April 2015

The Great Snake Weigh-in of 2015

This month Jennifer and I started doing something we’ve been meaning to do since the fall of 2013: weigh all the snakes in our menagerie. It’s something neither of us has ever done before; we’d had vague ideas of the approximate weights of our various critters, but that’s about it.

Our method was pretty straightforward: tare the scale, stick the snake on it, and take its picture. Those of you who follow me on social media will have seen the photos already; I’ve assembled them into a photo album here.

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Valentina Lisitsa and Artists’ Social Capital

Here’s my take on the Valentina Lisitsa affair.

Lisitsa, a Russian-speaking, Ukrainian-born classical pianist, was scheduled to perform Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra last week, but she was dropped by the TSO over a series of offensive tweets about ethnic Ukrainians and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Lisitsa has a social media presence—her reputation was basically made on YouTube—and the inevitable online shitstorm ensued. That shitstorm swallowed up Stewart Goodyear, the pianist tapped to replace Lisitsa, who had to bow out in turn. (More at Musical Toronto and NPR.)

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Back to Brontosaurus

A new paper has resurrected Brontosaurus as a valid taxon. The cladistic study of diplodocid dinosaurs concluded that there were substantial differences between Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus: the former is even more robust and has a distinctly thicker neck. News coverage: Nature, Scientific American, Smithsonian.

O. C. Marsh named Apatosaurus ajax in 1877 and Brontosaurus excelsus two years later. Paleontologists later concluded that ajax and excelsus were just two different species of the same genus. The rules of scientific nomenclature generally hold that the senior name takes precedence. Since Apatosaurus was named first, “Brontosaurus” had to give way. (This is, by the way, what will happen with Triceratops and Torosaurus, if the proposal that Torosaurus is the mature form of Triceratops gains wide acceptance: Triceratops came first.)

It’s important not to get too excited over this sort of thing. It happens all the time in the biological sciences (see Tom Spears’s piece in the Ottawa Citizen). Herpetologists have been on a reclassification rampage for the last couple of decades; it’s no different with dinosaurs.

As a child who read every damn dinosaur book in the library, no matter how old, I was mightily confused by the inconsistent naming: nomena dubia were in every book. Anatosaurus and Trachodon have since been folded into Edmontosaurus, Stenonchyosaurus has been reclassified as the previously mysterious Troodon, and Brachiosaurus has been split in two, so that now some mounted skeletons are a mix of Brachiosaurus altithorax and Giraffatitan brancai.

The fact that Deinonychus antirrhopus was briefly considered a species of Velociraptor is probably the reason why Velociraptor—an Asian dromaeosaurid about the size of a turkey—ended up in Jurassic Park as something way too big.

And there’s no guarantee that this study will be the last word on the subject. A decade from now someone else may produce equally convincing arguments that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus should be combined after all. It happens all the time.

Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph


I’ve read Beethoven biographies before, but Jan Swafford’s Beethoven: Anguish and Triumph (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) is in a different category altogether. For one thing, it’s a thousand pages long. But despite its length it maintains an analytical coherence that can mark the best biographies, regardless of their length, whereas the worst just muddle through anecdote after anecdote. Swafford, who’s also written about Brahms and Charles Ives, sketches two distinct threads—the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) and his precarious health—and examines how those two things had an impact on Beethoven and his work.

That examination benefits from the book’s length and Swafford’s perspective on Beethoven’s entire life (rather than a specific work, say the Ninth). Beethoven’s encroaching deafness is often related to his work with no real insight; he was, in fact, plagued with a number of illnesses, mostly due to lead poisoning and alcoholism. And it’s impossible to understand the political and philosophical core of the Ninth Symphony without understanding how Beethoven grew up in and related to the Aufklärung, the Napoleonic Wars, and the increasing political repression of Metternich-era Austria that led to the Biedermeier period.

Swafford is a composer himself and spends considerable time—whole chapters, for some pieces—analysing Beethoven’s music in considerable detail. If you’re not a musical sort you can skip past these sections, the way that a lot of readers might gloss over the songs and poetry in The Lord of the Rings, but I found his analyses quite illuminating when they covered a piece I’d studied and knew very well.

More importantly, he’s better able to describe what the hell Beethoven was doing, particularly in relation to the trends of the time and his peers. It is, in other words, valuable to have a composer’s perspective, rather than a classical music devotee’s—all the difference between the perspective of an oenophile and a winemaker.

It makes the book much more about the music and less about the personality. Yes, it’s a biography, and as such has to be about the personality, but we wouldn’t be reading about a violent and unhygienic misanthrope if he wasn’t producing some of the best music in human history.

I’m not at all surprised it took Swafford twelve years to write this thing; he’s produced something very close to the authoritative biography on the man.

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