Jonathan Crowe

Map blogger. Science fiction and fantasy critic and writer. Snake whisperer.

How the USPS Reads Unreadable Addresses

And here I was, using a typewriter to type addresses on envelopes or labels for maximum legibility and going to the trouble to look up the ZIP+4 code, because I wanted my letters to get there as quickly and as painlessly as possible. That turns out to be even more overkill than I thought: the USPS has a system for reading badly addressed mail: a single Remote Encoding Facility in Salt Lake City, Utah. There used to be 55 such facilities, but it’s been cut down to just one thanks to dramatically improved OCR. Tom Scott visits the facility in this video; Atlas Obscura had a short writeup in 2015.

Night of the Cooters Premiere

The film version of Howard Waldrop’s “Night of the Cootershas its world premiere tomorrow night at the L.A. Shorts International Film Festival. It’s 34 minutes long, animated using the trioscope process, and stars (and is directed by) Vincent d’Onofrio. I hope the film maintains the zaniness of Waldrop’s original story, which transparently imagined its sheriff protagonist as Slim Pickens—who was not available for this production on account of having died in 1983. The trailer (below), which I completely missed when it was released in December, sheds no light on that question (previously).

The Cartographers

I bet you’ve been wondering what I thought about Peng Shepherd’s novel The Cartographers (William Morrow/Orion, March 2022). After all, it’s a literary fantasy about maps: is it even possible for a book to be more relevant to my interests? Well, wonder no longer, because I’ve reviewed it for Strange Horizons.

This piece is a little bit different from the usual review, in that it examines The Cartographers in the context of mysteries and fantasy that deploy similar map tropes, as well as the idées fixes our culture has about maps. As I write in the review, there’s an awful lot for me to unpack:

I have been writing about maps for nearly two decades, and in that time I have encountered many works of fiction that incorporate maps and map tropes into their storytelling, whether as paratexts or as plot elements, and I have never encountered a story, at any length, as thoroughly encompassed by maps as The Cartographers. It’s not just that almost every character in the book works with maps in some fashion, whether as a cartographer, artist, librarian, map dealer, or technician. Nor are maps just a plot point—they are the point. The Cartographers is a Stations of the Map: its pilgrimage follows a path that touches on so many aspects of maps and mapmaking, from academic cartography to fire insurance maps. It spends time on the purpose and meaning of maps: it aspires to an almost Socratic dialogue. It deploys familiar fantasy genre tropes about maps. But it’s structured as a mystery novel, and opens with a murder.

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‘She Was in Danger. Many Times.’

In an excerpt from her new memoir, Run Towards the Danger, Sarah Polley reflects on her traumatic experience as an eight-year-old actor on the set of Terry Gilliam’s Adventures of Baron Munchausen (a movie that meant, and still means, a great deal to me), where she was put in physical danger more than once. She’s written about it before, but: “As the years go on and Terry makes more and more comments that demonstrate not just a childlike incapacity for understanding grown-up problems but a wilful dismissal of movements that seek to claim equality and acknowledgment for past harms, I see him, and the role he played in the mayhem back then, differently. I see it in the context of a cultural phenomenon of what many white men have been allowed to get away with in the name of art. Though he was magical and brilliant and made images and stories that will live for a long, long time, it’s hard to calculate whether they were worth the price of the hell that so many went through over the years to help him make them.”

The Online Discussions Around ADHD

Also at the new Gawker, James Greig writes that while he’s relieved to have been recently diagnosed with ADHD, he’s kind of annoyed by the online discussions around ADHD. “What’s really striking is the extent to which a disorder associated with garrulousness and substance abuse has been captured so utterly by nerds. To what neurodivergent urges would I now be subjected? Would I be tempted to start drawing pastel-colored webcomics about buying too many notebooks or set up a TikTok account with my boyfriend in which he is assigned the role of baffled but tolerant neurotypical and I am essentially a child? […] I didn’t want to do any of those things, but I did start to consider what we are telling ourselves—and one another—about ADHD.” It reminds me the online discourse a generation ago about what was then called Asperger’s, which was also framed in nerd-superpower terms (and also just as classist).

‘We Need a Way to Mute America’

Writing in the relaunched, Bustle-owned Gawker, Australian Patrick Marlborough argues that we need the ability to mute America. “Why? Because America has no chill. America is exhausting. America is incapable of letting something be simply funny instead of a dread portent of their apocalyptic present. America is ruining the internet. […] America insists that you bear witness to it tripping on its dick and slamming its face into an uncountable row of scalding hot pies. You do more than bear witness, because American Twitter has the same kind of magnetic pull as a garbage disposal unit.”

Garlic in a Jar and the Casual Ableism of Foodie Culture

“The culture that surrounds cooking today is one that lends itself well to casual ableism,” writes Gabrielle Drolet in The Walrus. “It’s a culture that prizes specific ways of doing things over others, constantly pitting methods and recipes against one another: French-style scrambled eggs over American; minced garlic instead of pressed, nonstick pans against those made of cast iron, bouillon cubes against broth cartons against homemade stock.” Drolet had cause to reconsider the precepts of foodie culture when an injury limited her ability to cook the right way. “Often, the wrong choice is the easier (read: more accessible) one—and making it is a fatal flaw. These aren’t things to try to avoid when you can. They’re things you should never do, even though many of us don’t have a choice. This lack of nuance is what made me believe using accessibility tools might make me a bad cook, pushing me to hurt myself even when cooking alone.”

The Return of the Airship

BBC Future on the reinvention of the airship: “A new generation of airships—the lighter-than-air craft that don’t need conventional airports—will be built in a corner of Ohio which played a unique part in the history of aviation. What’s more, if built they will be housed in one of America’s most iconic structures, the Goodyear Airdock in Akron.”

Fantasy Blockbusters and the Failure of the Long Tail

Matthew Claxton sees the recent chartbusting Kickstarter by Brandon Sanderson as evidence of a disconnect between a small group of big names racking up the sales and the rest of the field, which gets critical attention but not much else. Also that Chris Anderson’s Long Tail, as applied today, is deeply broken when it comes to discoverability: “But where we were promised frictionless discovery, we got a series of loops back into the same things, over and over and over again. Rothfuss and Sanderson Jordan and G. R. R. M. and Tolkien and Lynch and Abercrombie, and you’re a couple of levels deep before you start regularly seeing names like Fonda Lee or R. F. Kuang. (And many of their recs will lead you back to guess where?).”

Stationery for the Strange

Toronto-based Wask Studios is the novelty store of stationery: weird dice, erasers and paper clips; sticky notes with the adhesive on the corner rather than the edge; rulers with the scale on the short side; rhombus-shaped notebooks; bookmarks made of matches. Office supplies as performance art.

Putting the Fact in Fantasy

Three years ago Tor.com published an essay of mine in which I argued that the classic fantasy map style was not something that would be used by characters in a fantasy world. Provocatively titled “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” it proved to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. The main complaint was that it was wrong for me to think that fantasy should follow the rules of the real world; fantasy was fantasy, and as such it was okay if its maps didn’t follow the rules.1 In fairness, my critics were the wrong audience for what I was trying to say.

They would also be the wrong audience for the book under consideration here: Putting the Fact into Fantasy, a collection of 50 short essays by various writers, edited by Dan Koboldt and published earlier this month by Writer’s Digest Books. The publisher is a hint as to the audience: these pieces are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction who want to up their game in terms of adding a touch of realism to their work. Because fantasy is built from recognizable real-world raw materials—horses and castles, archers and peasants, trade routes and languages, weapons and wounds—getting the real-world details right can in fact matter. They can save you from resorting to clichés, and knowledgeable readers from being thrown out of the story by what to them is an obvious error.2

Not Too Cheap to Upgrade

In December 2020 I won an eBay auction for a 1968 Royal 200. With shipping, the typewriter came to a grand total of $63.87. It was an ultraportable made in Japan by Silver-Seiko and sold under the venerable Royal brand; the 200 appears identical to the better-known Mercury. Our example turned out to be surprisingly good, not just for what it was—a cheap, small typewriter—but full stop: it types better and faster than many ostensibly superior machines, and despite some yellowed plastic1 it remains in terrific shape. But while its platen and sound insulation could stand replacing, I wondered whether it was worth spending money upgrading such a cheap typewriter: the expense would not necessarily be recouped if we decided to sell the thing on. Meanwhile, the typewriter blogger Joe Van Cleave went and did to his Royal Mercury what I was simply musing about: he replaced the platen and installed a sound insulation kit, with good results. He clearly intends to keep using his, and at this point I think I’m likely to do the same with mine. Resale value should be a moot point in this context. In a way it’s too bad that it’s no longer quite as silly to get J. J. Short to recover its platen, now that Joe’s broken this ground. I liked the idea of doing something silly.

Mechanical Watches

Bartosz Ciechanowski writes long, detailed explanatory articles about physics, math and engineering that are full of interactive, animated diagrams. His latest is about mechanical watches, which I found profoundly interesting (not least because the fundamentals of watches—mainsprings, escapements—also apply to manual typewriters, which are basically heavily modified clocks) and engrossing: there is a lot of material here.

The Gulf Stream Myth

If the Gulf Stream were somehow to shut down—something that it is hypothesized would happen due to climate change, as Greenland’s melting glaciers dump a ton of fresh water into the North Atlantic, disrupting the current1—it would not, it turns out, plunge Europe into a new ice age. That, at least, is the contention of Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. He argues that European winters are 15 to 20 degrees warmer than North American winters at the same latitudes for two reasons: one, the effect of the Rocky Mountains on air currents, which bring cold air south in North America but warm air north into western Europe; and two, the seasonal release of heat stored by the Atlantic Ocean itself. The Gulf Stream itself is responsible for only a few degrees’ warming; if it were taken away, the cooling effect would not be enough to overwhelm the much larger warming effect from climate change.

Pilot Announces Iroshizuku Cartridges

Pilot just announced that 12 inks from its premium Iroshizuku line will be released in cartridge form next month. (Prior to this, only its basic ink colours could be had as cartridges.) Iroshizuku inks are extraordinarily good (we have nine different colours); this move will make them accessible to people who can’t or won’t use bottled ink. (Pilot’s cartridges are proprietary: they can only be used in Pilot pens. But with just a few exceptions even their most expensive pens can take a cartridge.) At 900¥ (before taxes), a box of six is three times the price of their regular cartridge pack, but not ridiculous compared to premium brands: regular Pilot cartridges are actually pretty cheap as cartridges go. (Also, I’m comparing the Japanese domestic price to the price here: I have no idea whether we’ll be seeing these over here.)

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