April 2006

Hognose snakes feeding again

For the first time since coming out of hibernation in early March, earlier this week both hognose snakes ate the food they were offered. The male had eaten once before; the female hadn’t. Neither was looking particularly gaunt or had anything else visibly wrong with them; I can only surmise that they simply weren’t ready to come out of hibernation yet. Both, however, had shed shortly either the night before or the day before they were offered food this time, so maybe they need a post-hibernation shed before they start eating. (Note for future reference.)

Now let’s see if they’ll breed!

Movies recently seen

Movies recently passing through our DVD player that I saw for the first time:

On a related note, in response to Jason’s post about this list of 102 must-see movies, alas, my count is only 40 — but not the same 40 as Jason: my 40 are probably more obscure and older than most others’.

Update, May 8: Added Good Night, and Good Luck; I forgot about it earlier.

Playing with Trains

Sam Posey’s Playing with Trains will not reveal anything new to anyone already involved in the hobby of model railroading, but for the general reader it’s a reasonably good, and evocatively written, introduction to the state of the hobby.

Posey, a former race car driver and a sports commentator, spends the first half of the book on his own model railroading history, from his childhood, with his mother helping him build his first layout, to his adulthood, when he hired someone to build his expansive Colorado Midland layout with his family. (My father read the book while he was visiting, and sniffed, as many in the hobby would, at the notion that he paid someone else to build his layout.)

The second half of the book is a new-journalism-style look at the state of the hobby, with Posey visiting a number of luminaries of the field — none of whom will be unfamiliar to anyone who’s been reading Model Railroader for the last couple of decades — and talking about their approaches. This part is a little light, a little superficial, but its great strength is crystallizing a schism in the hobby that I was only dimly aware of myself: the schism between the operators who focus on simulating, in miniature and in precise detail, the work — and paperwork — undertaken by real railroads (think Tony Koester) at the expense of scenery, and those focused on jaw-dropping scenery at the expense of realistic operations (think Malcolm Furlow, or even George Selios).

Most of us, naturally, are somewhere in the middle: we’d like to do more than run trains around in a loop, but we’d like to do more than run them on bare plywood. The Koester mode is in the ascendancy at the moment, to the extent that his book on layout design elements isn’t about the elements’ function in the abstract, it’s about replicating real things: for example, not about understanding how an interchange works in theory, but in copying a real interchange. This is a considerable change from the Armstrong mode, where understanding how real railroads work is the necessary first step, not simply slavishly replicating what really existed (without, I suspect, necessarily understanding why it existed).

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LibraryThing revisited

Taking my cue from Jennifer’s announcement that she’s finished updating her LibraryThing catalogue, I’ve gone and done the same thing. You can view the results here.

The steps I took were as follows:

  1. Upgrade to a paid lifetime membership with LibraryThing (US$25 via PayPal).
  2. Export my library data from Delicious Library.
  3. Make my LibraryThing library private.
  4. Upload the library data file using LibraryThing’s import feature.
  5. As the library file uploads (it’s throttled to avoid overloading the library and Amazon servers LibraryThing uses to look up book data), delete duplicate books.
  6. Delete the books that are definitely Jen’s. (We use Delicious Library to manage our combined book collection; LibraryThing is social software, so it’s got a different purpose: because books say something about the person, I want the books I chose to say it.)
  7. Delete the books that I don’t want you to know I have. (Heh.)
  8. Make my library public again.
  9. Spend hours tinkering with each entry — editing fields, choosing cover art, and so forth. Automatic importing is fast, but it’s imprecise; this will probably be a neverending task.
  10. Add a nifty badge to the McWetlog’s sidebar.

One observation during this process: LibraryThing is a lot more feature-rich than it was when I first started using it. It’s come a long way in a short time, and I’m very impressed.

A PEI newspaper editor’s professional foolishness

It’s probably not wise for a newspaper editor to argue that a critic of his paper is “way over the line of free speech” and that the paper may sue that critic. But that’s what Charlottetown Guardian managing editor Gary MacDougall is apparently saying about an anonymous blogger who’s been criticizing PEI businesses and institutions. That just strikes me as the kind of rhetoric that no one in the journalistic profession should be using, and that could come back to bite him in the ass someday, because it’s professionally foolish: MacDougall will not now be able to use freedom of speech as an argument to defend himself or his paper without looking silly.

Full-time Fireball

John Gruber is going full-time: he’s making Daring Fireball, arguably the best bit of Mac writing on the web, his full-time job as of this week. (Two years ago, he started trying to earn a living wage from the site; now he’s taking the plunge. I’ve been a member since the start.)

You will recall that I’m quite interested in whether people can turn blogging and personal sites into a full-time career — Heather Armstrong’s done it, through advertising; Jason Kottke, who solicited donations (“micropatrons”), had mixed results — because, completely by accident, I’m trying to do the same thing. Almost all of my (puny) income comes from my web sites (mostly The Map Room), though I’m working on other avenues as well. (My so-called “little of this, little of that” business plan.) As I’ve said before: if they can succeed, spectacularly, there’s a chance that I might be able to muddle through.

Here’s hoping that John succeeds spectacularly.

Star Wars and special effects

I did a bad thing. While my father was here last week, I made him watch the Star Wars prequel trilogy. He didn’t like those movies, no sir. (Sorry about that, Dad.) Oddly, he hated Phantom Menace but didn’t mind Jar Jar. His complaints were more fundamental: a weak storyline where characters were engaged in pointless activity up until the second half of the third movie; inane dialogue; poor writing; too many damn coincidences (in a word: droids); too little lightness and too much tendentious focus on the epic; and an over-emphasis on special effects.

In particular, huge battle scenes that go on too long: it’s a chronic condition that also, for example, afflicts Peter Jackson — but that is symptomatic of the movie industry lately. I think it’s because directors are still having fun with their new toys; they were, until the last decade, limited by technology from putting anything they wanted on the screen, and now they’re going all out. But those limitations made for some inventive storytelling: look at any threadbare BBC production from the 1970s and see how much story can be told on a shoestring. (Current indie films, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily interested in storytelling, so it’s not necessarily a fair comparison.) I imagine the pendulum will swing back once directors get bored; it always has before.

Back to the Star Wars prequels. No, they’re not great. But they do have their moments, in isolation: audiovisual confections. Ambitious failures in that it’s extremely difficult to write a story whose outcome is not only known, but the whole point.

Wildlife festival, and we should eat more fresh fruit

Last weekend we did our bit at the OARA’s display for the National Capital Region Wildlife Festival at Billings Bridge Mall. I organized this show from 2001 to 2003; this year, our friend Nicki was in charge. For some reason, this year they had a shortage of handleable snakes: the serpentine equivalent of “bomb-proof” horses used by riot police, which is to say, snakes that will put up with all sorts of crap from the public and not spook, freak out or (more to the point) bite. We have more than a few that fit that description and that moreover were large enough to be used in photos — the shortage was actually not so much one of tame snakes, but of tame snakes of a certain size that people could have their pictures taken with for $5 a shot — so off we went. Photos here.

We put in long hours on Friday and Saturday, and were just beat afterwards. On the way home Saturday evening, Jen got quite sick. She was bedridden through Sunday. At first we thought it was simple overexhaustion, but it was more likely a case of the flu. Especially since I came down with exactly the same thing on Monday night (through Tuesday I couldn’t even keep down Gatorade). Between the two of us, we’ve spent much of this week in bed, generally feeling like shite, catching up on sleep and wondering about the state of our GI tracts. But we’ve been doing better more recently.

This bit of flu is most inconveniently timed: my father’s visiting this week. We’re beginning construction on a model railroad in the basement. More on that momentarily.

Corn snake breeding activity

Our corn snakes tend to start with the courtship and the breeding and the carrying-on in mid-April, and this year is no exception: they were making a right spectacle of themselves last night. On schedule.

A post-hibernation update

Between the date you bring your snakes out of hibernation and the date your female snake lays its first clutch of eggs (or has its first litter, if it’s a live bearer), the challenge is to get as much food into that snake is possible. For most snakes with healthy appetites, that’s not a problem, but there are some exceptions.

For example, my female Great Basin gopher snake has gone off her feed for extended periods during the summer — she’s from a Canadian bloodline, so I think she’s aestivating when that happens. In her case, it seems that hibernation actually helps her appetite, though.

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