Jonathan Crowe

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

There have been a few behind-the-scenes changes to this website recently:

  1. As of this morning, this website is running on a secure server. To my everlasting shock, the process was easy and broke nothing. This was a test run; next up for me is to do the same thing for The Map Room, future plans for which require a secure server. I expect things to break in a spectacular fashion at that point, because it will be mission critical and in front of a much larger audience.
  2. When I switched this site to WordPress in October 2016, I mentioned that older posts would be going away. Not quite all of them, though. Last fall, I imported the two hundred or so map-related posts I made on this site between 2011 and 2015 into The Map Room. And last month, I imported a handful of posts from 2015 and 2016—book reviews, plus posts I felt had some value to posterity, 31 in total—into this site’s WordPress database. I don’t expect to be going much further back than that, though I’ve changed my mind on that before.
  3. I’ve simplified the Reviews section: the year-by-year list of reviews is now on a single page, with links to blog posts, published reviews, or archived pages as appropriate. Still some tidying up to do there, but for the two or three people actively looking for my reviews, it should already be less unwieldy.
  4. My privacy policy is now vaguely GDPR-aware and attempts to cover all the websites for which I am responsible.

Thirsty Snakes

Snakes need to drink—though that fact does come as a surprise to some people. (And it can be neat to watch, in the sense that a snake doing an ordinary thing that every other terrestrial vertebrate does is somehow a revelation.) But it does mean that they can get dangerously dehydrated when they can’t. They’ll even accept water from people if it’s hot and dry enough, as a couple of incidents recently reported on social media will demonstrate.

During Mark Lotterhand’s visits to the Narcisse Snake Dens last month, Manitoba was in the middle of a spring drought. When they set out water from their bottles, the Red-sided Garter Snakes came running, drinking from makeshift water holes, lids filled with water, or even directly from the bottle.

See Mark’s photo album on Flickr.

Getting garter snakes’ minds off mating in the middle of mating season takes some doing, let me tell you, but snakes coming out of hibernation are pretty thirsty to start with: they might not have had anything to drink in months. Add to that dry conditions and they must have been desperate for the water.

Meanwhile, on a hot June day in Illinois, two field research assistants, in the course of their fieldwork, found a Western Hognose Snake; once the snake was measured, they thought that the snake might be dehydrated, so they offered her water. The snake, who had previously exhibited the usual hognose snake defensive repertoire, thought this was a grand idea.

That tweet went viral, so one of the assistants, Taylor West, gives the background to the story in this guest post on the Living Alongside Wildlife blog.

Eastern Hognose Snake (Photo by Douglas Mills)

A Herpetological Roundup

  1. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has listed the Louisiana Pine Snake (Pituophis ruthveni), found only in Louisiana and Texas, as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The snake, one of the rarest snakes in the U.S., had been classified as endangered on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species in 2007.
  2. CBC News looks at how researchers are tracking the Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos) in Ontario, where it’s a threatened species. (It’s not, however, rare elsewhere: it’s classed as “least concern” on the IUCN Red List.)
  3. On that note, how many times are conservation efforts focused on a nationally rare population of something widespread and abundant elsewhere (such as, for example, Eastern Hognose Snakes in Ontario) or a rare subspecies or population of a very common species (San Francisco Garter Snakes)? The Zoological Society of London’s EDGE of Existence program focuses “specifically on threatened species that represent a significant amount of unique evolutionary history.” The New York Times looks at the reptiles on the program’s list. [PLOS One]
  4. Still with the New York Timesa long article by Rachel Newer looks at a loophole in the exotic animal (especially reptile) trade: traffickers are laundering wild-caught animals through local farms so as to export them with paperwork certifying them as captive-bred—at which point authorities can’t do anything about it. Worth the read: a balanced look that explores some uncomfortable issues.
  5. Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) have a reputation for being belligerent snakes. Field trials suggest that baseline stress levels are a better predictor of whether a cottonmouth will strike than the stress of encountering an individual human being. Which is not to say that humans aren’t stressing cottonmouths out; it’s just happening at the habitat level, not on an individual basis. [General and Comparitive Endocrinology]
  6. Researchers at Carleton University studying the mating habits of Northern Map Turtles (Graptemys geographica) wondered whether males preferred larger females (female map turtles get much larger than males). So they 3D-printed up some female turtle sex dolls, set up a video camera, and watched what happened. [Animal Behaviour]

  1. Ranavirus has spread to Ontario turtles, which is not good. (See also CBC News.) To minimize the spread of Ranavirus and other herpetofaunal pathogens, here is the decontamination protocol for those working with reptiles and amphibians in the field.
  2. All turtle species in Ontario are now at risk, says Ontario Nature, though that statement takes some unpacking: COSEWIC listed the Ontario and Quebec populations of the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata), as well as the Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia populations of the Eastern Painted Turtle (C. p. picta) as Special Concern; but the Prairie and Ontario populations of the Western Painted Turtle (C. p. bellii) are still listed as Not at Risk. (The Western Paint is still in trouble in British Columbia, though.)
  3. Whatever the conservation status, turtles face long odds and need all the help we can give them. This video from the Nature Conservancy of Canada, on what to do when you see a turtle on the road.

  1. The chytrid fungus implicated in the decline of amphibian populations worldwide has had its origins identified: the Korean peninsula some time in the early 20th century. The Korean War may have been a vector. [Science]
  2. Finally, and because this roundup needs some levity, the Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum). It’s an ambystomatid salamander like the spotted and tiger salamanders, but this deeply weird (and critically endangered) denizen of Mexican lakes remains in its neotenic state throughout its life, only changing into its adult form if it’s induced by administering iodine or the thryoxine hormone. In 2015, the Rathergood comedy team came up with a song about the Axolotl, which they cleverly called “The Axolotl.”

Questions I’ve answered on Reddit recently:

Featured image: Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos), Missouri, May 11, 2017. Photo by Douglas Mills. Creative Commons licence.

Passages

Delbert F. Seely, Jennifer’s grandfather, died on May 30 at the age of 97. He’d had severe Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife, and Jennifer’s grandmother, Phyllis, died in 2013, but apparently wrote much of this obituary. Before Alzheimer’s got them both they were major figures in Jennifer’s life; she was the only granddaughter, and as such, I’m told, he had a soft spot for her.

My uncle, Paul W. Prosser, died on June 3 at the age of 69. Here’s his distressingly brief obituary; I have no other details. To be honest I hadn’t seen or spoken with him in nearly 20 years—not since I moved away from Alberta—but while I was living in Edmonton he and his family, who lived in nearby Spruce Grove, were a great support, and I owe them a lot.

Strategic Voting Is Bullshit

My first encounter with strategic voting, and with using it to Stop someone, came during the 1997 provincial election in Alberta. I got a call from the NDP campaign in my riding, Edmonton-Strathcona. When I suggested that I might be voting Liberal, the caller insisted that the Liberals were way back in third place and it was a two-way race between the NDP and the Progressive Conservatives; if I wanted to Stop Ralph Klein and prevent the Tory candidate from being elected, I had to vote NDP.

In the end, the NDP’s Raj Pannu won the seat, with a narrow, 58-vote margin … over the Liberal candidate. The PCs were in third place—a close third place, only another 118 votes further back, but in third place nonetheless.1 I don’t remember how I voted in that election, but I took two lessons away from the experience:

  1. The NDP are a bunch of sanctimonious pricks who are just as willing to lie and engage in dirty tricks as any other party.2
  2. Strategic voting is a con—a way to trick you into voting for their candidate instead of yours.

I’ve been wary of strategic voting ever since. It has never, ever been a politically disinterested tactic. You always have to ask yourself who benefits from it, and you always have to question the underlying data being brought out to justify it.

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A Turtle in Shawville

I didn’t think we’d find turtles in Shawville proper, but Jennifer encountered one, a Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta marginata) trying to cross the street, while she was walking to work.

No idea why the turtle was going where it was going— trust me, the nesting opportunities were poor in that general direction—but once she spotted Jennifer, she did a 180 and hightailed it back to the pond from whence she came, peeing all the way. Only she was distracted by some nearby parked cars that looked like a good place to hide, so Jennifer intervened at that point, aiming the turtle back at the pond. At which point the turtle took the hint, and belly-slid the last part of the way there.

The problem with helping turtles on the road is that it’s momentary. Sooner or later the turtle will venture forth again and run the same gauntlet—especially if it’s surrounded by a fairly built up environment like this one is. It’s a crap shoot whether the turtle will make it across, be helped along, get run over deliberately or accidentally, or be taken home, illegally, to be a child’s pet.

Momentary isn’t the same as futile, though.

Reading Gardner Dozois

In my post about the passing of Gardner Dozois, I mentioned that I was a fan of his fiction, even if his reputation was mainly as an editor. I’d forgotten that his backlist is back in print, at least as ebooks: Baen Books reissued a bunch of them in 2012, and it now appears that all his novels and collections, including the heretofore-elusive collection of his collaborations, Slow Dancing Through Time, can be had for a few dollars each. I list those books below. (Warning: contains slimy affiliate links.) I’ve also gone and assembled a list of his stories that can be read for free online, also below. Because I think he needs to be read.

If you’d like to read something about Dozois’s fiction, there’s Being Gardner Dozois (Old Earth Books, 2001) a book-length interview conducted by Michael Swanwick that discusses every single story Dozois had published to that point. Toward the end of that book, Dozois said, “I figure there’s about five people in the world who are going to want to read this book. Maybe that’s overestimating it.” Bear in mind that it’s not a book you should read unless you’ve read his fiction. But it’s fascinating if you have. [Amazon/iBooks]

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Gardner Dozois, 1947-2018

As editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction from 1986 to 2004, Gardner Dozois probably did more to shape my taste as a science fiction and fantasy reader than any other figure in the field. Reading the Dozois-era Asimov’s exposed my young self to cutting-edge writers and genres and styles I hadn’t encountered before. It was a heady, eclectic and catholic mix, and it expanded my reading horizons (imagine, if you will, a teenage reader going from reading Isaac Asimov to reading Lucius Shepard in one jump); were it not for that magazine I might well have been stuck in a hard-sf Golden Age ghetto. It taught me to be open to newness in science fiction.

Gardner Dozois died this afternoon of an overwhelming systemic infection. He had been in poor health for a while—he missed the Nebulas last weekend—but as early as yesterday he had been expected to recover. He was 70 years old.

I met him a couple of times at conventions back in 2011. He was in person what his reputation promised: a madcap and ebullient performer, the polar opposite of most of his fiction, which was bleak and beautiful, written with elegance and grace, and tended toward the dark end of the spectrum.1 For an introduction to his writing, his short story collection, When the Great Days Come, which I reviewed in 2011, is still in print: it’s a mix of his best early work and his more recent stories. What may be his final story, “Unstoppable,” appears in the current (May/June 2018) issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

I was a devoted fan of his fiction, but he was far better known as an editor: of Asimov’s and of decades of Year’s Best and theme anthologies. Michael Swanwick once said that Gardner was a better writer than he was an editor, and that, like John W. Campbell, saw his writing be overshadowed by his long tenure as an editor. But Gardner was not only a better writer than Campbell, he was also the better editor. He was arguably the best editor the field has ever had. No, check that: the best. More relevant, more transformative, more impactful than anyone else I can think of. His fingerprints and his footprints can be found on every exposed surface of the science fiction and fantasy field, and if you see your favourite writer mourning his loss tonight, there’s a reason: he opened the door for so very, very many of them.

Photos: Gardner Dozois (and Michael Swanwick) at Readercon, July 2011.

Babylon 5 in the Age of Streaming

Babylon 5, the groundbreaking science fiction series that ran from 1994 to 1998, will finally be available to watch via a streaming service. As show creator J. Michael Straczynski noted yesterday, it will be coming to Prime Video next month.

It generally hasn’t been available on streaming services; our only option has been to buy the DVD box sets, more on which in a moment. Will the show eventually be available on Blu-Ray? The answer: probably not. It’s a victim of the television production practices of its era: live action sequences were shot on film, but visual effects were composited digitally in standard definition. Older shows were completely done on film, later shows on HD video: sf series of the mid-nineties, I remember reading somewhere, are at real risk of falling down the memory hole because they’re barely watchable today.

But it’s even worse with Babylon 5. As this page points out, the show was produced in the 4:3 aspect ratio, but when it was rebroadcast on Sci-Fi, and then again for its DVD release, it was converted to 16:9. This posed no problems for the live action sequences, but the 4:3 480p effects shots were cropped to 16:9 360p. On a standard definition set this isn’t much of a problem, but when you use an upconverting Blu-Ray player to play that DVD on a big 1080p set, those effects shots are done at one-third the TV’s resolution. The live-action shots without effects still look fine; the effects shots and the composited shots look terrible.

That won’t change with streaming, I’m afraid.

Redoing those effects sequences would be prohibitively expensive. It was done for Star Trek: The Next Generation, but it cost a boatload and failed to sell in the hoped-for numbers. As a result it won’t ever be done for Deep Space Nine or Voyager. Babylon 5 is great—if you haven’t seen it, you’re in for a treat—but compared to Star Trek it’s a niche interest, so I figured it wouldn’t ever happen.

Except Straczynski has gone and thrown a wrench into things today, saying that while the 16:9 versions can’t be upgraded to HD, they provided Warners with 4:3 master negatives on film (he says the CG effects were output to film at 2K)—and those, he says, could be converted to HD. All it would take, he says, is for Warner to strike a new print and for Amazon to digitize it. It sounds a bit too good to be true: it conflicts with other sources that say that the effects were generated and composited in SD, and why have those sources not been contradicted before? Why only mention it now?

I’d like to hold my breath, but I’m not sure I ought to.

Back to the Digital SLR

I have a digital SLR—a five-year-old Nikon D7100—but I haven’t been using it very much over the past few years. Blame that on the iPhone, which has a camera that while nowhere near as good or as versatile as a digital SLR, is good enough in most cases, and has the advantage of always being (a) with me and (b) connected to the Internet. Which meant that I was able to get shots I’d otherwise miss, not having my camera with me, but it also meant that convenience and spontaneity often trumped image quality. The Nikon came out for deliberate acts of photography—such as last summer’s solar eclipse—which lately haven’t happened very often.

I think that might be changing. I’ve been picking up the Nikon more and more lately: to take pictures of nearby garter snakes, the trilliums growing on our property, and the birds that pay us a visit. So I’ve been blowing the dust off the photography-centred parts of my brain and getting myself back up to speed on using the big gun.

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