in series history.” Fantasy and roleplaying game cartographer Jon Roberts is working on the project. It won’t be out until October, but you can already pre-order it at Amazon.
Slate’s Jessica Grose on the case of a grizzly bear implicated in the deaths of two hikers in Yellowstone.
The euthanization of the bear known as “the Wapiti sow” was the culmination of a series of horrifying events that had gripped Yellowstone for months, and alarmed rangers, visitors, and the conservation biologists tasked with keeping grizzly bears safe. In separate incidents in July and August, grizzlies had killed hikers in Yellowstone, prompting a months-long investigation replete with crime scene reconstructions and DNA analysis, and a furious race to capture the prime suspect. The execution of the Wapiti sow opens a window on a special criminal justice system designed to protect endangered bears and the humans who share their land. It also demonstrates the difficulty of judging animals for crimes against us. The government bear biologists who enforce grizzly law and order grapple with the impossibility of the task every day. In the most painful cases, the people who protect these sublime, endangered animals must also put them to death.
One drawback of using digital SLRs for astrophotography is that they come with infrared blocking filters that are essential for normal photography, but block a good deal of the light from emission nebulae and star-forming regions, especially the essential hydrogen-alpha wavelength. (Dedicated astrophotography cameras don’t come with such filters, but they tend to be expensive, have lower resolution, need to be plugged into a computer, and are complicated to use.)
Students have been protesting tuition hikes in Quebec, which incidentally has the lowest tuition fees in the country (and still will, after the hikes). The CBC’s Sheila White examines the argument that raising tuition reduces accessibility. What’s interesting is that Quebec has lower university enrolment rates than provinces where the tuition costs twice as much: 30 percent versus 51 percent in Atlantic Canada and 46 percent in Ontario.
There’s something else at play here, in other words, that keeps Quebec kids out of higher education. The student federation president argues that tuition has to remain low because Quebec doesn’t have “a culture of education”: dropout rates are as high as 35 percent in poorer areas, and 40 percent don’t attend CEGEPs, our unique system of junior colleges, even though they’re practically free (though you often have to move away to attend, so: room and board). The problem isn’t tuition; the problem occurs long before university.
An amazing visualization of near-term wind forecasts by Fernanda Viégas and Martin Wattenberg, based on data from the National Weather Service’s National Weather Forecast Database. Looks gorgeous; slows my browser right down. Via Boing Boing, Kottke and O’Reilly Radar, among others.
The ability to use other map styles with OpenStreetMap data is, I think, underexploited. I’m starting to hate the default Mapnik tiles. Stamen Design has released three different — vividly different — map styles for OpenStreetmap: watercolour tiles (above), high-contrast black-and-white, and shaded terrain. Via Daring Fireball.
I’ve said before that novellas may be my favourite story length (for award purposes, they run from 17,500 to 40,000 words), and other people have said the same thing. I wonder whether that’s because of the inherent virtues of the length, or because there are so few publishing slots for novellas — online magazines generally won’t touch them, and print magazines publish only a few a year; add to that those few published in original anthologies or standalone books — that any published novella, by virtue of being published, must already be of excellent quality. A not-very-good novella, after all, can always be replaced by several better novelettes or short stories.
So it’s no surprise that I enjoyed every single one of the six nominees for the 2011 Nebula Award for best novella. Of the six, four came from the traditional print magazines, one was from a small press anthology, and one was published as a standalone book and serialized in an online magazine. All science fiction rather than fantasy. Four female authors, two male; two authors with stories on the short story ballot as well.
You may have seen this already: a beautiful, painting-like visualization of the world’s surface ocean currents between June 2005 and November 2007, which NASA posted last month. The visualization is based on model data from the ECCO2 project. See also this short video on Flickr (Flash required). Image credit: NASA/
“In the 18th and 19th centuries, children were taught geography by making their own maps, usually copies of maps available to them in books and atlases at their schools or homes,” says a David Rumsey Collection post from January 2010 that is for some reason drawing attention right now. “These old maps made by children were hand drawn and colored, one-of-a-kind productions, and it is amazing that any have survived down to our time. That they have is due to luck and the efforts of families to preserve the history of their children.” Anyone interested in hand-drawn maps will like these; for my part I can’t get over the similarity in style between these maps and later fantasy maps. Via io9 and MetaFilter.
Here are the books I finished in the first three months of 2012. Links are to my reviews.
The stats: 26 books, 30.8 percent written or edited by women, 34.6 percent ebooks, 57.7 percent science fiction and fantasy. I need to do better on books by women: my target was to exceed 40 percent. Fortunately, there’s no shortage in the to-read queue.
Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking isn’t a full-throated stop-this-nonsense polemic defence of introverts, but neither is it a guide for introverts on how to play by extroverted rules. What the book does, though, is quietly and thoroughly explore the differences between the introverted and extroverted ways of doing things — not just how we respond in social and workplace situations. It argues that proceeding from extroverted assumptions, assuming that the extroverted way of thinking and doing things is normal (everything from group work in classrooms to open-concept cubicle farms) not only does considerable harm to the one-third to one-half of the population that is introverted, but also to society. What introverts can contribute to society, through our tendency to retreat and reflect (and think) and our preference for caution, is, Cain argues, being systematically repressed when introverts are forced to conform to an extrovert ideal.
All this makes Quiet an interesting, though somewhat dry, book. I have not read the many other books about introversion out there, largely because their descriptions didn’t grab me: I had no interest in finding out whether I was an introvert, because I already knew; I had no interest in learning how to pass as extroverted, because I thought that was bullshit. I would have personally liked to have seen more bite here, but Cain’s arguing that introverts and extroverts are complementary — yin and yang, Wozniak and Jobs — not that extroverts are full of shit and need to back off. Which is also true, but, you know: flies and vinegar. A former corporate lawyer, Cain has built her case in order to sell it, and sell it she does. (Here she is selling it at the TED conference.)
Previously: The Power of Introverts.