February 2009

More on authors, delays, and fans

This thing about George R. R. Martin and some of his fans (i.e., their nasty reaction to the delay in his next book) has generated some interesting blog entries by his fellow writers. Charlie Stross says he’s “slacking” because he went shopping at IKEA. In another one of those entries that will probably end up between hard covers, John Scalzi outlines 10 things to remember about authors — in a nutshell, that authors are human beings with lives and shit that needs dealing with. And Patrick Rothfuss steps up to the plate with this great entry explaining exactly why his sequel to The Name of the Wind isn’t done yet, illustrated with funny cartoons depicting some of the e-mail he’s been getting. (GRRM: “I have received every one of those emails as seen in Pat’s cartoons. Many times over.”)

Rothfuss writes a great, funny blog — I may have to read his book. Fortunately we have a copy.

Sex, drugs, GICs

Jennifer and I were in Renfrew yesterday, buying GICs from our respective banks for our RRSPs. Now, I’ve had an RRSP since 1996, but I’ve never bought a GIC before; I’ve been all about equity and asset-allocation mutual funds so far. But my mutual funds lost a third of their value over the past year. (Ouch!) Suddenly, my bank’s special 3¼-percent rate on a 30-month GIC doesn’t look so bad.

It’s not that I’m afraid of putting money into the market right now; it’s that I’d much rather make small monthly investments and take advantage of dollar cost averaging rather than make a lump-sum investment that might decline in value precipitously. I’m not entirely sure the market is done falling yet.

Who my audience is

Scalzi notes that blog entries written years ago tend to be among the most-visited pages on his site — a reminder that what you write online does not disappear after you’re done with it. “Contrary to the popular opinion that everything written in a blog is evanescent, in point of fact, good material is visited constantly no matter its age, and the visitorship of Whatever’s archives have a significant effect on the site’s overall popularity.”

Apropos of which, I recently signed up for Google Analytics, so that I can do a little more than guess about who my readers are and what they’re interested in. I’ve only had it running since the middle of last week, so I don’t have much to report yet, but here’s a relevant piece of information so far:

Pie charts showing search engine, referring and direct traffic for gartersnake.info, mcwetboy.com and The Map Room

These three charts show, for my three most-visited sites — Gartersnake.info, The Map Room and this one — where my traffic is coming from: search engines, referring sites, and direct traffic. And search engine traffic just kills the other categories: 82 percent for Gartersnake.info, 59 percent for this site, and 71 percent for The Map Room. Even links from other sites generate more hits than my regular readers.

What this says about the relative importance of a regular readership, I don’t know, but it does suggest that, in the grand scheme of things, I’m writing things down so that people can find them later (via search engine), and that blog archives are, as Scalzi suggests, important.

Right now, the second-most popular page on The Map Room, after the index page, is, to my great surprise, this minor entry on custom icons for Google Maps, posted in September 2007. It’ll be interesting to see if any other old pages surprise me with their popularity.

More entries below »

George R. R. Martin and his self-entitled fans

George R. R. Martin is still trying to finish A Dance with Dragons, the next installment of his Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series. He’s years behind schedule, so it’s hardly surprising that his fans are waiting impatiently; for an author, that’s probably a good sign. What isn’t a good sign is when fans get nasty: some of them have been sending George angry e-mail objecting to his “wasting time” on anything other than working on A Dance with Dragons (e.g., other books, travel, watching football) and — in a manifestation of evil that would have made it into Harlan Ellison’s “Xenogenesis” — worrying to his face that he’s going to “pull a Robert Jordan” and have the bad manners to die before finishing the series.

The sense of entitlement is nauseating; you’ll see a few — thankfully, only a few — examples of it in the comments to John Scalzi’s and Charlie Stross’s posts on the subject. But it’s counterproductive: do you guys honestly think all that anger is going to get that book into your hands faster? Do you think that making him suffer, bread and water, sackcloth and ashes, is going to motivate him to finish?

Of course he’s working on it; he can hardly walk away from it. He wants it finished as much as anyone — more, I suspect. It’s taking longer than he thought it would. Shit happens. Deal.

LG 150 recall

So my my cellphone has been recalled, owing to some mysterious non-compliance with some radio standards. Despite this, it still won’t give me cancer, apparently. Virgin Mobile is running an exchange program that is making it more difficult for me than it should: the web form doesn’t recognize my address, the phone queue is very long, and the phone reps a mite bit clueless. And in the end, my phone is not even from the batch that LG is worrying about, so I’m feeling a bit, shall we say, unnecessarily hassled.

One of our snakes is bleeding

Injured trinket snake Jennifer discovered something freakish with our trinket snake last night: as she was shedding her skin, she was bleeding, at the midsection and further down the tail. Closer examination revealed a sizeable wound along the midsection, but I’m unable to figure out what caused it; we went over her cage very carefully and found nothing she scraped against. The blood is light in colour, suggesting that it’s capillary blood.

More perplexingly, the bleeding seems to have occurred between the two layers of skin. (When snakes shed, they secrete a fluid to separate the old layer of skin from the new layer; that’s why their skin seems so dull and their eyes go milky white during this process.) Her tail remains unshed; there’s blood underneath the unshed skin (you’ll see it in the larger versions of this photo).

Jennifer examined a skin-and-blood sample under the microscope but couldn’t find any evidence of microbial infection. We’ve got her in a different, clean cage and we’re applying antibiotic ointment; if this isn’t an injury, it may well be a bacterial or fungal infection. The snake is still ambulatory and alert, but without as much muscle tension as she used to have; she’s probably quite sore, if nothing else.

All in all, we’re a bit perplexed, and wondering what will happen next.

Is there a vaccine against collective amnesia?

A worthy contribution to the fight against the anti-vaccination nutters comes, as many worthy things often do, from Jim Macdonald at Making Light, who points out that the diseases we vaccinate our children against used to kill them in great numbers. (Yes, even measles.) That these diseases don’t any more is because we vaccinate our children.

As a historian, I am often struck by how often people forget why things are the way they are today. It’s easy to fulminate against a social safety net when you’ve never lived without one, for example, but the Great Depression, when unemployment meant utter destitution, meant you had nothing, started only 80 years ago. (Fun fact: government social programs were often enacted not by liberal governments who thought that the poor should be bribed with taxpayers’ money but by conservative governments who hoped to stave off a Communist uprising from a starving and desperate population.)

Still, anyone over the age of 50 will remember what it was like to grow up with the risk of getting polio. That’s not that long ago. There are still people living in iron lungs, for crying out loud.

That people honestly believe that getting vaccinated is a greater risk than not getting vaccinated is — well, I can’t believe people forget so soon.

(For more words in support of vaccination, don’t miss Bad Astronomer Phil Plait’s posts found in his antiscience category.)

If Steve could see them now

When floods ravage the northeastern Australian state of Queensland (at the same time that fires are clobbering Victoria), sweeping crocodiles and venomous snakes into residential areas, local residents worry about the well-being of the crocodiles — even when one snatches a five-year-old boy:

A five-year-old boy was snatched by a four-metre-long crocodile while out walking on Sunday and is feared dead. … Several other crocodiles were spotted around the Gulf of Carpentaria late last week, and one was run over by a car in the city of Townsville.
Local residents aren’t taking their frustration out on the reptiles, though. The injured crocodile is being nursed back to health after suffering cuts and bruises, while the parents of five-year-old Jeremy Doble have asked authorities not to harm crocodiles caught in traps near where their son disappeared.

Wow. Just, wow.

One advantage of being a total hermit all the time

Last weekend was an intensely social affair — had my birthday party on Sunday — that left some of my introverted friends overwhelmed and looking for a quiet place to recharge. I, on the other hand, had no problems at all and had a wonderful time all the way through, despite the fact that I am officially the Biggest Introvert Out There™, and have a long track record of seeking the exits when I’m overwhelmed by people. My theory is that this is because, unlike most people, I’m utterly by myself during the week, in my home office, with only Jennifer to keep me company on weeknights. By the time the weekend comes along, I’m fully recharged and ready for a bit of human contact — whereas if I were working in an office again, I’d probably be all frazzled and peopled-out by Friday afternoon. I usually was, when I did.

Photos from the Royal Tyrrell Museum


One of the highlights from our December trip to visit my family in Calgary was the side trip we took to Drumheller to visit the Royal Tyrrell Museum, which just might be the best dinosaur museum on the planet. It was my third trip to this museum, but I hadn’t been there for at least 16 years (and probably more). Since that time they’d added a few new exhibits frontloaded before visitors encountered the older museum; for the life of me I cannot imagine why the new material would be heavy on the T. rex and raptor side of things.

In any event, I’ve finally finished going through and uploading the photos; here’s the set. (Jennifer also took some photos with the D40; they’re available here.) Enjoy!

More fun at Little Ray’s

Black-tailed rattlesnake

More photos have been added to my Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo set; we visited the zoo again on December 20, 2008 (yes, it’s once again taken me forever to process and post photos). Highlights include Jennifer playing with tarantulas and tokay geckos, Nicole playing with reticulated pythons and albino skunks, and tortoises, um, playing with each other. (Interesting thing about that last one: both tortoises were male.) Enjoy!

Nikon’s 35mm DX prime lens

AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8 The rumours were correct; here it is: Nikon’s first DX-format prime lens: the AF-S DX Nikkor 35mm f/1.8G (product page, press release).

Everyone who owns a Nikon D40, D40x or D60 should buy this lens (unless they already own the Sigma 30mm f/1.4). If you only own the 18-55mm kit lens, make this your second lens (or maybe your third, along with the 55-200mm telephoto zoom).

  1. You want a standard lens in your arsenal. At 35mm, this lens replicates in DX format the 50mm standard lens on film, which is to say that it matches the human eye.
  2. You want a low-light lens in your arsenal. An f/1.8 lens will suffice in most cases; f/1.4 lenses cost more. You can shoot in darker conditions than the f/4 or so a standard zoom would allow at a similar focal length.
  3. You’ll be able to shoot with really shallow depth of field effects.
  4. It’s only US$200. Nikon’s AF-S 50mm f/1.4 costs more than twice as much and the cropped 75mm-effective field of view is less useful. If you can afford both, or need both, fine, but the 35 is going to be more useful overall.

If you own any other DX camera — basically, any Nikon digital SLR except the D3, D3x or D700 — you probably should buy this lens, too, unless you already have an equivalent fast prime (such as the older AF 35mm f/2, or Sigma’s 30mm f/1.4, the resale value of which probably just took a major hit) in your camera bag. I already have the Sigma so I won’t be getting this lens, but if I didn’t have it, I would.

Via Digital Photography Review and Nikon Rumors.

Previously: A DX prime lens?

Questions and answers

I make a rare appearance on LiveJournal to participate in one of the less-silly memes that propagate there: a friend asks me five questions, ranging from food to photography, and from snakes to science fiction; I answer them.

Jennifer’s in on the fun as well: her answers to different questions posed by that same friend are here.

On a related note, I’ve started something on Gartersnake.info that I’ve been meaning to start for years: a questions-and-answers section. People write me with garter snake questions all the time; if they’re okay with it (I have a checkbox on the form), I will now post their question along with my answer. Allows my e-mail reply to do double duty: they get an answer, I get another post out of it, other readers get more information. The situation could not be more full of win.

A DX prime lens?

Nikon Rumors is reporting — here and here — that Nikon is set to announce a 35mm f/1.8 prime lens in DX format. We’ll know soon enough whether this rumour is true, but I want to address the idea of a DX prime lens, since many commenters are suggesting it’s a super-bad stupid idea.

If you assume that the idea of a fast prime lens — i.e., a fixed-focal-length (non-zoom) lens with a fast focal ratio (usually f/2.8 or less) — is a good idea, then there are two problems with Nikon’s lineup of fast primes.

Continue reading this entry »

Titanoboa, terror of the Eocene

Titanoboa cerrejonensis by Jason Bourque If you think a green anaconda or a reticulated python is too large for comfort, be glad you didn’t live 60 million years ago. Then you would have had to deal with Titanoboa cerrejonensis. While modern snakes max out at 10 or 11 metres in length, Titanoboa is estimated to have been a mind-boggling 13 metres long and to have weighed more than a ton. The fossil boa was discovered in a coal mine in northeastern Colombia, and is described in this week’s issue of Nature. As usual with fossil snakes, we’re dealing with fossil vertebrae, not a complete skeleton. National Geographic News, National Science Foundation, Newsweek Lab Notes.

Apart from the fact that as a big fricking fossil snake, Titanoboa is inherently cool, it also has something to say about how warm the Earth was during the Eocene. Temperature imposes an upper size limit on cold-blooded animals. For Titanoboa to survive, it would have needed temperatures three to six degrees warmer than are currently found in modern-day Colombia. So this snake may have an answer to the question of what happens when the Earth warms up: Do the tropics stay relatively stable while the temperate zones heat up, or do the tropics get hotter too? Titanoboa suggests the latter.

(Art credit: Jason Bourque, University of Florida.)


Well, that was stupid of me. Thinking that I was shutting down another site, I nuked the WordPress install for the Pontiac Archives site, leaving nothing but an empty directory. That was on January 26. Today I got an e-mail from Jean asking what happened to the site. I thought it was going to be another PEBKAC moment until I saw that empty directory, and suddenly realized that I wasn’t paying close enough attention when I clicked that button last week.


So a rather intense interval was spent this afternoon rebuilding the Pontiac Archives site. The end result is not bad — I picked a new template that I rather like, and was able to streamline the about pages a bit — but the previous entries will probably have to be accessed via the Wayback Machine.

Shrinking ad revenues

As expected, the recession is taking a bite out of my website ad revenues. January’s revenues were 12 percent lower than December’s and nearly 30 percent lower than my revenues for January 2008. It’s also a whopping 42 percent lower than my best month in 2008, July. Traffic does not seem to be much different, though I haven’t looked into that very closely. Revenues from Amazon’s affiliate program don’t seem to be off as much, either. While the online ad market appears to be taking a hammering, people are still buying books and stuff.

Were it not for the fact that the Canadian dollar has lost a fifth of its value in the past year (the above percentages were calculated in U.S. dollars before conversion), things would have been much worse for me. Fortunately, I have money in the bank and no debt, so if I watch my pennies for the next little while, I should be all right. Or at least less worse than I could have been.