A Herpetological Roundup

Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, New Zealand, Dec. 29, 2013. Photo by Flickr user _somaholiday. Creative Commons licence.
  1. Atlas Obscura on the comeback of the only remaining rhyncocephalian, the tuatara (Sphenodon). Breeding programs having more tuataras than they know what to do with is a nice problem to have. (I know people who, through zoo connections, have handled tuataras. I’ve never so much as seen one in the flesh.)
  2. Kenya has banned the export of various snakes, including the African Rock Python (Python sebae), due to the impact of collecting and poaching on wild populations. I would have thought that there wouldn’t be much demand, relatively speaking, for the large and nasty African Rock Python, but they’ve been collected so much that, like overfished species, their full-grown size in the wild has diminished. [via]
  3. A plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake (Crotalus horridus) to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts is running into opposition from local residents, though the island is a more isolated and remote reintroduction site than just about any other alternative. [via]
  4. The discovery of a rattlesnake in a Texas home led to 23 more turning up in the cellar, where they’d been overwintering.
  5. Ceal Klingler writes about the time that a Panamint Rattlesnake (Crotalus stephensi) came by for a visit. [via]
  6. That Arizona bill allowing snakes to be shot within city limits — which I mentioned in my last roundup — has apparently passed.
  7. The Mexican Garter Snake (Thamnophis eques) is endangered in Arizona, so residents presumably still can’t shoot it. It was believed to have disappeared from the Colorado River system, but it was recently spotted near Lake Havasu City, which has wildlife officials scratching their heads a bit. [via]
  8. I knew about caudal luring — when a predator wiggles uses its tail (usually wiggling it) to attract prey — but this report of Puff Adders (Bitis arietans) using their tongues to do it is something else.
  9. Painted turtles (Chrysemys) don’t leave the water to hibernate, even when it freezes: they spend the winter under ice. How does that work? How do they breathe? The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science blog explains.

Thoughts on Electoral Reform, and the Abandonment Thereof

The government has abandoned its promise of electoral reform, and a lot of people — including many of my friends — are hopping mad about it.

I have some (likely unpopular) thoughts on this.

1. Trudeau promised an end to first-past-the-post electoral system. He did not promise proportional representation. They’re not equivalent.

2. Every party’s position on electoral reform reflects their narrow self-interest, not just the Liberals’. The Greens and NDP would stand to benefit from PR, the Liberals from ranked/preferential ballots, the Conservatives from the status quo. Any change will benefit one or more parties at the expense of the others.

3. This was never going to work except by general consensus among the political parties. But because any electoral reform would reward some parties and punish others (see #2), such consensus would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Any party left out of that consensus would litigate the hell out of it, work to undermine its legitimacy and campaign against it in any referendum that followed.

4. The polls I’ve seen (e.g., this one) suggest that

(a) a majority of the population supports some kind of electoral reform;

(b) mixed-member proportional representation is the most popular electoral reform option; BUT

(c) a plurality of poll respondents preferred the status quo — first-past-the-post — over any single electoral reform option.

5. It’s a logical fallacy to assume that support for some kind of reform translates to support for this particular reform. Again: they’re not equivalent. Proponents of ranked/preferential ballots will not necessarily prefer PR over the status quo. (I support ranked ballots but have strong reservations about PR: you better believe I’d support the status quo over PR.)

6. Canadians appear to be strongly in favour of a referendum on any major change to the electoral system. I predict that if put to a referendum, any electoral reform proposal — any proposal — would be defeated. Because absent a general consensus, there will be too many people campaigning against it: the parties that stand to lose from it, people who prefer a different kind of electoral reform, and people who actually like first-past-the-post voting. In other words, lots of reasons to say no: there’s a reason referenda on electoral reform at the provincial level have always failed.

(This is leaving aside the legitimacy questions that would inevitably arise from low voter turnout or a narrow result.)

I don’t blame Trudeau for giving up; under the current circumstances, this wasn’t going anywhere. And it’s now clear that the Liberals’ heart wasn’t really in it.

For this to work, literally everybody needs to be on board — needs to agree that (a) the system needs fixing and (b) this is the right fix. We aren’t there yet. We may never be — especially not if electoral reform is seen by some as a way of changing the rules for someone else’s benefit.

Postscript: I’ve talked about electoral reform before. My blog posts from the earlier iteration of this website are collected on this page.

The Stars Are Legion

Book cover: The Stars Are LegionI’ve read Kameron Hurley’s stuff before — namely her first novel, the Nebula-nominated God’s War (Night Shade, 2010) — so I knew what I was getting myself into with her violent and visceral new space opera, The Stars Are Legion, which comes out next month from Angry Robot in the U.K. and Saga Press in the U.S. and Canada.

A tale of intrigue, war, and betrayal set among a fleet of artificial worlds travelling through space, The Stars Are Legion could easily have been a less distinctive work, but for the fact that the worlds are organic — and, incidentally, dying — and exist in a symbiotic relationship with the humans that inhabit them, who give birth to parts that maintain them. That Hurley’s archipelago of worlds is populated entirely by women is, in other words, essential to the survival of the whole apparatus, as well as to the story. But as regular Hurley readers might expect, survival is neither gentle nor pretty: those with body horror or other squicks be warned.

The main protagonist is Zan, a woman who has lost her memory. Sent repeatedly to attack a mystery world, Zan has no idea who she is or what she is supposed to do, though she has conspirators and collaborators who do, including the second protagonist, Jayd, who is given in marriage to the ruler of another world. The intrigue surrounding Jayd’s marriage is one plot thread; Zan remembering who she is, and her original mission, is another. The latter also enables Hurley to pull a Tiptree, viz., “start from the end and preferably 5,000 feet underground on a dark day and then don’t tell them.” We’re just as much in the dark as Zan is; the shape of the universe reveals itself in starts and fits, as much to us as it does to her. (Though certain McGuffins do appear on obvious mantlepieces, and the reveal can be guessed at.) In the process of finding herself and her purpose, Zan goes on an unexpected journey through unexpected terrain, with scenes that to me are redolent of Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, that despite the blood, bone and viscera, manage a kind of awe that verges on the Clarkean.

This is a space opera like none other I’ve read, but it nonetheless combines adventure, passion, sound worldbuilding and compelling storytelling with that elusive sense of wonder so highly sought after in science fiction — and, it must be said, seldom found. Those who demand it may not expect to find it here, but find it here they will — that is, if they have the stomach for it.

I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.

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A Herpetological Roundup

Gray Tree Frog (Dryophytes versicolor), Mansfield-et-Pontefract, Quebec, July 11, 2010.

Five things make a post:

  1. New tree frog genus. North American (and a few Asian) tree frogs previously included in the genus Hyla — including Gray and Green Tree Frogs — have been moved to a new, sister genus, Dryophytes, thanks to a major revision of tree frog taxonomy (PDF). This follows other moves to split genera that spanned continents: Bufo (toads), Rana (true frogs) and Elaphe (rat snakes) have all been split up; North American toads are now Anaxyrus, North American true frogs are now Lithobates (except on the Pacific coast), and North American rat snakes are now Pantherophis. So this is not really a surprise move.
  2. Water snake outreach. The Lake Erie Water Snake (Nerodia sipedon insularum) remains on Canada’s endangered species list, but it was removed from the U.S. list in 2011, after a rebound in its U.S. population, which now numbers 10,000 adults. An invasive fish, the round goby, has something to do with it: the water snakes happily feed on them. But public outreach played a role as well. On Cool Green Science, the Nature Conservancy’s blog, Ted Williams looks at the outreach efforts of Dr. Kristin Sanford, whose research showed that habitat loss was less of a factor than human persecution. Her (now quite dated) website: Respect the Snake.
  3. Don’t shoot snakes. An Arizona bill that would lift a ban on firing a gun within city limits if it’s to shoot a rat or a snake is facing opposition — from people opposed to shooting snakes.
  4. Do snakes fart? Scientists are building an animal fart database, and yes, snakes are included. While passing gas might not be a good sign for an obligate carnivore, if by fart we mean making noise while defecating, I can attest that snakes certainly do. (With some of my larger and stinkier charges, I usually hear it before I smell it — at least if I’m in the same room.)
  5. Stressed snakes strike first. A snake’s background level of stress — rather than the stress of encounter, handling or confinement — may determine how likely it is to strike, according to a new study. [LiveScience]

The Lightsaber Black Market

By the time of The Force Awakens, the Skywalker lightsaber is at least 50 years old. This suggests that lightsabers are extremely long-lived and durable and, considering that it spent most of those years locked away in storage, require nothing in the way of maintenance.

But if lightsabers are built to last, it does raise an interesting question: where are all the other lightsabers?

I mean, there used to be quite a few of them around. Prior to the Clone Wars there were apparently some 10,000 Jedi Knights, each of whom had their own lightsaber. After they were massacred — and at the time of The Force Awakens Order 66 is still within living memory — what happened to their weapons?

Presumably the Empire confiscated most of them — as we learned in Rogue One, the kyber crystals that power lightsabers were needed for the Death Star’s superlaser — but they would almost certainly have become a valuable black-market commodity. Even leaving aside their highly sought-after power source, lightsabers are extremely useful tools in their own right, good for slicing open tauntauns and a million other household uses — though it wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea to use one openly, unless one wanted to attract some ominously heavy-breathing attention. And for historical and nostalgic reasons any lightsaber would have an enormous collectible value, though few could command the price of the lightsaber wielded by both Skywalkers.

Small, easy to conceal, and nearly priceless, lightsabers would be a favourite cargo of smugglers and pirates. I wouldn’t be surprised if Han Solo ferried a few of them in his career. Several of them might well have passed through Maz Kanata’s hands before the Skywalker blade turned up. But you’d think she’d have tighter security on such a valuable item. It’s like any scavenger could just waltz in and touch it …

Pontiac and Ottawa Valley Writers Circle

The Pontiac and Ottawa Valley Writers Circle, a new group for fiction writers in my neck of the woods, is having its inaugural meeting next month in Portage-du-Fort. It seems a bit excessively structured for a group that’s just getting started, but is probably something I ought to check out — assuming they’re open to speculative fiction writers, that is. Coverage in The Daily Observer.

Party Databases and Privacy

I’ve been concerned about the privacy implications of party databases for some time now: political parties are exempt from privacy legislation like PIPEDA, and as far as I’m aware there are no real limits on what data they can collect on voters and how it can be used. As Susan Delacourt notes on iPolitics,

because political parties are neither entirely private nor public institutions, they fall into a grey area when it comes to privacy protection — and those databases, as the outgoing Chief Electoral Officer put it, are operating in the “Wild West” of privacy laws.

The lack of a firewall between party and government bothers me even more: contacting your MP, which is something every engaged citizen ought to do, is a good way to get your details entered into a party database, and during my ministerial correspondence years I handled a number of letters forwarded by the Harper PMO to our department for a response that were tagged with the Conservatives’ party database, CIMS.

But now it looks like party databases are finally getting some overdue scrutiny, with a House of Commons committee set to explore whether there should be rules on how parties collect and use data.

It’ll be interesting to see what comes of it. At a minimum, I’d like it if I had the right to see exactly what data the political parties keep on me. That ought to go some way toward keeping the parties in line.

John Scalzi’s Miniatures

I’ve been expecting a short story collection from John Scalzi for some time now: it’s the sort of thing one periodically sees from science fiction writers, once their novel-writing careers are established enough to warrant one. But Miniatures: The Very Short Fiction of John Scalzi (Subterranean, Dec. 2016), his first collection of short stories (apart from the linked collections The Human Division and The End of All Things) is not that collection. Miniatures has a specific remit: it focuses on Scalzi’s short fiction at its shortest, its funniest, and (you might say) its scalziest.

Scalzi’s past career in the newspaper biz trained him to write short and make your point fast: the average length of these 18 stories is 1,310 words. Most of them adopt the form of interviews, memoranda, transcripts, or other non-typical narrative styles — there are even two tweetstorms — which I heartily approve of on general principle, but is almost essential when dealing in super-short lengths.

And they’re also appropriate when you’re writing humour. Because, make no mistake, there are some very funny pieces here. Laugh-out-loud funny. In another context I called Scalzi quite possibly the best humorist working in science fiction today, and these pieces do little to disprove that thesis. (Though I should warn you that there is a cat-story-from-a-cat’s POV in here.) If anything his humour works better at short lengths; when he does it at novel length it runs the risk of tedium. As Scalzi says in the introduction, “If drama is a marathon, humor is a sprint. Get in, make ’em laugh, get out.”

The entire book is about the length of a novella, and will afford a pleasantly diverting afternoon’s worth of reading. His longer short stories are generally available online or as individual ebooks; whether those stories will also be collected remains to be seen.

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Ted Chiang in The New Yorker

What I like most about Arrival (which, believe it or not, I still haven’t managed to see) is that it’s stimulating interest in Ted Chiang’s work. People who haven’t read him are in for a real treat. (The book you want is Stories of Your Life and Others.) Now Chiang has gotten that rare thing for a science fiction writer: a profile in The New Yorker, in which his legendary reticence — he’s laconic to the point of monosyllaby — is on full display. (I’ve met him: he’s like that in real life.)