Hand-Feeding Wild Water Snakes

Tim Jones, a retired zoo director, has been hand-feeding the Diamond-backed Water Snakes (Nerodia rhombifer) that live in his private pond. The snakes have become so habituate to his presence that they’re comfortable taking food off his tongs. It doesn’t hurt that water snakes are rather food-motivated (which is a polite way of saying they’re extreme gluttons). You’ll note in the above video, along with shorter videos here and here, that they’re strongly directed by scent: if your fingers or pants smell like fish, it is by snake reasoning fish. Nom.

Now, Jones points out that this is a pond on private property; feeding wild animals is usually a no-no for very good reasons. You’d think that there would be little harm in habituating water snakes to human contact, or having them associate humans with food, and in a perfect world there wouldn’t be. It’s just that very few people would see an approaching water snake as friendly. Thwack. The end.

Some people might be surprised at the idea of tame water snakes, but I’m not. At one point, as some of you may remember, I kept three of them: two Banded Water Snakes (Nerodia fasciata) and a Northern Water Snake (N. sipedon), the latter under a provincial licence. They had insanely voracious appetites, but they were no less tame than any of my other snakes, and I put them to use in educational displays, where they wigged out people who believed water snakes were aggressive.

Basically, they’re just big garter snakes.

But mine were all born in captivity. That matters. It’s not reasonable to expect a wild animal to be friendly or tame: most will assume that a creature a hundred times their size is a threat to them. A snake has no idea that people are scared of it, or that being friendly and non-threatening toward people is a reasonable survival strategy. That’s counterintuitive.

Wild water snakes are bitey because they’re large enough for it to be a worthwhile defence strategy; smaller snakes of the same family, like brown and red-bellied snakes (Storeria), never bite, because there’s no point in doing so. Garter snakes are somewhere in between: some do, some don’t — it depends on the species, the individual and the circumstances.

Book review archive pages for 2006, 2008 and 2009 are now up and running. It’s a bit weird to repost reviews from that long ago — several of the books have gone through one or more editions since then, and several others are out of print.

Michigan Protects Five Reptiles and Amphibians

Michigan has added five reptiles and amphibians — Fowler’s toad, pickerel frog, mudpuppy, Butler’s garter snake and smooth green snake — to its animals of special concern list. The listing makes it illegal to kill or collect those species. That the Butler’s garter snake is included is significant: their lack of protection in Michigan meant that most specimens in captivity were originally collected there. (Mine certainly were.)

Twitter: A House No One Wants to Buy

twitter_logo_blueTwitter’s harassment problem is finally — finally — biting it in the ass. Both Salesforce and Disney have passed on making an offer for the social media company, and it’s being reported that at least part of the reason is Twitter’s inability or unwillingness to deal with trolls, harassment and abuse, which would have done damage to the companies’ brand image if they had made Twitter their responsibility. It wasn’t the only reason, but it was one of them.

I’m always one for analogies. Here’s one that comes to mind: Twitter is a homeowner trying to sell their house. Now the house needs a lot of work. Fixing that house up will not only get you a better price, it’ll improve your odds of selling it at all. A house that needs fixing up scares off a lot of potential buyers; if and when it does sell, it’ll be at a much lower price than it would have had the homeowner did the repairs in the first place.

I wonder if now, at long last, Twitter will start fixing its house up. Because leaving the repairs for the next owner to deal with is not a great selling point.

I’ve begun reposting my old book reviews to the new website — book reviews being a category of writing I’d rather not have disappear down the memory hole. In the past they’ve been scattered over several different locations, but I’m gathering them together in a new, centralized Reviews section, in which all my reviews will appear on yearly archive pages, either in full or as a link elsewhere (if it’s published, or a blog post here or on The Map Room).

So far I’ve completed yearly archives for the past three years: 2014, 2015 and 2016. I’ve also finished pages for 2005 and 2007, which had only one or two reviews. I’ll announce more pages here as I complete them. That may take some time: there’s something like 135 of them in total. I’ve been busier than I thought.

Embracing Ephemerality

A short while ago my blog database decided to crap the bed and republish everything in 7-bit ASCII, which meant that everything from apostrophes to accents was replaced by weird characters when I republished a page. This was a sign, I thought, that it was time to give the ol’ personal web page a makeover.

That meant, among other things, switching to WordPress. Between this site and its predecessor, I’ve been using Movable Type in one form or another since 2003; continuing to do so would require me to code manually what now comes automatically with WordPress. I relaunched The Map Room last January in WordPress, and the switch has made a world of difference: high-resolution images, mobile compatibility, social network integration — all things I simply don’t have to worry about any more. Blogging’s never been easier. Time to do the same here.

My next question was what to do with all my legacy pages. Maintaining them would require continuing to wrestle with Movable Type in addition to the new setup; not maintaining them would mean more than a thousand increasingly out-of-date, increasingly crufty pages; importing them into WordPress would be a ton of work — and for whose benefit? Honestly, who’s interested in scouring through old entries of a personal blog?

I’ve decided to do something different: embrace ephemerality. The old pages will, eventually, simply go away.

As a historian by training I flinch at the thought of documents disappearing, but in practical terms it makes the most sense. Sites far bigger and more important than mine have content disappear down the memory hole all the time. My words are hardly as precious. Over the past fifteen years I’ve written thousands of blog entries. For every blog entry I’m proud of, there’s another I now find profoundly embarrassing — and probably a half-dozen more that, because they dealt with some news item or gadget of the moment, are now long obsolete or irrelevant.

But most significantly, I’ve come to the realization that I can curate my online life. Which means pruning those bits that are less meaningful now than they were when they were created. My first web page was uploaded in January 1996. I’ve been blogging since July 2001. I’m not the same person I was ten, fifteen or twenty years ago. It’s all right if my web presence reflects that.

All of which is to say: Welcome to the reboot of my website. I’ll still write about the things that interest me, and I’ll still review a lot of books. (By the way, look for my old book reviews to reappear on dedicated pages in the near future.) But I’ll be doing so looking forward, without the weight of fifteen years of site history dragging behind me.