September 2006

Radiated rat snake

Radiated rat snake. Photo by Nicole LaBarre Our friend Nicki has acquired a Radiated Rat Snake (Elaphe s.l. radiata). Here are some things that have been written about the temperament of this species.

Bartlett and Bartlett, Corn Snakes and Other Rat Snakes (1996): “When even vaguely threatened, the radiated [rat snake] (so-called for the three dark lines that radiate outward from the eye) pulls is neck back, inflates its throat, and vigorously defends itself.”

Schulz, A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger (1996):

The snake is very fast if it becomes necessary to flee and shows an amazingly aggressive temperament if cornered: The front part of the body is inflated vertically, bent into a double S-shape, and lifted off the ground. With the mouth agape and short hissing sounds, it literally leaps at the aggressor who may even [be] pursued for some distance. If the snake is picked up, it often empties its bowels and bites[;] the bitten part is often chewed on for a while.

Not for the faint of heart! Which is to say, me. (Nicki knows what she’s doing, though.)

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Introducing Snakes on Film

Snakes on Film is my latest project. It’s a look at how snakes are used in movies and television — whether they’re accurately portrayed, and which species are being used. Think of this as a nitpicker’s guide for reptile enthusiasts. History buffs have had great fun picking apart historical movies; science fiction geeks love pointing out errors in continuity. Now it’s the snakes’ turn. Five posts up so far, with five more in the immediate queue. (Yes, Snakes on a Plane is forthcoming; that was the movie that finally set this project in motion.)

Narn i Hîn Húrin

The geek world is a-twitter with the news that an unfinished work by J. R. R. Tolkien has been completed by his son, Christopher, and will be published next spring.

The book is The Children of Húrin, and we’ve seen the tale before, in broad strokes or in fragments: it’s chapter 21 of The Silmarillion (“Of Túrin Turambar”) and the second chapter of Unfinished Tales (“Narn i Hîn Húrin”). The latter version was fragmentary (though not as fragmentary as some other parts in Unfinished Tales) but it seems that Christopher Tolkien has completed that narrative:

It has seemed to me for a long time that there was a good case for presenting my father’s long version of the legend of the children of Húrin as an independent work, between its own covers.

I can see why he’s done it. Large portions of the story are complete (see Unfinished Tales) and the story itself is quite powerful: a full-on epic tragedy that is Shakespearean in ambition and operatic in scope. (There are at least half a dozen operas in The Silmarillion alone; Tolkien produced enough material for an entire culture’s mythology.)

Beavers — separated at birth?

I can’t be the only one who’s noticed the similarities between Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in the 2005 live-action movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the Bell spokesbeavers Frank and Gordon (whose eponymous web site has mysteriously vanished):


The movie was on one of the pay channels the other day, and I couldn’t help thinking that the beavers were going to hand the Pevensie children cameraphones at any minute.

Now that I see them side by side, I’m not so sure any more.

Dry bite

A bite from a venomous snake that does not inject any venom is called a “dry bite.” Sometimes a venomous snake withholds its venom when it bites in self-defence, saving it for prey — venom is primarily a means of subduing and pre-digesting prey, and only secondarily a self-defence mechanism.

Someone who receives a “dry bite” is called a “lucky bastard” — and that certainly applies to the unnamed 26-year-old Barrie, Ontario man who received a dry bite on Tuesday from a friend’s saw-scaled viper, which he had reportedly been poking at. Indian River Reptile Zoo curator Bry Loyst, who manages the Ontario Antivenin Bank, was rushed to the hospital in Barrie with some antivenin as a precaution. See news coverage from the Barrie Examiner, Globe and Mail and Toronto Star.

Saw-scaled vipers, which range from Africa to India, are both extremely irascible and extremely toxic: they kill a lot more people than some of the more glamorous snakes in their region, like cobras, if not more than any other species on the planet. You may remember the incident six years ago with the guy in Toronto whose venomous snake got loose, generating national headlines? Same species.

Skype for Mac with video


The Mac version of Skype with video was released as a beta today (announcement, download), which means that, along with AIM/iChat, I now have a second cross-platform videoconferencing option. I’d like to test it, so if you’re on Skype, drop me a line. If you’re a friend or family and don’t have Skype, this is as good an excuse as any.

Moving photos

I continue to move my photos over to my Flickr account. My .Mac home page photos have now been added. Best to take care of it before I let my .Mac subscription lapse, which I’m thinking of doing. I’m also thinking of letting lapse, since I hardly ever do anything with that domain, so, though it won’t expire until next May at the earliest, I’ve moved my Pelee Island field trip photos over as well.

The Aristocrats

I see most movies long after everyone else does. Last night The Aristocrats came up on one of the movie channels; I’d been meaning to see it for some time now, but an indie documentary about the world’s dirtiest joke isn’t the sort of movie that ends up at the O’Brien Theatre or at the local video store, and it seemed a little too slight to buy — I didn’t necessarily want to own it, but I wanted to see it. So I was glad of the opportunity. My impression? A low-budget film showing comedians dissecting the joke’s format. Dull in places, hilarious in others. My major disappointment was that they did not show Gilbert Gottfried’s 2001 Friar’s Club performance of it — a performance now considered the definitive version — in its entirety: what I saw of him left me gasping.

What’s new with me

While my ankylosing spondylitis usually flares up in the spring and fall, this year I’ve been caught off guard by it in both seasons: it has arrived about a month before I expected it to. On Thursday the old familiar pain and stiffness began manifesting itself; it’s been worsening since then, so it’s not a brief bout. I’m back in flare again.

That will put a crimp in my plans: so much, for example, for attending the opening of the new Apple Store in Laval today, or the reptile expo in Mississauga tomorrow.

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How Ask MetaFilter threads go astray

Ask MetaFilter is as useful as you make it.

Hello, I would like to buy a fish licence, please. A licence for my pet fish, Eric. He’s an halibut. I chose him out of thousands. I didn’t like the others, they were all too flat.

Please limit comments to answers or help in finding an answer.

You don’t need a licence for your fish.
There’s no such thing as a bloody fish licence.
I promise you that there is no such thing. You don’t need one.

Wisecracks don’t help people find answers.

You must be a loony.
He is not a loony! Why should he be tied with the epithet loony merely because he has a pet halibut?
A licence. For a fish. You are a loony.
Look, it’s people like you what cause unrest.

An egg update

No black pine snakes this year; all the eggs have collapsed. (Some looked fine until you turned them over.) Oh well.

Steve Irwin Schadenfreude

The worldwide reaction to Steve Irwin’s death has been swift, strong and usually sympathetic, but it’s inevitable that some people are insufficiently socialized that they cannot help but take a shot at the recently departed and the circumstances of his death.

Jason Calacanis says that the Discovery Channel killed him because of its focus on televising risky encounters with wildlife; Germaine Greer says that the stingray attack was the animal world extracting its revenge. The sentiment behind these posts occurs elsewhere, and can be distilled into one of two arguments: Steve Irwin was an irresponsible thrill seeker; Steve Irwin was a cruel tormentor of animals. Either way, it’s poetic justice — in other words, he got what was coming to him — and the commentariat, whether in the op-ed pages or on the blogosphere, thrives on poetic justice the way it revels in Schadenfreude.

My response to those espousing these arguments is simple. You have no idea what you’re talking about.

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On personal attacks on mailing lists

Regarding etiquette on mailing lists. So long as people stay reasonably on topic, I’ll tolerate a lot. For example, I’m much more tolerant of foul language — in fact, I embrace its use.

But I’ve noticed that one thing gets my attention every time: I ban people over it if I’m the list manager, and raise a stink over it if I’m not. It’s personal attacks, some so strong as to constitute, in my mind, slander. Lord knows there have been times when I should have stepped away from the keyboard, but I’ve learned from my mistakes; others, it seems, have no qualms about making accusations that, if they were printed in a newspaper, would generate instant calls to the lawyers.

It’s amazing what happens when I ban people over such comments, or block their messages. The howls of protest! The cries of censorship! The accusation that I’m taking sides! Antics I’d expect from six-year-olds, not fiftysomething professionals who are upset that I won’t let them smear someone else.

The fact is, mailing lists are subject to the rules set out by their provider: Yahoo! Groups, for example, has terms of service, and private lists are owned by their listowners in a very literal sense. Those who freak over being censored forget this — and also forget that a failure to police bad behaviour might well expose a listowner to liability, even if, as in one risible recent case, the perpetrator offered to “indemnify” me against any legal action.

Anyway, if you’re wondering where went, that’s why. I got tired of it and walked away. Too bad the list — and the site — went with me.


A few years back, a rumour would start going around the Internets every so often that Steve Irwin had, honestly for sure really this time, gotten himself killed doing the things that Steve-o does. The rumours were always bunk. So my first response was to disbelieve the report, which I first saw on a reptile mailing list. But this time it’s true: Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin was killed this morning by a freak accident with a stingray.

No matter how careful you are, no matter how outside the risk is, it’s never the animal’s fault. Irwin would be the first to say so.

From the Guardian’s story, I learn a new word: “larrikin” — loosely, a maverick or wild-spirited person — which is how Australian Prime Minister John Howard described Irwin. He was also, as the tributes have noted, one of Australia’s biggest ambassadors, though I’m given to understand that many were just a mite bit embarrassed by him and his “fair-dinkum” schtick. Which, apparently, wasn’t a schtick at all.

Never mind Australia: he was the best ambassador that the unloved animals of the world — my kind of animals — ever had.

He was a crazy bastidge, and we need more like him.

The motherf***ing snakes on Snakes on a Plane

So, Snakes on a Plane. Saw it Tuesday night, and I’m finding myself in agreement with Kent Williams’s review in the Madison, Wisconsin Isthmus:

The movie’s neither good enough nor bad enough to leave much of an impression. Director David Ellis does seem to have gotten the memo about camping it up, but perhaps not as early in the filmmaking process as some would have liked. And so the movie kind of careens between Airport (with snakes) and Airplane (with snakes), genre and genre parody. Itching to get things started, Ellis lets his snakes — all 400 of them — out of the cargo bay much too early, passing up any chance for suspense. And most of them are so clearly digitized, you feel like you’re watching a cartoon.

That it was self-consciously over the top was what made it watchable; that its over-the-top scenes were so scattershot was what made it disappointing. You can tell where the gratuitous language, nudity and gross-out scenes were added: without them, the movie would have been more earnest, less fun, and just plain mediocre — it would have been a forgettable, low-budget bomb.

Even so, the character development and writing were profoundly weak; we needed Samuel L. to come alive more, to inhabit his typecast bad-ass persona more — in other words — say the 12-letter M-word more — in order to breathe more life into this film. As it stands, you can see the plastic surgeon’s scars.

But never mind that shit. What about the motherfucking snakes?

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