Jonathan Crowe

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

The COVID Alert App and Privacy Panic

COVID Alert appWe’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

Books Read: 2Q 2020

  1. Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux (2018). Collection of essays: celebrity profiles, book introductions, memoirs, travel pieces. More substantial than you might expect—especially the celebrity profiles.
  2. Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany (1966). Classic science fiction novel, an early example of linguistics-based sf inspired by the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Short, evocative, picturesque.
  3. The Last Emperox by John Scalzi (2020). Final novel in the Interdependency series; wraps up loose threads in a manner that is twisty of plot and sweary of diction.
  4. Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968). Another picturesque classic science fiction novel, a strange admixture of space travel, vengeance and tarot.
  5. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien (1937). Reread for an online discussion.
  6. Snake by Erica Wright (2020, forthcoming). Part of the Object Lessons series. Review in production.
  7. The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction by Justine Larbalestier (2002). Based on her Ph.D. dissertation; a look at the history of the science fiction field’s girl-cooties problem.
  8. The Art of Star Wars Rebels by Daniel Wallace (2020). Art book that takes us behind the scenes of my favourite Star Wars series. Not quite enough of the behind-the-scenes; it’s more a visual encyclopedia.
  9. Secrets of Snakes: The Science Beyond the Myths by David A. Steen (2019). Short and useful guide debunking popular myths about snakes, which is something I’ve had to do a lot of as well. A review is probably coming. Reviewed here.
  10. The Field Herping Guide: Finding Amphibians and Reptiles in the Wild by Mike Pingleton and Joshua Holbrook (2019). It’s not just about how to find reptiles and amphibians in the field, it’s about ethics and responsible behaviour: possibly the first book of its kind to deal with those issues.
  11. The Land Across by Gene Wolfe (2013). Enigmatic travel novel about a post-Soviet Ruritania, with all of late Wolfe’s strengths and weaknesses.
  12. American Snakes by Sean P. Graham (2018). Reviewed here.

American Snakes

While reading Sean P. Graham’s American Snakes (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018), I suddenly realized that most of the snake books in my library are now at least a generation old. That’s a function of my buying most of them in a burst of enthusiasm around 20 years ago. It was easy for me to assume that I’d read everything there was to read at the subject, at least at the level at which I was capable of reading (any further, and I’d have to take a degree in the subject). But herpetology has not stood still in the ensuing decades: there have been new studies, and new discoveries—and new people doing it. Graham, an assistant professor at Sul Ross State University in Texas, is very much a member of a new generation of herpetologists, and American Snakes very much reflects that fact.

Telescope Wars

A class-action antitrust lawsuit has been filed against telescope companies Celestron and Sky-Watcher, alleging price-fixing by their parent company, Synta, with its ostensible competitor, Ningbo Sunny, which owns Meade. Together Synta and Ningbo Sunny sell 80 percent of all telescopes in the United States, and the suit alleges that the companies agreed to avoid competing with each other, leaving one or the other company alone in a given market segment; see the court filing. None of the claims has been proven in court. Meade has already lost a lawsuit alleging price fixing and collusion brought by competitor Orion Telescopes, in which Orion was awarded more than $50 million in damages; Meade filed for bankruptcy. This new lawsuit draws on court documents from the Orion case.

An Analysis of Fountain Pen Ink Reviews

Adam Santone did a quantitative analysis of 15,000 customer reviews of 500 fountain pen inks sold on the Goulet Pen Company website. Those reviews rated inks by characteristics like drying time, flow, shading and water resistance, and Adam collated those ratings into useful comparative tables. There are some artifacts here and there—I don’t think Iroshizuku Syo-ro is supposed to be water-resistant—and different bottle sizes of the same ink have different entries, because reviews are by the SKU, but this will really help inform my ink buying in the future. [r/fountainpens]

Ghibli Week

Ghibli Week was Polygon’s week-long (25-30 May) look at Studio Ghibli, its relationship with Disney, and (of course) its movies, predicated by those movies finally becoming available digitally and via streaming services, making them more accessible than they’ve ever been. A lot of interesting, focused articles on the themes, influences and behind-the-scenes activities of these films.

Goober, 2004-2020

Our oldest cat, Goober, died at noon today. He’d been suffering from kidney failure for some time, and this week things took a turn for the worse: he stopped eating and drinking, and was close to the end on multiple fronts. So we took him to the vet and had done what needed doing.

Here are some things you should know about Goober:

He was a big cat. When we first saw him at the Arnprior animal shelter on 28 July 2004, he was larger than the other kittens in the room. There were a lot of other kittens in the room, dozens of them, and they were passing infections back and forth. Goober—then called Mervyn—seemed a little bigger, a little older, and possibly a little harder for the shelter to place; also maybe a little healthier, a little more robust, but we’ll get into that later.

Instances of Head-Switching

Book cover: Instances of Head-SwitchingMy review of Teresa Milbrodt’s new short-story collection, Instances of Head-Switching (Shade Mountain Press, 2020) is now online at Strange Horizons. This is my first review for Strange Horizons, which incidentally is running its annual fund drive this month. They acknowledge that trying to raise funds at a time like this is a hell of an ask, but it’s donations that keep their lights on and pay their contributors (like me), so if you’re able and inclined, please check out their Kickstarter.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books | Bookshop

The Possible Origins of My Surname

My family history is patchy, especially on the Crowe side. The Oxford Dictionary of Family Names in Britain and Ireland identifies two regional loci of the Crowe surname: one in an axis from Norfolk to London, the other apparently emanating from the Isle of Man and found in nearby Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Northumbria. I believe my great-great-grandfather came to Canada from London, so I’m probably from the Norfolk-to-London group. The Dictionary says that surname derives from “Middle English crou, crowe ‘crow’ (Old English crāwe), denoting someone with dark hair or a dark complexion, or perhaps a raucous individual.” The Manx surname is said to derive from “Mac Conchrada ‘son of Cú-chrada’, a personal name meaning ‘hound of destruction’”—which sounds just a bit too badass to be true.

About the iOS Family Sharing Bug

On Friday Jennifer discovered that she could no longer run Facebook on her iPhone; the app gave an error message telling her that “This app is no longer shared with you.” This bug appears to be widespread if not ragingly common; the working theory (given the error message) is that a bug in Family Sharing is to blame. Deleting and reinstalling the misbehaving app solves the problem, but as AppleInsider points out, that might lose you your data: offloading the app (under Settings > General > iPhone Storage), rather than deleting it, is the better option. Update: TechCrunch reports that Apple has fixed the bug.

Fountain Pen Nib Size Charts

Fountain pen nibs come in fine, medium and other sizes, but there’s no standard definition for those terms. A Japanese nib is usually a size finer than its European equivalent, for example, but there are exceptions all over the place. There are guides to a nib’s tipping size—the actual writing surface, measured in tenths of a millimetre—from Pen Chalet and Nibs.com, but they don’t necessarily tell the whole story. According to Pen Chalet, a TWSBI medium nib has the same tipping size as a Pilot medium, but my TWSBI Eco writes much thicker than my Pilot Metropolitan. The TWSBI nib might be wetter, and the ink might be too. And at the moment my Eco is loaded with a quick-drying ink that feathers a little on good paper. So it seems that there are other factors at play. I’ll figure them out as I go.

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