Jonathan Crowe

Book reviewer, cat photographer, fanzine editor, map blogger, snake whisperer.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet

The trailer for the next season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (“The Gauntlet”) dropped yesterday, and now we know which movies they’ll be mocking. Some titles seem awfully familiar, and immediately draw attention. And by “attention” I mean “cold sweats, tremors and screaming.”

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The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea

My first post for Tor.com—by the way, that’s now a thing—is now live. “The Dúnedain and the Deep Blue Sea: On Númenórean Navigation” discusses something that’s always bothered me about the Tolkien legendarium. In The Silmarillion, the Men of Númenor are described as “mariners whose like shall never be again since the world was diminished.” But in Tolkien’s world, the world was diminished by making it round: those Númenórean mariners were sailing the seas of a flat earth. Most of our navigational methods wouldn’t work on a flat earth, so how did they navigate? In this article I actually try to answer that question; it turns out the question is answerable. I think.

This is either incredibly pedantic or delightfully geeky. You get to decide which.

Featured image: “Mithlond” by Jordy Lakiere.

Party Like It’s 2004

In 2005, two products I used heavily were sold to new owners: the photo hosting service Flickr was sold to Yahoo, and the Mac RSS reader app NetNewswire was sold to NewsGator. Those decisions turned out to be pivotal, and not necessarily to the good; and this year they’re in the process of being undone.

Flickr didn’t exactly reach its full potential under its new owners, Yahoo not being one of the competently run tech giants, and for many years it languished, falling behind its competitors as its parent company died a slow death. Verizon acquired Yahoo last year, and in April of this year SmugMug bought Flickr from Verizon’s Oath subsidiary. Today SmugMug announced some changes to Flickr. Most controversially, the one terabyte of free storage announced in 2013 is coming to an end, and free users are limited to 1,000 photos. This is not a surprise: SmugMug is a small but profitable private company that has never taken VC funding, and they’re not interested in offering a free service to everyone in order to get their personal data; they want to sell services to customers, not customers to advertisers. Which in 2018 is refreshing. Also, they’re small and privately held: they can’t run at a loss. In some ways this is a retreat: they’re not going to even try to compete with the social media networks. But I suspect it’ll make for a better experience, at least for those who pay $50 a year for it, or have fewer than 1,000 photos. Not everything has to scale.

As for NetNewsWire, its development also languished for a while, as ownership passed from NewsGator to Black Pixel in 2011. At a point where most people were consuming RSS feeds via online readers like Google Reader, a desktop app—especially one you paid for—was almost an anachronism, though NetNewsWire always had healthy numbers in my feed stats. (How much of that was myself, though?) RSS itself, however, withered on the vine, as users started getting their news from social media sites rather than newsreader apps or portal pages (a lot of my RSS traffic came from Yahoo, oddly enough), and especially after Google Reader was shut down in 2013.

Version 4 of NetNewswire eventually came out in 2015. It was a commercial product, and I paid for it. But since then it’s been getting increasingly crufty. It keeps unread articles long past the point they disappeared from their RSS feeds, to the point that I now have something like 175,000 unread articles. As you might expect, even on my quad-core 5K iMac, this has an impact on performance: the app regularly pegs a processor core, and the spinning pinwheel of death is a frequent visitor. Whereas the original NetNewsWire was quick and snappy on a G3 iBook. It’s frustrating.

At the end of August, Black Pixel ended support for NetNewsWire sync and transferred the name and intellectual property to Brent Simmons, the original developer of said quick and snappy first version, who is releasing a new version 5.0 of NetNewsWire as a free and open-source app. You can download an early build today: it is, in Brent’s words, “not even alpha” and “barely useable”; it lacks some of the most basic of features (you can’t even drag a feed from one folder to another). But it’s so fast and responsive, compared to NetNewsWire 4.1, that I’ve already switched to it. It may be barely useable, but it at least it doesn’t freeze my computer.

So at least with these two services we’ve come full circle: small, functional and cruft-free services that predated the VC-fed ramp-up to rapacious data collection, invasive advertising and social-media dysfunction are, in the end, still ticking along, and able to find a home in more modest surroundings. They’re living fossils that come from an Internet that was smaller, less resource-intensive and more private. In many ways I miss that Internet.

Head On

Book cover: Head OnDespite the title, the sport of hilketa—in which robots piloted by humans try to remove each other’s heads—is not the most interesting part of John Scalzi’s Head On (Tor, April 2018).

Like its predecessor, Lock In (Tor, August 2014), Head On is set in a world where millions of people have a condition called Haden’s syndrome, where they are awake and aware but locked into their bodies. Hadens log into robot avatars called “threeps” (because, yes, they resemble C-3PO) to interact with the non-Haden world. But rather than make the disease and the solution the central focus of this series, Scalzi treats them as background, tucking them away in a prequel novella, “Unlocked.” What he does instead is, to me, much more interesting: he focuses on the knock-on effects of the solution to the epidemic.

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Books Read: August-September 2018

  1. The Wizard and the Prophet by Charles C. Mann. Uses Norman Borlaug and William Vogt as archetypes of two diametrically opposed approaches to solving global problems like hunger, energy and climate change: essentially, innovate versus reduce. Engrossing synthesis and a tour de force of even-handedness.
  2. The Million by Karl Schroeder. Novella set in the same universe as Lockstep. Review forthcoming.
  3. Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber. An expansion of his 2013 essay, “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs”; explores why a capitalist society ostensibly obsessed with efficiency and productivity would produce jobs that for all intents serve no purpose and should not exist, and the inverse relationship between usefulness and compensation.
  4. The Lost Art of Finding Our Way by John Edward Huth. A look at how we navigated before GPS came along. Review forthcoming.
  5. Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring by Alexander Rose. A history of espionage activities around New York during the Revolutionary War, focusing on the Culper Ring. Fun fact: Abraham Woodhull is a relative of mine (he was my 4×-great-grandfather’s second cousin) so this is family history, as is the TV series based on it.

Upcoming Convention Appearances

This year the entirety of my science fiction convention activity takes place on two consecutive weekends in October.

First up, Scintillation, which takes place in Montreal from October 5 to 7. It’s the successor to Jo Walton’s Farthing Party. If you didn’t back the Kickstarter campaign that resurrected it, sorry: there’s no room left for last-minute attendees. But if you are going to be there, I’ll have a small role on the program on Saturday the 6th at noon, when Caroline-Isabelle Caron, Gillian Speace, Tom Womack and I will talk about the stories included in The Scintillation Collection, which was sent to Kickstarter backers at the end of last year. (Again, if you weren’t a backer, sorry.)

The following weekend I’ll be at Can-Con, which you can still register for. I’ll be around for the duration of the convention, but my panel appearances will take place on Sunday. First up at 10:00 AM: Book-Clubbing Foreign Works of SF Translated into English, with me, Costi Gurgu, Su J. Sokol and Tamara Vardomskaya. Su’s the moderator, and she’s chosen the following stories for us to discuss:

  • Taklamakan Misdelivery” by Bae Myung-hoon, translated from the Korean by Sung Ryu. Asymptote, April 2018.
  • Catching Dogs with Dogs” by Rob van Essen, translated from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman. 2.3.74, March 2018.
  • Under the Spinodal Curve” by Hanuš Seiner, translated from the Czech by Julie Novakova. Tor.com, March 28, 2018.
  • The Mauve Planet” by Safia Ketou, translated from the French by Nadia Ghanem. ArabLit, August 13, 2018.

Now you can read them too, so you’ll know what we’re talking about.

Next, You Should Have Read This in 2018, our annual look at the notable books that have been published in the past year. I’m the moderator this time, and this time I’m joined by Kate Heartfield, Bradley Horner and Michael Johnstone. This takes place at 1:00 PM, at which point we will all be tired and incoherent, especially those of us who’ve done two conventions back-to-back, so that should make for quite the show.

It would be a pity if you missed that.

Quebec Election 2018: Pontiac Candidates

Every election, I try to take a look at what’s happening in my own constituency. For the 2018 Quebec provincial election now underway, that constituency is Pontiac, which takes up the Pontiac MRC, the Municipality of Pontiac, and most of the Aylmer sector of Gatineau.

While on the provincial level this election promises to be one of the most interesting we’ve had in decades, the outcome in my constituency is almost certainly a foregone conclusion. Pontiac concentrates most of the Outaouais’s anglophone population and as a result is one of the safest Liberal seats off the island of Montréal.

Pontiac constituency results by percentage, 1981-2014

The only time the Liberals got less than 50 percent of the vote in the last 40 years was in 1989, when Mark Alexander of the Unity Party1 took 30.6 percent of the vote. A Liberal candidate losing here would signal a province-wide electoral wipeout.

That being said, here are the candidates I’ve been able to find out about. A new twist this time: candidates for the provincial NDP and the provincial Conservative Party, both newly established (or re-established, if you like).

  • Roger Fleury (Green), an activist;
  • André Fortin (Liberal), the incumbent MNA and minister of transport;
  • Samuel Gendron (NDP), about whom no information as yet;
  • Olive Kamanyana (Coalition Avenir Québec), a federal civil servant with a fairly impressive résumé, and the only candidate likely to provide Fortin with any real competition;
  • Louis Lang (Marxist-Leninist), perennial candidate;2
  • Marie-Claude Nivolon (Parti Québécois), a longtime party activist from Châteauguay who looks to be a poteau or paper candidate;3
  • Kenny Roy (Conservative), a construction worker; and
  • Julia Wilkie (Québec Solidaire), a student.

The election takes place on Monday, October 1.

Spring Peeper

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. With fewer than 100 individuals believed to exist in the wild, the Lake Pátzcuaro Salamander (Ambystoma dumerilii) or achoque, found only in and around Lake Pátzcuaro in Michoacán, Mexico, is critically endangered. They’re getting help from an unusual corner: Dominican nuns at a nearby convent, who for the past 150 years have been raising the salamanders in captivity. (They use them to make a “mysterious” medicine: a cough syrup called jarabe.) See this long and fascinating read in the New York Times, which is accompanied by first-rate photography.
  2. A biologist is warning that Okanagan populations of the Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus) are 100 years from extinction. The snake is at the northern limits of its range, and it’s down to between 1,500 and 2,500 individuals. It’s listed as a threatened species. There are populations in more trouble, and sooner (see above), but this is worth keeping an eye on.
  3. Male rattlesnakes engage in ritual combat during mating season. Here’s video of a pair of male Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) getting fighty with each other. Here’s another video from California, species unidentified.
  4. A beautiful essay by Laura Marjorie Miller on the controversial plan to reintroduce the Timber Rattlesnake to an island in the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts, which I’ve mentioned in previous roundups.
  5. Where do snake-handling cults get their snakes? As The State discovered, South Carolina. Thanks to the lack of restrictions on the sale of venomous snakes, snake-handling preachers from other states regularly buy their snakes at reptile shows.
  6. CityLab takes a look at Isha Serpent, a volunteer snake rescue group in Madhurai, India; the snakes being rescued include spectacled cobras, kraits, and Russell’s and saw-scaled vipers. The group’s been active since 2009 and has relocated more than 2,000 snakes—with, they claim, no envenomations.
  7. A new study suggests that cats have a significant impact on reptile populations: in a field experiment, cats were removed from six 64-hectare plots; over a two-year period, reptile populations rebounded significantly in those areas. [Biological Conservation]
  8. A fossil snake embryo or neonate from the late Cretaceous has been found preserved in amber in Myanmar. [Science Advances]
  9. One of the most common questions people like me get from strangers: how do I snake-proof my yard? Here’s a comprehensive answer: I think I’ll point people to it from now on.
  10. Last month the Herpetologists’ League gave Richard Vogt the Distinguished Herpetologist award. Vogt, who made the significant discovery that incubation temperature can determine a turtle’s sex, proceeded to pepper his plenary lecture with photos, some of which were “censored” with coloured boxes, of his scantily clad students. (Research on aquatic reptiles often involves swimwear, but Vogt was apparently, and regularly, gratuitous.) Stories soon followed about Vogt, who appears to be someone female herpetologists have to warn one another about. News coverage in the #metoo era—local from the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, national from the New York Times—was inevitable. Vogt’s award was rescinded, the League’s president has resigned, there was much huffing and puffing from one former league president on Vogt’s behalf (and presumably others), and the League’s new president is taking a tough line on harassment and misconduct. A code of conduct is in the works.

Question I’ve answered on Quora recently:

Featured image: Spring Peeper (Pseudacris crucifer) found on our property on August 10, 2018.

Mastodon Is the Dreamwidth of Twitter

Here we go again. Twitter is once again being awful and clueless—to the point of paralysis—about it now being the last safe harbour for online harassers, trolls, Nazis and other bad actors, and a good chunk of its user base is sufficiently fed up about it to threaten a mass walkout.

But walking away from Twitter is difficult, because social media is pervasive and addictive for a reason: it solves a problem. Human beings crave connection, and social media makes connections practically frictionless. Problem is, it’s pretty damn hard for users to connect when they’re subjected to torrents of abuse and harassment by bad actors, especially when Twitter not only refuses to deal with said bad actors, but seems to think that the existence of abuse and harassment is a feature rather than a bug.

Okay, so what about switching to another social media platform, one that doesn’t seem quite so keen on deep-throating Nazis? Apart from the questionable logic that the solution to social media problems is even more social media, other platforms are either problematic in their own right (Facebook), irrelevant (Google+, Tumblr, the new social platform of the week that gets the same few early adopters at launch, such as Ello or Vero), or Instagram.

And then there’s Mastodon, a decentralized, open-source and surprisingly well-designed alternative to Twitter that has measures to combat toxic behaviour built into its design. I’m on Mastodon. I like it. But in the same way that Dreamwidth is not the solution to LiveJournal, Mastodon is not the solution to Twitter.1

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A few years ago, frustrated at the time and emotional overhead required to moderate their comments sections, bloggers began moving away from having comments at the bottom of their blog posts. The point of blogging, the logic went, was writing; dealing with spam and bad behaviour was outside the remit, especially when the noise exceeded the signal and comment spam hammered web servers to the point of shutdown.

The net effect of that was that commenting—that conversation—moved to social media. Not that it wasn’t already happening. But while it made sense at the time, in hindsight leaving reader feedback to the various toxic hellscapes looks more and more like a mistake.

Suddenly having the ability to host, moderate and curate comments makes sense again. And since I upgraded my hosting a while back and (for the moment at least) have CPU cycles and RAM to spare, I’m going to give it a try here again. So, starting now, comments will be open on new posts. They will be subject to spam filtering and moderation, and will close after 14 days.

To be honest I don’t expect to have that many regular commenters, but occasionally I write something that goes viral, and I think there’s some value in having at least some of the discussion that follows take place here rather than elsewhere.

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