Jonathan Crowe

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

Instances of Head-Switching

Book cover: Instances of Head-SwitchingMy review of Teresa Milbrodt’s new short-story collection, Instances of Head-Switching (Shade Mountain Press, 2020) is now online at Strange Horizons. This is my first review for Strange Horizons, which incidentally is running its annual fund drive this month. They acknowledge that trying to raise funds at a time like this is a hell of an ask, but it’s donations that keep their lights on and pay their contributors (like me), so if you’re able and inclined, please check out their Kickstarter.

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The Possible Origins of My Surname

My family history is patchy, especially on the Crowe side. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland identifies two regional loci of the Crowe surname: one in an axis from Norfolk to London, the other apparently emanating from the Isle of Man and found in nearby Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Northumbria. I believe my great-great-grandfather came to Canada from London, so I’m probably from the Norfolk-to-London group. The Dictionary says that surname derives from “Middle English crou, crowe ‘crow’ (Old English crāwe), denoting someone with dark hair or a dark complexion, or perhaps a raucous individual.” The Manx surname is said to derive from “Mac Conchrada ‘son of Cú-chrada’, a personal name meaning ‘hound of destruction’”—which sounds just a bit too badass to be true.

About the iOS Family Sharing Bug

On Friday Jennifer discovered that she could no longer run Facebook on her iPhone; the app gave an error message telling her that “This app is no longer shared with you.” This bug appears to be widespread if not ragingly common; the working theory (given the error message) is that a bug in Family Sharing is to blame. Deleting and reinstalling the misbehaving app solves the problem, but as AppleInsider points out, that might lose you your data: offloading the app (under Settings > General > iPhone Storage), rather than deleting it, is the better option. Update: TechCrunch reports that Apple has fixed the bug.

Fountain Pen Nib Size Charts

Fountain pen nibs come in fine, medium and other sizes, but there’s no standard definition for those terms. A Japanese nib is usually a size finer than its European equivalent, for example, but there are exceptions all over the place. There are guides to a nib’s tipping size—the actual writing surface, measured in tenths of a millimetre—from Pen Chalet and Nibs.com, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story. According to Pen Chalet, a TWSBI medium nib has the same tipping size as a Pilot medium, but my TWSBI Eco writes much thicker than my Pilot Metropolitan. The TWSBI nib might be wetter, and the ink might be too. And at the moment my Eco is loaded with a quick-drying ink that feathers a little on good paper. So it seems that there are other factors at play. I’ll figure them out as I go.

Garter Snakes Prefer the Company of Their Friends

Eastern Garter Snakes, Shawville QC, April 2018.A recent study exploring social behaviour in Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) found that snakes “actively seek social interaction, prefer to remain with larger aggregates, and associate nonrandomly with specific individuals or groups.” In other words, they had preferences as to who they hung out with. “The snakes’ social networks were perturbed twice a day by ‘shuffling’ their locations. Despite these disturbances, the snakes eventually re-formed their preferred social environment.” This isn’t the first time snakes’ social preferences have been documented. And it’s no surprise to me that garter snakes also exhibit this sort of behaviour: I’ve observed that captive garter snakes do much better when kept in groups, and they aggregate all the time in the wild. [Science]

John Scalzi’s Interdependency Novels in One Chart

Graph: Number of Times the Word ‘Fuck‘ (or a Variant Thereof) Was Used in John Scalzi’s Interdependency Novels

Those of you who’ve read this series—The Last Emperox came out this week, in case you missed it—know exactly what I’m referring to here. I mean, we could break it down by character, but really, what would be the point in that?

Using Fountain Pens When You’re Left Handed

Ana Reinert’s Fountain Pen Guide for the Left-handed Writer and Goulet Pens’s Fountain Pens for Lefties set out some of the challenges faced by left-handed fountain pen users like me. Mostly the challenges involve having to push the nib across the page rather than pull it, and smudging your writing with your hand before the ink has time to dry. For my part I’ve had trouble with fine nibs scratching the page, and with smudging ink (particularly on Clairefontaine Triomphe pads; I suspect I’ll have the same trouble with Rhodia, but I haven’t broken into my stash of that stuff yet). Options include avoiding flex and stub nibs and using fast-drying inks. And some pens just work better: the medium-nib Pilot Metropolitan I use right now is the best pen I’ve ever written with.

Taking Facebook Quizzes Is a Bad Idea

From January, but all the more relevant now that more people are at home, bored and wasting time on social media: Why taking Facebook quizzes are a bad idea. The quizzes ask questions—like the name of your first pet, the city of your birth or the month of your birth—that are often used as security questions for bank accounts. No single quiz asks for enough information to do it, but you might be giving criminals enough information across multiple quizzes to hack your account. After all, you don’t know who’s behind these quizzes, but they know who you are—because you’re using your Facebook account!

Star Maps Reviewed

New book review! I review the third edition of Nick Kanas’s Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (Springer Praxis, 2019) in the March 2020 issue of Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society. The issue is now available for download (PDF), as are earlier issues of Calafia.

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The Elements of Cat Vacuuming


Vacuuming a cat requires only one thing: a cat with zero fucks to give. A cat that stands their ground when other cats scatter to the wind. A cat that cannot be yelled at to get down from there. A cat that ignores what he chooses to ignore. A cat that stands athwart. A cat like that will not run when the vacuum cleaner comes out. A cat like that will sit there and dare you to vacuum them. And then not care if you do. Because running away and giving a damn is just too much work. (Also, they might actually enjoy it, but would prefer it if you didn’t tell anyone.)

Goober has always been a cat you could vacuum. That’s because Goober is serene in his own domain: he is only afraid if he gets outside, or is moved into a new home, or goes to the vet. I’m sad to report that he is now in decline: he’s lost a lot of weight and is looking shakier all the time. He turns 16 this month, and we’re not sure how much longer we’ll have him. But he’ll still gouge your knees if you don’t pick him up, and grab your plate away from you if he wants your food—and yes, he won’t budge if you bring out the vacuum.

He’d probably still punch a dog, if a dog were available for him to punch.

An Argument Against Using mtDNA to Define Species

Reptile taxonomy has been upended in recent decades by studies that use mitochondrial DNA—and only mtDNA—to reorganize and subdivide existing species into new groups. In a point-of-view piece for Herpetological Review exploring the usefulness and validity of subspecies as a concept, David Hillis argues against this practice, pointing to a mismatch between mtDNA and intergradation zones, and new studies looking at nuclear gene flow that disagree with mtDNA findings, thanks to which taxonomic changes based on mtDNA are beginning to be reversed. [Andrew DuBois]

Canon Is Ruining How We Enjoy Movies and Television

io9’s James Whitbrook argues that our obsession with canon—whether a story is an “official” part of a fictional universe—is ruining our ability to enjoy stories, because it values factoids and trivia over storytelling. “It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details.” True that. (I also think people obsess about canon because, deep down, some part of them believes their fictional universe is real: it’s why they freak out when a show breaks established canon.)

Books Read: 1Q 2020

  1. The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson (1954). Influential epic fantasy published the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, so it’s a Norse-based fantasy that isn’t Tolkien-derivative. Less good at vatic speech than JRRT: it contains 38 uses of the word “quoth”; it feels like more.
  2. Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd ed.) by Octavia E. Butler (2005). Science fiction short story collection. My first experience of Butler, who’s better known at novel length, so I can’t say what’s indicative or emblematic, especially since it’s also a very short collection.
  3. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley (2019). Science fiction novel; future soldiers experience time-shifts as their teleportation technology goes awry. Breathtaking, grunt-level, visceral mix of Slaughterhouse-Five and The Forever War. Recommended.
  4. The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau (2016). Book explaining the conversation codes and rituals in French society. (Speaking the language isn’t enough: I know this from experience.)
  5. The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez (2016). Short story collection, a mix of genres from science fiction to fantasy to mainstream. Enjoyed very much; recommended.
  6. Dough: Simple Contemporary Bread by Richard Bertinet (2005). Another TV cookbook; ongoing research into breadmaking.
  7. Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016). Science fiction doesn’t do politics well, especially democratic politics on a global level: far too many emperors and dictators for my liking. Infomocracy imagines a world-level electoral system; the plot stress-tests the system to the point of failure.
  8. Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (3rd ed.) by Nick Kanas (2019). Reviewed for Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society. Link forthcoming.
  9. Scores: Reviews 1993-2003 by John Clute (2003). Collection of reviews and critical essays.
  10. Instances of Head-Switching by Teresa Milbrodt (2020, forthcoming). Review in production.
  11. Bearded Women: Stories by Teresa Milbrodt (2011). The inner lives and struggles of circus freaks, who are treated with sensitivity and humanity. Read as background for the above review.
  12. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019). Mexican flapper-era road trip novel in which a poor relation is forced to team up with a trapped Mayan god. Very neat; recommended.
  13. On the Road with Gardner Dozois: Travel Narratives 1995-2000 by Gardner Dozois (2019). Dozois bookended convention appearances with vacations, about which he wrote up trip reports. Some moments, but pedestrian overall.
  14. The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken (2019). Second of a series of quantum-entangled space opera capers set in a universe controlled by Quebeckers from Venus, this one involving time travel. Fun; has symptoms of being a middle book.
  15. Lent by Jo Walton (2019). In real life, Ficino suggested that Savonarola was possessed by a demon; Jo runs with this idea in Lent, a fantasy novel that is basically the Renaissance Florence version of Groundhog Day—which should be enough to tell you whether this book is for you.

The CRA Has Not Forgotten Us Luddites

About 90 percent of Canadian taxpayers file their income tax returns electronically, but the Canada Revenue Agency would like to remind the remaining holdouts that filing your taxes by paper is just fine by them. Though it’s a bit harder to lay hands on a paper tax package: they’re available at fewer locations (i.e., no longer at the post office), or you can order one, or print one out. People who filed by paper last year will get their tax packages mailed to them, which I can confirm: despite living on the technological edge most of the time, I still do ours by paper for reasons I can’t quite explain or justify.

Stamps from Countries That Don’t Exist

Atlas Obscura looks at stamps from countries that don’t exist—micronations and other fictitious entities issue stamps in an attempt to confer legitimacy on themselves—and the fun of collecting them, by interviewing Laura Steward, who curated an exhibition of such stamps at a New York art fair last month.

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