Jonathan Crowe

My Correct Views on Everything

The Oldest Known Snake

What is the definition of a snake? If you said “legless reptile” you’d be wrong: there are two families of legless lizard as well as amphisbaenians (which are just weird, especially these things). If I remember correctly, a snake is defined by its skull, which differs from other squamates: it’s thin, delicate, mobile and articulated. It was that definitive skull that led a team of researchers, headed by University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell, to identify four species dating from 140 to 167 million years ago as snakes rather than lizards, putting the emergence of snakes far earlier in the prehistoric past. (Snakes were previously thought to have evolved around 100 million years ago: the gap in the fossil record is not really surprising given how poorly delicate snake skeletons fossilize.) The findings suggest that the snake skull may have evolved before snakes lost their legs. Article abstract. News coverage: CBC News, Discovery News, Live Science, University of Alberta.

CBC Ottawa and Medical Quackery

This morning, CBC Ottawa posted a story about how mistletoe extract helped a woman with stage four colon cancer, backed up with quotes from a naturopath, with only the most perfunctorily added disclaimer from the American Cancer Society that such claims are unsupported. The story bothered me so much that I filed the following complaint with the CBC’s Ombudsman:

I believe that the story, “Ottawa woman says mistletoe helped with her cancer recovery,” posted to on 27 January 2015 at 5:30 AM, is in violation of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

Those standards and practices say that “[i]n matters of human health we will take particular care to avoid arousing unfounded hopes or fears in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses. We will also avoid suggesting unproven benefits or risks to health related to changes in habits of consumption of food or pharmaceutical products.”

The story is about a woman with stage four colon cancer who believes that mistletoe extract has helped her treatment and a naturopathic “doctor” who advocates it. The story does mention that “[m]istletoe is not recognized by North American medical associations and the American Cancer Society has said that ‘available evidence from well-designed clinical trials does not support claims that mistletoe can improve length or quality of life,’” but that’s also true of any number of unproven alternative treatments.

One could say the same about anything — “Thunder Bay man convinced that chiropractic has cured his eczema” is not sufficiently counterweighted by a disclaimer from, say, the National Eczema Association. Absent a real news angle — and as a former reporter I know something about that — a story like this should have been spiked. One simply does not expect the CBC to publish such stories.

More to the point, it’s CBC policy not to suggest benefits from unproven treatments. Mistletoe is unproven: the ACS says so. It’s CBC policy not to arouse “unfounded hopes … in persons living with or close to those living with serious illnesses.” It’s stage four colon cancer. Stage four cancer is metastatic cancer. It’s extremely bad news.

To be perfectly frank, one of the reasons for my writing, and for my being incensed with the story, is because I have just finished nursing my spouse through cancer treatment. I know full well how fraught cancer treatment can be. To publish a story like this is profoundly irresponsible, emotionally manipulative, a disservice to public health and the public interest, and [to] the CBC’s own reputation — at least what’s left of it. [links added]

It’ll be interesting to see what kind of response I get.

Irregular Verbs and My Doing Book Reviews in General

Book cover: Irregular Verbs and Other Stories My review of Matthew Johnson’s short story collection, Irregular Verbs and Other Stories (ChiZine, 2014), went live this morning at AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review.

It’s my second review for AE, and I’ll be doing more, so yes, I think it’s safe to call myself a book reviewer. A few years ago I would have found the prospect of writing full-length reviews, rather than a blog entry a paragraph or two long, utterly daunting, at least for science fiction and fantasy (I’d already been reviewing map books, after all). And yet here I am, to my great surprise. Still feels like I’m learning how to do it, one review at a time, sweat beading.

That said, I’ll primarily be reviewing Canadian sf at that venue (in case you’re wondering whether to send me a review copy). The fact that I know a lot of the Canadian authors in this field, some of them very well, will make things a bit tricky: “full disclosure” may well be a permanent feature of my reviews. To say nothing of the situation if I have to give a book a bad review (see my previous post on that subject). I’m definitely feeling what Amal El-Mohtar expresses about writing reviews of books by people you know or who might see the review, in the most recent episode of the Rocket Talk podcast (which is really worth listening to in full, for Amal’s and Natalie Luhrs’s sharp insights on the ethics of reviewing).

Fuel Economy and Transmissions

Warning: automobile fuel economy neepery ahead.

Cheaper gas makes fuel efficient vehicles less appealing, in part because what makes a car more fuel efficient can make the vehicle more expensive. Diesel and hybrid versions of a vehicle costs more than their regular counterparts: you need gas to be expensive and to put a lot of miles on your car to come out ahead.

When we were car shopping last year, I ran the numbers on twenty different vehicles, looking for (among other things) the most economical car to drive — taking into account both the cost of the car and the cost of gas. (In other words, taking note of the fact that we might need to pay an extra $100 a month in car payments to save $20 a month in gas.)

A lot of that depends on how much you drive, and where. We don’t drive much — we averaged 16,000 kilometres a year with the Forester — and most of what we drive is highway driving. So fuel efficient options that really came into their own in city driving (hybrids) or lots and lots of long-distance driving (diesel) weren’t really worth the extra expense.

One question, though, was whether to get a manual or automatic transmission. Automatic transmissions, particularly continuously variable transmissions, now get the same or better fuel economy than stick shifts; in the case of CVTs, a lot more. While we preferred driving stick, and you could usually save more than a thousand dollars by getting a car with one, not every car came with one — and just maybe the automatic would save enough gas to be worth it.

I modelled our gas consumption on the following basis: 16,000 km a year, on a 75/25 split between highway and city driving, i.e., 12,000 km at highway fuel economy and 4,000 at city fuel economy. I calculated fuel costs at $1.35/litre, which did make sense a year ago.

On that basis, I looked at various cars — mainly Subarus, because Jennifer wanted all-wheel drive — to see whether the added cost of a CVT would be offset by improved fuel economy over the life of the vehicle. In every case, the answer was yes. Using Subaru’s estimated fuel economy numbers and $1.35/litre gas, the Impreza hatchback and XV Crosstrek saved less than $200 after ten years, the Forester around $200, the Impreza sedan and Outback a bit more than $400. The Legacy was something like $700 cheaper after ten years with a CVT.

Remember, this is over ten years: so between $12 and $70 a year. Some savings, not a lot. More if you drive a lot more than 16,000 kilometres a year.

Detailed numbers. The car we ended up getting, the XV Crosstrek, would burn 1,332 litres of gas per year (or per 16,000 km) with the manual transmission, and 1,204 litres with the CVT. At $1.35/litre gas, the CVT would save $172.80 per year. The CVT is a $1,300 option, so it would pay for itself in 7½ years or 120,000 km.

But this was at $1.35/litre gas and 16,000 kilometres a year. We’ve already put 22,000 km on this car since last May, and a lot of that was over the summer, when gas was sometimes more than $1.35/litre.

Now, of course, gas is running about 85¢/litre (around here, anyway), so the equation is a little different. The annual savings from burning 128 fewer litres of gas drop by $64, to $108.80, and the CVT would now need 12 years or 192,000 km to pay for itself.

All of which is to say that when the total cost of ownership for a new car can be something like $10,000 a year (car payments, insurance, maintenance, gas), a few tens of dollars per year in one direction or another amount to not very much. How you drive, and how much you drive, certainly matter more.

Charlie Hebdo in Context

Satire doesn’t translate well.

Unless you speak French and have spent a significant amount of time in France absorbing the culture, you will not be able to pick up the nuances of French humour and satire of the sort found in Le Canard enchaîné, Les Guignols de l’info or, yes, Charlie Hebdo.

I’m certainly not able to do so — and I speak French, spent the better part of two and a half degrees studying French history, and for four years had a French French girlfriend to explain all the cultural references. All I ended up with was just enough awareness of French culture to appreciate the extent of my own ignorance.

Even so, I’d at least heard of Charlie Hebdo before the thing with the Mohammed cartoons, which is more than most of you can say.

Does Charlie Hebdo have a history of publishing racist and Islamophobic cartoons? Is Charlie Hebdo racist and Islamophobic? Are — well, were — its contributors racist and Islamophobic? A lot of people have gone online to say as much, mourning the victims but condemning their work. It’s a bit sociopathic to do that so soon after the massacre — bodies still warm and all that, plus it’s implicitly blaming the victims — but to what extent is it true?

To be honest, I don’t know.

(The Independent is reporting that the victims were in a meeting discussing an anti-racism conference; if so, then calling them racist may well be a horrible libel.)

For what it’s worth, I think I do know the following:

  • Anticlericalism has a long and robust tradition in France that dates back to before Voltaire; the Anglo-American tradition of religious tolerance simply does not compute in a country with its own, distinct brand of secularism. You may not agree with it (I certainly don’t) but that’s the French norm.
  • French satire is fierce. It doesn’t just go for the jugular; it aims for complete and total exsanguination. It makes you flinch hard. I remember one skit on Les Guignols de l’info (basically the French version of Spitting Image) that ran shortly after 9/11, in which a soft-focus airline ad ended with the plane hitting the World Trade Center; the ad ended with the logo and slogan for SNCF, the French rail company.
  • It’s difficult for an outsider, even an outsider like myself who speaks the language and has some familiarity with French culture, to pick up on what’s meant literally or satirically. It has been argued in this MetaFilter thread that some of the more racist Charlie Hebdo cartoons need to be taken in context: the Boko Haram cartoon, the cartoon portraying (black) justice minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey — these are responses to things that were being said in French political and media circles. (CH was apparently defending Taubira against right-wing attacks.) Those of us out of the loop wouldn’t necessarily appreciate that. (I can’t confirm the validity of these arguments.)
  • In a similar vein, those unaware of what was being said about Barack and Michelle Obama during the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign would be totally confused by the intent of the New Yorker’s “terrorist fist bump” cover.
  • For that matter, speaking of the New Yorker cover, it’s difficult for insiders to pick up on satire. How many people have taken The Onion or Stephen Colbert at face value by mistake? (Remember #CancelColbert?)

For as long as satire has existed, there have been people who have missed the point. For some people Jonathan Swift really did advocate eating Irish babies. It’s compounded when you lack the cultural common ground to understand what the hell the satirist is doing. High-school French and Google Translate can only do so much: it can give you the words; it certainly can’t give you the context.

I can’t tell for myself whether Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were racist or satirical or too meta for their own good, or whether its most recent issue is mocking Michel Houellebecq or not.

I’m pretty sure you can’t either.

Update, January 19: Linkdump

Books Read in 2014

In 2012 I finished 85 books. In 2013 I finished 72 books. In 2014 I finished … um, 40 books, which is even fewer than the 48 I read in 2011. Quite the drop. What can I say? It was a less than ideal year in many respects, with demands on my time that were not compatible with having the proper headspace to read with. (More on that anon.)

Here’s the list; links are to my reviews.

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Peregrine or Merlin

Three years ago we observed a bird of prey catching and eviscerating a starling in front of our living room window. At the time we thought it was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus), and labelled it accordingly. But almost everyone who’s seen the photos and video since then thinks it’s a female merlin (Falco columbarius) rather than a peregrine. Under the weight of so many opinions I’ve had to revise my original opinion. The only problem is that merlins aren’t normally found here in the winter, which makes the encounter all the more perplexing — and fascinating.

Atlas of Canada

Book cover: Atlas of Canada I only just now found out about the new edition of Canadian Geographic’s Atlas of Canada — via an item broadcast on CTV yesterday — or I would have included it in this year’s gift guide. It’s apparently the first new edition in a decade. (Incidentally this should not be confused with the Canadian government’s online Atlas of Canada, an entirely distinct beast.)

Review: Following the Ninth

Following the Ninth (DVD cover) It was more than four years ago that I first heard about Following the Ninth, Kerry Candaele’s documentary about the impact of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Now, after a Kickstarter campaign, production delays, posted clips and a tour of various theatres across the U.S. beginning in 2013, the film is finally available for purchase as a DVD (Kickstarter backers got it last year).

I’ll be honest: after waiting so long to see it, the film itself was a bit of an anticlimax, its impact blunted a bit by all the reading I’d done about the Ninth and its uses in the meantime. That reading included Journeys with Beethoven (my post), an ebook co-authored by Candaele with Greg Mitchell, the first half of which chronicles Candaele’s adventures in making the film.

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The Patterson Projection

Patterson Projection

Map projections are inherently interesting, and also a great way to start a fight among a group of cartographers: just ask them their favourite and step back. Everyone has their preferred projection, me included, that fits their own needs and aesthetic. Cartographer Tom Patterson, whose work I’ve featured previously on The Map Room, has added another projection to the mix, the eponymous Patterson Projection, a cylindrical projection which “falls between the popular Miller 1, which excessively exaggerates the size of polar areas, and the Plate Carrée, which compressess the north-south dimension of mid latitudes.” It looks like a compromise projection in cylindrical form. A full article on the design and development of the projection is forthcoming at the link.

Previously: Shaded Relief World Map and Flex Projector; New, Free Physical Map of the United States; Shaded Relief.

Older Entries

Various and Sundry
A New Species Hiding in New York City
Geologic Maps of Vesta
The Biggest Venomous Snake Ever
‘This Year Is Different’
Gift Guide: 10 Map Books of 2014
Ecdysis 4
Threatened Status Proposed for Black Pine Snake
Gene Wolfe Interviewed
The Evolution of Combat and Courtship Behaviour in Snakes
Moon and Comet Maps
My Can-Con Schedule
Fantasy Maps of U.S. Cities
This Deer Is Already Dead
A Change in Cable Companies
Atheism in America
Open for Submissions Soon: Second Contacts, Tesseracts 19
Encountering Racers