Jonathan Crowe

Map blogger. Science fiction and fantasy critic and writer. Snake whisperer.

Many’s the time I’ve posted an announcement on social media only to discover that many of my friends simply didn’t see it. And many’s the time someone else made an announcement that I simply didn’t see. Blame it on the algorithm, blame it on the awful signal/noise ratio—social media is a lousy way to let people know what you’re up to.

Which is why, like seemingly half the writers on the internet, I’ve decided to launch a newsletter. If you’re interested in finding out when something I’ve written has been published, or when one of my projects launches, you should probably subscribe to avoid missing the news.

It will be occasional—probably no more than monthly, unless things get very busy—and decidedly low-tech. Emails in plain text, no formatting, no embedded images or scripts, no tracking pixels.

Mermaid Care: Story Notes

My first professionally published story, “Mermaid Care,” a flash piece with a creepy take on anthropomorphism and the exotic animal trade, can be found in the December 2021 issue of Mermaids Monthly—which is now officially available to the general public, both online and in the usual ebook formats.

It’s only 950 words long, so there’s really no reason why you shouldn’t go read it right now. Since I’m going to talk about the story’s origins and inspirations in this post, everything will make more sense if you’ve read the story first.

The Kim Stanley Robinson Moment

A profile of Kim Stanley Robinson in this week’s New Yorker, focusing on his recent novels about the challenges of climate change, and on his most recent, The Ministry for the Future, which has caught particular fire at this critical moment. “‘The Ministry for the Future’ gave me a sense of the space. It shows our prospects to be both imaginable and variable: we can still redraw the plans. Perhaps because the novel fills a vital narrative gap, it achieved an unusually wide readership. Barack Obama included it on his list of the best books of the year; the Times columnist Ezra Klein said that all policymakers should read it. Christiana Figueres, the U.N. diplomat who led the effort to create the Paris agreement, listened to the novel in her garden and wept.”

The King of Cheese

In Smithsonian magazine, Joshua Levine looks at the history and somewhat uncertain future of Roquefort cheese. “The king of cheese is in trouble. Over the past dozen years, sales of Roquefort cheese have fallen 15 percent, to 16,000 tons in 2020. The people who love it are growing ever grayer, and French parents are no longer bringing up their young to appreciate a taste that any normal child instinctively finds yucky (god knows, mine does). It takes training and persistence to overcome a natural human instinct to avoid food that, let’s face it, is spoiled, albeit in a tightly controlled and highly refined manner.” I have tried Roquefort a grand total of once: my sinuses have never since been so clear. It’s an experience, to be sure.

Reptile Outreach and the Pandemic

Among the businesses hardest hit by the pandemic are those that do reptile education and displays. In the Ottawa area, both Little Ray’s and Reptile Rainforest are running fundraisers to help them keep their doors open. (You can support them at those links.)

As I see it, the problem is (at least) twofold:

  1. Reptile education and outreach is fundamentally tactile. It cannot be done remotely: the whole point of the operation is to at least be in the same room as the scary beastie, if not touch it. I cannot stress enough the good that can be done, in terms of overcoming phobias and promoting wildlife conservation, by a friendly snake in a friendly environment.
  2. It’s a business with a lot of overhead: you have to feed, heat and house the animals regardless of whether you’re allowed to open to the public. Some of those animals can be very expensive to feed, heat and house—and let’s not even talk about vet bills. And at the scale of Little Ray’s, which I believe has something like 900 animals, those overhead costs add up to a substantial amount (on the other hand, Darren at Reptile Rainforest is a one-man operation).

It’s a very particular business model, in other words: one that doesn’t necessarily fall within the parameters of government supports, one that can’t pivot to remote/online, and one that can’t simply shut down and wait the pandemic out. Hence the problem.

A Musicwriter in Action

Further to last year’s post about music typewriters: Typewriter Muse posted a video last September demonstrating a Musicwriter—in this case, a converted R. C. Allen typewriter—in action. Now that I’ve seen one in operation, it seems less tricky to use than I thought it might be.

The Professionalization of Jeopardy

It might be time to retire Jeopardy, says Tom Nichols, himself a former Jeopardy champion. The ending of the rule that you had to retire after five wins has fundamentally changed the dynamics of the game. “It is no longer a show that celebrates the smarts of the average citizen; it is now a showcase for people who prep and practice, who enter the studio determined not to shine for a day or even a week but to beat the game itself.”

Burning Girls and Other Stories

My review of Veronica Schanoes’s Burning Girls and Other Stories (Tor.com, 2021) is now online at Strange Horizons. “What Schanoes is doing, in other words, is practicing a realist mode of fairy-tale storytelling, one that knows what the source material is about but grounds it in times and places appropriate to its themes.” Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

Meanwhile, at the start of every year Strange Horizons asks its reviewers to look back at what they’ve read, watched and played over the past year. Despite having read much less in 2021 than I have in every other year over the past decade, I managed to contribute a few paragraphs, which you can read in “2021 in Review: Part One.”

The Erasure of Black Women with Ankylosing Spondylitis

Stat’s Eric Boodman looks at how Black women with ankylosing spondylitis have been ignored and overlooked by the medical profession. Long considered a disease of young white men—when I was diagnosed at 25, I had what was seen as a typical case—AS has since been proven to be just as prevalent in women, and not just a white illness either. “Gibson sees it as a self-replicating hypothesis: AS is deemed rare in Black women, so doctors give it little weight as a possible diagnosis. It’s hard to include in research what hasn’t been diagnosed.”

Cameras at Cold Temperatures

Spencer Cox at Photography Life discusses some of the challenges of using cameras at cold temperatures: lenses fog up, batteries drain faster, and ice and condensation rarely go well with moving and electronic parts. Plus, it’s hard to work controls when you’ve got mittens on—unless, it seems, you’re using a retro camera with dials and buttons, like a Nikon Z fc.

Underweight and Long-lived

Ghost getting weighed in 2015

Ghost, our male albino checkered garter snake, was an inadvertent case study on whether caloric restriction correlates with longevity. He was never a particularly enthusiastic feeder, preferring smaller, less frequent meals: if you tried to feed him weekly or even biweekly, or a meal commensurate with his size, he’d be prone to refuse. Even by male garter snake standards he was underweight, and in recent years he looked positively gaunt. Fragile, even. Yet somehow he managed to live longer than any other garter snake in our care. When he died yesterday, he’d been with for more than 16 years: I got him in April 2005. And he wasn’t a baby then: I think he was born in 2003. Which would have made him 18½ or so when he finally went—older than Extrovert, our female wandering garter snake, who died in 2016 at the age of 17.

The Problem with Tree-Planting Campaigns

From last July: CityLab looks at the “darker side” of urban tree-planting initiatives. Simply planting a million trees—or, say, two billion—is not enough; those trees have to survive to maturity for their environmental benefits to be realized. “Keeping new trees alive in the city is tricky. And it’s not cheap to plant trees right. Too often, when cities set their eyes on planting an impressive number of trees, Hutyra says, they underestimate the investment—natural resources, labor and funding—needed to keep them alive long enough to see those gains.”

Bussard Ramjets: Possible but Impracticable

The Bussard ramjet won’t work as well as you think it could. A new study does the math on John Fishback’s contribution to the ramjet—gathering protons from the interstellar medium for the ramjet’s fusion drive via a magnetic scoop—and concludes that while it’s physically possible, there are substantial constraints: the cut-off speed is lower than expected, limiting the effects of time dilation, and the magnetic field would have to be something like 4,000 km wide and 150 million km long in order to work. In other words: for certain very preposterous values of physically possible. [Universe Today]

The Facit Man

Chris Sandström’s slideshow charts the history of the Facit Man. This was the slightly disturbing mascot of Facit, the Swedish company that made mechanical calculators, office equipment and my favourite typewriters. Basically an elf on a shelf with a pointy cap adorned with either numbers or the Facit name—a Clippy for the mechanical age—the Facit Man was more about promoting Facit’s main business, mechanical calculators (in comparison, typewriters were just a side hustle); when electronic calculators came along Facit just got clobbered.

(A million Facit Man figures were made; I need at least one.)

Spoilers, Endings and Criticism

I’m always keen to read an argument against spoiler alerts; in Wired, Jason Kehe makes the point that avoiding spoilers prevents us from talking about whether art is successful because we can’t talk about endings. “[G]ood criticism should not cater to our childish fears of spoiled pleasures, with disclaimers and warnings and other acts of silly self-debasement. It should honestly evaluate a work of art in its entirety, and you can’t do that without talking about what happens. Besides, it’s not even clear that spoilers really do ruin one’s experience of art.” Preventing spoilers is at bottom a marketing tactic, and has been since the end credits of Witness for the Prosecution (1957) asked the audience not to reveal its plot twist. That was, and is, to get more bums in seats. Marketing is the enemy of good criticism.

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