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

Month: July 2020

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. Reviewed here.
  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.

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