February 2010


Yellow Blue Tibia Author Catherynne M. Valente has just finished reading Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts, and she’s pissed off. “[L]iterally every cultural note in this entire novel is wrong,” she writes (her emphasis), and goes on to explain why, in telling and damning detail. Roberts, she argues, gets everything about Russia, Russians and Russian culture wrong (“the book would have been a lot more believable with all the names changed and set in England or America”). And, to top it all off, he gets a lot about the 1980s wrong, too: “One of the characters, Saltykov, has Asperger’s Syndrome. In 1986. Asperger’s was not diagnosed by that name in anyone until 1992. … Scientology and Asperger’s and alcoholism and the evils of tobacco are concerns of today, not of 1986.” Even the novel’s title, which is claimed to be a phonetic representation of saying “I love you” — that’s wrong, too.

It’s annoying for a reader who knows something about the subject matter to come across a work that is so egregiously wrong about it. It’s why writers worth their salt do their research. They have to, because there are too many people out there who can and will fact-check their lazy asses and call them out on it. Valente, a writer very much worth her salt, definitely does her research, and has been doing her research vis-à-vis Russia, and it’s obvious that she’s annoyed that another writer doesn’t seem to think it matters.

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Two short pieces by some hack cat-blogger

Jennifer is apparently on a mission to ensure that I own the complete published works of one John Scalzi, blogger, science-fiction writer and putter of bacon on cats. So, for my birthday (this week), she provided me with copies of his latest.

John Scalzi: The God Engines and Judge Sn Goes Golfing The God Engines is a dark fantasy novella that mixes spaceships and gods in a deeply creepy and original manner. (I don’t want to give too much away; suffice to say that the title is literal.) At only 136 pages, it’s much too brief, and leaves the reader wanting more: the setting and plot could easily handle a quarter-million words. The diction doesn’t quite ring true, and comes across a little stilted; Scalzi doesn’t quite have the knack for this kind of voice. But impressive nonetheless, and it just made the Nebula final ballot this morning. Here’s the first chapter.

Judge Sn Goes Golfing, on the other hand, is pure fun, a short story (the chapbook is all of 32 pages) featuring my favourite character from The Android’s Dream, a profoundly profane and misanthropic alien judge. (I have simple tastes, which include judges who say “fuck” from the bench.) Here’s Scalzi reading a bowdlerized audio version.

The God Engines by John Scalzi
Judge Sn Goes Golfing by John Scalzi

Wireless telescope control

Controlling a computerized telescope from a computer is not new; it usually requires compatible desktop planetarium software and a serial cable to connect the computer to the telescope mount. The only wireless option I was previously aware of was to use Starry Night Pro with a Bluetooth adapter — though it appears that that adapter is no longer available.

Carina Software SkyFi Wireless Telescope Controller Enter Carina Software’s SkyFi Wireless Telescope Controller, which adds WiFi to a computerized telescope. It connects to most telescope mounts with serial (RS-232) interfaces, including the two I own (the Celestron NexStar 5 SE and the Sky-Watcher HEQ5 Pro). Ironically, it isn’t compatible with newer mounts with USB ports, though they’re working on that. As you might have guessed from their name, Carina Software also makes software, including SkyVoyager, a planetarium app for the iPhone and iPod touch. I’ve been using it for a while; it’s a nice app. SkyVoyager, by the by, includes telescope control. Until this gizmo, that meant connecting via WiFi to a computer running Voyager, Carina’s desktop application, that was plugged into the telescope mount in the usual manner. Now you can control a computerized telescope wirelessly from an iPhone or iPod touch — directly. Contemplate that for a moment: controlling a computerized telescope from a phone or an iPod.

This made a big splash at Macworld this month: see coverage at MacRumors and MacNN.

SkyFi costs $150; SkyVoyager costs $15; Voyager runs between $100 and $180.

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The movie critic in winter

Roger Ebert lost his lower jaw, the ability to speak, and the ability to eat except through a tube as a result of cancer treatment several years ago. Esquire’s Chris Jones has a profile of the Roger Ebert of today, who communicates through his computer’s speech synthesizer and a frankly brilliant and copious amount of online writing. Viz., Ebert’s response to the piece on his blog. The photos accompanying the piece are truly harrowing — Ebert is unrecognizable — but he’s fearless about his own appearance. Via Kottke.

Medical isotopes and me

The federal Liberals are attacking the Harper government for failing, in their view, to deal with the medical isotope shortage. The shortage, which was triggered by the (second) shutdown of the Chalk River NRU reactor last May, will be exacerbated by the shutdown of the Dutch Petten reactor for repairs, which start this month and will run through the summer.

I didn’t say anything about the isotope issue while I was working for Health Canada (though, strictly speaking, Natural Resources is the lead department on this issue, I did edit some work on this issue), but I’m not working there any more — and I just figured out that I have direct experience with the medical isotopes that are now in short supply.

One of the isotopes produced by the NRU reactor is technetium-99m, which, among other things, is used in bone scans. In late 1997, it was a bone scan that revealed activity in my heels and sacroiliac joint and suggested the likelihood of ankylosing spondylitis. Had that bone scan not been available, I would not have received the right diagnosis as quickly, and I cannot imagine how things would have turned out then. Most people with my disease go years before getting the right diagnosis; I was damn lucky to get it only six months after the onset of severe symptoms.

If bone scans are harder to come by as a result of the isotope shortage, people like me will be considerably worse off.

Why I don’t keep venomous snakes

Temple Viper

I’ve since heard from the owner of the Gaboon viper that was seized in Toronto last week, who wrote to explain the situation from their point of view and their background and philosophy with respect to venomous snake keeping. I wrote back to say good luck sorting everything out, but also that I didn’t agree with keeping venomous snakes in an apartment in a large city.

Even though I think venomous snakes are very interesting, and have several friends and acquaintances who keep venomous snakes (“hot” snakes or “hots,” in herpers’ jargon), I will never keep any myself. Here are my reasons why.

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CPR #2816 at Smiths Falls, in 2004

CPR #2816 at Smiths Falls (2004)

Five and a half years (and two cameras) ago, I went down to Smiths Falls to watch the arrival of Canadian Pacific #2816, an H1b 4-6-4 Hudson steam locomotive built in 1930. After its restoration, CP ran it as a public relations and excursion train between 2001 and 2008; it’s been in storage since. Here, at last, are the photos from my trip to Smiths Falls on June 11, 2004, where I jostled with about a hundred other railfans as we took picture after picture of that rarity of rarities, a steam locomotive operating on a Class I main line.

(One thing I remember from that day was just how quiet a steam locomotive is: at rest, it’s basically a big kettle, pinging away. They’re much quieter than diesels.)