Jonathan Crowe

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

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.

The New Trophies of Domesticity

KitchenAid stand mixers and Le Creuset dutch ovens have become “small markers of stability and sophistication, coveted by young people for whom traditional indicators of both often remain out of reach,” The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull writes, and boy (glances at kitchen) do I feel seen. People delaying marriage and homeownership are upgrading their cheap starter equipment themselves instead of getting them as wedding gifts. As status markers go, though, they’re durable and practical: they may be expensive, but they last.

Leica M10 Monochrom

Leica M10 Monochrom (Leica)I have a new lust object: the Leica M10 Monochrom, a digital rangefinder camera with a full-frame, 40-megapixel sensor that only shoots in black and white. There are distinct advantages to going without the usual colour filters, which absorb light and reduce sharpness. This would incidentally make a hell of an astrophotography camera (high-end astroimaging shoots monochrome through specialized filters: you could do that with this but not a digital SLR). Fortunately for me, like all good lust objects this one is unattainable: it costs US$8,300, plus expect to spend as much again on lenses, because Leica.

When Average Equals Amazing

ChefSteps created a chocolate chip cookie recipe by using the average amounts used in 10 cookie recipes: the average of the amount of baking soda, flour, salt, et cetera, used in these recipes. The result was the best chocolate chip cookie they’d ever tasted. “There is no reason why this should have worked. But this cookie checks all the cookie qualifier boxes in a big way. It’s the perfect blend of chewy, crispy, buttery, chocolatey goodness—it is far more than average.” That’s it: we’re so baking this.

Adventures in Artisanal Snow Shovelling

Where we live is a surprisingly lucky place, weather-wise. Storm systems often pass just south of us, meaning that when bad weather hits the St. Lawrence corridor, or Ottawa, it hits us much less severely, or misses us altogether. Or, because we’re a couple of degrees cooler than the city, we get snow when Ottawa gets freezing rain.

That can mean a lot of shovelling, but when you buy a house in your mid-forties, certain things become novel and interesting that others in your cohort got sick of doing decades ago. Shovelling the driveway is one of those things for us.

For the longest time we didn’t have a driveway, or had a parking lot with plow service: all we had to do was shovel out the car and the walk. Now we do have a driveway all to ourselves, and it’s fairly large: about 30 metres long, and wide enough for two cars. And we don’t have a plow service to take most of it away. So we shovel it out ourselves, by hand. With, you know, shovels.

Jennifer next to a snowbankAround here this is apparently evidence that we are off our nuts. People buy big and expensive gas-powered snowblowers to remove snow from driveways half the size of ours. But for the most part we don’t find it all that onerous, especially if I’m feeling well enough to pitch in. When there’s two of us doing it we can usually get it done in well under an hour.

And we try to do it as quickly as we can after it snows. This often means we’re out there several times a week, or even a day. But there’s a method to this madness. If you’re going to shovel the driveway, you have to be zealous about it or there’s no point. Keeping the surface bare makes it easier to shovel the next time, otherwise there’s rough ice and it’s a pain to clear things off. In order to do it easily, you have to do it a lot.

Greenworks electric snowthrowerThis doesn’t always work, mind. Last year the snow came down so often and so heavily that I threw my shoulder out: it was bothering me for months afterward. Doing it by hand has consequences. So for this season we bought a small, electric snowthrower to handle the heavier snow days. It’s no good on the snow of the kind we had over the weekend (heavy and wet and slushy), but it has come in handy on three occasions so far. It throws the snow further than we can, and that helps keep the berms from getting too steep. While it’s a bit underpowered for what we have, I wanted to avoid a gas model, and the high-powered blowers all run on gas.

And sometimes a combination of wintry mix or freezing rain renders the driveway an unshovelable mass of hard ice, which means we have to break out the ice chipper. On a driveway our size that’s a brutal, multi-day job, one that leaves our arms more or less gelatinous. But the end result makes the next snowfall that much easier to deal with.

The Stellina Smart Telescope

DP Review looks at the Stellina smart telescope, an all-in-one “observation station” that serves as telescope (an 80mm ƒ/5 apo refractor), digital camera and self-aligning mount. No eyepieces, just a camera, which can stack multiple exposures to achieve something better than a small scope on a small mount could otherwise achieve. All of these things were available when I was messing around with telescopes a decade or so ago, but not in a single, integrated unit. It took work to achieve results like this; now it takes … $4,000. Ow.

Could Sleeper Trains Replace International Air Travel?

The case for sleeper trains replacing air travel is very much a European thing.1 Flight shame (flygskam) is reducing demand for air travel, and European distances are such that overnight trains are feasible. At one point it looked like the combination of high-speed rail and budget airlines would doom European night trains, but that trend seems to be reversing itself: ÖBB’s Nightjet service is expanding in the face of soaring demand, and other operators are planning to reintroduce sleeper trains.

‘I Am a Spine on Fire’

“I am a spine on fire. I am a collection of joints and bones and tissues that wage war. I am every step in pain. I am not thinking clearly. I am not moving quickly. But I am also not going to be quiet.” It took nearly a decade for Lisa Marie Basile’s ankylosing spondylitis to be diagnosed, a decade in which she had to navigate the usual bullshit about chronic illness—especially about being a woman with chronic illness. I’m mindful of just how atypical my experience was: I was diagnosed in less than six months.

‘Anaconda’ Reboot in the Works

A reboot of the 1997 snakesploitation movie Anaconda is in the works at Sony’s Columbia Pictures, says The Hollywood Reporter, with Evan Daugherty tapped to write the script. “Sources say Daugherty’s take is not a remake or a sequel but a reimagining. While details are being kept deep in the belly of the beast, it is known that the studio is hoping to take a Meg-style approach to the concept.” I have a DVD of the original Anaconda around here somewhere but somehow never managed to get around to seeing it. Should I rectify that?

Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy

New from me at Tor.com this morning: “Celebrating Christopher Tolkien’s Cartographic Legacy.” It looks at the collaborative process between J. R. R. Tolkien and his son Christopher as father and son tried to make the narrative agree with the map, and vice versa; takes a deep dive into Christopher’s mapmaking technique; and tries to assess the impact of his maps on fantasy mapmaking.

This piece came from a general sense that Christopher Tolkien’s mapmaking was being overlooked in the obituaries and remembrances posted in the wake of his death last week at the age of 95. I posted briefly about it on The Map Room last Thursday, and then found myself having more to say about it. By the end of day Friday I had nearly 2,000 words’ worth of more to say. Revised it over the weekend, sent it off, and now you can read it.

Featured image: Christopher Tolkien’s map of Middle-earth from The Fellowship of the Ring (Unwin, 1954). The British Library.

The 22-Year Anniversary of My Diagnosis, and Why I Don’t Talk About It as Much as I Might

I imagine that everyone with a serious or chronic illness knows the date of their diagnosis. Mine was January 13, 1998, which is to say 22 years ago today.

The diagnosis was by that point a formality. I’d known something was up since June 1997—I was in constant pain and I had trouble walking and sleeping—and had been talking to doctors and undergoing tests. The previous month I’d received results from a bone scan that suggested a possible diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis—a disease I’d never heard of before, though it turned out that there was a family history of it. The rheumatologist reviewed that family history, the symptoms and the test results and concluded that I had a “textbook case” of AS.

(As it turns out, my case is not so textbook, or at least the textbook has since changed. A 2012 MRI revealed no evidence of spinal fusion after 15 years, which made a different rheumatologist wonder whether I had AS at all. She retracted that doubt at a later visit when I arrived in flare and she saw how I walked. I suspect that what I have is non-radiographic axial spondyloarthritis, which is similar to AS and is treated the same way, but doesn’t involve spinal fusion and doesn’t show up on X-rays. I’ve yet to run my theory past a rheumatologist, though.)

I’ve been living with that diagnosis, with modifications, for more than 22 years. I’ve always been open about my illness (much to my mother’s horror) and I used to talk about it a fair bit—I even ran a blog about it for a while—but lately I’ve been talking about it a lot less. That’s not because I’m doing better, because honestly I’m not (though there still seems to be no sign of fusion). It’s because talking about my illness is, even after all the elapsed time and the care received, still a potentially hazardous activity. Even under best-case conditions, talking about my illness requires a tremendous amount of emotion work.

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Books Read: 4Q 2019

Reading kind of fell off a cliff these past few months, which should give you a clue as to how I’ve been doing lately.

  1. Medallion Status by John Hodgman. Another collection of humorous personal essays from my favourite writer of humorous personal essays.
  2. The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders. Fascinating science fiction novel, set on a harsh alien world with a decaying human colony, that ends too abruptly.
  3. Phantom Islands by Dirk Liesemer. Another book about islands that were later proved imaginary; review forthcoming.

A Year of Misguided Opinions: 2019 in Essays

It was not one of my more productive writing years (book reviewing in particular seems to have fallen off a cliff), to the point that I resorted to reposting pieces I wrote years earlier. But I still managed to produce a few new pieces in 2019:

I published three essays on Tor.com this year that dealt with fantasy map design: “What Does a Fantasy Map Look Like?,” “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” and “Where Do Fantasy Maps Come From?”: the second of these in particular generated a lot of interest, and pushback, mainly from people who stopped reading after the title.

(More articles along these lines will appear in the new year: they’re proving harder to write than I expected, so they’re slow in coming.)

In terms of science fiction and fantasy criticism, I also published one essay on the newly relaunched AE: “An Exercise in Telling: Sylvain Neuvel’s Themis Files” explored the unusual storytelling structure of the first two books. I also reviewed Farah Mendlesohn’s critical study of Robert Heinlein.

(Technically, the above pieces render me eligible for various Hugo and Aurora awards for fan writing and related works, but I have some sense of perspective about the chances of that.)

In terms of maps, I reviewed two books: John Roman’s Art of Illustrated Maps, which came out in 2015 but is now hard to find, but I needed it for my fantasy maps articles; and Matthew Edney’s academic and argumentative Cartography: The Ideal and Its History.

Other essays were more eclectic in subject. “The Enthusiast’s Blind Spot” was nominally about car reviews, but dealt with the disconnect between reviews by enthusiasts and the desires of the buying public. “The Ones Who Walk Away from America” melded my family history with the increasing crazification of American political discourse. “Canada’s Emergency Alerts Are Broken by Design,” which looked for a structural explanation for the complaints about being woken up by Amber Alerts, should have gotten me yelled at more than it did.

Finally, during last fall’s federal election I committed the sin of punditry, with a trio of essays exploring the parties’ election platform and rhetoric: “Status Quo Ante” looked at the Conservatives’ desire to restore the Harper years, “When Federal Politicians Talk About Provincial Matters, and Vice Versa” at politicians’ inability to resist talking about things that are not in their purview, and “Foreign Affairs” at the dangers of offering opinions on other countries’ politics.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture at 40

Today is, I’m told, the 40th anniversary of the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture—the first Star Trek movie, and one that suffered from a rushed production that left several things unfinished (the prints were apparently still wet when they were shipped to theatres) and from a critical response that could charitably be described as lukewarm.

(I saw it in the theatre myself, but as I was all of seven years old at the time, I hadn’t developed much of a critical sense yet.)

Forty years later, though, there seems to be some groundswell of affection for the thing, warts and all. (See Ed Power’s piece in The Independent, for example.) A few years ago I wrote a piece for my fanzine, Ecdysis, called “In Defence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” and I thought I was being all heterodox about it. Turns out I wasn’t alone: others have either been reassessing their initial takes on the movie or finding that their impressions weren’t in sync with conventional wisdom.

It probably doesn’t hurt that there have been a dozen Star Trek movies since then to compare it with, and against some of them The Motion Picture compares … rather favourably. It was in that context that I wrote my little essay. Which practically no one read when it first came out, so here it is again:

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The 2019 Election by (Some of) the Numbers

Seat Distributions

Regional distribution of seats, 2019 Canadian election

The Liberals elected as many MPs west of Ontario as the NDP did: 15. (That number doesn’t include the North.) Not entirely sure why the CBC commentators made a fuss about the Liberals having no cabinet representation in the West: “the West” is more than just Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Even so, the Liberals elected more seats west of Ontario than the Conservatives did east of Ontario: 15 vs. 14. The NDP elected only two seats east of Ontario.

The Liberals elected more Quebec MPs than the Bloc Québécois—35 vs. 32—and edged them out in the popular vote in Quebec.

Half of the Liberal caucus will be from Ontario (79 out of 157). Nearly half of the Conservative caucus will be from the Prairie provinces (54 out of 121). Nearly half of the NDP caucus will be from British Columbia (11 out of 24).

Regionalism is a thing, in other words.

The Conservatives got fewer seats than the Liberals despite having more votes. Having the largest popular vote while coming up short in the seat count is what happens when you win your own seats by gargantuan margins (see Alberta) but lose by narrower margins. Happens to the Quebec Liberals provincially all the time: they win anglo Montréal seats by margins that would make Jason Kenney blush, and end up losing elections while winning the popular vote.

(If your response to this is “we need proportional representation,” please see my earlier post from 2015: The Unintended Consequences of Proportional Representation.)

Local Results

Pontiac went Liberal, to no one’s surprise (see Pontiac in the 2019 Federal Election: A Preview).

Pontiac results, 2011-2019

Incumbent Liberal Will Amos was easily reelected with 48.9 percent of the vote. That’s down 5.6 points (and some 4,400 votes) from his 2015 result: still a comfortable win by a comfortable margin. There was a lot of movement further down the ballot. The Conservative vote recovered somewhat, the Bloc Québécois vote more than doubled, and the NDP vote was less than half of what it was in 2015. Looking at these numbers, which are much more in line with what I saw in the Chrétien and Martin years, you’d be hard pressed to believe that the NDP took this seat in 2011. They got just over a quarter of their 2011 vote this time around.

Voter turnout was nearly 61,000: down only 1,700 from 2015, and some 10,000 above the (redistributed) 2011 turnout.1 Quite strong, in other words. The Liberal vote didn’t stay home as much as I thought it might.

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