Jonathan Crowe

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

‘You Have Eaten the PLUMS.’

Gotta Eat the Plums! “You are seminal American modernist poet WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS. It is late at night and you are HUNGRY. Investigate the KITCHEN for something to EAT.”

MEC Sold to Private Investment Firm

I am substantially bummed by the news that Mountain Equipment Co-op is under credit protection and has agreed to be acquired by a U.S.-based private investment firm. The firm has agreed to keep at least 17 of MEC’s 22 stores open, but MEC as we know it will be no more: it will be a privately held company, not a cooperative—another retail institution to disappear into the maw of private equity. I’ve been a member for decades and have had a lot of affection for the joint, even if I haven’t been buying as many things there lately as I have in the past. (Which might be the problem, if I’m not alone in that.)

Late Summer Mushrooms

We’re adjacent to a living forest, so finding mushrooms on our property is a fairly common occurrence. Less so in dry years, and until late in the summer this was a dry year, to the point that I was making note of the fungi’s conspicuous absence in correspondence. Once the skies opened up, though, it was only a matter of time before the various fungal fruiting bodies made an appearance, as you can see in the gallery above.

I really need to get a field guide: the only mushrooms I can identify are the shaggy manes. Anyone able to ID any of these?

Looking for Carbon Dioxide Sensors

I’ve been looking for smart carbon dioxide sensors, particularly sensors compatible with Apple’s HomeKit, but they seem to be fairly scarce on the ground (at least compared to carbon monoxide sensors). So far what I’ve been able to find is bundled with a lot of other sensors. Netatmo’s Weather Station has an outdoor module and up to three indoor modules: the indoor module includes a CO2 sensor. The Airthings Wave Plus includes CO2 as one of a half-dozen things it detects (it’s primarily a radon detector: the rest are kind of thrown in). It’s only HomeKit-compatible via a Homebridge plugin, but that’s a viable option: I’ve got a Raspberry Pi I can install Homebridge on. Problem is, neither is particularly cheap, nor remotely as cheap as a standalone sensor would have been.

Snake by Erica Wright

Snake (cover)

There are something like ninety books about reptiles and amphibians on my shelves, which I’ve accumulated over the past two decades. Almost all of them put the author’s expertise on the subject front and centre: these are books by hobbyists who have raised generations of reptiles in captivity, field naturalists with decades of experience finding them in the wild, or herpetologists with deep CVs and institutional authority. Credentials, in this field, matter. What, then, to make of Erica Wright’s Snake, out today from Bloomsbury, a slim volume from someone with no experience with them whatsoever?

Wright writes crime novels and poetry, edits a literary journal and teaches writing: not the profile of someone who writes a book of short essays on snakes. But she has gone and done that very thing. Snake, part of the Object Lessons series of short books “about the hidden lives of ordinary things,” is possibly the most different of all the books about snakes I have ever read, simply because she does not fit that profile. Snake is by someone who was wary if not afraid of them as a child, but came to them as an adult.

The COVID Alert App and Privacy Panic

COVID Alert app

We’ve both installed the COVID Alert app, even though it’s not fully functional in our province (so far it’s just Ontario). We can’t report a COVID diagnosis, but we can get notified if someone from Ontario we’ve come into contact with does report a positive COVID test result. Since we live near the Ontario-Quebec border, and sometimes have to cross into Ontario for errands and such, there’s already some value in installing it.

The app is available on the Apple App Store and on Google Play.

It can’t run on older phones (on the Apple side, older than an iPhone 6S or first-gen SE) because of hardware limitations, I believe. It makes use of the Apple/Google API, which has strong privacy protections: the only things it shares with the server or with other phones are anonymous tokens. The privacy protections are such that Michael Geist is comfortable installing it, which is something.

It’s in that context that I have to look really sideways at a CBC article that suggests that some people could be identified by the COVID Alert app.

The Rise and Fall of Pandemic Baking

There was a point during the lockdown where it seemed like sourdough culture was propagating faster than SARS-CoV-2, and you couldn’t find yeast or flour on the shelves for love nor money. (We had to go through a restaurant.) That seems to have abated now. The Cut explores the rise—and fall—of pandemic baking. “The height of sourdough mania crested before Memorial Day, when one national emergency—the COVID-19 pandemic—was met by another, the police brutality and systemic racism brought to the fore by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The privileged lifestyle cosiness of home baking then seemed a pale crutch. The Instagrammed loaves disappeared. The mood is more urgent now; those stuck at home have forcefully, passionately wrenched themselves unstuck. Sourdough can’t save a nation, and it can’t distract it indefinitely, either.”

The Rise of the 28-Day Weather Forecast

Most long-term weather forecasts cover no more than seven to ten days; the further ahead into the future they look, the less accurate they are. But thanks to increasingly powerful supercomputers (forecasts are based on computer modelling), meteorologists are developing “subseasonal” weather forecasts that look as far as four weeks into the future. They rely on different factors than normal forecasts—ocean temperature and currents, soil conditions, global climate phenomena—and they do have some limitations: so much processing power is required that these forecasts are much less granular.

Cronk Is the Drink

Paul Fairie recently stumbled across bizarre advertisements for a drink called Cronk in an 1883 issue of the Calgary Herald. (“Cronk. Buy Cronk. Cronk is the drink.”) The rabbit hole that opened up in the wake of that discovery is summarized in his 16-minute video above, which tries to reconstruct the history of Cronk: what was it, what were its ingredients, who invented it, and how did those weirdo ads end up in the Calgary Herald? (More from CBC News.)

Secrets of Snakes

Secrets of Snakes (cover)

This is a rule: anyone with any kind of web presence regarding snakes will be contacted by dozens of strangers asking for advice. How to identify snakes (and this snake in particular), how to keep snakes away from their property, how to take care of a pet snake. I launched my website about garter snakes in 2004, and of course I talk about snakes here, and for the last decade and a half or so I’ve been receiving, on average, one to three emails a week from people with questions like these.

Sometimes answering these questions is relatively simple (“yes, that sure does look like a garter snake”). On other occasions I find myself well above my pay grade. The problem is that I’m an amateur enthusiast. One who’s been messing around with snakes for forty years, to be sure, but an amateur all the same. I have no credentials (I’m a historian, not a biologist). And yet, just because I have a website about snakes, I’m repeatedly called upon to offer advice on how to snake-proof a basement, or build a hibernaculum, or identify snakes I’ve never encountered from parts of North America I’ve never been to. I try to be helpful as a general rule, but I’m getting increasingly nervous about getting things wrong.1

Books Read: 2Q 2020

  1. Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux (2018). Collection of essays: celebrity profiles, book introductions, memoirs, travel pieces. More substantial than you might expect—especially the celebrity profiles.
  2. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966). Classic science fiction novel, an early example of linguistics-based sf inspired by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Short, evocative, picturesque.
  3. The Last Emperox by John Scalzi (2020). Final novel in the Interdependency series; wraps up loose threads in a manner that is twisty of plot and sweary of diction.
  4. Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968). Another picturesque classic science fiction novel, a strange admixture of space travel, vengeance and tarot.
  5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937). Reread for an online discussion.
  6. Snake by Erica Wright (2020, forthcoming). Part of the Object Lessons series. Review in production. Reviewed here.
  7. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier (2002). Based on her Ph.D. dissertation; a look at the history of the science fiction field’s girl-cooties problem.
  8. The Art of Star Wars Rebels by Daniel Wallace (2020). Art book that takes us behind the scenes of my favourite Star Wars series. Not quite enough of the behind-the-scenes; it’s more a visual encyclopedia.
  9. Secrets of Snakes: The Science Beyond the Myths by David A. Steen (2019). Short and useful guide debunking popular myths about snakes, which is something I’ve had to do a lot of as well. A review is probably coming. Reviewed here.
  10. The Field Herping Guide: Finding Amphibians and Reptiles in the Wild by Mike Pingleton and Joshua Holbrook (2019). It’s not just about how to find reptiles and amphibians in the field, it’s about ethics and responsible behaviour: possibly the first book of its kind to deal with those issues.
  11. The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (2013). Enigmatic travel novel about a post-Soviet Ruritania, with all of late Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses.
  12. American Snakes by Sean P. Graham (2018). Reviewed here.

American Snakes

While reading Sean P. Graham’s American Snakes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), I suddenly realized that most of the snake books in my library are now at least a generation old. That’s a function of my buying most of them in a burst of enthusiasm around 20 years ago. It was easy for me to assume that I’d read everything there was to read at the subject, at least at the level at which I was capable of reading (any further, and I’d have to take a degree in the subject). But herpetology has not stood still in the ensuing decades: there have been new studies, and new discoveries—and new people doing it. Graham, an assistant professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, is very much a member of a new generation of herpetologists, and American Snakes very much reflects that fact.

Telescope Wars

A class-action antitrust lawsuit has been filed against telescope companies Celestron and Sky-Watcher, alleging price-fixing by their parent company, Synta, with its ostensible competitor, Ningbo Sunny, which owns Meade. Together Synta and Ningbo Sunny sell 80 percent of all telescopes in the United States, and the suit alleges that the companies agreed to avoid competing with each other, leaving one or the other company alone in a given market segment; see the court filing. None of the claims has been proven in court. Meade has already lost a lawsuit alleging price fixing and collusion brought by competitor Orion Telescopes, in which Orion was awarded more than $50 million in damages; Meade filed for bankruptcy. This new lawsuit draws on court documents from the Orion case.

An Analysis of Fountain Pen Ink Reviews

Adam Santone did a quantitative analysis of 15,000 customer reviews of 500 fountain pen inks sold on the Goulet Pen Company website. Those reviews rated inks by characteristics like drying time, flow, shading and water resistance, and Adam collated those ratings into useful comparative tables. There are some artifacts here and there—I don’t think Iroshizuku Syo-ro is supposed to be water-resistant—and different bottle sizes of the same ink have different entries, because reviews are by the SKU, but this will really help inform my ink buying in the future. [r/fountainpens]

Ghibli Week

Ghibli Week was Polygon’s week-long (25-30 May) look at Studio Ghibli, its relationship with Disney, and (of course) its movies, predicated by those movies finally becoming available digitally and via streaming services, making them more accessible than they’ve ever been. A lot of interesting, focused articles on the themes, influences and behind-the-scenes activities of these films.

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