Jonathan Crowe

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

Why He Photographs Snakes

At Photography Life, wildlife photographer Nicholas Hess explains why he photographs snakes, and explains a few of his techniques. He’s very good at it. He’s been at it for a decade. And he’s 19 years old, which means he started, wow, really young. Here’s his Flickr account.

What Is a Grail Pen?

Interesting discussion over at r/fountainpens about the definition of a term bandied about a lot in the fountain pen community: the “grail” pen. For most pen collectors it refers to a singular pen they aspire to but can’t easily buy; the OP argues that “grail” isn’t the right metaphor if it refers to a pen that is slightly outside the buyer’s budget but is readily available. There are some interesting takes in this thread (which is not something you can always say): one points out the absurdity of someone having a “next grail pen,” another that a lot of this depends on how much money you have. It’s possible to spend four figures on a pen, but for most people a $50 pen is the most expensive writing instrument they will ever own—or need to own.

Surprise! FeedBurner Is Not Being Shut Down

Those of us who use FeedBurner—Google’s RSS feed management service—have been expecting Google to close it down at any moment for about a decade now: in 2012 they shut down the APIs and terminated in-feed advertising; since then it’s lain fallow with next to no news and zero changes. Today FeedBurner announced that rather than being closed down, it’s being moved to new infrastructure, where fewer features will be available. “Core feed management functionality will continue to be supported, such as the ability to change the URL, source feed, title, and podcast metadata of your feed. Basic analytics on feed requests and the ability to create enclosure tags for MP3 files will also continue to be supported.” But email subscriptions in particular are being discontinued. Which is a bummer: FeedBurner was one of the few ways to auto-generate a daily email digest of blog posts, and possibly the only free one. (The Map Room uses it; I’ll have to switch to another service.)

Cab Ride Train Videos

The Washington Post looks at the genre of cab ride train videos: long, uninterrupted videos of complete train journeys as seen from the locomotive’s cab. (See Jalopnik’s post if you can’t get past the Post’s registration wall.) There are more than 8,000 such videos listed at Rail Cab Rides, and they’re all over YouTube: they range from scenic mountain railways to the fastest of high-speed trains. (For example, this channel, which I follow, focuses on French trains; it’s hard to call this subgenre “slow TV” when you’re watching TGVs at full speed.) I find them oddly addictive: some people use them as background, but I can’t stop paying attention.

The Backlash Against The Empire Strikes Back

I suspected as much: “The initial reaction [to] The Empire Strikes Back is eerily similar to that of 2017’s Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” writes Zachary Sosland in Looper. “Both middle chapters of their respective trilogies tried to take the Star Wars franchise in exciting new directions, and both receiving mixed receptions from fans who were initially displeased with being knocked so far out of their comfort zones. Of course, the backlash against The Last Jedi was much louder, but the point still stands.”

The Show That Wouldn’t Die

Having been axed by Netflix after their second season on the platform, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is attempting yet another comeback via a Kickstarter to setup a new online platform not subject to the vagaries of networks and streaming platforms. As of this writing they’re above 87 percent of the way to their first goal; goals beyond that will increase the number of new MST3k episodes made.

Small and Slow

Woke up to discover that our glossy snake had died overnight. Unlike Doofus, this was not unexpected: she was old (I got her in September 2001, and she wasn’t a baby then) and declining; she hadn’t eaten in months.

She was a runt for her species: glossy snakes are usually larger. But she was pretty gentle, which made her useful in introducing nervous people to snakes. In my experience most people in North America slot harmless snakes into one of two categories: small and fast (garter snakes) or slow and huge (pythons). The glossy snake was small and slow, which helped. A nice little snake.

(She was also massively chonky: glossy snakes are desert creatures who normally feed on lizards; an all-mouse diet in captivity led to some serious fatty deposits.)

Doofus, a cat, ensconced on a cushion.

Doofus, 2007-2021

We lost our cat Doofus on Friday. His decline was sudden, sharp and unexpected: he went from apparently fine to a memory in the span of a week. And we’re still very much in shock about it.

Doofus on the piano bench (January 2021)

He was at the vet on Wednesday on account of his having become increasingly lethargic and barfing more than usual (which with Doofus was saying something). The vet found some indications that he had early stage one kidney disease, and prescribed a new diet and some medication. Despite this his condition deteriorated sharply the next day. He went from ambulatory to unable to manage stairs within a matter of hours, and then suffered a severe and prolonged seizure. Back to the vet as soon as we could the following morning, where despite being administered anti-seizure meds, he suffered three more seizures, at which point it was clear that recovery was impossible. We ended it at two in the afternoon on Friday.

The Muppet Show on Disney+

The Muppet Show arrived on Disney+ last Friday; this iteration restores a number of segments that were cut from the DVD releases of seasons one through three, and includes seasons four and five, which never saw DVD release. That’s not to say that the Disney+ version of The Muppet Show is exactly as broadcast. Two episodes are missing, and some musical sequences have been cut due to rights issues that even the Mouse can’t overcome. Internet sleuths have been tracking which episodes are missing segments: see Reddit and the Muppet Wiki. Also, some episodes are getting content warnings.

How Mars Landings Became More Accurate

This Scientific American article looks at how landings on Mars have gotten more and more precise, shrinking the “landing ellipse” from 300 km × 100 km (Viking) to 7.7 km × 6.6 km (Perseverance), which enables landings in places other than wide undifferentiated plains. Some locales will be still be off-limits for some time: “For instance, scientists cannot propose landing on high-altitude features such as Olympus Mons because the atmosphere overhead is too tenuous to sufficiently slow down a spacecraft. Regions with very rough terrain or steep slopes are also off-limits, even with [Terrain Relative Navigation]. Furthermore, features such as polar ice caps, canyons, lava tubes and sand dunes offer poor prospects for wheeled rovers and would require alternate forms of mobility.”

Driftwood

Book cover: Driftwood

My review of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood (Tachyon, Aug. 2020) is now online at Strange Horizons. “In around two hundred pages of fairly large type it has a great deal to say about memory, loss, and survivorship, and it does so on a stage that is as vast as any in epic fantasy.” Amazon (Canada, UK)

Meanwhile, Strange Horizons starts each year by asking its reviewers to look back at what they’ve read in the previous year; part one of “2020 in Review” has a couple of paragraphs from yours truly.

In Good Faith

My friend Dominik Parisien is a disabled writer, editor and poet; in the latest issue of Maisonneuve he talks about his childhood experience with a faith healer, and draws this, shall we say, pointed parallel between that sort of quackery and the magical thinking people engage in with the disabled: “These misguided attempts at healing aren’t just carried out by religious people or practitioners. […] Disabled and chronically ill people are constantly told our conditions exist because of a lack of belief, or effort, or willpower. A better attitude will cure you, or yoga, or a new diet. Abled people, religious or not, remain convinced they can heal us, and will try to do so, whether we welcome it or not. This happens everywhere from houses of worship to doctors’ offices, rehabilitation centres and care homes, to places entirely unrelated to treatment like schools, parks and restaurants.”

Spinosaurus: A Heron, not a Crocodile

Spinosaurus aegyptiacus
Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Art by Gustavo Monroy-Becerril, 2020. Wikimedia Commons.

A new study suggests that Spinosaurus, the weird sailbacked theropod dinosaur widely considered to be an aquatic predator, may have been a wader rather than a swimmer. “The purported arguments that Spinosaurus was some croc-like or even stem-whale like animal spending the vast majority of its time in water, and the way it has been illustrated swimming in deep water, and even diving and pursuing fish does not hold up to scrutiny. Instead, a wading model of a more heron- or stork-like animal that spent a lot of time in and around water, but fundamentally fished while standing rather than swimming, is supported.” The authors’ argument is based on Spinosaurus’s physiology, which doesn’t, in their view, support fast swimming, and is more like other theropods than crocodilians.

The Musicwriter

The Musicwriter is one of several music typewriters created to print sheet music. Some music typewriters were their own thing, whereas the Musicwriter started life as a normal typewriter before being converted to print notes and staves. You operated it by typing with the right hand and moving the carriage with the left, which sounds a bit tricky to get right—like writing music with an Etch-a-Sketch. Several typewriters served as Musicwriter root stock over the years, including the 6-series Smith-Corona and, more recently, the Olympia SG3 (an example of which can be seen in this Facebook group post). More about Musicwriters from Ted Munk in Et Cetera 109 (2015), pp. 12-15, and in this addendum collecting all kinds of photos, ephemera and type samples.

Queens of the Keyboard

Robert Messenger looks at the mid-20th-century phenomenon of international speed-typing competitions, and the women who competed in them. Explain to me how these women are not already the subject of a Netflix series like The Queen’s Gambit: the 1920s rivalry between Millicent Woodward and Robert George Curtis could be a movie all by itself.

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