Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything

Taxonomic Changes to Crayfish, Swamp and Earth Snakes

I’m always afraid to check the CNAH website: there’s always some new study that renames or reclassifies everything. It’s been a while since the natricine snakes have been done over, though. A 2013 phylogenetic study of two North American natricine genera — the glossy and crayfish snakes (Regina) and the earth snakes (Virginia) — concludes that they’re not monophyletic. They split off two crayfish snakes and group them with black swamp snakes in a new genus, Liodytes, and split the earth snakes into two monotypic genera.

Here’s a table of all the changes:

OldNew
Regina
   alleni (Striped Crayfish Snake)
   grahamii (Graham’s Crayfish Snake)
   rigida (Glossy Crayfish Snake)
   septemvittata (Queen Snake)

Seminatrix
   pygaea (Black Swamp Snake)

Virginia
   striatula (Rough Earth Snake)
   valeriae (Smooth Earth Snake)
Liodytes
   alleni (Striped Swamp Snake)
   pygaea (Black Swamp Snake)
   rigida (Glossy Swamp Snake)

Regina
   grahamii (Graham’s Crayfish Snake)
   septemvittata (Queen Snake)

Haldea
   striatula (Rough Earth Snake)

Virginia
   valeriae (Smooth Earth Snake)

From what I’ve read this isn’t exactly a surprise (at least insofar as the crayfish snakes are concerned). But I’m not sure I like the notion of changing the common names (e.g., “crayfish snake” to “swamp snake”) whenever there’s a taxonomic change: that’s more confusion than is strictly necessary, especially considering how much back-and-forth there can be.

‘1491’ Is Becoming a TV Series

Book cover: 1491 One of my favourite books, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, is being made into a documentary TV series. The book’s author, Charles C. Mann, confirmed on Twitter last week that principal photography had begun. There isn’t a lot of information out there yet. It’s being written and directed by Barbara Hager, whose Aarow Entertainment will be co-producing it with Animiki See Digital Production. Eight one-hour episodes are being filmed this year for broadcast on APTN in 2016.

1491 is a book-length debunking of a lot of shibboleths about the pre-Columbian Americas. It paints a picture of a heavily populated hemisphere filled with sophisticated societies that transformed the landscape around them. A TV version offers an opportunity for more people to have their heads explode, like mine did in 2006. (See also my review of its sequel, 1493.) Via Kottke.

Google Maps Edits Cause Embarrassment

Some embarrassment for Google Maps last week, as they were forced to apologize for an image of the Android mascot peeing on an Apple logo that turned up on the map near Rawalpindi in Pakistan. To say nothing of the phrase “Google review policy is crap” etched into nearby Takht Pari Forest. Both have since been removed. Boing Boing, the Guardian, The Verge.

To be fair to Google, crowdsourcing map data does have its pitfalls: OpenStreetMap has to deal with this sort of thing all the time. You have to have something in place to deal with bad-faith edits. None of the edits I’ve made to Google Maps went through without someone reviewing them, so I’m surprised that this could happen. That said, when you need your map updated fast (such as during natural disasters like yesterday’s earthquake in Nepal), it’s hard to beat crowdsourcing.

As always, it’s important to keep in mind that all online maps have their shortcomings.

Map of Canada Changes Depiction of Arctic Sea Ice

Map of Canada

The federal government’s new map of Canada, part of the Atlas of Canada reference series, came out this week. Among the changes between it and its predecessor (which came out in 2006), one in particular is drawing attention. Ivan Semeniuk in the Globe and Mail:

Whereas the older version of the map showed only that part of the sea ice that permanently covered Arctic waters year round at that time, the new edition uses a 30-year median of September sea-ice extent from 1981 through 2010. September sea ice hit a record low in 2012 and is projected to decline further. The change means there is far more ice shown on the 2015 version of the map than on its predecessor.

The changes can be seen below: the 2006 map is on the left, the 2015 map on the right.

Differences in sea ice between 2006 and 2015 maps of Canada

Now as Semeniuk’s piece points out, neither way is wrong. But all maps have a point of view, and it’s naive to think that this change was made in a value-neutral environment: this was the result of a conscious decision. The reason for that decision — that’s what’s interesting.

Valentina Lisitsa and Artists’ Social Capital

Here’s my take on the Valentina Lisitsa affair.

Lisitsa, a Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-born classical pianist, was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week, but she was dropped by the TSO over a series of offensive tweets about ethnic Ukrainians and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa has a social media presence — her reputation was basically made on YouTube — and the inevitable online shitstorm ensued. That shitstorm swallowed up Stewart Goodyear, the pianist tapped to replace Lisitsa, who had to bow out in turn.

More at Musical Toronto and NPR.

In the Globe and Mail, Marcus Gee argues that firing Lisitsa sets a terrible free-speech precedent: arts organizations are poorly equipped to evaluate whether an artist’s views are too offensive. But Paul Wells in Maclean’s notes that “there is also precedent for soloists being sent packing because what they were doing outside the hall was too big to park.” If arts organizations are poorly equipped to evaluate artists’ views, they’re also too strapped for time and money to deal with the blowback.

As I see it, artists in the course of their careers acquire a certain amount of social capital. How they spend that social capital is up to them, but they don’t always spend it wisely. If you’re known for your antics rather than your talents, or for taking sides on deeply controversial issues, well, it’s your social capital to spend, but you’re running a real risk of not only going into social-capital overdraft, but also making it more difficult to make the art that enabled you to build up your social capital in the first place.

More to the point: no artist exists in a vacuum. Writers have publishers. Musicians have orchestras, record labels, concert venues. When you make yourself socially toxic through your public conduct, you make it very difficult for your collaborators to do business with you. Not because they’re opposed to free speech, but because you’re dragging them into your argument without their prior consent. You’re forcing them to spend their social capital on your behalf, for a cause they don’t necessarily believe in.

In which case you’d better be worth it. I’ve watched a few of Lisitsa’s YouTube videos — the Beethoven piano sonatas, mainly, because I know them cold and can use them to tell if a performer is any good. From what I can tell, she’s technically flawless, but a bit soulless: an excellent reference performance, but not so much with the emotional interpretation.

The classical music scene is really competitive: there are a lot of other really good pianists out there. Don’t blame an orchestra for opting to go with one just as good who will give them fewer headaches.

The same could be said for artists in other fields.

New Moon Maps

Topographic Map of the Moon (Hare et al.)

Two stunning maps of the Moon have been released by the USGS, both based on data collected by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter: one an image mosaic assembled from visual imagery, the other (above) a colour-coded topographical map derived from laser altimeter data. Via io9.

Chopin’s Preludes on a Pleyel

Performing classical music on the instruments of the era (which differ quite a bit in sound and construction from their modern descendants) has been a thing for a while. This Kickstarter project is in that vein: its goal is to have Kimiko Ishizaka record Chopin’s Opus 28 Preludes on an 1842 Pleyel piano in original condition. A Pleyel was Chopin’s piano, so you can appreciate the historical significance of this project. I know the Op. 28 Preludes quite well; it’ll be interesting to hear the difference (this page includes recordings of Chopin’s Nocturnes being played on an 1836 Pleyel). As for the Pleyel company itself, it stopped making pianos in 2013; it seems to have ended its days as a very upscale brand. Via Boing Boing.

Space Maps: Ceres, Mars, Exoplanets

Mars: Ares Vallis

Back to Brontosaurus

Brontosaurus (Marsh)

A new paper has resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid taxon. The cladistic study of diplodocid dinosaurs concluded that there were substantial differences between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus: the former is even more robust and has a distinctly thicker neck. News coverage: Nature, Scientific American, Brian Switek at Smithsonian.

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Ecdysis 5

Ecdysis 5 cover The fifth issue of Ecdysis, my science fiction and fantasy fanzine, is now available for download.

The fourth issue was late; this one is ludicrously so: I’d hoped to have it out by the end of December. That’s on me alone: everyone else got their stuff in on time. But with everything that’s been happening, it took me a long time before I could brain enough to get things together.

But that means we’ve got an extra helping of … uh, whatever it is that we do here for you this time. Forty pages in all.

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Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph
Irwin’s Controversial Legacy
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Unruly Places (Off the Map)
Emily Garfield’s Map Art
Map Anniversaries
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Daniel Reeve, Film Cartographer
Arrest, Charges in N.B. Python Case
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Irregular Verbs and My Doing Book Reviews in General
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Books Read in 2014
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