Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything

Atheism in America

Only two percent of Americans self-identify as atheists, and Politico’s Nick Spencer argues, counterintuitively, that the U.S. Constitution’s separation of church and state “ended up being the nation’s strongest bulwark against atheism, denying the church the temporal power that had done it so much harm in Europe and effectively draining the wells of moral indignation on which atheists drew.” There is, in other words, a relationship between atheism and religiosity: atheism grows in response to religious dominance (rather than, say, scientific progress, much of which was accomplished by deeply religious scientists). The irony that keeping prayer out of school and church out of law has kept atheism at bay in the U.S. will probably be lost on American fundamentalists. Via Andrew Sullivan.

Open for Submissions Soon: Second Contacts, Tesseracts 19

Submissions will be opening soon for two forthcoming Canadian sf anthologies paying semipro rates:

  • Second Contacts (Bundoran Press), edited by Mike Rimar and Hayden Trenholm, seeks stories that explore “what happens fifty years after first contact, for us, for them, for our shared future.” Open for submissions from September 15, 2014 to January 15, 2015; up to 10,000 words (3,500 to 6,500 preferred); 2¢/word to a maximum of $130.
  • Tesseracts Nineteen (Edge), edited by Claude Lalumière and Mark Shainblum. Annual Canadian anthology with a different theme each year; this one seeks “any and all permutations of the superhero genre.” Open for submissions from October 30, 2014 to February 2, 2015; Canadians only; up to 6,000 words; $50-160.

Encountering Racers

Blue Racer

Last month I had the opportunity to encounter some Blue Racers in captivity. They’re one of the many prides and joys of the Scales Nature Park, a small zoo just south of Orillia, Ontario, that focuses on Canadian reptile, amphibian and fish conservation. I’ve known the owner/operator for nearly 15 years.

Racers (Coluber constrictor) are interesting snakes: they’re fast, diurnal, visually oriented, and eat just about anything that moves. But they’re hardly ever kept in captivity, mostly because in addition to the above, they have a reputation for being extremely and repeatedly bitey. Which is kind of a disincentive (not that it’s ever stopped people keeping tree boas, but that’s a different story). I don’t necessarily have a problem with that: there are hundreds of kinds of snakes that would make better captives; keep one of those instead.

But captive racers can serve a useful purpose by assisting in their own conservation. While racers are fairly common snakes in the United States, they’re at risk in Canada.1 Snake conservation benefits from positive encounters from living animals. (For example, I used to have a tame water snake that I used to great effect with people who were terrified of encountering water snakes at the cottage.) It’s helpful to — I was going to say humanize, but that’s not right — at least put a face to the animal we’re trying to protect, and to do it with as many people as possible. Especially if the animal’s protected status has land-use implications: Blue Racers won’t be helped if the only people who ever see them have had their property values trashed by the snakes’ presence.

Of course, if said living animal tries to eat the face of every human being it meets, it’s not doing a lot of good for its own PR. Fortunately, the Scales Nature Park racers are mind-blowingly tame. (I don’t remember how they did it, but often it just requires effort, patience and indifference to pain. Having a snake that was bred or born in captivity helps: even corn snakes can be nasty little monsters in the wild.)

What’s it like to handle a racer?

First, keep in mind that despite their scientific name, racers are not constrictors. They don’t hold on like a ball python or a corn snake;2 they slide through your hands like a garter snake. Holding an active garter snake requires you to go hand over hand as it slides through your fingers. With a racer you’re doing the same thing, only faster. Much faster.

Because while racers might not live up to their Latin name, they sure as hell live up to their English vernacular name. Racers operate at higher temperatures than other snake species; when a racer’s warmed up, it’s like trying to hang on to an engine’s accessory belt at speed. Basically, take the quickest garter snake you’ve ever met, double its length, and replace its rough scales with smooth scales. Now add a turbocharger. Hang on, but don’t squeeze (remember, it doesn’t have a constrictor’s muscle tone).

And this is with a tame snake; a wild snake will be doing all that all while trying to make interesting red marks on your nose. If you encounter a racer in the wild, hope for cooler temperatures.

Anyway, it was a fascinating experience, quite different from other snakes I’ve encountered. I’ve always been interested in racers, but didn’t think I’d ever keep one, so I was grateful for the opportunity. (Here’s a page about keeping them in captivity, if you’re interested.)

Oh, and one more thing: they had baby Blue Racers:

Hatchling Blue Racer

(Yes, they look different as hatchlings. The other thing about diurnal snakes is that a side effect of being visually oriented is being extremely cute. Even when biting you in the face. Which again, these snakes weren’t.)

Notes

  1. The Western Yellow-bellied Racer (C. c. mormon), found in B.C., is listed as special concern; the Eastern Yellow-bellied Racer (C. c. flaviventries), found in southern Saskatchewan, is threatened; and the Blue Racer (C. c. foxii), found in Ontario only on Pelee Island, is endangered.
  2. Most pet snakes are constrictors. That probably has to do with their relative inactivity (constrictors tend to be ambush predators rather than active hunters) and tendency to eat rodents, both of which make them more amenable to being stuck in a cage. Notable exceptions include garter and hognose snakes.

Emergency Kittens, Creative Commons, and Me

On July 29, a photo of our cat Goober sitting in an Amazon.ca box, with an extra “t” added to spell “amazon.cat”, turned up on the popular Emergency Kittens Twitter account:

When I saw that photo, I had four thoughts occur simultaneously:

  1. Hey, that’s our cat.
  2. Hey, that’s my photo.
  3. Hey, that’s my joke.
  4. Hey, that’s my copyright.

The original photo was taken on August 19, 2010:

amazon.cat

Emergency Kittens didn’t ask me for permission, they didn’t link back to the Flickr page from which it was taken, and they didn’t give me a photographer’s credit. The photo had a Creative Commons licence that required giving me credit, so this was an unalloyed copyright violation.

My reply on Twitter went unacknowledged; clearly whoever is behind the account pays little heed to questions of credit and copyright.

The only remaining option was to send a DMCA takedown request to Twitter, but I wasn’t sure how much that was going to accomplish, short of triggering a backlash from Emergency Kittens’ half-a-million followers. Principle aside, there’s not much harm in having a picture of Goober in an Amazon box circulate throughout the Interwebs without photographer credit.

In the end I decided against a DMCA takedown (for now); instead I went sideways: I removed Creative Commons licencing from my photos on Flickr.

Why?

In the decade or so I’ve had my photos licenced under Creative Commons, all I asked from people was to give me credit, not use it for commercial purposes, and not create derivative works. But it’s surprising how something that sounds easy in principle turns out to be difficult in practice. Attribution is one issue. Another has been editorial use: whether that counts as commercial or non-commercial use is a bit of a grey area. Even for-profit publishers have tried to use CC-licenced photos without payment, even I have had to deal with this sort of thing on more than one occasion.

I suspected that the Creative Commons licence might give people who don’t know its requirements the mistaken impression that anything with that licence was fair game. Switching the photos’ licence to “All Rights Reserved” wouldn’t stop every case of infringement, but it might prevent the well-meaning edge cases — people searching for something free to use by using the Creative Commons filter on an image search.

If nothing else, the rules would be less ambiguous for everyone.

So as of July 29, my photos are now marked as “All Rights Reserved.” If you began using one of my photos prior to that date, you may still do so under the old terms: non-commercial use, give me credit. If you’d like to use my photos from now on, contact me for permission. For more details, see my FAQ.

As for Emergency Kittens, all I can say about it and other photo-sharing Twitter accounts is this:

  1. That cat belongs to someone.
  2. That photo belongs to someone.
  3. They didn’t necessarily ask permission.

This time, that someone was me.

Update, 9/13: Emergency Kittens’s tweet has since been deleted. I didn’t have anything to do with that directly, but the fact that this post did go viral in a modest way may have had an influence.

Subaru XV Crosstrek: Three Months In

Subaru XV Crosstrek

In early May we took possession of our new car, a 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek. Touring trim, manual transmission. In tangerine orange. (Yes, the colour is Jennifer’s fault.)

We’ve had the new car for three months now, and have put 7,000 km on it. What’s it been like so far? And how does it compare to our previous car (a 2004 Subaru Forester)?

But before I get into that, let me explain what exactly it is that we have. First released for the 2013 model year, the XV Crosstrek is a compact crossover based on the Subaru Impreza hatchback. In most respects it is an Impreza: it shares the same powertrain, interior and general shape. It has 75 mm more ground clearance (220 mm vs. 145 mm), has some mechanical changes that among other things allows it to tow 680 kg (Imprezas can’t tow), and some distinguishing fancy alloy wheels, roof rails and body cladding. The trims and colours are different, too.

Anyway, it’s much more like a car than the Forester, which is built on the same platform; it is to the Impreza hatchback what the Outback is to the Legacy wagon (which isn’t sold in North America any more). It’s proved quite popular, and is now Subaru’s third-best-selling vehicle in North America. We see more and more of them on the roads all the time.

New car The XV Crosstrek is smaller than the current Forester, but, the Forester having grown over the years, it’s close in size to the 2004 Forester that it replaces. (They’re almost exactly the same weight.) But they don’t have the same interior space. On the one hand, the cabin is less cramped, and there’s considerably more rear-seat legroom. But on the other hand, there’s less headroom. There’s not enough headroom for me in trims that come with a sunroof, so the base Touring trim is the only one we could get.

There’s less cargo space too, but most of the time we don’t need it: in the nearly six years we had the Forester, I can think of maybe three occasions where an XV Crosstrek’s cargo space would have been insufficient. In such cases a roof-top carrier, or paying to get something shipped, would be cheaper than paying more for more vehicle.

In the meantime we get a more efficient, more car-like vehicle. The XV Crosstrek is much more fuel-efficient than the 2004 Forester, but that’s not saying much: the Forester’s 2.5-litre boxer four was about as efficient as a V6. While it made that Forester rather fun to drive (though first gear was a little wild), we didn’t get a lot of range. On our drives this summer we have been regularly surprised at just how far we can go on a tank of gas. On hilly highways where the speed limit is 80 to 90 km/h we can get 6.4 litres per 100 km (36 mpg). (It’s fun having a trip computer.) On freeways like the 401 it’s more like 7.2 litres per 100 km (33 mpg) — the lack of a sixth gear makes freeway driving, where the engine is running above 3,000 rpm, less efficient. For an all-wheel-drive crossover with a manual gearbox, this is surprisingly good.

(Note: we don’t do much city driving, so I can’t give you numbers on that.)

The tradeoff to get that fuel economy is less power (148 hp vs. 165, 145 lb/ft vs. 166); the XV Crosstrek’s 2.0-litre boxer four doesn’t have a lot of power below 2,500 rpm. Those of us who drive manual must make sure we don’t shift out of the engine’s relatively narrow power band. You need to downshift on hills, and rev the engine higher when accelerating. Opting for the continuously variable transmission would no doubt help ameliorate this: they’re supposedly good at getting power out of small engines by keeping them in the power band.

It was feeling down a couple of pints. Oil consumption might be an issue. On our way home from Detroit last month, at just past 6,000 km on the odometer, a warning light came on and we had to add another quart of oil. This is simultaneously normal (as per the owner’s manual, which considers one litre per 2,000 km excessive) and a known issue: a class action lawsuit was launched last month against Subaru in the U.S. as a result of excessive oil consumption in the newer FA- and FB-class engines. I hope it’s not a regular occurrence: 0W-20 synthetic oil is not particularly cheap.

Subarus are not known for having lavish interiors, but then we were going from a 10-year-old Subaru to a new one, so even if Subarus lag behind other car makes, they’ve still gotten better in the meantime. The seats feel a bit more comfortable, and the controls seem well organized (getting the base model means avoiding some of the complexity of higher-end models, with dual-zone climate control or touchscreen infotainment systems). My elbows do hurt during long drives, after resting for hours on rather hard plastic surfaces. It’s a functional cabin, not a luxurious one.

At the outset my muscle memory was messing with me: the mist and wash controls on the wiper stalk were flipped relative to the previous car, and the electric power steering was weighted a little differently. Definitely lighter. For a while I had a hell of a time hitting the centre of parking spaces.

In general, though, we’re very happy with it. It’s our first new car, and a car 10 years newer should be measurably better on several fronts. Which this is. The outrageous orange colour doesn’t hurt, and looks even better when the car is washed — which encourages us to keep it immaculate.

(For another take on XV Crosstrek ownership, see this owner’s perspective, which echoes a lot of what we’ve observed.)

More Adventures in Snakekeeping

  1. No worries about her feeding response now.After refusing to eat for two and a half months, Extrovert the wandering garter snake is eating again. With her usual ferocity — viz., a mouse dropped into her cage might hit the cage floor before she strikes. Might. I am happy to see that my worries were unfounded (snakes do go off their feed from time to time, after all: Nic the Everglades rat snake is doing so right now), and that this wizened old garter snake continues to carry on.
  2. Infertile bullsnake eggs, second clutchLucy the bullsnake laid another clutch of infertile eggs — a full dozen of them. In her water dish, so if they were fertile before, they certainly aren’t now. (And they almost certainly weren’t: misshapen and miscoloured right out of the vent.) While this isn’t the first time one of our snakes has double-clutched (Pretzel did it all the time), it’s the first time we’ve seen double-clutching when we’re pretty sure mating hasn’t occurred. (Her cagemate, as I have said on many occasions, is useless in that department.) Chalk this up to a good diet: since Nic has been off his feed himself, Lucy has been getting some of the leftovers. A well-fed female snake will often put the extra into egg production.
  3. ... and here's the other one.Because we have no willpower ...Baby garter snakes are our kryptonite, and also the cutest things in the universe, so when a friend said they had more red-sided garter snakes than they knew what to do with, well, we were weak, and picked up a couple. These were born last year — and you’ll be interested to know, the grandchildren of our original breeding pair, being the offspring of a male from the famous litter of 42. It’s good to have young garter snakes again — our youngest prior to this is nine years old.

Adventures in Snake Missexing

Rat snake eggs (infertile, dried out)

At one point, when both snakes were starting to outgrow their cages, we were considering putting Spencer, our Baird’s rat snake, and Snowflake, our leucistic Texas rat snake, into one large cage, on the principle that two snakes of the same sex and two relatively closely related species would do reasonably well together. (We have three other rat and corn snake cages set up like this, two with two males and one with two females.)

Well it’s a good thing we didn’t, because when we did the big cage cleaning this week we found five dried-out, infertile eggs in the Texas rat snake’s cage. So much for Snowflake being male. Had Spencer been sharing a cage with her, he would almost certainly have tried to mate with her, and the two species are close enough that the eggs might well have been fertile.

We got Spencer’s sex wrong initially as well. When he was much smaller he briefly shared a cage with Snowflake’s mother, thinking they were both female; I separated them as soon as I saw him begin courtship behaviour.

And when I think about it, we — and the people who sexed snakes for us — have gotten the sex of our snakes wrong a hilarious number of times. The anerythristic motley corn snake we named “Little Guy” who grew up to be neither. The pair of speckled kingsnakes who tried to eat one another when put together for breeding; the “male” later coming down with egg binding. The red milk snakes, sold as a pair, who turned out to be two females. The checkered garter snakes, sold as two females, who turned out to be a male and a female.

Really, we suck at this. It’s a good thing we’re not trying to breed any more: it would all end in tears.

Snake vs. Snake: Copperheads in Atlanta

Copperhead

I have already written about the inadvisability of releasing snakes as rodent control, but releasing snakes as snake control is a new one even to me. In Slate, Holly Allen writes about her Atlanta neighbours releasing black rat snakes and kingsnakes to deal with an apparent outbreak of copperheads — the rat snakes to crowd the copperheads out, the kingsnakes to, well, eat them. As Allen (correctly) points out, releasing snakes is a super bad idea, for the usual reasons: translocated snakes have a poor survival rate and have a negative impact on local snake populations (and not just the copperheads). Leaving the copperheads alone is, as usual, the best thing you can do. Via Kingsnake.com.

Readercon Video: Books That Deserve to Remain Unspoiled

Sunday morning at Readercon I participated in a panel called “Books That Deserve to Remain Unspoiled.” Scott Edelman recorded it; his video is now up on YouTube. If you weren’t at Readercon, or you were but (a) scheduled elsewhere or (b) 10 a.m. on a Sunday was just too early for personal sentience, well, now you can see me in all my incoherent glory, along with minds sharper than mine. (I can’t bear to watch it myself: too self-conscious.)

Previously: Readercon 25; My Readercon 25 Schedule.

Geologic Map of Mars

Geologic Map of Mars

As I said during the Q&A part of my fantasy maps presentation at Readercon (see previous entry), maps of other worlds in the solar system are usually images from space probes that have been set to a map projection. The key word is usually. On Monday the U.S. Geological Survey released a geologic map of Mars that “brings together observations and scientific findings from four orbiting spacecraft that have been acquiring data for more than 16 years.” Via io9 and Wired.

Older Entries

Readercon 25
Astronomy in the Pontiac
Mapping It Out
Again with a Sinkhole on the 148
My Readercon 25 Schedule
Are Water Snakes Invading California?
It’s a Very Nice Ferry
Long Hidden
Finding Longitude
Heinlein and His Biographer
OpenGeofiction
Montreal Reptile Expo
Western Canada Aviation Museum
Bullsnake Eggs and Other News
Mapping Gotham
Testing the King Hypothesis
Review: The Map Thief
Growing Kitten Is Growing
Four More Map Stories
Narcisse Snake Dens