Jonathan Crowe

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

Garter Snakes Prefer the Company of Their Friends

Eastern Garter Snakes, Shawville QC, April 2018.A recent study exploring social behaviour in Eastern Garter Snakes (Thamnophis s. sirtalis) found that snakes “actively seek social interaction, prefer to remain with larger aggregates, and associate nonrandomly with specific individuals or groups.” In other words, they had preferences as to who they hung out with. “The snakes’ social networks were perturbed twice a day by ‘shuffling’ their locations. Despite these disturbances, the snakes eventually re-formed their preferred social environment.” This isn’t the first time snakes’ social preferences have been documented. And it’s no surprise to me that garter snakes also exhibit this sort of behaviour: I’ve observed that captive garter snakes do much better when kept in groups, and they aggregate all the time in the wild. [Science]

John Scalzi’s Interdependency Novels in One Chart

Graph: Number of Times the Word ‘Fuck‘ (or a Variant Thereof) Was Used in John Scalzi’s Interdependency Novels

Those of you who’ve read this series—The Last Emperox came out this week, in case you missed it—know exactly what I’m referring to here. I mean, we could break it down by character, but really, what would be the point in that?

Using Fountain Pens When You’re Left Handed

Ana Reinert’s Fountain Pen Guide for the Left-handed Writer and Goulet Pens’s Fountain Pens for Lefties set out some of the challenges faced by left-handed fountain pen users like me. Mostly the challenges involve having to push the nib across the page rather than pull it, and smudging your writing with your hand before the ink has time to dry. For my part I’ve had trouble with fine nibs scratching the page, and with smudging ink (particularly on Clairefontaine Triomphe pads; I suspect I’ll have the same trouble with Rhodia, but I haven’t broken into my stash of that stuff yet). Options include avoiding flex and stub nibs and using fast-drying inks. And some pens just work better: the medium-nib Pilot Metropolitan I use right now is the best pen I’ve ever written with.

Taking Facebook Quizzes Is a Bad Idea

From January, but all the more relevant now that more people are at home, bored and wasting time on social media: Why taking Facebook quizzes are a bad idea. The quizzes ask questions—like the name of your first pet, the city of your birth or the month of your birth—that are often used as security questions for bank accounts. No single quiz asks for enough information to do it, but you might be giving criminals enough information across multiple quizzes to hack your account. After all, you don’t know who’s behind these quizzes, but they know who you are—because you’re using your Facebook account!

Star Maps Reviewed

New book review! I review the third edition of Nick Kanas’s Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (Springer Praxis, 2019) in the March 2020 issue of Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society. The issue is now available for download (PDF), as are earlier issues of Calafia.

Update: The review is now available at The Map Room.

Amazon (Canada, UK) | Apple BooksBookshop

The Elements of Cat Vacuuming


Vacuuming a cat requires only one thing: a cat with zero fucks to give. A cat that stands their ground when other cats scatter to the wind. A cat that cannot be yelled at to get down from there. A cat that ignores what he chooses to ignore. A cat that stands athwart. A cat like that will not run when the vacuum cleaner comes out. A cat like that will sit there and dare you to vacuum them. And then not care if you do. Because running away and giving a damn is just too much work. (Also, they might actually enjoy it, but would prefer it if you didn’t tell anyone.)

Goober has always been a cat you could vacuum. That’s because Goober is serene in his own domain: he is only afraid if he gets outside, or is moved into a new home, or goes to the vet. I’m sad to report that he is now in decline: he’s lost a lot of weight and is looking shakier all the time. He turns 16 this month, and we’re not sure how much longer we’ll have him. But he’ll still gouge your knees if you don’t pick him up, and grab your plate away from you if he wants your food—and yes, he won’t budge if you bring out the vacuum.

He’d probably still punch a dog, if a dog were available for him to punch.

An Argument Against Using mtDNA to Define Species

Reptile taxonomy has been upended in recent decades by studies that use mitochondrial DNA—and only mtDNA—to reorganize and subdivide existing species into new groups. In a point-of-view piece for Herpetological Review exploring the usefulness and validity of subspecies as a concept, David Hillis argues against this practice, pointing to a mismatch between mtDNA and intergradation zones, and new studies looking at nuclear gene flow that disagree with mtDNA findings, thanks to which taxonomic changes based on mtDNA are beginning to be reversed. [Andrew DuBois]

Canon Is Ruining How We Enjoy Movies and Television

io9’s James Whitbrook argues that our obsession with canon—whether a story is an “official” part of a fictional universe—is ruining our ability to enjoy stories, because it values factoids and trivia over storytelling. “It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details.” True that. (I also think people obsess about canon because, deep down, some part of them believes their fictional universe is real: it’s why they freak out when a show breaks established canon.)

Books Read: 1Q 2020

  1. The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson (1954). Influential epic fantasy published the same year as The Fellowship of the Ring, so it’s a Norse-based fantasy that isn’t Tolkien-derivative. Less good at vatic speech than JRRT: it contains 38 uses of the word “quoth”; it feels like more.
  2. Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd ed.) by Octavia E. Butler (2005). Science fiction short story collection. My first experience of Butler, who’s better known at novel length, so I can’t say what’s indicative or emblematic, especially since it’s also a very short collection.
  3. The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley (2019). Science fiction novel; future soldiers experience time-shifts as their teleportation technology goes awry. Breathtaking, grunt-level, visceral mix of Slaughterhouse-Five and The Forever War. Recommended.
  4. The Bonjour Effect by Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau (2016). Book explaining the conversation codes and rituals in French society. (Speaking the language isn’t enough: I know this from experience.)
  5. The Assimilated Cuban’s Guide to Quantum Santeria by Carlos Hernandez (2016). Short story collection, a mix of genres from science fiction to fantasy to mainstream. Enjoyed very much; recommended.
  6. Dough: Simple Contemporary Bread by Richard Bertinet (2005). Another TV cookbook; ongoing research into breadmaking.
  7. Infomocracy by Malka Older (2016). Science fiction doesn’t do politics well, especially democratic politics on a global level: far too many emperors and dictators for my liking. Infomocracy imagines a world-level electoral system; the plot stress-tests the system to the point of failure.
  8. Star Maps: History, Artistry, and Cartography (3rd ed.) by Nick Kanas (2019). Reviewed for Calafia, the journal of the California Map Society. Link forthcoming.
  9. Scores: Reviews 1993-2003 by John Clute (2003). Collection of reviews and critical essays.
  10. Instances of Head-Switching by Teresa Milbrodt (2020, forthcoming). Review in productionUpdate: Reviewed in Strange Horizons.
  11. Bearded Women: Stories by Teresa Milbrodt (2011). The inner lives and struggles of circus freaks, who are treated with sensitivity and humanity. Read as background for the above review.
  12. Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2019). Mexican flapper-era road trip novel in which a poor relation is forced to team up with a trapped Mayan god. Very neat; recommended.
  13. On the Road with Gardner Dozois: Travel Narratives 1995-2000 by Gardner Dozois (2019). Dozois bookended convention appearances with vacations, about which he wrote up trip reports. Some moments, but pedestrian overall.
  14. The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken (2019). Second of a series of quantum-entangled space opera capers set in a universe controlled by Quebeckers from Venus, this one involving time travel. Fun; has symptoms of being a middle book.
  15. Lent by Jo Walton (2019). In real life, Ficino suggested that Savonarola was possessed by a demon; Jo runs with this idea in Lent, a fantasy novel that is basically the Renaissance Florence version of Groundhog Day—which should be enough to tell you whether this book is for you.

The CRA Has Not Forgotten Us Luddites

About 90 percent of Canadian taxpayers file their income tax returns electronically, but the Canada Revenue Agency would like to remind the remaining holdouts that filing your taxes by paper is just fine by them. Though it’s a bit harder to lay hands on a paper tax package: they’re available at fewer locations (i.e., no longer at the post office), or you can order one, or print one out. People who filed by paper last year will get their tax packages mailed to them, which I can confirm: despite living on the technological edge most of the time, I still do ours by paper for reasons I can’t quite explain or justify.

Stamps from Countries That Don’t Exist

Atlas Obscura looks at stamps from countries that don’t exist—micronations and other fictitious entities issue stamps in an attempt to confer legitimacy on themselves—and the fun of collecting them, by interviewing Laura Steward, who curated an exhibition of such stamps at a New York art fair last month.

The New Trophies of Domesticity

KitchenAid stand mixers and Le Creuset dutch ovens have become “small markers of stability and sophistication, coveted by young people for whom traditional indicators of both often remain out of reach,” The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull writes, and boy (glances at kitchen) do I feel seen. People delaying marriage and homeownership are upgrading their cheap starter equipment themselves instead of getting them as wedding gifts. As status markers go, though, they’re durable and practical: they may be expensive, but they last.

Leica M10 Monochrom

Leica M10 Monochrom (Leica)I have a new lust object: the Leica M10 Monochrom, a digital rangefinder camera with a full-frame, 40-megapixel sensor that only shoots in black and white. There are distinct advantages to going without the usual colour filters, which absorb light and reduce sharpness. This would incidentally make a hell of an astrophotography camera (high-end astroimaging shoots monochrome through specialized filters: you could do that with this but not a digital SLR). Fortunately for me, like all good lust objects this one is unattainable: it costs US$8,300, plus expect to spend as much again on lenses, because Leica.

When Average Equals Amazing

ChefSteps created a chocolate chip cookie recipe by using the average amounts used in 10 cookie recipes: the average of the amount of baking soda, flour, salt, et cetera, used in these recipes. The result was the best chocolate chip cookie they’d ever tasted. “There is no reason why this should have worked. But this cookie checks all the cookie qualifier boxes in a big way. It’s the perfect blend of chewy, crispy, buttery, chocolatey goodness—it is far more than average.” That’s it: we’re so baking this.

Adventures in Artisanal Snow Shovelling

Where we live is a surprisingly lucky place, weather-wise. Storm systems often pass just south of us, meaning that when bad weather hits the St. Lawrence corridor, or Ottawa, it hits us much less severely, or misses us altogether. Or, because we’re a couple of degrees cooler than the city, we get snow when Ottawa gets freezing rain.

That can mean a lot of shovelling, but when you buy a house in your mid-forties, certain things become novel and interesting that others in your cohort got sick of doing decades ago. Shovelling the driveway is one of those things for us.

For the longest time we didn’t have a driveway, or had a parking lot with plow service: all we had to do was shovel out the car and the walk. Now we do have a driveway all to ourselves, and it’s fairly large: about 30 metres long, and wide enough for two cars. And we don’t have a plow service to take most of it away. So we shovel it out ourselves, by hand. With, you know, shovels.

Jennifer next to a snowbankAround here this is apparently evidence that we are off our nuts. People buy big and expensive gas-powered snowblowers to remove snow from driveways half the size of ours. But for the most part we don’t find it all that onerous, especially if I’m feeling well enough to pitch in. When there’s two of us doing it we can usually get it done in well under an hour.

And we try to do it as quickly as we can after it snows. This often means we’re out there several times a week, or even a day. But there’s a method to this madness. If you’re going to shovel the driveway, you have to be zealous about it or there’s no point. Keeping the surface bare makes it easier to shovel the next time, otherwise there’s rough ice and it’s a pain to clear things off. In order to do it easily, you have to do it a lot.

Greenworks electric snowthrowerThis doesn’t always work, mind. Last year the snow came down so often and so heavily that I threw my shoulder out: it was bothering me for months afterward. Doing it by hand has consequences. So for this season we bought a small, electric snowthrower to handle the heavier snow days. It’s no good on the snow of the kind we had over the weekend (heavy and wet and slushy), but it has come in handy on three occasions so far. It throws the snow further than we can, and that helps keep the berms from getting too steep. While it’s a bit underpowered for what we have, I wanted to avoid a gas model, and the high-powered blowers all run on gas.

And sometimes a combination of wintry mix or freezing rain renders the driveway an unshovelable mass of hard ice, which means we have to break out the ice chipper. On a driveway our size that’s a brutal, multi-day job, one that leaves our arms more or less gelatinous. But the end result makes the next snowfall that much easier to deal with.

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