January 2005

More mudpuppy photos

More photos have been added to the Mudpuppy Night album; these were taken Friday night. Strictly speaking, most of these are not mudpuppy photos, but rather of the night’s activities. The lighting was not amenable, the camera’s batteries were draining quickly, and I fell on the ice. Also, I shot in “night mode” and my shots are blurrier — though more revealing — than if I had shot in regular flash mode.

Trail maps

While waiting for Internet service to be restored, I scanned in some topo maps and drew lines along the trails I’ve hiked, at least for the trails I had maps for. (Couldn’t do Bow Glacier Falls because the map was damaged at that point; the Chephren Lake trail highlighting is conjectural.) Now up on the Trails section.

Downtime and uploads

We took Venetia to see the mudpuppies last night, so additional photos should be available shortly. When we got back, our cable — Internet and TV alike — was out. Persona said this morning that a fire had cut the fibre-optic cable (see previous entry); service wasn’t restored until late this afternoon, which all things considered was pretty fast, and better than they had predicted (always a good strategy). In the meantime, I installed the new iLife and iWork suites, which arrived yesterday. (So far so good, but with surprisingly sluggish moments which are hopefully anomalous.)

More entries below »

Healthy but grumpy

We checked up on our hibernating snakes tonight, making sure that they were still alive and had clean water. All was well, if not necessarily happy.

True to form, the female Pituophis were not pleased to be disturbed; they hissed constantly and struck occasionally. Of course I took the opportunity to get photos; it’s not every day you get confronted by an angry Pit. (And a good thing, too, because if they’re trying to intimidate, they’re really good at it.) See also this photo of Lilith in addition to the one at right.

Par for the course: the gopher snake was angry at Florence and me in December 2001, and Lilith was loud and aggressive when she was brought out of hibernation in early 2003.

Too bad it never occurs to me to record the sound.

Minor changes

Design updates and navigational improvements at Trails; a new Books page that combines a books category archive with a complete archive of the “Recent Reading” sidebar; a larger Flickr badge for the My Photos page. More updates to come, some to these very pages.

The Incredibles at the Oscars

Never got around to telling you how much we enjoyed The Incredibles when it came out in November; but you could probably infer that from the awe in which I hold The Iron Giant (Brad Bird’s previous movie) and the high regard I have for Pixar films generally. Though some were hoping for a best-picture nomination, I think the fact that a cartoon has been nominated for best original screenplay is a very positive sign. Though, if you’ve seen this movie, it’s not at all a surprise.

John Barnes’s One for the Morning Glory

Just finished John Barnes’s 1996 fantasy novel, One for the Morning Glory — about which I’d heard good things, so when I saw it at the library I picked it up. Most of the reviews I’ve seen compare it with The Princess Bride, but I think that’s superficial: it’s because both are playful and light in tone, rather than the heavy high-vatic drudgery one expects from epic fantasy. True, this is a fairy tale that does not take itself completely seriously; but, while the tone is light, breezy and immediately engaging, the story itself is not frivolous, and is at times quite dark. It is, as some have commented, the Brothers Grimm at novel length, with the wonderfully subversive proviso that the characters themselves are fully aware that they themselves are in the middle of a Tale, and conduct themselves accordingly. It’s tremendous fun, and worth a read if you can find a copy; unfortunately it appears to be out of print at the moment.

A feeble attempt at a TrackBack primer

My three or four readers may be wondering what the TrackBack link at the bottom of each post is for. It’s where you’d normally expect a link to leave a comment — Karen Traviss wanted to leave a comment thanking me for this post, and discovered that that’s not what the TrackBack link was for. So it occurred to me to try and write a brief primer.

TrackBack is a remote commenting system. Let’s say Reader A reads a blog post by Blogger B. Instead of leaving a comment on B’s post, A goes to her own blog and writes an entry that links to B’s entry. A’s blogging software goes through her entry, finds the link to B’s entry, and figures out where to send a TrackBack ping. Sends the ping to B’s server. B’s blogging software receives the ping, which contains an excerpt from and link to A’s blog entry. Depending on how B has configured her blog, that excerpt and link might appear beneath B’s entry. Essentially, A’s blog is telling B’s blog that A is writing about B, and B’s blog makes a note of it. It’s a way of tracking debates or conversations over many web sites: “These people have linked to this entry, and may have something more to say on this subject.”

These TrackBack tutorials do a much better job of explaining it:

Does that help? It’s worth noting that not every blogging tool supports TrackBack. Movable Type does — hell, they invented it — but Blogger and LiveJournal don’t. (So, for example, Karen Traviss couldn’t send a TrackBack ping from her blog.) But now that the company behind Movable Type has acquired LiveJournal — and, if you want to see TrackBack in action, see how many there are for that post! — who knows?

Text editors


When it comes to text editors for HTML coding, I’m torn between SubEthaEdit and TextWrangler. TextWrangler used to cost money but as of last week is free; I’ve been trying it out as a result. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, most of which I don’t notice. SubEthaEdit has live HTML previewing, which is really useful when coding on the fly; TextWrangler doesn’t. TextWrangler, on the other hand, allows you to open and save files via FTP, which saves several steps and considerable time and allows me to make quick updates to web pages without logging in and using pico. In practice, this feature may be more important than live previewing: much of my substantial web work over the past week can be directly attributed to the ease of updating that save-to-FTP allows.

A quiet evening

The television stayed off tonight; we’re contemplating getting rid of cable (television only; no way we’d give up high-speed Internet) so it’s good to see if we can manage it. And, wonder of wonders, I stayed off the computer for much of the evening.

Instead, I worked on a few model railroad freight cars: adding grab irons to the flat car, which is quite the detailed model; and slapping together a few Athearn four-bay coal hoppers. The latter only required three screws; the rest snapped on and there was no glue required. I painted the weights, which I thought might be too visible — they’re on the outside ends of the hoppers — but from above you can barely see them at all.

Two hours hunched over little models, working with fine tools, is not good for my back, though. I’ll have to do this more frequently for shorter periods of time.

An update on my updating

I’ve been busy lately. It’s fricking cold out — the kind of weather that generates nostalgia in this expatriate Winnipegger — so I’ve been staying in and making good progress on updates to a few of my projects. Around here, I’m continuing to tinker with this site’s design, updating old pages and making sure that the new design doesn’t go blooey on IE 6 for Windows, which happens all too often because I don’t have ready access to that browser/platform combo. That, and because of IE/Win’s non-standard (read: assy) CSS implementation.

One new thing that isn’t just a fixup is the “Recent Viewing” sideblog over on the sidebar (except on individual pages): we’re trying to watch more movies, so I’m keeping track. Similar to the books I’ve been reading, which I’ve been keeping track of for a while.

Elsewhere, I added a new feature to The Map Room last week, called Map Questions: it’s meant as a way of dealing positively with all the questions I get about maps (because of that site) that I simply don’t know the answer to. So I give my readers a crack at it. Speaking of readers, The Map Room’s got a lot more of them lately: here are some stats. And it keeps growing: this month’s average daily page views is now more than 1,700 (it was about 55 in July). Holy crap. Ad revenues haven’t been too shabby either: not enough to live on, but a small, steady stream.

Over on Ankylose This!, I’ve signed up a few more people who wanted to join. It’s not high-traffic by any means, whether measured by traffic or by posts, but I’m happy with how it’s turned out so far; critical mass seems just over the horizon.

Gartersnake.info launched at the end of September (previous entry), but I haven’t done much with it since. One of my goals for January was to rectify this, and today I gave its design another going-over. I’m a little happier with how it looks now. (Before you ask, the big, dark green patches around the page headers will eventually have interesting background images.) I’ve still got lots of catching up to do in terms of getting some posts up and updating content, but this is, at least, a start.

Karen Traviss’s novels

Good new writers should get as much word-of-mouth as possible; Karen Traviss deserves a bit of buzz. She’s been compared (favourably) to Arnason, Cherryh and Le Guin; comparisons aside, if you like complex alien societies and tough moral questions in your SF, grab her stuff immediately — you’ll love it.

Her first two novels, City of Pearl and Crossing the Line, are the first two-thirds of a trilogy that’s ostensibly about first contact (with four separate, and fully fleshed out, alien cultures), but has a lot to say about ethics, conflict, and alterity. (Follow the links for a plot summary; this isn’t a book report.) Everyone, alien and human alike, has their own motivations, worldviews and ethical systems; the interplay between these cultures makes the plot wonderfully complicated and the books awfully fascinating — full of interesting, believeable characters.

The second book does end on a cliff-hanger, but Traviss manages to bring it off, with the result that instead of tossing the book across the room, I’m eagerly awaiting the sequel, The World Before, due out late this year.

Paul Di Filippo

In a strange coincidence, Jennifer and I are each reading a short-story collection by Paul Di Filippo at the moment: she’s reading Ribofunk; I’m reading Strange Trades. I’m a few stories into the latter, which has a doozy about underground currency called “Spondulix” that could easily serve as the basis for the next Coen Brothers movie. In addition to writing way-cool stuff, Di Filippo is legendary for his support of, and tendency to publish with, small presses; even so, I’m baffled by the fact that the novel-length version of Spondulix is apparently only available in a 300-copy limited edition. That can’t be it, can it?

Pardon the dust

Things are wonky today as I try to deal with IE rendering issues. If you’ve been using IE 6, though, I gather it’s been wonky for a few weeks anyway.

Mudpuppy night photos

A mudpuppy swimming in the frigid waters of Kemptville Creek below the Oxford Mills Dam.

They’re a little late in coming, but I’ve finally posted a few photos from one of Fred’s mudpuppy nights — in this case, from Feb. 7, 2004, when a squadron of herpers from the Toronto/Peterborough area descended on Oxford Mills to see the wonder that is amphibians active at subfreezing temperatures.

Fewer photos turned out than I had hoped: my incompetence with the camera meant that I had the water’s surface in focus most of the time. (But then I was shooting madly like a good news photographer, with similar results: 61 photos taken, six used.)

Return of the King Extended Edition

Chances are that by now you’ve already seen the extended edition of The Return of the King — even if your name is John Moltz — but here’s my take on it.

The first thing that bears mentioning (as Andrea noted) is just how chaotic putting this film together was — something that’s abundantly clear from the appendices and from the writers’ commentary. Not just in the mad, last-minute rush to get the film completed, but in the changes in the story between principal photography and the final result. They took the footage they had and used it differently — in a different order, say — when the story changed. It looks like ROTK was the most reworked of the three films.

These explain some of the inconsistencies that people like me love to pick over: why Pippin is riding with Gandalf when the old boy rescues Faramir and Co. from the Nazgûl, why Arwen’s and Elrond’s apparel changes from one second to the next in Rivendell, and why the newly added scene with Saruman seems a little unfocused. (Presumably this explains where Aragorn’s horse went at the Morannon.)

All of which speaks to how big a project this was, and how easily they could have ended up over their heads. It’s amazing that it was done; even more that they did it as well as they did.

But if they had gone ahead with their plan for a duel between Aragorn and Sauron — they used some of that footage in the fight with the troll — I would have slain them all. No no no. Thank you for not following through with that foolishness.

The extra footage is the usual mix of the following four types:

  1. Essential material that I wish they hadn’t cut. (All the scenes of Frodo and Sam in Mordor that had been cut, for example. Also, the fine scene between Denethor and Faramir.)
  2. Important material that helps us make sense of scenes that would otherwise be confusing. (More material on the White Tree, what happens to Gothmog, the Houses of Healing.)
  3. Neat material that adds considerably to the movie, but isn’t vital. (I’d put the Mouth of Sauron and the extra footage during the siege in this category.)
  4. Superfluous material, the benefits of which are outweighed by the penalty inflicted on the movie’s pace — and on your bladder.

In a change from the previous two films, the extra footage does not just add to the film, it changes it: lines are given in a different order; characters suffer a different fate; events occur at a different time of day.

The end result is a film that is more cohesive than the theatrical version, with some fine moments that deserve not to be missed, but that really, really feels long. At least there are fewer superfluous bits in this one than there were in The Two Towers.

Don’t miss the insane bits. The easter egg is in its usual place, but it’s not what you’d expect: it’s not as high concept as the previous two, but it’s funny as hell. And the actors’ commentary: do not miss the actors’ commentary. Pure chaos.


Nominations for the 2005 Bloggies — the weblog awards — are now open. Am I wrong for wanting to be nominated? I think The Map Room would do well in the topical and possibly best-kept-secret categories; and DFL might be a good fit for the topical, tagline — you have to admit, it’s got a great tagline — and possibly even new categories. (Since I’m Canadian that might be another possible category, but both blogs are international in focus.)

I have no shame, but at least hardly anyone will read this here.

A brief ramble about audiobooks

Via Jessamyn, an article about the benefits of audio books, by an English professor who professes to be embarrassed by the fact.

Listening to tapes while engaged in mindless but unavoidable activities, I get through about 30 books a year that I would not otherwise have read. It’s almost like I’m sneaking in an extra half-lifetime of reading in the course of doing my ordinary chores, which have a way of getting done more thoroughly as a result of listening while I work.
There is no way I can justify devoting the next two weeks of bedtime reading to Tom Wolfe’s new novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons. I have too much professional reading and course preparation to do. But I can permit myself to listen to all 25 hours of Wolfe’s novel while I am in the shower, eating breakfast, and driving to and from work.

It put me in mind of a passage of Stephen King’s On Writing, which I read earlier this year:

Of the books I read each year, anywhere from six to a dozen are on tape. As for all the wonderful radio you will be missing, come on — how many times can you listen to Deep Purple sing “Highway Star”?
(p. 148)

Audiobooks have always seemed like a good idea to me, especially when I’ve had long bus rides to deal with. (That 13-disc set of The Silmarillion, ripped to my iPod, really passed the time on weekends when buses are slow and infrequent.) They’ve also been a godsend on long highway trips.

But at present I don’t commute. In this town, no trip on foot would get me more than a few paragraphs further along. Making the car iPod-compatible, through a new stereo deck with an aux-in or a wireless transmitter, would open up all the audiobooks available through iTunes. (Without a cassette player in the car, the audiobooks on cassette aren’t an option, though the CD versions still are. Incidentally, they’re all awfully expensive — especially the unabridged versions — don’t you think?)

Now, were I to begin commuting into Ottawa on a regular basis — a likely scenario if I get full-time work or even a short- or medium-term contract — I’d almost certainly iPod up the car and get a few of the audiobooks I’ve been eyeing on iTunes double quick. I don’t know if it’s my imagination that the CBC is less listenable than it used to be, but I’ve been switching off the radio more and more — usually as something tedious came on. So it’d be nice to have something else to listen to. I might not even mind the traffic congestion.

Jennifer online

I mentioned this obliquely in an update to an earlier post, but it warrants its own post: Jennifer now has her own blog. So far she seems as likely to cover science-related stuff online as the day-to-day stuff. (Note that updates on our pathetic little lives may show up in both of our blogs, or on one, or the other — i.e., you’ll have to read both if you’re interested in that sort of thing.)

Also, her first digital photos — I gave her a camera last week — are beginning to appear on her Flickr account.

Me, aged one

I’ve scanned some black-and-white photos of me from 1973 and put them online here. (Black-and-white photos on glossy paper stock scan very nicely.) You’ll notice that one of them is the basis of the thumbnail at the top of each page on this site. It is my deepest regret that it’s been downhill on the cuteness scale ever since for me.

It burns! It burns!

They really should put the Scoville unit rating on packages of hot peppers. One of the hot peppers I bought just before Christmas, put into a chicken-and-shrimp stirfry, was enough to have us guzzle two litres of milk. True enough, I also added some chile and garlic sauce, but all I was tasting — all I could taste — was fresh hot pepper. Ow. One may well be sufficient for a huge pot of chile.

Unpleasant surprises

The female Baird’s rat snake, about which much concern and a trip to the vet this week, has died. This we did not expect; in fact, we thought she’d be on the upswing soon.

Also, one of the baby corn snakes we put into hibernation has died — the kinked anerythristic one that never once ate in its five months of existence. We thought that hibernation would reset its internal clock and make it want to eat in the spring, but it was apparently too far gone. The other one, however, is still fine, and we’ve just put the third baby into hibernation today — it’s had a few meals, mostly live, but has also stopped.

It’s never comfortable to report on snake fatalities. On the one hand, it’s an unfortunate and inevitable aspect of working with delicate animals. Sometimes, like the baby corn, which suffered from a major birth defect, they’re essentially doomed from birth. And sometimes, as in the case of the Baird’s, they’re acquired already sick and the symptoms aren’t necessarily conclusive. The Baird’s and her siblings were tiny for snakes of their age — even newborns a year younger would have been larger. Snakes are very difficult to diagnose: the breeders didn’t check for Strongyloides, and my first reaction was that the snake had been underfed rather than infested with nematodes. It can take a long time to realize that the snake needs a trip to the vet — and sometimes they die before there’s any indication that something’s wrong. I just thought we’d caught it in time this time. Damn.

On the other hand, I worry that being this open about things is setting myself up for random drive-by criticism from animal-care absolutists. I think talking about these things honestly will be useful for other people who are raising snakes, but as subcultures go, reptile keepers can be quite paranoid — sometimes with reason.