January 2009

When panic follows pain

When the pain abated last week (albeit only temporarily: it came roaring back Monday), I started to panic. Which isn’t the reaction you expect when you’re feeling better!

It took me a while to figure out why, but here’s what I’ve come up with:

Every time I go into flare, I fall behind. I do my best to get as much done as I can under the circumstances while I’m hurting, but I inevitably get much less done than I would if I were in less pain. While I can generally get back to my usual production levels when I get better, there’s no way I can make up for the lost productivity. So, with each flare, I fall further and further behind; when I feel better, I’m overwhelmed by how much I now have to do, and freak out.

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The trouble with rat snake taxonomy

So I went back to the CNAH website to see what changes have been in the offing in terms of snake taxonomy, because, if you know the CNAH, there will be a whole bunch of changes, some of which will leave you scratching your head. But, even knowing that, I was absolutely flummoxed by what’s been happening to the taxonomy of North American rat snakes over the last five or six years.

When I last checked, there was a Russian research paper that tried to reassign snakes of the notoriously polyphyletic genus Elaphe into new genera; North American Elaphe — corn, rat and fox snakes — were assigned to Pantherophis, with one Central American species going to Pseudelaphe. (Prior to that, three former Elaphe species had been split off into Bogertophis and Senticolis, but this is not considered to be controversial.)

But that’s really only step three (or so) of the massive amount of species renaming and reassigning that has been inflicted on North American corn, rat and fox snakes over the past two decades. Ready? Here we go.

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A month without eating

Soaking snake

Every winter, there’s always a chance that one or more snakes will decide it’s hibernation time and that refusing to eat would be an awfully good idea. (This can be triggered by less ambient light and cooler temperatures, even if their cages are heated.) This year, it was the turn of our 8½-year-old male Baird’s Rat Snake, who skipped two successive feedings. Normally, skipping a meal every now and then isn’t a big deal for a snake, even when they only get fed every week or two, so we weren’t overly concerned. Since his cage is in my office, he’s been easy to keep an eye on. He was probably in hibernation mode, since we often saw him soaking in his water dish (as he was in the above picture, taken on December 15), which is something snakes trying to hibernate tend to do. Anyway, he ate again today, so he really didn’t give us much of a chance to start worrying.

(What’s more worrisome is that even though I got him in June 2000, when he was all of a month old, I still haven’t gotten around to naming him yet — “the Baird’s” is usually enough when you’ve only got one of that species. One thought was to call him “Spencer,” after Spencer Fullerton Baird, after whom the species was named, but I didn’t convince myself.)

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On a scale of one to five

Painwise, it’s been a tough week. Let me explain how in this way:

Over the years, I’ve developed a rough scale to indicate how much pain and stiffness I’m dealing with at a given moment. Right now that scale looks something like this:

  1. Barely noticeable.
  2. Definitely noticeable, but not enough to prevent me from doing anything.
  3. Debilitating enough to prevent me from going to work.
  4. Debilitating enough to affect my ability to think; it hurts to breathe.
  5. In addition to the above, now I’m having difficulty walking.

Most of the time I sit at a two, with regular trips to one, three and four. Good days vary between one and two, flares between two and four. But on Monday I called a five, for the first time in years, and certainly the first time since developing this version of the scale. It was bad enough to make a flight of stairs intimidating. Suffice to say I didn’t get out at all this week, though I’m doing better now.

What happened? It might have been the sudden plunge in temperature — I guess a fast drop of 30 degrees will do that to me. I don’t normally expect a sudden and severe flare in the middle of winter, which is normally my best time, especially a bitterly cold winter like the one we’ve had this year. Go figure.

Palm’s comeback

Palm Pre (thumbnail) Palm’s upcoming Pre is the first smartphone I’ve seen since the announcement of the iPhone that I might actually consider getting instead of an iPhone. (Not that I need a smartphone right now, but in the event that I do.) Watching the CES announcement drove home the fact that, for the first time, a competing smartphone manufacturer has actually tried to do the iPhone one better, rather than just play catchup. The Pre’s multitasking is an order of magnitude better than the iPhone’s: switching applications on my iPod touch suddenly feels clunky. (Ironically, the lack of true multitasking was one of the major problems of Palm’s last OS.)

Early reviews and first impressions are extremely positive — see, for example, Boing Boing Gadgets, CNet, Cult of Mac, Electronista, Engadget’s first impressions and interface tour, Gizmodo’s first look and look at the user interface, Scoble and especially Newsweek’s fine in-depth article — if not outright joyous that (1) beleaguered Palm is not yet dead and (2) finally, someone might actually give Apple a run for its money. But there’s still a lot we don’t know yet, such as what the Pre is going to cost, and how it’s going to work as a phone. Whether the Pre will turn out to be as good as it looks at first blush. The stakes for Palm are high: they’ve bet the company on the Pre, and if it fails, that’ll probably be it for them.

Previously: The Egregious Incompetence of Palm.


Maclean’s is apparently making a major push on behalf of Joseph Haydn, the 200th anniversary of whose death is being marked this year. Jaime Weinman complains about how underrated he is; Paul Wells adds his two cents in a blog entry.

Haydn is another gap in my musical knowledge (I’ve been spending too much time obsessing over Beethoven and, to a lesser extent, Chopin) that I’m going to have to address at some point. Lord knows when — my father just gave me a CD collection of Brahms’s piano works, and I’ve been studying up on him. But I’m sure I’ll get to Haydn eventually, since my tastes run more to the Classical/early Romantic period than earlier or later. Oddly enough, the three symphonies of his I have so far have left me kind of meh, so maybe I need to broaden my sample, give him another chance.

Best astronomy pictures of 2008

M81 (Credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)

Last month saw a couple of roundups of the year’s best astronomy images. Phil Plait’s top ten focus more on scientific bad-assery — i.e., the pictures may not be beautiful in themselves, but what they represent is mindblowing (I blogged a couple of them myself at the time). Meanwhile, the Big Picture ran a Hubble advent calendar in December, revealing one new photo a day; many of the photos came courtesy of the Hubble Heritage Project and are extremely beautiful in and of themselves. Above, M81, a personal favourite of mine (credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA).

The trouble with long-distance relationships

Recently I offered some advice on long-distance relationships to a friend whose significant other will soon be moving to another city. With three successive long-distance relationships in the 1990s under my belt, I have some opinions on this subject. Here they are:

  1. Everything in a long-distance relationship happens in slow motion. Especially fights, which in my case sometimes took months instead of hours. Distance makes communication harder, and I think that’s true even now, with Skype and cheap long distance, neither of which I had back then. (Hell, in my first LDR, we didn’t even use the Internet; we wrote letters. By hand. Yes, I’m old.)
  2. The distance has to be temporary. You’re not in an LDR by choice; it’s because of things outside your control: work, studies, immigration law. You’re making do until you sort those things out (find a new job, graduate, get a visa) and one of you relocates to be with the other. If you’re not actively working toward that end, or if the end is not clearly in sight, the relationship will gradually fall apart.
  3. You’re forced to get serious, fast. It’s hard to date casually over coffee and see where it goes when you’re half a continent away. Sometimes you end up skipping that stage if your relationship goes long-distance before it has the chance to get serious on its own. That’s not always a good thing. If you were heading in that direction anyway, lucky you, but you also run the risk of breathing life into a relationship that, if it wasn’t an LDR, would have run its course in a month or two. (And now that it’s an LDR, everything takes longer, and what might have ended in a month now takes a year for you to figure out. Bummer.)

Despite conventional wisdom, long-distance relationships aren’t necessarily doomed, nor are they always a bad idea. They’re just harder to do, and have pitfalls that typical, same-city relationships don’t. Because they require more of an emotional investment, and can take a long time to fall apart, it hurts more when they fail. And, with very few exceptions, they only succeed when the long-distance aspect doesn’t last very long.

F&SF goes bimonthly

Uh-oh. Gordon Van Gelder has announced that F&SFThe Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fictionwill switch to a bimonthly schedule in April, with larger issues to make up the difference. F&SF currently publishes 11 issues a year, with one large double issue; subscribers should note that six double issues will still be counted as a year’s subscription. Van Gelder’s rationale for the decision:

We’ve made the change because rising costs — especially postal costs — and the current economy put us in a position where we either had to raise our rates severely or cut back somewhere. Given the state of the economy, I decided a cutback in frequency made the most sense. We’ll lose a little more than 10% of our content this year, but we should be in a great position for the coming years.

If you’ve been following the state of the science fiction magazines, this decision is not surprising in that context. And postal rates have gone through the roof. At least Gordon isn’t trying to put a risibly positive spin on the decision.

Better a bimonthly, double-sized F&SF than none at all. The main advantage to a monthly publishing schedule, I suspect, is newsstand visibility; the science fiction magazines’ newsstand sales have all but dried up in recent years, so that advantage may no longer be operative.

Via Robert J. Sawyer.

Previously: The decline of the science fiction magazine.

Update, 1/6: Announcement on the F&SF blog.

For the Zune, it’s Y2K plus nine

A bug in the way its internal clock handles leap years caused virtually every 2006-vintage, 30-gigabyte Microsoft Zune music player to fail yesterday. Microsoft’s fix: wait until today and the problem should resolve itself. CNet coverage.

Two questions arise from this latest Microsoft fiasco. First, how did this get past testing? And second, how could there be that many Zune owners out there? You people bought one of these things? Willingly? With your own money?

Update: A Zune Boards post analyses the bug in the Zune’s source code: essentially, on leap years, “the Zune keeps looping forever and doesn’t do anything else.” Also, it’s not a one-time thing: “if Microsoft doesn’t fix this part of the firmware, the whole thing will happen all over again in 4 more years.” Assuming any are still in use then. Via Daring Fireball.