Jonathan Crowe

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

Spinosaurus: A Heron, not a Crocodile

Spinosaurus aegyptiacus
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Art by Gustavo Monroy-Becerril, 2020. Wikimedia Commons.

A new study suggests that Spinosaurus, the weird sailbacked theropod dinosaur widely considered to be an aquatic predator, may have been a wader rather than a swimmer. “The purported arguments that Spinosaurus was some croc-like or even stem-whale like animal spending the vast majority of its time in water, and the way it has been illustrated swimming in deep water, and even diving and pursuing fish does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, a wading model of a more heron- or stork-like animal that spent a lot of time in and around water, but fundamentally fished while standing rather than swimming, is supported.” The authors’ argument is based on Spinosaurus’s physiology, which doesn’t, in their view, support fast swimming, and is more like other theropods than crocodilians.

The Musicwriter

The Musicwriter is one of several music typewriters created to print sheet music. Some music typewriters were their own thing, whereas the Musicwriter started life as a normal typewriter before being converted to print notes and staves. You operated it by typing with the right hand and moving the carriage with the left, which sounds a bit tricky to get right—like writing music with an Etch-a-Sketch. Several typewriters served as Musicwriter root stock over the years, including the 6-series Smith-Corona and, more recently, the Olympia SG3 (an example of which can be seen in this Facebook group post). More about Musicwriters from Ted Munk in Et Cetera 109 (2015), pp. 12-15, and in this addendum collecting all kinds of photos, ephemera and type samples.

Queens of the Keyboard

Robert Messenger looks at the mid-20th-century phenomenon of international speed-typing competitions, and the women who competed in them. Explain to me how these women are not already the subject of a Netflix series like The Queen’s Gambit: the 1920s rivalry between Millicent Woodward and Robert George Curtis could be a movie all by itself.

Books Read: 4Q 2020

  1. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Steve Brusatte (2018). Reviewed here.
  2. City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff VanderMeer (3rd edition 2004). First volume of VanderMeer’s Ambergris trilogy, which has just been released in a new one-volume edition. Deeply weird book full of squids and mushrooms; the back matter is even weirder, and marvellous, and probably not included in the omnibus, more’s the pity.
  3. On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu (2021, forthcoming). Fabulist novel focusing on the experiences of an Afghan refugee family in Australia. I have mixed feelings about this book, which I will explain in a review closer to its publication date.
  4. The Typewriter Revolution by Richard Polt (2015). Engaging look at the present-day typewriter enthusiast counterculture, exploring how the epitome of bureaucracy can become a subversive tool; plus lots of advice for people who want to acquire, use and maintain old manual typewriters.
  5. Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear (2019). Fascinating space opera with engaging aliens and worldbuilding that is nonetheless not a fun read due to its unflinching focus on emotionally abusive relationships.
  6. Where Do Camels Belong? by Ken Thompson (2014). Polemic challenging our assumptions about invasive species: what makes them invasive, whether invasive actually a problem, et cetera. About half of the points made are valid, or are valid in some contexts but not others. It depends, as usual.
  7. Typewriters for Writers by Scott Schad (2014). A buying guide for writers who want to use typewriters, based on the writer’s own collection, experiences and opinions (he’s awfully exercised about the absence of the “1” key). Lots of photos result in a very large Kindle file size.
  8. The Book on the Edge of Forever by Christopher Priest (1994). Reread occasioned by Straczinski’s announcement that The Last Dangerous Visions really, for sure, truly is coming out this time.
  9. To the Letter by Simon Garfield (2013). Book about the art of letter-writing that spends rather more time than I expected on letter-collecting.

What Happened to All the Bucatini?

Bucatini is a thick, spaghetti-like long pasta with a hole down the middle, and for some reason it’s been impossible to find in the United States this past year. Rachel Handler investigates for New York magazine’s Grub Street blog, and finds herself going down an increasingly bizarre rabbit hole as she tries to answer the question: what happened to all the bucatini? Was production cut back in favour of other, easier-to-produce pastas because of increased pandemic demand? Were people using them as straws? And what exactly was the issue between the FDA and pasta maker De Cecco? An astonishing read.

‘The Snake Is as Much Symbol as Animal’

“The snake is as much symbol as animal, and this oversaturation of meaning prevents us from seeing the snake clearly. In reality, they are gentle, healthful to the environment, ‘more scared of you than you are of it,’ a sort of tragic hero of the ecosystem that is, when gazed upon without malice, beautiful. I might argue that the contemplation of a snake qua snake […] delivers us past, for a moment, our paralyzed understanding of things and into a configuration of mind from which we might briefly remember how much of what we know is sculpted air and rumor, and how much direct experience of an animal, of any thing, might open our eyes to new possibilities of interpretation or, better yet, to the possibility of resisting interpretation altogether. Perhaps we might let the weight of meaning slip away, revealing only coiled matter. Long and lithe, complexly imbricated, strange: Here is contact. Let it grip you. With your fingers, touch its scales.” —Paul McAdory, “How My Pet Snake Taught Me to See,” The New York Times Magazine.

Our Region’s New, Improved Bus Service

For the first time since before we moved out here, the Pontiac’s weekday bus service is seeing some major changes. Based on what I can figure out from what’s been announced, for most people they should be improvements.

What we’ve had until now is a standalone commuter bus service that started on Isle-aux-Allumettes and ran the length of Route 148 before terminating at Ottawa’s downtown bus station. It was run by Transport Thom for many years before being taken over by Transcollines, the rural bus service of the MRC des Collines-de-l’Outaouais, a few years back. Transcollines didn’t change anything about the service—same route, same schedule, same price—and kept it essentially separate from the rest of the network, but did promise that the route would be upgraded and integrated at some point in the future.

It’s years later than originally promised, but those changes have now been announced. New as of next week is Transcollines’s Route 910, which from what I can gather has a number of notable changes over the old service.

Finally got this blog reconnected to Dreamwidth: posts made here will also be mirrored there. The trick to making the JournalPress plugin work again was to use an API key (generated here) instead of trying to log in with my username and password. I expect that this was always the solution; it just took me until yesterday to stumble across it.

How to Fill a CON-40

Few fountain pen accessories generate more online vituperation than Pilot’s CON-40 converter.1 It’s small and hard to fill completely: it has no capacity. The size complaint is a bit unfair: it’s designed to fit all2 of Pilot’s fountain pens, including the pocket-sized E95s/Elite. Whereas Kaweco and Sailor both make pens that are too small for their standard converters. As for being hard to fill? Between us Jen and I currently have a total of 11 pens with a CON-40 converter, and while they’re not as easy to fill completely as pens with the CON-70 converter3 or piston-filling pens, it can be done. There’s a trick to it, though, and Brian Goulet’s video above shows how to do it.

The Controversy Over Upscaling Old Films to 4K

Wired UK on the controversial process of upscaling old films to 4K resolution: “Digital upscalers and the millions who’ve watched their work on YouTube say they’re making the past relatable for viewers in 2020, but for some historians of art and image-making, modernising century-old archives brings a host of problems.” The process involves machine learning and readily available algorithms that clean and stabilize old film, colourize it, and upscale it to 4K and 60 fps. It adds material that isn’t in the original, which is what these historians object to. I’d argue that these videos operate in the same space as historical fiction: they make the past feel more real to the audience, but the audience can’t always separate fact from fiction. Somehow I doubt historians want to stop novels set in the past, though. [MetaFilter]

Requiem for a Trash Can

You’d think road-side trash cans would be an unlikely thing to be nostalgic about. Unless you’re from Manitoba, and the trash can is a four-foot white fibreglass globe with a round opening. That was Orbit, a highway litter program that used space-age symbolism to encourage drivers to, as the signs put it, “put your trash into Orbit.” I remember the globular trash cans well from childhood road trips in the 1970s. But in the end they were abused—set on fire, shot or filled with all kinds of garbage—and increasingly expensive to replace, so the program wound down in the 1990s. CBC Manitoba has the story of Orbit, and what may be the last surviving Orbit receptacle—which was also featured in James Rewucki’s 2013 short film, Where Have All the Orbits Gone?

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.”

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