Social Media and Snake Identification

Local snake identification groups on Facebook have been reducing the number of snakes being killed out of fear, Emily Willingham reports for Scientific American. The work of snake ID groups, such as Facebook’s Snake Identification group or Reddit’s r/whats­this­snake subreddit, has been covered before (see Sierra in 2017), and now that I no longer respond to snake ID requests myself, I point people to these very groups. The interesting twist here is that these are local groups, focusing on a specific region (e.g. north Texas). Not only is local expertise more relevant and reliable (r/whatsthissnake gets ID requests from every continent), but a local group might also help someone get on-site assistance (not every snake problem can be solved remotely).

Not Learning Cursive Means Not Being Able to Read It

“In the future, cursive will have to be taught to scholars the way Elizabethan secretary hand or paleography is today.” History professor and former Harvard president Drew Gilpin Faust bemoans the loss of cursive handwriting, not so much in terms of people no longer being able to write it, but in no longer being able to read it—which has implications for her (and my former) field and her students, in that a lot of historical sources are handwritten.

(My wife, a high school teacher, has been running into this problem: for the most part, not only do her students no longer use cursive, they have trouble reading her notes.)

‘Instagram Is Dead’

Om Malik on what Instagram has become: “What’s left is a constantly mutating product that copies features from ‘whomever is popular now’ service—Snapchat, TikTok, or whatever. It is all about marketing and selling substandard products and mediocre services by influencers with less depth than a sheet of paper. ¶ It has become QVC 2.0.” The online world is run by people who actually think that what we really want to do is watch marketing videos interrupted by commercials.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals

If you had to guess, at what point on the timeline do you think a book about prehistoric mammals would begin its tale? Most of us, I suspect, would imagine that book to start at the end of the Cretaceous, when the asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs and ushered in the so-called Age of Mammals. But surprise! Steve Brusatte’s latest book, The Rise and Reign of the Mammals, doesn’t do that. In fact, the asteroid strike shows up halfway through the book. In other words: the entire first half of a book about prehistoric mammals covers the period before the Age of Mammals. The first half is the rise, the second the reign: get it?

That’s because The Rise and Reign of the Mammals isn’t about the Age of Mammals, i.e. the Cenozoic; it’s about the mammals. And their origin predates the dinosaurs by a lot. And like Brusatte’s previous book, The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs (reviewed here), the focus is on evolution. What makes a mammal? (It’s not about the semi-eponymous mammary glands, which don’t fossilize in any event; it’s mostly about the jaw.) When did mammal characteristics evolve? What kinds of mammals evolved, and where, and what happened to them?

And again like the previous book, that evolution is presented in context: with the state of the climate in particular, and what mammals were competing against. It’s a paleontological shibboleth that the presence of dinosaurs suppressed mammalian evolution, in that mammals were kept small; Brusatte argues that mammals kept dinosaurs big—at least the non-avian kind. It’s that context—time, climate, habitat, other species—that made The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs stand out, and the same is true here: if you liked the last one, you’ll like this one too.

Add to that the fact that, at least as far as popular culture is concerned, mammal evolution is somewhat overlooked of late. This book remedies that, and in spades.

The Rise and Reign of the Mammals
by Steve Brusatte
Mariner, 7 Jun 2022 | Picador, 9 Jun 2022 (UK)
Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books (UK) | Bookshop

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.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple Books (UK) | Bookshop

‘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).