Jonathan Crowe

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

How Mission Control’s Giant Displays Worked

In a 19-minute YouTube video, Fran Blanche explains how those big screens at Mission Control worked during the Apollo era. Stop and think about it: they were displaying information in ways that computers wouldn’t be able to do for decades. The displays were produced mechanically, by multiple projectors using glass slides to project images on the screen. The projectors could move spaceship icons across the screen like a graphical sprite, or use plotters to scratch a flight path across a slide to represent a flight path, using telemetry data processed in real time by mainframe computers. [Boing Boing]

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs

The overwhelming feeling one gets from reading The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is of motion. Rather than static relics exhumed from rocks of the deep past, dinosaurs are in motion: they came from somewhere; they lived somewhere; they migrated from one continent to another. The approach the author Steve Brusatte takes is obvious in hindsight, but a revelation all the same: his questions are predicated on a past world in motion. Continents drifted apart, climates changed; dinosaurs moved, evolved, transformed in response. They were animals in the context of their time and place, and Brusatte explains that context. What, for example, happened after the various extinction events that first enabled and eventually extinguished the dinosaurs? How did the Triassic climate prevent dinosaurs from spreading across Pangaea?

Books Read: 3Q 2020

  1. Driftwood by Marie Brennan (2020). Fixup collecting short stories about the place fantasy worlds go to die, and the enigmatic figure who helps people survive the wreck. Review in production.
  2. Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe (2007). Time travel novel in which a young man from the near future is transported back in time to the Golden Age of Piracy. Replete with temporal paradoxes, vivid historical detail and, erm, Catholicism. Another Late Wolfe.
  3. Kim Stanley Robinson by Robert Markley (2019). An entry in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series of monographs; this one (obviously) surveys Robinson’s work.
  4. Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language by Gretchen McCulloch (2019). Nonfiction by a linguist who explores how we talk online, from the proper punctuation of text messages, to emoji, to the deployment of memes.
  5. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972), trans. William Weaver (1974).
  6. Pardon This Intrusion by John Clute (2011). Another collection of reviews and critical essays. I should remember not to read Clute collections when trying to write reviews myself: his recondite word-tangles have a habit of infecting my own damn prose.
  7. City Under the Stars by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick (2020). Expansion and completion of their 1995 novella “The City of God,” which in turn was an expansion of Dozois’s uncompleted “Digger story” ca. 1970, said expansion cut short by Dozois’s untimely death in 2018. Swanwick’s completion is (understandably) truncated, its ending more personally satisfying, I think, than supported by the story. But some tremendously brilliant and affecting passages here all the same.
  8. Being Gardner Dozois by Gardner Dozois and Michael Swanwick (2001). Rearead inspired by #34; book-length interview of Dozois by Swanwick discussing his stories and novels to date. I wanted to look at the genesis of “The City of God” and its contemporary stories.
  9. Underground Cities by Mark Ovenden (2020). Reviewed at The Map Room.
  10. Thunderer by Felix Gilman (2007). Epic fantasy; Gilman’s first novel, about gods, intrigue and revolution in an endless, unmappable city. First-rate worldbuilding and character work, not quite flawless technique.
  11. Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi (2019). Literary fantasy about an immigrant family from a secluded Ruritanian nation and their history.
  12. The Unspoken Name by A. K. Larkwood (2020). Epic fantasy novel involving competing religions, gates between worlds, and young women who defy the altar to assert their own agencies. Liked it more than I expected to.

Does the Exposure Notification System Work?

“I didn’t intentionally get infected with COVID-19 just to figure out whether Apple’s exposure notification system was working, but it ended up that my experience might offer some additional insight to the situation.” Daniel Eran Dilger’s long and discursive piece for AppleInsider on whether Apple’s COVID-19 exposure tracking is working kind of buries the lede: he got the dubious opportunity to try it out, as implemented in Germany and Switzerland. It wasn’t as flawless or as seamless as you might have hoped. “Over a week later, neither Germany nor Switzerland has used my positive test result to send warnings through the system Apple created. That’s important because the timing of exposure notifications have a very limited useful window. By the time I got a positive result, I likely wasn’t even contagious any more.”

How the Pandemic Defeated IKEA

Fast Company has the story of how IKEA’s online store basically shat the bed during the pandemic. With physical stores closed, the only way to buy things from IKEA was to order online, which completely overwhelmed their inventory management, delivery and customer service infrastructure. Based on the horror stories from the r/IKEA subreddit (which also informed the FC article), and our own experience (we made a small order early in March that took nearly two months to get here: we got off easy), it seems clear that IKEA’s supply lines were mostly aimed at their stores; they treated online and home delivery as an under-resourced afterthought. That didn’t turn out well.

‘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

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